A Q&A with Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated on his new book, the Astros Way and what’s happening at SI

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Ben Reiter a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. In addition to being a fantastic reporter, Ben has a book coming out next week! It’s called Astroball, and it’ll be on shelves July 10. That makes this the perfect time to have him as a guest. Here, we talk about the origins of the book, what makes the Astros so good and his wild prediction that made him famous.

1.  We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?’

I started at Sports Illustrated as a temporary fact checker in 2004, back when there were such things as facts.  Fact checking is a fantastic way, possibly the best way, to figure out how to be a journalist, as you essentially re-report every word that someone like Tim Layden or Scott Priceor Tom Verducci writes, and learn how they build their stories.  (I should point out that every word of SI is still rigorously checked and that a good checker is a writer’s best friend.)  I also took every writing assignment I could get, which were often those nobody else wanted.  I wrote short profiles of, among other subjects, a competitive hula-hooper and a championship bloodhound who worked out on a treadmill.  After a while, the hula-hoopers and bloodhounds turned into shortstops and tailbacks.

The larger answer to the question is that I’ve never treated sports-writing as just sports-writing.  Sports are fun, obviously, but you never want to be that guy in the press box who wears shiny polo shirts with the team’s logo on them and insists on reverentially calling the owner “Mr. Whatever” – I guess because “Mr. Whatever” has a lot of money, or his dad did.  You don’t want to be a fan with a tape recorder.

Right before SI hired me, I worked as an intern for an unbelievably dogged investigative journalist named Wayne Barrett, of the Village Voice. Wayne was a New York institution, and the opposite of those political reporters who are just happy to be in the game, keeping score during the day and hosting dinner parties for the people they’re writing about at night.  He was the type of guy that didn’t think twice about getting beaten up by bodyguards and goons.  He believed, decades ago, that the axis of New York evil was Rudy Giuliani, Al Sharpton, and Donald Trump, and he didn’t just record their machinations but always sought to contextualize them, to show what they meant even to people who didn’t care about politics.  That’s what I always try to do in my stories: to figure out their broader significance and why they might connect with someone who has no idea what an OPS+ is.

So, for instance, a profile of Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t just a rehashing of a great player’s greatest moments.  It’s an examination of how a natural, almost painful introvert handles it when his talent leads him into the most public-facing life imaginable, and what happens when he no longer has to live that life anymore.  A lot of my stories are really about fame and how it affects people and our culture in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Wayne died the day before Trump’s inauguration.  The last time I saw him, he said he was proud of me and reminded me that many great political reporters started in sports.  Sports, of course, are politics by other means.

2) You wrote a book! It’s called Astroball, and it comes out July 10. Awesome! What’s it about? When did you start working on it? Can you take us through the process from the original idea to now?

In a sense, I began working on it the moment I walked into the Astros’ offices – which are housed in Houston’s old Union Station – in June 2014, to start reporting my first SI feature about them. By all external measures, the Astros were a laughingstock, a punchline for even Alex Trebek on an episode of Jeopardy!.  As I spent a few days with them, though, they didn’t feel like a joke at all.  The members of the front office – like the general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and Sig Mejdal, the former NASA rocket scientist who became Luhnow’s chief data man – were clearly extremely intelligent.  More than that, they had a plan to get better, one that was entirely logical and, to me, excitingly innovative.  In a nutshell, they explained how their decision-making was guided not only by analytics, but by human observations and instincts as well, which was pretty counterintuitive in a post-Moneyball age in which all we heard about was analytics.  I thought at the time that their process might make for a great book.  But the process probably had to work.

Last Nov. 1, it worked.  I realized that the book should be structured around the key decisions the Astros made along the way – the nine most important, among the hundreds and thousands of them – as a way of digging into what each of those calls revealed about the Astros’ process.  But I also knew that I didn’t want it to be, like, NINE HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL TEAMS.  It’s very much a narrative, rooted in the fascinating characters who created and contributed to it: Luhnow and Mejdal, but also most of the central players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve,  Justin Verlander, and Carlos Beltran.

On a technical level, I took a couple of weeks to write a 10,000 word proposal, and then my agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, sent it around to publishers, who were luckily quite interested.  I chose Crown and a brilliant editor I’ve known for a long time, Kevin Doughten. Then I had to write it, and everyone agreed that it had to happen fast – which was made easier by the fact that I’d kind of been writing it in my head, and had certainly been collecting the reporting I’d need for it, since that June day in 2014.  Inspired by the Astros’ process-oriented way of operating, I set a goal of producing 1,300 words a day, no matter what.  I finished a draft in just over three months.  Now it’s coming out this Tuesday, July 10.

3) You’ve actually been associated with the Astros for a while now, ever since the famous Sports Illustrated cover from 2014 declaring them the 2017 World Series champions. That, of course, came true. How did that story — and, of course, the headline — come to be? And what was it like last October when you became a big part of the story. You were all over TV, and Jared even wrote a story about you in the WSJ!

Astroball’s preface describes how that cover happened.  (I swear the rest of the book is notabout the prediction, but about everything the Astros did to make good on it.)  It was originally SI editor Chris Stone’s fifth cover choice that week, and a very unlikely series of events landed George Springer in the mailboxes of readers – enraging many of them, including SI’s golf writer Alan Shipnuck, as Jared hilariously revealed in his WSJ piece from last October.  We were accused of simply trying to stir controversy with that cover prediction, which was never the case.  I’m not in the habit of writing 5,000-word features in support of a Hot Take.

Jared was actually the first person last fall to write about the possibility of the prediction coming true, but not the last, because somehow it came true.  I think I did 60 media appearances in a month, not just in the U.S. but all over the world: Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand.  Somebody even wrote about it for a newspaper in Zimbabwe.  Certainly, the people who were most enthusiastic about it were those in Houston, and every time I’ve been back since I’ve been stopped on the street for selfies and autographs, which is a new experience.  I’m looking forward to returning to launch the book on July 10, when [pitchman voice] I’ll be doing a reading and signing at Brazos Bookstore at 7 p.m. and an after-party at Little Woodrow’s Midtown.  Come!

To answer the question I’ve been asked most since last fall: Yes, I actually do know the Powerball numbers, but I’m not telling.

4) The Astros are a notoriously secretive organization, especially now that they’re so successful. Their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, rarely lets reporters in on anything and is generally afraid of losing a competitive advantage by saying too much. What was your experience dealing with the Astros? How much did they participate? How difficult was it to get inside a team that works very hard to keep people out?

From the beginning, my only promise to the Astros was that I would be open minded.  Back in 2014, when they were the worst baseball team in 50 years, they were being crushed from all sides for being run either cynically or incompetently, probably both.  It still took about a year of negotiations before they agreed to allow me to sit in on their meetings before the 2014 draft, which was and is extremely unusual access.  Clearly, I came away thinking they were up to something interesting.

Over the next four years, I wrote about them a lot and checked in with their key front office staffers and players even more.  I believe I’ve interviewed 46 members of the organization, many of them several times a year for hours on end.  So when Jose Altuve threw to Yuli Gurriel for the final out in Los Angeles last Nov. 1, I didn’t need them to open their doors to me – and, you’re right, success made those doors stickier than they had been when they were putting up Nielsen ratings of 0.0.  Astroball is not at all a team-authorized book, and it’s not a piece of merchandise commemorating a championship season.  It’s a work of independent journalism.  But one of the many things that Wayne Barrett taught me was that reporting is essentially the act of putting your time into a subject, and I put so much time into the Astros over so many years that I’d already had all the access I needed.

5) Ever since Moneyball came out books about baseball organizations doing things differently have become fairly common. There have been books about the Rays, the Pirates, the Cubs — all of which delve into how they built a winner. What makes your book stand out in that genre? What makes the Astros different than the others? The subtitle of the book is, “The new way to win it all.” How is this “new way” different from the other “new ways?”

Well, it worked, for one thing.  The Cubs’ plan did too, but Theo Epstein’s crew, for a variety of reasons, never had to pursue a strategy that was as extreme or as risky as the Astros’.  I don’t want to give too much away here – [the pitchman returns] Read the book!  Pre-order now! etc. – but a big part of it is that even though the Astros’ executives are often accused of being know-it-alls, they were smart enough to realize that there are factors in winning that even an organization with the world’s most advanced analytics can’t quantify, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and shouldn’t be pursued.  And also that they wouldn’t get everything right – which they certainly didn’t, along the way. This is a team, after all, that in 2014 didn’t listen to a player who kept telling them he’d fixed his swing and outright cut him at the end of spring training – about a week before that player transformed from J.D. Martinez into J.D. MARTINEZ.

6) Clearly this book is going to appeal to Astros fans who want to relieve 2017. But for a mainstream book to be successful, it needs wider appeal. What about this book appeals to fans of other teams? Or, even more difficult, non-baseball fans?

I was standing in the back of the Astros’ front office’s skybox in Dodger Stadium at the moment the club won the World Series.  Their executives were deliriously happy, of course, as were the players.  Over the next hour or two, though, I was struck by how quickly all of their thoughts and emotions shifted away from that championship instant to the past – to the process, the journey, that had gotten them there, both individually and communally, and to the future.  As Jeff Luhnow walked off the field with Justin Verlander, right after the trophy presentation, Luhnow said, “Two more to go” – meaning that the Astros had two more titles to win during the remaining years Verlander had left on his contract.

I’m confident that Astroball is the deepest, most inside account anyone has written of any team since Moneyball, and the baseball world is almost entirely different than it was 15 years ago.  But it’s really about how an organization that is by definition best-in-class (I think that’s what TEDTalk people call it) invented a new way to succeed in the modern world, one that harnessed the power of bleeding edge analytics but ingeniously combined it with a recently discarded source of information – humans, with their difficult to quantify experiences and gut instincts – to get the best out of both man and machine.  It was that process, more even than the outcome, that gave their work meaning, though the rings were nice.  And it’s a process that has implications for all sorts of industries – healthcare, education, criminal justice – and even for individuals who feel inundated in a world of data, and as if their own personal experiences and expertise don’t matter anymore.

Plus, you know, it’s a fun story.

7) Moving away from the book for a second, let’s talk about your current employer, Sports Illustrated. It’s no secret that SI has gone through some tough times and is now up for sale. What’s the general vibe there these days? What’s the level of optimism that a sale will make a big impact? Basically, what is SI in 2018 media landscape?

You mean because we’re about to be sold for the second time in 2018?  I have absolutely no analytics related to this, so it’s purely a gut feel.  But: The vibe is good, probably better than it has been in years.  When I joined SI in 2004, the message I heard was that, “Nobody ever leaves here, because where else would they go if this is what they want to do?”  This was largely true – except for those who received “ridonkulous money” from somewhere else – until a few years ago.  For a decade or so, I was always one of the new guys, relatively speaking.  Suddenly, due to layoffs and buyouts, I wasn’t.

