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.
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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.

A Q&A with Ben Shpigel of the New York Times on dropping into a city to write a scene story, covering the Paralympics, and being the Commissioner of Sports Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, I’ll get off my lawn now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Nathaniel Friedman, one of the founders of a little basketball blog called FreeDarko. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Nathaniel is now writing for GQ and editing Victory Journal and doing tons of other cool stuff, which makes him a perfect guest, and we’re so excited to have him. Here, we discuss the legacy of FreeDarko, the impact it made on today’s basketball writing and what he’s up to now. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. What would you change about NBA journalism?

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

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

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

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

A Q&A with Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine on her career, covering Trump and access journalism

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Olivia Nuzzi, a Washington correspondent for New York Magazine. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Olivia. Everybody has heard of Olivia. She is a star in the world of political journalism, and it’s such a thrill for us to have her as a guest here at The -30-. Here, we talk about Olivia’s rapid rise as a reporter, what it’s like to cover the Trump White House on a daily basis and some of the most important issues surrounding the media landscape today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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