Producing a Peabody

For 12 years, David Lubbers has worked as a contractor producing features for the ESPN program, “Outside the Lines.” One of his pieces was included in a series on health concerns within the National Football League. On May 19, the series won a Peabody Award for excellence in electronic media.

His road to win the prestigious award began in Webster City where he was born and raised. While attending Webster City High School, he found himself interested in journalism and worked on the school’s newspaper.

Lubbers was encouraged by the paper’s advisor, Dennis Duling, who he said was a huge influence on him and was fun to work with.

Lubbers covered the high school football team for the paper. Every Sunday night, Lubbers would go to Coach Dick Tighe’s home. They would talk about the previous game and the upcoming game for the team. Lubbers said Tighe’s willingness to work with him helped him develop as a journalist.

“That was a big deal to me. For him to take the time on a Sunday night when I’m sure he had a million other things to do rather than talk to some high school kid about football was a great boost of confidence,” Lubbers said. “He’s a great guy.”

Lubbers graduated from Webster City High School in 1982. He went on to major in broadcast news at Drake University. Now, he lives in West Des Moines and produces feature stories as part of the ESPN enterprise group. The group is a collection of journalists, reporters, producers, editors and others who covers sports stories and issues for ESPN.

Chasing the story

Primarily, Lubbers said his work appears on Outside the Lines. The program showcases issues in sports and hosts feature interviews. As a producer for stories that appear on the program, Lubbers has to wear a lot of hats. He’s responsible for almost every aspect of the stories that he’s assigned. That includes research, working with reporters, camera crews and other producers, organizing and writing stories, finding footage, and editing the story.

“From the first call to the last edit, I’m kind of in charge of as much as I can be with the piece,” Lubbers said.

The circumstances for each story vary widely. One recent story focused on Rashad McCants who formerly played basketball for the University of North Carolina. McCants told Outside the Lines that while at UNC, he could have been academically ineligible to play during the year that the team won the national title. However, McCants said he had tutors write his term papers and attended classes which were designed to keep athletes eligible to play.

Such a story took Lubbers and others he worked with about a month and a half to complete. The deadline was moved up as he received documents and transcripts confirming what McCants said. Lubbers said that information moved the story from a feature to hard news. The story aired on June 6 at 3 p.m. Lubbers was working on the story until noon that day.

“We were messing with the script and all sorts of things all the way up to the final couple hours,” Lubbers said. “It can get pretty intense.”

Other stories, such as a piece on the anniversary of the O.J. Simpson car chase, were planned several months in advance and completed a couple weeks before the deadline.

Most all of his stories require Lubbers to travel. In total, he said he travels about 100 days each year. Some of that comes up in short warning which can be stressful.

“In a way, sometimes the stress makes me a better producer,” Lubbers said.

While being a good producer might be stressful, Lubbers enjoys the unpredictably of his job. Each story is different. He often wears many different hats and might have to try on a new one for a specific story.

“For each story, I basically have to become an expert and understand all of the issues and different sides as quickly as I can and each story is very different,” Lubbers said. “I enjoy that.”

Winning the award

One particularly intense story produced by Lubbers would end up being among the winners at the 73rd Annual Peabody Awards. The story was about how the NFL influenced the analysis of Linebacker Junior Seau’s brain following his suicide.

Lubbers said Seau was incredibly popular and loved in San Diego where he played. He described Seau as a tremendous athlete and a great ambassador for the game of football. Two years after Seau retired, he committed suicide.

Near the end of his life, Lubbers said he began dealing with depression and mood swings. His suicide was shocking, as was the fallout. Seau shot himself in the chest specifically to preserve his brain, Lubbers said.

The Outside the Lines story includes an interview with Seau’s family. They said that within hours of his death, they were receiving phone calls from researchers wanting to obtain the right to study Seau’s brain. Eventually, his brain was studied by the National Institute for Health. It was found that Seau suffered from a type of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Outside the Lines report said dozens of deceased former football players were also found to have CTE.

While working on the piece, Lubbers didn’t consider that it might be award-winning material. He was more excited at the prospect of working with Mark Fainaru-Wada who wrote “League of Denial,” which examines concussions in the NFL.

Unbeknownst to Lubbers, the story was submitted as part of a three-feature series on Outside the Lines titled “NFL at a Crossroads: Investigating a Health Crisis.” One day while Lubbers was out running errands, he got an email congratulating Outside the lines for winning a Peabody Award. Interested, Lubbers clicked on the link and found out he was one of the winners.

“That was just thrilling, that was just one of the coolest moments because I had no idea they submitted it,” Lubbers said.

Lubbers and the Outside the Lines team were among others honored with Peabody Awards in May. Works from a student-run production to the television show “Breaking Bad” were also honored. Lubbers said it was great that his team won as the award encompasses the whole of electronic media. He appreciates ESPN for allowing Outside the Lines to do their award-winning work.

“I think there’s some tremendous sports journalism going on out there, and thank goodness there is,” Lubbers said. “I’m incredibly fortunate to be in the position to produce these stories.”