A Q&A with Daniel Dale

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 Daniel Dale, the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star. If you are on Twitter and pay attention to American politics at all, you probably know Daniel’s work. He he has amassed an enormous following with his comprehensive coverage of Donald Trump and the Trump administration from a Canadian point of view. We’re thrilled to have Daniel as a guest, and he brings spectacular perspective and a huge wealth of knowledge as he discusses his journalism career, Canada’s current view of the U.S. and what it’s really like to cover this particular president. 
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 went to business school for university, which quickly taught me that I wasn’t very interested in business. I decided I wanted to try to get into journalism, ideally sportswriting, and I started covering the occasional collegiate football and basketball game for the campus newspaper. Then I got a really lucky break — a small paper in my home province of Ontario, the (now-defunct) Guelph Mercury, had a sports-focused summer internship available, which is really rare. The managing editor there, Phil Andrews, decided to take a chance on me.
I got no other interviews, and I’d applied to a lot of papers. So if Phil hadn’t liked me, I’m not sure if I would have kept trying to get into journalism.
It went well in Guelph, and then I got an internship at the Houston Chronicle’s Washington bureau for a semester and at the Star for the following summer. The Star brought me back summer after that, after I finished the business degree, then hired me full-time in September 2008.
I was sent to city hall in December 2010, for the beginning of Rob Ford’s mayoralty. I covered Ford’s four-year term, then became the Star’s Washington correspondent in early 2015.
2. Before you covered Trump, you covered former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who was a controversial and famous character of his own. What was covering Ford like, and what did you learn from that experience that you apply to your reporting now?
Being on the city hall beat during the Rob Ford days effectively meant being on a bunch of other beats too — high school sports (he spent a lot of his time coaching high school football), crime (he smoked crack cocaine and hung out with unsavory characters), cops (the police conducted an extensive investigation of him), courts (there were a number of important legal cases)…
It was crazy. Constant drama of all kinds. We were regularly monitoring social media to find out how the mayor was spending his time — he wasn’t consistently showing up for work — and we’d often find out he’d been at a liquor store or bar or something. We’d get called with all kinds of wild tips, some of which were true. Our best-laid policy-coverage plans were often foiled by some weird personal controversy or another. He refused to speak to anyone from the Star or even to send us his daily schedule, which meant we were usually scrambling just to get to his public appearances on time. And he’d angrily attack us as biased and out to get him, which meant we got a fair amount of vitriol from his supporters.
The experience helped me a lot when it came time to cover Trump. It gave me experience aggressively covering the dishonesty of a habitual liar, in figuring out how to respond to someone who treats the press as a strategic villain, and in deciphering the appeal of someone who enjoyed a deep loyalty from much of the voting population even as much of the population thought he was a fool. Also, it prepared me, to some extent, for the news avalanche that is the Trump presidency.
3. You are quite well-known across the U.S. for your diligent work on Twitter (I will use your 506k followers as evidence). Obviously, you write stories and put words together in combinations longer than 280 characters at a time. What has been the effect of your career for your work to be consumed in such a way? Has it helped you as a reporter in some way?
It’s a bit strange to be better known for the work I do for free — on a platform nobody pays me to write for — than the work I’m paid for. But the Twitter following also increases the readership of my actual articles, and I think it has also made those articles better. Maybe most importantly, it’s allowed me to develop relationships with prominent Americans who otherwise wouldn’t return the phone calls of a Canadian correspondent for a Canadian paper — it helps a lot if you can DM them, or if they recognize your name when you pop up in their email inbox. So now I can quote former senior government and campaign officials rather than the political science professors I was calling early in my time in Washington. 
4. You transcribe so much of what Trump says and often act as a public transcription of him for us. How did this idea come about? How much does it suck transcribing so much from a long-winded person like Trump? (Generally accepted point in journalism: Transcribing is the worst part of the job)
I do it for a couple of reasons. I think people sometimes need to read his words in full to understand just what his speech or statement was like. I think television stations and even newspaper tweeters like me can sometimes do him a favor by quoting him in short snippets; you often can’t understand Trump unless you experience Full Trump. Also, we’re in an era of diminished trust in reporters. I think it boosts my credibility when I provide Trump’s words in full rather than asking readers to trust that my paraphrase or quote snippet is correct.
It can get tiring transcribing him, but I think lots of people appreciate it, so that’s enough to keep me doing it. Also, there’s a great website, factba.se, that transcribes everything he says. So I’m doing much less transcribing than I did during the campaign.
5. What is it like to exhaustively fact-check Donald Trump? To what extent does it feel like a futile exercise?
It can be exhausting, and sometimes I hate it. Not the real-time fact-checking on Twitter during his speeches and press conferences — that’s kind of a fun game, and I think it’s important — but the comprehensive fact-checking for my comprehensive database of his false claims. There are lots of weeks where I’ll spend a couple of hours trying to fact-check some false claim about an obscure subject, and I know nobody is really going to care about the answer, but I have to do it because I have to keep the comprehensive list comprehensive.
Mostly, though, it’s rewarding. A fundamental part of our jobs as reporters is to bring facts and truth to readers, and to hold powerful people to account for their deception. I know that lots of people value it, and it’s cool to be here as a Canadian reporter and have any kind of established niche — usually we have a hard time finding any kind of relevance in the Washington conversation.
It doesn’t feel futile to me. My job isn’t to change the voting preferences of every American. It’s to provide facts to people who want them. I think we can be too obsessed with Trump’s base and can forget that his non-base is a bigger constituency. I know there is a large constituency for accurate information about Trump. The fact that lots of Trump voters won’t read my stuff, and some won’t believe my stuff, doesn’t matter to me. No matter what kind of journalism we’re doing, it’s never the case that 100% of the public is going to consume it, believe it or care about it.
6. What do you think of the D.C. political media world now that you’ve become a part of it? Did you have any preconceptions coming into this beat? And since you can take a more global view of America and its media scene, what do you think is the external, non-U.S. view of the press and the United States now since the start of the Trump administration. The U.S. has historically been a global safe haven for reporting about the powerful — has that perception been impacted since Jan. 20, 2017? What’s the perception of the U.S. in Canada these days?
I still feel like I don’t know very much about it. I work from my apartment in Washington, and I’m not usually hanging out with White House reporters or congressional reporters.
As for the second part, I’m honestly not sure.
Polls, like the annual global Pew poll, suggest Canadians have never felt more negatively toward the U.S. That squares with my anecdotal perception. But I’ve lived in the U.S. for four years now, so I’m not the best person to answer.
7. You reported on off-the-record comments by Donald Trump in August and that led to a whole kerfuffle with the president. Part of the conversation about that story was about what off-the-record is. This is an issue for journalists in all categories, where there is often ambiguity of when off-the-record or background applies. How do you differentiate between those? And when to use each? How much negotiating goes on ahead of time with sources for you, and is it all in the moment or pre-conditioned to talk to people? Are journalists using anonymous sources too often?
For me personally, it usually hasn’t been very complicated: I identify myself as a reporter, and anyone someone says to me after that is on the record unless we mutually decide otherwise.
In the August case, I published Trump’s “off-the-record” comments because I was not bound by the “off-the-record” agreement he made with people other than me. He came to that agreement with Bloomberg reporters. I obtained the comments independently. So I wasn’t breaking any promises.
There are a couple of times when the off-the-record thing can get complicated. One is in dealing with average people who don’t have experience dealing with the press. On occasion, they’ll talk to me at length and then, when I ask for their name and age, they’ll panic and say something like, “You want to put this out in public?” If they intensely don’t want me to quote them, I usually won’t; though their comments were technically on the record, I don’t want to upset someone or to feel like I’m taking advantage of his or her ignorance of the way the media works. It’s just not worth it, in my view.
Another time it can get gray is when dealing with a source with whom I have a long relationship. Sometimes there’ll be an understanding that we’re off the record, and they can speak freely, until we explicitly agree to go on the record.
Are journalists using anonymous sources too often? I think so. Unnamed sources are essential in many cases where we’re reporting on government or corporate wrongdoing. (It’s important to note that we usually know the names of the sources, we’re just not publishing them; only in rare cases are they anonymous to us.) But I think they’re still used excessively in run-of-the-mill Washington reporting. People should never be granted anonymity to attack a political adversary, for example, but it still happens.
8. What are the most common questions you get about covering this president and this White House? Do you like talking about your job at parties or social gatherings? Basically, what is this job like when you’re not exactly on the job and what kind of discussions does it lead to?
People want me to tell them what the endgame is going to be. “Is he going to get impeached?” “Could he get re-elected?” Of course, I have no idea. People also want to know what the administration players are really like when they’re not on TV. I also have little insight there.
And occasionally people are worried about my safety, given Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and the bombs sent to CNN. I tell them I’m not worried, though the rhetoric is bad and I think dangerous.
I hugely dislike talking about my job, or Trump, at parties or social gatherings. In December I had a one-week vacation where I think Trump’s name came up just three
times, so that was awesome.
9. If you could, what would you change about political journalism?
I’ve argued repeatedly that media outlets should be willing to call a lie a lie, or at least a false claim a false claim — in their straight-news copy. There’s still an odd reluctance to do so. In my view, telling readers what is true and not true is a core function of news coverage, not a departure from traditional standards of objectivity.
Put another way, I don’t think we’re doing our jobs by simply quoting the claims of politicians when those claims are not true; we’re becoming complicit in the spread of misinformation. But there’s still a widespread view, among many editors and publishers, that distinguishing between truth and fiction is not the proper role of a news story — that it should be left to columnists or fact-checkers. I think that’s wrong.
I also think that political journalism is insufficiently interested in policy. With some exceptions, outlets don’t consistently do deep dives into how laws will affect people or are affecting people.
10. The media has been attacked under Trump more than ever before. How should reporters act to defend themselves during this period? Is the answer as simple as just putting their heads down and reporting? Or is there a place for more drastic self-preservation? How does the media show and prove that it isn’t, as Trump says, the enemy of the American people?
I think we should mostly put our heads down and report. But I think there’s also some other stuff we should do:
  • Be maximally transparent about how we gather our information.
  • Be transparent and apologetic about our errors when we do make them.
  • Forcefully but factually point out when the president is wrong about us.
  • Consistently point out when the president is wrong about other things.
  • Don’t let his attacks convince us that we have to bend over backwards to show that we’re fair to his side. We don’t need a tsunami of profiles of his supporters or to humor the lying of his television surrogates.
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A conversation about gatekeeping

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, his or her 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, we’re doing something a little different. The concept of “gatekeeping” has been a major topic in the sportswriting world of late—the idea that there are barriers for entry to the profession that hinder anybody besides upper-middle class white people from breaking in. It has led to the industry being unrepresentative of the readership. This manifests in young journalists feeling compelled to write for free or next to nothing in the name of “paying dues,” a practice that unequivocally favors reporters who come from a wealthy background. Given that, we asked a whole bunch of reporters to discuss how the notion of “privilege” has affected their careers and the role it plays in the job market. Their responses were illuminating.

When you’re done, you can check out our entire collection of interviews or listen to our podcast.  

Marc Carig, The Athletic
My parents immigrated from the Philippines. I grew up blue collar. If I didn’t bring something from the library, the only reading in our house was my grandmother’s National Enquirer and my father’s Daily Racing Form. I went to community college and then took out loans once it came time to transfer to a university. For a lot of that time, I worked. When I was coming up, summer internships were critical. But in my case, I couldn’t afford to work for free, so any internship I pursued had to be paid. Obviously, that made the competition tougher. I was trying for the same gigs as students from more prestigious schools. Many had parents in the business or in academia. Now, I caught some big breaks. I landed a couple of great internships that sent me on my way. But the bigger the paper, the more obvious it became that I might have encountered a few more hurdles than others.

Of course, everyone has to battle through something. Breaking into the business is treacherous no matter what your circumstances. That said, there’s no way I would have made it had it not been for people and places that were concerned about my growth as a journalist. Sadly, in this media environment, those places and those people seem to be disappearing.

I want to say the pipeline is broken. But increasingly, it’s more accurate to say that the pipeline no longer exists. The jobs that used to get you ready for the next one either have disappeared completely or have devolved into content sweat shops. There’s little guidance. And the work being demanded of these people is often not the kind that would lead to improved skills. In the worst cases, it’s exploitation, pure and simple. All of this makes newsroom diversity much harder to come by — not just racially but socioeconomically. It only exacerbates another issue plaguing the business, which is management that remains homogenous.

