A Q&A with Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated on writing a book, the Hall-of-Fame voting process and the biggest Cooperstown snubs

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 Jay Jaffe, a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and, now, a published author. His book, “The Cooperstown Casebook,” just came out, and it’s a must-read for anybody interested in the Hall of Fame. Here, we discuss Jay’s rise in baseball writing after starting his career as a graphic designer, the worst players to be enshrined in Cooperstown and whether writers should be allowed to vote for the Hall.

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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?

It was a very, very roundabout path. In college (Brown University), I started in engineering, switched to biology and fulfilled all the premed requirements with the intention of going to medical school. I kind of caught the writing bug, though, covering the local music scene, and after deciding I at least wanted to put off applying to med school for a while, I did an internship at a music tabloid called Boston Rock. Not only was I writing there, but I also learned how to use the layout software, which at the time was Adobe PageMaker. Soon I got a job doing that and put the writing aside while I embarked on about 14 years in the world of publishing and print design.

In 2001, about eight years into that journey, I wanted to learn some web design, so I made the Futility Infielder site as a container for my baseball blog. The short version is that my annual coverage of the Hall of Fame balloting got me noticed by Baseball Prospectus, for which I debuted in early 2004, became a columnist in 2005 (while still freelancing in graphic design) and finally was all-in on the writing as of late 2007.

2. Hey, you just had a book come out! That’s awesome. It’s called “The Cooperstown Casebook,” and if you care about baseball’s Hall of Fame, you should totally buy it! You’ve been a major voice in Hall of Fame voting for a long time, but why did you think this was the right time to pursue this topic in book form? Without giving away too much — people need to read it! — what do you think you had to say that was better said in a longer format?

The first time anyone pitched me on a Hall of Fame book it was my Baseball Prospectus colleagues, Christina Kahrl and Steve Goldman during the BP 2007 annual book tour. I came up with the title, “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Hall of Fame and Who Should Be In.” A colleague, Derek Jacques, supplied the catchy end of that subtitle, “Who Should Pack Their Plaques,” which everyone thought was hilarious and really fit within the spirit of my lobbing grenades at the whole mess. But at the time the book was just a concept and a cover that I designed, like one of those fake album titles.

In the winter of 2009-2010, BP suggested I make the Hall of Fame book a reality, and they would publish it. I went so far as to create an outline and start fleshing it out but realized that — not to put it too bluntly — there wasn’t enough money to make it worth my while, and probably not enough of an audience either. I was generally behind the BP paywall and not yet part of the BBWAA. I figured that I would probably only get one shot to do the book, and so I wanted to do it right, and that meant waiting until my profile was higher and my credibility greater.

Then things started happening to lay the groundwork. At the 2010 winter meetings (which I didn’t attend), I was accepted into the BBWAA. In 2011, MLB Network invited me to audition to be a guest on “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sabermetrics-themed show hosted by Brian Kenny. Suddenly, we were talking about JAWS and my Hall of Fame work on television! In 2012, Sports Illustrated hired me to write for its website on a daily basis, and later that year, Sean Forman agreed to host a WAR-based version of JAWS on Baseball-Reference, whereas I had been using BP’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and couldn’t even get a devoted space for that carved out on the site.

All of this stuff raised my profile and that of my work. SI let me do these 2,000-3,000 word profiles of every key BBWAA ballot candidate, and they dominated the baseball page during December and early January. After a couple years of that, in early 2014, an editor from Thomas Dunne approached me and said, “Hey, do you have a book idea?” As a matter of fact, I did. And I wanted not just to do a New Bill James Historical Abstract-like guide to the players in the Hall and the candidates using my metric, but to tell a few big stories — about the Veterans Committee, about steroids in baseball (which I’d written at length about for BP’s book “Extra Innings” in 2012), about historical levels of representation within the Hall and about the battle to get advanced statistics into the mainstream Hall of Fame conversation. All of those are things that take far more words than my daily dose at SI. I wanted to collect and polish it up with the idea that this would be a 21st century successor to the NBJHA and James’s “Politics of Glory,” his mid-1990s look at the Hall.

