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 Wendy Thurm. Wendy has had a fascinating career. She was a successful lawyer, became a successful baseball writer and has now moved on to a new challenge, working as a writer and activist for social, economic and environmental justice. Here, we discuss her unusual arc, how she made a name for herself in the world of baseball and what inspired her latest transition.
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
- You were, at one point, an attorney working on prestigious cases. You’ve worked with government officials. Then you became… a baseball writer, a job that probably didn’t come with much less work and was surely for a lot less money–you went to Harvard Law School, for Pete’s sake! So… why? What inspired you to make such a change?
I didn’t quit lawyering in order to write about baseball. I quit because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve and was desperately in need of a change. My plan was to take a year to figure out my next move. I spent a few months catching up on sleep, doing yoga, getting to know my kids better (who were 7 and 10 at the time), and reading lots of books.
After a few months of that, I was bored. I woke up one day and thought about starting a baseball blog. I’d been a huge baseball fan my whole life. And I missed writing, so it seemed like a natural fit. By the end of the day, I had a blog and a matching twitter handle. After that, it all happened very quickly. Through the power of Twitter, I was able to connect with baseball writers whose work I admired. They read my blog. Cited it. Tweeted my links. Within 6 months, I was getting paid to write about baseball, for FanGraphs. Amazing, really.
- Since you didn’t follow the traditional path to baseball writing, you undoubtedly had a different experience in the industry than those that did. What surprised you about the industry as a whole? How did you feel you were perceived as an “outsider?” What would you tell others with no sports writing experience, but want to make a career change into it?
I was lucky to start writing about baseball when there was a tremendous amount of money in online media (in 2011). It seemed like every VC thought he could figure out how to monetize content on the web. With cash came lots of freelance opportunities; more than I could handle, frankly. Why did I get opportunities? I think I was in the right place at the right time; I am a good writer — my calling card is I can take complicated ideas and telling compelling stories in an easy to understand way; and I was a woman interested in writing about baseball from an advanced stats perspective at a time when there was pressure on that part of the baseball writing world to diversify. So I was lucky, worked hard, took on lots of opportunities, and made a name for myself.
I’d say that other baseball bloggers/online writers accepted me wholeheartedly. Some of closest friends are folks are I met “virtually” at first, through Twitter, FanGraphs and other places I was lucky enough to write for. Some beat writers were less welcoming, as there was tension in those days between beats and analysts. But I think I grudgingly earned respect.
It’s a very tough business now. So many full-time baseball writers have lost their jobs, and all that VC cash has dried up. To those starting out, I’d say take every paid opportunity that comes your way, work hard, and hope for the best.
- You recently surprised a lot of people by announcing your intention to leave baseball writing and turn your focus to becoming an advocate for social and economic justice through your writing. This announcement came right after the presidential election. How long have you been considering such a move? What prompted it? And why was right now the time to make the leap?
I’d been considering a change for a while. As I watched full-time sports writers getting laid off, I saw freelance opportunities dry up. I spent a year thinking about what made sense. I was preparing to shift to writing and communications strategy for non-profits focused on international development. Then the election happened, and I knew immediately I had to re-focus on fighting the Trump agenda and working toward a diverse, progressive, equitable society in the US.
- Having decided to remove yourself from writing about sports and covering it, what is your opinion of where sports belongs now in society? Has its meaning and prominence been diluted since the election?
Sports are both an escape from reality and reflection of it. Too many sports fans either don’t want to or can’t see how political sports have become. They just want their games, damn it, without having to think about the larger issues at play. But with Trump, I think we’ll see sports get more politicized. What happens with the next NBA champs? Are a team of majority African-American players going to visit the White House and be props for a President that stirs up racial hatred and bigotry? Interesting times ahead.
- There are a lot of people out there who feel helpless. They are confused. They are scared. Many of these people want to do something to try to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to start. They don’t have a platform or an avenue to make a difference. What should these people be doing? As a writer, how much responsibility do you feel about making sure that people who want to make a difference can, in fact, make a difference?
