A Q&A with Tom Ley

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 Tom Ley, the editor-in-chief at Defector, a new venture created and run by many former Deadspin staff members. Tom has been in the sports blogging world for a long time, and it’s so exciting to have him as a guest. Here, we talk about the experience of starting Defector, what he wants the new site to be and what it was really like to resign from Deadspin in protest.

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

I broke into journalism basically on a whim. After graduating from CU Boulder in 2010 with a fairly useless English degree, I spent two years working as a receptionist at the law school on campus. I spent a lot of hours reading Deadspin at my desk, and one day they posted a call for interns. I sent in an application, and after a brief and awkward phone call with then-staffers Jack Dickey and Dom Cosentino, I was invited to move to New York and join the site’s staff for a summer.The internship was totally unpaid, and at that point I had about $7,000 in my bank account. I decided that was enough to get me through a summer in New York City with no additional income (it was, but just barely), and that the opportunity was too rare to pass up. So I quit my job and moved to the city and started blogging for free at Deadspin. At the end of the internship, Tommy Craggs, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, was able to find room in the budget to offer me a full-time job as an editorial assistant. It paid just as much as my old receptionist gig did ($30,000 a year), so I took it. The rest is history, as they say. I never left Deadspin, moved up the editorial ladder over the course of the next seven years, and resigned from the site with the rest of my colleagues in October of 2019.

2. Before we get into specifics, what can you tell us about Defector, the new venture you run with many of the people previously with Deadspin? What inspired you to start it? What was the process like? Basically: What is Defector?

Defector is a sports and culture publication that aims to provide an alternative to readers who have spent the last decade or so reading online publications that feel increasingly hostile towards their own audiences. The simplest way to put it is to say that Defector wants to be a website that people actually want to read.

3. One big part of the pitch of Defector is that it is “worker-owned,” which obviously makes the site different than most of its competitors in the media. What does “worker-owned” mean in practice? What are the benefits and challenges of such a business model?

As far as Defector is concerned, “worker-owned” means that the fate and direction of the site will always be determined by the people who make it. We all have equity, but more importantly we have a set of bylaws that enshrines various decision-making rights with the full staff. I can be fired, for example, if a two-thirds majority of the editorial staff vote that I should be. The same goes for selling a portion of the company or hiring an executive.Another key piece to our structure is that these decision rights are not inextricably bound up with our equity. If, say, I decide to leave Defector next year, I would keep my equity share but I would lose all of my voting rights. We specifically wanted to design the company in a way that would make it impossible for us founding members, having perhaps moved on to other things, to one day end up acting like some sort of shitty absentee management layer, imposing our will on the current employees from afar. What happens to Defector will always be determined by the people who actually work there at any given moment.

4. We’ve had many Old Deadspin writers as guests here before and have heard so many wild stories about the implosion of the site. It’s been a year since you and your colleagues resigned as a group. Looking back now, what sticks out to you about how all of that played out? How scary was it to take such a big leap into the unknown? What have you learned in the last year from the experience?

When I look back on our resignations what sticks out to me was how little hesitation there was when it came time to decide if we were going to quit in solidarity with Barry Petchesky, who had just been fired for absurd reasons. It’s easy to imagine giving something up for someone else, but it’s hard to actually do it, particularly when it’s 20 people all trying to make that choice together. But nobody ever wavered. The resolve that I saw from my colleagues on that last day still blows me away. People with kids and mortgages and medical bills threw away their careers for each other because it was the right thing to do.Since then I’ve only gained a greater understanding for how meaningful that collective choice was. Being unemployed sucks! Most of us spent 10 whole months without steady income, and things got pretty dire. The symbolic nature of resignations is what got a lot of attention, but it was the material consequences that we all felt most acutely. I do not recommend being unemployed.

5. To what extent is Defector an extension of Old Deadspin? What’s different about it? What makes Defector Defector?

I think our voice and point of view have largely carried over from Deadspin, but my hope is that it is being applied a little more deliberately at Defector. All that really means is that we are a site where driving up traffic and engagement is near the bottom of our list of priorities, which was very much not the case at Deadspin. We’re still sort of feeling our way through this change in priorities, but I think people who have followed us from Deadspin to Defector will notice that things move just a little bit slower at the new place, and that the new pace has allowed us to be just a little bit funnier, weirder and more considered than we had the opportunity to be at Deadspin.

6. It’s been about two months since Defector started. It’s a subscription site and is relying on readers to thrive. What about the launch and this first period went according to plan? What surprised you? What gives you the confidence at this point that Defector will continue to succeed?

At the risk of severely jinxing myself, everything has gone much better than any of us could have anticipated. We all went into this expecting to be able to cobble together enough money to get ourselves health insurance, but not really have any kind of steady income for the first six months or so. Then we got 10,000 subscribers on the day of our announcement, and the calculus changed a bit. We’re now over 30,000 subscribers, which has allowed us to start cutting modest checks for ourselves every month, and even do things like establish a small freelance budget. We’re not swimming around in a pile of gold coins or anything, but we’re on a trajectory none of us expected to be on this early.As for what gives me confidence that this project will continue to be successful, that comes down to how we choose to collectively define success. For us, success is not turning this site into the Next Big Thing In Media, or convincing some VC firm to give us a $50 million cash injection, or eventually selling the site to Viacom so that we can all enjoy our equity payouts. All we want to do is make enough money to pay rent in exchange for publishing blogs onto the internet. That’s it! All we have to do in order to achieve that goal is make a decent site that accumulates a solid subscriber base and doesn’t eventually drive away a huge chunk of our readers by becoming a site that sucks. I think we can pull that off.

7. What is the role of sports blogging in 2020? Obviously the media landscape has changed dramatically since the Golden Age of Blogs, and yet here is Defector, proving that blogs are still so valuable to the conversation. How do you see Defector — and blogging in general — fitting into the current media environment?

One thing that defined the golden era of blogging that I’d like to see a return to, and I hope Defector can help this along, is websites establishing a real sense of place. What I mean by that is that I miss reading websites that had institutionally defined voices, points of view, internal references, recurring bits, commenting communities, etc. Good websites, the fun ones that you want to keep coming back to, are not the ones that just spit out as much coverage as possible so as to attract a ton of readers, but the ones that you can visit a few times and easily come to an understanding about what the site’s Whole Deal is. People should be given a better reason than, “Well, we all need some shit to read while we pass the time at work” for visiting a website. I think blogs used to give people that in a way that a lot of publications are, by design, unable to now.

8. After Deadspin writers resigned from Deadspin en masse there was some amount of social media anger when someone tried to take a job at Deadspin or even write for it. New Deadspin writers were called scabs. That forced some to retract their positions and others stayed nonetheless. What did you think about that response? How should we view the divide between corporate-owned media outlets and the people who work there who aren’t in a position of influence?

I guess I want to quibble a little bit with the assumption that the current staff of Deadspin is without power. They are powerless to the same degree that we were powerless, in that they are just as subjected to the destructive decision-making of G/O Media management. We did have power, though. We had the power to decide, collectively, that the Deadspin we had created, the site that had been meticulously crafted and refined by us and our predecessors for over a decade, should cease to exist. We couldn’t literally shut the servers down, but we could take away everything that actually made the site what it was: the writers and editors and readers. We had the power to effectively if not literally kill the website we loved, and we exercised that power at great personal cost.The people who eventually replaced us exercised their own form of collective power. They decided that the website we had thrown our own careers away in order to destroy should be revived. I’m sure they had plenty of good reasons for doing this, even ones I myself might find convincing. But I also think it would have been exceptionally naive for them to assume or expect that the people who understood what our resignations were all about—and I don’t think our intentions were all that hard to intuit from the outside—might bristle at Deadspin being dug up and reanimated for the benefit of G/O Media’s revenue streams. So they got called scabs. Is a person who takes a job that’s mere existence is a direct repudiation of an act of labor solidarity, and then trades on the legacy and notoriety left behind by the authors of that act of solidarity, a scab? I don’t know, maybe? They are certainly people who wielded the power of their own decisions, though.

9. You and other Defector writers did a media round ahead of your launch. What was it like to do that and be the ones out there selling something and on the other side of the story?

It was fine!

10. How often do people ask you if you are related to Bob Ley? Can you tell us a story about sharing a surname with him?

Pretty often. We used to jokingly refer to Bob Ley as my Uncle Bob when we were at Deadspin, and I still have a sneaking suspicion that I was only ever hired as an intern because Tommy Craggs was hoping to get some family secrets out of me. Just to be clear, I am not related to Bob Ley, and we do not even pronounce our last names the same way. Mine is pronounced like “Lay.”

A Q&A with Jimmy Traina

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 Jimmy Traina, a writer and podcast host for Sports Illustrated. Jimmy has been for SI for two decades, which is absolutely incredible in the age of digital media. We’re thrilled to have him here to talk about Traina Thoughts, covering the sports media and the place of Sports Illustrated in today’s media landscape. 

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 don’t think I can remember that far back. From what I recall, maybe a year or so after graduating college, I got a job at the Associated Press  where I wrote game previews. I became friends with someone at AP who ended up leaving for Sports Illustrated. A few months after he left, he told me about an opening at SI. I interviewed and got the job as an editorial assistant. My first job there was literally typing up magazine stories into the computer system. This was in 2000. I was basically a web editor and producer for seven years, and then in 2007, the higher ups were looking for a light-hearted daily column. I came up with the idea of “Hot Clicks,” pitched it and they said yes. I never expected in a billion years that Hot Clicks would be as popular as it was, but I’m grateful that it was. Now I’m doing Traina Thoughts, which is somewhat similar to Hot Clicks but has a little more opinion. And a lot of the old Hot Clicks readers have stuck with me, which is just mind-boggling.

2. You’ve been with SI.com since 2000, which in the world of digital journalism might as well be a billion years. Over that time, you’ve seen Sports Illustrated and its website change immeasurably. How would you describe the evolution of SI over the past two decades? What is the place of Sports Illustrated and SI.com in the current media landscape?I think Sports Illustrated and SI.com are still powerful players in sports media, and I think our brand holds a lot of weight in the public and in the world of sports. Obviously, the magazine business has seen better days, but athletes and sports figures still love being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They still love getting profiled by Sports Illustrated. Yes, the media landscape has changed, but Sports Illustrated is part of Americana.It’s not a secret that sports media has transitioned into a digital world and the competition out there is very strong, but SI still makes an impact and has adapted. We still do amazing story telling. We have the best baseball writer on the planet in Tom Verducci. Ross Dellinger and Pat Forde do an outstanding job covering college football. We still have must-read writers, such as Jon Wertheim. We now feature a “Daily Cover” every single weekday on the website, which is a long-form story by a variety of writers and handled by incredible editors.Obviously, I’m biased, but I think there will always be a place for what Sports Illustrated does.

