A Q&A with Erik Malinowski on how to survive life as a freelancer, writing a book about the Warriors and why you should Never Tweet

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 Erik Malinowski, the lead Golden State Warriors writer for Bleacher Report, the author of an upcoming book about the Warriors and so much more. Erik has written for a lot of media outlets about a lot of different topics, which makes him a perfect guest for a Q&A. Here, we discuss what life is like as a freelancer, how to come up with a creative and original story idea and why you should Never Tweet.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

  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 knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer, but there were two Sports Illustrated stories that changed how I looked at sports-writing as a craft. During my senior year of high school, Rick Reilly wrote about Ian Baker-Finch’s struggles with the yips. A year later, as a freshman studying journalism at Boston University, Gary Smith profiled golfer David Duval. These two pieces, more than almost any others I’d read to that point, taught me how writing long, how digging deep into a person’s life and analyzing the moments that shaped them along the way, could affect readers on a visceral level. I wanted to write about the impact that sports had on people’s lives, but these stories were, for me, truly epiphanic. Reading each for the first time gave me chills. (I still have many years of clipped Gary Smith articles tucked away in a binder somewhere.)

I practically lived at The Daily Free Press (the BU student newspaper) during my time on Commonwealth Avenue. I covered the men’s hockey team for three years. I was even editor-in-chief for a semester. During my senior year, I interned in the sports department of The Boston Globe, and that was a truly insane few months, topped off by some no-name backup named Tom Brady winning a Super Bowl. (For reference, this was at a time when you could still buy same-day bleacher seats to a Wednesday matinee at Fenway for less than the cost of a cheap textbook.) Working at the Globe was so much fun; some of my fellow interns were Chris Mannix (The Vertical), Jon Morosi (MLB Network), and Chris Forsberg (ESPN Boston). And as graduation approached, I figured I was on my way!

But this was all pre-everything in social media. I knew I’d be moving out west eventually, following my girlfriend (now wife), but no one at the Globe knew anyone in the Bay Area. I made it here in August, when the “Moneyball” A’s were in the midst of their 20-game winning streak and the Giants were embarking on a World Series run. But by October, I was still jobless and two weeks away from having to start repaying my student loans. That was when I answered a job posting on Craigslist for a fact-checking intern at Wired magazine in San Francisco. The pay was $10 an hour, which felt like a lot of money.

Not only did I get the job, somehow, but I stayed at the magazine for nearly a decade. I was a staff fact-checker until 2010. Occasionally, I would write sportscentric pieces, but I mostly fact-checked — around 120 features, including two dozen cover stories — and it was an incredible experience, getting to work alongside some of the best writers and editors in the industry. You learn a lot about process and professionalism, what can elevate a good magazine to a great one, how to pitch a feature story, and so forth. I wasn’t a sportswriter yet, but those years were as valuable for a young journalist like myself as anything I could imagine doing.

My first real break came in the summer of 2010, when Wired.com (which was located across the hall from the mag) hired me as its first sports editor. I was tasked with running Playbook, the site’s fledgling sports blog, which meant I was staff writer/assigning editor/everything all rolled into one. It was a blast — I got to write this early, somewhat prescient piece on the Warriors and how their new owners’ investment in technology and analytics could one day pay off — but I was burned out after a year and left for the freelance life. I wrote mostly for tech trade publications and waited for something else to come along.

That came in early 2012, when I pitched Tommy Craggs (who had just taken over as Deadspin editor) on an idea I had for doing a piece pegged to the 20th anniversary of “Homer at the Bat,” the famous episode of “The Simpsons” that featured everyone’s favorite ballplayers from that era. When that piece ran on Feb. 20, 2012, it felt like my whole career had finally started to fall into place. Craggs let me write for Deadspin at night a few times a week, and I continued freelancing for larger publications during the day.

From there, good things started to happen. I worked on staff at BuzzFeed for a year, then moved on to Fox Sports for a year. Then I went back to freelancing. All the while, I prioritized writing long features and also started getting credentialed for events here in the Bay Area. (Getting to cover the Giants’ World Series run in 2014 remains a professional highlight to this day.)