I miss every person who has left and am delighted to see that so many of them have landed on their feet elsewhere.  But – and this is where I’m going to inadvertently piss some people off by failing to name them, so, you know, sorry – SI continues to regularly produce simply brilliant journalism.  In the past week or so, there’s been Greg Bishop on Tyler Hilinski, Lee Jenkins on LeBron James.  And, thanks to the leadership of editors like Chris Stone and Steve Cannellaand Adam Duerson and Mark Bechtel and Jon Wertheim, we’ve continued to bring aboard and nurture creative young voices on our staff: Stephanie Apstein, Ben Baskin, Dan Greene, Alex Prewitt, Tim Rohan, Tim Rohan’s hair, Charlotte Wilder, Rohan Nadkarni – even though he whiffs on dates.

All we can do as writers is to continue to write the best stories we can.  And we believe our new owner will become as such because he or she believes in what we are doing, and believes in SI.  Of course, he could be Ramsay Bolton, so who knows.

8) You wrote a tragic story on Hideki Irabu last summer. How did you find that story and go out reporting it? What are the sensitivities you must take in writing about a topic like that?

Emma Span, SI’s former baseball editor, gets credit for the idea.  She pointed out during spring training that the 20th anniversary of Irabu’s Yankees debut was approaching, and that no one had written the definitive story about him.  We both remembered the “Fat Pussy Toad” incident, of course – although we still disagree about how to spell that middle word (which rhymes with ‘fussy’) – and that Irabu had ended his own life in 2011.  But neither of us recalled a detail that had reported in ‘`97, that Irabu’s father was an unnamed white American GI whom Irabu had grown up not knowing.  When I read that, I realized two things: that I wanted to find his dad; and that this had the potential to turn into what might be my favorite kind of story, a deeply reported reconsideration of an obviously complicated subject whose reputation had been wrongly set in stone long before – probably ever since George Steinbrenner uttered those three nasty words.  Everyone thought Irabu was a buffoonish, drunken failure, and that was that.

But it wasn’t.  I relatively quickly found a group of people who were all adamant that the Irabu they knew wasn’t at all the one the public thought it did.  They included Don Nomura, his agent; Jean Afterman, who once worked with Nomura and who has long been the Yankees’ assistant GM; David Cone, his old Yankees teammate; and, especially, George Rose, his former translator.  That Irabu wasn’t around to tell his own story was a tragic hurdle, but Rose – who spent most hours of several years of his life with Irabu, who learned not only how he spoke but how he thought, and who happens to have a phenomenal memory – significantly helped me overcome it.

Everyone remembered that Irabu had actually briefly reconnected with his father once he came over from Japan.  In fact, the man, Steve Thompson, just showed up at spring training in Tampa one day, wanting nothing more than to meet his son, if Irabu agreed.  Nobody knew if Thompson was alive or dead as of last year.  As it turned out, he had died not long before, so now I was writing a story about two deceased subjects.  But I found Thompson’s widow, Nit, who lived in Alaska, and she was able to fill in her husband’s side of things, to describe how tortured he was due to the fact that he had never really known his son, which happened for a variety of sad reasons.

As I got deeper and deeper, I realized that this was a story with many themes that are extremely relevant now: identity; cultural dislocation; xenophobia; mental illness; tabloid media; fathers and sons.  My goal, as always, was to allow those themes to emerge from the narrative, not to hit readers over the head with them.  I think the best way to deal with the sensitives you mention that come with a story like this is simply to tell it simply and straight.

It’s certainly not a piece with a happy ending.  Well, maybe one.  Not one message from a reader suggested he or she still felt as if Irabu was a buffoonish, drunken failure.  (As it happens, if you look at the numbers, he was actually much better on the mound than you remember.)  Most said the story upended their views of a celebrity athlete they thought they knew, but some added that it forced them to reconsider hard conclusions they’d drawn about many people based upon only surface evidence.  I was happy to hear that, especially these days.

9) What would you change about baseball writing if you could?

Besides banning the triple-slash line?  (Not because batting average, OBP and slugging percentage aren’t important, but because nine straight out-of-context integers cause readers’ eyes to glaze over, mine included.)  I’d like to see less of a focus on how much players are making, and more of one on how much the owners are making.  The greatest trick owners in all sports, not just baseball, ever pulled is to get fans to side with them, billionaires, over the players, millionaires (at least some of them).  I don’t believe a single baseball player has ever been overpaid.  I get it: We know exactly how much each player is earning to the dollar – and it’s a lot – whereas owners’ profits are generally shrouded in mystery.  But we often tend to analyze how a player’s salary might fit into a team’s budget, or even if it will allow a club to stay beneath the luxury tax, instead of asking why those budgets and luxury tax thresholds are what they are.  Especially now that clubs have become so disciplined in their free agency spending – thanks, in at least some measure, to the Astros’ example – meaning that they can vastly underpay cost-controlled players through the bulk of their prime years, after paying most of them a sub-living wage when they were in the minors (a continuing outrage), and then continue to underpay them when they finally reach the open market.

No modern sports owner has ever gone bankrupt due to the team he or she runs.  And yet, we just passed the so-called Bobby Bonilla Day, on which many baseball writers marvel that the Mets still have to pay a man who last played 17 years ago, and not particularly well, $1.19 million every July 1 – as they will through 2035 – due to deferred money included in his contract.  I say: get yours, Bobby Bo.

10) You were in the New York Times wedding section announcing your nuptials (a seven-year belated mazel tov!) Give us the details. How does that weddings announcement sausage get made? Was it your idea or your wife’s? Are you happy with the picture you chose? Did you press to have your wedding covered instead of just a blurb?

It was all an attempt to appear in one of my favorite internet columns of all time: Katie Baker’s Wedded Blitz, on Grantland. And it worked! We came in sixth for the month, which some might say is the ideal spot.  Unlike the World Series, that was one competition you didn’t want to win.

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A Q&A with Yaron Weitzman on access journalism, dealing with PR people and covering the modern NBA

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Yaron Weitzman. a fantastic basketball writer who covers the Knicks and the NBA for Bleacher Report. Yaron has an interesting background and consistently churns out some of the most interesting and creative sports stories you will ever read, which makes him the perfect guest. Here, we talk about the modern journalism landscape, how he comes up with all those fun story ideas and what it’s like to cover basketball as an observant Jewish person.

  1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

Is this the part where I’m supposed to talk about how I’ve always been a lover of journalism and reading and how as a kid I would carry Hemingway with me wherever I went?

The (sort of) CliffsNotes: I’ve always loved sports. But I also basically stopped growing after, like, my freshman year of high school (my basketball card would list me at 5-foot-8), and, well, when it comes to my athleticism, the Jew in me is strong. In other words, playing any sports at any level past high school was never really an option. At first I thought I wanted to be either an agent or a GM (yuck, I know). I went to NYU to study sports management—and quickly learned that business, of any sort, wasn’t really my thing. So I joined the school newspaper and started writing (mostly bad Bill Simmons imitations, but I guess we all start somewhere). I enjoyed it, and thought I was pretty solid. I thought about switching majors, but the credit math would have been tough, so instead I sort of gave myself a crash course in journalism: reading, meeting with accomplished writers/journalists (I have to give a special shoutout to Jeff Pearlman here), expanding my scope. The ironic part is that in high school I hated reading; I’d choose my summer reading assignments based on which books had been turned into movies and wouldn’t read more than the SparkNotes. (Do those still exist?)

Anyway, after college I did the networking game and a friend of my grandmother’s gave my résumé to the sports editor at the Journal News in New York, who gave me a part-time job covering high school sports. Around the same time I worked another connection—one of my best friends went to college with Tzvi Twersky, then an editor at SLAM. That internship was huge for me; SLAM, and Ben Osborne, the former EIC there, gave me so many amazing opportunities, and I basically wrote for them from 2011 until last month. Along the way I got a part-time gig at SB Nation and started freelancing more. I pitched an Adam Morrison where are they now? profile to Bleacher Report, which came out well and got me in the door there, and, well, here we are.

  1. You, of course, now cover the Knicks and the NBA. But you started your career much lower in the journalism hierarchy, covering prep sports for the Journal News, a local paper in New York that serves Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. (Jared interned there and briefly worked there before joining the Journal, too.) It used to be that this was how journalists advanced in their careers, rising from small local papers to bigger, more prominent outlets. Increasingly, however, we see young people straight out of school jumping immediately onto major beats. How important for your career was it to have the experience covering local high school sports before the pros? What did you learn from that that applies to covering pros?

Fun fact: I’m pretty sure I sat at Jared’s former desk.

For me, that job was everything. I refer to it as my graduate school journalism program. A lot of that is because before that I didn’t really know what being a journalist was; again, I thought it meant writing like Bill Simmons (and this is not meant as a jab at Simmons). I know it’s a complete cliché to be the writer who talks about the small town newspaper that taught you everything you know, but for me that really is the truth. That gig taught me how to write fast; work the phones for basic information, i.e., begging a high school softball coach to give you her scores and stats from that night so you can pass them along to your editor for the next day’s paper and finally go home; write on deadline; get facts right (I may or may not have misspelled three names in my first ever story for the paper, for which I was, rightfully, nearly fired)… all the basic tools journalists need.

So, to answer your second question: I don’t know (how’s that for a take?!). I think the important thing for anyone just starting out is to work somewhere where you’ll able to: A) report, B) write fast/on deadline, C) receive some editing. (Also, I’ll add one more: a place where you learn that stories and facts matter and that there’s a responsibility that comes with writing about people, something you really learn when the JV basketball player’s mom tells you she hung up your story on her fridge but also wishes her maiden name was spelled correctly.)

Unfortunately, these sorts of jobs are vanishing, and in this crazy field you need to take what you can get, but being at a place where those things existed made my career. Can that happen at the pro level? Sure, why not. It will be harder, and you’ll be in the spotlight, meaning mistakes will get more attention. But it can be done. And, with local journalism vanishing, I’m not sure young writers have much of a choice.

  1. You do a lot of things really well as a reporter, but one type of story you’ve appear to have mastered is looking back at an NBA player after retirement and bringing you inside his life. You’ve profiled Cherokee Parks, Jared Jeffries, Rony Seikaly, Sebastian Telfair and more. What about these kinds of stories appeals to you? How do you go about finding them? What value do you think they serve?

(Please feel free to keep e-mailing me these sort of compliments for the next few weeks).

For one, I just find that older guys, be them former players or current vets, have more to say. This is not a knock on young players; you just absorb the world differently when you’re, say, 22. I find stories about young players (assuming you’re like me and want to do all you can to avoid the chip on the shoulder theme) evolve more into stories about what those players represent about the NBA and culture, or what their lives can teach us about the world (and obviously there are MANY exceptions to this, such as DeAndre Ayton, which was a pleasant surprise). The older guys, on other hand, have lived. To put it in basic (nauseating) storytelling terms: Their lives have more concrete arcs, ones they understand and are able, and willing, to articulate.

Also, on a practical level: the older guys are often just easier to get to. There are, like, 15 levels of PR people/agents standing between reporters and NBA players, and with the young dudes, everyone’s more guarded, meaning not as open to talking about some of the “negative” stuff in their lives. I say “negative” because often these details or stories are not negative but, rather, human, which is the stuff that allows readers to connect with a story. Retired guys, on the other hand, are often just a call away, and vets can usually make their own calls in terms of media (J.J. Redick, for example, is fantastic at being his own “PR guy,” which, of course, makes sense because he’s an adult and knows what he wants to talk about and what he doesn’t).