3. You host the popular Sports Illustrated Media Podcast. What are the origins of that podcast? Why do you think it has been so successful? What do you think is the appeal of interviews with sports media figures and personalities — like this one! — for the average sports fan?Richard Deitsch started the podcast and did a fantastic job booking guests, doing interviews and growing the listenership. Richard left SI for The Athletic and the higher ups at SI asked me to take over the podcast.I think it’s been successful because it gives guests a chance to show off their personality more than you’d see while they are covering a game or hosting a pregame show, etc. I also try to make the podcast more conversational than just question-answer, question-answer.I also think everyone in sports media, myself included, has big egos and we love to be interviewed and we love to hear what our colleagues have to say about the business.

4. Andrew Marchand, a former -30- Q&A guest and a guest of your podcast, likes to say that “everyone wants to cover sports media.” Why do you think that it is? What is the role of a sports media columnist? Why is it an important job at an outlet like SI.com?I think everyone wants to cover sports media because every single one of us who watches sports has opinions on the men and women calling the games. All sports fans have an opinion about every person they see on sports TV. It’s plain and simple.The most important thing for anyone covering sports media is to be fair. We all have biases and people we like and don’t like in the business, but if you’re going to criticize, have examples. And don’t just criticize. You should praise as much as you criticize.

5. Sports Illustrated itself has been at the center of a lot of sports media coverage in recent months, in large part because of its ownership change and questions about how the publication is currently being run. As somebody who writes about sports media, how challenging is it when your employer emerges as the story?It’s not that challenging. I’m not going to write anything on SI.com that bashes the owners of SI.com. This is a business and I have bosses, so I’m not going to be stupid about it. I wouldn’t expect an ESPN writer to criticize ESPN and I wouldn’t expect an NBC Sports writer to criticize NBC Sports, etc.

6. You write a column for SI.com called Traina Thoughts that runs every weekday. That volume is astounding. How do you manage it? What’s your daily schedule and workflow like? Basically, how do you have enough thoughts and opinions — and energy and creativity — to write as frequently as you do?I wonder this myself sometimes. The bigger problem for me is that I have a million thoughts and opinions but can’t put them out there on SI.com, although they give me as much leeway as I could ask for. My daily schedule and workflow is just paying attention to as much as I can on Twitter, Instagram and across the web. I focus on sports media and the light side of sports, so that’s fun, and those are the things I seek out the most. I keep up with NFL, NBA, college football and MLB news. The NHL and college basketball draw zero traffic so I don’t pay attention to those sports.It’s basically searching for content that fits my column and tone and searching for content I think my readers will enjoy.The column is fairly easy to write this time of year when the NFL and college football are going on. In February and July, when sports are dead, it’s a big struggle. But the fact that I can have days where I write about something that has nothing to do with sports helps.The biggest issue for me is booking the SI Media Podcast all by myself every single week. That is by far the most difficult aspect of my job. The writing almost takes care of itself these days since I’ve been doing this so long.

7. You write a lot about the growing influence of gambling in the sports industry and have criticized television announcers for not acknowledging the importance of betting on the air. Why do you think sports gambling is still such a taboo subject in many circles, even as more states legalize it? What do networks not understand about the role of gambling?I think this is mainly an NFL problem and I think it’s as simple as the league doesn’t want to acknowledge that a huge reason for its popularity is gambling and fantasy (which is gambling). The league will give you a song and dance about how it doesn’t want to acknowledge gambling because it wants everyone to think the league is on the up and up, but only a dummy would think these players making millions and millions of dollars are going to throw a game.I don’t think the networks are necessarily afraid to address gambling. The networks are afraid to piss off the leagues they are in business with. If Roger Goodell told the networks they can acknowledge point spreads, the networks would acknowledge point spreads in .01 seconds.

8. If you could, what would you change about how sports are covered by the media?I wish coverage was more fun. Sports are taken waaaaaaaay to serious. It’s entertainment and it’s really not all that important in the grand scheme of life. That’s why I’m a fan of a show like “Good Morning Football.” It’s fun and light while also covering what needs to be covered. But we still live in a time where some media people get offended by bat flips and touchdown dances. You gotta lighten up.

9. Who are some broadcasters/broadcast teams currently working that you like? Who are the broadcasters you think more fans should be paying attention to?I’m a fan of the top teams across sports. I think Buck/Aikman, Nantz/Romo and Michaels/Collinsworth all do an outstanding job on NFL. Same with Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on NBA. Kirk Herbstreit is the best college football analyst out there and Buck is a great MLB play-by-play guy. Ian Eagle, Kevin Harlan and Kevin Burkhardt are also great with Eagle and Harlan doing NFL and NBA. Sean McDonough is also excellent on college football as is Tim Brando for CBS. I should also mention Bill Raftery who will make me watch a college basketball game if he’s calling it.Some underrated broadcasters I like are Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta on CBS. Andrew Catalon is also good. Boog Sciambi doesn’t get enough credit for his baseball work. Dave Pasch is solid in NBA and and the perfect straight man for Bill Walton on college.I’m sure I’m leaving some people out and I apologize to them.

10. You are a noted super-fan of “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” What is the best episode of each show and why?My favorite “Seinfeld” episode is “The Dinner Party.” There is so much going on in this episode. George and Elaine fight over Ring Dings and Pepsi vs. cake and wine. Jerry and Elaine in the bakery with the second babka, the black and white cookie and Jerry ending his vomit streak. Meanwhile, George, with his Gore-Tex jacket, and Kramer are in the liquor store and have to break a $100 bill and then go to the newsstand. It’s a perfect episode.My favorite “Office” episode is “Stress Relief.” It’s actually a two-part episode. It starts with the best opening ever: Dwight setting the office on fire for a fake fire drill and ends with the roast of Michael Scott. It also has the classic scene with the CPR dummy that has Michael, Andy and Kelly dancing to “Stayin’ Alive.

You can read more of our Q&As here.

A Q&A with Aaron Rupar

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 Aaron Rupar, a politics writer and editor for Vox. If you’re on Twitter, you no doubt have seen Aaron’s work — he has more than 600,000 followers on the platform and has become famous for his viral video threads of clips of Donald Trump, other politicians and cable news. Here, we talk to Aaron about how he became a social media sensation, objectivity in journalism and covering the Trump administration.

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?

My path to some degree of prominence in journalism has been an unusual one. I studied philosophy and political science in college and afterward decided to pursue a Ph.D in philosophy. But I always had a passion for news and news media, so I started covering city government part-time for a small newspaper in the Twin Cities suburbs while I was in grad school at the University of Minnesota. In the meantime, the Great Recession hit and I ended up cashing out of my grad program with a master’s degree. I pivoted to trying to make a career out of journalism somewhat out of necessity, but didn’t really get a toehold until a couple years later when I got hired as a news blogger for the City Pages in Minneapolis. That job was a great fit and ultimately led me to D.C. in early 2016 when I got a job with ThinkProgress. I carved out a beat covering Trump and the broader media ecosystem there, and I started doing the sort of video-centric work I’m now known for. I landed with Vox in late 2018. Things have just kept building from there. I feel very blessed.

2. This isn’t a question that we usually ask our guests, but it’s one that I think we need to put out there for you. What exactly is it that you do for Vox? You are so well known for your always-viral Twitter account. Your bio simply lists you as a “journalist.” So what is your role at Vox exactly, since we’re pretty sure they aren’t paying you exclusively for viral tweets?

I actually write a ton of stuff for Vox! It gets overshadowed by Twitter, but I’ve been one of the top authors on the site for more than two years now. In a typical week I write four or five posts about the Trump White House, right-wing media, notable congressional hearings and political speeches, polling analysis, fact-checks and so forth. My beat will obviously by a lot less Trump-centric after he leaves the White House, but please don’t sleep on my writing! It pays a lot better than tweeting. My official title at Vox is “associate editor,” and I do do some editing as well, but these days I’m more of a writer. In one of those strange journalism quirks, I’ve been an editor by title at each of my two most recent jobs despite spending most of my time writing.

3. Speaking of Twitter, you are pretty famous on that platform, having amassed more than 600,000 followers. A big reason for that is your tweeting of TV clips, speeches and events from Donald Trump and his associates. How and why did you start tweeting so many video clips? When did you realize you were really onto something? Why do you think it quickly became so popular?

My prominence as a video journalist was a complete accident. While I was at ThinkProgress in the fall of 2017 we had a training on SnapStream, which is a video clipping and posting service that we also use at Vox. A night or two later I just happened to have Fox News on in the background at home when then-Chief of Staff John Kelly did a now-infamous interview in which he defended the honor of the Confederacy. I was shocked by what he was saying and on a whim decided to put the training to use by clipping and posting his comments on Twitter. Within a few hours it had thousands of retweets. It was easily one of the most viral things I had ever posted and immediately opened my eyes to the appetite people have for video clips. Pretty much right after that I started doing video threads of White House press briefings, Trump speeches, hearings and so forth. The type of coverage I do with video threads and commentary resonated, and my Twitter platform has been growing exponentially ever since. I think my background as a philosopher and amateur historian of 20th Century authoritarianism has helped people who aren’t as immersed in it as I am understand the phenomenon of Trumpism, and my news judgment helps me have an eye for what clips will be of interest to the public. But I think the bottom line is there’s a big market for video highlights of politics, and I just happened to be a bit ahead of the curve in terms of figuring out how to tap into it.

4. To tweet all these videos, you must watch an incredible amount of cable news. How much cable news do you actually watch, and what is that experience like? More important, what have you learned about the country — and the people in it — from watching so much TV?

I have cable news on in the background pretty much all day every day. The vast majority of the time I’m not actively watching it, but I perk up when I see a major newsmaker being interviewed, Trump speaking at the White House and other newsworthy stuff of that sort. I think it’s probably harder on my wife than it is on me, though I try to be good about sparing her by wearing headphones and watching stuff on my computer as much as possible. I regret having to saying to say it, but my deep immersion in Fox News has really opened my eyes to the intellectual bankruptcy of much of the American right. You don’t have to watch for too long to figure out that the only principle underpinning what they’re up to is owning the libs. Fox preys on people who probably didn’t have good media literacy skills to begin with and are just looking to have their priors confirmed. American politics would be so much more functional if people were more skilled in recognizing good information from bad, valid arguments from invalid ones.