Periodically, I’ll see a media company get hammered for its lack of diversity. Almost every time, it’s just a head count of the staff based on race. That’s an overly simple measure that ignores a larger problem. The talent pool coming from underrepresented communities needs to get deeper. And the only way to do this is to expose people from those communities to journalism at a much earlier age. Perhaps, companies could step up their efforts to fund high-school media education programs in rural areas, or in the inner cities, or in the many immigrant communities around the nation. Over time, this would deepen the talent pool and lead to meaningful diversity.

Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated
This is such an important topic, because it’s one we don’t talk about enough. I get asked very often about my career path to my current job covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated. I usually say some mixture of working hard and good luck, and I also acknowledge people like my boss at the Star-Ledger, Drew van Esselstyn, and my former boss who brought me to SI, Peter King, who ensured that a person’s gender was not a barrier to opportunities in their workplaces.

But I can’t remember a time when I talked publicly about the privilege I have enjoyed in my life and the role it has played in the opportunities I’ve had; privilege, which has absolutely nothing to do with my aptitude for doing a job. When this week’s conversation about gatekeeping came up, I wanted to acknowledge that. As I wrote on Twitter, yes, I was willing to take a low-paying, entry-level job and work seven days a week covering sports that were barely on anyone’s radar. But I also didn’t have student loans, because my parents worked at the university I attended; and I was able to use my parents’ health coverage until I got benefits of my own; and when I got a call that a routine tune-up turned into $1,800 in repairs on the car I needed to do my job, they were able to help me. None of those were things I did or earned, but they certainly helped me get to the position I have today. So while I absolutely believe that people entering the workplace need to be willing to work their way up, I think we have to be very careful not to conflate a person’s “want to” with being socioeconomically able to–which is exactly what people in hiring positions are doing when they glorify a candidate’s willingness to take a position that doesn’t offer a living wage.

I talk very often, and will continue to, about gender-based barriers to opportunity in sports journalism, and why coverage is smarter, more thoughtful, better when we have staffs that are more representative of our readers. But the same applies for the barriers I did not face and do not talk about as often. Newsrooms will be better if those of us who have enjoyed privilege are honest about it, and recognize our own blind spots; and if those in hiring positions don’t create classist hiring criteria. Don’t offer unpaid internships, or jobs that require full-time work without a full-time wage; don’t have hiring relationships with certain universities considered more prestigious. We are expected to do our jobs with open minds, without bias and to serve readers from all different kinds of backgrounds. We should hire according to the same standards.

Jorge Castillo, Los Angeles Times
First off, gatekeeping isn’t exclusive to sportswriting. Far from it. I’d argue sportswriting is one of the last areas we should worry about. Representation in the field is, of course, important, but not more important than, say, in medicine, law and education. Shoot, representation in our other sections — metro, politics, etc. — is more important than in sports. We’re not that important. Twitter’s echo chamber often reminds me people in our industry don’t quite get that.

Anyway, this doesn’t begin at the professional level. The gates are often shut for underprivileged — and often minority — people by the time they start school. I was lucky. My parents, who came from Puerto Rico, rose from lower class to lower-middle class during my childhood, but, more importantly, they cared intensely about my education. They invested time and were always on top of me about it. I went to inner-city public schools from preschool through high school, did well, and got into Yale. Without Yale I’m probably not here answering these questions.

There were “struggles” — I got an unpaid summer internship for my hometown newspaper (Worcester, Mass.) after my freshman year and mowed lawns and worked at a supermarket on the side for money — but I was fortunate. I secured paid internships the next three summers and was eventually hired at the Star-Ledger to cover the New York Giants after graduating. I made $40,000 a year in that market for the next two-and-a-half years and almost quit because money got so tight. I remember calling home crying telling my parents it wasn’t worth it.

Now I could preach about hard work and determination and how, with time, those generate success. Life, obviously, could’ve been much worse. But that shit sucked and not everyone has the resources to stay afloat in those circumstances until things improve to pursue their goals. That’s how the less fortunate are weeded out — if they haven’t been already. Again, I was fortunate to have parents who, though they couldn’t help much financially, supported me throughout the process from a few hours away, and I had family in East Harlem who would invite me to dinner a few times a week so I wouldn’t have to worry about food. Not everyone enjoys those luxuries. I know because I saw it growing up and I’ve seen it with other people in my family. So, yes, I’ve been privileged and it plays a significant role in the job market — at least in my experience.

How can it be improved? Well, by having more money in journalism, opening the gates for underprivileged people much earlier in the process — long before the professional level — and not looking to the same schools for internship/job candidates. Since we’re not about to solve journalism’s financial problems or fix our broken education system here, I think people in power in our industry wielding well-paid positions must do a better job searching for prospective candidates outside their usual circles. That doesn’t mean hiring someone to check a  box for diversity purposes because that happens, too. That means hiring qualified people who actually represent an unrepresented segment of the readership — not people who fit the surface-level criteria our society has produced — and would provide a different perspective for all readers. It’s gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and it’s beyond labels. It’s personal experiences and language skills. That’s how we could not only better represent the readership, but better serve underrepresented readers. The chances of meeting those objectives shrink when the only jobs available to launch a career for most people offer little to no money. And if you don’t think that true, your privilege is blinding you.
Joon Lee, Bleacher Report
Privilege has played a role in every step of my career. My family moved to the United States when I was 2 months old, when my dad started his PhD program at Boston University. Until second grade, we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment and I slept on a mattress on the ground. Throughout middle school and high school, my interest level in journalism grew, often to the hesitancy of my dad. While our family’s wealth grew when my dad became a college professor, he always mentioned the fact that journalism, at the entry level, often doesn’t pay very well and nudged me to consider other career paths. He wanted to make sure I was financially independent as an adult, that I didn’t live like we did when we first moved to the U.S.

I pursued it regardless, and as a high school sophomore, I received the opportunity to intern at the Boston Herald without pay. Our family’s financial situation enabled me to spend three summers interning at the Herald, an experience that undoubtedly provided a significant leg up above anyone else my age. After my freshman year of college, I interned at WEEI.com and covered the Red Sox without pay for an entire summer. Because of our family’s fortunate financial circumstances, I didn’t need to work a summer job in order to support my family or my weekend outings with my friends. It wasn’t until two summers later, as a Washington Post intern, that I was paid in journalism for the first time. I know for a fact that my four years of newsroom experience made my application stand out in that process, and I wouldn’t have had that on my résumé had I not had the financial cushion from my family. Even then, I spent frequent nights squatting in my room that summer in D.C. eating Easy Mac because I couldn’t afford groceries or take out.

Thankfully due to some exceptional good fortune (not related to my family’s income), I was able to graduate from college debt-free. As a result of not needing to pay for my tuition and work a part-time job, I devoted all of my free time to working the student newspaper (which did not pay) and freelance writing. My freelance writing caught the eyes of my editors at Bleacher Report, who offered me a job a few hours after I finished my final college exam. Had I needed to pay for my own tuition, I would not have been able to capitalize on my freelance opportunities. While I worked incredibly hard to get to the position I’m in today, I’m not here without the financial privilege that granted me free time during the summers and after class, that allowed me to pursue my passion instead of working to pay off school or support my family.

Privilege plays an enormous role in not only journalism, but every professional industry. Many publications claim they’re looking for unique, diverse perspectives on sports, but when the starting salary for an entry-level journalism job can barely financially support someone, you’re cutting out an entire economic class of people. So many unique perspectives are immediately ruled out because of a person’s financial background, a background that many athletes share. The only way this improves is if the people who claim to want more diverse newsroom begin to walk the walk and push for institutional change. The only way to truly diversify your newsroom is by paying a livable wage, and until you do so, you’re doing a disservice to your readers.

Emma Baccellieri, Sports Illustrated
I definitely try to be conscious of my privilege and just how much it’s benefitted my career. Thanks to my parents, I was able to go to an expensive college without student loans; while I was there, I could spend my free time working on the student paper instead of working somewhere that would pay me. I never did an unpaid internship, but I did several low-paying ones, and my family helped me through each of those summers. I’ve been lucky enough to have fairly paying opportunities since I graduated, but I know that my early experience helped me get those opportunities, and my early experience was largely possible because of my privilege. I worked hard, sure. I was also tremendously lucky.

All this adds up, and if the industry wants to improve in this regard, I think it has to seriously reckon with that. It’s not just a matter of looking at an open position in the newsroom and saying, “Well, we pay fairly, so we’re not at risk of shutting anyone out here.” (Though, obviously, doing everything possible to make sure everyone’s fairly paid is hugely important.) It’s being willing to consider how privilege (or lack thereof) affects job candidates’ backgrounds and perspectives, and it goes beyond open-minded hiring—it’s supporting, advocating for, retaining folks. Basically, I think that it has to be more than just making space for other people at the table. It has to include an effort to actively listen to them, too.
Adi Joseph, CBS Sports
I never had the privilege that we’re talking about in this discussion, though I wasn’t disadvantaged, either. My family was lower-middle class, normal in the sense that everyone thinks his or her quality of life is normal because our points of view are relative. But the gatekeeping of sports journalism still paralyzed me with fear. My first college lecture was from the dean, who told us how few of us would “make it” as journalists. My summer after senior year included the paralyzing fear that, after not being able to land a paying internship, my career would never recover because I needed a salary to survive. I’\ had steeled myself, but what does being mentally tough mean in a broken industry?

I’d like to think I earned my way up, but luck was a part of it, and luck tends to find certain types of people. I’m a white man (also a mixed-race man — identity is complicated!) in an industry dominated by them. White male bosses throughout my career have told me that I reminded them of themselves when they were younger. That is gatekeeping: simply wanting to hire people who have similar perspectives, being worried that outsiders won’t fit in. It’s a bias that doesn’t explicitly call attention to itself. When you start talking about wanting to find the “right” women or people of color, you’re doing it wrong. Too often diversity is a glass case at the front door.

As a hiring manager, I’ve tried to tackle any biases I might have head-on. I’ve also tried to mentor younger journalists — those who work for me, as well as those who reach out to me in various ways — as much as possible, and many of those students and younger folks were women and/or people of color. This industry, like most industries, won’t change without some internal confrontation. People need to check themselves and check those above them, when possible. I’m not sure how else we break those glass ceilings. But they need to shatter.

Eno Sarris, The Athletic
I hate the idea of paying dues, not only because of the hazing I endured in high school. Often, I’m paranoid that other journalists in my field don’t think I’ve paid mine since I came from a blogging background and haven’t worked a beat. I’d never ask that someone pay dues to enter the field, or recommend it, but I also can’t escape the fact that I myself have written for free.

I think this is a little like Major League Baseball players not wanting the minor-leaguers to make money, but it’s even worse in an industry where narrative holds so much power. We fall in in love with our own narrative, and I have too: I worked hard, I wrote nights, I made it–others have to just Horatio Alger their way through it.

But the people that gave me chances were instrumental to any success I’ve had, and one of those chances was afforded to me by my wife and her family, who helped me through two or three years of wages that don’t qualify as “living.” Privilege also rears its head in other people that gave me chances: I was able to run in the same circles and shake the right hands, too.

From my standpoint, this is pervasive in the industry, and all I can do personally is advocate for more resources in the hires I make, and try to develop young writers from all sorts of backgrounds when I personally have the power to. From an industry standpoint, we need to fix some things when it comes to connecting paying customers and the writers they read. Hopefully, that will put more money into writer salaries, and that will be true from the top to the bottom.

But I’ve noticed that within the subscription model there still exists a gate that needs to be pried open: It’s hard to convince a lot of people your stuff is worth paying for without having an established following and a unique niche. Therefore, I think it’s incumbent on all organizations to develop writers from all backgrounds, even if it’s not an immediate win on the corporate ledger. Or aspiring writers will just have work real hard in their night jobs, and not quit their day jobs until their night jobs gets paid.

Natalie Weiner, SB Nation
I think privilege has had a substantial role in my career — I didn’t grow up wealthy, but my grandmother was in a position to pay for me to go to a private high school, which in turn helped me get into an Ivy League college. And even then, I still had to work service-industry jobs while trying to cobble together internships and free writing work, a thing I could do because my mom supported me (not really financially, but if I were in a real bind she could help), and also because I’m a white woman with an Ivy League degree — it only took me about a year after graduating to get my first paid assignment, and I had a full-time paid internship about six months later that ultimately turned into a good job. I think, as in all fields, accessible, sustainable entry-level jobs and a whole lot less nepotism just makes the product better.