  1. Another type of Yaron story I enjoy are the ones that take the reader inside a weird subculture of the NBA. There’s this one about NBA butt-slaps. And this one about players agreeing to take plays off. Or this one about the NBA players reacting to the final days of AIM. How do players react to being act questions like that, ones that are clearly far beyond the norm of what they are typically asked about? Have you encountered any who don’t play ball with you or recognize the lighthearted nature of these stories? Again, how do you conceive of the ideas?

Man, you’re asking me to give away the secret sauce. I got no fallback plan, man. If too many other people start doing this stuff I’m screwed.

I’ll start with where these ideas come from, because that kind of answers the first question, too. Basically, it’s sort of a back-and-forth with my editor (shoutout to the brilliant Chris Trenchard!). So the butt-slaps one, for example, was all him, I believe. He’d seen something happen during a game the night before, asked me if I’d like to ask some guys about it and we got a story out of it. Others, like AIM, just came from me reading the Times one day and seeing the news that AIM was going out of business. I’m always reading with an eye for story ideasm and I thought that could be a fun idea. Basically anything that I find interesting or funny (sports are fun after all, right?).

This sort of leads us into the first question. After I have an idea like that, I have to test it, right? I’m around the Knicks the most frequently and there are a few guys in that locker room I sort of lean on. Ron Baker is one. Kyle O’Quinn sometimes, though he’s VERY hit or miss, but if he wants he can give a great quote. Lance Thomas calls me “Random Question Guy,” which I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it works. Basically, by this point I kind of know which Knicks players I can start the reporting process with, and from there I just cast a wide net as teams come through New York and Brooklyn. There are definitely times where guys don’t really get what I’m trying to do, but for the most part I think they’re so thrilled to be asked a question that has nothing to do with, like, free agency or a third quarter turnover that they’re open to it.

I think the best example of how these stories come about, though, is the one about players agreeing to take plays off. Originally, Trenchard had sent me a note seeing if I wanted to ask guys about the unwritten rules to how players line up for rebounds before for foul shots. I asked Trey Burke about it, he didn’t really have anything for me, but said that guys sometimes ask each other whether they’re going for the rebound. That was the first I ever heard of that, which piqued my interest. I asked around and found that this was a legit thing.

Basically I just try to notice if I find myself noticing anything, ask the right people the right questions, and go from there.

(God, I hope I don’t sound like a blowhard.)

  1. You tweeted this recently. For reporters, it’s wasn’t a surprise to see a PR person asking to see the story in advance. We’ve all gotten it from time to time. We obviously say no. How do you react when this kind of ask is made? Do you think readers are aware of the push/pull between reporters and PR/agents/subjects? How often do you feel like you’re being asked to pass ethical lines?

I mostly laugh—and give the PR person credit for shooting his or her shot. I have no issue with them doing it; it’s their job to control the story as much as possible. If someone is willing to give in there, well, job well done.

But, I’m going push back on something you said: “We” obviously don’t all say “no” because if “we” did then PR people wouldn’t even ask. Clearly, some writers/outlets are acquiescing to this request, and it’s just making this gig more difficult.

As for your questions about whether readers understand what’s going on behind the scenes: No, I don’t think the majority fully grasp just how much of an access business sports writing is and how that access dictates so much of what comes out. I think most of us who do this regularly have at least caught glimpses of how the sausage is made, and how so much of the reporting—I’ll say around the NBA since it’s what I know best—is based off access. Obviously all reporting is relationship based, and building relationships is what good reporters do. But I do think there’s more horse trading and favor-doing around the world of NBA journalism than exists in other journalism fields. An example: I was once working on a story an agent didn’t love and he said to me something along the lines of: “Just ask Big Time Reporter X how much we can help your career if you’re on our side.” I do not think I’m the first NBA reporter to be offered this sort of bribe.

  1. A personal question: You are an observant Jewish person. You also happen to be a sports writer, an industry where games are often played on Friday nights and Saturdays — the Jewish sabbath. How have you maneuvered your work life around your religious obligations? Has it ever been an issue with potential employers? How and when do you bring it up? Basically, how do you handle the two aspects of your life?

I’m disappointed with you for not making a reference to “The Big Lebowski.”

So for one, I’ve benefited from the digital media age, where even though we cover sports 24/7, for the most part there are not many “stories” (features and columns) being published on weekend. Most of the time the posts are quick-hitting recaps or, like, social media highlights. So that’s been helpful.

I’ve also purposely tried to avoid the straight beat writer path. I’ve never had a job where I have to file a story after every game, and probably never will. It’s just something that can’t be done if you’re a Sabbath observer. I figured out early on that if I wanted to do this job I needed to focus on writing stories that wouldn’t be tied to the 24-hour news cycle. And, yeah, I’m probably restricting myself a bit, but I’ve always just looked at is as obstacle that can be overcome with hustle and hard work, and organization/planning. So is it ideal that I can’t go to NBA games on Friday night? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it prevents me from doing my job. Maybe I just have to go to an additional practice or start reporting a story a few days earlier.

The hardest part for me has been having to explain to, say, a PR person that the NBA All Star who I’m waiting to hear from for a profile has to call before sundown on Friday night and can’t call me on Saturday. That’s a tough one, and, to be honest, has probably cost me a few stories (this can become really difficult when doing the freelance thing). And when that happens it sucks. Same goes for when someone texts you something that could be news, but you don’t see it until hours later, and by then the news has already trickled into the world. But this lifestyle is a choice I’ve made, and once you accept that there’s nothing that can be done in these situations, well, you just move on to the next thing. That’s not to say I don’t get angry or frustrated, but I try not to wallow for too long.

I have to add, though, that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have bosses, and colleagues who are not only understanding, but have never given off a hint of frustration over the restrictions. Ben Osborne at SLAM and now at Bleacher Report (that Tzvi Twersky, who I mentioned earlier, is also a Sabbath observer, worked there too no doubt helped). Chris Trenchard at B/R. Even the sports editor at the Journal News when I was there, a guy named Sean Mayer. He gave me a job even though I couldn’t work Friday nights, which in the world of high school sports is, well, not ideal. But I worked Saturday nights and Sunday nights instead, and Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which my colleagues appreciated, and which is really the attitude I’ve taken with me—Friday night and Saturday day might be out, but I’m “on” any other time any other day.

One side note: As I get older, and I have a wife and kid now, I find that the benefits of being “forced” to unplug for 24 hours, meaning no phones, computers, TVs, etc., far outweigh the negatives. Whoever came up with the Sabbath restrictions—be it some sort of deity or a bunch of men sitting in a circle in the Sinai—knew what they were doing with those rules.

(The whole “husbands need to give a divorce if a wife wants one” thing, though, not so much.)

  1. What would you change about basketball writing if you could?

Interesting question. I think my biggest gripe is how access has been mostly cut off. But I don’t mean this in the typical grumpy sports writer way. Like, I’ll never begrudge a player for not wanting to do an interview. For the most part, I view all interviews (unless it’s on something more hard-hitting) as favors, meaning something an athlete is under no obligation to give.

What bugs me, though, is how PR people often rob athletes of the opportunity to talk. Whether it’s a request that never makes it to the athlete, or making the athlete think that any story that’s not, like, 1,000 words about their favorite charity is a hit job. I think a lot of today’s players are smart and interesting and have smart and interesting back-stories and thoughts but are coached up so much that they’re afraid to open up. Which is fine, but that’s also why, I think, so much of today’s NBA coverage is GM-centric and transaction focused. That’s the side of the business that is open.

My favorite example of this is the Dion Waiters essay that ran on the Players’ Tribune. There are so many PR people that would have killed all the meat in there, which is fine, but then no one would have read it. Instead, everything that is real was left in and the story went viral—and Dion got to tell his story. I think that’s a good lesson. Not everything has to be squeaky clean. Human traits, personality—that’s the stuff readers find interesting.

Also, if I’m already on my soapbox, less acceptance and reliance on anonymous “league sources”—and I’m saying this as someone who’s very guilt of throwing quotes from “league scouts” into his stories. Woj, who of course is a God, changed the game and I know many reporters feel they don’t have a choice but to follow in his path if they want to try to keep up. Like, if you’re reporting on a team exploring trade opportunities for a current player I get why a GM might not want to be quoted, and why you’d allow that. But I don’t see why a player opting out of his deal can’t be attributed to an agent as opposed to a “league source.”

  1. You recently ran a great piece in The Athletic about Bert Blyleven’s son and the Las Vegas shooting. I know that took a while for you to land somewhere. How much shopping around do you have to do on your stories? How have you found the state of the freelance market right now, and compared to, say, two years ago?

Speaking of freelance market—how much am I getting per word to fill out this megillah?

And the answer is, obviously, that it depends. Right now all my basketball writing is for B/R, so I’m not freelancing as much as I did the past couple of years. Of course, because this is how these things go, I find it easier to get stories placed now because I know more people from the biz (such as Emma Span at The Athletic, who did a great job editing that piece). Also, I just don’t think I was very good a few years ago.

But it’s hard, man. Especially at first, when no one really knows who you are. The hardest part, I find, and found, is doing the dance between pre-reporting a story so you know you have something before you pitch it while figuring out how to get that reporting done when you don’t technically have a home for the story yet. Also, you’re doing all that on spec, which sucks. What worked for me was having some steady writing gigs while doing all that freelancing. I know there are people that make a living freelancing, but I think most of them have contracts with outlets. Otherwise, I’m not sure how you can do it.

  1. You used to work at SB Nation and you’ve tweeted about your experience there. The site has been in the news (read: Deadspin) for how it pays (and doesn’t pay) its writers and staff. For some sportswriters SB Nation, or a site similar to it in pay scale, is the first introduction into the professional world. How do you evaluate your experience there?

How do you weigh the shittiness of writing for meager pay, or for free, against the necessity of finding outlets for your work and being seen?

Yeah, that’s an interesting place. I spent two years there, mostly working on what they call the NBA desk, which means eight hours at a computer two-to-three days a week. They pay you $10/hour for that. Not exactly fair wages.

On the other hand, I certainly got a lot out of it. My editor there was really one of the first people to closely edit my basketball writing, and he helped me immensely. And you definitely get some exposure there, which is nice. And there were, and still are, lots of great people at SB Nation. But overall I wasn’t a huge fan of the system. It’s not the money; I don’t, and didn’t mind hustling. It was the feeling that you were being treated like a very replaceable (which, obviously, I was), un-valued cog in a huge machine. An example: I’m still waiting for a response from my editor to the goodbye/thank you email I sent, after working with him for, you know, two years. Another example: The NBA All-Star Game was in New York one year while I was there (I’m too lazy to look up the year*) and I figured SB Nation would love to have some more boots on the ground at some of the media events the days before, and I offered to go, on a scheduled off day, and was told, “Nah, don’t worry about it.” Which, I mean, fine. But that kind of symbolized my whole experience there and why I couldn’t wait to move on. Being at SB Nation meant being in a box. I don’t think that part is great for young writers.