5. What is it like to be retweeted by Donald Trump?

When you have as many followers as I do, it’s perhaps less interesting than you would think! I have my notifications sorted, so I only really see ones from verified people or people I follow, so on the few occasions where Trump has retweeted me it hasn’t led to a major influx of activity or followers. The funny thing is I think Trump is sometimes very indiscriminate about who he retweets. On the occasions when he’s retweeted me, he was probably searching for a specific video clip or photo, mine happened to be at the top of the search results, and he retweeted away. I could be wrong, but I doubt he has any awareness of who I am or that I’m a major critic of his. Don Jr. and Eric Trump are different stories. The former has called me a “clown” and the latter has me blocked. But my sense of Trump’s Twitter behavior is that he’s pretty immersed in his right-wing bubble.

6. How does Vox feel about your Twitter account? On the one hand, it is one of their employees receiving incredibly wide exposure. On the other hand, your retweets don’t directly lead to traffic for Vox, as they are largely due to video clips of Donald Trump. What do you see as the value of having such a popular Twitter account not just for you, but for your employer whom you ostensibly represent?

This is perhaps a better question for Vox higher-ups! But I will say that my tweets do lead to traffic for Vox, because having a large and devoted audience means that lots of people are clicking on my stories or stories written by my colleagues when I post them. So while Vox might not directly benefit from my tweets, my Twitter platform has helped me become one of their top writers in terms of audience, which obviously does benefit the company. As I think is often the case with prominent, opinionated writers at large outlets, there have been times where tweets I’ve posted have rubbed higher-ups the wrong way because they’ve been too partisan and things of that sort. But my overall sense is that Vox management appreciates that the fact that I have such a large and devoted following and that I always am mindful of trying to convert video threads I put together into content for the site.

7. At some media outlets — like Jared’s, for instance — having a clearly partisan Twitter account wouldn’t be allowed. Clearly, at Vox, it’s completely acceptable. This is a change in the media business, which in the past took a much different approach to the notion of “objectivity” or “impartiality.” What do you think it says about the industry that you’re able to operate in it the way you do? Why do you think the media has evolved in this way?

I think the idea that reporters can completely separate themselves from their own perspectives and do their jobs in a completely impartial way is a bit of a myth, though I certainly understand why the New York Times and Wall Street Journal want their White House correspondents to explain why Trump’s policies are instead of denouncing them on social media. I’m grateful Vox allows me to have a voice. I think the values that inform my voice are pretty basic ones — support for human rights, anti-corruption, being honest with people, fairness, things like that. Perhaps it’s more a commentary on this era of U.S. politics than on the media landscape that advocating for these things paints me with the brush of “partisan.” I acknowledge that with a new administration coming in, recalibrating will be a bit of a challenge. Doing accountability journalism in the Biden era will require more nuance and a more thorough understand of policy than it has in the Trump era, where just covering the president’s blatant lies is basically a full time beat.

8. If you could, what would you change about how Donald Trump is covered by the media at large?

I do think the media has in general gotten better at covering Trump than they were in 2015 and 2016, when there was a reluctance to label his lies as such and an inclination to often give him the benefit of the doubt when he didn’t deserve it. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think part of the reason my coverage of the Trump administration has resonated with people is that I try to be honest and straightforward. If Trump is lying, I have no qualms about saying so, and often the interesting stories are explaining why he’s lying. One problem that I see still pretty often with Trump coverage is the propensity individual reporters and media outlets have to directly quote him in tweets and headlines without including a fact check. An example that pops into my head is from the summer of 2018, when the AP tweeted, “BREAKING: Trump tweets North Korea no longer nuclear threat.” Of course, North Korea is still a nuclear threat, and given that Trump lies incessantly, conveying his statement without attempting to evaluate the veracity of it was malpractice. Major outlets still do stuff like this fairly regularly, but I do see less of it than I did in the early days of the Trump administration.

9. There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about “access journalism” and the value of having access to the people you cover. You, of course, are covering politics from afar. What do you see as the value of that? What are the drawbacks? What do you see as your place in the larger media landscape?

First off, just because I’m not at the White House doesn’t mean I don’t have sources. I’m talking to people in the orbit of the White House all the time. But covering Trump from afar does have benefits — I don’t have to worry that I’ll get my press pass revoked, playing political games to maintain relationships with background sources, competing for scoops, things of that sort. Basically, I can cover the White House without having to pull punches. That said, I really respect what reporters like Maggie Haberman and Michael Bender do. I see my role in the media landscape, ideally, as a journalist that followers of American politics can turn to when they want a rundown of major political events, with commentary that has a perspective (and maybe even a little bit of humor) but informs people.

10. In case you hadn’t heard, Donald Trump won’t be president soon. So what does that mean for you? Tweeting video clips of Joe Biden probably won’t be quite as big as a draw, so where do you go from here? Pulling it back further, what does the end of Trump’s presidency mean for the media at large, given how much of a spike in subscriptions many outlets saw as a result of his election?

I agree that Biden won’t lend himself to viral clips as much as Trump does, but you’d be surprised how much interest there is in what he’s up to! I was heartened to learn during the campaign that there’s demand for political video threads even when they aren’t about Trump, and of course I’ll still be covering congressional hearings and the like too. As I alluded to earlier, for people like me that have spent years covering Trump, covering Biden will be an adjustment. But I think living through the Trump years has activated the general public’s political consciousness in a way that it wasn’t before. Hopefully that translates to continued interest in the work that political journalists do.

A Q&A with Robert Klemko

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 Robert Klemko, a reporter for the Washington Post covering criminal justice in America. Robert had been a phenomenal sports writer for years, for outlets like the Post and Sports Illustrated, but he has now transitioned to his new beat, which has been so exciting to see. We’re so thrilled to have him as a guest, and here, we talk to him about his career transition, reporting on social justice in 2020 and some of his best-known sports reporting.

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?You end up having a lot of breakthroughs, if all goes well. It’s not quite better to be lucky than good, but it’s close. I hit the lottery my sophomore year of high school. I was kicked out of Catholic school for reaching my demerit limit (I was an angsty, rebellious teen), so I enrolled at Blake High School in Maryland where I met the man who put me on my career path, Kevin Keegan. He was a journalism teacher whose student newspapers had consistently ranked No. 1 in state competitions for decades. He challenged me in ways only my youth football coaches had before; he made writing competitive, which I hadn’t realized it could be.

2. You recently started a new assignment at the Post. Awesome! You’re now on the National desk covering criminal justice in America. Before that, you had been in Sports. What made you want to shift away from Sports and into this other area? What was the process of transitioning? What has it been like being in another area after spending so much time in sports?The 2016 election was a wakeup call for a lot of people, obviously. It made me realize I didn’t understand our politics at all. I started following some of the great political reporters who seemed to be trying to make sense of this shift from Tea Party Obama-era grievances to Trump and what he represents. Gradually, football felt less important to me. That said, I would’ve been happy to do the work I was doing as an investigative reporter in sports for many years to come. Covid-19 is the main reason I’m no longer in sports. When the pandemic came, the National team asked for volunteers from Sports to assist in coverage on the ground. I fell in love with the work immediately, and when the job covering criminal justice was announced, I jumped at the opportunity to work with the same people.

3. Before the new job became official, you traveled the country reporting stories on the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd. At the time, you were still technically in Sports. How did it happen that you wound up on these other stories? How did your bosses in Sports feel about it? Why was it important for you to go work on those stories, even though it wasn’t technically your job at the time?Matt Vita, the Sports editor, was extremely supportive. I think he embraces opportunities for his reporters to demonstrate that we are reporters first and sports fans second. Covering Covid-19 felt important because you could see this immediate disconnect between the reality on the ground in hospitals, urgent cares and nursing homes that wasn’t being reflected in the messaging coming from the White House. So our jobs have become not simply an accounting of a complex public-health effort, but a rebuttal to many of the false narratives peddled by the President and amplified by his allies and a large segment of media outlets. The sources in the field, especially medical professionals, expressed near-unanimous condemnation of Trump’s messaging, so it felt important to make those voices heard.

4. You recently wrote this incredible story about Joseph Rosenbaum, one of Kyle Rittenhouse’s victims in Kenosha, Wis. How did that story come about? What were some of the challenges of reporting it out? Why was this particular man, in your mind, such an important and compelling subject for a story.Thank you. Greg Jaffe should get a lot of the credit for that story. I learned more in two weeks watching my co-writer report that story than I did in any semester in college, which is not a dig at Maryland. Greg’s that good. We agreed those three victims were worthy of a closer look because there were dueling narratives coming from the left and right about what sort of individual ends up at these anti-police brutality protests and neither felt true to me in my experience covering this summer’s unrest in Minneapolis, Kenosha, Albuquerque and Tulsa.

5. You have a tendency to write about sports in a way that expands the lens to society as a whole. We’re thinking, for instance, of your 2016 story for SI on what makes an NFL quarterback, which was about the socioeconomic factors common among prospects at that position. How do you seek those kinds of stories out? What is the key to doing that kind of story well?I think most of those sort of stories begin with an observation: This seems unfair. Then the next question is, Why? Are there data we can look at to see if there is actually some disparity here? And if the thing really is unfair, the first step to fixing it is to demonstrate to the reader that, yes, this is unfair. I don’t know how well I do it, but I think the key to a successful story in that realm is to take nothing for granted. I may believe one of five or six pillars of my larger thesis to be inherently true and beyond debate, but I have to be conscious of the likelihood most of my readers don’t agree, or simply need more explanation to make their own judgements.

6. If you could, how would you change how criminal justice in America is covered?I don’t really know yet. I’m trying to figure that out. Preliminarily, I think there’s a media rush to cover the latest injustice as it happens, wherever it happens, then just as quickly comes this rush to get out of town. We need to stay in these places and knock on doors and tell larger stories about people and their relationship with police.

7. Over the summer, you were pulled over by police after knocking on the door of a police union head in Minneapolis to seek an interview for a story. What can you share about that experience? How did it change — or re-emphasize — your perspective on what it’s like to be a journalist in America here in 2020?That’s a deep Google find right there! I don’t know what that episode said about being a journalist in 2020. I think it said more about being Black in America, anytime.

8. Last year, you reported extensively on an alleged sexual assault by Antonio Brown. The reporting was tremendous and also had an immediate impact. Brown was cut soon after and only resurfaced in the NFL recently. How did you find out about that story, and how did you report it out?Thank you, again. As it goes with a lot of deeper dives, there was a lot in that story that was already out there. We knew Antonio Brown had these bizarre debts all over the country, thanks to sites like TMZ. The challenge was to run down more and flesh out the existing ones. We reached out to lawyers who already had litigation against Brown to see if there were more people who had considered suing. There were a lot of them, more than we wound up writing about. I don’t think we got close to tracking down everybody, but we pulled enough thread to paint a bigger picture about who he was. We found the woman who said Brown fired her and stole from her for refusing to have sex with him through a charity who said Brown owed them $700 for a piece of art she painted.

