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 Jorge Arangure, the editor-in-chief of Vice Sports. Jorge has had the privilege of leading a rising star in the sports media landscape and has overseen tons of excellent work. Before taking on that challenge, he wrote for outlets like ESPN, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Here, Jorge discusses his current job, the significance of diversity in American journalism and what the future has in store for Vice.
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
- How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?
I was lucky to get discovered right away, and so I had editors at bigger outlets tracking my progress while I worked at small newspapers. I moved through the ranks fairly quickly. After only a short time, I became an MLB writer at the Record in New Jersey and then moved to the Washington Post. ESPN the Magazine then hired me. And then when I left ESPN, I was able to freelance for places like the New York Times, among others.
Vice Sports was not a place I had really been considering. I didn’t really know what it was or what plan Vice had for a sports site. But in the fall of 2014 Tomas Rios contacted me to chat about a job there. We met at a bar, and after three whiskeys, he offered me a job. When Tomas left, I was asked to be interim editor-in-chief. And after a couple of months they offered me the job full time. It’s been a great experience. I can truly say that Vice is the best place I’ve ever worked. The amount of creative freedom is unmatched, and I’m very happy at VICE.
There have been times in my career where I’ve felt out of place where I worked, times when I had people trying to push me to become more of a TV personality. But I wasn’t comfortable with that. I didn’t want it. I understand that this attitude has probably cost me a lot of money. But that’s fine. I can sit here and honestly say that I have no regrets. I am now where I was always supposed to be. And I’m proud that I never compromised who I was as a writer/reporter, storyteller and, most importantly, as a person.
- About two years ago, you took on a daunting assignment: editor-in-chief of Vice Sports, then a relatively unknown venture stateside. Since then, under your leadership, Vice has become a power in sports reporting and other media platforms. What has it been like seeing Vice grow to what it is now? To readers who might not be as familiar with Vice, what in your mind differentiates it from other media outlets? What has allowed it to be successful so far?
I’m very proud of the things that we’ve accomplished since I took over. We’ve tripled our traffic, we’ve produced stories that are engaging, entertaining and informative. We’ve grown at a bigger rate than sites that are better resourced than we are. And while I’m personally proud of these things, this has all happened collectively as a group. My job is to provide a structure, to put people in the right places and to be the one that sets the ambition and goals for the site. And I’m a competitive person, so I set big goals. I want us to continue to grow, not only in site size, but also in the type of stories that we do.
What I’ve tried to do is to ensure that every piece we put out there has a strong voice, whether it’s a blog or a 5,000 word feature. But also, we’re very strict when it comes to word count on stories. People have to earn every word. The story has to merit it. A mentality exists in the business now where bigger is better. People brag about how long stories are. We find every reason to make every story shorter. And if we can’t then we know that the story merits the word count. And this way of thinking is redeemed when we’re told by writers, who write for other major outlets, that our editing is the best around. We honestly do care about every story that we put out.
- Before your job at Vice, you were primarily a writer and reporter, writing for publications like ESPN and the New York Times. Now you’re an editor, jumping into management. What has the transition been like from reporting to editing? There’s an assumption that a good reporter will naturally make a good editor — how true is that? What have you learned about editing that you wish you knew as a reporter?
A lot of the job is managing people. And I think there are things about being a good reporter that translate into being a good manager. If you respect people and you’re honest with them then people will respond well, whether it’s a source or a staffer. And yeah it helps that I’m good with coming up with ideas for stories/projects, but it’s much more helpful that I’m good at dealing with people. It’s what made me a good reporter and it’s what makes me a good EIC.
I’ve told a few people at the site to truly cherish the dynamic we have as a staff. It’s very rare. Everyone is fully committed to what we’re doing. There is certainly competition within the staff, but it’s because everyone wants to build on what each other is doing. None of it is about trying to undermine each other. The personalities of the people involved play a large part in why this environment exists, but it’s also because of the atmosphere we create. Nobody is above reproach. Nobody is above getting their stories torn apart. We won’t put up with egos. An important part of this is communication. People just want to know what is going on. And I tell them. There are no secrets.
- Along with written content (we just used that word), Vice Sports is also in the video space, producing not only stuff online but also producing series and television shows, Vice World of Sports. Vice also has a partnership deal with ESPN. How much is that a part of your job? How steep is the learning curve of that side of the business, and how much of a challenge has it been?
When I took over, the Vice Sports video department was a bit separate from what we were doing on the editorial side. This was probably not ideal. But as my role has evolved, and as I’ve taken on more responsibilities, I’m now very actively involved in what we do on the video side. We have a great production staff, so it’s been an enjoyable experience. And I’ve gotten to produce some of the segments that we do.
Also, after only a couple of months at Vice, I was lucky enough to get pulled into a TV shoot for what would eventually become an episode of the VICELAND show VICE World of Sports. It was an incredible learning experience, and the crew taught me a lot about what it takes to put together a TV episode. And they trusted me enough to allow me to be an important part of the shoot too. Field producing is a lot like reporting a written story. You just line up interviews, and provide whatever else is necessary to tell the story. Eventually, I was given a front of the show producer credit. I’m very proud of that credit and would love to do more of that.
- You’ve written in the past about Latino and Hispanic baseball players and their impact on the game and its culture. How would you assess the coverage of Latino athletes, and non-whites, in the American media?
I’d say the coverage is very poor. Few outlets, if any, really have a very sophisticated view on Latino athletes. It’s all surface level. A lot are fluff features that barely dive into the bigger issues at play. You can’t simply say that you are writing about Latino athletes and expect that to suffice. There has to be a more nuanced view on it. But you have very few journalists and editors who recognize these things.