And yet, it definitely made a difference for me in my career. I don’t look back at those two years fondly, but I don’t regret them either. It’s the hustle, I guess. Do some stuff you don’t love so that hopefully one day you can do more stuff you do. But, yeah, Laura Wagner’s reporting on SB Nation has made me very happy and was very necessary, and I’m hoping it helps younger writers going forward.

*Editor’s note: It was 2015.

  1. You have a personal website, where you talk about yourself in third person, your own newsletter, and we’ve talked often about how awkward it is to promote yourself. How much of sports journalism now is brand promotion and salesmanship (of yourself, obviously)? Do you ever feel like having shame is a bad thing?

You’re asking me about shame? I just used, like, 3,500 words to talk about myself. But, yeah, I feel like that’s a big part of the game now, right? We both know places that base their hiring decision off how many Twitter followers a writer has. (This is not good for me. I’m hoping this Q+A helps. Really, it’s the only reason I’m participating.)

Jokes aside, it’s definitely awkward, at least for me. It doesn’t come naturally to me. But it all matters. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but there are times when I’m riding the subway and see an email with an invitation to do a radio interview and so I’ll get off the subway just to do the interview. I mean, I guess you don’t want to come off as a Rovell-ian, self-promotion monster. But there’s a definitely a game to be played, which sucks, and is probably not something that, like, Sy Hersh wants to hear. But it’s just the way things are. There are worse things in life than feeling the need to talk about yourself.

A basketball lover’s eating guide to Las Vegas and NBA Summer League

Mike is going to be going out to Las Vegas in July for NBA Summer League. No road trip is fun without good food. Since a whole bunch of sports writers and fans will be out in Vegas too, we decided to make this foodie guide to the city for however long you’re out there and if you don’t want to eat at hotel buffets the whole time.

The Oyster Bar: What if I was to tell you that one of the best restaurants in the city is on the floor of an off-the-Strip casino, just steps away from $1 margarita stand. Is that something you might be interested in? Go to the Palace Station casino, walk around until you see a bar with about a dozen seats, and probably a long line snaking towards it, then get ready for a delicious meal lacking any of the pretense of Vegas. The combo pan roast is a must. There’s a sports book around the corner if you want dessert.

Tacos El Gordo: Food on the Las Vegas strip generally consists of mediocre buffets and overpriced fine dining establishments emblazoned with the name of celebrity chefs. Then there’s Tacos El Gordo, an authentic taqueria certainly worth your time and gambling winnings.

Once: A kinda-pricey place that Peruvian and Japanese styles into one highly-reviewed restaurant on The Strip. The oxtail bibimbap looks like a winner. The picarones seem like a vibrant way to end the meal.

Carl’s Donuts: It’s about a 15 minute drive off The Strip but sometimes you’ll do anything for donuts. Carl’s has been serving the people of Las Vegas for decades but just opened this shop recently so they could sell their donuts directly. Mmmmm donuts.

Gäbi Coffee & Bakery: When you need fancy coffee to refresh you and want some cake and maybe to impress your friends on Instagram.

Osteria Costa: I can’t ever in good faith recommend a pizza place outside of the Northeast without trying it myself, so I won’t talk about the pizza here but the rest of menu gets rave reviews as an Italian place with an Amalfi Coast influence. It’s on the higher side price-wise.

Bandito Latin Kitchen & Cantina: It’s not on The Strip (that’s a positive) but not too far off. The enchiladas and salsas earn high marks here.

Monta Ramen: It’s a 15 minute drive from the Thomas and Mack Center that’s earned a 4-star Yelp rating after nearly 2,500 reviews.When you’re in the mood for noodles.

The Black Sheep: American food with a Vietnamese flavor. It’s not on the strip. The menu includes inventive dishes like braised duroc pork belly, Vietnamese crepes, and grilled verlasso salmon.

Meet Fresh: Low key Taiwanese food when you’ve spent too much time at the buffet.

Echo and Rig: A high-level steakhouse off The Strip if you don’t want to pay big hotel prices.

Tacos & Beer: This is kinda self-explanatory, right?

Sapporo Revolving Sushi: Can I interest you in moderately priced sushi that makes its way around the restaurant on a conveyor belt? For those that like raw fish and mechanical ingenuity.

The Goodwich: When you’re in the mood for sandwiches. And it delivers.

Sparrow + Wolf: A menu that changes every few weeks. Maybe you’ll find bone marrow dumplings or campfire duck.

Big Wong Restaurant: Cheap, delicious Chinese food off The Strip. When you need a break from Vegas’ sensory overload and want something good to eat.

The Peppermill: It’s run up a reputation as a great late-night/early morning spot to get filling, greasy diner/brunch food. But I can’t imagine why you’d be up late in Vegas anyway.

A Q&A with Bryan Curtis of The Ringer on Bill Simmons, the role of a media writer and being from Texas

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Bryan Curtisthe editor-at-large and media writer at The Ringer. We’ve been excited about having Bryan as a guest for a while, and we’re so happy to finally share his thoughts. He has had a fascinating career, and here, he talks about working Bill Simmons, covering the sports media and groupthink on Twitter.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I got my first job in a way that seems technologically impossible now. When I was at the University of Texas, I saw an ad for internship at The New Republic. I sent in—which is to say, mailed—clips and a resumé. Before they flew me to Washington for an interview, I stole a few issues of the New Republic from the UT library, because I suddenly realized I wasn’t exactly sure what the magazine was.

I hemmed and hawed when they offered me the internship, and I’m glad that Jason Zengerle and Ryan Lizza, who were two of the “young guys” there, gently told me I ought to take it. I’m not sure what I, a 22-year-old with no experience, was holding out for.

Going to Slate after The New Republic was like attending think piece finishing school. From there: Play, The Daily Beast, Grantland, and The Ringer.

2. You came to The Ringer following the closure of Grantland. Quite a few ex-Grantlanders followed that same path, joining up with Bill Simmons at his new venture. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this site not being affiliated with a giant company like ESPN? You obviously cannot avoid discussing ESPN in your current work; how does having inside knowledge of the place and being a former employee affect all that?

ESPN today feels like a totally different company than the one we left. Cord-cutting on this scale, John Skipper’s resignation, Jemele Hill being denounced by the President of the United States—these things were almost unimaginable in 2015.

In addition to all the great stuff about Grantland, the biggest advantage of working at ESPN was getting to glom onto the coverage teams for a Super Bowl, a big fight and the NBA Finals. Doing what the big sportswriters do, and watching them do it, was hugely valuable in understanding how the media works.

3. As well as being an editor-at-large at The Ringer, you’re also the media reporter. In the past, people thought of “media reporters” as Phil Mushnick ranting about something. But a lot has changed since then. What do you think is the role of the modern-day media reporter? How has the job evolved over time? Why do you think that evolution has taken place?

The flame lit by Phil Mushnick is an inferno! I don’t know if you’ve heard of Clay Travis

I like the air quotes around “media reporter.” The original sports media reporters were hired by newspapers to write about television—a medium the sports pages at first ignored, because they saw it as lethal competition. Then they started covering it. The coverage not only tried to figure out which play-by-play guy’s fortunes were up or down but treated TV with skepticism—as if it were shallower and goofier than print sportwriting would ever be. (No argument from me.)

This is a long way of saying I really don’t think the job has evolved all that much. The basic parameters the newspaper guys (and a few gals) laid down are ones we media reporters operate within today.

At its worst, the job is like being a really dull trade reporter. At its best, it breaks uncomfortable news, writes about lives of people that do very strange jobs and (most interesting for me) tries to understand the media world we’re all trying to survive in at the moment.

4. It’s clear that Bill Simmons has been a seminal figure in your career, considering he hired you at Grantland and The Ringer. How did your relationship start? Why did you want to come work for him at Grantland and then follow him to The Ringer? What makes him such a desirable person to work for?

I met Bill while writing a story about him. My Slate column was normally concerned with the likes of Larry the Cable Guy. Bill’s Red Sox book was coming out, and we all read his column, so he seemed like a good subject. I sent him a few questions for the column, and over the next few years we exchanged a handful of emails. I never thought I’d work for him.

I have beaten this line into the ground, but as an editor, Bill is a player’s coach. He is invested in seeing you to succeed on your own terms. Most editors I worked for wanted you to write a kind of generic [fill in the name of the publication] story with maybe a few personal notes. Or, better yet, no personal notes. Bill is the opposite of that, which is part of the reason a lot of us love working for him.

5. The media does not hold the same power that it used to, both in stature and importance, in dictating conversation, especially with athletes, who have social media to use their bullhorn now. Access to them seems more negotiated and commodified. How does this apply to writing about and covering media? The divide between media critic and subject of a media story isn’t as vast and there is a sense of professional criticism/approval when writing about media. Does that influence how you do your job?

This is part of the reason why I love writing about the media. The barrier that exists between athlete and writer doesn’t exist in the same way. It’s like that mythic 1960s locker room we’ve all heard about it. Which isn’t to say there aren’t hurt feelings, yelling, etc.

I think my interest in the subject came from the fact that writers seemed very, very mortal. As a kid reading Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers, I remember my eyes going from the giant action photo of Ruben Sierra at the top of the page to the driver’s-license-sized photo of the columnist (Skip Bayless, Randy Galloway, etc.). And I’d think, “Forget Ruben Sierra. What’s THAT guy like?”

6. You’ve said previously how wonderful it was when you got to Grantland because suddenly you were being asked what you wanted to write about, rather than being told what to write, which was freeing and difficult for you. A lot of places Mike has worked have been very writer-driven in idea creation and execution, while editors still play a large role at Jared’s outlet. Is there one or the other you feel is most conducive to good work? How does it change the ethos or viewpoint of an outlet when the writers are the ones driving content versus the editors?

I think most publications do both these things. They’re editor-driven with certain writers and they indulge others. Smart editors don’t treat everybody exactly the same way.

On a side note, I think it’s incredibly hard to be editor-driven now because of the sheer volume of words that’s published every day. Editors are trying to do what copy desks on newspaper desks used to do, except now there are no space limits and the reader generally expects better, livelier prose. When I read a well-edited piece now, it always stands out.

7. What needs to be changed about sportswriting?

It needs more diversity and more good-paying jobs.

8. You have a segment on your podcast, The Press Box, that is called “Overworked Twitter Joke of the Week,” where you list the joke most made on social media that week relating to whatever the big news story is. To what extent has Twitter created a groupthink mentality in the media? How does that affect the coverage itself off Twitter?

There’s obviously bad or dumb “groupthink.” But I think you could probably argue that it’s beneficial in certain cases. The NFL players who protested during the national anthem got a lot of support from sportswriters early on—almost certainly more than they would have a couple of decades ago. Were all those writers equally invested in their cause—or were some persuaded by the arguments of the writers who came out quickly and loudly in support of the players? Almost certainly the latter, right? That feels like groupthink carrying a lot of people to (for me) the right conclusion.