9. You received death threats as a result of that story. How did you handle that situation? How scary was it to live through it? What, if anything, did you learn from that experience?I didn’t really think anybody would actually try to kill me for that story, but it was pretty uncomfortable to see my parents’ home address posted dozens of times on Twitter and texted to me by anonymous phone numbers. I don’t think I would do anything differently. The same public records tools we use to find and talk to people are the ones our adversaries are using to try to intimidate us. It’s all in the game.

10. According to your Washington Post bio, you served as the student newspaper adviser at a Denver high school. How did that opportunity come about? What was the experience like? What were your impressions of current teenagers and how they view the media and the media business?One of my best friends, Carolyn Thomas, is an assistant principal at the school. She told me their club newspaper advisor had left the school a couple years prior and no one had picked up the project. I was traveling mostly on weekends for Sports Illustrated, so I jumped into the role. We had a blast for three years. It went from an after-school club to a class with a full time co-teacher. I didn’t gain much understanding of a typical teen’s media consumption, because these weren’t typical teens. Bruce Randolph School is 99% free and reduced lunch and has the largest immigrant population of any public school in Denver. There’s a lot to talk about there, but my biggest revelation came in understanding the incredible value of a small amount of time and energy invested in young people.

You can read more of our Q&As here.

A Q&A with Laura Wagner

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 Laura Wagner, who had covered media for Deadspin. As you know, Deadspin has imploded in recent weeks, with the entire staff resigning in protest of management decisions, essentially killing what was one of the stalwarts of the modern sports media. Given that, we’re really grateful to have Laura as a guest. Here, we discuss what really went down at Deadspin, adversarial journalism and how she goes about reporting so strongly on media companies — including her own employer.

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 joined the college newspaper at Georgetown and did a few internships. I first interned for a now-defunct alt-weekly in Charlottesville, Va., the summer before my junior year. I had no clue what I was doing, but the editor-in-chief, Courteney Stuart, was fun as hell and let me write about all sorts of small-town shenanigans. I was an intern for ESPN’s “Around the Horn” during the fall semester of my senior year, which was great, and then I interned for ABC’s Sunday morning news show in the spring, which was not at all great mostly because I had to be at the studio at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning to get Martha Raddatz’s latte.

After graduating in 2015, I got a summer internship at NPR. I parlayed that into a temporary full-time job blogging on the news desk, which served as a useful news writing/aggregation bootcamp. But I wanted to be a reporter and the infamous NPR temp system didn’t really allow for that, so I left NPR to intern for Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Josh Levin hired me to help with the podcast and with blogging the 2016 Olympics, but he also was the first editor to really set me loose on reporting a story, and, with much guidance, I reported a few that I’m still proud of. At the end of the summer, I stayed on as a freelancer for Slate where I worked with several great editors, including Tommy Craggs, the former EIC of Deadspin/executive editor of Gawker Media. In early 2017, Tim Marchman hired me at Deadspin.

2. Before we talk about any specifics of what transpired at Deadspin, let’s just begin here: What have the last couple weeks been like for you? Given everything that’s happened, how are you doing now? Has your head stopped spinning?

The adrenaline rush that came from quitting in such a public way didn’t last very long. I basically cycled through the stages of grief but kept getting stuck on anger. In fact, I’m still angry that a private-equity firm took over a successful media company, killed off the politics site, and then tried to beat Deadspin into submission. In the past few weeks, though, I read a few books, took a trip with my boyfriend, watched some old movies, hung out with my nine-month-old nephew, spent a lot of time with my non-Deadspin friends (none of whom work in media) and just generally tried to remember that my worth as a human is not tied to the work I do.

3. Watching from the outside, the Deadspin decimation appears to have gone down like this: Barry Petchesky, the editor-in-chief, was fired for not following the corporate “stick-to-sports” dictum — and then the entire staff systematically resigned in protest after a meeting with the editorial director that did not calm the staff’s nerves. How accurate is that narrative? Why did you and your colleagues respond the way you did, and how did it actually happen?

That’s broadly accurate. As you said, for people on the outside, I think it seems like the Deadspin situation escalated quickly, but really we had been dealing with various kinds of interference and incompetence from management for months.

First, CEO Jim Spanfeller hired a bunch of guys from his heyday who were, in many cases, ill-equipped to run a digital media company in 2019. Most notably, these hires included the now-former editorial director Paul Maidment, who was unable or unwilling to stand up for the newsroom’s editorial integrity and be a firewall between business prerogatives and newsroom best practices.

For example, fairly early on, Maidment indicated that Deadspin should “stick to sports” (we successfully ignored this for some time). Then there was a brutally biased “reader satisfaction” survey that Spanfeller told one of his minions to put on Deadspin, which targeted Deadspin’s non-sports coverage and media reporting. There was also constant haggling over our contractually guaranteed editorial independence and whether or not we could report on our own company. As a result of this — and generally toxic management — Deadspin’s former EIC Megan Greenwell was essentially forced out.

In addition to all of this, there were several hilariously botched attempts at deploying an “employee handbook” that said reporters weren’t allowed to use encrypted messaging and also included a dress code banning shorts, which was actually enforced. And then, in the final week leading up to Barry’s firing, management plastered that godawful autoplaying Farmers Insurance ad across all the company’s sites, driving away readers by creating a disgusting user experience and rankling editorial and sales staffers alike.

So while we were trying to figure out how to best deal with the ongoing autoplay ad situation, the written “stick to sports” mandate from Paul Maidment popped up in our inboxes. Deadspin responded to it by re-posting some of our most popular non-sports stories on the homepage and also publishing new non-sports posts. We thought it was a funny, Deadspin-y way to point out how ridiculous the mandate was and signal our intention to continue ignoring it. But Spanfeller saw it and fired Barry, who was not only the interim EIC, but the heart and soul of Deadspin. It was the last straw.

You’re correct that the meeting with editorial director Paul Maidment did not reassure anyone. But it did result in this incredible photo captured by the great Victor Jeffreys.

I’d like to add: I think there is a perception that the Deadspin staff was unwilling to work with new management and that we were simply pig-headed troublemakers bent on having our way for the sake of it. In reality, we had many, many meetings — as a staff, as a company, just the EICs, one-on-one — with management where we tried to explain not only the value of editorial independence and what made Deadspin unique and valuable, but also areas where we thought Deadspin could be better monetized and our hopes for the future of the site. Even after Megan left, there was a sense that we could survive under Spanfeller’s management and do the work we had always successfully done — work that drew around 17 million unique viewers per month — but we underestimated management’s vindictive streak.

4. It’s easy to talk about quitting your job out of principle. We imagine it’s much harder in practice. How difficult was it to leave a place into the great unknown for the reason you and your colleagues did?

As soon as Barry got fired I knew I wanted to quit. I think a lot of us did because at that point, it just wasn’t a place where we could work productively. But it was an intensely personal decision for each person. For me, it was my first real job, at a site I’d read since high school, where I got to go to work every day and bullshit with my friends. I was sad about it and I’m still sad about it. For people with kids and mortgages, though, the decision to resign meant much more than leaving a job they loved, and I really admire them.

5. It’s important to remember that much of this stems from a corporate mandate that Deadspin “stick to sports,” even though not sticking to sports is a vital part of Deadspin’s DNA. Why was it so important for Deadspin to branch off from sports and write about politics and culture and whatever else Deadspin wrote about? What made that coverage quintessentially Deadspin to the point that eliminating that coverage would crush the soul of the website?

Deadspin was known for its sports investigations and smart sports takes. But Deadspin wouldn’t have been Deadspin without the random stuff that we wrote just because we thought it was fun or funny or gross or weird or needed to be said: Albert Burneko’s Foodpsins, Billy Haisley on music or movies or anything else, Samer Kalaf on the dangers of falling in love with Ted Cruz, Kelsey McKinney reviewing the Untitled Goose Game, David Roth on Donald Trump, Patrick Redford on wildfires, Tim Marchman on the majestic plural, Giri Nathan on the big berry, Diana Moskovitz’s coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence, Tom Ley and his bears, Chris Thompson’s cranky review of Avengers: Endgame, Emma Carmichael attending a gathering of Juggalos, Kyle Wagner writing about Gamergate, Lauren Theisen telling conservative gays to shut the fuck up, Barry Petchesky writing about the ugliness of reporting, Dan McQuade on visiting the chonky cat, Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide To Williams Sonoma, Dom Cosentino on becoming a sociopath, Luis Paez-Pumar ranking “Game of Thrones” episodes, our incredible video pals making Barry eat 50 eggs and Dave McKenna telling the story of that time Obama tracked him down in a coffee shop.

These non-sports stories were ultimately a fraction of Deadspin’s total output, but being empowered to write about topics beyond sports — and seeing readers respond in droves — is what made Deadspin different and unpredictable. And it’s worth noting that having non-sports coverage on Deadspin wasn’t just important as a matter of tradition and principle. Many of our non-sports posts far out-performed the daily sports blogs on the site in terms of traffic. Those big, viral stories drew readers to the site in a singular way. People with no interest in sports at all became loyal readers of Deadspin because they ended up on the site after reading about, I don’t know, a lady furiously chucking her own poop all over a Tim Hortons.

6. You, famously, wrote an incredible story this summer about the corporate overloads now running G/O Media, potentially putting your job at risk to do so. Why was it so important for you to report and write that story? Why did you keep going even when it became clear that there could potentially be consequences? What did that experience show you about the people running your company and what it might mean for the future of Deadspin?

I got a tip about G/O management’s hiring practices the same way I got tips about many other stories. I vetted it and discussed with my editors, at which point we decided that a private-equity firm taking over a digital media company and installing a stable of older white men, whose freshest ideas came from mid-2000s Forbes, without posting the jobs publicly or announcing their hires, was at least worth looking into.

As I worked on it, the story grew from a narrow look at G/O’s hiring practices into a broader report on Spanfeller’s management, the incompetence of his assembled team and his efforts to undermine the story itself. I didn’t think they would fire me for the story, but Megan knew she would face consequences and told me to report it anyhow. The process of reporting the story was demoralizing, especially when Spanfeller blasted an email to the whole company trying to smear our work. But even then I didn’t expect management to go about destroying a key part of their own company.

