A Q&A with Tommy Stokke of FanRag Sports on the origins of a media outlet, landing Jon Heyman and what’s to come

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 Tommy Stokke, the director of content for FanRag Sports. You probably hadn’t heard of FanRag until recently. But chances are, you know about it now, with more and more big-name writers popping up there seemingly every day. Tommy is a major reason for that. Here, we talk to him about the origins of FanRag, how he convinced Jon Heyman to work there and what he sees as the future for a burgeoning player in the sports media landscape.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1.Why and how did you break into journalism, and how did you wind up landing your current job at FanRag Sports?

I started writing game stories on an old typewriter my mom got me when I was 10 playing Madden. I’d run a couple plays, pause, write what happened and resume playing. I never thought anything of it until much later, and I never thought about writing until I was a sophomore in high school. I wrote something on Sammy Sosa being Chicago’s greatest baseball player of all time, and I was pulled in the hallway by the teacher and asked if I enjoyed writing because what I wrote was “college-level writing”. I didn’t think much of it, and I was already taking a high school journalism class, which was originally supposed to be a blow-off class because I’d just talk about sports. Easy enough. But after the influence of my junior and senior year teacher, Matt Thomas, I knew I wanted to work in sports, and I knew I wanted to write about them. I just didn’t know exactly how to get there.

My first published story was in the Joliet Herald-News. I was 16 and wrote a story on three girls that played on the baseball team. They were 8, and that was the start of covering youth sports. I wasn’t allowed to cover high school sports until I graduated, but once I did, I covered a little bit of everything: volleyball, golf, cross country, basketball, football, baseball, a first-round MLB draft pick’s draft-day story. I even covered the independent baseball team, which included interviewing Wally Backman in his underwear postgame. He was fired mid-season by the Joliet Jackhammers. I didn’t know who Wally Backman was.

I half-assed my way through a year of community college, mostly spending my time staying up until 3 a.m. playing online poker. I had enough success playing poker to move to Champaign, Ill., and live on the University of Illinois campus while attending community college there. It was there I was introduced to some site called Bleacher Report. I had never heard of it, but they were “hiring” editing interns, and since it said it was the 4th-largest sports media site, I figured that was a good way to get in. But I really wanted to write. I found out I could write without editing, so there went the editing internship. My first story was on the Oklahoma City Thunder and why the team shouldn’t trade Russell Westbrook. From there, I became the Chicago Cubs Featured Columnist, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I bought every word that was sold, but after five or six months, I grew frustrated with no answers regarding pay and the feeling that page views were being rewarded over quality, so I quit my non-paying job. This was 2011-ish, so pre-Turner when B/R was completely different than what it is now, to be fair.

I was a semester away from transferring to a four-year school, either Mizzou or Indiana, when I got a text from a friend’s cousin. He’d met someone involved with a sports website called FanRag.com and gave me contact information in case I was interested in writing. I scrolled through the homepage and didn’t call the number. I didn’t think it was real. The ‘Top 10 stories’ only had four stories. The first thing you saw on the front page was a slider that interchanged between “Advertise Here” and Google images of random fans. But a week later, I was installing carpet with my dad thinking it was the last place I wanted to be. It was the last place the superman of a dad I have wanted to be, too, but I had an out, so I called the number.

I always thought that if someone would look at my work and let me in the door, I could overcome not having a college degree. On the other end of the phone was someone who wanted to do just that. We met three times and never once did he ask for a resume. He got to know me, my vision and my goals, and I got to know him, how he got to where he is and what his vision for FanRag was. I didn’t go back to school and only sometimes went back to helping install floors, and I’ve been with FanRag for four years as of this past November.

2. Let’s talk about FanRag. It’s a relatively new outlet, or at least relatively new to us, and a lot of people are probably wondering where it came from. What is the origin of FanRag and how has it grown to where it is now in what seems like a pretty short amount of time?

What I didn’t know the first time I went to FanRag.com was how new it was. It was just an idea at that point. The idea at the time of that first meeting was to have a site where fans could go to share their voice. The original tagline was “Be Seen, Be Heard, Be a Fan.” And yes, that’s how the name originally came about.

