A Q&A with Natalie Weiner of Bleacher Report on transitioning from covering music to sports, the state of B/R and her unlikely path to 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 Natalie Weiner of Bleacher Report. Natalie took an unlikely path into the world of sports journalism: She was a musician in college and a music writer at Billboard before landing her gig at Bleacher Report, which makes her a perfect and interesting Q&A guest. Here, she discusses her fascinating career path to this point, why she she chooses not to stick to sports” and how being a bit of a sports outsider has helped her now that she covers them.

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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 to where you are now?

I think to some extent everybody has a weird story, but mine is definitely… extra-weird. I went to Columbia, and when I started I thought I was going to be a music teacher or work in a music nonprofit—volunteered at Lincoln Center, did an internship at Carnegie Hall, all that kind of stuff. While I was there I got into the American Studies department, mostly because of my interest in music history and how it intersects with American culture as a whole. I took a class called American Cultural Criticism, and that was sort of when the light bulb went off: People write about music (and art and culture and all kinds of things) for a living. No idea why it never clicked for me before, since I was definitely as into reading things on the internet as anyone. I’d never been involved in the paper or the radio station or anything like that (save a brief stint with a now-defunct political humor site that was put together by people I knew from…marching band), but my senior year I wrote a couple things for the Spec (the student paper) as I applied to Columbia’s J-School. Because that’s what you do when you want to learn how to be a journalist, right? Go to J-school.

For me, as it turned out, J-school was not a great fit—it was a bit stifling and a lot expensive, so I dropped out about two months in. I’d already been bartending basically full-time, so I kept doing that while I looked for places that would let me write for free. The way I looked at it, it seemed better to write for free than to pay someone else to let me write. After a bunch of fruitless applications, I came across a Craigslist ad to intern at a site called LargeUp.com, which focuses on Caribbean music and culture. I went into the interview basically knowing Bob Marley and not much more, but they still took me on. Jesse Serwer, the site’s editor, helped me figure out what I was doing and taught me the nuts and bolts of writing—I was basically clueless when I started. Jesse also got me my first paid writing gig: an album write-up for NPR Music. Eventually I got a steadier day job (managing the website of a food writer) and a few other bylines, mostly still for free. A friend recommended Billboard’s internship, and so I started there—after six months and a few months of freelancing for them, they hired me full-time as an associate editor at the magazine. It was trial by fire basically every day, but I learned so, so much—enough to get recruited by Bleacher Report.

2. In a very short time, your career has taken an unusual turn. You left Billboard, a publication known for music coverage, for Bleacher Report, a sports publication. That’s not necessarily a typical jump. So how did it happen? What made you want to make that leap? And considering your background, how did convince B/R you were the right woman for the job?

Good question—if you’d have told me when I graduated that I would eventually be writing about sports, I would have told you you were insane. Basically Matt Sullivan, who runs B/R Mag, emailed me last December asking if I’d be interested in talking to them about a gig. It wasn’t totally random: Basically, over the last few years, Seahawks Twitter had brought me to the larger world of sports Twitter. I’d started a podcast with my Billboard colleague Adelle Platon called Ballin’ Out, in which we interviewed athletes and artists about sports and music. (Go listen! All the episodes are still on iTunes.) I’d become, sort of unexpectedly, one of the go-to people to tackle sports/music crossover stories for Billboard (see: interviewing Ja Rule about whether Joe Flacco is elite or Pusha T about Tyrod Taylor). My first sports story was actually for Complex in 2015, about Kam Chancellor’s charity weekend (yes, I got a Marshawn quote). The sports internet just felt much friendlier and funnier than music internet (which sounds crazy, I know! But I stand by it), and so I got to know a lot of people that way—I think I almost always had more sports followers than music followers, weirdly. So there wasn’t too much convincing to be done; they were mostly just looking for someone who had reporting and writing chops (which I owe totally to my time working for Billboard magazine) and a familiarity with the culture around the game.