7.  You have, of course, written a lot of stories about media and have been unafraid to go after outlets and people that your reporting tells you are worthy of criticism  — your stories on SB Nation not paying people are especially memorable. That said, you are also in the media and live in this landscape. How much do you worry about burning bridges with potential connections and even future employers before publishing a piece. Has anything you’ve written ever come back to bite you in a way you didn’t foresee? 

Deadspin, as an institution, has a long history of unabashedly covering media in a way no one else does. Deadspin was covering sexual harassment in sports media long before #MeToo. It built a whole beat dedicated to shredding vapid schlongform stories. It had a whole well-populated tag called “The Brands” reserved for mocking lame marketing ploys and the reporters who fell for (or embraced) them. Reporting on and writing about sports media has been a cornerstone of Deadspin ever since A.J. Daulerio took over the site in 2008. So there was a well-established blueprint and I’m glad I was able to follow it.

I’ve written critically about ESPN, SB Nation, Vox Media, FanSided, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Barstool, MLB Advanced Media, Bleacher Report and many other media companies and figures. I never really thought about it explicitly, but I couldn’t have written and reported that stuff if I was worried about burning bridges. I’m not naive and I accept that I’ve probably torched a few, but I didn’t become a reporter to get people to like me or climb some career ladder. Writing about the stuff that important people and institutions would rather you not write about is the absolute best part of the job. In the end, I didn’t (and don’t) want to work anywhere that doesn’t share this value. With that said, I recognize that Deadspin’s position in sports media meant we could take aim at basically whoever or whatever we wanted and that working somewhere else would likely mean choosing my spots more judiciously.

I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t think of any instances of something I’ve written really coming back to bite me, mostly because I think people realize that my reporting and media criticism isn’t personal (usually). After all, a subject one day is a source the next; all I can do is be honest in every aspect of my work. The only example I can think of is a few weeks before I quit, someone ignored me because I had been critical of that person’s friend. There’s really nothing I can do about that except shrug.

8. Having reported on the sports media industry and how it operates – you’ve seen the guts of many sports media companies. Where do you see the industry right now? What do you think the future looks like?

Media is foundering for a whole mess of reasons. As a result, more and more companies, including those in sports media, are turning to unpaid and underpaid labor. Sports media is especially susceptible to this because there are so many aspiring sportswriters out there willing to work for pennies. This is true of SB Nation (which is facing two federal collective action lawsuits over its labor practices), FanSided, 12up.com, and recently, Sports Illustrated’s new owners have adopted a version of this model. Even ESPN is now relying on low-paid college-student labor to broadcast games for SEC and ACC Network streaming platforms.

The sports media organizations that aren’t relying on cheap labor to churn out content — and I use that word derisively — are the sports sections of major newspapers (which are generally doing good but unbearably staid work) and The Athletic (I will always have doubts about a Silicon Valley startup that grows for the sake of growth, but I hope it succeeds, and I also hope the workers there follow The Ringer’s lead and unionize while things are still relatively good).

9.  If you could, what would you change about sportswriting?

You mean besides eliminating the reliance on unpaid and underpaid labor, which is not only unethical but systematically excludes people who can’t afford to work for little or no money from breaking into the overwhelmingly white and male sports media industry? I would make sportswriting more adversarial. Not everything has to be hyper aggressive, but day-to-day oppositional reporting in sports seems to have taken a back seat as reporters cling to access, with a few exceptions.

10. What are the secrets to making sure we personally never get written about by you, because, honestly, we’re a kind of terrified?

Don’t be bad. And even then, no promises!

A Q&A with Stephanie Apstein

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 Stephanie Apstein, a writer for Sports Illustrated. Stephanie has written some of the best baseball stories in the industry over the past few years, consistently delivering exceptional work about some of the most interesting players in the sport. That makes her a perfect guest for a Q&A. Here, we talk about her career thus far, how she gets athletes to trust her and what it’s like to have a story on the cover of SI.
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 hated sports as a kid, mostly because I was awful at them. (After my third-grade softball season, our coach signed balls for everyone. “Arielle, your swing is really strong.” “Hannah, your defense has improved so much.” Mine read, “Stephanie, trying is everything.”) But you can’t grow up in Boston and not have at least a passing awareness of what the Red Sox are doing, and once I learned about the infield fly rule I was hooked. I had always assumed athletes were dumb. The idea that you might drop a ball on purpose opened this world to me. 
I was afraid I wouldn’t have friends at college, so when I showed up on campus I signed up for absolutely everything at the activities fair. I had always loved reading—my parents say the only part of me they saw when I was a kid was the part in my hair—and the newspaper was looking for someone to cover women’s swimming. I loved it. Trinity College doesn’t offer journalism classes, so we basically made it up as we went along. (I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the BBWAA who majored in French and Italian in college. I would not say this has been hugely helpful in baseball clubhouses.) I got to write and serve as sports editor and eventually editor-in-chief. It was a lot of fun, but we had no idea what we were doing. A few times, we were so short on writers that I wrote every story in the sports section and gave away the bylines. 
After graduation, I went to Columbia to get my master’s. As I said, I had virtually no idea what I was doing, so it was good to learn such journalistic rules as don’t write something and give away the byline. 
From there, I got a summer internship at Sports Illustrated as a fact-checker. When senior editor Richard Demak called to offer me the position, he said, “Try to make yourself indispensable.” I tried very hard. Evidently it worked, because a month in they asked if I would like to stay on. They let me write on the side, but until I got promoted to staff writer in 2017, I checked almost every baseball story in the magazine. It was frustrating at times, which I think it should be—you should always aim a little beyond your ability—but it was also a great way to learn how to do this. I got to see what Tom Verducci filed, re-report most of it and then watch as it made its way through editing. A lot of SI writers came up that way, and I think you can tell. (Among other things, we’ll never fail to note which ankle someone hurt.) 
2. Let’s start with your employer, Sports Illustrated. It’s been interesting time for one of the most prestigious publications in the history of journalism, sports or not. How would you describe the mission statement of Sports Illustrated in 2019? How do young, modern athletes respond when you introduce yourself as a writer for Sports Illustrated? What is Sports Illustrated’s place in the media landscape in 2019?
Sometimes I feel like Sports Illustrated’s biggest hype (wo)man. I know journalism is in freefall. I know the company just got bought and we have no idea what that means. I know occasionally we seem reactionary instead of forward thinking. But… how can you look at an organization that employs Chris Ballard, Greg Bishop, Ben Reiter, Michael Rosenberg, Tom Verducci and Grant Wahl and think anything other than that we’ll be fine? I think the mission statement is what it’s always been: Do the best work in whatever form that takes. I think that’s its place in the media landscape in 2019. Sometimes, candidly, readers have to sift through some stuff that falls short. I think we can do a better job of eliminating the clutter in favor of the work that makes an impact. But the work does make an impact. 
I think the magazine still matters to athletes, but maybe not in the way you might think. They care about the cover nearly as much as they ever have, but otherwise I don’t think it’s the name so much as what it means. We have the luxury of time and resources, and when I explain to them that we will do what it takes to get their story right, I find that they tend to be receptive. 
3. You’ve had the opportunity to write a few cover stories for SI, including one about Aaron Judge and another about the Dodgers. What’s the process like of getting a story on the cover? To what extent do you start the story knowing it’ll be the cover versus finding out after the fact? What were your emotions and feelings the first time you learned your story would be on the cover?
I try not to put too much stock into covers, because you never know what went into the decision, but the truth is: It rules. Maybe I will get to a point where it will mean less, but I hope not. I have written three, and in two cases I didn’t know ahead of time that they would be the cover. (For season previews and championship issues, you know you have a good shot.) I never believe it until 8 p.m. on Monday night, because that’s the point at which it will cost us money to change. Everyone at SI knows how good it feels, and everyone makes a big deal out of it, which is really nice. The Judge cover was my first, and when it came out, my bosses came over with a blown-up version of it. 
The process is complicated, and honestly I don’t totally understand it. It’s a complicated alchemy—the story needs to be good, the photos need to be good, the subject needs to be relevant, no one important can have recently died. We do a lot of rooting: If neither the NBA nor NHL playoffs are done by Monday, and this other thing falls through…
4. One thing that’s evident about your reporting is how hard you work to earn the trust of baseball players, and it leads to some pretty excellent access. For your Aaron Judge piece, for instance, it’s clear you spent a good amount of time with him. How do you go about procuring that kind of athletes? How much of a challenge is it, especially since you aren’t in the clubhouse with these teams and players every single day like a beat writer?
It’s funny that you mention Aaron Judge. We spent an hour together, and only because he was kind to me: We agreed to spend an hour talking in the stands. After 30 minutes someone from the Yankees came over and got him because they wanted him to do a photo shoot in Ronald Torreyes’s jersey. I must have looked aghast, because Judge offered to pick the conversation back up in the dugout before batting practice. We did, and he was great: thoughtful, precise. 
Anyway, my strategy here is to make my request as close to the player as possible. In some cases, that’s the player himself. The next level of remove would be the agent. Then team PR. In some ways I suffer from not being a beat writer, but in some ways I benefit. Because I’m not there every day, I am something of a novelty, and players are more likely to give me extended time than they would be a beat writer. When I wrote about Clayton Kershaw, he invited me to his house. He would never offer that kind of access to a beat writer, and not because I did anything better than they do; it’s just that he knows he’ll see them again tomorrow. 
We have to remember the situation these guys are in: Almost all the people they encounter have their hands out. They see each of us as just another in a string of strangers asking for something. So I try to make it clear that I don’t want that kind of time—generally an hour or so—just because I want to hang out with them. I tell them that I want to tell their story right, and that’s what it will take. Sometimes they say no, which is their right and which I actually appreciate: I’d much rather you say no upfront than agree and mumble your way through 15 minutes before it becomes clear to both of us that this is going nowhere. 
5. Maybe our favorite Stephanie Apstein joint is this one about Jon Lester dealing with the yips. This was an enormous topic across baseball, and nobody had written anything close to doing it justice. How did you go about reporting on such a sensitive subject? How much was Lester involved? What was his response afterward?
That’s nice of you to say. I got some very good advice on that one, from SI senior writer Michael Rosenberg, who told me to be upfront with everyone I was talking to. It’s about his yips. If they didn’t want to talk about it—and some didn’t—that was fine, but I never wanted anyone to feel misled. I tried to frame it well, but in a way I really believed: This is one of the most incredible performances in sports. This guy should be collapsing, and instead he’s dominating. How does he do that? People in the game really respect Lester, and I think they would have been reluctant to trash him. I gave them a chance to talk about how tough he was, and a lot of people took it. 
The other challenge here is that no one but Lester knows the whole story. Everyone just has a piece. Even David Ross, his catcher and one of his closest friends, had no idea how this all started. I ended up talking to something like 40 people and tried to put it together from there. 
Lester declined through a representative to participate. That representative tried to get me to kill the story. I never heard anything from his people after it ran. I assume that means they didn’t hate it as much as they expected. 
6. Interestingly, you were never on a baseball team beat before jumping into covering the sport nationally? How much has that helped/hurt you in your career? Have you ever wished you had covered a beat first? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your trajectory?
I wish every day that I had covered a beat first. But by the time I realized how useful that would have been, I was a staff writer at SI, which means I would be leaving to do good enough work that I could someday… be hired at a place like SI. 
I frankly think there are more disadvantages than advantages to my track. I have many fewer contacts than people who started on a beat. It took me a long time to learn how to work a clubhouse. I’m still learning. There are little things about the culture of the game that still surprise me. (I found out, like, three weeks ago that rookies aren’t allowed to sit on most clubhouse couches.) I see one major advantage: I was in the building. It’s a lot easier to get a job as a staff writer at SI when they’re already paying you. 
7. Since you cover the entire league, we imagine story idea generation is a big part of your job. What’s your process?
I panic for a long time, then look at LSAT prep courses. Honestly, I don’t know. I think that’s the hardest part of this job. (Until I am in the middle of reporting, at which point I become convinced that that’s the hardest part. Ditto for writing.) 
Early on, I think I often got too cute with my ideas. Matt Gagne, a former SI editor who is now running SportTechie, gave me good advice: Tom Verducci has to sleep sometimes. Pitch the kinds of stories he would do. So for profiles I try to find someone who is at a pivotal point in his life: Kershaw the spring after losing the World Series, Chris Davis late in one of the worst seasons of all time, Tim Anderson after the bat flip and n-word, Roy Halladay’s dad after his son is posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame. Taffy Brodesser-Akner has said that it’s not our subjects’ job to make our stories good, and she’s right. So I find that if I look for someone whose life is inherently interesting at this moment, it takes some of the burden off us both. 
I have no process when it comes to idea generation for trend stories. I’m not sure I have ever had a good idea for a trend story. 
8. So, covering baseball at Sports Illustrated means you work with the legendary Tom Verducci. What’s the most insane/amazing/incredible/ridiculous Tom Verducci story that you can share?
They’re all along the same theme: He is absurdly good and absurdly fast. The first time I saw this myself was after Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, which the Royals won to take their first championship in 29 years. For background: The game was played on a Sunday night. The magazine closes on Monday evening, meaning everything has to be in by Monday morning. Tom was calling the game for Fox, so he wasn’t writing as it went, and the game itself was so wild that most of his cover story had to be about it, so he couldn’t have prewritten much. 
The game went 12 innings and finished after midnight, and then we had to wait while the players received the trophy and honored the MVP and drowned one another in Champagne. I don’t think I got upstairs from the clubhouse until something like 2 a.m., and from the press box I could see Tom on the field, doing interviews until probably 3. He was the last person down there. I think they finally turned the lights off on him. I’m told he filed his 3,400-word cover story at 8 a.m., and it went through about 15 seconds of editing because it was so perfect. You can see the result for yourself. 
9. If you could, what would you change about how baseball is covered and written about?
Everyone says this, but we don’t do it: We should all speak Spanish. I understand why we don’t; I am taking classes, and it’s hard! I recently tried to interview a player in Spanish, and he laughed for a long time and then called the interpreter over. That was not the ego boost I’d had in mind! But if you want to cover the sport well, you can’t ignore a third of the clubhouse. And it’s not really fair to ask a teenager to tell you anything meaningful about himself in his second language. 
10. We often like to ask people about academia in this Q&As. It’s a somewhat perilous topic in journalism circles. You have a masters degree in journalism. Why did you decide to pursue it? How has it helped you? What would you tell younger people considering going for such a degree?
I loved J-school. Columbia in particular has such incredible resources: I remember calling my parents in my first week or two, after Lesley Stahl casually spoke to my class, and saying, “This must be what it’s like to go to Harvard for undergrad.” Columbia’s is the only Ivy League graduate journalism school, and you can feel that on campus. I learned a lot about the business, both from professors and other students. I made great connections. There’s no question that I got my job at SI because I went to Columbia. 
That said, I was lucky that my family could afford for me to delay entering the workforce for a year and pay $60,000 plus housing. It’s deeply unfair that that’s what it came down to. As an industry, our coverage reflects the level of privilege from which most of us come. That’s a shame for a lot of reasons. So I guess I would tell a younger person: Go, if you can swing it. And if you can’t, please, please give this business a shot anyway. Your voice is valuable. 