We kept with that to a certain degree early on, thinking that fans of a team could accurately write about them and write about them in a way that readers would want. But it had to be good. It couldn’t just be random spewing. Sure, they could be a fan, but the quality had to be there. The other part we did was decide right away that every writer had to be paid. For one, we had to get people to write for a site they never heard of. Two, this was during a time when there were stories written every other day about why you shouldn’t write for free, while many sites were feasting on free content. We felt that would set us apart, that the reader knew we cared about the content we were producing because we were paying for it.

For the first two years or so, it was an idea more than anything else. We’d meet twice a week for lunch or breakfast and talk about all the things we wanted to do–we just didn’t necessarily know how to do it. We found our first group of writers through Craigslist ads in major markets. We were able to find some good ones but had to sort through a lot of bad to find them. There were a lot of cold emails that didn’t get responses. A lot of trying to sell good writers that writing for us for money was better than writing somewhere else for free. It’s crazy that you have to convince people that making money is better than not, but it for some reason happens in this industry.

Eventually, we started moving away from the “fan perspective.” Every site says it’s the fan point of view. We weren’t going to be successful by being another fan site or blog. We wanted to be a respected, credible media outlet, so it was time to change.

In 2014, we brought on a guy named Keith Kinney. Up until he joined us, we were kind of going in circles with no real direction. Keith was able to bring not only experience in building websites and understanding the internet, but he had plenty of management experience, which I obviously didn’t. When he joined, we were given more of a green light to increase the amount of content as well as the staff. Keith built sub-sites (Today’s Knuckleball, Today’s Pigskin, etc.) while we waited for a company to build us FanRagSports.com (which never happened, but I’ll save 700 words by not explaining). We’ve since gone back to just one site with everything on FanRagSports.com. So while we’ve been around for four years or so, we usually consider ourselves about two years old because that’s when things ramped up.

3. Your title is “director of content” at FanRag. What exactly does that mean? How do you decide what goes on FanRag? How much of that decision-making process is done by your journalistic instincts versus analytics-based estimates of traffic? How do you mesh a desire to do the best possible journalism with the undeniable need to drive as much traffic as possible?

It means I have some fancy title to put on a business card. I say that half-jokingly, but we’re not very big on titles. If it weren’t for business cards or needing a title for credentials and identifiers for other people, I don’t think anyone would have one. But my role is managing the content. I share that role with Jaime Eisner, who is far better than I am. We manage social media, oversee news desk, manage story ideas, work on headlines, quality control, etc. We’re joined by editors for each sport — Carolyn Wilke (hockey), Jason Patt (NBA), Alex Smolokoff (MLB), John Owning (NFL), Kristian Ibarra (MMA/WWE) and Matt Zemek (colleges). They are more hands on with the writing staff. With a writing staff of probably close to 100 across all of the sports, Jaime and I work more with the editors on a day-to-day basis.

The process has changed a little bit recently. When we had a separate site for every sport, we were trying to cover every team the same. We wanted as much on the Oakland A’s as we did the Chicago Cubs, the Minnesota Vikings as we did the Dallas Cowboys. But ultimately the reader is the boss and he or she will tell us what we’re doing right or wrong. So we cut back on content to make sure what we put out not only met our quality standards (it’s impossible to have quality control when producing an extreme amount of content) but was also what the reader wanted.

While we want to cover the big, national topics, we still don’t want to shy away from working hard to find those stories no one else has. We aren’t going to turn away a well-reported story on the backup quarterback because we’re afraid no one will read it. Maybe right now that story doesn’t get the most traffic, but in the long run, people will come back for that great journalism.

So it’s all about finding a balance, and a lot of that comes with headlines and the way a story is tweeted or shared. “Clickbait” is such a bad word today, but if you take the word for what it is, you’re trying to get someone to click the story. That’s a learning process for all of us and probably an underrated part. The most well-written story won’t get read by anyone if you don’t entice the reader with something. There’s an added emphasis in making sure each story gets the best headline possible that doesn’t mislead the reader but gets them to read. There are a million choices and you have such a small window to catch a reader’s attention, so you have to do something different and you have to do it better.

In the short term, you have to cover the main teams with huge followings, but for the long-term, we can’t lose our journalistic quality because that’s what will bring people back.

4. The reality is there have been–and still are–plenty of websites that cover sports. How would you distinguish FanRag from other digital sports media outlets? Why is this one going to have sustained success in a crowded marketplace? And how did you decide on this editorial philosophy for the site?

