A Q&A with Lauren Duca on her rise to prominence, living in the public eye and the value of humor in political 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 Lauren Duca, a journalist you probably know from her work at Teen Vogue. Lauren’s career trajectory is truly astounding. She has quickly grown into a rising media superstar, amassing more than 400,000 followers on Twitter thanks to her biting, intelligent — and often quite funny — political writing. Here, we discuss her rapid ascension, her experience now living in the public eye and the value of humor while covering serious subjects.

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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 always wanted to write, but finding my voice while working for the paper at Fordham University made me realize I wanted to write things that are true. It took a while for me to “break into” anything beyond the delivery girl circuit run out of the fashion closet at Allure, but that summer of unpaid manual labor led to a spot reporting at a local publication near Fordham’s campus in the Bronx, which led to an internship at New York magazine, and eventually a fellowship at the Huffington Post. I suppose that was when I finally became convinced the whole journalism thing could work out.

2. Your rapid rise to prominence from is truly remarkable, going from a relatively unknown freelance writer to a media superstar with 400,000 Twitter followers in the span of a little more than a year. It started in earnest with your massively viral piece, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America, and then exploded with a memorable appearance on Fox News opposite Tucker Carlson. What has that been like for you living through it? At what point in all this did you realize, “Things are different now?” How do you approach your job — and your life, really — differently now that your platform has grown so much so fast?

I wish this was an audio interview, so that I could answer with extended hysterical screaming. I don’t know that I’ve fully adjusted. I spent a good portion of this year waiting for everything to calm down, but by the spring, it occurred to me that I was just going to need to adjust to a constant state of emergency. Being public-facing is incredibly disorienting, and there are moments when I can’t believe how radically my life has changed since “Gaslighting” first when viral. The benefit is that I have had to be impossibly rigorous about refining my political views and journalistic ethics. The whole thing has definitely made me not only a stronger writer, but a stronger person. It’s kind of like I’ve had my worldview forged in the fires of Mordor.

3. Not too long ago, most of your writing focused primarily on entertainment, fashion and pop culture. (Tucker Carlson seemed particularly infatuated with this piece on Ariana Grande’s boots at Jingle Ball.) But then came the 2016 presidential election and suddenly, as you once said, “It felt like nothing I was working on mattered anymore.” What was that epiphany like, and how did you react to it? Did that realization challenge your core beliefs about what you thought you knew about yourself or make you question your identity? Or did it stir up a part of your identity that was always there?

I would definitely say that a switch flipped for me on Nov. 9. That said, my work was always political on some level. At the Huffington Post, for example, I wrote a feature on “The Rise of the Woman-Child,” in which I dissected the tonal disparity between male and female iterations of liminal adulthood in film and television. (A woman smoking, and drinking and fucking her ambition away is seen as inherently sad, but for some reason, when Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler exhibits that exact same behavior, it’s meant to be endearing and/or hilarious.) I also created a newsletter and column titled Middlebrow in which I frequently unpacked feminist issues through the analysis of Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. Using these larger-than-life figures made the theoretical accessible to readers who were mini-experts in pop culture, but perhaps less familiar with complex social power structures. As far as I see it, this paved the way for my current work as a political writer. Now, instead of pop stars, my major characters are politicians.

4. You once said, “Sports writing somehow flows effortlessly into politics, but for most women, there is no analogous entryway. If anything, working in entertainment, beauty, and fashion are used to discount female writers.”  We are a pair of sports writers who have been subjected to the chorus of “STICK TO SPORTS” in our careers, but there’s no doubt sports appears to be an easier entryway than entertainment and fashion. Why is that, in your mind? How much of this stems from men trying to question the credibility of women writers? How can this be combated on a systemic level?

There is tons of gatekeeping in political writing overall, but, generally speaking, stereotypically gendered interests are weaponized as disqualifies of intelligence. That’s true for female writers, and women overall. Why is golf a more legitimate interest than nail art? If anything, hitting a tiny ball into a hole seems like a less intricate skill, but maybe that’s beside the point. Politics is not something separate or other. It should not require permission. As a nation, we need to push toward a level of democratic participation that seamlessly integrates civic engagement into daily life. That starts with changing the way we talk about who gets to be a political writer.

5. A lot of your work these days appears on Teen Vogue, particularly your column, Thigh-High Politics. Teen Vogue is now a hotbed for some of the most well-read and shared political writing on the internet. What does it say about the media at large that it responded with collective shock to the revelation that Teen Vogue’s audience — gasp — cares about political and social issues and want to read about them? Why do you think it took so long for most youth media outlets to recognize there was a desire for this sort of coverage and commit to it the way Teen Vogue has? What does it mean for the future of other youth publications?

The true revolutionary thing about Teen Vogue is that they have always insisted on taking readers seriously. That was true long before our absurd cultural dialogue about whether or not young women are interested in politics. Youth publications, and really all publications, need to stop assuming millennial apathy as a truism, and work harder to make politics accessible.

6. In September, you sent out a tweet that stuck out to us: You reminded people that you are just 26-years-old and are still “learning in public.” What would you say you’ve had to learn over this time? How often do you find people using your young age as an effort to discredit your work? What would you say is the biggest misconception about your — our? We’re 30! — generation?

Look, I’m 26. I’m pretty sure science says my brain only just fully developed. I have so much more I want to learn, and all of the books to read. We’re all learning all the time, but I’m doing it on a massive platform and people can be extremely unforgiving.

On top of that, I have too many examples of my age being used to discount my work. Not too long ago, the New York Post’s John Podhoretz called me a “child” on Twitter. More pervasively, the label “millennial” is so stigmatized that it is treated as a bad word. I think the biggest misconception is that we — and, yeah, you guys technically count as millennials! — are disengaged. Low voter turnout is a statistical reality, but it doesn’t tell the full story of the ways in which we are alienated from the political conversation.

7. You endured a very public string of harassment from former Pharma Bro and currently incarcerated felon Martin Shkreli. The experience actually resulted in Shkreli being kicked off Twitter. It’s no secret that you endure abuse on social media, as do so many women who write on the internet. Have there been instances where you’ve felt genuinely threatened and unsafe? How have you handled those moments? What, if anything, have you had to change about your life online in light of all of the abuse you receive? And, much more importantly, what needs to happen so that the future isn’t this bleak?

Interestingly enough, Martin Shkreli getting banned from Twitter is one of the worst things that happened to me this year. Afterwards, his followers attacked me by the thousands, threatening rape, death and doxxing, if I didn’t let Martin back on Twitter, as if that was my decision! It took all of 45 seconds to hit “report,” screenshot Martin’s page and tweet it at Jack. His followers apparently felt that me defending myself in any capacity was the equivalent of being a “professional victim.”

It’s all so exhausting. I have methods for mitigating it now, but the reality is that harassment takes a toll. Any time ugliness enters my viewfinder, that costs me time and energy. Those are capitalistic forces, which put all female writers, and, frankly, all women, at a disadvantage. I don’t have a solution for rampant misogyny/the general ugliness of humanity, but I have found that positive forces are more powerful than evil ones. There are a lot of people who go out of their way to send me kind notes, and, sometimes, cute pics of their dogs. I see that as a greater expenditure of energy than someone dehumanizing me while hiding behind a screen. Instead, it takes an acknowledgement of my humanity, and the active effort of recognizing that. For anyone hoping to improve the quality of the public square, I’d say: Keep doing that, please! Take the time to let the writers you appreciate, and especially vocal women, know they are doing important work that moves you. We eat a lot of shit, and the good vibes make a difference.

8. Your voice as a writer and on social media, even when discussing very, very serious issues, is often quite funny. Often, your tweets are just straight-up jokes. I believe you’ve called your brand, “comedic anthropology.” How difficult is it to write funny? Is this a skill that could translate to, say, stand-up? At what point in your development of a writer did you recognize that comedy was going to be an important part of your arsenal? And how useful of a tool is comedy, especially when you’re writing about topics that might not obviously be targets of it?

OK, again, wishing this was an audio interview, because then my answer would be [flirty giggles that quickly transition into sobbing]. It’s challenging, because a lot of people are huge jerks with no sense of humor. Honestly, I’m just waiting to be hung in effigy over a joke that doesn’t land. Back in May, for example, there was a bad-faith, alt-right effort to frame one of my dumbass tweets as an assassination attempt, and it ended up on the Today show. It’s dangerous out there, but not enough to push me toward straight-laced earnestness. I definitely don’t think I’m stand-up funny, but I strongly believe comedy is important, especially in these impossibly toxic times. It also helps make political commentary more inclusive. Insider nonsense is alienating, but everyone can bond over the fact that Steve Bannon looks like a human carbuncle.

On a more serious note, I’ve had to figure out how to maintain my voice, while avoiding the machinations of a hoard of malicious assholes who are apparently waiting to derail my career. I think the fact that I’m a young woman has a lot to do with that. I’m all too aware that the problem is often not what I’m saying, but the fact that a young woman is speaking up at all.

9. What needs to change about political journalism?

There are two core problems in political journalism right now: a lack of accessibility and the performance of objectivity. Far too many political writers are writing for insiders, and ultimately failing to do the work to break down the landscape for the average citizen. You need to be five kinds of highly specialized lawyer to fully grapple with a lot of the stories coming out of the Trump administration, and journalists need to devote more effort to helping the electorate parse through all that information. Then there’s the issue of public trust. The attempt to appear neutral in response to Trump’s attacks on the press has created an echo chamber of false equivalency. Political journalists need to stop fighting so desperately to seem unbiased, and instead rely on being transparent about their method of objectivity. As an industry, we need to focus on better communicating and executing our ultimate goal: holding power accountable by arming the public with information.

10. Last spring you had the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. That sounds… very hard. How did you go about figuring out what you wanted to say? How did you even know what a commencement address should be? What was the experience of actually giving it like? Oh, and did you get to eat at Bizen in Great Barrington? If not, you should have. It’s awesome. (Shameless plug: Jared’s cousin is the owner and sushi chef there.)

Writing a commencement speech was very hard, because commencement speeches are terrible! Almost every one I have ever heard is filled with meaningless platitudes that feel vaguely rousing in the moment, only to be forgotten by the time everyone gets their hands on the free sandwiches. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels thinking about what to write, and then it occurred to me that I needed to say all of the things that I wish I had heard on graduation day. I think I did a good job with that. Anyway, at least one of the students thought I was better than Paul Krugman the year before.

(I did not eat at Bizen, but maybe I will next time I’m in Great Barrington! I’ve since become friends with the president of Simon’s Rock, Ian Bickford, and his wife, and they occasionally host group Shakespeare readings. The next one is Richard II, and I have my fingers crossed for the role of Henry Bolingbroke.)

 

 

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A Q&A with Scott Raab on Cleveland, breaking through as a writer at the age of 40 and the art of the celebrity profile

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 Scott Raab, formerly of Esquire, and, well, it’s absolutely amazing. Scott is an incredible writer, and it shows throughout the interview. We’re lucky to have him as a guest. Here, we discuss Scott’s beloved hometown of Cleveland, his long history of writing classic celebrity profiles, drinking and drugging on the job and so, so much more. This is one you will absolutely want to read from beginning to end.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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 worked on my junior-high paper, the Wiley Wigwam, 50-plus years ago; nothing about the experience stuck. By that time, though, I was already an established poet. A sullen, miserable student—I have the report cards to prove that—at my sixth-grade graduation I was called upon to declaim my in-memoriam stanzas for JFK, the first of which I still know by heart:

         President number thirty-five

         Died in a tragic way;

         An assassin’s bullet struck him down.

         He would have been forty-seven in May.

 I had no special talent, clearly. The gift was my conviction that this was my life’s calling—to WRITE.

Over the 13 years I stumbled to a BA in English, on and off, mostly drunk, at Cleveland State University, I never thought to take a journalism course. I applied to 3 MFA programs; the only one that let me in was Iowa’s. After I graduated in 1986, my first wife got into the UI medical school; to help make ends meet, I tried my hand at a Tuesday op-ed column for the Daily Iowan, the student paper.

 The DI column paid $25/week, and, looking back, taught me a lot about craft, concision, and voice. What struck me then was the realization that if I ever finished a short-story collection or a first novel—and if I found a publisher—it might move 2,000 copies, mainly to MFAss-hats like me, but a 700-word screed making fun of the Hawkeye kicker for crossing himself before every field-goal attempt immediately set fire to the hair of 20,000 readers. That was cool.

From there, I rode the hard rail of white-male privilege and great good luck, those fraternal twins. Here I mean no disrespect to myself or the guys who helped me—Bob Shacochis, Curt Pesmen and David Granger above all. All know is that in 1992, when I turned 40, me and my MFA were living in Philadelphia, still freelancing columns to an alt-weekly to help make the same ends meet, at $40/column, still writing fiction. A year later, I had a deal with GQ—four features per year at $10K each.

My shit was better, even the fiction, but not that much better. Again, no false modesty or white male guilt meant. I’m hardly the wokest old fart on the planet, but I’d feel stupid and dishonest not to point out that my two greatest led-the-way achievements were being born white and male. I got into a prestige MFA mill, and that led directly to me getting a shot at New York City glossies, and being straight, white and male helped me in every possible way, except for the fiction.

Sorry. You were saying?

2. It’s impossible to discuss your career as a writer without mentioning your hometown: Cleveland. You talk about your upbringing throughout your work, and it’s clear your Cleveland upbringing remains a significant part of your identity. Heck, you even have Chief Wahoo tattooed on your arm (though you have advocated for the elimination of the logo since). How has your hometown impacted your career? How does your “Clevelandness” manifest in your writing?