Jesse Spector
When I was in college, and after, I spent countless hours printing out reams of clips, collating them, putting them in those clear plastic report covers and mailing them with cover letters to sports editors all over the country. All of those hundreds of packets got me exactly one interview, in Reidsville, N.C., and I did not nail that interview. What got me in the business was privilege, although succeeding in it was up to me.

Between my junior and senior years at Penn, I got an internship at the Brooklyn Eagle thanks to my dad putting me in touch with the editor-in-chief. After writing a few news stories, I talked them into letting me cover the Brooklyn Cyclones’ inaugural season, as the sports editor (the entire sports department when I wasn’t there) also worked nights at the AP.

With that editor’s help, I got a summer relief job at the AP after I graduated college. A bunch of the guys there had previously worked at a wire service called SportsTicker, and they liked me enough to put me in touch and put in a good word over there. I got a job there that was just enough hours so they didn’t have to pay me any benefits, which meant that before a year was up, I was looking for something else.

In the Cyclones’ press box, I’d met Adam Rubin, then at the Daily News, and we’d been friendly. So I looked him up in the Daily Pennsylvanian alumni directory and asked if he could help me get a foot in the door. He told me who to get in touch with, and I got a chance to take high-school basketball scores on the phone.
From there, it was up to me. I took every opportunity I could get at the News, and luckily, they paid me fairly as a part-timer. By the end of the year, they hired me full-time, and eventually I moved on from a place I thought I’d work forever when Sporting News approached me for a job I wouldn’t have otherwise even known was open.

I can honestly say that I worked my way up from answering phones to being the Rangers’ beat writer at my hometown paper, and then to being a national writer for hockey and baseball at an outlet I grew up reading. I also can honestly say that there are a lot of other people who could have worked just as hard, but never got the chance because they didn’t enjoy my privilege.

The privilege advantage probably means the most at entry level, but that’s also where it’s going to end the most careers, before they even start, especially in an industry that doesn’t pay as well, especially at the bottom, as it did when I broke in 15 years ago. I wish I could say I had some great idea to fix it, but really it’s just a matter of paying people fairly for their work and having a selection process for jobs that’s more open. Say what you will about that viral NJ Advance Media job posting this week, and you’ll be right, at least they were trying to publicize it.

A Q&A with Ben Shpigel of the New York Times on dropping into a city to write a scene story, covering the Paralympics, and being the Commissioner of Sports 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 Ben Shpigel of the New York Times. Ben has seemingly done a little bit of everything for the Times over the years, covering baseball, football, hockey and so much more. He’s fantastic at coming up with weird, funny and quirky story ideas — all things we love — so we are thrilled to have an opportunity to talk to him about his career. Here, we discuss where he comes up with all those articles, go deep on a few of them and, of course, get his restaurant recommendations.

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?

How did I get here? The short answer: the generosity and kindness of others who were willing to vouch for me. I’ve never forgotten that, and I try to pay it forward every chance I can.

The longer answer? Growing up outside Philadelphia, I would run out to the end of our driveway to pick up the Philadelphia Inquirer just to read Jayson Stark’s baseball coverage. I’d devour our local paper, the Bucks County Courier Times, and imagine how my byline would appear in the sports section. By Benjamin Shpigel? By Ben Shpigel? By Benjamin H. Shpigel? Yeah.

At Emory University, I majored in the school paper. Northwestern, Syracuse and Mizzou dominate the industry, but check out some of my colleagues on the Emory Wheel: Sam Borden of ESPN, Reid Epstein of the Wall Street Journal, Lindsay Jones of the Athletic, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Michael de la Merced of the New York Times. That’s a squad. Once, I wrote a column beseeching Emory to change its mascot from an Eagle to a Shpigel (spoiler: It’s still an Eagle). Another time, I rewrote a lede about Emory’s baseball team, saying it had a good day against Brandeis or Oglethorpe or Sewanee – and it didn’t even have to bring its AK.

Holy cats, did I write some bad stuff back then. Despite that labored Ice Cube reference, Gary Pomerantz, a former reporter with the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution who was part of Emory’s journalism faculty (and now writes fantastic books), took a liking to me. Every week, we’d meet to discuss a story or two he’d assign me to read – one, I vividly remember, was Bill Pennington’s gamer off the Giants-Ravens Super Bowl – and Gary would also set up phone conversations with friends in the business. Maybe you’ve heard of Tuesdays with Morrie? This was, as he put it, Mondays with Gary.

And here’s really where my luck begins: One of Gary’s friends is a guy named John Lowe, who at that point was covering the Detroit Tigers for the Detroit Free Press. John happens to be one of the nicest human beings ever to walk this planet. By the end of our chat, he had invited me to spring training in Florida. I’d pay for my airfare and hotel, but he’d secure my credential. So, I spent my spring break junior year in the Grapefruit League, going from Orlando to Lakeland to Vero Beach to Tampa. I met the beloved Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell (an Emory grad!), Vin Scully, Bobby Cox, the Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, a host of others. John, though, kept telling me about a reporter he couldn’t wait to introduce me to – another guy from outside Philly who happened to be the Mets beat reporter for the New York Times, a guy named Tyler Kepner.

I graduated Emory in 2002. The job market was dreadful, and so I went to graduate school for journalism. I was so convinced I was going to Berkeley that I affixed the decal to my car. Then my acceptance letter from Columbia came. Many times I’ve wondered how differently my life would have unfolded had I headed to Northern California. Maybe I’d be working for the New York Times, but I doubt it.

Because, at Columbia, the professor of my core course first semester was Sig Gissler, the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who’s an incredible instructor and a prince of a man. As the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, Professor Gissler was better connected than Adam Schefter. Columbia’s a 10-month program, and when rejection letters for internships and jobs started coming (and coming, and coming) for me in January and February, Professor Gissler asked if I had considered applying to the Dallas Morning News. No, somehow I had neglected Dallas – probably because, at the time a wise-ass Eagles fan from the Northeast, I couldn’t imagine living among Cowboys supporters. You should apply, he told me. So I did. Within two weeks, I had been selected as the DMN’s sports intern.

Also, I kept in touch with Tyler. I interviewed him for a story I wrote for the Columbia News Service about Vanderbilt’s Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship, which is awarded every year to a high school senior who has some serious sportswriting skills. That story was basically an excuse to call Tyler and Dan Wolken and Lee Jenkins, who was then covering the Nets for the NYT.

As an intern in Dallas, I wrote lots of crazy stuff and I’d send some of that crazy stuff to Tyler and Lee, who I’d catch up with when the Nets played the Mavericks. Just to let them know what I was up to: six-man football, cutting horse, geriatric basketball.

Apparently I covered that stuff well enough to get my internship extended. When I got an offer from The State in Columbia, S.C., the Morning News countered. I accepted the night Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long. My reward: a position in our bureau up in Collin County, the sprawling northern suburbs with multi-zillion-dollar high school football stadiums and practice bubbles superior to those of NFL teams, to cover the Wolves and Lady Wolves of Plano West High School and also a few smaller Christian academies. It was freakin’ awesome.

You have to understand: back then, the DMN’s high school coverage was obscene. Before layoffs struck in October 2004, we had maybe 20, 25, reporters positioned around the Dallas Fort-Worth area, with a special pullout section every Saturday during football season crammed with game stories and scores from around the state. One of my favorite experiences was covering a Class 5A state championship – the largest classification – between Southlake Carroll (Chase Daniel, Greg McElroy) and Smithson Valley (Andrew Sendejo) at the old Texas Stadium with 40,000 people in the stands.

From there, I moved on to football recruiting and then, in 2005, I was promoted to back up Evan Grant, one of the best ball writers I know, on the Texas Rangers beat.

One morning that June, I got to my desk at the DMN and saw the message light blinking on my phone. Usually, that means something bad, like I had pissed off some reader. Except I hadn’t. On the other line was Tom Jolly, then the sports editor of the NYT. He asked if I was interested in applying to cover the Mets. When I resumed breathing, I called my fiancée (now my wife), and then Tom. Within a month, after Professor Gissler endorsed my candidacy to some important people at the NYT, I was offered the job. In related news, a portion of my salary has been directly deposited into Lee’s and Tyler’s bank accounts for the last 13 years.

Professor Gissler used to tell us that, in life as in journalism, some days we’re the windshield, and some days we’re the bug. When I was starting out, I was very fortunate to be the windshield as often as I was.

2. You currently work for the New York Times, which means you work for perhaps the most scrutinized media outlet in the world, and it seems everybody has ideas about what the Times is or should be. Given that — understanding that the section will soon have a new editor to replace Jason Stallman — what do you see as the mission statement of New York Times sports? What should it be? What is its role in the sports media landscape?

The New York Times sports section is an international section based out of New York. We have reporters based overseas, like Andrew Keh, Rory Smith and Tariq Panja. We have reporters based around the country, like Marc Stein, Karen Crouse and John Branch. We have reporters based around the New York area, like David Waldstein, James Wagner and Bill Pennington. That diversity, in geography and perspective, enriches our section with stories that you can’t read anywhere else. I always want to read the story I didn’t know I want to read. I think our section does a great job of that.

3. One of our favorite kinds of Ben Shpigel joints are the stories where you go to a city where some interesting sports thing is happening and you paint a picture of the scene there — the excitement, the drama, the passion. Your recent story on Patrick Mahomes comes to mind. Or this one on Winnipeg Jets fans in Atlanta. Or this one on the Nashville Predators. What appeals to you about writing those kinds of stories? What are the biggest challenges in reporting them? How do you pull these off parachuting into a city to tell its story?

Those happen to be my favorite stories, too. For a lot of reasons. First, they’re damn fun. There’s a thrill in immersing yourself in something for a few days and understanding – really understanding – how people feel about something dear to them, what it means to be from a certain place. I don’t know what it means to be a Predators fan since their inception or a Chiefs fan for 40 years, or to have my favorite team move away to a different country. But my job is to find out and portray it with emotion and authenticity.

Which leads me to the second thing I love about these kinds of stories: the challenge. Here, go to city X, find the right people to talk to and understand not only what this moment in time means for them but also for those who came before them, and also for the city. I spent a few days in Edmonton two years ago to write about Connor McDavid and the Oilers, but you can’t write about the Oilers’ future without writing about their past, and you can’t write about their past without understanding the Oilers’ place in the city’s culture. The context is critical.

In these situations, I always draft a list of the ideal people to talk to, and I always strive for diversity. I want to talk to men and women of different ages, races, ethnicities, with different occupations and perspectives, all of whom can speak authoritatively on different aspects of the experience.

I tend to have good instincts on these types of stories – they don’t get easier, they just get less hard. So, for the Kansas City story, I knew I needed some Mahomes fans to the extreme. Give me the people with Mahomes’s haircut, with his face carved into their lawn, who just named their child Patrick Mahomes.

That’s who I wanted. And that’s, essentially, who I got. I needed the guy, Rob Gaskins, who got Mahomes’s face tattooed on his face. I needed the guy, Bob Green, who got Mahomes painted on a mural in his home.

But I also felt I needed a guy like Clint Ashlock, a jazz musician, since there’s such an improvisational quality to Patrick Mahomes’s style. So I called the American Jazz Museum in KC, and a helpful woman there put me in touch with Clint. I felt like I needed someone like Patti DiPardo Livergood, whose family has been synonymous with the Chiefs since they moved from Dallas in 1964, to express the connection between the city and the team. And I felt like I needed Carrington Harrison, a KC native and radio host who’s in tune with the psyche of the city.

I started out, as I always do, by emailing people in the area or who have ties there. Then I went to Twitter and did searches for Mahomes and Chiefs season-ticket holders, not knowing what I’d find. I’ve learned that, with these types of stories, you need one big break. My searching led me to an artist I met with named Anthony Oropeza, who was so helpful. He introduced me online to Cheryl Jensen, who screenshotted me a photo of someone with a Mahomes tattoo. I found the artist, reached out to him, and boom, I was in. Anthony also introduced me to a bar owner, who texted me two days after we talked the name and number of this guy he thought I’d be interested in chatting with. The guy has a Mahomes mural, he said. Boom, again.

I’d rather have too many sources than not enough, and so after landing in KC on that Monday evening, I met with two people, then spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday reporting. Then I wrote Thursday and flew home Friday morning.