Getting to cover the Warriors’ championship run during the 2014-15 season was also something special. Steve Kerr’s arrival in Oakland really changed the landscape around here and Golden State was suddenly a Very Big Deal. I covered every home playoff game in 2015, trying to immerse myself in the moment as much as I could. Writing on deadline for Sports on Earth, with so many memorable moments night in and night out, made for an indescribably fun time.

I concentrated on the Warriors (again for Sports for Earth) throughout the 2015-16 season and then joined Bleacher Report as their Warriors’ lead writer for this current season.

  1. You’ve bounced around a bunch in the industry, worked at quite a few places and written for lots of outlets. What are the benefits to being a freelancer? While freelancing, to what extent are you looking for a full-time job? What are the keys for a freelancer to actually, you know, make a living?

Being a freelancer (which I technically still am) is great because you get to basically set your own schedule and hours. You’re only really answerable to your editor (and whatever time you promised them copy). If you can make the finances work — and that’s a big if — the flexibility is a perk that can’t be beat.

Having said that, I’ll be the first to admit that freelancing generates no small amount of stress for me. The hustle is hard. When you’re juggling five different assignments at various stages of gestation and you’ve got to get more pitches out but did you actually send those invoices in or are you mistaken and what about those edits that were due this morning and … it’s a real grind. I’ve been able to do it well for maybe a year or 18 months at a time but it takes its toll and then you start remembering what it was like to have real health insurance and not have to submit estimated quarterly taxes and you start rationalizing how easy it’d be to give up the flexible schedule for something a bit more stable.

So I view freelancing largely as a means to an end. You show you can work with different publications writing various kinds of stories. You make new connections. You grow as a writer. (You also learn which publications treat freelancers poorly and then you don’t ever have to write for them again!) There’s no better feeling I get when I see someone in our industry who has worked their ass off as a freelancer get rewarded with a deserving staff job. I know there’s cachet in poaching someone from a big-time publication but the talent available nowadays in the freelance pool is unreal.

  1.  You currently cover the Golden State Warriors for Bleacher Report. On the surface, that’s a strange sentence to type. B/R does a lot of things well, but it’s never really been known for having a full-time beat writer on one team. Why do you think B/R believed the Warriors were the team to commit those resources to? What does it mean to cover the Warriors for Bleacher Report, as opposed to, say, the San Francisco Chronicle?

At Bleacher Report, I’m technically known as a “lead writer.” We have a few of them covering the large-market teams you’d expect — Knicks, Celtics, Lakers, Clippers, and so forth — but the job is not like that of the typical beat writer you’d find at a newspaper. I cover every home game and attend most practices and shootarounds, but I’m not writing up every piece of news that comes out and (unless something remarkable happens) I’m not doing game recaps. I do a reported column once a week, often related to something that’s going on with the team at that moment or something that’s coming up on the horizon. That pace was appealing to me because I felt like I could take my time with pieces — to breathe a little more — and that my writing would benefit from that. Now, more than halfway through the season, I feel that has largely born out and it’s been more gratifying than I could’ve imagined. And we have such an all-star contingent of writers on the beat — Tim Kawakami, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Anthony Slater, Connor Letourneau, Sam Amick, and Tim Bontemps, just to name a few — that covering this team is more fun than it has any right to be.

But I also knew that B/R was on the verge of launching a new longform initiative and that was very appealing to me. I’ve now got a couple of features in the works now that should run over the next few months.

So to have the opportunity to cover this team as well as pitch/write longform pieces on the side was everything I was looking for, and I give B/R credit for realizing the Warriors warranted such focused coverage from one of their writers.

  1. Not only do you cover the Warriors, but you’re also writing a book on the Warriors! How did that happen? At what point did it occur to you that this team warranted a whole book about it? How did the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in last year’s Finals affect the trajectory of the project?

I got the idea during the middle of the 2015-16 season, when the team was 48-4 at the All-Star break. It seemed like they had a legit chance at breaking the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ record for wins and I just felt like maybe the time was right to propose something ambitious. People outside the Bay Area don’t really appreciate just how bad it was here for so many years and just how fast this ascension has happened (and how many ways it all could’ve still gone horribly awry along the way). I wanted to write something that would convey that sense of history and I thought framing their rise around an embrace of science and Silicon Valley (which they’ve done since the new ownership arrived in 2010) was the right move, so I contacted a book agent I’d met years earlier through my Wired connections. He thought it was compelling enough that I should write up a proposal.