Between the Clevelandness and the Jewiness and the voice of a guy who spent 25 years at men’s magazines, I can’t tell what’s what or what’s Cleveland beyond my attitude, nor do I give a fuck.

SEE WHAT I DID THERE? That’s Cleveland: I do not give a fuck, because I assume that you’re making fun of me, and even if not, you will be any minute. Because Cleveland.

Look, my hometown was proud of itself when I was a tyke. No one made fun of it. Even the motherfucking Browns were great. I saw it all turned into a national joke in my 20s, and that left me bitter, enraged. (This fits nicely with my family history.) So I will say what I want the way I want to say it. I want to make it good. I want editors to love it. I want to piss you off and make you laugh, make you SEE. But writing is not a debate or a creative partnership. I own the voice and point of view. I own the fucking writing.

That’s not integrity; it’s attitude, and that attitude and voice come from Cleveland and took me a long way. I’m still proud of Cleveland. And I’m still ashamed of it—of its struggles and failures and massive collective inferiority complex. I’m also proud to have represented the place and ashamed of shamelessly milking it for material and money.

I left for Iowa in 1984 sure that I’d be coming back to live. That was half my life ago, yet I still half-believe it.

Its greatest impact on my career by far is all that rich source material. I wrote a shit-ton of Cleveland stories for GQ and Esquire starting years before the GOAT left the Cavs in 2010. I owe more than I can ever repay to that place.

(Regarding the Wahoo tat: I was drunk with Dennis Rodman in Dallas in 1994, profiling him for GQ, and he was planning to get a two-day cross-back job and I already had a couple of tattoos I got in 1971 in Long Beach, Calif., so what the fuck. It took me few years to see it for what it was—purely a racist caricature—but I’ve done squat about it beyond lip service because I mainly stay inside the house, plus I just don’t give a fuck.)

3. You’ve talked a lot about how you didn’t break through as a full-time writer until you were 40-years-old. Besides good fortune, what do you think changed for you as a writer that allowed you to rise at that point in your career? What did you know about writing then that you didn’t know as a younger, struggling writer? Can any of it be taught to a younger writer now without the simple fact of life experience?

Coming up as I did, mad about Bukowski, Kafka, and William Blake, I’m a believer in Bird’s dictum: If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. But I also buy Gus Flaubert when he says he’s Madame Bovary. Your inner and outer lives shape each other ineluctably while you grow, even in the womb. The one and only rule of making Art is that THERE ARE NO RULES.

But there can be no Art without Craft, whose rules, like notes and chords, yield infinite possibility. For a long time I believed in living hard, loving hard and drinking hard, but it took me for-fucking-ever to get the part about writing hard—not just offering spiritual and emotional sweat in pursuit of pixie dust, but wrestling on the page with words and sentences, over and over. Struggling to write good always means first writing bad EVERY FUCKING TIME, long past the point of young.

It’s hard to tell a story in language, to find a voice, to connect with another brain, using nothing but words. But it’s not magic; it’s work.

The struggle is in itself the measure of commitment. Your ability to tolerate discomfort and keep working is the most important talent of all. That’s the biggest thing I didn’t know.

All that other crap that falls under ‘teaching’—write what you know, show don’t tell, assiduously avoid adverbs—should come with years of studying the writing you admire—reading like an apprentice intent on mastering a craft. If you’re NOT reading a book you adore for an hour every day, at least, I don’t know how you’re going to become a better writer.

At Iowa I found confidence and connections, but I also landed a job writing ads for a software outfit in Cedar Rapids—direct mail, catalog copy, print ads. I took it no less seriously than the workshop fiction I had written. It felt like a grind because it was; for the first time, I was a real professional writer working in an actual business. I had to produce. I didn’t last a full year at it, but it sharpened my shit, gave me purpose and structure, and prepped me for the fat chances that came along a few years later. I knew I had to deliver, no matter what.

4. Speaking of Cleveland, you’ve written two books on the city’s favorite, then most hated and now once again favorite son, LeBron James. One, boldly, was called“The Whore of Akron.” The follow-up, after the Cavaliers won a championship, was titled “You’re Welcome, Cleveland.” At any point in the past seven years have you heard from LeBron James? What about the Cavaliers? If you did have a chance to speak with LeBron now, what did/would you say? Do you have any regrets?

Not a word from LeBron or any of his friends, business associates or family. I enjoyed a superficial but complex relationship with Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ owner, but that ended when LeBron returned in 2014 and I was told don’t come around here no more.

I do have personal regrets, which I tried to elucidate near the start of You’re Welcome, Cleveland. For one thing, Whore is in large part a verbal assault upon a young man of color by a bitter and enraged white fanboy. I felt that as I wrote the thing, understood my narrating self was hideously deranged—you should see what the editors took out—and wrote about it in the book. There’s some shame in embarrassing myself like that, but it’s not like I ever sat down and read it and felt that.

I realized while working on the second book that I do regret bringing any pain to LeBron’s kids—should they ever come to know that Whore exists. I didn’t think about this then, and I STRONGLY doubt I would have changed a word, the title least of all.  Hey, my own mother so hated what I wrote about her in Whore that she threatened to boycott my son’s bar mitzvah. So, sure, I have personal regrets, but I don’t give a fuck. I’m a monster. A terrible person. With regrets. And shame. Who cares? It’s a good book.

I do NOT have professional regrets, which is to say that I meant every word I wrote. That the motherfucker comes back and becomes the very Moses I excoriated him for not being sooner—that isn’t irony. It’s justice. For once in the living history of Cleveland sports, a fucking miracle! Even now, especially now, I can’t quite believe it truly came to pass. And LeBron returns not only as a hardwood savior but as a mensch in full. Thousands of scholarships, the courage to speak truth to power—‘U Bum’ may be the most eloquent political speech of the century so far—the man is a genuine hero, and I’ll forever be the schmuck who wrote The Whore of Akron.

That’s justice. And in real life, I lived long enough to see the end of my hometown’s 52-year championship drought, watched Game 7 in a Cleveland saloon with my son on Father’s Day. Two books plus me and the kid starred in a fucking ESPN 30 for 30. We stood inside the rope at the motherfucking championship parade. Given a chance to speak with LeBron, I’d just thank him for the title and the awesome assist.

5. You wrote what can only be described as a remarkable series of stories for Esquire about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. It was 10 pieces that spanned 10 years, meaning you covered and wrote about the same story for an entire decade. This is like the “Boyhood” of journalism. What was the genesis of that series? When did you realize it was going to be a project that would consume such a long period of your life? How much time was spent in between stories preparing for the next one, even as you continued writing about other things in between?

The specific idea was Mark Warren’s—Mark is insanely brilliant. And Granger always wanted to do big things, things that only a magazine could do. I was psyched as hell about it—a 10-year writing project about a story of that magnitude, for Esquire: Who the fuck wouldn’t kill for that?

And I loved that job right from the start, even after I grew to hate writing it. I mean, I had to reinvent the wheel every fucking time. I could never assume that a reader had read or remembered a whole range of detail across a decade, and by the sixth or seventh piece—they were all at least seven or eight thousand words, I think—I had to check out prior chapters to make sure that I wasn’t plagiarizing lines of my own shit. But the reporting, and the people I met, the privilege—Mark and I talked about that a lot—the honor of telling a vast and meaningful story about New York City and 9/11 across 10 years: What a rich and precious experience.

We went into it not knowing what we didn’t know—especially about the pure power politics and the gravitational mass of the billions and billions of dollars that shaped the rebuilding and every aspect of our project. We tried to focus on the site itself, the bedrock and nearby Hudson River, and the complexities of erecting a super-skyscraper. I followed the steel from where it was rolled in Luxembourg to where it was loaded in Belgium and unloaded in Virginia. I wrote about glass and concrete and architecture and geotechnical engineering. I had to read a lot of books and articles, find guides and sources willing to be patient and open with me, and stay atop an ever-rising mountain of notes, clips, tapes, transcripts, photos, and hard hats.

That was wonderful stuff. The politics were tough. Following the money was tough. Writing about security issues also. I had a lot of help from a lot of folks, obviously, including a masterful researcher, Andrew Chaikivski. I myself worked my balls off, including between stories. The ground, metaphorical and not, was shifting constantly; key players came and went, new deals also. I kept in touch. I found what I had to find to keep pushing the story, in desperate need at many points. God DAMN it, that was some horrible fun.

6. You are particularly well known for your celebrity profiles—a particular kind of story that often elicits a strong reaction from people, especially journalists. Most celebrity profiles these days, to put it frankly, are bad. They’re often too fawning and reveal nothing about the person besides that he or she has a new movie coming out soon. You, however, have written some classics, from Bill Murray to Paul Newman to Ryan Seacrest. What makes for a good celebrity profile, and what do you see as the value of them? Why do you think most of them are so… mediocre? How do you get these celebrities to open up and reveal themselves?

Any chance at good comes only with access. I spent 4-5 days in L.A. with Seacrest. Newman’s innards weren’t accessible, but he gave me time in New York City and Westport, Conn., and I flew to Florida just to watch him drive a racecar. Murray is just a great guy, Sean Penn and Robert Downey likewise. Mickey Rourke was a dick, but he gave me a lot of time. The best you can hope for is time talking to your subject and time seeing your subject in the world—at work, or at least in the company of others.

Fuck the myth of Talese. Those days are gone, those budgets are gone, those word-counts in print are gone, and no one’s paying for write-arounds. Starfucking is purely business, always was and always will be. Stars do it because they’ve got product to pitch and you’re pitching them to be the face of your product that month. When I left Esquire a couple of years ago, it was tougher than ever to get more than 2-3 hours total with the biggest names. There’s no way I could knit a ball-gown out of that. I gave it all I had every time out—”I worked the same hard on all of them,” Bill Murray said when I asked about Garfield—and more than once, I still sucked.

I don’t know any opening-up tricks. I aim to be punctual and presentable, in my fashion. I get extra-nervous. I’m high-strung every day anyway, excitable, worried. I allay that on a job by reading all I can dig up about my subject, studying whatever onscreen work I can find—movies, interviews, talk-show clips—taking notes, hunting quotes, through-lines, and connections.

I try to be peppy instead of anxious when I arrive. I don’t think of it as transactional. It’s a semi-blind date. I want us to have fun. I want to laugh. I want to love. Star, smile, strong, like Danny Rose said. I’m smitten by stars like Robert Redford and Charlize Theron. I’m nothing if not a product of American pop culture, and I’m warmed basking in their glow. Often I felt gratitude for the pleasure someone had given me over the years. I told them so, spoke from my heart about how much their work means to me. I’ve fawned plenty. I’ve begged. I’ve teased and taunted, too, a few times. Whatever it took.

Valuation is strictly up to the reader. I understand the value of celebrity profiles to a magazine to be of huge importance, but not so much my pretty words. After three decades walking the wheel of celebrity profiles, I reinvented the celebrity Q&A, me and one of my favorite guys in the business, Ross McCammon. Almost zero writing. Some of my best work.

7. You’re style of writing is often personal. You use your life to bridge divides with the subject and the reader—obviously, your Cleveland fandom, your life, etc. How do you decide how much you want to reveal about yourself? How do you avoid making these pieces as much about yourself as the person the story is supposed to be about?

I don’t decide. I stopped deciding while working on the first story I ever wrote for Granger, at GQ, about a crackhead basketball coach at my alma mater, Cleveland State. It’s how I write. I’m in there—in the World Trade Center series, even, “I” narrate, undisguisedly.

To a fault? Yes, to a fault. I spent thirty years writing features for national magazines and not once was I even a finalist for an ASME award, and after eons of pissy envy, I came to believe that my own overbearing first-person voice and my relentless vulgarity were at least partly why. I realized also that I did and do not give a fuck. I had a perfect magazine career.

8. You make a living off profiling and writing about celebrities and movie stars and athletes and writing about them in three-dimensional ways. But you’re also a huge Cleveland sports fan, and sports fandom is often about looking at athletes as ballplayers and nothing more. In fact, being a sports fan sometimes requires valuing people for the uniforms they wear and not their actual humanity. How do you reconcile these two things?

This I’ve never reconciled, despite trying for two books. Jim Thome was just elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, and I want to feel good for him, because he deserves the honor. My problem is that before leaving as a free agent in 2002—after 12 seasons with the Tribe—he told Cleveland fans he’d stay. “They will have to rip this jersey off of me” is what he said, but the Phillies offered him a longer deal and Jim Thome left. I love baseball most of all the sports, I love Cooperstown, and I’ve never seen a Cleveland Indian inducted. Now next summer is my first real chance, to see Thome join the immortals, and the odds of me being there are nil because of what he said and did back then. His name and number were on the first Cleveland sports t-shirt I ever bought my son. He lied and left. And so Jim Thome’s dead to me.

It’s funny: I got an e-mail from a lifelong friend last night: “Thome, that fuck…..The statue in front of The Jake should have his jersey being torn off…..”

That was the whole e-mail.

9. You’ve said you’ve smoked weed with Tupac. You’ve said you got so loaded with the late Jason Miller that you wound up not even writing the profile. I’m sure there are other experiences we’re missing. What is your approach to drinking/drugging while on assignment? What do your editors think about it? This isn’t to make any of that taboo— we’re not Puritans here—but it’s also not typical for a journalist to get drunk with his subject!

Pac was rolling and toking in the VIP area of a dance club, hanging with Mickey Rourke, and no one else was partaking with him, so what the fuck. Jason Miller implored me not to write the profile of him, for his sake. Turns out I wasn’t the first “journalist” he’d compromised in some way. Anyhow, I sobered up late in 1994—after these events—and my judgment got better, personal and professional.