There’s a great responsibility, I feel, in writing these stories. Because when I fly back to New Jersey, the people I’ve met with don’t accompany me. They stay in their towns, with their families and their teams. The best compliment I can get is when someone asks if I’m from the place I wrote about. That’s what I hope to be asked every time.

4. Earlier this year, you wrote a piece about being one of the only American reporters in South Korea covering the Paralympics. Some would say that a place like the Times, with its reach and resources, have a certain responsibility to cover interesting and meaningful stories like these, since so few others can. Others might say that the reason an event like the Paralympics isn’t covered much is simply because there isn’t a lot of interest in it. Why is it important for the Times to cover events like these? In a global sports landscape, what is the calculation in determining what is worthy of Times coverage? How much does reader interest actually play a role, even if the stories are objectively worthwhile?

If I remember correctly, the way Jason Stallman explained it to me in October 2013, when he asked if I’d be interested in covering the Sochi Paralympics in 2014, was that the Times had published a few Paralympics stories from London, in 2012, and there seemed an appetite for more. Awesome, I said.

As I wrote in that piece you cited, it’s really odd and isolating being the only news reporter from a major American outlet at a major international sporting event – I think I read it’s bigger than every such event but the World Cup and the Olympics. So, yeah, it’s pretty big. There’s a certain duality to my job at the Paralympics: satisfying the interest of readers eager for regular coverage while also introducing a large segment of the global population to an event that continues to receive little exposure in the United States.

I don’t consider myself an advocate by any means. But it was heartening to receive e-mails and Twitter messages from readers across my two weeks in South Korea noting how appreciative they were that the Times had invested in covering the Paralympics. Several athletes expressed their gratitude in person, including one who, passing through the mixed zone after his competition, spotted my name and affiliation on my credential.

From an economic perspective, I certainly understand why other news organizations don’t staff it. Keeping reporters overseas for an extra five weeks – the Paralympics typically begin three weeks after the closing ceremony at the Olympics – doesn’t make much financial sense. Or, the organizations don’t want to send over someone else after staffing the Olympics. I get all that. I’m just glad that we believe otherwise, and that we allocate the resources to cover what just might be my favorite assignment.

5. Your primary beat these days is the NFL, which is interesting, because the NFL is a constant source of intrigue. The Times, of course, has been at the forefront of coverage regarding the dangers of football, writing many deep stories about concussions and CTE. How if at all does that work impact your job writing about football? How would you assess the Times’s relationship with the NFL? How much does it actually matter?

I think I’m like a lot of football fans out there. I recognize the threat it poses to players’ long-term health. I’ve read too many haunting stories, in the Times and elsewhere, not to believe that there aren’t physical and psychological consequences. My son, who’s 6, has never shown an interest in playing football, but if he did, my wife and I wouldn’t let him – full stop. And yet, I very much enjoy watching football. I really do. It’s difficult for me to reconcile watching, and covering, a game that inflicts so much pain, both in the present and, potentially, in the future. So I approach it like this: I’m far more cognizant of my word choice than I used to be. I don’t glorify a big hit. I might recoil in the press box a bit now when I see one. I also feel like I discuss these subjects – concussions, long-term health, etc – with players much more frequently than in the past. Not just because I’m interested but because they are, too.

Our coverage regarding the dangers of football has been superb, pioneered by Alan Schwarz and continued by Ken Belson. The fans who are like me, though – and I suspect there are a lot of us out there – still want to read smart, interesting pieces about the sport and the people who play it. Ken, Bill Pennington and I – and others who chip in – strive to fill our section with a range of N.F.L.-related stories, and I think our coverage is better because of it.

6. We loved this essay on the mad dash to rewrite your Super Bowl story the night the Falcons lost to the Patriots. Any journalist who has had to cover sports on deadline has had that experience. What advice do you have for writing a story off a big game in that situation, whether it be a Super Bowl or a World Series clincher or some historic game? How important is “pre-writing” certain elements about both teams going into a game like that, like background information and context? 

What’s that hoary aphorism? If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail? Yeah, I believe that. Not in a literal sense – you could write about an event like the Super Bowl or the World Series without doing a minute of preparation, without writing a sentence in advance, and still file a good story, make deadline, all that. More, I mean, in that if I’m being asked to write the Super Bowl game story for the New York Times – a privilege and a responsibility – I’m damn well going to make sure I do everything I can to make it the best it can be.

I want my Super Bowl game story to be the best that’s produced that night on deadline. It has to have scope and context and detail. It has to capture what that victory means for that team, for that franchise, for that city, for those fans, in that moment in time. That story might land on A1 of the Times, and I never know until late in the game or afterward – or, in the case of the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, the next morning – whether it did.

So, during Super Bowl week, I keep a file of thoughts, notes, stats, quotes, observations. Some stuff, I know I’ll definitely use – just a matter of how. There have also been times when I couldn’t shoehorn things in on deadline but, afterward, when I had time to write through for later editions and for the web, I was able to weave them in.

Eating breakfast on the morning of the last Super Bowl, I thought of the lede I’d write if the Eagles won. So I typed it into my phone. What I wound up writing wasn’t word for word, but it was pretty darn close. Generally, though, when I get to the stadium on game day, I put on my headphones and write for a bit. Sentences. Paragraphs. Whatever comes to mind. I’ll usually have, say, 400 words ready to go, if I need it – not a 400-word block, mind you, but a 125-word paragraph here, a 25-word sentence here, etc.

It’s also critical that I, you know, write what happened in the game. I can’t have so much written in advance that it reads as if I wasn’t even there, if that makes sense. There has to be a balance. But I feel comfortable having written so much because our Super Bowl game stories are long. Within a few minutes of the game ending, I need to file about 1,200 to 1,400 words, and they have to be coherent. By the end of the night, that total balloons to 1,800, give or take. Some people, like Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post, can write 1,800 words in three minutes, and those will be 1,800 beautiful words, but that’s not me. I know how I write, and I know how I think. And I have to prepare like a madman to write the story I want to write, that our readers deserve.

7. You juggle the NFL and much more obscure stories. It seems like for each profile of the NFL’s oldest cornerback, there’s one on a bowling dynasty or Paralympic goalball. Where do you find these offbeat stories? How does one of these stories get started and put into action?

A lot of it is just how I’m wired. I’m fascinated by processes. Since I’m not, you know, a college bowling aficionado, one time, either while watching TV or reading something online, I must have discovered that the best bowling school in the country was a Big 12 university associated most with football. That evolved into, “I wonder how Nebraska became a dynasty.” So, I went to Lincoln, Neb., to find out. My general feeling on a story like this – or on goalball, since you mentioned it – is if I’m interested in it, then other people will be, too. Not everyone, but I can’t be the only dude who thinks it’s fascinating. The trick, then, is to report it out and write it in a way that the casual reader, scanning our website or flipping through the dead-tree section, will stop to read, too.

8. If you could, what would you change about sports journalism?

Wow. If I were the Commissioner of Sports Journalism, I would hereby decree that the composition of our industry must better reflect the people we cover. The lack of diversity in press boxes still astounds me. Our field is not a microcosm of society, of a locker room, and that is a damn shame.

My next move would be to get one of those memory-erasing devices from “Men in Black” and zap everybody so they never use a cliché again. One of my professors at Columbia, Sandy Padwe, would circle every cliché that appeared in our copy, and I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

At first, it was a tough pill to swallow but by now it’s old hat. Every time I go on an emotional roller-coaster – never sitting in the hot seat, the back seat, or the driver’s seat – I hit rock bottom. It’s like clockwork. Once that fire’s lit underneath, though, I turn the page. Sometimes I don’t have anything left in the tank to dodge the bullet, but at the end of the day there’s no use crying over spilled milk.

As reporters, we value those who do not respond to our questions in platitudes, in “it is what it is” and “on the same page” nonsense. As such, we should hold ourselves to the same standard in our writing. Writing is an expressive exercise. Every word that appears under my byline reflects who I am, what I feel, what I believe in. I like being creative. I like challenging myself. I like being precise. The only time I want to read “raising eyebrows,” or a variation thereof, is if someone’s eyebrows actually go up, and really, how often does that happen? The only time I want to read “old hat” is if it’s referring to a chapeau from the 1930s. You could read variations of the phrase “flying under the radar” in dozens upon dozens of stories. I want you to read my stories because I’ll figure out a better way to say the same thing – or to avoid it altogether.

Hmm, what else? Oh, I’d ban oral histories (that aren’t in book form). Here are some quotes I stacked together. Now read those quotes. I get frustrated on the occasions I read oral stories because the reporting is clearly there. If your stuff is that good, write it. Tell me a story I can’t stop reading.

Ok, I’ll get off my lawn now.

9. You were an English major in college, so what do you think is the value of making sports writing literary? There are plenty of readers who want nuts and bolts and some who want their stories more upscale and like fiction. How do you figure out which audience to feed and when?

I love Hemingway. I love Faulkner. I write like I write. I don’t gear my writing to one audience or another. I try to show readers what something looks like, feels like, smells like, sounds like, in places that they’re not able to go. I like em dashes – a lot. I like commas, perhaps a bit too much. I choose certain words because I think they work well, like “amuse bouche,” from an N.F.C. championship game story a few years back. Why? It popped into my head. I’d bet that some readers laughed, some readers cringed, others consulted a dictionary and still others probably stopped reading. I think it’s OK to take chances. I wanted to be a sportswriter all those years ago because I thought it would be fun. And you know what? It is. So I try to have fun when I can.

10. Your restaurant recommendations are legendary among sports writers. Seriously, if you work in sports journalism and you don’t consult Ben before going out to eat, you’re doing yourself a disservice. What’s the key to eating well on the road? How much research are you doing? Give us a few favorite restaurants?

Well, we all have to be good at something, right? I love to eat, which, incidentally, might be why I also love to run. Part of my desire to eat well stems from when I covered baseball, and a decent meal – lunch before a long workday began, or dinner after a day game – was a way to feel human amid the grind of travel and work. Part of it, too – and we all have different definitions of what eating well means – is that I consciously try to dispel that stereotype of a slovenly, overweight sportswriter (somehow I don’t drink coffee, either). I never wanted to be viewed like that (again, the running), and so my food predilections tilt toward healthy-ish choices – or at least, not toward things I know will make feel like crap afterward. It helps that there are some things I genuinely love to eat (fruit, most vegetables, eggs) and that aside from ice cream – which I’d eat sitting outside in the Yukon in January – I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.

When I’m traveling, I normally consult Yelp and Eater, when applicable, but also solicit the recommendations of friends, colleagues and people I meet on the road. I’ve found bartenders especially helpful. I never ask a concierge or an employee of a hotel for a recommendation. Not because I don’t trust them but because I’m stubborn – I’d rather find a place myself and like it (or not) than rely on someone I don’t know and then be pissed at them later if I didn’t like it. I keep a list of places I love and want to try, though it’s woefully incomplete, governed by places where I used to live or where the job has taken me most. So, lots of stuff in Philly, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Nashville. Not as much in Los Angeles or Boston. Shrug emoji.

When there’s good Mediterranean food, I head there. Whether it’s Zahav in Philadelphia or Zaytinya in Washington, or something quicker like Achilles in Santa Clara, Calif., the chain of Oren’s Hummus Shops in Northern California or YAFO Kitchen in Charlotte, I know I can’t go wrong. The single best meal I’ve had all year was at Mamnoon in Seattle.

You ask for a few of my favorite restaurants. That’s like asking me to name my favorite player on the 1991 Phillies (Wes Chamberlain, obviously).

Well, for breakfast, as Greg Bishop can attest, I love Portage Bay Café (Seattle). It’s basically my first stop after I land. Also: Colossal Café (Minneapolis and St. Paul), Breadwinners (Dallas), Snooze (Denver and elsewhere), The Beachcomber (Newport Coast, Calif.), Patachou (Indy) and Flying Biscuit (around the southeast, but the original, in the Candler Park section of Atlanta, nearest to Emory, has the story I wrote for our Food section, in 2012, about my pursuit of good food on the road hanging on a wall).