I was 75 percent done with the proposal when The New York Times Magazine ran its cover story on the Warriors. The piece echoed a lot of the same themes I was already focusing on, and I was devastated at first, thinking they had blown up my spot in some way. Joe Lacob’s “light years” comment became a national punchline. I thought maybe I was screwed, but then I realized that the piece helped show the true viability of what I was thinking. As writers, we often labor through a piece and start thinking, “Is this even a good idea?” Well, that piece running in a major magazine not only confirmed my idea was good but also that there was much more to the narrative that wasn’t being fleshed out. That story, despite being several thousand words long, only scratched the surface of how the Warriors had become so good in such a short period of time. It glossed over (or entirely skipped) so many critical moments. In short order, I was motivated by the prospect of writing a book that would satisfy the people who were left wanting more by that piece.

I finished my proposal in early April and we submitted it to publishers when the Warriors were 69-9 so they had to win their final four games to get to 73 wins. Once they did that, I was confident we would find a publisher because, even if the Warriors didn’t win the title, they did get to 73 wins and set a record that may never be eclipsed. That, if nothing else, could be a selling point. That’s also why I never wanted the book to be dependent on Golden State actually winning the title; I was explicit about this in the proposal. I would’ve been a nervous wreck through the playoffs and, as we all saw, even the improbable can happen when you least expect. (Also, I would’ve felt incredibly weird about investing some kind of emotional stake in the outcome. I’m a Knicks fan going back 20-plus years and the Warriors winning or losing just doesn’t ever affect me one way or the other. I would’ve been loathe to alter that calculus in any way.)

The Warriors losing the Finals was probably a net-positive for me because it made their whole story exponentially more interesting from there on. (I think that’s the dirty little secret of beat writing, that teams are always more interesting when they lose.) Once Golden State signed Kevin Durant, now you have the redemption narrative in place heading into the 2016-17 season. I started writing the book in May and the Finals loss (plus Durant) likely added thousands of words to my workload and delayed everything by weeks, but it did make the final third of the book — which will be out this October! — a whole lot more exciting than expected.

I should also note that my Wired.com piece from 2011 served as my “sample chapter” in the proposal, so if I don’t write that piece more than five years ago, we’re probably not talking about any kind of book right now.

5. One of my favorite Erik Malinowski Joints is this in-depth look at the Space Jam website, which somehow remains on the internet, in its original form, more than 20 years after its creation. This is the kind of story where the idea is so clever and creative that it’s almost impossible to mess up. Where do these good ideas come from? What’s your “process,” so to speak?

This story was from when I was writing a feature a month for Rolling Stone’s website. (This piece on the untold origins of the SI football phone is my personal fave from that time.) I don’t truly know where these ideas come from — mostly from just futzing around on the internet, if I’m being honest. But I’m always thinking, “Has this ever been written about before?” That was the thought behind the “Homer at the Bat” history for Deadspin. That was the thought behind my Tom Emanski profile for Fox Sports. No one had ever profiled Emanski and I thought to myself, “Why me?” And where I would always end up is, “Why not me?” If you think you have a good idea, you just can’t get hung up on thoughts like that.

Once I commit myself to a story like this, I go all in. I contact every source I can. I’m scouring LinkedIn, public records, even Whois domain registrations for email addresses and other contact info, and the whole endeavor becomes something of a research project. You never know where that one anecdote is going to come from that changes the whole story’s trajectory. And when I think about the benefits of having been a fact-checker for all those years, this is where I think all those good habits I learned ultimately pay off.

My goal with these pieces is for them to be definitive in nature. If you’re going to read about “Homer at the Bat,” I want my piece to be the one. Same for Tom Emanski, the SI football phone, the Space Jam website, and so forth. I don’t want any writer to feel like they have to revisit any of these topics again. But I do love doing these deep dives on quirky moments of sports/pop culture ephemera because they’re tangentially about sports but also largely about society at certain snapshots in time.