What I want FanRag to be is a site for everyone. If you watch your sport every single day, we have something for you. If you only have 10 minutes while you hide in the bathroom at work, we’ve got something for you. If you just want to know enough to have a conversation at the bar, we can help with that, too. We want to inform readers, engage them and entertain them. Some sites are only one or the other. You have to watch baseball every day and know what every advanced stat means to make it through two paragraphs. Or it’s five crazy trades that won’t happen, which is almost insulting to a reader, in my opinion. Or everything is 1,500 words and no one has time for it all.

But the biggest key is quality. Everyone says it, but I don’t think everyone does it. We do our best to ensure it through our processes. It starts with the hiring process, in which applicants go through multiple channels and opinions to make sure they make us better. We ensure quality by paying every writer. We can hold our staff to a higher standard and expect more out of them because they’re paid for their work. We have an editing process where every story angle must be approved and each story is edited. We don’t have a huge editing staff, so of course we make mistakes, but if a story doesn’t meet our standard, it doesn’t go up. We send it back and work with the writer until it gets to that point. Plus, our editors are all qualified. We hired the people in those roles for full-time jobs and commitments, not for experience or exposure.

I think we can find our place with a mix of original reporting, quick analysis, thought-provoking columns, long forms and news and with all of it done well. We felt that was something that was missing from the marketplace when we started to build this, so it felt like the best route to take.

5. For a lot of people, FanRag really entered the mainstream when the site announced the hiring of Jon Heyman, one of the biggest names in baseball media. How did that come about, and what was it like convincing Jon to join on to the venture? What has it done for FanRag now that he’s aboard?

Our first wave of experienced, established writers was when we brought on Jack Magruder, Craig Morgan, John Perrotto and Dave Hogg. Fox Sports cut back on its locals and those guys took a chance on us when we weren’t much. Then came Bill Williamson, who was previously with ESPN. I think that group, and along with those that followed, gave us some confidence about what we were building.

I knew Jon left CBS but didn’t think much of it. I figured someone would’ve picked up him quick, and, well, let’s be honest. Jon Heyman wasn’t going to work for FanRag Sports. But when spring training rolled around, he still wasn’t writing anywhere. I reached out to him and said, hey, I know this sounds crazy, but I figure you’re going to be at spring training getting stories, maybe there’s a fit together temporarily. He got back to me and let me know he was enjoying his time off with his family and wasn’t really looking for anything, but he told me to stay in touch.

The next thing Jon wrote was on Tim Lincecum’s comeback, and he wrote it on his Facebook page. My first thought was his itch must’ve come back and I can promise we can pay more than the zero dollars he made writing on Facebook. I reached back out, confident that there was a real chance we could make something happen if he gave us a chance. I told him I knew it sounded crazy and maybe it wasn’t a fit, but if he had time, I’d love the chance to discuss it with him. He responded with his phone number and said he was open to hearing more.

I talked to Jon for about 30 minutes on the phone. We talked about how FanRag started, where it was at and where we thought it could go. I remember the conversation ending by him saying he didn’t know how I did it, but he was interested. We hung up and started booking a flight to Phoenix for him to meet us. He believed in the work we were doing, which is a testament to everything we and our writers had built. We thought we had something good, and we were ready for the world to see it. Adding Jon would not only feature his own great work, but it would bring eyes to the rest of what we were doing.

He spent a day in our office in Phoenix and met everyone, and it really didn’t take much convincing. We shared a vision, and that was the biggest key. We were looking for a cleanup hitter (wait, I guess a No. 2 hitter in the optimal lineup, right?) and he was looking to be a part of a team.

What has he done for us? Everything we could’ve asked for and more. He’s the ultimate teammate and has no ego. It would’ve been very easy for him to coast or put himself above our team. But he dove right in and embraced everyone. He shares everyone’s work, which is huge for a lot of writers. He’s always looking for a way to help. The biggest thing he’s done for us is just playing his role and being a good teammate.

But he also made it OK to read FanRag Sports. Maybe that sounds stupid, but I think there’s a perception for digital sites of what is okay to share, what is okay to work for, what is okay to discuss. People who didn’t have time to write for us all of a sudden had a clear schedule and emailed me back. People reached out to us instead of us having to reach out to them. He made us a credible source of information. Jon didn’t have to work anywhere, but for him to join us told the rest of the online sports world that we can be trusted as a credible outlet. Jon joining us allowed us to get a Jon Rothstein, a Zach Harper, a Jesse Spector. We get a Wendell Barnhouse, a Roy Cummings, a Wendy Parker, and so many others.