The first thing I did after the election was to start an e-newsletter for my friends who were feeling helpless. Twice a week, a send out the newsletter with links to the best reporting and analysis I can find on the key issues, and discrete actions everyone can take as part of a 3-part action plan: protect the vulnerable; fight the Trump agenda; and build a network for a progressive view of government at the local, state and federal level. In a few weeks, I’m up to nearly 1,000 subscribers. The response has been amazing. (Find it at http://tinyletter.com/awayforward).
The most basic advice I have: figure out what issue or issues you’re passionate about, and get to work. None of us can fight everything. But if each of us is committed in full to the things we care most about, we can make an enormous and positive difference.
6. Having worked in the office of the Solicitor General and covered sports, I wonder what insight you’ve gained and can share about how people with power and in power make decisions and how we as journalists or observers can analyze them?
Answer: Slight correction. I worked for the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior. That’s just a fancy word for General Counsel. That being said, a few observations. The higher up the chain a decision maker sits, she will have more decisions to make and have access mostly to information that’s been funnelled up to her. So people in power have to surround themselves with people they trust, who have good judgment, and who can analyze and synthesize information in an effective and careful way. If they don’t, they’ll make bad decisions.
- You’ve changed careers, let alone jobs, several times and over the last decade. In this wonderful Deadspin essay, you wrote about why you left your high-powered legal job. Now, you’re exiting sportswriting. What is the guiding light for you when you consider these changes and what have you learned over time? I ask because I’m sure there are some people reading this that are considering changing jobs now — maybe trying to do writing of some sort or deciding whether to leave journalism for something else.
Answer: My advice: Be true to yourself and listen to what your heart and your head are telling you. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work with people you know are smarter than you, to guarantee you’ll always be learning. Try to leave as many doors open as you can as you move throughout your career.
- Coming into sports writing as someone not tied down by tradition or its prescribed norms what do you think of how we cover sports and what do you think should change?
There’s just not enough diversity in the sports writing biz. Athletes come from all over the world to make their mark in the US, and yet those who write about them don’t reflect that diversity. There aren’t enough women sports writers. Not enough writers of color. Not enough writers who speak multiple languages and can communicate with athletes in their native languages. That has to change.
- You have two kids — a teenage son and teenage daughter. How did you explain the greater sports world to them and contextualize everything that goes on? The usual deifying of athletes and coaches and teams is now also sharing the attention with the real-life actions and consequences of their off-field actions. Have you used athletes as role models or are they just examples? What is the purpose of sports, especially in your up-close view, in parenting?
We talk openly and frankly with our kids about the connection between sports and larger societal issues. I’m not much into sugarcoating (as you can probably tell). I give it to them straight: athletes are genetically-blessed and fun to root for, but that doesn’t make them good people with good values. So enjoy the games, root hard for your teams, but be careful about idolizing someone you don’t know very much about.
- As the lifelong Bay Area sports fan you are, what is it like to see and experience your teams become good all of a sudden? And God knows, between the Giants and Warriors, this is damn sports Renaissance period over there.
I watched it happen, up close, and I still don’t believe the Giants won 3 world series championships in 5 years. After the utter heartbreak of losing the 2002 World Series after leading in Game 6 by 5 runs late into the game, it was impossible to imagine the Giants ever getting that trophy for fans in San Francisco. Now there’s an expectation that the Giants will be competitive every season, make the postseason, and be in the hunt for another World Series. It will be interesting to see how fans react if the Giants don’t win another WS for a long time.
The Warriors. What can you say? They were the laughing stock of the NBA for so long. Sooooo long. Still, there’s so much pushback and resentment by fans around the league for what the Warriors have built in the last few years. I try to just enjoy the miracle of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant playing unselfish basketball at an extraordinarily high level. What a treat.
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