But the danger I’ve found with these pieces is that it’s really easy to turn off a reader if the subject matter is too far out of the mainstream. I spent two years researching the story of a ragtag group of Bay Area rugby players who, back in 1983, started an improbable, somewhat incredible attempt at becoming Olympic-caliber rowers, in the hopes of qualifying for the Summer Games in Los Angeles. The piece was 12,000 words long, chock full of archival video that I tracked down and a compelling narrative that had never been reported out in 30 years. I’m prouder of that piece than any other I’ve done, but I’m sure a lot of people were turned off by the fact it was about rowing and the audience for that sport is infinitesimal. So it’s often a calculated risk with these pieces and it can be hard to tell which ones will truly resonate with readers.

  1. You are the originator of an important movement: NeverTweet. It’s a very simple philosophy — people should never tweet under any circumstance for any reason whatsoever. Why should people never tweet? Have you seen anyone copying your “Never Tweet” campaign and been like, whoa, this thing has caught on?

Well, I don’t think I’m the originator, but I guess I’ve helped popularize it? There can be great value in tweeting, no doubt, but the idea behind “never tweet” is that eventually you mess up or you go too far. When I see other people take up the cause of not tweeting, I feel like that kind of self-awareness can only ever be a good thing. We’ve all had moments on social media we wish we could take back, but I think as long as you’re cognizant of the inherent dangers and are willing to take a step back now and again to breathe and think it all over before you tweet, then you can limit those instances and their repercussions.

Easier said than done, of course. Thus, never tweet.

7. You are primarily writing about basketball now, but in the past, you’ve written about all different sports. In today’s media landscape, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a specialist — an “expert” in a particular sport — versus trying to be a generalist? Should a young writer focus his or her efforts into one sport, or try to branch out?

To be honest, I still consider myself a generalist at heart. That’s probably to my detriment, though I once had an editor at a top magazine talk about how he truly values writers who can jump in and tackle various sports without much of a learning curve. I’d really like to think that’s true and that if you’re good, you’re good. (Lee Jenkins, let’s remember, was primarily a baseball writer before he started focusing on the NBA for Sports Illustrated.)

But the industry has become so specialized over the last couple of years and I feel like the idea of being “an expert” in your field has taken on far more importance than maybe it should. I would love to advise a young writer to cast a wide net of interests and to not limit themselves, but I don’t think I could do so with a clear conscience. I think, for the most part, when editors are trying to think of someone to write a given piece, they’re not thinking, “Who’s my best writer?” They’re thinking, “Who’s my basketball writer? Who’s my football writer?”

I think any outlet that prioritizes agile talent over strict specialization is doing the right thing. New York Times writers change beats all the time. SI (as evinced by Jenkins and others) also does this well. At B/R, we had Jonathan Abrams, who is a hell of an NBA writer, profile an NFL punter. I think publications that don’t get hung up on pigeonholing writers into one specific beat are the ones ultimately getting the most out of their employees.

  1. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot written about “Stick to Sports” — whether sports writers should share political opinions and the like. Where do you stand on the issue? Does the answer depend on the reporter’s employer?

I don’t think any writer should be expected to stick to sports. Ever. Politics and sports have been always been intertwined and perhaps more so these days than ever before. For at least the next few years, sports and politics will be near-inseparable. If you think you can avoid one for the other, you’re living in an era that doesn’t exist anymore.

I think some employers are more open to this than others and I think that transparency (followed by acceptance) will grow with time. Writers are (believe it or not!) sentient beings with feelings and opinions, and suppressing those inclinations is, I believe, foolhardy and, on some level, inherently hypocritical.

  1. If you could, what would you change about how basketball is covered on the internet?

There’s often a rush to coalesce around a certain narrative that I find reductive, self-defeating, and lazy. You’re just asking to be wrong, often spectacularly so. When I sit down to write, I’m always thinking of how I can give a topic its necessary and proper context. Twitter, especially, can be immensely fun during big-time events and certain singular moments, but the group-think that often follows in their wake is something we could all do without.

  1. What tweet of yours do you wish you NeverTweeted?

That’s an easy one! The first time I ever advised people to not tweet. I mean, I’ve clearly failed in that effort.

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