As he said at the time, it doesn’t hurt to pick up the phone and talk. It would’ve been easy for him to click ‘spam’ on my email and move on, like many others do. But he didn’t, and I think that can be a learning lesson for a lot of people.

6. In order to land Jon Heyman, and others, to make FanRag competitive, you have to pay them. Duh. How did you go up setting up the business side of the site and finding a way to fund it so that it can attract talent and good work?

From the start, we knew we had to pay writers, not only to attract people to write for us, but because we thought it was the right thing to do to build credibility in a market that was relying so heavily on free content. That was part of the business model from the start, and something the partners involved knew we were getting into. We’ve avoided shortcuts along the way and the focus has always been on the talent. It feels like on many digital sites, the talent is the last person to get paid, but we did things backwards. We made a financial commitment to the front end first by investing in writers. As good as the site looks and operates, you’d think we had 20 people working on it, but we don’t. We’re still small, but everyone works incredibly hard to make it work. Once we knew we decided to make the financial commitment to writers first, the focus was creating an environment that would attract them. We’ve been called out for not having a masthead, but the truth is we want the focus to be on our staff of writers and their work, not people with made up fancy titles.  I’ve heard horror stories that writers have experienced at different stops and have tried to use that to avoid those mistakes. I’ve used mistakes I’ve made and we’ve made to get better and make sure we don’t do it again. Whether it’s something such as creative freedom or just getting paid in a timely manner, creating an environment for the talent has been the focus. While money of course plays a factor, I believe it’s a lot of the little things that attract quality people to us as well.

7. For you personally, you had a big break this summer when you broke the news over the entire national media that Chris Sale was scratched from his start because he cut up the throwback uniforms he was supposed to wear. Without giving away any sensitive reporting secrets, how did that scoop come about? How meaningful has that scoop been for your career?

It was a week or so before the trade deadline, so when word spread that Chris Sale was scratched from his start, immediately I began to think he was traded. Then word leaked that he was sick, which no one believed. Then came out that he was sent home, but wasn’t traded. My first thought was someone told him they were scratching him until the trade deadline, he got pissed off, and a scene broke out. But time kept passing and nothing was coming out, so I started reaching out to contacts with little expectations. When I was told what happened — he cut up every jersey so no one could wear them and then had a verbal exchange with management — I didn’t believe it. I don’t think I would’ve believed it if I was sitting in the clubhouse watching him do it. There’s no way something like that could actually happen. Probably 10 minutes passed before I felt confident enough to actually tweet it. Even when I hit send, there’s still doubt with something that crazy. I had to put “Not a joke” because no one would believe that story, especially coming from a no-name like me.

I think Jeff Passan was the first to confirm it, followed by Ken Rosenthal and I think Jon Morosi. Jon Heyman texted me telling me great job and my response was something like, “That’s true right? Did you hear something similar?” Once he said yeah, I think I exhaled for the first time. I’m a pretty calm person most of the time, so that combined with not really grasping how big of a story it was, led the people around me in the office to be more excited than I was. It was really cool to see “FanRag Sports” on ESPN and in every major media outlet. It was something I always thought could happen, and it was even cooler to see how everyone on the team reacted. It was definitely a proud day for everyone.

Credit is one of the things Jon brought. I had broken stories before without being given credit because no one saw it. That doesn’t happen with Jon, so that certainly plays a huge role. But as far as this specific story and what it did for my career, I don’t really know. I like to think it brought more credibility to me as a reporter. What really helped, though, was two days later Jon and I started breaking the Chapman trade to the Cubs together, and he was able to finish it. So getting FanRag Sports out on two of the biggest stories of the season, and to do it back to back, was huge.

I didn’t get into writing to break stories. I want to tell people’s stories, and I want to one day be a voice in baseball media that readers can trust and respect. I look at every story I break as just hopefully another ounce of credibility gained in the industry. There’s some validation in it, too. Reporting in sports media is incredibly difficult and competitive. It’s not carrying rolls of carpet up three flights of stairs kind of difficult, but you have so many people trying to be the best. That’s what I want to be, it’s just my competitive nature. When I set my sights on sports media, the first thing the majority of people I talked to followed up with was, “Well, what else?” I think for a long time people I knew didn’t take what I was doing seriously. But when they see my name for 15 minutes somewhere or FanRag Sports somewhere, I think it validates the hard work and sacrifice that’s put into the 24/365 cycle we’re in.