9. A few years back you wrote a fantastic profile of golf writer Dan Jenkins. There’s a lot to like about the piece, but what stands out is Jenkins’s steadfast commitment to avoiding romanticizing the game he covered. As you scope out today’s sportswriting landscape, how big of an issue is that in 2018 — sportswriters being too flowery or romantic in their coverage? What do you think led to this phenomenon? And what can today’s journalists learn from Jenkins’s approach?

Flowery or romantic sportswriting seems pretty rare these days. What I see more of is a profile that’s sold like this on Twitter: “I hung out with [nominally famous person], who is amazing.” The tone is less flowery or romantic than cozy. And yet those pieces get into the longreads Hall of Fame all the time.

10. You make a point of declaring your Texas roots. Your journalistic idol is Dan Jenkins — a Fort Worth guy. You’re a UT fan. Big Media is primarily a NY/LA/DC institution, and some of the places you’ve worked, like Slate and The New Republic, definitely fit that description. How has being a Texan influenced your career? How does your background influence your coverage and how you fit into a newsroom?

When I started out, I was very self-conscious about where I was from and where I went to school. At The New Republic, my co-intern and best pal was a Rhodes Scholar. The editor of the magazine was a Rhodes Scholar who turned down the Marshall Scholarship. I remember a conversation in the magazine’s office in which a few staffers got to talking about who made the best pizza in New Haven. Having never been to New Haven, and not aware that New Haven pizza was a thing, I felt like the biggest rube. Back in Texas, I used to be smart!

Once I started writing sports, I still felt slow on the uptake but I never experienced that self-consciousness in the same way. Sportswriting is almost a reverse meritocracy in which you get rewarded for going to state schools. You can tell me you went to college with the Facebook guys. I’ll tell you I was one class behind Ricky Williams at UT and that I was at the stadium when he ran over Dat Nguyen and broke the all-time college rushing record. Guess what? I win.

A Q&A with Nicole Auerbach on the rise of The Athletic, covering college sports and ’90s Girl Problems

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Nicole Auerbach, a senior writer for a little media upstart called The Athletic. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Nicole is one of the most prominent college sports writers around, and she has a lot of fascinating insights about covering them in 2018. Here, we also discuss her move to The Athletic, homerism in the sports media and her famous doppelganger. 
1. We start all our Q&As in the same way — at the beginning. How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I’m not one of those journalists who grew up dreaming of being a reporter. I did not produce my own handmade newspaper at age 5. Growing up, I loved sports and I loved reading about sports — I’d devour Sports Illustrated each week, starting with Rick Reilly’s back-page column and working forward from there — but I didn’t really make the connection that sports journalists were real people. Like, that this was a job regular people actually get to do. When I headed off to college, I thought I’d follow my dad’s footsteps and go into business; I planned to major in Econ. This is why I ended up becoming a journalist at a school that doesn’t offer a journalism major.

I stumbled into journalism almost accidentally. I was moving into my dorm room during welcome week, and I met a girl who was a rising sophomore and lived across the hall. We hung out one night that week and somehow got to talking about our so-called dream jobs. She wanted to be a surgeon. I said I’d love to write for Sports Illustrated — again, not quite realizing that real people did this! Her best friend was a news editor for the Michigan Daily, she told me, and she could put me in touch with her. I ended up emailing the sports editor, who invited me to the first meeting of the school year. I went to my first-ever college football game that Saturday — Appalachian State vs. Michigan, you may remember it — and my first-ever college paper meeting that Sunday. I watched the four football writers literally tear up the sports section they’d spent all summer working on (about the national-championship aspirations of Hart/Henne/Long, etc.) and start over, trying to explain what the hell happened against App State. I thought it was pretty fascinating. At the meeting, I volunteered to write a story on club ultimate frisbee. (It came out truly terrible, as I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.)

The summer after my freshman year was really what convinced me this was a career path I could not only do, but that I could enjoy. I worked as an unpaid intern at the Trentonian, which, thankfully, was about 45 minutes from my parents’ house. I covered all sorts of sports, from the Yankees’ Double-A team to Little League (we were all-in on the age group that qualified for the Little League World Series) and even drag racing. I loved covering something different each and every night, working on deadline and crafting creative ledes. I learned quite a bit about interviewing by being forced to interview 12-year-olds on a consistent basis.

I ended up covering hockey, men’s basketball and football for the Daily, and I eventually freelanced a bit for the Detroit Free Press, the Wall Street Journal, SI.com and ESPN while still in school. After my sophomore year, I interned at the Cape Cod Times, another fantastic experience that taught me a lot about source-building in a short period of time. After my junior year, I interned at USA TODAY — I’d cold-emailed them on a whim and somehow got a call back for an interview — and I ended up covering everything from the NBA draft to MLB to pro tennis. (The baseball editors even decided to send me to Boston to do a cover story on the Red Sox, which remains one of the coolest experiences of my life. I was 20?! What were they thinking?! My parents have it framed.) After my senior year of college, I interned at the Boston Globe. I loved that gig and newspaper so much I never wanted it to end. But they couldn’t even afford to keep me on as a freelancer when it ended.

I’d kept in contact with a few editors from USA TODAY, so when there was an opening for a digital producer for college basketball, I got a heads-up. I ended up getting the job, moved to D.C. and worked out of the newsroom for the next year, posting stories, writing headlines, putting together photo galleries and doing bubble tracking during college basketball season. It was not the most glamorous job, but it was a way into the newsroom. During a sports staff-wide restructuring the following year, I applied and interviewed for the position I really wanted: reporter. Fortunately, I was able to get it. I spent the next five years as a national college basketball and college football reporter. Last August, I left USA TODAY to join The Athletic as a senior writer for college football.

2. You are our first-ever guest from The Athletic, the startup taking over the sports media landscape. Congrats! What was it that appealed to you about The Athletic when it came calling? You were previously a national college sports writer for USA TODAY, an established entity, and you gave that up for something brand new. What told you that was the right decision?

Wow, I feel so honored! It’s also great to be interviewed by a colleague. One of the coolest parts of the rapid growth of the company is now getting to call so many writers I admire colleagues. But back to your actual questions… they’re good ones.

It was a really hard decision for a few reasons. One, as you mentioned, is the established/mainstream outlet versus the startup. I was worried I wouldn’t get interviews or cooperation if sources hadn’t heard of The Athletic or if they specifically wanted a larger reach with a platform that was free to access. I also wasn’t sure how I’d feel about having a smaller audience. Plus, I felt so indebted to USA TODAY for allowing me so many opportunities to grow as a journalist, including being part of the Olympics coverage team twice, in 2012 and 2016. And I loved my coworkers.

But ultimately I was quite intrigued by what The Athletic was building. My college sports editor at USA TODAY, Dan Uthman, had already hopped on board alongside Stewart Mandel for the national college football site. Dan is the best editor I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, so he was undoubtedly a strong selling point. I’d had many conversations with him over the years about the kind of site he’d like to run in an ideal world — and I could see the pieces he and Stewart (also a great friend of mine) were building would allow him to achieve so much of what he’d envisioned years earlier. I loved the idea of abandoning measuring success in terms of page views, and getting time and resources to work on the types of stories I value most. Then, I talked to some college coaches and sports information directors about access, and they all said the same thing: We know you, and we will set up whatever you need whenever you need it for whatever outlet you’re working for. That was incredibly reassuring, and they were right. I’ve never been turned down for an interview because I work for a startup.

Now that I’m here, I really do love being part of a new journalism model. As much as I adore newspapers — everyone always tells me I’m an old soul because of my affinity for them and old-school reporting standards — it was devastating to watch mine and others continually face layoffs. It was frustrating, too, to see stories you’d spend months on digging at important topics buried on the home page below something Skip Bayless said on television that day. The chase for clicks is not something I ever enjoyed. It’s wonderful working alongside people (and readers) who value what I value. It took a while for me to get used to how positive the comments are on our site — I guess it makes sense since people are paying for the product and feel invested, but it’s weird! — and they always reinforce that we’re doing the types of stories people really want to read. I know there’s skepticism out there about subscription models, but I hope the entire industry is encouraged by the growth at The Athletic. If people believe our work is worth more than literally zero cents and are willing to pay a few bucks a month, that’s a good thing for everyone. Our work should have monetary value. That’s how we keep journalists employed.

Plus, it’s nice to read stories both on the site and the app without pop-up ads. Who knew a mobile viewing experience could actually be enjoyable?

3. On that point, what has it been like for you writing for an outlet with such a strict paywall? We both do, too, of course, but it has to be different considering you came from an outlet that was free to read. How have you adjusted to the simple fact that fewer people have access to your work? How has that changed how you promote and market yourself?

Yes, that was definitely something that took some adjustment — and even the idea of not thinking in terms of unique page views as a measure of success… Like, it’s way more important that a story drives subscribers and engagement. I feel like all it took was a switch to flip in my mind. Once that happened, I realized that I’d much rather have a smaller but more dedicated group of readers. I’ve also noticed growth in terms of the reach of stories I’ve written, too. My tweets sharing stories get more RTs and favorites quicker now, which suggests that more of my followers are subscribers already. They clicked on the link and read the story right away, then they shared it. That’s been really cool to see.
4. One last thing on The Athletic: It is a site that started primarily around providing local sports coverage better than any regional newspaper could do. That is essentially Mike’s job, covering the Knicks. But then all of a sudden, The Athletic exploded into the national sports media game, starting verticals for college sports and immediately going from a small startup in a few cities to a behemoth. What do you see as The Athletic’s place in the national sports media landscape? In college sports in particularly, which are intensely regional, how do you cater to fans on a national level at The Athletic?

I hope we are providing and can continue to provide readers with thoughtful, in-depth stories they can’t get elsewhere in addition to deep analytical dives and authoritative analyses from people who are plugged in at all levels of the sport. I think we’ve also done a great job of pairing excellent local coverage (like, for example, everything Brendan Quinn wrote on Michigan during the NCAA tournament) with national expertise (like Dana O’Neil, who knows and reports on Villanova better than anyone). Plus, we’ve gotten creative. I think our State of the Program series we’re running on the college football page right now is a perfect example of that. We’ll break down more than 80 college football programs in terms of both big-picture issues and the (informed) minutiae of position battles in a digestible way. That’s something I have never seen anywhere else, and I can’t imagine competitors devoting the resources to a project like that in the offseason — because they simply are stretched too thin.
5. College sports, especially college football, are as popular as ever. In some regions of the country, it’s the most popular sport of all! But across the sports media, full-time college sports writers are dwindling. Why do you think that is? As others retreat from college sports coverage, why is The Athletic building it up?

I have watched a lot of friends around my age leave college sports and/or leave the industry because they didn’t want to keep moving around from college town to college town throughout their 20s and maybe 30s. It can be a tough lifestyle if you are living somewhere you didn’t go to school and/or don’t have family nearby. I get that. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to cover college sports while living near family and friends on the East Coast, where I grew up.