Maybe it’s not an issue if it happens organically in the reporting, like the Tupac thing. I’m not an editor; I can’t judge other writers. Lucky for me, Granger always stood by me, even when I was trouble, which I too often was.

You know what? I did a Q&A in Raleigh, NC, in late June 2015, with Keith Richards, and I brought a pin-joint and told him I brought it just, you know, in case. He laughed it off very nicely. Trust me, I knew full well it was unprofessional and inappropriate, and yet the cosmos put me in the same room as Keith fucking Richards and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to get high with him.

10. You’ve written a lot about food over your career, but from a different perspective: You are decidedly against haute cuisine and have described yourself as a “a fat Jew from Cleveland” happiest eating corned beef from Slyman’s Deli in Cleveland. What do you make of the current food culture? What do you think has led to rise of “artisanal” and “small-batch” everything? What do you get out of writing about food?

A friend of mine sent me a link to a couple of Brooklyn delis that execute Reuben “concepts”; one of them replaces the rye bread with potato latkes. To me it’s a joke. I grew up in my grandparents’ home and they were blue-collar immigrants, a railroad laborer and a bakery clerk. Cold cuts cost a lot. We ate thick slices of salami, not shaved corned beef or pastrami. The Reuben was my Grail. Put your concept on a cinnamon-raisin bagel and shove it up your ass.

The rise of such joints is easy to explain: Even smart people are foolish, especially when young. I get the part about deriving meaning and excitement from food, but not in this world at those prices, and surely not in a class-bound competition for culinary cool. It may be delicious, but it’s silly at best.

When I go into the city now to eat, it’s at Katz’s. I get a pastrami sandwich and a side of chopped liver with seeded rye. I’ll eat and like every bite of almost anything—I am still fat, still a Jew, and still from Cleveland—but that’s where I go and what I eat. I’m sure other folks can tell me about better pastrami and chopped liver, because that’s what people who like food in New York City do, but I know no words to describe the joy I feel eating my meal at Katz’s on a wobbly chair with my right hip aching. That’s where I belong.

What I got out of writing about food was the pleasure of the chewing and the tasting of the food. The writing part I can live without now—I retired. But not the food. Never the food.

A Q&A with Emma Span of Sports Illustrated on the future of the magazine, editing Tom Verducci and appearing on Jeopardy!

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 Emma Span, a senior baseball editor at Sports Illustrated. Emma took a particularly circuitous route in her career before eventually landing in sports journalism, where she quickly climbed the ranks to one of the most coveted positions in the industry. Here, we discuss her strange path, the future of Sports Illustrated and what it’s like to edit a legend like Tom Verducci.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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?

It was not exactly a direct route. I started right after college as an assistant at a talent agency, but I absolutely hated it (and also was bad at it). So I quit and got a job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. Then I got hired as a copywriter summarizing Z-grade DVDs for a company that sold those descriptions to online retailers—it was everything from Christian kids’ movies to German karaoke to anime porn. You can actually still find some of the descriptions I wrote for titles like “Stanley the Stinkbug Goes to Camp” and “Titaboobs Paradise” and “The Gingerdead Man” (which stars Gary Busey as a serial killer who gets reincarnated as an evil gingerbread man) on eBay or other sites. Anyway, I was bored out of my mind at that job, so in 2006 I started a baseball blog, really just to entertain myself. Based on that, the then-new editor at the Village Voice asked me if I wanted to do a few articles covering the Mets and Yankees.

It was quite a learning curve, because although I knew a lot about baseball I had never covered a single sporting event, and suddenly I was in the locker room at Shea Stadium, talking to Tom Glavine and trying not to throw up. I had very little idea of what I was doing, and I was basically paralyzed with anxiety. But I got a little less terrified as the weeks went on. The Voice hired me full time to cover sports… but less than a year later my editor got fired, and almost everyone he had hired got fired, including me. By then I had gotten an agent and written a proposal and I had a book deal, but not one that paid enough to live on, so I was working on that and freelancing and working a bunch of different day jobs to pay the bills—I sold mittens shaped like bear paws at the Union Square holiday market (shoutout to BearHands & Buddies), I ghostwrote dean’s letters for a Caribbean medical school, I temped for a Wall Street recruiting firm, I worked at a wine store in Murray Hill. I know I’m forgetting a few in there. Finally, after the book came out, I got a job as an associate editor on the night shift at The Daily, which was an iPad-only publication that also no longer exists. That was my first editing job, and I owe it to Chris D’Amico, the sports editor there who gave me a shot, and who died last year, way too young. The Daily sports staff got laid off about a year and a half after I started, shortly before the whole publication went under. But right after that I got hired as an editor at Sports on Earth, which was just getting ready to launch. And that turned out to be an amazing opportunity where I really got to shape our coverage and work with fantastic writers and a great editor in chief in Larry Burke. And in 2014 Chris Stone reached out to me about an open editing position at SI. So here I am. Exactly as planned.

2. Typically our guests here at The -30- are reporters, a job we know quite a bit about from our own experience. You, however, are not a reporter. You’re an editor — at Sports Illustrated no less! This is a job we know about mostly from working for our bosses. To people unfamiliar with journalism, the path to an editor seems clear: You pay your dues as a reporter and rise into a management role. That’s how it works in most industries. But as we all know, great reporters don’t necessarily make great editors, and vice versa. How important or necessary do you think reporting experience is for an editor? What do you makes a good editor? What advice would you give to writers who might fashion themselves as management material one day? 

Because there’s no other well-defined path to becoming an editor, people do tend to give you the chance based on the assumption that someone who’s a good writer can also be a good editor, and as you say, that’s not necessarily true. It’s a significantly different skill set. But I do think writing/reporting experience is important, so you can understand what your writers are dealing with and have a realistic sense of what will go into a given story and offer some guidance on it and just generally empathize. But I’ve learned so much about reporting and structuring stories since I became an editor; there are many pieces I wrote back in the day that I’d love to get a redo on.

My career path was so weird and roundabout that I always feel a little odd trying to give people advice or guidance on their own careers—you probably shouldn’t do what I did! Things more or less worked out, but I also had a lot of luck and a lot of opportunities and a lot of breaks along the way, and not everyone gets those things. My hope is that eventually, instead of just giving advice, I can be that break for other people.

3. Sports Illustrated consistently produces some of the country’s best sportswriting, but a lot has changed in the magazine world: Parent company Time Inc. has been sold to Meredith. The magazine’s print schedule has shrunk. The news cycle has sped up to the point where daily newspapers are struggling to stay current, let alone weekly magazines. Given that, what do you see as the role of Sports Illustrated in the modern media landscape? What advantages does your publishing schedule give you?

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen when Meredith takes over. And a lot of the changes over the last few years—primarily, of course, the budget cuts and layoffs—have been really rough. SI has lost so many talented people. The new schedule, though, is actually one change that I don’t object to. The news cycle is so fast now that you can’t keep up with it as a weekly publication anyway, and we had already been trying to move away from game stories and event coverage, because that’s not what readers need from us now. I think doing fewer, longer issues could allow us to really set our own agenda and focus on the kind of deeper stories that SI does well (and that we tend to enjoy the most). In theory, at least, I think it might not be a bad thing.

4. As a senior editor for SI’s baseball coverage you are on the team responsible for editing Tom Verducci, one of the most respected baseball writers of this or any other generation. What is it like editing somebody like Tom, compared to editing a story written by, say, a younger, less experienced or well-known writer? How if it at all do you treat his copy differently?  

I do edit Tom, and he is… not normal. Basically you can say to him, “Hey, can you get on a plane and talk to X player and get me 3,000 words by Friday?” and the answer is generally yes, and the story is always good, and there is zero drama around any of it, ever. The first time I edited him, right after I started at SI, I was a little nervous, and I sent him probably a 600-word email explaining every change I had made to his story and why, and asking if there was anything he’d like to change or discuss. And he wrote back promptly, and the entirety of his email was two letters: “OK.” He wasn’t upset or trying to be terse or anything; it really just meant he was, in fact, OK with the edits. Tom doesn’t waste a lot of time. His copy comes in very clean, so edits are usually pretty light. He does tend to file long, so it’s not unusual to have to cut a few hundred (or even, once in a while, a couple thousand) words from his story to fit it in the magazine. Even then, he knows the drill and I think the most he’s ever protested is to mildly request that one or two sentences be restored.

During the 2015 World Series, Tom was calling every game for Fox in the booth, and the clinching game ended way past midnight on Sunday. The magazine goes to print on Mondays. By 7 a.m., there were 3,000+ clean, deeply reported words in my inbox. I still have no idea how he did that, but no one in the office had any doubt that he would pull it off. During October I think he just doesn’t sleep, and last winter he wrote a very good book in something like two months. I can’t say with any certainty that he isn’t a cyborg. (On the off chance he reads this, I hope it’s clear that I’m comparing him to a cyborg in the most positive sense possible.)

5. Writers don’t always agree with their editor. Sometimes, writers might even confront an editor to complain about their, let’s say, differing creative visions for a story. How do you handle that situation as an editor? How do you balance your journalistic instincts with the reality that in addition to a journalist, you are also a manager of people?

Heh. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on what kind of disagreement it is. If it’s something relatively minor like a word choice, or whether a certain quote or detail needs to be in there, then I’m more likely to give it to the writer if they feel strongly about it—in the end, it’s their name on the piece, not mine, so it’s important that they’re OK with it. If a disagreement is about clarity or accuracy, it’s obviously more important; and it’s also my job to occasionally save writers from themselves and save the publication from potential embarrassment. So if it’s not a matter of stylistic preference, but something bigger and more substantive, then I owe it to all of us to be firm. But honestly, that’s been very rare at SI. Even the younger or less-experienced writers I work with are really smart, talented people, and it’s extremely unusual for there to be a really big problem that someone is truly unwilling to change. When a writer and I do disagree, we can almost always come to a compromise that works for both of us. (In the past I’ve worked with a few writers for whom that was… less the case. That’s when it’s important to have a boss who’ll back you up, which I’ve generally been fortunate enough to have.)

6. You came to journalism on a somewhat circuitous path: You were a film studies major at Yale. Given that, it seems unlikely that baseball writing was your first dream. What were your aspirations that led you to study film? What caused you to shift over to journalism? How if at all has your film background come in handy in your journalism career?

As you can probably figure out from my answer to the first question, you are correct. I grew up a huge baseball fan (in New Jersey, rooting for the Yankees) and I always wanted to be a writer, but it honestly never occurred to me to be a sports writer. I’m not sure why not. I was always pretty much a nerd, so maybe it just seemed too jock-ish to be an option for me back them. Growing up I wanted to write fiction and then, as I got older and became a big movie geek, screenplays. That’s why I was a film major, and why I started working at a talent agency after college. Obviously things went a little differently. But I would say that storytelling is still storytelling, whether it’s a novel or a screenplay or a nonfiction piece about a pitcher. And I think what novels and movies and baseball all have in common is that you can lose yourself in them. That’s what’s so great about the baseball schedule, even though it’s brutal to cover it: Almost every day you get a new game, which is basically a new chapter in the story of the season. You can forget everything else for nine innings and immerse yourself in it.


7. What needs to be changed about baseball coverage and sportswriting?
There’s a lot of good baseball writing happening now—more than I have time to read. But though things in this area have improved a bit since I started, sportswriting in general and baseball writing in particular are still enormously white and enormously male, even though that doesn’t really reflect the fan base (or, when it comes to ethnicity, the players). Within that larger problem, I think baseball writing desperately needs more bilingual, Spanish-speaking writers. There are a number of great ones out there, for sure, but we still need more. (That includes SI— we now have several Spanish-speaking writers, where we used to have zero, but we still need to do better.) More than 30% of MLB players are Latino, including a lot of the best and most interesting and most exciting players in the league. While many speak English, a lot of Latino players are still, naturally, most comfortable in their first language. It’s definitely a step in the right direction that every MLB team is supposed to have a translator now, but if you’ve ever done interviews though a translator, you know that it’s just not quite the same: It’s harder to get a real conversation going, harder to capture a player’s voice. I think there are great stories in the game that aren’t getting told because of the language barrier.

8. You are a big baseball fan. At some point watching baseball was relaxation for you — a chance to unwind — but you’ve said before that even that is now work. That’s a common refrain for sportswriters — that obsession becomes occupation. Not that this is some kind of grueling put-upon, but do you miss watching baseball as a fan not as an editor? Your book, “90% of the Game is Half Mental” chronicled your love for the sport and the meaning it held for you. Where does the sport fit into your life now?

I do miss that aspect of it a bit, but I definitely will never complain about having to watch baseball as part of my job. When I first started I couldn’t really imagine not being a fan anymore, and I thought that sounded really sad… but it’s actually a pretty natural process, and I still love watching baseball, just in a different way than I used to. At this point I will watch whatever game seems most interesting or most important every night, and to the extent that I root for anything it’s generally based on what stories we have coming up—if we have a big Cody Bellinger article in the works, then I hope he plays well and, most of all, doesn’t get injured. (I can’t tell you how often injuries have derailed good stories in the last year or so.) If we’re working on something about the Nationals’ great pitching, of course I want the Nats to pitch well. But mostly I just root for interesting things to happen and for compelling characters and storylines to emerge, regardless of team. It’s not a bad way to watch games, even if it’s different and less emotional than the way I used to watch.

9. Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview edition is a mammoth output every year. How do you put that thing together? How early do you start working on it? Who talks to all those scouts and picks the pithiest quotes? What kind of feedback do you get from fans of the team you pick to win the World Series? (You know, considering the SI jinx and all.)