For everything else? Here’s an assortment: Murphy’s (Atlanta – I’ve been eating the spinach and sausage meatloaf for 20 years), Parish Café (Boston – thanks, Pete Thamel), Pequod’s Pizza (Chicago), Momocho (Cleveland), Gloria’s (DFW area), Cherry Cricket (Denver – I’d prefer my last meal to be unexpected, but if not, I’d like a bison burger from here with avocado and green chile strips), Al Ameer (Dearborn, Mich.), Hugo’s (Houston), Q39 (KC), Young Joni (Minneapolis), Cochon Butcher (Nashville and New Orleans), The Fruteria (San Antonio), Slanted Door (San Francisco – two words: shaking beef). That’s a good one to end on. I’ll stop here.

A Q&A with Nathaniel Friedman on basketball writing, the politics of the NBA and a little site called FreeDarko

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 Nathaniel Friedman, one of the founders of a little basketball blog called FreeDarko. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Nathaniel is now writing for GQ and editing Victory Journal and doing tons of other cool stuff, which makes him a perfect guest, and we’re so excited to have him. Here, we discuss the legacy of FreeDarko, the impact it made on today’s basketball writing and what he’s up to now. 

 

  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 broke into journalism twice. The first time was in 2000 when I was living in Philadelphia after graduating from Haverford College. I was working part-time at the Painted Bride, an arts and culture space that would soon fire me for being a terrible employee. Because I could write, I got tasked with a lot of the press releases, including those for their jazz shows.

I’d mentioned that I was interested in getting into music journalism and one of the press people introduced me to an editor at the Philadelphia Weekly who was looking for help covering jazz and hip-hop. I was soon doing a few things for them in each issue. I started writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer after Francis Davis mentioned me to an editor there—I’d been his research assistant for two years—and that was when things really opened up.

My sportswriting career was a total accident. Jacob Weinstein (the artist and designer for FreeDarko) and I had done some strange illustrated stuff about the NBA and NFL for The Philadelphia Independent (RIP), but I’d never considered trying to seriously pursue it. In 2004, I moved to Austin, where I was supposed to get a Ph.D in American Studies at the University of Texas when I didn’t even know what the discipline was. Journalism was starting to unravel, and I figured I needed a safer career path. Like academia!

That went about as well as the Painted Bride. But while I was there, my college friends and I decided to turn our increasingly ornate fantasy league message board into a blog because at the time it was a logical and low-stakes thing to do with writing. Worst case, no one saw it or cared. I’m pretty sure we had no best case scenario in mind. It just seemed silly to do that much writing—writing we felt pretty good about—and never show it to anyone.

That’s how FreeDarko came to be and by 2006, it had gained enough notoriety that AOL FanHouse brought me on as one of its main NBA writers when it launched. It was a freelance gig, but stable and lucrative enough that I could rationalize leaving grad school once and for all.

2. In 2011, you said in an interview: “If I may be so bold, I think we’ve had some influence in the way younger folks write and think about basketball. Maybe we’ve even made sports a little more appealing to people who don’t get off on X’s and O’s or tired macho posturing.” Now that you’re, let’s say, a basketball-writing generation away from that thought and it’s had time to play out, do you think that’s true? Have you seen the way you wrote and thought affect basketball coverage now?

That may have been true in 2011, but I think FreeDarko is largely irrelevant now. NBA writing today is all about positivism. People want reporting, film and analytics, and heavily substantiated takes—all things that FreeDarko never cared about and I continue to be very bad at. We were always more about viewing the NBA through a socio-cultural or aesthetic lens and that’s not going to land you a front office job. You see it on Twitter some, but I don’t think that comes at all from a FreeDarko place. If anything, it’s just an online version of a conversation—one that I’d say is a very black one—that we hijacked and hopefully in some ways made our own.

There’s also a Big Data element to basketball writing that I can’t really get down with. You’re supposed to know everything about everyone at any given time. Following the sport is in large part just tracking information. FreeDarko spent a lot of time examining obscure players and teams; you could have a lot of fun there because they were so vague and almost imaginary. That’s anathema to the way people think now—in fact, it sounds almost irresponsible.

NBA writing, like the sport itself, believes it’s constantly evolving toward some higher, more advanced version of itself. It’s not—sorry folks, linear progress is a myth—but whatever’s going on, we’re no longer a part of it. I’m not trying to downplay what we accomplished or fish for compliments. I just have no illusions about our present-day relevance. Maybe when things shift again—remember, linear progress is a myth—FreeDarko will line up with contemporary NBA writing. Maybe in 2029 people will revisit what’s left of the website. Given our fascination with obscurity and deep cuts, that would be a pretty apt plot twist.

I’m also personally way more comfortable with being an outsider or outlier when it comes to basketball writing because I am not an authority and never want to write or be read as such. It’s a little disturbing, and maybe just one big misunderstanding, that things ever got to where they were in the interview you quoted.

3.  What do you think of the basketblogging scene now compared to when you were doing it? How do you think the fact that Yahoo and ESPN and SI and others hired all these great basketball writers who started out as independent bloggers — which is awesome, by the way, let’s not have any confusion — changed the tone of that scene and the way people write about basketball?

When I first jumped in, it was—and I’m hardly the first person to use this language—the Wild, Wild West. You wrote whatever you felt like writing, in whatever style you wanted, on whatever schedule made sense for you. There were no ground rules or parameters, in large part because you operated under the tacit assumption that no one was paying attention. The NBA scene was pretty barren, with some notable exceptions like TrueHoop and Billups. We had no goals other than maybe get linked to by some music blog.

By 2006, many of the people everyone cites as OGs (and some who have been forgotten today) were firmly established and, in part via the traffic directed their way by mega-blogs like Deadspin and the aforementioned TrueHoop, had cultivated enough of a following that corporations started to take notice. While I don’t think blogs were doing huge numbers—we sure weren’t—there was a sense that blogging was, if not the future, at least an indispensable part of it.

What made FanHouse important was that Jamie Mottram hired up a Murderer’s Row of talent to crank out content in their own voices with very few restrictions. All they really told us was keep them relatively short, only use Getty-licensed photos, and in some way acknowledge breaking news. Also, they paid some of us enough to focus most of our energy on blogging and turned a hobby into a profession. But I don’t even think they paid attention most of the time.

Over the next couple of years, though, NBA blogging got professionalized. A lot of younger writers were with the TrueHoop network or SB Nation, so it made sense that they were thinking more along these lines. They were more buttoned-up because they were sort of blogging for a living. More importantly, they were aware they were auditioning for a full-time job at all times. And it worked out for a lot of them. They were able to make a career out of it because that possibility was always on their radar.

Ten years later, blogging is no longer a novelty. Now it’s just how people write on the internet, and increasingly, how people write on the internet defines “writing” in general. There’s no pure form that can be compromised; to my knowledge there’s no longer really an independent blogging scene that can serve as a showcase for talent, outside of occasional Medium posts. A lot of these lessons I mentioned have been internalized—not in a shitty way, just as a matter of course. Maybe more metabolized than internalized.

If you can write for the internet well, you look to get paid for it by a publication because it’s not an experiment, it’s a skill. Twenty years ago, no one ever said, “You should write for this magazine, it will be great. One catch: you won’t get paid.” It’s crazy to think that I once wrote thousands of words a week for free. Oh wait, we all do that with Twitter now. Also, Twitter does that work today. Maybe Twitter really is the rightful heir to blogging. Or maybe it killed it once and for all.

4. For a long time at FreeDarko, you wrote under a pseudonym, Bethlehem Shoals. Actually, all of the writers at FreeDarko went by fake names. Why is that? How did you come up with yours? How concerned, if at all, were you with people potentially finding out who you “really were?” What ultimately led to you dropping it and going by your actual name?

There was no good reason for it. Some politics bloggers did it because they worried about their day jobs, and that made it seem like we were doing something transgressive? The Wu-Tang Clan all had multiple aliases? Chris Ryan did it? I can’t remember if we ever got worried about anyone finding out who we were. Maybe we had to be to justify having silly names in the first place.

When I wrote my first thing for Slate, I had to use my real name. We posted on the blog that it had been written by a lesser-known member of our crew who had a legitimate writing career. With the books, it just got ridiculous. It’s very weird to do a PR blitz, including in-person stuff, while going by a ridiculous pen name that you can’t answer to without simultaneously cringing and laughing.

I actually came up with the name years earlier. My friend Jessica Milteer and I were trying to think of the most dead-on old churchgoing lady names. I blurted out “Bethlehem Shoals”—Bethlehem Records + Muscle Shoals Studios—and she gave up. When FreeDarko started and we all needed pseudonyms, that was the first thing that sprung to mind, and unfortunately it set the tone for everyone else’s.

I don’t think any of us once thought about the possible implications of picking such goofy pseudonyms. It ended up being a real bind when we wrote anywhere else: If we wrote under our government names, no one knew who we were. We were stuck with these bylines. But they were so ridiculous that they probably didn’t help people’s perception of our writing. Also, there were a couple times when I’d meet someone in-person and they wouldn’t believe me that I was “Shoals.”

I decided to go by my real name after I did immeasurable damage to the Bethlehem Shoals brand. It seemed like a good time for a fresh start, too.

5. Your writing has changed throughout the years. At FreeDarko you wrote one way; at GQ, say, you write another. Was this a conscious thought by you to shift tone and diction and the amount of philosophical daydreaming when writing for a different audience? Did you think you had to write in a mainstream way for a more mainstream audience (Self counterpoint: We’re not sure what mainstream really means anymore).

I’ve never consciously modified my style—if anything, for a while I was so uncompromising that it hurt me—but I know my writing has changed a lot over the years. I’m one of those people who hates everything I’ve ever done, so maybe take this worth a grain of salt, but that old FreeDarko stuff reads like a train wreck when I look at it now. There’s a ton of energy and a real sense of discovery there, but it misses the mark so often that it’s embarrassing. The impressions were correct, but I was just flailing. And sometimes I was just wrong.

I was really into free jazz when I was a teen. It used to mystify me how people like Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp mellowed with age. Sixteen-year-old me heard this vital, intense music from the ’60s and didn’t understand why they would abandon it. I didn’t view it as selling out or making an artistic compromise—it’s not like they reaped any huge commercial rewards from it—but where they ended up by the time I discovered them felt so distant from their early stuff that it was like they had lost the thread that I valued.

Because I was 16, I didn’t get that you can chill the fuck out without losing who you are. That’s pretty much definitive of good, sustainable art, whether it’s in the moment or over a long period of time. You broaden your range and find new comfort zones. I’d like to believe getting old is incidental to it, though I’m not averse to talking about maturity or grown-ness here. Just don’t automatically frame it in terms of decline. By the way, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages is one of the most blistering free jazz albums ever and it was recorded in 1991 when Sharrock and Sanders were over 50 and Elvin Jones was 60-something. So I like to think I can still employ whatever was valuable about that old writing when it makes tactical sense.

There is also probably some glib analogy to draw here about how rappers talk about flipping styles, and how they accumulate more and more of them over time to the point where they end up with all these different options, though that’s always worked way better in theory than in practice. Free jazz musicians age better than rappers. There’s my take.

6. You’re helping run a new project with Victory Journal, which is an in-house sports/culture publication from Doubleday & Cartwright. Back when Mike was at SportsREDEF he’d link to it often and it produces fun or interesting long-form stories that are unlike stories produced elsewhere. Where did Victory Journal come from? What’s its editorial direction? What are you trying to do with it?

Victory Journal has actually been around since 2010. It’s kind of a weird proposition: An editorially independent publication produced by a creative agency that doubles as a cool portfolio piece. It was the brainchild of Chris Isenberg and Aaron Amaro, two of the partners at Doubleday. Early on, it was very photo-driven. But Sam Hockley-Smith and Piotr Orlov, who edited it before Kate Perkins and I took over the day-to-day operations, both did a ton to bring the writing up to the same high standard as the imagery.

Victory had a pretty strong direction before Kate and I stepped in. The focus was on finding long, narrative-driven features with strong characters and lots of color that could appeal to people who weren’t deep into sports. When we skipped an issue last year and had budget to spare, I decided to experiment a little and ramp up the digital side of things. We put up a few pieces a week and made it more like every other website running smart, often topical, columns or essays. We got a bunch of really talented folks to write for us; our biggest coup was getting David Roth to do a weekly column.

I really like a lot of what we ran during that period. But we ultimately decided that, for both practical and philosophical reasons, the direction we’d had all along made the most sense for Victory. So we’re back to focusing on longer stuff and prioritizing the book to such a degree that we sometimes go weeks without posting to the site. Sam once called Victory “the slow food of sports journalism” and we’ve really embraced that once and for all.