3. Before you were a baseball writer, you were primarily a graphic designer. Then you created a system called JAWS that has more or less become the accepted, seminal metric for determining whether a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. What sort of background or formal training did you have in statistics before creating your own stat? How does somebody go about creating his or her own stat? Does the baseball world need any more stats?

I was always good at math, spent my college years taking science classes of one stripe or another, getting exposure to the basics of statistics, but, really, that’s not a lot of formal training beyond understanding standard deviations, correlations, regressions, etc. My formal training was spending ages 8 to 18 surrounded by piles of baseball cards and baseball books, especially the Bill James Abstracts, learning to program VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, for the Apple II+, and creating a league for my Strategic Simulations Inc.’s Computer Baseball game, for which I ran every team and recorded all the stats.

(I should add here that I played baseball, too, but wasn’t even good enough for my high-school freshman team.)

I had written about the Hall at Futility Infielder a couple of times and it did exponential traffic relative to my piddling daily flow — thousands, rather than hundreds, thanks to being linked on Baseball Primer. When BP invited me to contribute, as fate would have it I had just undergone surgery to repair a torn labrum, and so I was at my parents’ place in Salt Lake City missing out on ski season. I spent the week around Christmas looking up the career WARP totals of every Hall of Famer via the BP player cards and entering them into a spreadsheet. It was dry and methodical, but I was fascinated, because the numbers brought these guys to life, at least for me.

I also tracked their peaks, which I defined as a player’s five best consecutive seasons, with special allowances for injury and military service. It wasn’t hard science; I was picking up on one of the several ways that James was aggregating his metric, Win Shares, to rank players in the NBJHA, and building off of a distinction he made in his first “Historical Abstract,” which is that in addition to ranking and considering players by their career totals you can define this shorter period when they were at their very best, their peak. It made sense when you think about Hall-of-Famers like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner. They’re not in there for 300 wins, 3,000 hits or 500 homers; they’re in because they had a shorter period of flat-out dominance. And they’re not the only ones elected because of that.

The metric, which wasn’t self-consciously christened JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) for another year, averaged the career and peak totals, the idea being that some players are in the Hall for one or the other and the inner-circle guys are there for both. By finding the average at each position (which I did by hand-cranking that spreadsheet), you can figure out if the candidate in front of you is up to the standards of those already in the Hall. For all of the complexity under the hood in WARP or WAR, there’s a simple elegance to JAWS, I think, and I’m very thankful that people caught onto it.

I later the changed the definition of peak from five consecutive years to best seven at large. Again, it wasn’t hard science so much as it was a sort of common sense and aesthetic preference. Go 10 years for peak and you may as well be using career totals; the answers don’t differ as much.

4. Your rise to prominence in baseball writing is clearly a product of the internet. You had your own blog, Futility Infielder, got noticed by other online publications, and the rest is history. There are others who followed a similar path around the same time, but you were clearly one of the pioneers. To what extent do you think this is still a viable model to be noticed, now that there is just so much more content out there? If you were just starting today as an “outsider,” how would you go about trying to rise above the noise and break through?

Man, I don’t know. I do think it’s important to find a venue where you write as often as possible, ideally every day, because writing is a muscle. You have to exercise it to strengthen it, not only to polish your craft but to push through those times when ideas just aren’t coming quickly enough, or coming together at all. Creating a blog is ideal for that, because nobody else is there to tell you what you can’t write. And if you do it long enough, you’ll hopefully catch someone’s eye with a particularly good piece of work and/or produce a body of work that impresses somebody else enough to ask you to write for them, and take it to the next level.

Now, is that the best way to get noticed circa 2017? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s still a valid one. At least now with social media you have a way to “advertise” what you’re doing that wasn’t there in 2001. You still have to find a way to break out beyond the people in your immediate circle and communicate with total strangers, but ideally that will happen through some combination of persistence and quality rather than — God help us — hot-take garbage that you might do just to scream for attention.

5. Your stat and your book both revolve around voting for the Hall of Fame. You’re something of an expert when it comes to deciding who should be in and who shouldn’t. Yet, you can’t vote for the Hall of Fame, which raises this question: How do you feel about the current process? Should the BBWAA be the sole voting bloc? Should writers vote at all? If so, why? If not, who should be voting?