I start working on it right about… [checks watch]… now. Things won’t get truly crazy until spring training starts, because the reporting can’t really get underway before then, but we’re already starting to plan out the big stories and the covers and all that. It is huge, generally more than 70 edit pages, and it’s the hardest thing I do every year, though also one of the most enjoyable and engaging. The last few weeks before it closes, I just don’t schedule anything else because I know I’m going to be working on it pretty much every minute that I’m not sleeping or trying to keep my 1-year-old from playing with knives. We divide talking to the scouts between four or five of us—myself and the writers—and I always make time for that because I really love talking with scouts, especially when they have anonymity and can really get on a roll. The writers will send me 1,000-2,000 word transcripts for each team and I edit that down to about 350 or 400 words per team.
We do always hear from angry fans convinced that we jinxed their ballclub, but for the most part, it’s all in good fun… or at least, I try to take it that way. Every year I tell people: There’s no jinx, we’re just wrong a lot. But we haven’t decided who we’re picking to win the World Series this year yet, so for the record, it’s not too late to bribe me.


10. So you were a contestant on Jeopardy! I mean… that’s awesome. How did this happen? What was it like? What do we as the audience not see? Basically… tell us everything about this experience, particularly the “tricky buzzer timing.”

There’s an online test that anyone can sign up for, and if you get a certain score on that, you can go to a big in-person audition. I did it on a whim, because I loved watching Jeopardy!, because again, I am a nerd. It was fun, but it was also frustrating because I just could not get the buzzer timing right—I was either too early, which doesn’t count and freezes you out, or too late, so that the other contestants beat me to it—so there were a lot of questions I knew that I couldn’t properly buzz in for, including one where the answer was, “Who is Mickey Mantle?” which, as you can imagine, just killed me. I couldn’t believe that even on Jeopardy!, basically the dorkiest possible competition, my lack of hand-eye coordination was such a big factor. But in the end, it probably didn’t matter because I would never have gotten the Final Jeopardy answer in a million years —it was a tough one about the Queen Elizabeth II’s cruise ship, which is not exactly my area of expertise. I came in second and the guy who beat me, Terry from Plano, Texas, went on to the Tournament of Champions, so at least I lost to a formidable competitor.

There was a bit of a scandal about the guy who came in third, Jeff. It turned out that he had been on the show once before, years earlier, which isn’t supposed to be allowed, but somehow he had slipped through. Fans of the show figured it out when the episode aired and he was retroactively ruled ineligible. It turned out he was even wearing the exact same tie he’d worn earlier. So, even though I didn’t win, at least I got to indirectly be part of some Jeopardy! trivia.

 

A Q&A with Howard Megdal on starting a political journalism website, the meaning of “objectivity” and covering women’s sports

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 Howard Megdal, a longtime sportswriter who recently has transitioned to a new venture: He started 50 States of Blue, a new website dedicated to “local news and progressive politics” from across the United States. Here, we talk to Howard about the genesis of the project, his business model for the site and how to produce reliable, trustworthy journalism with a clear point-of-view. Oh, and we find some time to talk sports writing, too.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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’d wanted to write since before I ever left school. I remember the joy of even going into the newspaper offices the fall of my freshman year at Bard. I started a publication there as well, called “The Outside World,” and eventually found a job at a daily called the Hudson Register-Star, a swing position with some news, some sports coverage. The Register-Star was a proud, storied paper that dated back to the 19th century, our building atop an old city jail, with cells we could go visit in the basement. It feels like I got in just under the wire in experiencing that newsroom, a very 20th century moment in time, but the training I got there, doing everything from writing to paginating to editing to even sending the newspaper via a creaky old Apple to the newsroom and hoping desperately it got to the press room, well, I loved it desperately.
Then I met my wife, who lived further downstate, and decided to try moving to freelancing. I was fortunate enough to bug the right person—Josh Benson, then of the New York Observer—who eventually let me go cover the Subway Series for him. I wrote for him there, then moved with him to his startup Capital New York, while finding a lit agent and publisher for my first book, “The Baseball Talmud,” a ranking of Jewish baseball players by position, and I was on my way.
2. You recently founded a new venture called 50 States of Blue, a media outlet you described as “a national hub for local news and progressive politics from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” There’s a lot to ask about this project, but let’s begin broadly: What was the genesis of 50 States of Blue? What inspired you to create it, and how did you go about implementing that vision? As somebody who has mostly covered sports before this, what was it like transitioning into political journalism?
The current landscape for media has a clear tilt, and it has nothing to do with bad faith on the part of legacy media, in my opinion. We have great institutions and reporters in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Jake Tapper at CNN, and so many more. They are not here to tilt the scales. And they shouldn’t. But there is a remarkable number of right-wing outlets pushing the arguments ever rightward. And there simply aren’t enough outlets doing reporting work to counter it, both by evidence and analysis. Take a look at this Pew Research survey of how media covers Donald Trump. The usual suspects from the right are here, and let’s not pretend this is merely analysis from a conservative point of view—Fox News is propaganda, it doesn’t ever even try to cover the news in a comprehensive way to the point it is essentially meme-worthy every time something huge breaks. Breitbart is here.
And what, exactly, is coming from the left? Even someone like Rachel Maddow, who doesn’t hide her point of view, is trying to present the facts as she understands them. It is a different game. And I think it needs to be, should be. We don’t wish to echo the propaganda of the right. But it does require more people doing this work. And as wide as this disparity is nationally, it is even worse at the local and state levels. Papers that did so much of this vital, necessary reporting are disappearing. So you have the right propaganda, which is now settling into the water supply locally as well thanks to Sinclair and syndicated radio, and not even the perspective-free reporting to counter it nearly as much.
We want to be sure that we tell those stories, make those points. We cannot turn the tide alone. But we hope to provide both a template for the solution and, as we grow, a partial counterweight to something that has fundamentally curdled the ability to inform a large segment of the public.

 

3. One of the most interesting aspects of 50 States of Blue is the clear point of view: This is a website from the point of view of left-leaning politics. This, of course, would appear to violate the concept of “objectivity” or “impartiality” in American journalism. How can you produce reliable, trustworthy journalism within that framework? What is the difference between “point of view” and “bias?” What does “objectivity” even mean in 2018 journalism?

That last question is the real one, with the addendum: Why on earth would it matter? Jay Rosen’s done a lot of excellent work on this. The lazy critique of media from the right for a long time was the idea that because reporters were disproportionately liberal, news would automatically have a “liberal” bias. And I shudder when I see similarly simplistic critiques of the media from the left. Ultimately, “media” is a hugely disparate group of people with many competing pressures that affect coverage. Some are good at their jobs. Some are not. And for me, it comes down to two key questions about a journalist or outlet: How often is the analysis borne out by what happens? And how often are the facts reported in a story subsequently corroborated? Those are my metrics. I’ll read anyone, right, left, who does well by those two. Because it isn’t about teams. It’s about getting as accurate an understanding of the world as possible. And to that end: anything that tries to spin information to best help your “side” instead of informing, with perspective, is not just poor journalism—it is actively undermining the information flow to those you aim to inform. That helps no one.

4. On another subject, 50 States of Blue appears to be largely set up as a series of microsites, one for each state. Writer compensation “is based on audience per post.” This model, as you well know, has been a controversial one, as it rewards stories that are easily digestible and hurts stories that could be incredibly vital—but are boring or difficult to read. How much do you worry about writers tailoring their coverage for social media viralness over quality? How do you compensate for the fact that, say, a reporter in Montana naturally will have a smaller audience than a reporter in California? How did you decide this was the best model for paying your staff?

The essential points here are twofold. By using this model, rather than a stipend, we make sure that our writers are rewarded as we grow. So there’s initial buy-in required, as we build, but there’s a far larger award possible if we grow the way we believe we can. But to the Montana-California point: We don’t see some separation between local and national. That is, almost always, an artificial construct. So we had significant readership in Alabama, given the news there over our first few weeks. Was the Roy Moore/Doug Jones story a local one? Yes. A national one? Yes. We promote both out national work and those from the states equally, and ultimately, when something vital happens in one state, we believe strongly there is a national audience for reading it. The work itself, however, comes from someone on the ground, best able to analyze it.

5.  In addition to your political venture, you’ve been a media player for quite a while in the world of women’s sports, especially women’s basketball. Last year you created The Summit, a site devoted to coverage of women’s basketball. You’ve also been involved with Excelle Sports. What drew you to covering women’s sports? To what extent do you feel like an advocacy journalist for women’s sports?

Through the years, covering men’s sports, I have always enjoyed myself. But at no point did I feel as if, should I not cover an event, it wouldn’t get enough coverage, or even in many cases any coverage at all. Simply put, the more I covered women’s sports, the more I felt that way. I remember in the fall of 2015, I was covering the World Series and the WNBA playoffs. And after Game 5 at Citi Field, 1:30 in the morning, I’m at David Wright’s locker. You guys both know how great he is to cover. He spoke eloquently. It was wonderful. But there were another 25 reporters there with me. If I hadn’t been there, everyone still would have heard from him. I believed I could write it in my own way, and did, but still, the story was out there regardless.
Well, same month, I’m at Madison Square Garden for Liberty-Fever. And Tamika Catchings, who has a great case for being the most valuable player in the history of the WNBA, was in the midst of her final WNBA title push. I’d convinced my editor at the time to let me go big on her. I arrive, prepared to wait in line, and… there was no one else there for her. It was me and a videographer from the league. She was her customary amazing interview self, and then I watched her will her team to victory in a way I’ve seen few people ever manage in a team sport. I was thrilled to be there to cover it.

Had I not pitched it? That moment would have been lost. And that’s not some random moment: It is the greatest player in league history AT the world’s most famous arena. So in the weeks that followed, I kept getting haunted by that: How many other players, teams, moments got lost through our sports media lens that, for reasons both legacy-driven and discriminatory, don’t see their stories told? And I’ve made it a life goal to do all I can to, if not fix this imbalance by myself (which is obviously impossible, this requires buy-in from many outlets to end an absurd 100-1 imbalance in stories between men’s and women’s sports), to do what I can to push against it. It’s enormously rewarding work.

6. What has the growth of women’s sports coverage looked like in the time you’ve become involved and invested in that area? Is there more or less? How do we get more outlets to cover the WNBA, NWSL, track, etc.? Why should more outlets cover those leagues?

The easy answer is that more outlets need to do it. You cannot build up an audience for anything, women’s sports or anything else, without consistent coverage and access to it. So what you’ll occasionally see is a newspaper or television station do a bit of coverage of women’s sports. Well, how does it happen? Usually it is some reporter low on the totem pole sent out who doesn’t know much, or a reporter checking a box. So the audience the site already has cultivated is given something basic and uninteresting; the significant audience that would be interested either doesn’t know it is there or is put off by how basic or, worse, incorrect the story is; the audience as measured is meager; and the lesson is learned: “See, there’s no audience for women’s sports coverage.”
Of course, whenever there’s a sustained buy-in, women’s sports coverage does do well. Look at the way UConn women’s basketball is covered by Connecticut newspapers. And the Courant doesn’t do it out of the goodness of its hearts—it gets a big audience for it. Or take the 2015 women’s World Cup. Fox promoted it, built programming around it, used crossover promotion (Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach on The Simpsons, on American Idol) and the ratings exploded. Not even just for things like the final, which exceeded the audience for any soccer game, men’s or women’s, in U.S. history. But even the group games, like China-Brazil on a Tuesday afternoon, drew well.
Look, the extent to which people watch what media covers, rather than the other way around, can’t really be overstated. And the reason why to cover it like it matters? Well, leave morality out of it for a moment. Explain to me why it is so much easier for me to use things like score apps to get any Patriot League men’s basketball score than the UConn women. Explain to me how the professional exploits of players from the 2015 U.S. women’s soccer team so popular it set ratings records and had a pair of parades in New York and Los Angeles aren’t worthy of regular newspaper coverage. And if we see these stories ignored at the highest levels, despite success and audience, there’s a problem that has nothing to do with the false acceptance that this is just the way the world is.

 

Actually, it has a ton to do with the rise of women’s sports coinciding with a largely male set of decision-makers facing huge cuts to their budgets, making a leap forward into something new both difficult and seemingly unimportant to many (though definitely not all) of them. But many go ahead and blame women’s sports, which manages to continue to grow in remarkable ways into the wind of this media muting. I’m not buying it. And it needs to change. It will, ultimately, not because it is the right thing to do, but because while everyone chases the diminishing returns of the clicks from that same LaVar Ball story, a huge, undeserved women’s sports audience is just waiting to give the right outlets time, attention and money.

7. In 2011 you published a book called “Wilpon’s Folly,” which is a look inside the owners of the New York Mets’ and their ties to Bernie Madoff. The specter of Madoff has loomed over the Mets for years, but even to this day, it seems there are still more questions than answers about exactly what is going on at the highest levels of Mets. Why do you think this has been such a difficult story for journalists to crack? How do you think the media has done at covering the story? What was your reaction to this recent story by Newsday’s Marc Carig, who wrote perhaps the most biting takedown of the Wilpons in years?

I think there are excellent reporters on the Mets beat, Carig included. I think there are a few difficulties here. One is that covering a baseball team like a baseball team is both what most who are on the beat signed up for and, in and of itself, a full-time, grueling job. So to find time above and beyond that, especially without editors pushing for it (or who may instead get mad about lost scoops in the process), there’s no incentive for the reporters. (Though a forward-thinking editor who realizes his paper can be the go-to on this will do extremely well, as my pieces routinely led the day in audience, even once Capital New York was purchased by POLITICO and I was up against White House scoops.)
And that’s a problem, really, because everything the Mets have done since December 2008 has to be viewed through the prism of the hundreds of millions Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz lost when Madoff went poof. It is like coming to a crime scene where a man has been shot and trying to tell his story without either accounting for the gunshot wound or, in some publications, pretending he hasn’t been shot. The Mets, for nearly a decade now, have been that man. And as long as their debt load remains this high, it is hard to see how that changes. It might, of course. Who knew, for instance, their stake in SNY would double in value in a year, aided by the RSN boom? That allowed them enough rope to survive earlier this decade. Maybe their investment in the new Islanders arena makes a difference. Maybe, though, the RSN bubble bursts and the shell game ends. Or they manage to invest in a third Ponzi scheme (Madoff was second). All things are possible in Queens.