I do think there are some amazing stories at the college sports level, and in many cases they’re fresh. You’re not asking a millionaire to sit down to recount the story of a traumatic childhood he’s shared fifty times before. You get a whole new freshman class every year, thousands of new stories just waiting to be written.

I think college sports can be regionalized, or even fanbase-specific. The advent of the College Football Playoff has helped make the sport more popular nationally, in my opinion, because maybe now USC fans who wouldn’t have cared otherwise are keeping tabs on Wisconsin and Florida State. Perhaps they’re reading about those teams, too. They’re definitely paying more and more attention to conference foes in nonconference play for strength of schedule purposes, too. You’ve got all of that mixing on the college football side, plus you’ve got the annual allure of March Madness that doesn’t require your alma mater to be good at basketball that year for fans to enjoy it. And, as you guys know, if you can find human interest stories that resonate in any sport it can transcend the immediate popularity of that school or fan base.

6. This might sound like an overly simplistic question, but it’s actually pretty complicated: How do you decide what to write about? There are more than 100 Division I college football teams and more than 300 college basketball teams. And you’re not around any of them on a daily basis. So how do you come up with stories that nobody else is writing from such a big pool to swim in? Can you take us through your process?

I can try. It can be overwhelming when you think of it the way you described it there, so I try not to do that. I do my best to keep up with the top storylines of the top-25 type teams in both sports and at the same time look for nuggets maybe on message boards or weird stats from a broadcast or a unique note in a player bio that might give me a new idea about an oft-covered player or team. I also try to regularly check in with head coaches and assistant coaches I have relationships with, both to keep abreast of what’s new in their lives, what they think of rule changes/other news/FBI investigations/etc. that are in the news and also to see if there are under-covered stories on their rosters. It’s always easier to build relationships when you’re covering one team and can see people in person on a daily basis, so it is certainly challenging to do a lot over the phone.

To offset some of that, I also try to go to conference meetings, recruiting events and Hall of Fame happy hours/dinners to get face time with people I don’t get to see often in person and to meet other folks I didn’t know previously. I’ve built some of the best relationships I have because I’ve run into someone random in a hotel lobby, and I’ve gotten some of the best story ideas from sources I originally met years before while working on a story that was tangentially tied to college sports, but I made one extra cold call and introduced myself to them. If I have worked hard enough to be in position to get someone’s cell phone number to keep in touch, I try to make sure I use it.

I’ll also make one other point about source-building. I don’t think the be-all, end-all should be having a source who will confirm breaking news to you. I’ve found that some of the best and most candid interviews I’ve done have come from that person being comfortable with me and trusting me to accurately portray them because I’ve proved that I could do just that over a number of previous interactions. That is just as valuable, if not more so, than having someone trust you enough to tell you they can confirm a hire.

 

7. As a national college sports reporter, you’re in a position that pro sports reporters don’t find themselves in: Occasionally, you have to cover the school you went to. Like, say, in the Final Four or something. Mike went to Rutgers and covered them for a time at the Star-Ledger — but likely without the same scrutiny. Do you find anyone ever accusing you of homerism when you cover Michigan — and do you find it insulting? How do you handle these accusations? Is it OK to root for a school or team that may occasionally be in your coverage area if you’re up front about it? Is it OK to root for any team at all if you’re a sportswriter?

I am routinely accused of being a Michigan homer and also a Michigan hater. Apparently, if I share 3-point shooting stats during halftime of the Loyola-Michigan national semifinal, this means both! It’s actually not been a problem for me at all, which is something a lot of people find hard to believe. I think it’d be different if I grew up in the state of Michigan and had been a die-hard Wolverines fan as a kid. But I got there at age 17 and immediately started covering Michigan sports for the student paper, so I don’t even have that many Michigan T-shirts in my closet. I watch more of Michigan than other teams out of habit and because if I’m home I can socialize with friends while doing so, but I don’t get sad if Michigan loses or happy if Michigan wins. I do know a lot of people in both the basketball and football programs, so I am happy for those people when the team does well, but that’s the same as if I build a great relationship with someone at any school.

I don’t think sportswriters should openly root for teams, especially teams they cover on a daily basis (which I have seen writers do). It’s just weird to me. I don’t think we have to pretend to be robots or anything, but the rise of first-person/fan-inspired pieces is something I am not a fan of. Only in rare circumstances does the writing/relationship overcome the narcissism of those types of pieces, at least in my opinion.

 

8. What would you change about college sports writing if you could?

It’s not specific to college sports, but I think writers need to stop pumping up coaches/players who are obviously good sources for them, while at the same time ripping those who don’t leak them news. It’s disingenuous and unfair to readers. Specific to college sports, we need to stop putting head coaches on pedestals. I thought this is something that would stop after JoePa, but it hasn’t. If a football coach has won a lot of games over the course of his career, all that that tells us is he’s won a lot of games in his career. It doesn’t mean he’s Mother Teresa.

 

9. You created an extremely popular side Twitter account @90sGirlProblem, which has 573,000 followers. Why aren’t you tweeting from it anymore?! How did you go about building such a large audience and following for something that wasn’t your day job? What did you learn about these niche, fan-driven Twitter accounts from building one of your own? Did you ever try to monetize it?

I can’t believe you discovered that. I forgot about it! My friend, Stef, and I had just graduated from college and started our first jobs in The Real World, which meant that we were working 9-5ish and totally exhausted every night. We fell into this habit of her coming over to my apartment in DC most nights of the week for dinner and to binge-watch “Felicity.” I’m not entirely sure how we picked “Felicity,” but it was a show we were both slightly too young for when it aired and intrigued us. Quickly, we realized how terrible it was (acting, fashion, dialogue, everything…) but continued to hate-watch it. We started joking around about their hairstyles and clothes to one another. Now, this was late 2011, which was the peak time for Twitter “problem” accounts, like @whitegrlproblem and @sororityproblem. So, we joked in that form. “What butterfly hair clip should I wear today? What a ’90s girl problem!” We decided we were hilarious enough to create a Twitter feed for these dumb jokes. (Again, we had our first jobs and no lives.)

We created a Google Doc and wrote down jokes as they came to us. Then, I started scheduling them out to publish about five times a day. I found a funny picture of Kimmy Gibbler looking confused — actress Andrea Barber LOVES that she’s the face of this, by the way — and wrote a bio, and boom! Off we went. The only strategic thing I did early on was look through some of the hundreds of women about our age following other “problem” accounts because I figured they’d get our jokes and have had similar experiences in the ‘90s.

I still can’t believe it grew into what it did. It’s hilarious to me. We got to the point where we were able to do some sponsored posts to make a little money. For a stretch we sold some apparel, like #90sgirlproblem trucker hats and T-shirts with some of our funnier tweets on them. We even launched a website at one point and did a series of Q&As with ‘90s stars, from Ben Savage to the woman who did the voice for Helga Pataki. It was a total blast. It became quite time-consuming to keep up, and neither of us were interested in becoming social media influencers or anything like that. It’s been mostly been dormant the last few years because I’ve been traveling a lot for work, and Stef has lived abroad — she’s currently doing a PhD program in Sweden! — so it’s kind of died. It did have a great life, however.

 

10. Have you ever been in the same place at the same time as Aubrey Plaza? Because if not we just assume you’re working as the star of “Ingrid Goes West” in your spare time. (Seriously, how often do you hear that you two look alike?)

I have been trying to meet her for YEARS. I actually even went to an “Ingrid Goes West” viewing event with the cast in NYC last fall, but she didn’t stick around for an actual meet-and-greet. Lots of my Twitter followers have been tweeting her about meeting me over the years, too, to no avail. It will happen someday!!!! And, yes, I get it almost daily. Strangers at the gym, strangers on airplanes … I dressed as her for Halloween a few years back. “Parks and Rec fans” will get the costume references.

A Q&A with Mirin Fader on her basketball playing career, her move to Bleacher Report and, of course, that LaMelo story

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Mirin Fader, the newly hired writer-at-large at Bleacher Report. Mirin’s written a bunch of really cool stuff already in her career, which makes her a perfect guest in this space. Here, we talk about her move to B/R, the process of reporting her fantastic LaMelo Ball profile and how her own basketball playing experience has helped her career.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way — at the beginning. How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I was a basketball player all my life. Basketball was my passion. It was who I was and who I wanted to be. I ended up playing my first year in college but ultimately decided I wanted to be a writer. I actually started writing the first day I picked up a ball, back in elementary school, but writing was something I did just for me. It was how I expressed myself, writing in my journal every day. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I transferred to Occidental College, that I shifted gears and realized I wanted to be a sports writer. I fell in love with my major, English, and spent hours reading books, and I knew journalism would be the perfect way to blend my passions.

Of course, having zero professional writing experience, the first gig I had during college was writing obits for a local paper (yes, obits!). I also covered Oxy’s basketball team (and other sports) for the college’s website, and began freelancing for SLAM and Dime. I interned for the Clippers, the Sparks and ABC Sports. When I graduated in 2013, I began writing for the Orange County Register. I was a staff writer there for the next 4 1/2 years, writing sports features. I began free-lancing for espnW and Bleacher Report on the side during that time, which led me to my current position as writer-at-large for B/R Mag.

I think what led me to where I am now is having the mentality of always hustling, always pitching, always trying to prove myself. No matter how many “No’s” I got, I came back with five more pitches the next time. You have to be dogged. It’s also about being open. You have to bring the same enthusiasm for when you’re asked to cover Little League as when you’re asked to cover the NBA. It’s about always being ready and saying “yes” to stories, even if you don’t have any interest in them. I also think going to a small liberal arts college and majoring in English really helped me. A lot of my friends went to big journalism schools at big-time D-I programs, but I spent time learning how to close read, analyze text/details and get the repetitions I needed to improve my craft.

2. There was a time in your life when all you wanted to do wasn’t to write about basketball — but to play it. You even aspired to play overseas at some point! What was the moment that made you fully commit to trying to become a sports writer instead of a basketball player? From a practical standpoint, how much have you found your playing experience in college helping you as a reporter? How much do you talk about it with athletes you cover? Also, would you be willing to come be a ringer on Jared’s intramural league team? The squad could use you.

I would be honored to be on your team! I’m small but scrappy at 5-1.

I think every athlete gets to that point where she just knows in her heart that her time is coming to a close. I knew upon transferring that I needed to find a new route, a new space to house my passion. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because writing allowed me to reinvent myself in a more meaningful way.

I definitely think my playing experience helps me as a reporter. Athletes are complex, driven people that have to face failure every day, and I think coming in with that understanding allows me to connect with them. I think being an undersized player and going through struggles with that also helps me relate to the kind of adversity athletes sometimes face. I do mention my own experiences during interviews, but only in a way that helps me learn more about the person I’m interviewing. There is nothing worse than a journalist who makes the story about herself. Athletes can immediately tell which reporters “get it” and which don’t.

3. Let’s talk about your new job: writer-at-large at Bleacher Report. What exactly will you be doing in that position? Why did you decide to take to leave the freelancing world and commit yourself to just one outlet? What is it about what Bleacher Report is doing that appealed to you?