I can’t speak for what the perception is or where that credibility stands, but it’s probably better today than it was before the Chris Sale story.

8. If you could, what would you change about how sports are covered on the internet?

The things I don’t like about how sports are covered, I understand. I understand hot-take artists and columnists who load up the most egregious content and spew it to the world. I saw it in Chicago media up until the day the Cubs won the World Series. But Chicago is a huge market, so bashing the smartest man in baseball is something no one else is doing, thus people will click even if it’s a hate-click. They all count the same. If there was a way to make that more honest, I’d like to pump the brakes on some of the outrageousness.

But that brings me to what I’d really see, and it’s a fine line and not necessarily about how a sport is covered. It’s more about how we cover each other. There has to be a better way of holding one another accountable, while also having some semblance of respect. We saw it in the Mookie Betts vs Mike Trout MVP argument. It felt like people were actively seeking out Mookie Betts voters to publicly shame them. My vote would’ve went to Trout, but there has to be a better way to state a case without attacking someone who voted for Betts, right? Of course, we saw it in the election, and it’s why Facebook has become the worst website in the world.  We saw it in the Hall of Fame voting, and as you’ve pointed out, people want to give up their vote because they’re afraid of the backlash that comes with the microscope of a public ballot. Some absolutely deserve it. But did sports media get any better because of how we handled poor ballots? Maybe it got worse. You know whose Hall of Fame ballot I didn’t agree with? Jon Heyman’s. But I read his response for every one of his decisions, and I came away saying, OK, I can respect that even if I think he’s wrong. Ultimately, I hope we as sports media can get to that point in covering each other.

Maybe that can never happen because of the competition. But is anyone getting ahead by taking someone else down? We should want to beat the other person by being better, not rooting for their demise. No one should cheer for the demise of Bill Simmons. I talk about this with our college basketball creative master/columnist Joseph Nardone often. If The Ringer doesn’t work, how many other personalities will get an opportunity to create that venture in the future? I want The Ringer to succeed, I want Bill Simmons to succeed while continuing to help provide more jobs in the industry. I don’t root against SB Nation, FanSided or Bleacher Report. This isn’t Network vs. Network. It’s about offering different styles of content from different writers, all of whom bring differing values. As long as everyone is giving a genuine effort to do good work, we should root for them. Besides, if everyone supported one another in this business, maybe there would be more jobs available. There are websites who are supposed to cover media, and they want to focus on our name rather than the fact that we’re providing jobs for over 100 people in a “dying” industry. Other writers try getting ahead by attempting to take down other writers. It does no one any good, and I think if there was ever a way to improve that part, sports coverage as a whole would improve as well.

9. What is your goal for the future of FanRag? Where do you see the site being five years from now?

The ultimate goal is to be the best, just like everyone else. What would make me satisfied is seeing FanRag Sports become a destination. That’s a social media destination, a homepage, a morning-routine read, a lunch break destination, a get-caught-up-on-the-day destination. I want the site to be known as a respected media outlet, so when I apply for a media credential I don’t have to include 600 words explaining who we are and that we aren’t a blog. I want to be a site that aspiring writers say “I want to write for FanRag Sports one day.” I want to be a destination where we develop talent that excels here, while also providing opportunity elsewhere. We’ve had great people work for us that have tried new challenges elsewhere. I’m happy for them because without us, maybe they don’t get opportunities elsewhere. I think we’re on the right path, but who knows how long it’ll take. We’re sure going to work hard to get there.

10. While you are based in Phoenix now, your roots are in Chicago. So tell us: How insufferable are Cubs fans right now, and how can the rest of the world survive the incoming Cubs dynasty?

Here’s the thing: Cubs fans have always been insufferable. Whether it was the glowing optimism every year or the annoying pessimism every year, it’s awful. I don’t know if Cubs fans know how to be winners yet, or if it has all sunk in yet. I don’t find Blackhawks fans insufferable, but that might because hockey isn’t as popular, so the fans are more dedicated than in other sports. Moving forward, there’s a chance Cubs fans aren’t insufferable because they’re just happy to be at the table with championship teams from other sports. They’ve been watching that conversation from the other side of the bar for so long, maybe they just like being included. The good news? Cubs fans are still years away from challenging Boston fans as the most obnoxious in the world.

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