A Q&A with Tyler Kepner of the New York Times

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 Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for the New York Times. Tyler has long been one of the country’s best and most respected baseball journalists. Now, he’s an author, having recently written “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.”
Here, we dive deep into his career, his book-writing process and his thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of baseball’s fashion.
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?
All I’ve ever wanted to do, as far back as I can remember, is be around baseball. It’s almost like, at 7-years-old, I decided this was my thing and it always would be. The journalism part came second, as an outgrowth of that insatiable baseball appetite. I’m very lucky to have grown up outside Philadelphia in the 1980s, because it meant that I got to read Jayson Stark every morning at the breakfast table. He made covering baseball seem like a whole lot of fun, and fortunately, I really enjoyed writing already. So this formula seemed to make a lot of sense when I thought about my career: baseball + writing = baseball writing. Two things I loved combined into one profession. What could be better? And I was very lucky to realize this at around 13-years-old, so I could get started right away.
2. Before we get into your book, we would remiss if we didn’t ask about perhaps your greatest career accomplishment: the homemade baseball publication from your youth. What was the origin of this publication? What was in it? How much did working on it help you as you embarked on your professional career? Oh, and when’s the digital archive coming?
In seventh grade, I had the exact same schedule as my friend John Pasquarella at Germantown Academy. We were both really into baseball cards and devoured Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. So, when we were bored in class, we just sort of jotted down our own quizzes and card rankings and made our own version of Beckett, copied it, stapled it together and sold it to our friends for, like, 50 cents. Within a few months, though, I realized what a vehicle this could be for those twin passions of baseball and writing. The magazine quickly became less about cards and more about my thoughts and opinions on everything in baseball.
It was my outlet, really, and I got more and more serious about it. In the summer after eighth grade (1989, when I was 14), I sent it around to sportswriters and sportscasters I admired, asking for feedback – Jayson Stark, Bob Costas, George Vecsey, Paul Hagen, Bill Lyon, all of them were so helpful. George showed his editor, who thought it would make a nice little human interest story, so the Times did a piece on it on Nov. 13, 1989 – and published our address and subscription price.
Anyway, long story short, subscriptions skyrocketed, a lot of publicity followed, and in March 1990, when I was 15, the Phillies let me interview rookie pitcher Pat Combs at spring training. That went well, and they started giving me field passes at the Vet during the regular season. They gave me so many daily passes (field/clubhouse/press box) in 1991 that by the spring of my junior they just gave me a season pass and basically said, go get ’em.
We published 64 issues, roughly 24 pages per issue, mostly features, from March 1988 to January 1995. I could keep going, but basically: Writers and broadcasters were extremely kind to me and generous with their advice, and players and managers across the National League were surprisingly receptive and almost always happy to talk with me. I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the business.
3. Let’s talk about “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” your first book, which was recently published. Congratulations! What inspired you to pursue this topic? How did you come up with the idea for the structure, devoting one chapter each to 10 different pitches? Basically, how did “K” come to be?
I’d always wanted to write a book, but I knew I would need years to do it, which required a subject that was somewhat timeless. My favorite player was Steve Carlton, who won his last Cy Young Award in 1982, my first year really following baseball. So I’ve always had great affection for the pitchers like Carlton, guys who started in the ’60s and finished in the ’80s (give or take a few years), those durable, dependable, top-of-the-rotation guys who seemed to pitch forever: Palmer, Ryan, Niekro, Seaver, Sutton, Jenkins, Perry, Hunter, John, Kaat, Blyleven, Reuss, Tanana, Tiant.
I thought of writing a book on those guys, but decided instead to broaden the scope of it by making the pitches themselves the main characters. Then I could use not just pitchers from that era, but pitchers from every era, to tell the story and trace the evolution of each pitch.
4. You conducted more than 300 interviews for your book. In case you didn’t realize, that’s an incredible amount of interviews. Why was it important for you to talk to so many people for this project? How were you able to distill and organize all of them into something usable? How did you determine when you were “done” and it was time to stop and write?
A lot of it was just a matter of keeping the book on my radar for three years and finding guys along my travels. I’d be covering a game involving the Twins, for example, and pop into the broadcast booth to ask Bert Blyleven about curveballs. Then, before I’d talk with Paul Molitor, who was the manager then, I’d look at how he hit various pitchers. If something stood out to me (in his case, his struggles against Ron Guidry) I’d ask him about it at the end of our regular interview. Because everyone has either thrown, hit or caught these pitches, the possible targets were just about endless. And if I knew a player to be especially insightful, no matter his position, chances are he’d have something interesting to say about some pitch or pitcher.
I did a ton of interviews on the phone, and always tried to keep a few lines in the water at all times, never knowing exactly when I’d get the return call. Greg Maddux called me while I was watching my son pitch a Babe Ruth League game, which was surreal. Roger Craig called me back on July 31, about an hour or two before the trade deadline. He was pivotal to the splitter chapter, and he was about 85 years old. I thought about it for two or three rings — and took the call.
Organization was critical, obviously. I like to print everything out, quotes included, and underline the key parts. I bought a file cabinet and made 10 sections, plus a separate notebook for each pitch. So I’d put all the quotes and magazine/newspaper stories in the files, and if I read something interesting in a book, I’d notate it in each pitch’s notebook. There are probably many ways I could have streamlined everything, but that process worked for me.
I only wrote in the off-seasons. I’d revise the chapters during the seasons, but I found it too distracting to try to write on two different tracks with the season going on.
5. Who were the most interesting/coolest/wildest/weirdest interview subjects for the book — without giving too much away of course?
Steve Carlton was the one guy I most wanted to get, and he was terrific. Mike Mussina, Bob Gibson, Carl Erskine, Roy Halladay, J.R. Richard, Pedro Martínez, Orel Hershiser, Kent Tekulve, Mike Norris, Brad Lidge, Jerry Reuss, Jim Abbott, Mike Montgomery, all the knuckleballers – the whole thing was just so much fun. I could probably count the number of disappointing interviews on Three Finger Brown’s mangled hand.
6. You had written about baseball for newspapers for years before embarking on the book project, so you were no stranger to writing about the game. But what surprised you about the book-writing/reporting process that you didn’t already know? What did you learn from doing it?
The biggest adjustment was writing as an author and not as a newspaper reporter/columnist. People buy a book assuming that the writer is an expert on the subject. So I had to learn to write with that kind of authority, and I really enjoyed the freedom of being able to tell a story, knowing it was thoroughly reported but without being bound by the structure and somewhat rigid rules of writing for a newspaper.
7. Let’s talk about your day job: You are the national baseball writer for The New York Times, which is a coveted position that has been held some of the best baseball writers… ever. As someone who grew up dreaming about this job, what was it like to actually get it?
When I started at the Times, the sports editor, Neil Amdur, said he expected me to cover the Mets for three to five years, the Yankees for three to five years, and then we’ll see where we are. So I always expected to cover the beats for a decade, and that’s exactly what happened (although it was two on the Mets and eight on the Yankees). I did indeed dream of having a job like this, but because I started working toward it when I was 14, I would have been really disappointed in myself if I never achieved it. So it’s been a thrill, for sure, but I never had a backup plan, so it’s all I ever expected to do.
My basic job description is to go out and find the best baseball stories, report them thoroughly and write them in a way that informs the reader and holds his or her interest from first word to last. I try to put issues in perspective and give a (hopefully) nuanced analysis of what’s happening and what it means.
8. If you could, what would you change about baseball journalism and how baseball is covered?
I really wouldn’t change that much. There are so many talented writers and reporters who appreciate the access we get, fight to keep it and use it to help fans understand the game and the people who play it and run it. I’m proud to be among those ranks, and I’m really not into media criticism, anyway. There are plenty of people who take shots at the media, and it’s not my job to do that.
9. You have four children. Let’s say that again: You have four children. And you cover baseball. We don’t even have close to that many children between the two of us, and we can still barely manage our personal lives. So…. how have you done it? How much effort have you had to put in to manage it? What advice would you give to other journalists — or anyone, really — struggling to find that balance?
The short answer is to have a very selfless and understanding spouse. But especially in my years on the beat, when the kids were really little, I tried to do almost all my busywork and personal stuff on the road: expenses, travel plans, bills, workouts, sleep. The idea was to just clear out everything else and be as fully invested as possible when I was home. There’s been a lot more flexibility in my schedule for the last 10 years, which helps, of course. But even on the beat, I always maintained that if you added it all up, I got more actual waking hours with my kids than the guy next door who leaves his house before 6 am and gets home after 7 pm, every weekday, all year long.  
10. You love uniforms and logos, so you’re the best person to answer this question: What are the greatest baseball uniforms in history, active or inactive? Which team most needs to rethink their current uniforms?
I made sure to use baseball cards with a lot of fun uniforms on the cover of “K” – we’ve got an Astros’ rainbow jersey, some Padres’ brown, Pirates’ yellow, early-’80s Phillies pinstripes, and the classic Angels’ late-’70s. So I have a lot of nostalgia for those uniforms, but my favorite is actually the Milwaukee Braves of the late ’50s, with the zipper front, red script, black tomahawk, colorful shoulder patch and piping on the side belt loops. Their current primary jersey is close enough to that and remains my favorite, with the Cardinals, A’s and Tigers up there, too. The A’s elephant logo (on their shoulder patch) is the best emblem in baseball, with the ball-in-glove “MB” of the Brewers the runner-up.
The Padres have by far the blandest uniforms in baseball and should switch back to some version of their glorious brown color scheme ASAP. (I believe they’re doing this for 2020, at lonnnnnng last.) The Marlins and the Rangers need to say “Marlins” and “Rangers” on their home whites. The Marlins should not have black letters and numbers on their black jerseys, and the Angels should not have red letters and numbers on their red jerseys. The Indians have a terrific script wordmark, but otherwise they’ve lost their way in the post-Chief Wahoo era; their block-C is really uninspired, and it’s hard to see without an outline. I could go on and on, obviously. I think about this stuff way too much.