I’m so grateful to have joined B/R’s team! I’m going to be writing features for B/R Mag, our premier storytelling platform. I had been writing features for B/R Mag for the past year as a freelancer (while also writing for ESPN and other outlets), while I was looking for my next full-time move after the OC Register. It’s really nice to now have found a place that I can fully devote my time to. (There is truly no grind like the freelance grind!)

I love what Bleacher Report is doing in terms of multimedia storytelling. I’m encouraged to cultivate pitches that include not just text but ideas for video, for social, for graphics. B/R is a really collaborative, innovative place. It’s really challenging me to think beyond conventional ways to tell a story.

4. Speaking of Bleacher Report, in February, you wrote an amazing story for them about LaMelo Ball and his strange pro career in Lithuania. You spent three weeks there reporting, which is pretty incredible. How did that story come to be? What was the process of pitching it like? How difficult was it for you to find an outlet willing to send you to Europe to report the piece? What does it say about Bleacher Report that it did so?

Thank you! I am very lucky that my editors approached me with the pitch/story and asked me to do it. I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. It was an incredible opportunity for me to grow as a reporter and as a person, and it meant a lot to me that they trusted me to go halfway around the world, for that long, to cover a story. I think it shows how committed B/R is to giving its writers the resources they need to succeed and to tell meaningful stories. Every team at B/R worked hard on this story for more than seven weeks, from social to video to graphics to design to editing to copy editing, and it was really cool to see how a cross-platform story can come together.

5. What was the reporting process like for the Ball story? You mention in the piece that you had worked with the family to get access, but at some point, that access was cut off to all media. What did that do to the story? How problematic was that for you? What did you do when you found out you’d no longer have access to the Balls? Why did you stay in Lithuania?

The reporting process really taught me a lot about being adaptable and staying open, staying nimble. Sometimes you go into a story thinking it’s about one thing, and you get there, and realize the story is about something completely different. That’s what happened in this case. I had thought I was just writing about a 16-year-old from a famous basketball family who gets to go on a crazy-fun adventure around the globe, but the reality of the situation was much more grim. My editor, Christina Tapper, was amazing. She trusted my reporting from on the ground and encouraged me to follow my instincts on where the story was leading, and as a team, we changed our plan as it all unfolded.

It was a really difficult process, though. I had been sent away for a really long time to write this story, and without that access, I worried how I was going to pull off the story. I tried my best to remain calm and do everything I could to get closer to the Balls, like sneaking into practice and convincing team officials to let me stay, and finding people to translate for me so I could interview teammates, coaches and random people on the street. With Christina’s guidance, I realized access wasn’t just about interviewing, but observing. I had a front-row seat to what was happening, from the gym to the hotel, even if I didn’t get to interview Melo himself. With other outlets going home after the first week, B/R realized there was a real opportunity to stick around and report things that other outlets didn’t see.

6. Beyond the Ball story, you also won first place for magazine-length features at the U.S. Basketball Writers Association writing contest for a piece you authored for Bleacher Report on Mo’ne Davis. What inspired you to write that story? Realistically, what do you think the future is for Davis? As someone yourself who spent a lot of time playing basketball against boys, how much did you find yourself relating to Davis? How did that influence the reporting and writing of the story?

Bleacher Report asked me to write the Mo’ne Davis story. It was my first story for B/R. Like you said, I grew up playing with boys, so I was really excited, because I knew we’d be able to relate for that reason. I think having that connection was important, as we spent most of our time together on the court in Philly. I felt like most of the stories written about her were very positive in the sense that there weren’t as many stories exploring the difficulties of being the only girl or the difficulties of being famous, so I think I was able to ask her questions that maybe another reporter with different experiences might not have thought of.

I see her impact going far beyond being a player. I think eventually she could be a really successful D-I coach. She’s very smart. Her basketball IQ is very high. She sees plays before they happen. She has a personality that people gravitate to.

7. I don’t think we’ve ever asked anybody a question on this topic: You are an award-winning sports-writer, having been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Orange County Press Club. How much have those awards helped you in your career? Realistically, how important is it for a young sports-writer to have rewards on his or her resumé? Generally speaking, what do you think about the practice of sports journalism awards?

I’m really honored and grateful to have won those awards. I’m not sure to the extent to which they have helped me, or if younger writers need them on their resumé or not. I just turned 27, so at this point in my career I really look at my writing as a craft that I need to constantly improve on. Rather than focus on awards, I’m focusing how I can better develop my voice in my pieces, how I can get better at pacing a narrative, how I can embed quotes more seamlessly. I am a constant work in progress!

8. Though basketball is your passion and first love, you have written about other sports as well. At Bleacher Report, you will be writing about all sports. Why have you chosen to go down that path as opposed to just focusing on basketball and making your name as a basketball writer? What are the pros and cons of the two strategies? What do you see yourself doing moving forward — continuing to broaden your area of coverage or going back to mainly basketball?

It’s funny, when I first started out, all I wanted to write about was basketball. I was very tunnel vision. Then I got to the OC Register and suddenly I was assigned water polo. And baseball. And soccer. And softball. The more sports I covered, the more I got out of my comfort zone. And the more I fell in love with writing features, the more I realized that what mattered wasn’t the sport. It was about the story, the person I’m profiling. A good story is a good story, regardless of what sport it is. I like that I won’t have a specific beat at B/R. I want to be counted on to do anything at any moment. Golf? I’m in. Football? I’m in. Swimming? I’m in.

The pros are that there are so many more possibilities. You can write more and meet more people. You learn different things. And I think you increase your chance of getting jobs. The truth is, when you graduate college, you may not be able to write about your dream sport. Being versatile, and flexible, is necessary.

The con is that you may have fewer “sources” than, say, a person who has been on the NBA or NFL beat all his life. But I still think broadening your horizon, in this economy, when you need to be able to do different things and be adaptable, is always a good thing. I want to be an author one day. To be honest, I see myself eventually writing non-sports features at some point in my life. I want to challenge myself and try new things.

9. What needs to change about sports writing?

I wish there was more access to athletes. Pitching a story for me often comes down to, will I be able to get this person or not? It’s really tough. I’ve done write-arounds, and I actually enjoy interviewing 20 people close to the person, to try to find more about a person I will never talk to. It’s kind of like uncovering a mystery. But I wish there was more access.

10. You once said that in light of your height (5-foot-1), you have learned to put your basketball training to good use by boxing out other reporters to not get swallowed up in giant scrums. We are both taller than you, but we have also fallen victim to scrum craziness and could use some help, so could you please share your technique so we know for the future?

Haha! You have to be AGGRESSIVE! Show up 40 minutes early. Find the main stage. Stake your claim, and then when people try to elbow you out, get between the elbows/arms and stand firm (seriously, people will push your back–you have to hold your pose). You have to have a strong arm holding your recorder out for so long (it truly sucks), but if you are able to maneuver between tall people, you can get closer than anyone.

Also, I like going to the non-star scrums. Sometimes it’s way better to go over to the eighth man who has five other reporters around him than be one of 40 reporters trying to get a stale quote from a franchise player. Often the guys who have the fewest people around them have the most interesting things to say. Go to those guys.

A Q&A with Will Leitch on founding Deadspin, finding his voice and being a pioneer of online journalism

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Will Leitch, a prominent writer for outlets like New York magazine, MLB.com and many, many others. Will has accomplished a ton: He founded Deadspin, for one thing, and is truly a pioneer in this crazy world of online journalism. Here, we talk about his career, Deadspin’s legacy and how he’s managed to do all of this.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way — at the beginning. How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Roger Ebert, and I wanted to be him desperately. He was also a Central Illinois kid from nowhere like me – Illinois is basically Nebraska with Chicago at the top, and I’m from the Nebraska part; my hometown of Mattoon is closer to Kentucky than Chicago – and he was smart and funny and on TV and got to write all the time. So I basically just did what he did. I went to the University of Illinois like he did, I studied journalism like he did, I worked at the Daily Illini like he did. Unlike him, though, I covered sports for the paper, where I found that most “adult” reporters tend to be miserable sorts who had lost their love for sports and mostly just rooted for the games to get over quickly. The primary thing I learned there was, “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my career, but I know it won’t be working in sports.” I just wanted to review movies like him.

When I graduated, I worked in Los Angeles as a film critic for a year and then moved back to the Midwest after a bad breakup to work at the Sporting News in St. Louis, mostly as a late-night copy boy. In 2000, I moved to New York to try to peddle my wares as an internet writer, which, at the time, seemed like a halfway-decent idea. It was quickly proven otherwise, and I spent five years doing all sorts of odd temp jobs to pay my rent and try to stay in the game, answering phones at a doctor’s office, stuffing envelopes, carting boxes around Manhattan, writing on my own for free all the time, with nobody reading any of it, hoping to someday catch a break.

In 2005, the folks at Gawker Media saw my work at The Black Table, a weird pseudo-journalism site I’d founded with Eric Gillin, Aileen Gallagher and A.J. Daulerio, liked it and asked me to write a gambling site for them. I told them I thought gambling was wrong and corrosive to the soul, so I’d probably be a terrible person for their gambling site. But they should do a sports site. So I wrote a long pitch letter to them, with all sorts of strange ideas, most of which were conceived as “the opposite of what made all those reporters in the Assembly Hall press box so miserable.” Gawker read it and said, “Hey, these are good ideas, this site could work, but no one knows who you are, so we’re going to find a big name to do it and you can assist them.” Fortunately for me, they all turned them down, so they finally just said, “You’re cheap, so fine, go ahead and do what you want.” I figured it’d last six months and if I caught a break, I’d get a couple of good clips out of it. It turned out to be Deadspin.

I ran Deadspin for 2 ½ years and left in June 2008 to work at New York magazine as a contributing editor, a title I still hold there. I now write for MLB.com and host a show for Sports Illustrated and basically write for whomever will have me. It’s all I ever wanted to do and I can’t believe I get to still do it. And I get to even review movies from time to time.

2. I think the most impressive thing about your career is the sheer amount of stuff you do. You write for a million outlets about sports, about movies, about whatever interesting things you feel like writing about. You are a podcaster. You have a newsletter. You have an online video series called The Will Leitch Show. So… how do you do it all? Why have you decided to spread yourself around this way instead of seeking one full-time job? What’s the key to organizing your life with all you do?

I am very organized. I realized early on that if you turn in everything on time, and make everything clean and easy on your editors, they will trust you and give you more stuff to do. My job is to make my editors and producers happy. If you keep doing that over and over, you will be amazed what you can get away with.

Again: All I ever wanted to do was to write, and I spent many, many years writing for no money, for no readers, with the singular goal of someday being able to do this for a living. So now that I get to do it, for crying out loud, I’m certainly not going to stop now. This is the fun part! I’ve gotten to meet people I never thought I’d meet, go places I never thought I’d go, cover stories I never imagined having the opportunity to cover. I am literally living the dream, right now. I don’t want to run anything, or to make a million dollars, or be famous. I just want to write all day every day and be able to support my family on the money I get from it. If it stays like this, I’ll die a happy man. And I’m sure it will stay like this because media never, ever changes.