The weirder part is my interest in sports in general. My family is totally sports-agnostic, so I grew up without ever following them particularly closely (save the occasional Mariners game at the Kingdome, RIP). I was also not athletic at all and bought into the nerd side of the nerd/jock dichotomy that we’re all taught is a thing (it’s not). But I wound up in marching band in college (it’s also not your standard marching band), which was sort of football/basketball immersion (even though obviously the quality of said football and basketball was very bad). I began to understand why people like sports in the first place, and that was right around the time the Seahawks were starting to hit the postseason regularly. It was a cool way to channel my newfound knowledge that sports were fun and cool (mostly) and also post-grad ennui/homesickness (everyone in Seattle, in case somehow you’ve missed it, is obsessed with the Seahawks). Then I discovered Seahawks Twitter (ironically, after Super Bowl XLVIII), and the rest is history. S/o to Danny Kelly, the first Seahawks writer to bring me into the fold #tbt.

3. What has the creation of B/R Mag meant to Bleacher Report? What distinguishes it from other “prestige” outlets like Grantland (RIP), The Ringer and others? What makes a story a “B/R Mag” story?

For me, it’s really just a way to up the caliber of content on the site—to make Bleacher Report a destination for thoughtful reporting and writing. So many people still associate it with aggregation, and while that’s definitely a part of the picture, it’s made a pretty concerted effort to button things up. Honestly we have a much more rigorous editing system than I had at Billboard—it’s something the company’s invested in. Without getting too into the other guys (taking a tip from all those athletes who usually avoid questions about other people), a B/R Mag story is one that’s grounded in rigorous reporting and also relevant to anyone—really trying to take a global view instead of a sports-internet view. We’re hustling to try to be fresh without being try-hards, creative without being self-indulgent, thoughtful without being over-serious or inaccessible. It’s a tough balance, but there’s a great core group of people working on the project.

4. It seems to me that B/R is slowly shifting away from being a straight sports site to dabbling more in the sports and pop culture space. This makes sense for you, given your background. We’ve seen other sites move this direction as well in recent years. Why do you think that’s the right approach? Is there a place for the coverage of sports just being… about sports? Or should all sports journalism position itself as a place to explore larger cultural issues?

The stick-to-sports question is an interesting one—I think it’s really more of a response to technology than any cultural shift, although obviously both are in play. Summarizing games or even press conferences is basically irrelevant since people can access that information themselves anytime they want. There’s obviously still a huge appetite for pre/post-game analysis and fantasy coverage as well as standard-issue profiles and Q&As of athletes at every level. But how do you address all the other conversations that happen around sports? I think dialogue—both about straight sports and about the culture around the game—is just expedited because of the internet, and everyone’s trying to keep up. So that’s why there’s this torrent of sports/culture content, as far as I can tell. The sheer volume of information available means something that might have been a footnote previously is now its own story (like the ESPN PB&J thing).

Trying to suss out the “right” approach is basically trying to answer the million-dollar question—I think as long as it’s organic, it’s good. I realize that’s vague. But if you’re trying to make something happen that’s not already there, you’re in PR, not journalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I don’t think anyone should be obliged to write about culture stuff if they don’t want to—there’s plenty of hard news and analysis to go around—but I see plenty of writers dabbling in it when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. I’m reminded specifically of an NFL.com writer who didn’t know who Sam Hunt was at a Super Bowl party and made weird jokes about it. Or the ESPN guy who was offended that the Titans were playing Migos’ “Fight Night” in the locker room…because he didn’t know what “hit it with the left, hit it with the right” meant (surprise, it’s about sex). Assuming that something’s insignificant just because you’re unfamiliar with it is a mistake no matter what field you’re in, as far as I can tell. As far as political stuff, I think sports are a great way into those conversations. They’re a stepping stone, and honestly if you think there’s any way to separate sports from politics, you’re kidding yourself. The personal (and recreational) is political.

5.  I was at a conference recently where a B/R exec said the question driving him isn’t how to cover sports but how to start a conversation. Do you feel like that explains the type of work you and the B/R/ Mag staff are trying to do, where you want to write stories people share and talk about, not just read? How does that influence the type of stories you chase and how you view sports?

Definitely—for me, that’s always been a metric of success. I’ve done like three or four stories that have wound up on Hot 97’s morning show, and that’s how I know I hit the mark. Communicating something so that people are able to pick out the relevant parts is crucial, and I think it’s less a matter of any specific technique or philosophy than it is a side effect of just writing really, really good stories (or sometimes bad ones, but for the sake of argument let’s think positive). If you say something in a way that resonates with people, they’re going to remember it and talk about it. What more could you ask for as a journalist?