I’d really like to reach the point where Victory wasn’t just on people’s radar, but had a rep for paying to write sports stories that just wouldn’t run anywhere else these days. I’m really proud of having provided a home for pieces like Steve Marsh’s “The Riders,” about the commercialization and modernization of traditional Native horse relays, or Robert Silverman’s exhaustive Joe Caldwell profile. Those are quintessential Victory stories that also performed really well, so maybe we’re onto something.

7. On the day of FreeDarko’s retirement, Deadspin said “No one around described basketball — the actual, physical event — better than these guys did.” This was in 2011. To what extent do you think basketball writing — and all of sports writing, really — has improved in this regard? What do you see as the value of simply describing the aesthetic quality of sports? Why do you think that style of sports writing isn’t as prominent?

I think that was Tommy Craggs. I hope it was. I remember him saying something way back when about how Bill Simmons used to be one of the few writers who got into the how of individual players: the way they moved, what it felt like to watch them, the details that really distinguished them as stylists.

He drew a comparison to film criticism, which he felt had largely stopped describing what individual actors did well. Tommy wasn’t advocating for technical explication or looking for a breakdown of “craft.” He just didn’t get why this analysis had been stripped out, seeing as it’s impossible to appreciate an actor without taking this “how” into account.

It gets tricky when you turn to sports not only because they’re outcome-based. You can talk about things in purely technical terms and, to many people, it won’t feel like there’s anything missing. That’s the way they consume sports, and I get it. But in the NBA, there’s such a premium placed on creativity and style that it’s impossible to enjoy the game and be immune to its aesthetic dimension, especially when it’s so often inseparable from achieving ideal outcomes. Or, to put it more clearly: That highlight-worthy move was dope because it was effective and effective because it was dope.

I’ve always probably gone too far in this direction, in part because it’s all I’ve got. I’m terrible at X’s and O’s and can’t remember facts and figures. But I think it’s a mistake to ignore the, um, beauty of the game altogether. It’s not a gimmick or some literary self-indulgence. You aren’t fully conveying what’s happening on the court unless you can go there.

Maybe I’m fatalistic but that’s just not something I expect to see much anymore. It’s not like this kind of writing has gone extinct. Vinson Cunningham comes to mind, which is why his basketball pieces resonate with me so much. When someone does it, to whatever degree, I’m always surprised, heartened, and newly dismayed that it’s the exception not the rule.

8. You wrote about Draymond Green’s photo with the IDF last month. It was really more of a deconstruction of how we interpret politics in the NBA and how the league is or isn’t as liberal as we believe. It included a thesis statement that I found interesting: “We’ve turned politics into a form of consumption rather than engagement.” What do you think of the way that we project politics onto the NBA and its players today, and how the league has immersed itself into the political discourse amongst sports fans?

I hate to do this, but if someone’s interested my take on this, I’d direct them to that piece or the time I went on Champagne Sharks to discuss this stuff.

The short answer is that the NBA is symbolically powerful because it’s made up of young black millionaires who are relatively empowered within the context of the sport. Many players have crossed over into culture-at-large as full-fledged celebrities and a lot of them are serious businessmen. And since Trump’s election, they’ve by and large been willing to answer questions about the current state of America, if not the specifics of politics.

All of this is undeniably a good thing. But we shouldn’t mistake this for substantive politics. In spite of what I wrote about it at the time, LeBron’s “u bum” tweet is not going to change the world. What makes Kaepernick and other NFL players powerful is that they’re addressing issues in a targeted way and offering up a structural critique. Their brand of activism—and action—is more direct. Fans of the sport, who generally lean left, make all sorts of assumptions about the politics of NBA players because of what they represent and what kind of athletes we want to invest in.

There’s no reason to assume NBA players share your politics, or expect them to have really worked through all this stuff just because they are public figures. Putting those expectations on them is unfair and leads to disappointment, as we saw with the uproar around Draymond Green’s IDF adventure. There’s a lot more to it, including the way the NBA proper leverages this perception as part of their brand (some players do this, too) and the very complicated and demoralizing labor situation, which I’ve written about for The Baffler and Jacobin.

But, yeah, people are able to project their politics on the NBA because what passes for politics has been degraded. In the past, this is where I would’ve said that, as an upper middle-class straight white man, I can only say so much on the subject. I’ve realized, though, that if anything, I’m on the side of the players here. They should be able to think whatever the hell they want and develop their thinking at a pace that suits them.

9. What would you change about NBA journalism?

I don’t feel qualified to answer that question. I’m not being faux-humble here, I just don’t know the lay of the land well enough anymore. I also don’t think I’m the audience for most of it.

10.  How often are you asked to bring FreeDarko out of retirement and run that site again?

Every once in a while someone will tweet something like “I wish FreeDarko were here to write about this.” They clearly mean the blog, not me, because they won’t use my @. But I’m pretty sure that we’re either a fondly remembered part of the distant past or something that younger people are, at best, dimly aware of. A couple of years ago, we discussed doing another book, but our agent asked around and it was a non-starter.

I’m not bitter or anything, though. We had a good run and, for a time, had what I’d like to believe was a positive influence on things. That era’s over, but who knows, maybe it will come back at some point. Then maybe we’ll get a ton of VC money to get the site up and running again. But I’m not holding my breath. No one stays hot forever and I’m consistently grateful and bewildered that I’ve had the career I’ve had. All from a blogspot started as an inside joke. The internet used to be a very strange and magical place.

A Q&A with Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine on her career, covering Trump and access 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 Olivia Nuzzi, a Washington correspondent for New York Magazine. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Olivia. Everybody has heard of Olivia. She is a star in the world of political journalism, and it’s such a thrill for us to have her as a guest here at The -30-. Here, we talk about Olivia’s rapid rise as a reporter, what it’s like to cover the Trump White House on a daily basis and some of the most important issues surrounding the media landscape today.

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?

Sort of a series of accidents and very lucky breaks. Becoming a journalist didn’t really occur to me until I was performing acts of journalism. I didn’t know any journalists or anyone in the media. But I knew I wanted to write, and I liked politics and thought I had a sort of innate understanding of it, but I didn’t have any sophisticated ideas about how those interests might converge to form a career path for me.

I was volunteering in local politics in New Jersey, where I grew up, and I thought maybe I wanted to be a speechwriter. I started experimenting with writing, just privately, or I’d ask my dad to read it, and then when I was 18, I got a job, if you could call it that, writing a column for an alt-weekly in Asbury Park for $50 a month. At the time, the presidential ambitions of the governor, Chris Christie, seemed very serious and that sort of provided a subtext for everything he did in the state. It was just the most exciting thing that I’d ever experienced, because people in my community read the paper and would write letters in response, or if I was at a political event, they’d come up to me to talk about what I’d written. I had so much fun. But I also realized quickly that I was not ideological in the way that I thought I was and I just didn’t know enough or have enough opinions to sustain a column. I ran out of things to say after a few months.

I started freelancing a bit, and at the same time, I became an intern on Anthony Weiner’s New York City mayoral campaign, where I worked for about a month. After I left and Weiner’s mayoral dreams collapsed with a sexting scandal (his second), the editor at a NSFWCorp, a magazine I was writing for, Paul Carr, encouraged me to write a vignette about my experience. I remember he called me the day the story about Sydney Leathers, the woman Weiner was involved with, broke and he said, “If you don’t write about this you’re a terrible reporter and I’m an even worse editor.” That led to an assignment for the New York Daily News, which led to my face on the cover of the paper, which led to the spokeswoman for the campaign responding rather colorfully on the record, which led to 72 hours of nonstop coverage and think pieces. It seems so silly now, in the current news environment, to imagine anyone caring about that story at all, never mind for several days, but it was just a relentless stream of requests from every news outlet and TV network in America.

I thought the only way to respond that wouldn’t condemn me to a life as “Anthony Weiner’s former intern” was through unrelated work, so I said nothing and tried to just move forward, and in the end I think the whole episode helped me, in that there was probably some curiosity among New York media types that made it easier for me to get responses to pitches or meetings with editors and so on. Through Mark Ames, one of my colleagues at NSFWCorp, I met Jebediah Reed, an editor at New York, and was working on a story about Chris Christie for him when, a few months later, Christie became a topic of national interest amid “Bridgegate,” a scandal involving political retribution and the George Washington Bridge which I also cannot believe, in retrospect, commanded the attention it did. A reporter whose work I loved and who had been very kind to me, Matt Katz (then of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now of WNYC), connected me with an editor at Politico magazine, Denise Wills (now the Atlantic), who had me write a piece, and that led to a bunch of other freelance assignments, for New York and for the Daily Beast. I was just very lucky to know something about New Jersey politics at a moment when that was valuable in the national media.

The Beast offered me a full time job and I ended up dropping out of Fordham to take it. I think I was 21 then. I can’t believe they hired me, but it was a great place to be at that stage of my career. They gave me a very long leash, and sometimes I almost hanged myself with it, but for the most part I think it was good for me, to be able to experiment and take risks. I was there for three years and at the end of my time there I was writing a bit for Geoffrey Gagnon at GQ, who taught me a lot, and for other outlets. After the election, when New York approached me about becoming the Washington Correspondent, it just seemed like a dream job and it really has been.

2) Before we talk more about your career, let’s talk about… the state of humanity in general. What the hell is it like to cover this White House? How accurate would you say the media coverage of the administration has been? Given what you know and see on a daily basis, should Americans be more concerned, less concerned or equally concerned than they probably are about the future of the country? It’s hard to know exactly what level of hysteria we should be living in.

It’s strange. Washington is a weird place anyway, but it’s much weirder now. I always feel like I’m on an anthropological excursion here. I mostly cover the White House from 10,000 feet, meaning I don’t do the trickle—or the fire hose—of daily news coverage you see on cable or in the paper. So I’m trying to keep up with the onslaught like everyone else, trying to read the 10 billion stories a day, absorb the 5 million tweets, watch the 4,000 interviews, listen to the 300 podcasts, etc., and place all of that in the context of this broader story about the people in charge and who they are and what they’re like and why they’re doing what they’re doing. I put a lot of emphasis on trying. Taken as a whole, I’d say the media coverage has been as accurate as possible, but the media is too huge and varied to really judge as a whole that way. Oftentimes, when I read criticisms of “the media,” those doing the criticizing reference facts and details and anecdotes that they only know because of the media. I think that there have been some tactical mistakes and there have also been a few outright fuck-ups, of course, I would never argue that everyone has gotten it right all the time, including myself. But I also think that some of the best reporting we’ve seen certainly in my lifetime has emerged during the Trump era. As for how concerned people should be, I don’t know how to answer that question. I also don’t think it’s a question for me to answer. I don’t say that to avoid sounding partisan or anything, but it’s more like, one of the things I hate most in journalism is when the reporter tells instead of showing, and I think prescribing a general level of appropriate concern or hysteria falls outside of what I consider to be my role.

3) Though we don’t know the specifics of your politics, based on the content of your Twitter account, it appears you personally don’t agree with much of the policy coming out of the current administration. How do you cover people with whom you don’t agree on such high-stakes political issues with such profound effects on the country? To what extent do you feel conflicted over how to report on them? In your mind, how much do journalists concern themselves with being “neutral” — showing “both sides” of an issue in order to not be accused of bias — than being “true?”

I care about being fair and I care about being accurate. I’m just not concerned with objectivity or neutrality. I don’t think those concepts are relevant to the real world. The people you see aiming for it, say if you watch certain network anchors, it’s like they exist in their own universe. There just isn’t one side and then the other side when you’re talking about whether or not we can agree that the sky is blue, and the attempt to turn the truth into a partisan “side” hurts everyone and makes it really difficult to have an honest conversation about anything. For that reason, I don’t consider my job political even if Trump would like reporters’ jobs to be considered political, and I don’t feel conflicted covering his administration. The times when they’re doing something I think any empathetic person would consider nauseating, I approach the coverage the same way, meaning I want information about and insight into the people in charge and I want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing and what they think and how they justify it and so on.

4) It seems every day on Twitter, there is a loud chorus of non-journalists (and some reporters) blasting the media for being more concerned with maintaining their access to politicians than they are to reporting the truth. You see reporters criticized for not asking “tough questions” to protect access and maintain the status quo. (This happens in all corners of the journalism world, sports included, so we have heard this criticism as well.) In your experience being in that world every day, how true is that accusation for the media at large? What do people not understand about the nuances of doing the job? Generally speaking, how access driven is modern political journalism, and what are the ramifications of that one way or the other?