3. You’ve done a lot in your career, so there’s a lot we can talk about here, but let’s start with one of your earliest accomplishments. That was Deadspin, the website you created that started as a little blog and has developed into a powerhouse in the sports media landscape. Deadspin is so ubiquitous now that it’s easy to forget where it came from. What was the origin of Deadspin? What did you envision it could be or become? What was it like for you as it really started to explode? How does the current version of Deadspin compare to what you imagined when you started?

I covered a little bit of the origin earlier, but I can say that I never imagined it would become nearly as massive as it has. I didn’t want it to, actually: That was one of the main reasons I left. I know for Deadspin to become what it needed to be, it couldn’t just be Will writing his funny, silly little stories and feeding in-jokes for the commenters to wrestle around with. It needed to expand and have a staff and a broad scope, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be an editor or an entrepreneur or a boss. I just wanted to type in a little box, hit save and then go find another little box to type in.

I was glad that people were discovering the site, but, like with everything involving the Internet, as it became bigger and bigger, it began to lose the connection that made me so excited about it in the first place. I just wanted my little sandbox, and it was becoming something more unwieldy, something that was starting to stand for something I really never wanted to be a part of. I’m not a brawler, or someone that picks fights with people for sport. I think Deadspin came along at a time when the newspaper industry was starting to face some of the issues that have plagued it in the decade since, and thus was seen as some sort of symptom, or even cause, of the industry’s woes. I wanted no part of that fight: I loved newspapers! Still do! Still write for them all the time! That was a surreal maelstrom to be caught up in, and I profoundly did not like it.

I wanted to challenge myself, to write longer stories, to write non-sports stories, to not be some sort of Internet Character, and I knew if I stayed at Deadspin, there’d be more and more pressure to become some sort of persona, to fill some role for other people, to pretend to be something I wasn’t. The combination of those factors, along with the traffic realities that I saw coming and that somehow remain the currency of this dumb realm a decade later, made me decide to leave while (some) people still liked me.

It was a great decision for me, but it was an even better decision for the site. The site needed leaders with vision, who would embrace growth and ambition in a way I knew I never would. And every single editor after me has been, frankly, brilliant, from A.J. Daulerio to Tommy Craggs to Tim Marchman and now to Megan Greenwell. I am in awe of every single one of them, and, really, everybody who works there. That job is so different than it was when I did it, and I’d be terrible at it now. I wouldn’t have even imagined the scope that Deadspin has had since I left, and I’m pretty stunned by it still today. It is my honor to be associated with their work, but it’s not something I’ve really earned. If the person who took over Deadspin when I left had run it into the ground, no one would say, “Wow, that’s so cool that you founded Deadspin.” At best they’d remember me as that little kid that got yelled at on HBO. (To be fair: There are probably still a lot of people who think of me as just that.) All the benefits I’ve gotten from being the founder of Deadspin since I’ve left are entirely because of the work that they have done, and are still doing. I’m just lucky, that’s all.

4. You are now a very accomplished writer, with bylines and gigs at many impressive places — let’s name New York magazine as just one — but how much do you think your career is tied to Deadspin? Not only because you started it but also because of the genre of sportswriting and point of view that has come from it.

Man, I keep answering questions you’re about to ask before I get to them. I suppose I should have read all of them first before answering each of them. Alas.

I will say this: There is nothing that makes me happier than to see a writer I love say that they were inspired by Deadspin in the early days. I don’t think they were inspired by Deadspin because they thought, “Wow, this Will Leitch is brilliant, what a guy.” I think they were inspired for the exact opposite reason: If this dope could do it, why couldn’t they? The most unexpectedly fun part of Deadspin was discovering this whole world of people who were just overflowing with talent but had no place to show it off. Deadspin was always more about a community than any one person, and I always felt the largest part of my job was just introducing readers to everyone in that community, to all the possibilities out there, to all the voices that weren’t being heard. That community was always going to rise: Talent can’t help it. I was just fortunate enough to be there at the early part, before it all did.

5. You were, in many ways, a pioneer — an early adopter of this crazy thing we call the internet and a true original in digital publishing. What was the moment that you realized, “Hey, this might be something. I’m going to start writing for the internet?” When you started, did you already know what it was going to become? What do you miss about the early days of writing for the internet?

Honestly, the only thing I cared about the internet was that I could write as long as I wanted to on it, about whatever I wanted. I know it’s strange to think of now, but before the internet, you had to write in specifically mandated column inches, and it required other people deciding that you were worthy of it to even get to try. One of the main reasons I can write so much now is because I wrote so much then. I was able to get my many, many mistakes out of the way, to learn what I was good at and what I wasn’t, to figure out my style and my strengths by simply airing it all out in real time, trying out all sorts of voices and angles until I figured out what worked for me. I honestly just wrote and wrote and wrote until I finally just couldn’t help but be halfway decent at it. My favorite Roger Ebert quote is, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.” That’s to say: Shut up and get to work. Figure it out while you’re doing it, like a normal job. That could have never happened without the internet. That’s what was so thrilling to me then, and, frankly, what still is.

I do think that gets lost a little bit, in how ugly the internet has gotten. It is still so freeing, to see and do and experience and say things that would have been impossible before. It’s something that should never be taken for granted. I know the internet, and particularly social media, can make you feel like the world is falling apart. (Heck, I’m pretty sure the world is falling apart.) But it is still magic. It is still unbelievable that this exists, and that we all got to be here at this time, at the very forefront of it. I remember life before everybody had an email address, let alone a smartphone. There are still (obvious) growing pains. But it’s still expanded the universe, for every person on the planet. I can hear near-infinite points of view that I never had access to before. I can express myself in ways I never could have. I have friends with disabilities that don’t allow them to speak, or move, or communicate with anyone in any sort of “traditional” sense. The internet has given them the opportunity to be heard and, for the first time, in many ways, be just like everybody else. It has changed everything. Not all for the better, not in the slightest. But it’s still staggering, and incredible, and that should never be forgotten.

6. Another job you held was at Sports on Earth, the now-shuttered website that started as a venture between USA Today and MLB Advanced Media. What in your mind distinguished Sports on Earth? As someone who was there for its entire lifespan, how did it develop over time? How difficult was it to see it shrink and eventually close?

For what it’s worth, I would take slight issue with the idea that it shrank: Gabe Guarente, who took over the full-time editing job after Gannett split back in August 2014 and left MLB Advanced Media to run it, ultimately navigated it into the highest-trafficked periods of its existence. We lost a lot of great writers when Gannett bailed, and it has been a delight to watch them basically run the entire sports internet now. But there were a lot of great people after that too, and I think the site did some fantastic work before, during and after that ugliness. I tried to capture it all in my goodbye piece on the site. 

I have to say, as sad as it was to see the site close, I couldn’t have asked for a softer landing than what MLB gave us. How many sites get to write their own obituary? Transferring over to MLB.com was a logical move: Writing about baseball is one of my favorite things to do, and to get to do it for some of the smartest editors in the business, alongside people like Joe Posnanski and Richard Justice and Anthony Castrovince and Alyson Footer and the Cespedes BBQ guys, is me living a charmed life.

But I’m extremely proud of the work that site did, in all its incarnations. It was at times a bumpy ride, but find me a media run that isn’t. If we all wanted it to be easy and stable all the time, we would have become accountants.

7. Switching gears, you write a lot about movies, along with Tim Grierson. What is the origin of Grierson & Leitch? How did a sports writer also become a film writer? Or are you a film writer that became a sports writer?

Yep, another question I should have scrolled down for. I think I might be a bit wordy?

Anyway, yeah, Tim is my best friend from high school and a legitimate, not-pretending-like-Leitch-is film critic: He’s the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and does smart, incisive interviews with big-time stars and directors, including Joaquin Phoenix in an earthquake.

Again: This is another Dream Job moment. Grierson and I basically spent out entire high school lives watching movies and then driving around deserted Central Illinois dirt roads talking about them for hours. Twenty-five years later, I still get to do it. Isn’t that what we all wanted? Just to find the thing we love to do and then do it? Working with Tim is another one of those. Maybe the best one. Plus, working with Tim required me to teach myself how to produce podcasts, which is an incredibly handy skill. I recommend it.

8. There was a time in your life where you wanted nothing more than to be a film critic, a goal you have since accomplished. But I’m curious about your experiences with Roger Ebert, the great Chicago film critic and a writer you claim as a major influence. You had a relationship with him, but it soured when you wrote a piece critical of him, and I understand it never recovered. What did you learn from that experience? How much did it influence how you have written about people since? Where’s the line as a writer between being tough-but-fair and downright mean? How do you avoid crossing it?

It did recover, actually

I feel like the Ebert piece, written when I was in my early 20s and still figuring out my voice, was just about being mean: There was no substantial criticism in my piece. I was just being a moron. The only thing I know how to do now is be honest in this stuff. If you’re honest, and not actively trying to be a jerk, and showing at least a minimum amount of respect to someone you’re criticizing for being willing to put themselves out there and take all the shit that comes with it, I don’t think you have anything to apologize for. One of the reasons I enjoy reviewing books for the Wall Street Journal is that they encourage an honest accounting of each book: Many book sections anymore are just a way for writers to do favors to other writers. I don’t understand the point of that. You’re not writing reviews for other writers, or for your friends in media, or for anything or anyone other than the reader. You owe them the truth as best you can give it. If that means calling out someone who you believe deserves to be called out, well, that’s the job.

I’ve always been a little baffled by how thin-skinned media people are anyway. Again: If you didn’t want to take a few hits, you should have become an accountant. No one would criticize you because no one would care what you do. I remember writing hundreds of pieces that didn’t get a single piece of feedback because absolutely no one cared. That anyone rouses themselves enough to comment is its own victory.

I’ll confess this thinking has evolved in recent years, because people say some nasty shit, particularly to writers who are women or LGBT or people of color, really no matter what they say about anything. I think you need a firm spine to be in the arena. But you shouldn’t have to swallow your dignity to do this either.

9. What needs to change about sports writing? About film writing?

There needs to be more of it. I honestly believe this. I know people feel overwhelmed, but I truly can’t believe how much amazing writing there is out there and how lucky I am to get to consume it. Whatever people’s thoughts about media right now, it is unquestionable this is absolutely the best time to be a consumer of media. There’s so much good shit! Even with that, though, there needs to be more. There are millions and millions of people who have something of value to say, who have a perspective that’s being ignored, who haven’t gotten to be a part of the conversation, to their detriment and to ours. We need more. We always need more.

10. You love game shows. Like, a lot. You were even on one, Win Ben Stein’s Money. This makes you the second -30- Newsletter Q&A guest to have appeared on a television game show. Anyway, what’s up with you and game shows? And, um, can you please share the story of what went down during your appearance for readers who may not know?

I am still too rattled about this to recount it again, even more than 20 years later. You can probably just read the whole thing here, though it is worth noting that that piece is about 15 years old itself and desperately needs some polish . Just know that Jimmy Kimmel becoming an important political voice in this country is, to me… well, it’s odd! Let’s just go with odd.