One of the things that really bothers me is the coverage of amateur baseball in Latin America. You have people writing about scandals that arise in these countries without putting any sort of context on the story or without having sympathy for the people involved. The stories go beyond the scandals.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic covering the baseball scene there. And there are so many socioeconomic issues that affect what happens on the baseball scene. But few people bother to touch these topics. And it’s a shame because it does really add perspective.
- Because Vice Sports is a relatively new entity, you’ve been able to build your own editorial vision and direction for the journalism on the site. What have you tried to have it to be, and how do you go about building that kind of infrastructure, respect and writer base, it seems like, almost from scratch?
The challenge from the beginning was to figure out what worked and what didn’t work for us. Since we were so new, there was no template. We were lucky that Vice allowed us to try a lot of things without much, if any, interference. They showed a lot of confidence in us. And so we experimented with a lot of things. But it always came back to the fact that I wanted to have a site that I would want to read every day. I know that sounds simple, but it’s matter of how you balance that traffic vs. quality debate. Ultimately, we found a formula where we are happy with everything that we produce.
In the past several months, we’ve transitioned to become a site that specializes in blogs and features. The nature of blogging allows our writers to quickly weigh in on the relevant sports topic of the day to ensure that we’re part of the daily conversation. The larger features allow us to expand on topics where our writers have a particular expertise, or they allow our writers to dive into a topic they want to learn more about: sports and crime, institutional failure, social advocacy, interesting people and places, and the quirky and bizarre, etc.
- Before coming on at Vice, you spent a good amount of time as a freelance writer — as Mike is now. What was that experience like? How did you make it a viable career for as long as you did? What advice would you give to a journalist looking to pitch stories to big outlets, like your own, and make it as a freelancer?
Honestly, that almost two-year period I spent freelancing is sort of a blur. I had a lot going on in my personal life at the time, and so really I was just in survival mode. I was lucky enough that I had some really great people—like Emma Span and Larry Burke then at Sports on Earth, and Jay Schreiber at the New York Times—who liked my work and kept giving me gigs.
I’ve actually learned much more about freelancing as an EIC. I’d say the most important thing, and where people fail the most, is the pitch. You may have a great idea, but if you have a shitty pitch then we’re not going to assign it. Understand that the pitch is a reflection of you as a writer. If you have a rambling, unstructured pitch then we’re going to assume that’s what the writing will be like. First impressions matter. So work on the pitch to make it as concise and descriptive as possible.
- What are three stories you read lately that you loved?
I’m going to avoid this one because these kinds of questions can often turn into popularity contests. Needless to say, we’re a time in the business where a lot of good stuff gets published every day. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the all the good journalism.
- You’ve spoken often about the need for diversity in journalism, from what and who is covered, to who reports. What progress can be made in the short-term? What progress can be made in the long-term? And how much do you, as someone who now has hiring power, think about this when trying to figure out what should go on your site and who writes it?
Companies have to actively look to make diversity hires. And then once in place, they have to use and develop these journalists and have their point of view taken into account in the big picture. It’s not enough to just have them on the staff.
In my last few months at ESPN the Magazine I definitely felt I was simply a Latino name on a masthead being used to tout diversity. I had too much pride and respect for myself for that to be OK. I knew I wasn’t going to return there when my contract expired. And I didn’t even have to make that decision anyway because they didn’t offer to renew my contract.
But this happens a lot. Companies hire journalists of color but then don’t use them enough or put them in the right roles. Or they peg them into stereotypical roles. Companies say they want diversity but then don’t value these journalists or don’t want to get out of their comfort zone as far as the stories they tell.
It’s astounding to me that until recently, the New York Times didn’t have a native Spanish speaker writer on the sports staff for almost 15 years. They currently don’t have a black sportswriter. We have a long ways to go.
Now I’m a position where I can make a difference, but it’s a challenge. We don’t have openings. There aren’t a lot of journalists of color pitching us stories. Hopefully as we continue to establish ourselves we will get more of those pitches and our staff will grow and I can make those hires. But there’s also the troubling reality that we lost a whole generation of journalists of color during the economic crash almost 10 years ago. I knew a lot of young, promising Latino journalists who left the business because they couldn’t find jobs. So we have to find a way to build up that talent base again at a time when the business is still trying to figure itself out.
- Your Twitter account can be a bit cryptic at times (or often, depending how much our good friend James Wagner tweets). Besides promoting stories on Vice, you seem to use your account to perpetuate inside jokes with lots of other baseball writers — jokes I have to imagine few of your followers understand. How did that start? Why do you do it? How much do you worry about people seeing your Twitter account and just being confused? Does it matter if they are? And I’ve been directed to ask, are you a 1 or a 0?
Listen, I’m a sarcastic, weird, emotional smart ass and that’s what my Twitter account reflects. I enjoy having inside jokes with friends, and that’s OK if only a handful of people understand the joke. I’ve never been interested in having a phony social media persona. I don’t take myself too seriously. Frankly, I don’t give a shit about what someone on Twitter, or in real life for that matter, thinks of me. I don’t need to put someone down in a Twitter argument to make myself seem smarter, and I don’t seek affirmation from the outside world with a tweet. I’m confident in who I am as a person, I’m very comfortable in my beliefs, and I understand the limitations of the medium. I can step away from social media for days at a time.
I don’t use Twitter in any sort of traditional way. And it’s OK with me if I never become a Twitter superstar.
Also, I’m absolutely a 1.
(Also, I want to point out my responses were way shorter than McCullough’s answers. Obviously he needs some better editing.)