 

8. What needs to change about political journalism? What about sports journalism?

I think I covered my primary goals and desires for the “how” above, but there’s also a clear need for information that extends beyond what the market is currently paying for, and so, so many people who are built to do this work are either underemployed or simply moving into other fields. So that’s the biggest change we as a society need, to find a way to build a financial structure to employ more people informing the public.

9. Since you’re now straddling two different journalistic worlds — sports and politics — how have you felt them collide professionally? There have many generations of reporters raised on the ethical ideal of not divulging your politics, though that has obviously been blown up in the last 18 months or so. Since you do it so pervasively, has it hurt you at all? Have sources for sports stories brought it up? Have the outlets you write sports work reprimanded you or rejected you because of it?

It’s hard to say whether it’s hurt me. It is a natural outgrowth of the way I’ve aimed to do this job wherever I do it, which is to inform the reader with as much as I know, not as much as is palatable to the people I’m reporting on. The more you do the latter, the less you are serving your readers. I got asked similar questions about my Mets reporting, with a history and public record of the fact I grew up a Mets fan. I never understood how that fact would have anything but a positive effect on my overall work, which as I mentioned above, should be judged by the simple metrics of whether the analysis bears out and the facts are true. If anything, wouldn’t being a Mets fan mean you’d have an added stake in getting it as right as possible, good or ill? Well, in this same way, what I have come to see as a national emergency requires more and better information.

 

In each case, it’s about following the stories where they lead. I recently had someone refer to the Mets ownership story as “my cause.” Not in an insulting way. But that doesn’t capture it at all. I still remember the revelation of reading the first unsealed document in the lawsuit brought by the trustee for the Madoff victims against Mets ownership, getting a picture of how crippling their debt load was. And so, as I’ve had professional imperatives to tell that story in the years since, well, I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t tell it through that lens. I do wonder how one can be aware of it and then go write about whether the Mets will go sign Shin-Soo Choo to a $100 million contract, knowing damn well that isn’t going to happen. Some people have been comfortable doing that, in direct contradiction of the media’s role, and it’s helped Mets ownership deflect public pressure. I couldn’t sleep at night doing it that way. I’m sure this approach has cost me professional opportunities through the years. I’m very comfortable with that.

10. You had another book come out in 2011 in which you — only half jokingly — stated your case to become the next general manager of the Mets. A lot has changed in the last seven years, with baseball front office becoming bigger and smarter — essentially emerging as the lifeblood of an organization. So given that, do you still think you could be a MLB GM in today’s climate? How do you think the idea of fan/writer believing they can be GM affects the way we cover and digest sports?

Let me say this: The entirety of the project was a joke, not a half-joke, though a way in for evaluating the way sports fans have no control over this massive part of their emotional lives. In my professional life since, I have come to know and respect the general managers in this game. I’ll leave it this way: I think I’d be a better general manager of a baseball team than Steve Phillips was.
As to how it affects coverage, it provides greater depth and understanding for the how and why of it all. Another level to the way we consume sports coverage strikes me as nothing but beneficial to the reader. I’m all for it.

A Q&A with David Roth on working at Deadspin, sporpswriting and what it’s like to lose your job

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 David Roth, a prolific and talented journalist whose has been published… all over the place. He is currently an editor at Deadspin, but you’ve also seen him at places like VICE, SB Nation and The Classical, just to name a few. David is a spectacular writer, and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, this Q&A should make that point abundantly clear. Here, we discuss the state of sportswriting, creating a website from scratch and how to handle being laid off.

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

I’ve been doing this shit in the same way for so long that it’s hard to know where to start. I always wanted to write and wrote sports stories for the high school paper that honestly aren’t that far from stuff I’ve written in the years since—I went to the New Jersey Nets training camp at Jadwin Gym in Princeton with my dad and my friend Steve and interviewed Jayson Williams and Dwayne Schintzius and some other, uh, heroes of mine. I didn’t talk to Drazen Petrovic, but I later wrote about him after he passed, which was far too soon after that. And then I’ve just sort of stayed writing about whatever I could, but increasingly about sports ever since. I’ve probably written about Petrovic three or four times since. I don’t have a lot of new ideas, really.

Anyway, I wrote in college and then decided I was going to be a fiction writer and then was informed via several dozen rejection letters from literary journals over a period of years that actually I was in fact probably not going to be a fiction writer. For a decent while I just kind of drank too much and somehow didn’t fuck up my relationship and wrote at night after working various dippy jobs until I was 28 or 29. I was working a low-level editorial job at Topps Chewing Gum, copy-editing and spot-writing the backs of baseball and basketball and football cards, when my friend Rance recommended Gerard Cosloy’s sports blog Can’t Stop The Bleeding as one worth reading. And I started reading it, then commenting on it, and then GC invited me to write there. Of all the many brilliant acts that he has cultivated during his career doing that sort of thing I am extremely low on the list, but I will forever be in his debt for giving me that chance. It was honestly the first time that it really occurred to me that I could write at a place I actually read.

There are things that followed, roughly hand-over-hand, and I will not subject you to that particular play-by-play. But GC let me write the way that I wanted to write, and over time I figured out how to write the way that other people wanted me to write—my friend Pete suggested I pitch The Wall Street Journal and I did that, and I wrote a couple of stories for Jason Fry, a brilliant editor and very good dude who now writes about “Star Wars” for a living, and he got me a regular gig doing their Daily Fix sports blog. It paid very little, but I gradually figured out how to pitch, and I pitched as much as I could. I got shut down a lot, but sometimes I didn’t. Editors took chances on me and I fucked up less and less over time; I worked shitty gigs and wrote for whatever I could get wherever I could and also for free at places like The Awl (for a while) and Can’t Stop The Bleeding where I wanted to be. This took about a decade. I got better as a writer, but I am still someone who is depressed and anxious in clinically identifiable ways, and there have definitely been times when substance stuff made me extremely lame to work with or be around. But I kept pitching, and Spencer Hall and Kevin Lockland from SB Nation offered me a job in 2013 and I’ve been steadily employed since then, although I get pivoted out of a gig every 24-30 months. I don’t know how it happened, really, but I’m seemingly now someone who has jobs, at least until I’m once again not. This is a long way of saying that I have gotten very lucky, many times.

2. You write, a lot. It’s really impressive how often you write and the consistency of how good it is—it’s always good. Does it come as easy to you as it seems?

This is a nice thing to read, thank you. Moment to moment, I don’t really agree with it at all—that I write enough, or that it’s good, although it’s honestly more the first one I worry about. This is the freelance thing that I never quite learned to switch off—I always feel like I’m not doing enough, or that I could or should be doing more, whether it be writing or editing or correspondence or whatever. I got better at writing because of how much I had to do it as a freelancer, but it really did flip a switch in my brain, anxiety-wise, and I’ve not really ever figured out how to turn it off. Those years of losing and screwing up and scraping by and stressing out changed me a lot. I am in a dream job right now, all the way, and I still can’t quite believe it, or probably enjoy it the way I know I should. I don’t know when I ever will.

For a while, in the peak freelance years, I really was doing a crazy amount—my wife went to business school the year after we got married, and while we saw each other on weekends and sometimes briefly during the week, I was cut loose to just be an idiot and work all the time during that period. And I really did. I was up five or six times a week at various venues because that was what was necessary to hack my half of the rent at the rates I was getting. I was also editing a feature or column or whatever for The Classical basically every day. I can’t and don’t work like that anymore, but I remember what it felt like and somehow still sort of think of it as a baseline. But that feeling of being behind, of somehow somewhere disappointing someone, has never gone away. It gets quieter at times—the last six months at VICE, mostly as a result of the whole team there meeting me at the bottom of a bad period in my life, creating a beat for me, and then helping me figure out how to succeed at it, was really the last real time I felt OK that way. But the noise machine never quite turns off. Once I start writing, I am mostly OK. That part does come fast, and I am by now pretty well-trained at this point on editing my own shit. But “easy” is never a word I’d use. It’s never how this has felt for me.

3. I want to ask you about your internet relationship with Donald Trump. You’ve fooled him into retweeting a fake quote he didn’t say, you’re blocked by him, and he’s provided endless fodder for your writing. How do you view him as a subject for your work? It seems like he’s somewhat of a muse for you.

I will say, first off, that I would choose literally any other muse. I would rather be able to imitate the voice of any other person alive, and be inspired by, like, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chris Kattan or whoever if I could. But the muses I have are all grounded in a specific sort of loathsome permanence, and generally also in a sort of tragicomic grandiosity; I’m similarly fascinated by Papa John and his crummy couch-cushion pizza, for instance, for the same totally bad reasons. That all more or less applies to Trump, still, but obviously he’s harder to joke about now than when he was just up all night on Twitter litigating endless prissy, tragically dated feuds against, like, Dennis Franz and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.

Back in, like, 2014, when I accidentally—Trump was name-searching, I’ve never @’ed the guy—got him to retweet a quote that I attributed to a book he’d never written, called Winning, he was just kind of this ridiculous local oaf. I grew up in New Jersey and saw the dude in the tabloids all through my youth, showing his ass and posturing and posing and generally fucking every possible thing up as badly as possible. It never occurred to me that he could be anything but the joke that he always was to people from around here—this sad horny dipshit who kept duffing shit and had a lot of publicists working for him, but who was dumb enough that he wound up tanking Atlantic City’s economy, more or less by himself, forever. Not many people can crush a whole city’s economy via sheer bluff-o jagoffery and then just jog on like it didn’t happen.

Which is to say that I really don’t like the dude, but there is something in the infected nightmare he is that… I don’t really think “inspires” is the right word here. But given my fixation on a certain set of toxic national neuroses, and given how fulsomely Trump himself performs them every day, he just lines up perfectly as a lodestar for me. Trump is every unchecked and unexamined national delusion about Success come to life, as well as a whole bunch of less-explicit but equally toxic ones about race and power and gender relations, and some active if more latent ones about authoritarianism and its various attendant cruelties. It’s a rare thing to say that someone is truly Everything You Hate, but, man, I am struggling to come up with a phrase that’s more accurate here. He would speak to me even if his dumb portrait wasn’t now hanging in every highway rest stop in the nation. But of course it is, now, and he’s speaking to everyone. I know I am not responsible for any of this, really. But when I think about… uh… hey do you have any other questions?

4. You’ve written for a lot of places, but you’ve fairly recently found a full-time home as a Deadspin editor. What’s your role there? What do you see as the editorial purpose and mission of Deadspin in 2017? You’re obviously known as an editor—what has it been like working with writers as an editor?

I’m editing features and writing whatever it is that you’d call the sort of things that I write, and so far I am loving it. The job has a cool title—I am a Senior Editor, and my lessers know that I am to be addressed as such—but mostly I am in the mix with everyone else. Deadspin is horizontal in a way I’m honestly still trying to figure out, but I can say that right now it’s organized enough that I’m not totally stressed out all the time, and also loose enough that I’m not totally stressed out all the time. It’s been almost two months, so I don’t know what any of that is worth, and I am reluctant to speak on what Deadspin means or is trying to do in 2017.

But not so reluctant that I won’t speak on it, because I’m a dope. I’ve read the site for 15 years, and I have watched it evolve from a site I honestly didn’t like much into one that I think is at this point The Last Good Sports Blog. What made me want the job I have now, and what makes me glad I have it, is that while Deadspin is currently so broad—just in the sense that every day we run stories that are so far afield from each other—it also all rhymes in a meaningful way. It’s thoughtful and contextualized and humane where appropriate—even and maybe especially when it’s also frank or vengeful or even mean—in a way that I understand, and which I think can be understood from one story to the next. That’s something that is very much to the editors, but also everyone gets it; everyone respects what has always been good about the site, and also wants to make it better than it was.

And of course the writers are all really good. That part of the gig is easy. But what’s been most heartening so far is seeing the ways in which my aspirations align with the site’s. Everyone wants to do good work, write in surprising ways and tell stories people don’t already know or forgot too soon, and to help people appreciate and understand and more effectively care about sports in ways that make that more interesting and enjoyable, in that order. I am into that.

5. What is good sportswriting in 2018?

It’s that last bit, basically. When I was at SB Nation, Spencer Hall used to like to call the site An Appreciation Machine. I think he’s brilliant and I think he succeeded in that, and I still think of that as a model for what sportswriting should be. But I also think it works best when we define “appreciation” in the broadest possible way. Or anyway it works best for me when I define it that way. There’s no one answer, really, but I can speak to what I like and what I like to do, and that’s trying to find a new and deeper understanding and enjoyment of this goofy shit to which we so brilliantly entrust our emotional well-being.

This isn’t to take anything away from people who just want their teams to win and mostly would like to read about that. I am one of those people, moment by moment. But sports, for me, are first and foremost a thing that I feel feelings about, which is to say that I watch games for the same reason I watch movies, or read books or look at art. So I want to appreciate all of it—the text and the subtext, the cool obvious shit and the less-obvious equally cool shit, and how it reflects or refutes or somehow redeems whatever else is going on in the world around it. That’s obviously a lot to get across in a few hundred words, and I mostly never hit that mark. But good sportswriting, to me, is writing that admits all of that into the equation—not just the game, but the world in which it is played; not just the things that happened, but why they are worth thinking about, and how they fit into everything else. Also I think it’s good to make jokes where you can.