I don’t understand the nuances of dentistry, which is why I don’t barge into dentists’ offices and yell at them while they have a drill in someone’s mouth (also: Dentists scare me). I don’t expect people who aren’t in the media to grasp how the media works, but at the same time, it’s a public job in a way that dentistry usually isn’t, and so I can’t really complain about strangers talking at me all the time like I have one of those HOW AM I DOING? 1-800-666-6666 signs attached to the back of my head. And especially right now, people are very angry and emotional and I think they would like to identify others to blame for the state of the world, and I understand that and I empathize with it even when it means someone’s yelling at me. I was covering the fringe conservative movement for two years leading up to the 2016 election, but most normal people weren’t familiar with concepts like Infowars until fairly recently, and I think to a lot of them it seems like the world abruptly changed on Nov. 9, 2016.

As for the access question: At least when it comes to the president, for the most part the people who get special access to him are hosts on Fox News, and I don’t consider that access journalism because it’s not journalism at all. The fact is that we would not know what the fuck is going on inside of this White House if reporters were not regularly speaking to people who work in this White House, if we did not endeavor to know those people and establish some trust with them, which often requires being at the White House or being present at rallies or wherever else they are. It does irritate me, though, when people who are in the media but are not doing original reporting about the White House go after “access” journalism, because those people would have a lot less to write about and a looser grip on their understanding of the characters working in the administration if it was not for the information published by the journalists with access.

5) You once said, “At least with politics stuff, I feel like there are journalists who write to report and and journalists who report to write, and I’m definitely in the latter camp.” How would you assess the state of modern political journalism from a writing perspective, as opposed to reporting? Why do you think that is? Why do you think it’s important for good writing to be a part of political journalism?

There are a lot of great political writers right now. (I’m biased, but) Ryan Lizza at Esquire, and Charlie Pierce, too; Julia Ioffe at GQ; McKay Coppins and Rosie Gray at the Atlantic; Katie Rogers, Matt Flegenheimer and Robert Draper at the New York Times; Ben Terris, Shane Harris and Ashley Parker at the Washington Post; Eve Peyser at Vice; John McCormack at the Weekly Standard; Alexis Levinson and Steven Perlberg at BuzzFeed; Annie Karni and Ben Schreckinger at Politico; Tessa Stuart at Rolling Stone. A lot of the storytelling about Trump that I value the most comes from podcasts, like NPR’s Embedded or WNYC’s Trump, Inc. Michael Barbaro does a wonderful job with narrative storytelling on The Daily, like the two-part feature they just did on Roe v. Wade, and I believe it was last year, they did a fantastic dive on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Even a lot of straight news stories have a sort of cinematic flair these days, though, because—and I’m certainly not the first person to point this out—when you just describe what Trump or the members of his administration are doing, it reads like some kind of bad movie script. And I think good writing is important in every kind of journalism, not just political journalism, but certainly right now, there is so much happening and so much is going on each day that I think finding a way to process that information through a story is one of the most effective ways to absorb it. Jonathan Chait, my colleague at New York, had a cover story recently about Trump and Russia, and it was a great example of this.

6) OK, let’s talk about you and your career. It’s been fascinating, especially considering how young you are. Let’s start with Anthony Weiner. Before you were a full-time journalist, you interned for his mayoral campaign. To what extent did you aspire to work in politics yourself at that point? What ultimately drew you away from that world and into journalism?

I still wasn’t totally sure when I first signed on what I wanted to do, but the mayoral campaign of a disgraced ex-congressman and tabloid fixture seemed like a great place to learn about political communications. Which it was! Though not in the way I anticipated it would be. I’m not sure if I was totally conscious of this at the time, but I guess in hindsight, once I wrote about the experience and the ensuing news cycle ended, the decision was sort of made for me.

Right after that, I wrote my first profile (of Rush Holt, a then-congressman from New Jersey who was running to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Frank Lautenberg, which ended up being won by Cory Booker) for NSFWCorp, and NSFWCorp hired me full time. That was the first time I did a story like that, going to Washington to interview someone and spending time with him, and I remember I’d written out a list of questions and printed them out and took them with me. And about two minutes into the interview, I think I threw the paper out. I realized I just wanted to have a conversation and try to understand Holt as a human being, and I really enjoyed the process of doing that. And I thought he was just so delightfully fucking weird (he took out a NAIL CLIPPER in the middle of our talk?????????!) and I loved writing the piece, too, it took me a week to come up with I think 3,000 words, but I had so much fun doing it. I was pretty settled on journalism after that. A few months later, after I was laid off, I was hired at the Daily Beast.

7) You quite famously were the subject of a tirade by Barbara Morgan, Weiner’s communications director, who referred to you by using a series of sexually charged slurs that do not need to be repeated here. Morgan also criticized photographs of you that you were using on social media, referring to them derisively as “glamour shots.” An article in The Atlantic once referred to you as a “lissome blonde,” which might not have included the same foul language, but certainly had the same inappropriate subtext. The common thread here, of course, is that throughout your career, powerful people have tried to use your age and your physical appearance as a weapon to undermine you and question your credibility. And these types of attacks are almost always limited to women. First off, simply, how do you deal with these sorts of criticisms and descriptions based on your appearance? Have the attacks changed — in frequency or intensity — in the Trump era? How do you, as a woman in a position of power, believe we can make progress in fixing a toxic culture of sexism?

I’ve generally felt like what other people have to say to or about me when it comes to my age or my appearance reveals more about them than me. Like when Donald Trump offered some Trumpian commentary when I walked into his office to interview him in 2016, I didn’t think, Oh no, he doesn’t take me seriously! How can I perform my job? I just thought he is so bizarre and afflicted by this kind of sexual harassment Tourette’s and it has literally nothing to do with me. During the campaign, the volume of, shall we say, reader feedback in this genre certainly increased, but so did the volume of all reader engagement. I turned off my Twitter mentions years ago and I have no plans to turn them back on, and that has probably helped a lot, and I don’t advertise my email address. When I see reporters—typically male, though it’s not their fault—with their cell phone numbers in their Twitter bios, encouraging people to send them tips, I just think, Wow! Imagine doing that! All of that said, anything I’ve dealt with on this front just isn’t in the same ballpark as what reporters of color deal with. Sometimes, though it’s rare, I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable while out reporting, but I don’t know if I’ve ever felt truly unsafe, and I don’t know how it would effect my work and my impulse to head out into the field or go to the president’s rallies if I did feel unsafe. I’m aware that there are reporters who do this job everyday who cannot say the same thing.

I don’t know what would eradicate the toxicity around us, but I think that things will certainly improve by hiring and empowering people from diverse backgrounds—not just promoting more women, but making sure that the perspectives in our newsrooms and on our mastheads aren’t limited to mostly white people with rich parents and Ivy League degrees. I also don’t think we can fix the problem by ignoring people with perspectives that are unpopular among the left and the media class right now. That’s not to say I think that every troll who can type should get a New York Times column, but I do think that there’s a tendency right now to sort of wince and angrily turn away when confronted by a “bad take” or to brand any take by a “problematic person” bad, and I don’t think that’s going to prove productive long term.

8. Back in March, you wrote a fascinating piece about Hope Hicks as she was departing the White House, and then followed that up with an even more fascinating — for journalism nerds like us — interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. In the story, Hicks isn’t quoted. On Twitter, and in CJR, you revealed that while Hicks “declined to speak on the record,” you “spent some time” with her while reporting the piece. What were those negotiations like with Hicks in terms of what her role would be in the story in terms of participation? Why do you think she granted you permission to reveal that you spent time with her, even while formally declining comment? How important do you think it is for journalists to make clear to readers the reporting process and the back-and-forth between reporter and subject?

Thank you, though I hope the interview wasn’t actually more fascinating than the story!! 😦

I can’t get into the specifics of my negotiations, but as with any profile, my goal was to know everything I could know about Hope Hicks and I tried to get access to that insight however possible. What I said publicly about her participation was deliberate. There was one reporter at the time who questioned my decision to disclose that I’d spent time with a subject who didn’t engage on the record, and I was so annoyed by that, because she was assuming that I had violated my agreements without knowing what they were, as if there’s on the record or off the record and no gray areas. I don’t know what it’s like to be a sports reporter or an entertainment reporter, but in Washington, at least, and certainly reporting on this White House, everyone is operating in the gray areas all the time.

The way I look at it depends on the story. Some stories, I think the behind-the-scenes process stuff is helpful for the reader to understand the subject. Like, as a hypothetical, if I tried to interview Hillary Clinton during the campaign and it took nine months to get her team to agree and they only agreed on the condition that I submit to an FBI background check and a lie detector test and they demanded that six different press aides be present in the interview? I think all of that would be important for the reader to know in order to get a sense of what kind of operation she was running and how her image is crafted. But other times, I think process isn’t as important, or other times, disclosing the process is just not possible without violating the terms agreed upon during the process.

I guess the short version is that I try to be as transparent as I can while keeping my word to my sources, but sometimes it’s not worth disrupting the story you’re telling to attempt to explain the hoops you jumped through to be able to tell it, or for me that’s the case, anyway.

9. If you could, what would you change about political journalism?

First of all, I would move Washington to New York.

Second, I guess I wish that there was just more original reporting and less aggregation and vapid analysis. I also wish the culture was one where people didn’t feel the need to repeat the reporting already done by other outlets, if that makes sense. I think sometimes the outlets that aren’t supremely big and powerful don’t get the recognition they deserve for their work because instead of referencing their work, the big and powerful outlets pretend it doesn’t exist while doing their own version of it. And I would really like to change the presumption of anonymity that a lot of officials have because reporters have granted it too liberally. Certainly, there are a lot of times when, if my choice is being lied to or being given innocuous on the record quotes, or getting some truth on background or not for attribution at all, I go for the latter. But just as often, you’ll be talking to someone and halfway into the conversation—even in settings that seem formal—they say, We’re not on the record, right? And I fucking hate that, like, of course we’re on the record! I’m sure I’ll think of 50 other things I’d like to change after I send you guys my answers, but those are the things that are coming to mind right now.

10. We’ve talked a lot with our Q&A guests about the value of journalism school versus pursuing a more general college education. But you’re our first interview subject who didn’t finish college at all, dropping out of Fordham before graduating to accept a job at the Daily Beast. Why did you decide not to complete school? Would you ever go back to get your degree? Why do you think your path is so unusual in the modern journalism business?

I’m honored to be the first dropout! To be honest, I always hated school and I had a hard time learning in a classroom environment, or even just sitting in a classroom. I feel really lucky, in retrospect, that I wasn’t raised in a way that conditioned me to think that getting straight A’s was the only sign of intelligence. And once I started getting published, that was sort of all that I cared about, and the idea of writing something for a professor that wouldn’t be published, that I wouldn’t be compensated for, just seemed offensive to me, which is probably insane, but that’s how I felt. When the Daily Beast offered me a full time job, declining it to stay in school wasn’t even something I considered. I generally never say never, but I would never go back to school.

My path is probably unusual because college is the avenue through which a lot of people get their foot in the door in media, through internships and fellowships and writing for the college paper. And insofar as that gets people in the door who aren’t nepotism hires, I think that’s great. But I also think that there’s a lack of economic diversity in the national media, and we ought to try to find entry points for journalists that don’t require prohibitive tuition and debts.