6. A few months ago, you were involved in a Twitter incident with Seahawks player Frank Clark, where he responded to an article you wrote about him and another about Greg Hardy with aggressive and insulting remarks. It was emblematic of a larger issue, not only the issues people still have with domestic violence, but also the responses women receive on twitter, even from the players themselves. It’s doubtful a male reporter would have been treated the same way. What was your reaction when you saw his tweet and how did you handle that? Did you get your editors involved? Did you and Frank ever speak since?

(I’m not supposed to talk about it :/)

7. You recently tweeted something I found interesting: “I didn’t set out to write on sexism in sports/music – but in the fight for equality, they’re fronts that put discrimination in sharp relief.” The tweet suggests you feel some sense of responsibility or obligation to use your platform — even in sports or music or whatever — to call out injustice and fight for change. Where does that obligation come from? How do you respond to other sports writers who go out of their away to avoid these issues in their work?

I mean it’s totally a personal choice–you’ve got to write what you know and what you care about. For me, it’s less about a sense of responsibility than a compulsion to say something. I can’t help but care about inequality because I feel it every day and recognize that as a pretty well-off white woman I have it much better than most. This is probably going to make me sound like a righteously indignant crazy person, but it’s a privilege not to care about inequality in whatever realm you’re working in. If you genuinely feel like you can avoid it, it’s only because it doesn’t affect you.

8. If I’m not mistaken, you were a music major in college. That’s pretty cool. What instrument(s) do you play? Are you still playing? Moreover: How did your experience as a musician help you as a music journalist. Did it matter? Sports writers are often criticized for writing about games they never played. How does that dynamic play out in music?

I was! I played bass, not so much anymore though I still have my basses in my apartment. It’s an interesting question—being a musician definitely helped me as a music journalist, just in the way that I think it changes how you listen to music. I had slightly more familiarity with what it meant to be a musician professionally and more friends who were pursuing that path. But it just changes your perspective—sometimes I didn’t ask the “dumb” questions that people reading actually wanted to know the answers to. I think now as a sports writer, I’m in that position of not having tons of background on what I’m writing about. Best case, it makes you do more research and be more curious. That’s the thing that I think really matters as much as experience (in the field, not as a journalist)—curiosity. From what I’ve seen, all the best journalists just don’t stop asking questions, whether they sound dumb or not.

9. If you could, how would you change the way sports are covered? How about music?

In sports, I wish media didn’t trade in terrible takes…we’re at a point where the more outrageously and unabashedly wrong you are, the more successful you are. Expertise is a liability. That said, there are a ton of amazing journalists telling awesome stories that inspired me to make the switch to sports—there’s more room here for really thoughtful storytelling. With music, it’s just a question of money—I wish some rich person was willing to invest in an outlet that would push to cover music with the same rigorousness we cover sports, instead of fluffy profiles and Q&As + thinkpieces. I miss reviews as a matter of historical record—Billboard used to have 80-page issues every single week. There’s so much information in that archive that today is just floating around in chunks in random blogs on the internet. There’s no more real musical source of record, and it’s a huge loss.

10. You’re from Seattle. I’m jealous. Seattle is amazing. What do you miss most about Seattle now living in New York? What food does Seattle do amazing that just can’t be replicated over on the East Coast? Also: Starbucks: Yea or nay?

Seattle is cool, though it’s gotten oodles more expensive since I left in 2009. I honestly think I was born a displaced New Yorker, but I do miss the nature: mountains, forests, beaches…it’s all beautiful, and really accessible. The air smells cleaner. Food-wise, when I go back I always have to get Than Brothers pho, Caffe Vivace coffee, Dick’s (obviously), and Mexican from Rancho Bravo. They are not necessarily the best restaurants in Seattle, but they are the places I’m nostalgic for. The Walrus and the Carpenter opened after I moved, but it’s perfect, mostly because I’m an oyster fiend. West Coast oysters >>>>>>>> Starbucks was just omnipresent, so low-key yea. When I moved to New York, probably the biggest culture shock was that everybody just drank drip coffee.

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