6. What about sportswriting needs to be changed?

This is a tough one. There’s a lot of really good sportswriting happening at this moment, at various different levels. Obviously the world would not be poorer without the Barely Veiled Racial Bullshit Takes that define a lot of local sports columnizing, and I imagine eventually those will either die out or metastasize in such a way that I’ll have a much more pointed answer for this the next time you ask me this question.

But mostly, moment to moment, I think sportswriting is doing OK, and it’s more the question of how to sell it that’s stressing everyone out. I started out on my actually-getting-paid sportswriting career doing the Daily Fix blog for the Wall Street Journal, and a big part of that gig was just volume-reading sportswriting. I learned quickly to sort of tune out the stuff that was dull or reactionary or otherwise fundamentally wack. And while there’s still a lot of that, there is still, because we still have columnists and beat writers, thankfully, a continuum along which we can assess all this. The changes that the market will and are bringing to bear will do much more to shape what changes or what needs changing than my personal dippy opinion ever will. I could do with less pettiness and partisanship and general stagy-grumpy corniness in sportswriting, but before we can get to any of that we’ll need to figure out how to keep this all moving. That’s a much more boring question, and one I’m somehow even less well-qualified to answer than the original.

Broadly, though, my hope is this: that there remain a sufficient number of places offering a sufficient number of reasons and ways to appreciate what we’re seeing, and offering a sufficient number of angles in on understanding it. What I want is just what I want, of course, and I don’t imagine that what I want will surprise anyone who reads what I write—it’s more political and cultural context; a willingness to get weird or expressive or personal with language as needed; less recrimination and more absurdism; just less fucking racism and sexism and knee-jerk dipshittery as a general rule. But I know that not everyone wants what I want, and except for the last point all of that should be negotiable. The good news is that people really still care about all this, and want to know about it, and want to deepen their understanding and enjoyment of it. That’s a good position to be in, even if no one knows how to make money selling it and if so much of the demand is on the racism/sexism/knee-jerk-dipshittery side. So the long story short is that I think trying not to be an idiot and being mindful not to exclude or hurt anyone for no good reason is important. That is kind of a dodge, I know, but wow, what a great dodge. Fantastic!

7. How did The Classical come about and what it was like start, funding, and building a media entity from scratch?

I am already embarrassed at how long this is and this one is honestly something I’ll probably write 2,000 unbearable words about at some point. What I will say about it, briefly, is that it was born of a great optimism—Bethlehem Shoals and some other people realized, around when Grantland was starting up, that people would want to read a site with a bunch of writers they knew and enjoyed, many of whom had recently been laid off. I was at the lower end of that, as someone who hadn’t even really been hired yet and was just freelancing, but the people he’d gotten onto the masthead were idols of mine even then—Tom Scharpling, Shoals, Lang Whitaker, the man who is now my current editor-in-chief. People were already getting pivoted out of gigs for arbitrary reasons even then, but there was a sense of possibility to it, and I believed that if we promised to make a good and weird site and then did it, people would read it.

And that mostly happened, somehow. We raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter and hit our goal, and while the site was not what I would call well-managed—we lost a lot of that in taxes and paying back our rewards, and no one ever really made any money on any of it—we also didn’t really try to be a business. People fell away because of work and I wound up doing more and more out of necessity/guilt. It was and I think still remains the best experience of my working life—the fact that we had a really great site, for years, with no money to pay anyone involved at any level, seems like a miracle now. The magazines we put out are I think pound for pound as good as anything anyone was doing during that time, and I hope someday to get them into an anthology so more than a few hundred people can read how good they were.

Mostly, though, I got to edit and got to know hundreds of people I would otherwise never have gotten to know or edit. It’s the great achievement of my professional life and I don’t know how any of it happened beyond just continuing to do it day by day until my fuses finally blew out. I still put stuff up there and hope to do it for as long as the site is up and people are writing shit that’s too weird or literary or personal to run anywhere else. I don’t think we changed the game at all, really, but it absolutely changed my life for the better.

8. I don’t mean to be a downer (Vork’s working book title), but you’ve been let go (feel free to use a different euphemism if you please) a few times. This has come to be a common occurrence in modern journalism. What does it feel like to hear that your job is going away? Has any one of the losses hurt most?

It sucks so much. I would love to say that I’m used to it, but I am not used to it and I don’t know that there’s such a thing as getting used to it. At SB Nation I could sort of see it coming; I didn’t know what my job was, really, and at some point I think it was just clear that I wasn’t part of where they were going or what they were trying to do. I hung on for a bit after that and wrote some stuff I’m really proud of and enjoyed a lot, but I just pitched section editors, instead of the dot-com ones. VICE was tougher, for two reasons. It was not impossible to foresee, in the least—there are a million talented people working there, and I love many of them very much, but the company itself always had a sort of Potemkin Village vibe to me, and they were always very clear about not wanting to keep anyone there for life or whatever.

But, in another sense, it blindsided me. The site was popular and profitable as far as I knew, and while we were a small staff I thought we were punching well above our weight and doing what they wanted us to do. More than that, though, the team that we had at the end was different—closer, more supportive, more familial in all the best ways—than any I’d ever experienced at any workplace. I knew in a way that it wasn’t going to last, just for the aforementioned VICE-y reasons, but I think I would never have left on my own as long as those people were there. That’s in part because I cared about them, but also because when I was really in a deep depressive trough from late summer 2016 through the early part of this year, everyone, like every person on the team, helped me out.

Not just helped get me through shit that I fucked up because I was depressed and otherwise in the red, but helped carve out a beat for me, made it clear to me what that entailed, and supported me as I figured it all out. They would have been well within their rights to cut me loose in January 2017, for performance. They didn’t, and they helped me instead, and the best writing I’ve ever done, with one or two exceptions, came after that. I could not be more grateful for the help that I got from Jorge Arangure and Caitlin Kelly and Eric Nusbaum and Patrick Hruby and everyone else from that team. I am happy to be where I am, every day, but I miss working with them all a lot. Not just because they’re so good at what they do, which they all are, but because of how good they were to me when I was way too fucked up to deserve it. Every picayune line item on a media corporation’s balance sheet enfolds all of that; every semaphoring layoff disrupts it. It’s business, of course, but it’s not just that.

9. Of the many David Roths out there (at time of sending this to you, I count seven: comedian, musician, David Lee Roth, producer, author, copywriter, magician), is there one you get confused for the most? What is it like sharing your name with so many others? Does it cause any issues?

I most admire the magician, who is this weird elf that just does coin tricks better than anyone alive. David Lee has probably been the one who has had the greatest impact on my life, just because we both look exactly alike and fronted Van Halen at the same time. But except for once convincing a summer camp counselor that Diamond Dave was my dad and would be showing up on visiting day, none of them have really impacted me that much. The goal is to someday pass the folk musician as a Google search result. Other than that, I can just say that I’m glad it’s comparatively hard to find a photo of me online and that I wish all my name bros—but especially Coin Magician David Roth, architect David Roth, and recent father and longtime Facebook bud and general chill guy David Roth—every possible happiness.

10. So you and Jared have a fun connection — you and Jared co-bylined the first story Jared ever published after starting full-time at the Journal in January 2011. It was a look at the now-famous tape of Super Bowl I, and the two of you had the opportunity to go to the Paley Center to watch and write about it. What do you remember about working on that story? Most important, what were your impressions of Jared? Did you think he was a doofus who had no chance of making it in this business? Because that would have been perfectly reasonable.

I’ll start with the last bit: My first impression of Jared was that he was probably too handsome to make it in sportswriting, and I am happy to have been proven wrong in that. The rest of it was very much Early Freelance Life in my recollection. The story fell into my lap via the dumbest possible luck; the lawyer representing the tape’s owner emailed me because I’d written that day’s Daily Fix, and also emailed Peter King, and I guess I responded first. I ran it by the editors on the newspaper side and they very politely let me stay on it. I had the distinct sense that Jared was there to make sure that The Hungover Blog Boy didn’t screw it up. (Editor’s note: This is more or less accurate.)

And we didn’t screw it up, so I can’t be mad at it. It was a lot of high-intensity reporting, and fairly high-tension reporting given that the NFL was involved and everyone was afraid we’d get sued for something or other—the league didn’t want to pay the owner of the tape for the game, but it also really didn’t want anyone to see the game unless they owned the footage—and I really felt way over my head, although I did the stuff I was supposed to do and Jared helped make it all look more pro. We split the byline, and I was glad to split it. It’s the only real scoop I’ve ever originated, and I still remember taking Metro North up to see my wife when she was at grad school and buying a copy of the paper at the newsstand in the station. I don’t write for print that much anymore, but that feeling of seeing it splashed on the back page of that section, weird art and all, is still a big moment for me. I rank it right up there with the first time I met Jared Diamond.

Bonus one: What is sporpswriting?

It is a way of being. It is a way of seeing. It is a lifestyle that offers precisely zero benefits. It is, mostly, absurdist sportswriting that is also sincere. But I can’t pin it down beyond the old Potter Stewart definition: you know it when you see it, or live it. The latter you tend to notice only after realizing you’ve written like 5,000 words on your dumbass career. Just by way of example.

A Q&A with Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated on writing a book, the Hall-of-Fame voting process and the biggest Cooperstown snubs

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 Jay Jaffe, a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and, now, a published author. His book, “The Cooperstown Casebook,” just came out, and it’s a must-read for anybody interested in the Hall of Fame. Here, we discuss Jay’s rise in baseball writing after starting his career as a graphic designer, the worst players to be enshrined in Cooperstown and whether writers should be allowed to vote for the Hall.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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?

It was a very, very roundabout path. In college (Brown University), I started in engineering, switched to biology and fulfilled all the premed requirements with the intention of going to medical school. I kind of caught the writing bug, though, covering the local music scene, and after deciding I at least wanted to put off applying to med school for a while, I did an internship at a music tabloid called Boston Rock. Not only was I writing there, but I also learned how to use the layout software, which at the time was Adobe PageMaker. Soon I got a job doing that and put the writing aside while I embarked on about 14 years in the world of publishing and print design.

In 2001, about eight years into that journey, I wanted to learn some web design, so I made the Futility Infielder site as a container for my baseball blog. The short version is that my annual coverage of the Hall of Fame balloting got me noticed by Baseball Prospectus, for which I debuted in early 2004, became a columnist in 2005 (while still freelancing in graphic design) and finally was all-in on the writing as of late 2007.

2. Hey, you just had a book come out! That’s awesome. It’s called “The Cooperstown Casebook,” and if you care about baseball’s Hall of Fame, you should totally buy it! You’ve been a major voice in Hall of Fame voting for a long time, but why did you think this was the right time to pursue this topic in book form? Without giving away too much — people need to read it! — what do you think you had to say that was better said in a longer format?

The first time anyone pitched me on a Hall of Fame book it was my Baseball Prospectus colleagues, Christina Kahrl and Steve Goldman during the BP 2007 annual book tour. I came up with the title, “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Hall of Fame and Who Should Be In.” A colleague, Derek Jacques, supplied the catchy end of that subtitle, “Who Should Pack Their Plaques,” which everyone thought was hilarious and really fit within the spirit of my lobbing grenades at the whole mess. But at the time the book was just a concept and a cover that I designed, like one of those fake album titles.

In the winter of 2009-2010, BP suggested I make the Hall of Fame book a reality, and they would publish it. I went so far as to create an outline and start fleshing it out but realized that — not to put it too bluntly — there wasn’t enough money to make it worth my while, and probably not enough of an audience either. I was generally behind the BP paywall and not yet part of the BBWAA. I figured that I would probably only get one shot to do the book, and so I wanted to do it right, and that meant waiting until my profile was higher and my credibility greater.

Then things started happening to lay the groundwork. At the 2010 winter meetings (which I didn’t attend), I was accepted into the BBWAA. In 2011, MLB Network invited me to audition to be a guest on “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sabermetrics-themed show hosted by Brian Kenny. Suddenly, we were talking about JAWS and my Hall of Fame work on television! In 2012, Sports Illustrated hired me to write for its website on a daily basis, and later that year, Sean Forman agreed to host a WAR-based version of JAWS on Baseball-Reference, whereas I had been using BP’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and couldn’t even get a devoted space for that carved out on the site.

All of this stuff raised my profile and that of my work. SI let me do these 2,000-3,000 word profiles of every key BBWAA ballot candidate, and they dominated the baseball page during December and early January. After a couple years of that, in early 2014, an editor from Thomas Dunne approached me and said, “Hey, do you have a book idea?” As a matter of fact, I did. And I wanted not just to do a New Bill James Historical Abstract-like guide to the players in the Hall and the candidates using my metric, but to tell a few big stories — about the Veterans Committee, about steroids in baseball (which I’d written at length about for BP’s book “Extra Innings” in 2012), about historical levels of representation within the Hall and about the battle to get advanced statistics into the mainstream Hall of Fame conversation. All of those are things that take far more words than my daily dose at SI. I wanted to collect and polish it up with the idea that this would be a 21st century successor to the NBJHA and James’s “Politics of Glory,” his mid-1990s look at the Hall.

3. Before you were a baseball writer, you were primarily a graphic designer. Then you created a system called JAWS that has more or less become the accepted, seminal metric for determining whether a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. What sort of background or formal training did you have in statistics before creating your own stat? How does somebody go about creating his or her own stat? Does the baseball world need any more stats?