A Q&A with Ben Lindbergh

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

This week, it’s with Ben Lindbergh, a writer for The Ringer. Along with his co-author Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight, Ben just published a book. It’s called “The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players,” and it’s a fascinating look at how player development is the sport’s biggest area of innovation. That made this the perfect time to come on and talk about his book and his career. When you’re done reading, buy the book!

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?

When I was growing up, there were only two jobs I ever wanted: science-fiction novelist and MLB general manager. I haven’t held either position, but I do get to write and talk about sci-fi and baseball, and I spent a summer signing professional players, so I’ve probably come closer to my childhood dream jobs than many people do. At The Ringer, I do a lot of deep dives into baseball, video games and geek culture, so I’ve more or less made a career out of continuing to care about things I really liked when I was 12. There are worse ways to live.

I’d always loved reading and writing, but I started writing about baseball mostly as a means of landing a job with a team. In 2008, when I was still in school, I parlayed a series of sports-related internships—with the Elias Sports Bureau, the Nationals’ media relations department, and the Yankees’ publications department—into a gig as a research assistant and intern for Baseball Prospectus, a company I couldn’t have admired more. I gradually ingratiated myself enough to write for BP’s books and site. I remember spending tossing and turning for a few suspenseful nights, compulsively refreshing the homepage while I waited for Christina Kahrl to publish my first piece.

After college, I interned again for the Yankees, this time in baseball operations. That meant I had to stop writing, but I thought it was where I wanted to be. My timing was good—the team won the World Series in 2009, and I got to duck flying toilet paper in the ticker-tape parade—but when my internship ended without a full-time offer in 2010, I opted not to try to catch on with another club. For one thing, I didn’t have a skill set that stood out to teams: I hadn’t played at a high level, and I wasn’t a computer whiz. It seemed to me that I might be more marketable as a writer and editor, and I missed writing and interacting with readers. I also wanted my work to be public, if possible. So I did double duty for a while, writing and editing for BP and working as an analyst at Bloomberg Sports.

In 2012, BP promoted me to editor-in-chief, which allowed me to leave Bloomberg and ended my days in a traditional office environment. The following year, Jay Caspian Kang invited me to write for Grantland, where I freelanced at first and then joined the staff. Aside from a sojourn at FiveThirtyEight after Grantland shut down, I’ve been working for Bill Simmons sites ever since, and I haven’t had a strong desire to do anything else. It’s been a blast.

2. Let’s jump right into your new book: “The MVP Machine,”which you co-wrote with Travis Sawchik, a previous -30- Newsletter Q&A guest. What inspired you to pursue this topic? What the origin of the project? Basically, how did “The MVP Machine” come to be?

The thesis of “The MVP Machine” is that player development has become the game’s greatest area of innovation. In the Moneyball era, the biggest competitive advantage came from finding undervalued talent that was already out there. Now that every team is statistically savvy and astute at appraising past performance, the advantage comes from creating or enhancing talent. So while “Moneyball” was about drafting, signing, or trading for overlooked players who were already good, “The MVP Machine” is about building better players (just like the subtitle says!)

For me, the main inspiration was Rich Hill, who reinvented himself at age 35 in 2015 thanks to a data-driven recommendation by Red Sox exec Brian Bannister and became one of the best pitchers in baseball after years of bouncing between the big leagues, the minors and indie ball. That really opened my eyes. If a veteran like Hill had that much latent talent waiting to be unlocked by the right pairing of analyst and technology, how many other players might have hidden depths of their own? When Travis was covering the Pirates, he had a similar “road to Damascus” moment with Marlon Byrd, who changed his swing and had his own age-35 career year in 2013. In the past few years, we’ve seen so many stories about players who altered their trajectories by employing some tool or technique that wasn’t widely embraced until today. To us, this seemed like the biggest story in baseball, and one that many fans weren’t aware of because it was happening behind the scenes.

At that point, the question in our minds wasn’t whether this could be a book, but how to structure and sell a book about such a broad idea. There were so many aspects of the story that appealed to us: the degree to which player development had been neglected by previous baseball books; the series of dramatic career resurrections; the elements of player empowerment, outsider-driven disruption and bottom-up innovation; the unintended consequences of these advances in development; the overlaps with science and psychology and the potential for parallels to non-sports fields; and the inspirational sentiment that if already-accomplished athletes can be better at baseball, we can all use the same principles to be better at whatever we do. We thought we knew something about this subject when we began the book, but we learned a lot through writing it. I hope our readers will learn a lot, too.
3. You first announced the project on Twitter in May 2018, which means you guys turned it around in essentially 13 months. That’s an extremely fast turnaround time, especially because you continued your day jobs. How challenging was it to turn around an entire reported book in that time span? How did you divide up the work between the two of you? What was the benefit of having two authors?

Travis and I talked about the book for the first time in March 2018. We put a proposal together and got an offer from Basic Books in April, agreed to it in May and signed the contract in June. The first full draft was due in December (with a few more months allotted for multiple rounds of revision). That was not a lot of time to produce a book that relies heavily on research and reporting. I think we talked to about 200 people, so we were doing interviews almost every day.

Of course, we’d both been exploring this subject to some extent for our respective sites, so we weren’t completely starting from scratch. We’d each been thinking for a while that there could be a book in the topic of player development, which is what led us to team up. We have the same literary agent, and when we independently started working on proposals that covered some of the same territory, she broached the possibility of a collaboration. We’re glad she did, because there’s no way either one of us could’ve done the work as well on our own in the same time frame.

We divided up the chapters roughly evenly based on our interests, expertise, connections and locations. Whenever one of us finished a chapter, the other read it, revised it, and in many cases contributed reporting or offered feedback on how it fit into the larger structure of the book. Some sections written for one chapter ended up in another, so the whole book is a true team effort.

Travis and I met in person only once while we were working on the book, but we were in constant communication. Though we didn’t agree on every detail, we had the same appetite for the topic and the same conception of what the book should be, so we were well-aligned in the most important areas. Splitting the load allowed us to publish at what we thought would be the most advantageous time, but there was also a psychological benefit to working with a partner. When obstacles appear and deadlines loom, it’s a relief to be able to commiserate with someone who’s experiencing the same anxieties. Co-authoring a book is difficult, but it’s easier than going it alone.

4. What were some of the challenges you faced in reporting this book in terms of access? Of course, you spent a lot of time working with people outside the system, but you also explore how some of these player development innovations are being used by major-league teams — something I imagine organizations are reticent to discuss for competitive reasons. How did you go about convincing teams to work with you? Or how did you work around their reluctance?