A Q&A with Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic on coming up with story ideas, her eclectic area of coverage and some of her best work

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 Ashley Fetters, a staff writer for The Atlantic and one of the best writers around. We didn’t know much about Ashley or her career. But after a while, we realized that every time she published a story, we liked it so much that we put it in the newsletter as one of the best reads of the week. We wanted to more about the journalist behind those pieces, and this Q&A move than lives up.
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?
Oh, goodness. Well, in the landscape of this very connections-y business, I’m nobody from nowhere. I didn’t grow up around writers or reporters. Growing up, I liked writing, but it was just one thing I liked doing. I played the violin and the piano and was in my school plays, dabbled in a few sports (none very seriously or very well). When it came time to pick what I wanted to study in college, though, I figured reading, writing and talking to grown-ups were the three things I never got tired of. So I thought, hey, maybe I’d like being a journalist.
It’s kind of amazing, looking back now, that all these years later I do in fact like being a journalist. I chose it pretty blindly.
In my last year of journalism school, I had one professor, Karen Springen, who went out of her way to mentor me. She encouraged me to try to publish a story I wrote for her class, and she helped me place what became my first story for The Atlantic in 2011, a big reported feature on why young American women were waxing off all their pubic hair and all the surprising vectors of cultural and aesthetic expectation that got us to that point. Weird start to my journalism career, to say the least, but looking back, it made all the difference in the world to me, and to my career, that Karen didn’t scold me for being interested in that or discourage me from reporting on it. To her, it wasn’t a gross or inappropriate topic, but a rich and fascinating one.
I went on to do The Atlantic’s yearlong fellowship and was hired to work as an editor for its entertainment and sports coverage. From there I went to Entertainment Weekly to be a news editor, and then I was an entertainment editor at GQ for a few years. I went full-time freelance for the first time after GQ laid me off in 2017, and now I’m back to the office life as a staff writer for The Atlantic.
2. You recently took a job with The Atlantic. Congrats! Before this, you had been freelancing for a while. Were you looking for a full-time job the entire time, or did you prefer the fluidity and choice that comes along with being a freelance writer? How does work change when you’re writing at one place? What are the pros and cons of the two lifestyles?
Well, first: Thank you! It’s been a real joy thus far.
There’s a lot I liked about freelancing. Most of my jobs have been editing jobs, so it was the first time I could spend whole days reporting and writing, rather than just snatching a few minutes at the end of the workday or at home on weekends. Writing was always the fun part of my previous jobs. I loved the freedom to sleep late into the morning and work late into the night, too, because I never quite kicked my college-kid sleeping habits. And, I will say, I got really good at reporting at the drop of a hat — I interviewed sources while riding in Ubers, sitting on random park benches, in my boyfriend’s parked car one weekend morning while he grocery shopped without me. One time I interviewed a psychologist while I was standing in the lobby of my bank. Absurd, but definitely knocked me out of the mindset that all conditions had to be optimal before I could do a source interview.
On the other hand, though, to be perfectly frank, insurance was a big priority. I have asthma and an autoimmune disorder, so losing my job was scary, from a health standpoint. I ended up keeping the insurance I had through Condé Nast so I could keep seeing my doctors, but I paid dearly for it, close to $900 a month. On a freelancer’s income, that’s a real strain. So I was certainly looking for full-time employment and benefits, perhaps more than someone less dependent on her health insurance might.
3. The Atlantic is hiring like crazy. It’s awesome to see. What is the mission for the company right now? Is its role changing at all? What’s it like to be working for a media organization that’s actively growing and expanding at a time of retrenchment?
It feels good! It’s certainly a nice change of pace to be in a place that’s growing.
I think, as always, The Atlantic aims to contextualize developments happening in the world, to make sense of real-time current events in the long view of history. The internet has changed how that mission has to be carried out, specifically with regard to velocity and volume, but the mission overall remains the same. One lovely thing about working for a publication that’s 160 years old is that it’s been around way longer than everyone who works there, so it feels like you’re working for something bigger than you, bigger than your boss, bigger than your boss’s boss. (Though you don’t want to forget you still work for all those people, too.)
4. Your work, both as a freelancer and now for The Atlantic, is incredibly diverse and eclectic. Your area of coverage seems to be… anything and everything. Given that, how do you find your story ideas? How do you narrow things to down to figure out things that could eventually become stories? What’s the biggest challenge of having such a broad scope?
“Anything and everything” is both hilarious and very true. I think that’s partly because I have a pretty low fascination threshold; one of my middle-school teachers once described me as a “sponge,” just thirstily sucking up information from anywhere and everywhere, finding new things to be totally gobsmacked by. Freelance life really suited that part of my brain. I got to report out stories about movies and TV, science, dating, local infrastructure, and hot dead presidents with equal gusto. It was a blast.
Another factor, though — and I was extremely fortunate in this regard when I was freelancing — is that a lot of editors, from a diverse and eclectic set of publications, simply reached out and asked if I’d be interested in some specific stories they’d been hoping to commission. One small comfort of losing my job last fall was that I’d been in the business long enough to know a few people who were willing to give me work when I needed it. Neil Janowitz and Rachel Handler at Vulture, Cari Romm at The Cut; Taffy Akner put me in touch with Sara Polsky and Amy Plitt, two editors I’ve loved working with at Curbed, to name just a few examples. Journalism, it turns out, is full of people who look out for each other.
A fair amount of the stories I pitch are, weirdly enough, stories that force me to dig into and deconstruct my own very specific anxieties: I wrote a monthly column for Curbed about people’s “New York fears” because every week I find out about a new nightmare scenario that’s taken place in real life in this rickety old city I live in; I wrote about the quiet ubiquity of Brazilian waxing when I was 21 and living in a sorority house; I once reported out how film crews make fake vomit for movie sets because I genuinely can’t handle watching on-screen barf scenes. (In that last case, unfortunately, the reporting did not help.) So that’s a through-line, I guess.
One of the only challenges I can think of is that I often have to start from scratch when I want to find sources for a story. Some people who have specific beats talk about having built up their “Rolodex” of contacts that they go back to again and again, but I don’t really do that, given how much I jump around subject-wise. When I start a new story, I end up doing a lot of digging around before I do any reporting.
5. You wrote a story in December about the anxiety of looming unemployment, which came after you actually were laid off by GQ? Was the story soothing for you at all, or did you intend it to be? Was it difficult to write about? Not to focus in on what was obviously a bad time, but what was that period like for you? Is there any numbing quality to being laid-off when it’s so rampant in journalism now?
That was actually something The Cut asked me to write! It was at the height of last year’s “layoff season,” so to speak, and they wanted to do something on the topic. Two Science of Us editors, Cari Romm and Melissa Dahl — genuinely wonderful people — reached out and asked, very gently, if I’d be interested.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was kind of like getting a much-needed invitation to confront my feelings of anger and hurt in the way that comes most naturally to me. The reporting was cathartic, for one thing; I hadn’t realized how badly I’d wanted to talk to other people, other young women, who’d been laid off before. And I’m skeptical anytime anyone says something “wrote itself,” because nothing writes itself. But at the time I’d been out of a job for about four weeks, and when I sat down to write, the first few grafs of that story just… materialized, pretty much fully formed. Those were definitely more uncorked than simply generated.
We make a lot of jokes in this business about how everyone gets laid off, about how it’s practically a rite of passage these days. But I want to be clear, getting laid off from GQ was awful. I’d heard horror stories about the nasty, impersonal process of finding out one day that you’ve been wiped off your company’s radar, and then I lived one. It was like being unceremoniously kicked out of a fun club I liked spending five days a week with and losing my only source of income at the same time. That I wasn’t alone made it a little less nightmarish, but everyone you know who’s been laid off has been through something harrowing, and just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
6. Your story on women living alone was really interesting and insightful and actually shares some DNA with the unemployment piece: They both have some basis in your personal experience, and both delve into some pretty intimate details of your personal life. Why do you decide to write about a part of your life so openly? Is anything about your life fair game if it makes for good copy? Where is the wall between personal and private?
There are certain formative experiences in my life that I don’t write about; certain stories I’m not really eager to share with people who don’t know me. That said, I do like first-person anecdotes a lot — I like reading them and I like writing them. I think they draw out the ever-important, “But what does it feel like?” element I’m always looking for when I read a story. Plus, the older I get, the more I realize I am never the first or only person to ever admit I’m feeling a particular way or going through a particular thing, and I find people are eager to bond over shared experiences, even strangers online.
So when I weigh whether to share a true story about my life in a piece, the questions I generally ask myself are: 1. Could any detail of this personal anecdote reasonably cost me a job? 2. If I met someone for the first time and discovered she’d read this story and already knew this thing about me, would that make me feel weird? and 3. Is any character in this story going to be mad that I told it in a public forum? If I come up with three “nos,” I tend to go for it. (It does not always yield perfect results.)
7. The story on Matt Maxey, the man who translates Chance the Rapper for the deaf was just great. Simply enough: Can you go through the whole process of that piece from conception to publication?
Ahh, thank you! That story is one of my favorites. I actually got interested in the concept of hip-hop ASL interpretation long before I ever heard about Matt. A buddy of mine had a roommate who was this cool-looking, sought-after ASL interpreter on the summertime festival circuit, and I thought, “Man, what a good story this would make for GQ, and what a striking visual element it could have.” I got really excited about it, but after a few setup emails, my source ghosted on me! So I forgot about it for a few weeks, but then I saw a news story about Chance the Rapper hiring ASL interpreters for his tour, and I made arrangements to go and shadow Matt when Chance was headlining at Lollapalooza in Chicago.
I am not generally in the habit of writing profiles, so in my head I expected I’d be going there to study him, probe his thoughts, ask him deep questions. What I didn’t know was that Matt is an absolute riot. He’s got an unbelievably good laugh; he’s disarming. Very quickly it just felt like I was hanging out at a festival with someone I knew – and I ask everyone I know a million questions about his or her job, so that part happened very naturally. Some of the other folks in the story are just folks I met that day at Lolla; the fan who told me Matt was “the deaf Kanye West” was just someone I had noticed sought Matt out after the show. I started chatting with him and stopped mid-sentence to say, “Hey, mind if I turn on my tape recorder?” I flew back from Chicago and wrote most of the story the weekend after I got home.
We did our second interview in New York a few weeks later; Matt was in town for Chance’s show at Radio City Music Hall. He came to One World Trade, to the GQ offices, and that’s where we shot the GIFs for the story and the video. (My editor had pulled out a few quotes we wanted to get footage of him signing, and before Matt arrived I enlisted the rest of the web staff’s help in making a list of the hip-hop slang words we wanted to learn how to sign, which was a hilarious project in itself.) And once we got Matt in front of the camera, the production crew was just completely under his spell. It was marvelous.
8. If you could, what would you change about journalism?
I’m sure plenty of people have answered this question in nobler and more macro-minded ways than I’m about to, but here is a small hill I will die on: I think that, within reason, more publications should carve out room in their budgets to have reporters’ source interviews sent out for transcription if they’re on short deadlines. Transcription is time-consuming and, for a lot of us who can’t stand our voices or our fumbling speech patterns (me), emotionally demoralizing. It’s cheap to outsource it. Save your reporters some time and some despair.
9. This tweet of yours made us think about how being a good reporter requires a certain lack of shamelessness. We reach out to friends for contacts, to sources for questions, to editors with cold-call emails for jobs. As someone who is really good at her job, do you ever get hit by that type of anxiety of reaching out to people you don’t know or asking people for things that you know is only a one-way interaction. How do you avoid it or conquer it? Can someone be a good journalist and have that certain kind of shame or shyness?
It took a while to build up the confidence I have now. Nowadays it just feels like part of the job, but I think the first few times I reached out to strangers or asked people to mine their address books for me, back in journalism school, it felt awkward, like I was being a pain. Even today I wonder sometimes if I’ve finally sent out the mass Hey guys, could use your help sourcing a story email that will result in my friends responding in all caps “ENOUGH!” My friends who work in law and medicine and academia, especially, have really racked up some journalism karma points for how often they’ve helped me locate sources.
I do think it’s important to learn how to start conversations with strangers if you want to be a reporter, though, and when it comes to cold-contacting or “friend-sourcing,” here are two things I try to keep in mind to keep the anxiety at bay:
1. Most people are nice, or at the very least reasonable. If I ask politely and someone can help me, it’s likely she will — and if she can’t, the worst-case scenario is I won’t hear back or she’ll say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” If they’re jerks about it in some way, I figure… that’s not my fault, because I asked nicely! And
2. People who are experts in a specialized area are often more than happy — eager, even — to share their expertise. A lot of the time those people are flattered you asked, and they’re often happy to get the publicity, too.
(I suppose in the end those two things boil down to one mantra: The worst they can say is no.)
10. You had a very funny tweet go nuts on Twitter with 22.7k RTs and 70.6k likes. What is it like when you have a tweet go viral like that? What was your online life like for the next few days? Did it change anything in your career for you? People have made careers off a few funny tweets or being widely seen.
It’s somehow always the dumb jokes you just blurt out onto the internet that take off, isn’t it? Never the ones you carefully and tenderly craft in your Drafts folder for weeks, heaven forbid. I genuinely remember asking my friend Liza if that was too dumb to tweet before I tweeted it. It made absolutely no change to my career, or even really my Twitter presence or following. I did, however, get to witness what looked like my Twitter app having a seizure. That ruled.

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.