I was always good at math, spent my college years taking science classes of one stripe or another, getting exposure to the basics of statistics, but, really, that’s not a lot of formal training beyond understanding standard deviations, correlations, regressions, etc. My formal training was spending ages 8 to 18 surrounded by piles of baseball cards and baseball books, especially the Bill James Abstracts, learning to program VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, for the Apple II+, and creating a league for my Strategic Simulations Inc.’s Computer Baseball game, for which I ran every team and recorded all the stats.

(I should add here that I played baseball, too, but wasn’t even good enough for my high-school freshman team.)

I had written about the Hall at Futility Infielder a couple of times and it did exponential traffic relative to my piddling daily flow — thousands, rather than hundreds, thanks to being linked on Baseball Primer. When BP invited me to contribute, as fate would have it I had just undergone surgery to repair a torn labrum, and so I was at my parents’ place in Salt Lake City missing out on ski season. I spent the week around Christmas looking up the career WARP totals of every Hall of Famer via the BP player cards and entering them into a spreadsheet. It was dry and methodical, but I was fascinated, because the numbers brought these guys to life, at least for me.

I also tracked their peaks, which I defined as a player’s five best consecutive seasons, with special allowances for injury and military service. It wasn’t hard science; I was picking up on one of the several ways that James was aggregating his metric, Win Shares, to rank players in the NBJHA, and building off of a distinction he made in his first “Historical Abstract,” which is that in addition to ranking and considering players by their career totals you can define this shorter period when they were at their very best, their peak. It made sense when you think about Hall-of-Famers like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner. They’re not in there for 300 wins, 3,000 hits or 500 homers; they’re in because they had a shorter period of flat-out dominance. And they’re not the only ones elected because of that.

The metric, which wasn’t self-consciously christened JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) for another year, averaged the career and peak totals, the idea being that some players are in the Hall for one or the other and the inner-circle guys are there for both. By finding the average at each position (which I did by hand-cranking that spreadsheet), you can figure out if the candidate in front of you is up to the standards of those already in the Hall. For all of the complexity under the hood in WARP or WAR, there’s a simple elegance to JAWS, I think, and I’m very thankful that people caught onto it.

I later the changed the definition of peak from five consecutive years to best seven at large. Again, it wasn’t hard science so much as it was a sort of common sense and aesthetic preference. Go 10 years for peak and you may as well be using career totals; the answers don’t differ as much.

4. Your rise to prominence in baseball writing is clearly a product of the internet. You had your own blog, Futility Infielder, got noticed by other online publications, and the rest is history. There are others who followed a similar path around the same time, but you were clearly one of the pioneers. To what extent do you think this is still a viable model to be noticed, now that there is just so much more content out there? If you were just starting today as an “outsider,” how would you go about trying to rise above the noise and break through?

Man, I don’t know. I do think it’s important to find a venue where you write as often as possible, ideally every day, because writing is a muscle. You have to exercise it to strengthen it, not only to polish your craft but to push through those times when ideas just aren’t coming quickly enough, or coming together at all. Creating a blog is ideal for that, because nobody else is there to tell you what you can’t write. And if you do it long enough, you’ll hopefully catch someone’s eye with a particularly good piece of work and/or produce a body of work that impresses somebody else enough to ask you to write for them, and take it to the next level.

Now, is that the best way to get noticed circa 2017? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s still a valid one. At least now with social media you have a way to “advertise” what you’re doing that wasn’t there in 2001. You still have to find a way to break out beyond the people in your immediate circle and communicate with total strangers, but ideally that will happen through some combination of persistence and quality rather than — God help us — hot-take garbage that you might do just to scream for attention.

5. Your stat and your book both revolve around voting for the Hall of Fame. You’re something of an expert when it comes to deciding who should be in and who shouldn’t. Yet, you can’t vote for the Hall of Fame, which raises this question: How do you feel about the current process? Should the BBWAA be the sole voting bloc? Should writers vote at all? If so, why? If not, who should be voting?

From a self-interested standpoint, I’d love to be voting for the Hall already, but once I got inside the BBWAA and began playing by its rules, I accepted the fact that I was going to have to pay my dues just like everyone else, putting in 10 years before getting that ballot. They don’t let you vote early just because you’re the big Hall nerd, which is fine.

I get into this in the book, as you might imagine, but it’s important to remember that who votes for the Hall is the Hall’s decision. In 1936, it drafted the BBWAA to vote for recently retired players, because those writers were the ones who had seen them the most frequently. There was no television and even baseball on the radio was relatively newfangled. If you were designing it today, I think you would want to include the broadcasters, but then you run into a potential problem when they’re team employees, so you have concerns about independence and bias. So, what then? Only the national broadcasters, from the networks? And even if you let them into the process, what do you do about the 10-year “dues paying” that the writers go through? It’s only fair that they do that too, right? And so it gets complicated. Same if you were going to expand beyond the traditional baseball media to include, say, SABR scholars. I don’t have a problem if John Thorn or Bill James gets to cut the line, but the number of people deserving of that exception are very few.

But whatever the Hall does, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give living Hall of Fame players the vote. We saw what happens with that in the expanded Veterans Committee from 2003-10, which voted in exactly nobody from among the pool of postwar players. Nobody was good enough for their country club.

As to whether the writers should vote at all, I understand the position that some papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post impose, which is that their writers shouldn’t be the ones making the news. As I’m not a purist, I don’t feel that way. Hell, I wish the qualified writers from those two papers and a few others out there were part of the process. Please, let Tyler Kepner turn in a ballot, because he knows what the hell he’s taking about regarding the Hall of Fame!

6. Why do people get so darn worked up over the Hall of Fame vote? Seriously, every year it’s total chaos on the internet for a month, and some of the rhetoric from fans is ridiculously intense. What is it about this topic that gets to people? And what sort of feedback do you get, especially when JAWS doesn’t bode well for a particular candidate?

Because baseball has such a connection to the icons of its storied past, such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax, the Hall is a place that transcends the limitations of its geographic isolation. Practically every fan has some strong reaction to the Hall, whether it’s, “I don’t care,” or, “I don’t think [this guy] should be in,” or, “I can’t believe [this guy] isn’t in!” Fans can conjure up those plaques in their mind’s eye every time they take stock of greatness, and they want their experiences validated. They want to say, “I saw [this Hall of Famer] play when he was in his prime,” or something along those lines.

Because of that, and because of the increasing transparency of the voting — with more and more voters revealing their ballots either before or after the results are announced — the annual election season has become a spectator sport unto itself, a companion to the Hot Stove transaction chatter. As I discovered in my first winter of blogging (2001-2002), and particularly when I wrote about that winter’s ballot (pre-JAWS), fans love to read about baseball during the harsh winter months, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you. They want to be reminded that spring, and baseball season, is coming!

With the rise of social media, the process has certainly become more unruly than it was in the past, because readers have access to the voters and not only can tell them that their ballots stink but offer lengthy rebuttals to a given voter’s position. They want to hold voters accountable. To some extent, the expectation isn’t of a democracy but of a republic, with the voters representing the will of the people.

Certainly, not everybody — fan or voter — buys into JAWS. Some who disagree believe that the metric’s position on a given candidate debunks the validity of the entire advanced statistical movement and its adherents; we saw that with the Blyleven/Morris debate just as surely as we did in the Cabrera/Trout 2012 AL MVP race. In both of those, a lot of the rancor and petty, childish name-calling was from those in positions of authority, the voters, even some of the big names. Spink Award winners going on about “sun-starved stat geeks” and the “vigilante sabermetric brigade” and nerds living in mom’s basement. That just poured gasoline on the fire and produced a spectacle that now draws even more people to it.

7. Your entry into the world of baseball writing was certainly more from an analytical/statistical bent. You rose after being noticed by sites that focused on those areas, like Baseball Prospectus. As time has passed, you have moved to more mainstream outlets, like Sports Illustrated, and you have written a book. How important has it been for your career to make that shift? Do you consider yourself a baseball analyst who writes, or a writer who does analysis? Does this distinction even matter at this point?

It was important to make the move mostly because I couldn’t make enough money at BP for that to be my primary endeavor, at least not for very long. I was either a graphic designer moonlighting as a writer or vice versa, whereas I can make a living with SI as my primary outlet, and hopefully continue to supplement that income with more books. While it’s certainly a big deal getting access via my BBWAA card (which happened when I was still at BP), the shift in emphasis of analytics hasn’t been that drastic. SI brought me in less to do reporting and up-close-and-personal feature articles than to supply an analytical bent to the news of the day. As I was reminded just this past week, I’ve still got a ways to go as a reporter, in that I have to do better at getting into the mindset of looking for stories and honing my skill at getting players, coaches, managers or whomever to tell me something interesting and unique.

The bottom line is that I consider myself a baseball writer, perhaps more of an analyst than a reporter but somebody whose goal is to get better at every facet of what that entails.

8. Jared wrote a story earlier this year on the rise of voters revealing their ballots ahead of the Hall of Fame announcement, sometimes even before all votes have been submitted. What has this phenomenon done to Hall of Fame voting? Where is that line between wanting transparency and also wanting to maintain the integrity of the vote.

 As I said before, it’s turned the voting process into more of a spectator sport. You can go back through old newspapers during “ballot season” and see voters chime in on behalf of individual candidates, but it’s rare to find somebody dissecting the whole ballot for readers to see, in part because voters were very reticent to check off more than a few names because of dumb customs like distinguishing between first-ballot guys and the rest or ensuring that nobody is voted in unanimously. Over the past couple of years, thanks to the ballot-aggregating efforts of Darren Viola at Baseball Think Factory, Ryan Thibodaux at the Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, and even within the BBWAA, we’ve got maybe 50% of the electorate reporting their ballots in advance and 70% reporting once the results are in. In 2018, for the first time, it will be mandatory to reveal ballots after the results are in.

I’m all in favor of transparency. Transparency leads to a better, more fair process, and I don’t think it harms the integrity of the vote one iota unless you’re complaining about another dumb custom, which is writers throwing a personal favorite who’s a non-viable candidate — a David Eckstein — a token vote. Given how crowded the ballots have become thanks to the split in the electorate over how to handle PED-linked candidates, there are more than 10 players who meet the standards on any given ballot, and to waste a vote on an Eckstein-type player when, say, Tim Raines is running out of time in his eligibility is, to me, unconscionable and far more damaging to the integrity of the process.

It’s already true that consensus coalesces around a candidate once he reaches a certain percentage of the vote; Gil Hodges and Jack Morris are the only guys not on the current ballot who received at least 60% of the vote and never got in, and Morris will be up for a small-committee vote this winter. Even at 50% of the vote, you’re only talking about a couple more guys who have yet to be elected, and most of them — all except Lee Smith, if I recall — still have eligibility remaining. What this transparency does is speed up that coalescence, which is a good thing, because we should be honoring these players while they’re alive and around to enjoy it instead of waiting until they’re dead, like the voters did with Ron Santo. The personal vendettas involved there did far more to threaten the integrity of the vote than publishing ballots ever did.

9. Who are the three biggest Hall of Fame snubs? Who are the three most undeserving Hall of Famers? Which active player should be in the Hall of Fame that might surprise the average fan?

 Snubs:

  • Minnie Minoso, a pioneering black Latin American player whose entry into the majors was forestalled by the color line, a player whom Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda called “the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos.” He was simply one of the best ballplayers of the 1950s and early ’60s according to the advanced metrics.
  • Dick Allen, one of the premier hitters from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, very misunderstood by the Phillies organization, which had no clue as to the intense racism to which he was exposed in the minors and majors, and by the middle-aged white writers who couldn’t even be bothered to call him by his name of choice, Dick instead of Richie.
  • Edgar Martinez, the best designated hitter of all time, a player who even after WAR assesses the built-in penalty of DHing (which he did for 72% of his career, playing a very credible third base in the rest of the time), produced more value than the average Hall third baseman and the average Hall position player.

There are more on the current ballot than just Edgar, too. Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling (whose post-career self-immolation shouldn’t be relevant but has become so thanks to his insistence upon attacking the electorate), Larry Walker, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should all be in. I make the case for all of these guys in the book.

Undeserving:

Tommy McCarthy, a 19th-century right fielder who’s in not for his mediocre stats but for his popularization of the hit-and-run, the outfield trap play and the fake bunt. He should have been recognized as a pioneer, à la Candy Cummings, when the Old Timers’ Committee voted him in back in 1946.

Rick Ferrell, a 1930s-40s catcher who isn’t even close to being as good a candidate (or a hitter) as his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell.

And then a ton of players voted in by the Veterans Committee during the tenures of Giants and Cardinals second baseman Frankie Frisch (1967-72) and  Giants first baseman Bill Terry (1971-76) — those guys elected several former teammates from their era. Not only was it a high-offense era when .300 hitters were a dime a dozen (the entire NL hit .300 in 1930), but these guys had short-ish, low-peak careers, and the whiff of cronyism is unmistakable. Third baseman Fred Lindstrom, outfielders Chick Hafey and Ross Youngs, pitcher Jess Haines and some others from that wave rank among the worst at their positions according to JAWS.

As for active players, I’d point to Adrian Beltre, who’s now fourth in JAWS at the position and second on the defensive side to only Brooks Robinson. His late-career surge has carried him past the 3,000 hit mark, with over 400 homers (he’s one of 10 such players), so he’s probably a lock, but it’s just that fans and media have taken a long time to note his progress. The other I’d point to is Carlos Beltran, who lost some prime time to injuries and is vilified by Mets fans — and still, some in the media — for taking a single goddamn pitch for a strike.  He’s eighth in JAWS among center fielders, within a rounding error of the averages at the position. One of the rules of thumb with JAWS is anybody who’s in the top 10 at the position, even if they’re a whisker or two below the standards, is almost certainly worthy of enshrinement.