That was something we worried about heading into the project. We were making the case that player development is baseball’s biggest area of opportunity, so it stood to reason that teams wouldn’t want to talk to us about it. That was certainly true at times. As Jeff Luhnow said to me, “Why would any team willingly choose to talk about the things they do that may be considered proprietary or innovative?” Plenty of people we wanted to interview understandably said no.

Fortunately, unlike a lot of books in the “Moneyball” mold—including our own previous books—”The MVP Machine” isn’t a totally (or even primarily) team-centric story. It’s centered on the players and independent instructors who pioneered the player-development revolution before it was fully adopted by teams (although many of the outsiders we spoke to were hired by teams while we worked on the book, another indication of how quickly this movement is progressing). We found that most of those figures were willing to talk—partly, of course, to take (deserved) credit and burnish their own reputations, but also because they’re passionate about the subject and want to help other athletes improve their performance. Although I’m sure we mention every team at some point in the book, the Astros are the only one we devote a chapter to. And in that case, we were aided by the fact that the Astros’ innovations (and their willingness to cut ties with their staff) made other teams eager and able to poach Astros personnel, who were then open to talking to us about their time with the team.

There’s been some amount of wish-casting in both of my book proposals. They described what I wanted the books to look like, but I wasn’t sure how events would unfold and the reporting process would play out. In both cases, I think, I’ve really lucked out. Sometimes the truth is more entertaining than the neat, pre-packaged vision you present to potential publishers with your fingers crossed.
5. A main character in the book, understandably, is Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians. It would be impossible to write this book without Bauer, because he is perhaps the premier example of a player who used modern player development techniques to transform into a star. But Bauer has also had his share of controversy, particularly surrounding how he presents himself on Twitter. How much of a concern was that as you were working with him on the book? To what extent did you worry about giving such a prominent platform to somebody who has alienated a lot of people with his off-field behavior? Journalistically, how much should reporters think about a subject’s life off-the-field when covering his performance on it?

Presenting Bauer in the book was something Travis and I talked about more than almost anything else. Because Travis lives in Cleveland, he did all of the talking to Bauer and the initial drafting of the book’s Bauer material, but we both played parts in planning and shaping the portrayal.

As you noted, it would be impossible to accurately and comprehensively chronicle the progression of player development without explaining Bauer’s contributions. Our goal was to convey those contributions and provide a case study of what players can accomplish via data-driven development without glossing over the ways in which Bauer has been an imperfect poster boy for this movement, including the friction he’s caused with coaches and teammates and his repeated Twitter transgressions. We don’t fully delve into his life off the field because this is a book about player development, not a Bauer biography, but we do devote time to his abrasive and at times reprehensible behavior, which we couldn’t have ignored without depriving readers of an even-handed view. Bauer’s backstory and successful slider-development project in 2018 gave us a way to structure a story that otherwise might have lacked a strong narrative (as some publishers who passed on the proposal feared), but we weren’t trying to glorify him or excuse his sins.

Our readers will judge whether we walked that line well. If you go into the book disliking Bauer, you’ll very likely come out of it still disliking him (or even disliking him more) on a personal level—but also, perhaps, understanding his impact on player development, which extends beyond his own performance on the field.
6. Pulling things back a bit, what is it like to promote a book in 2019? It’s no secret that these aren’t exactly boom-times in the publishing world, and promotion is such a huge part of whether a book sells. As journalists, we’re conditioned to try to stay away from too much self-promotion and let the work speak for itself. But in book publishing, putting yourself out there in that way is a requirement. How do you feel about the amount of promotion necessary when a book is coming out? How do you reconcile your journalistic instincts with the reality of the publishing industry?

I’m generally a tweet-my-work-once kind of guy. Not because I don’t want attention—I like compliments as much as the next validation-craving writer—but because I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard. So it’s certainly strange to switch into full-blown book-promotion mode. I’m trying not to be too obnoxious about plugging the book, but I put a lot of effort into it and I’m satisfied with the way it turned out, so I want people to read it! I just wish there were a way to make that happen without being a broken record on Twitter. It seems like the tweets and giveaways work, though, and there doesn’t appear to be a budget for a billboard in Times Square.

I hope I’ve earned enough goodwill in the three years since my first book came out that people will put up with briefly being bombarded again. This book should be up the alley of my regular readers and listeners, so the thing I’m trying to sell them is a thing I think they’ll like, which makes me feel a bit better about being thirsty for a few weeks. Good luck navigating the conflict between wanting to raise awareness of your work and not wanting to wear out your welcome on Twitter when your own book comes out, Jared!

7. This isn’t your first book! You also co-wrote, with Sam Miller, “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.” In it, you had the incredible opportunity to run a pro baseball team as a GM, which is so awesome. There’s a ton we could ask about that experience, but this is a journalism newsletter, so let’s stay on that: How, if at all, did that experience change or affect the way you approach your coverage of GMs and other baseball decision-makers? What did you learn about the job that you can now apply to your writing and reporting?

When I broke into the business, there was still a strain of sabermetric writing that was extremely snarky and fixated on the mistakes teams were making in player evaluation and in-game tactics. That tone—an understandable byproduct of the sabermetric perspective being marginalized and denigrated by much of baseball’s establishment up to that point—faded as teams hired sabermetric thinkers and began to operate in a way that was more in line with sabermetric thought (possibly, in some ways, to the game’s detriment). Suddenly the statheads were the insiders, and the adversarial nature of the coverage softened. Stats were ascendant, no one was tuning out nerds, and there weren’t as many mistakes to criticize.

By the time Sam and I started overseeing the Sonoma Stompersin the summer of 2015, that evolution was well under way. But our experience co-running that team—coupled with what I’d learned as an intern for the Yankees—made me even more hesitant to reflexively say that so-and-so is stupid or that Manager X or Executive Y should be fired for a perplexing transaction or tactical decision. That’s not to say that teams don’t still make mistakes or that they shouldn’t be questioned, but before we lambast them, we should consider what we might not know. Working on “The MVP Machine” (and other articles) only deepened that conviction. The gap between public and private data about baseball players is growing. The wealth of information available to teams can occasionally cloud the truth, but a lack of information can even more easily obscure it.

The Stompers experience also helped me understand how much the interpersonal stuff matters. For one thing, we learned how much one can come to care about players when they’re not strangers or stat lines, but close companions. Even more than that, though, we realized how hard it is to change a culture. Sam and I thought “The Only Rule” would be about how unorthodox strategies could make a baseball team better. It ended up being partly about that, but much more about how hard it is to implement those strategies in the first place. That made it a book about management as much as a book about baseball. “The MVP Machine” is sort of a spiritual sequel, in that it explores how the latest phase of baseball thinking is shrinking the divide between players and non-players that Sam and I struggled to surmount.
8. If you could, what would you change about how baseball is covered and written about?

Despite the economic challenges facing the industry and the pressure that many media members face to keep content coming around the clock, I think baseball coverage has never been better—it’s smarter, deeper and more easily accessible than at any point in the past. Now that the work is so well-informed (aside from the occasional cranky columnist), the key is to keep making it more diverse, both in terms of the people telling the stories and the people the stories are being told about (which often go hand in hand).
9. It’s no secret that you came to journalism at least partly from an analytics perspective. You now work at The Ringer, however, which is very much a mainstream publication? How do you go about presenting complicated ideas and information to a mass audience, as opposed to the statistically inclined audience you had a place like Baseball Prospectus? How does it affect how you approach the job?

Probably less than one would think! After a couple of years at Grantland and almost three years at The Ringer, I’m accustomed to writing for more mainstream sites. Even at BP, though, I tried to present most of my work in a way that wouldn’t limit its appeal to the small subset of baseball fans who’d subscribed to a sabermetric site. With any article, there has to be a hook that gives the average reader a reason to care, and even people who have a hankering for stats still need a story and a structure in order for a piece to attract their attention and retain their interest all the way to the end.

I think most readers like learning things, no matter the outlet. In most of my writing, I’m learning something myself, and I hope my curiosity comes through and transfers to the reader. I’m an English major who took a single stats class in college, not a true number-cruncher, so I’m not proficient enough at dissecting data to intimidate a non-numerically inclined audience. My value as a sabermetric writer, such as it is, lies in understanding concepts, tying together prior research and knowing which questions to ask. To actually answer those questions, I often have to have help.

My editors at Grantland and The Ringer have never asked me steer clear of certain topics or avoid certain stats because our audience might not know about them. If anything, they’ve viewed that as all the more reason to write about them. Some metrics or ideas need a different introduction at The Ringer than they would at BP, but it’s possible to summarize almost all of baseball’s statistical concepts and conclusions clearly and concisely, even if that means omitting more minutiae or providing more context at some sites than others. Whether I’m writing about a forgotten founding figure of sabermetrics, a treasure trove of old scouting reports, a few quirks of catching or, in “The MVP Machine,” the game’s player-development revolution, I’m trying to minimize jargon and weave stats and sources into a narrative that people can consume and appreciate without any specialized knowledge.

Working for sites that cover virtually everything has also enabled me to branch out beyond baseball and tackle a multitude of topics, which I’ve enjoyed. I didn’t set out to write about baseball exclusively, and I really value the variety and the opportunity to keep learning about subjects I sometimes start out knowing nothing about.
10. You also have a podcast! It’s called Effectively Wild, and it’s super great. What’s your favorite episode you’ve ever done and why? Also, Jared and Mike have both been guests on it in the past and want to know what they have to do get invited back.

Thanks! I never expected public speaking to be such an important part of my professional life, but the podcast has become a constant that’s followed me through three job changes, two books and one co-host getting hired by the Rays. I think the podcast’s current incarnation, which is based at FanGraphs and also stars Sam Miller and Meg Rowley, is as fun as it’s ever been, and I hope anyone who likes lighthearted but in-depth discussions of baseball (and life) will try it out and listen along three times a week.

Although the show has been at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs and often features discussions of a sabermetric bent, we view the numbers as a means of asking thought-provoking questions and telling interesting stories, not as an end in themselves. My two favorite episodes—I can’t pick just one—fit that profile perfectly. Both of them started with statistical queries via Baseball-Reference’s Play Index that turned up fascinating nuggets, which in turn inspired spontaneous conversations with two lovely players from the 1950s, Johnny O’Brien and the late Ned Garver. They were both absolute joys to talk and listen to, and we never would have thought to make connections with them if not for a couple of serendipitous searches.

As for when we’ll have Jared back on: when his book comes out, of course!

Editor’s note: That’s April 7, 2020, not like anybody’s counting.

A Q&A with Daniel Dale

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

A conversation about gatekeeping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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