10. A few years ago, you ran in the Brewers sausage race at Miller Park. Wait, let me repeat that: You RAN IN THE BREWERS SAUSAGE RACE AT MILLER PARK. There are 100 questions we could ask about this experience, but in the interest of space: Um, can you please tell us everything about this experience? Like, no detail would be too minuscule.

Oh, that was so cool to do. Not quite as cool as getting to do “The Cooperstown Casebook” and having it receive the reception that it’s gotten but just a great moment that’s earned some bragging rights. I wrote up the whole thing for the Baseball Analysts blog back in 2005, shortly after I ran it. Incidentally, that was the blog of Rich Lederer, who led the grassroots campaign to get Bert Blyleven elected.

I ran as the Hot Dog on a Sunday afternoon, which means that unlike the other days of the week, it’s a relay where you tag a kid who finishes the race. We finished third, with Mark Grant, the former pitcher and current Padres color guy, leaving us all in the dust. Those costumes stink and are awkward as hell to move in and to see out of. Fearing crashes and torn ACLs, me and the other three contestants thought we had agreed that this would be “a Sunday jog,” but Grant, being the jock whose masculinity was apparently on the line, violated the treaty. I inadvertently traded paint with the German sausage, which was being run by the Twins’ CFO. You can see the video here.

A Q&A with Wallace Matthews on covering boxing, avoiding hot takes and why he stopped voting for the Hall of Fame

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 Wallace Matthews, who’s currently writing for The New York Times. Wally has had a fascinating career, cutting his teeth as a boxing writer, transitioning to a columnist role and serving as a baseball beat writer. He’s one of the most passionate columnists working today, with a writing voice that you simply can’t ignore. Here, we talk about his attempt to make it as a professional boxer, his transition to journalism and what it’s like to quit a job in protest.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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 wouldn’t recommend my route into the business for anyone, but it worked for me. For one thing, I didn’t even go to college until I was 23. I was a fuckup in high school and decided I’d rather be a professional boxer than go to school, so I wasted five years pursuing that. Getting my jaw busted in a sparring session sent me a message that maybe I should try something else, although I was dumb enough to fight with it a week later.

Anyway, I chose to go to school in 1980 (C.W. Post on Long Island), didn’t know what my major would be and discovered to my surprise that writing was pretty easy for me. So I gradually moved into journalism hoping to someday become a political reporter. I wasn’t particularly interested in covering sports, other than maybe boxing. In my junior year, I applied for an internship at Newsday, which I didn’t get. They gave it to some guy I can barely remember. Name of Verducci or something like that. (Only kidding; Tom’s a good friend.) But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from someone named Bob Herzog, who offered me a part-time job in sports taking high-school scores. The pay was $8.75 an hour, which was a fortune in in 1983, so I grabbed it.

My first day on the job, I got The Talk that all Newsday part-timers get from Dick Sandler, the sports editor. Basically, it went, “You’ll never get hired here full time, so don’t even ask. Now go answer the phones.”

Two years later, he hired me to be his boxing writer.  (Mark Herrmann and Rich Cimini got hired the same day.)

What impressed him was that one day in between taking high-school scores, ripping wire copy and dummying pages, I made a phone call to Las Vegas and got Larry Holmes on the phone. He wound up telling me he was planning to fight Michael Spinks for his 49th fight, which would have tied Rocky Marciano’s unbeaten record for heavyweights had he won. He didn’t. But I did. Sandler rethought his attitude toward hiring part-timers. To this day, I remind Larry Holmes that if he didn’t like something I wrote about him, he had no one but himself to blame.

2. After about seven seasons at ESPN, you’re now freelancing regularly for The New York Times, mostly covering the Yankees and Mets as a backup to the beat writers. How much of a difference have you noticed at the Times, in terms of the types of stories you’re asked to write, the style of editing and the style of writing? How is covering a baseball team different for the NYT than it was for ESPN?

At its core, this job is the same no matter who you work for. There’s a game in front of you and a guy on the other end of a phone.

But there is no doubt that the Times is different from any other place I’ve ever worked. The editing is at a much higher level, and you know even before you hit the keys that whatever you write better be accurate. I can’t say that about some of the other places I’ve worked. The Times requires a level of detail that can sometimes seem trivial or annoying, but you come to realize there’s a method to it, and having worked with them for the past four months has given me a new appreciation for the accuracy of their work. Because of the fact-checking process they’ve put me through, I know when I read someone else’s story in the Times, I can trust the information in it.

Otherwise, there’s no real difference in coverage. It’s just better.

3. After leaving ESPN but before landing at the Times, you were doing some work for NY Sports Day, a small online outlet that covers local sports. In this space, we have talked a lot about writers working for free, for school credit or for well-below market value. Everybody has a different opinion on the practice. But most of those people have been younger writers, folks just starting out in their careers. What was that calculation like for you, an experienced writer with name recognition? Why did you think taking that gig was the right call, as opposed to publishing columns on a personal blog or a platform like Medium?

First of all, the site is run by a friend of mine, Joe McDonald, and I’m also friendly with a lot of the writers there. I’ve known Rich Mancuso forever, and Billy Coppola and Ray Negron. So I was happy to work with people I knew and liked. Secondly, I thought it was important to keep my hand I the game, for a couple of reasons. For one, I wanted to keep my tools sharp, and I thought continuing to write was the best way to do that. Also, since it was the fall and winter, I knew I would have the chance to write some things I had enjoyed doing before but hadn’t been given the opportunity to do at my previous employer, like boxing and NFL stuff. And at this stage of my career, I thought it was vital to keep my name out there and let editors know that I was far from finished in this business.

4. While you’ve been a baseball writer lately, you’re a boxing guy at heart. Not only are you one of the best boxing writers in America, you have some experience in the ring yourself! We’ve never had a boxing writer as a guest before. How would you assess the state of boxing coverage in 2017? How could it be improved? What caused the drop in popularity in boxing across the country, and what needs to happen for that to change?

There was a time, as you know, when newspapers put their best writers on boxing, which is why guys like Red Smith, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Cannon and A.J. Liebling did so much boxing. Now, as a niche sport, it lives mainly on boxing-specific websites, and while many of the people who cover it now are incredibly dedicated and tuned-in to the minutiae, it generally attracts young writers who haven’t really honed their writing skills to the level that used to be required of boxing writers.

So while there’s plenty of information out there, I think there’s a dearth of real knowledge. and boxing is one of the few sports I really think you need to have participated in to really understand. You can never understand the pain, fear, desperation and hopelessness — or the exhilaration and bloodlust — experienced by a boxer unless you’ve felt those things yourself. That’s what I always thought I brought to my boxing coverage. I felt what the fighters were feeling and, luckily, was able to communicate it.

The only real way to improve the quality of today’s boxing writers is for editors to start assigning their top guys to it again, but given the diminished audience for the sport and the obsession with page clicks, I don’t see that ever happening.

5. We recently had Jeff Gluck as a newsletter guest, where we talked about his decision to quit his job at USA Today and start his own website to cover NASCAR. It’s been a big success so far, with readers across the country showing a willingness to pay for Jeff’s top-notch coverage. It seems boxing is similar to NASCAR, in that it’s a niche sport with a rabid fan base likely looking for coverage. Do you think a similar start-up outlet for boxing could work? How much thought have you given to venturing out on your own with a boxing site?

I do, and it’s something that I have considered, because I think hardcore boxing fans are starved for quality, in-depth coverage with a sense of historical perspective that goes back a little further than the turn of the millennium. However, with a son in college and a daughter about to graduate high school, it’s a financial risk that I’m not prepared to take at the moment. Maybe sometime in the future.

6. It’s no secret you had a fiery exit from the New York Post in 2002, which was chronicled in this article in the Observer. Your departure from ESPN, at least publicly, was considerably more amicable. How much did you learn from the fallout of your Post exit? Would you have handled it differently if given another chance? What advice would you give to young journalists — or anyone, really — who feel like they’ve been wronged by their employer?

What I learned from my experience at the Post is that none of us in this business is indispensable. I had written a column that pointed out the moral hypocrisy of the Post, and they refused to run it without cutting out the parts that criticized the paper.

In my mind, it became a censorship issue and an integrity test. I gave them an ultimatum — run my column as I wrote it, or I quit — and thought that as their lead columnist for eight years, they would certainly acquiesce. They didn’t, and I had to keep my word, because I believe that a threat not carried out is as good as a death sentence. If you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t do it, no one will ever trust you or respect you again. So in that respect, I would do the same thing again, although knowing what I now know, I would not have made that threat in the first place.

My epiphany on this came a few months later when Dave Anderson had a column on the Masters killed by the Times. Unlike me, he didn’t insist on anything or make any ridiculous threats. He accepted the judgment of his bosses even thought he disagreed with it. That showed me something. If a columnist as accomplished as Dave Anderson could live with that, so could I.

What I would tell a young journalist is never to compromise your principles but be a little more diplomatic in your conversations with your bosses. Everyone is replaceable in this business, and if you’re going to die on a hill, make it the right one.

7. That same fiery personality is also what makes you such a fantastic columnist. You have genuine emotion regarding the topics you write about, and that passion spills out onto the page. It’s evident how much you care about what you’re writing. How important do you think that quality is for a columnist? How do make sure that you don’t drift into “hot-take territory,” something you never seem to do. In 2017, when everybody on the planet seems to have an opinion about sports, what makes for a good sports columnist that stands out above the fray?

Real passion is the only reason to write a column or to read one. Fake passion is easily detectable and the biggest load of shit in our business. The so-called “hot take” is some contrived bullshit designed not to inform, but to inflame, and those who engage in it can not be trusted because their opinions are not their own, They are solely created in order to get a reaction, and hopefully, page views. Sophisticated readers know the difference and steer clear of frauds who engage in that sort of nonsense.

I know that I haven’t always been right in my opinions, but I can honestly tell you I’ve never written a column I did not fully believe in at the time that I wrote it. Anyone who has isn’t worth your time as a reader.

8. If you could, how would you change how baseball is covered today? How about boxing?

Baseball needs to require its players to be in the clubhouse during media availability. In fact, if everyone was in the room for say, 30 minutes a day, there would be no need for a horde of media members to hang around for an hour just talking to one another. Everyone would get his and her work done in a reasonable amount of time, and I think we’d all get along better.

Boxing coverage, I think, is fine for the most part, mainly because the athletes are so much more accessible and media-friendly than those in our rigidly-controlled team sports. I do not like the trend, however, of moving the ringside press further and further away from the action and selling seats in front to high rollers. You can’t really cover a fight well if you can’t see it better than the guy in his living room.

9. In addition to you writing, you also have plenty of experience as a radio host, spending years doing a talk show for ESPN Radio in New York. What sort of background did you have in radio? How did you learn the skills? What are the biggest mistakes writers make when on radio? And how important has that radio experience been for your career as a journalist?

I had zero background in radio before I started hosting a drive-time show on ESPN up against Mike and the Mad Dog. The GM of the station thought I was a great guest and chose to give me a tryout. I thought I sucked at the beginning and gradually worked my way up to mediocre. But I must say it was the most enjoyable job I’ve had in media, and I especially liked it on payday.

In the beginning, hosting a radio show is like driving a car for the first time. There seems to be a million things to remember — check the mirrors, put it in reverse, hit your blinker, glance behind you, take your foot off the break — that it feels overwhelming, But with repetition, it becomes second nature, and after hosting the drive-time show for three years. I was able to slide back into the host chair after having not done it for 10 years and pick it right up again. Instead of driving a car, now it was like riding a bicycle.

I think a lot of newspaper guys are way too self-conscious on the air, either on radio or TV. they forget that the conversational skills and story-telling ability that make them good writers are the same things that make a good radio host. A successful talk show should sound like a conversation that your listeners want to join in on. But you can’t do that unless you’re loose on the air, and most writers I’ve heard aren’t.

I think if radio has taught me anything, it’s how to ask a question a little more diplomatically, because you never want to run the risk of having your guest blow you off on the air.

10. At NY Sports Day, you wrote one piece that certainly generated some attention: You announced your decision to stop voting for the Hall of Fame. You talked about how the experience of voting has gotten worse over the years. What led you to that conclusion? Should writers be voting at all? If not, who should?

I take Hall of Fame voting very seriously, because I know how much it means to the players, but over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to come up with a ballot that I could feel good about, for several reasons. The biggest, of course, is the eligibility of more and more guys who either used PEDs or could reasonably be suspected of it. And while I certainly hate to keep Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens off my ballot, I also can’t justify voting for players who may have accomplished their numbers or added to them by fraudulent or illegal means.

Plus, voting for the Hall has become a thankless task, between the criticism, which can get quite personal, from fans who disagree with your ballot, as well as the rudeness from some of the players to the media. In that column I told the story of a pitcher, a borderline Hall of Famer who I eventually voted for under pressure and persuasion from some colleagues, who after he got in, berated a bunch of reporters in my presence as “sheep.” (OK, it was Bert Blyleven.) I felt like telling him to go fuck himself and wished at that point I could have taken back my vote. Then, when Curt Schilling “joked” about lynching reporters, that wad the last straw for me. I don’t need to be a Hall of Fame voter to satisfy my ego or to impress strangers at cocktail parties, and it’s a lot of work to come up with an acceptable ballot. The “benefits” of it were far outweighed for me by the drawbacks. And thankfully, the Times doesn’t allow it’s reporters to vote for the Hall. So it’s all good.

BONUS: Mayweather-McGregor… thoughts?

My thoughts on Mayweather-McGregor? There are more suckers in this country than even I ever could have imagined.