From a self-interested standpoint, I’d love to be voting for the Hall already, but once I got inside the BBWAA and began playing by its rules, I accepted the fact that I was going to have to pay my dues just like everyone else, putting in 10 years before getting that ballot. They don’t let you vote early just because you’re the big Hall nerd, which is fine.

I get into this in the book, as you might imagine, but it’s important to remember that who votes for the Hall is the Hall’s decision. In 1936, it drafted the BBWAA to vote for recently retired players, because those writers were the ones who had seen them the most frequently. There was no television and even baseball on the radio was relatively newfangled. If you were designing it today, I think you would want to include the broadcasters, but then you run into a potential problem when they’re team employees, so you have concerns about independence and bias. So, what then? Only the national broadcasters, from the networks? And even if you let them into the process, what do you do about the 10-year “dues paying” that the writers go through? It’s only fair that they do that too, right? And so it gets complicated. Same if you were going to expand beyond the traditional baseball media to include, say, SABR scholars. I don’t have a problem if John Thorn or Bill James gets to cut the line, but the number of people deserving of that exception are very few.

But whatever the Hall does, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give living Hall of Fame players the vote. We saw what happens with that in the expanded Veterans Committee from 2003-10, which voted in exactly nobody from among the pool of postwar players. Nobody was good enough for their country club.

As to whether the writers should vote at all, I understand the position that some papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post impose, which is that their writers shouldn’t be the ones making the news. As I’m not a purist, I don’t feel that way. Hell, I wish the qualified writers from those two papers and a few others out there were part of the process. Please, let Tyler Kepner turn in a ballot, because he knows what the hell he’s taking about regarding the Hall of Fame!

6. Why do people get so darn worked up over the Hall of Fame vote? Seriously, every year it’s total chaos on the internet for a month, and some of the rhetoric from fans is ridiculously intense. What is it about this topic that gets to people? And what sort of feedback do you get, especially when JAWS doesn’t bode well for a particular candidate?

Because baseball has such a connection to the icons of its storied past, such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax, the Hall is a place that transcends the limitations of its geographic isolation. Practically every fan has some strong reaction to the Hall, whether it’s, “I don’t care,” or, “I don’t think [this guy] should be in,” or, “I can’t believe [this guy] isn’t in!” Fans can conjure up those plaques in their mind’s eye every time they take stock of greatness, and they want their experiences validated. They want to say, “I saw [this Hall of Famer] play when he was in his prime,” or something along those lines.

Because of that, and because of the increasing transparency of the voting — with more and more voters revealing their ballots either before or after the results are announced — the annual election season has become a spectator sport unto itself, a companion to the Hot Stove transaction chatter. As I discovered in my first winter of blogging (2001-2002), and particularly when I wrote about that winter’s ballot (pre-JAWS), fans love to read about baseball during the harsh winter months, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you. They want to be reminded that spring, and baseball season, is coming!

With the rise of social media, the process has certainly become more unruly than it was in the past, because readers have access to the voters and not only can tell them that their ballots stink but offer lengthy rebuttals to a given voter’s position. They want to hold voters accountable. To some extent, the expectation isn’t of a democracy but of a republic, with the voters representing the will of the people.

Certainly, not everybody — fan or voter — buys into JAWS. Some who disagree believe that the metric’s position on a given candidate debunks the validity of the entire advanced statistical movement and its adherents; we saw that with the Blyleven/Morris debate just as surely as we did in the Cabrera/Trout 2012 AL MVP race. In both of those, a lot of the rancor and petty, childish name-calling was from those in positions of authority, the voters, even some of the big names. Spink Award winners going on about “sun-starved stat geeks” and the “vigilante sabermetric brigade” and nerds living in mom’s basement. That just poured gasoline on the fire and produced a spectacle that now draws even more people to it.

7. Your entry into the world of baseball writing was certainly more from an analytical/statistical bent. You rose after being noticed by sites that focused on those areas, like Baseball Prospectus. As time has passed, you have moved to more mainstream outlets, like Sports Illustrated, and you have written a book. How important has it been for your career to make that shift? Do you consider yourself a baseball analyst who writes, or a writer who does analysis? Does this distinction even matter at this point?

It was important to make the move mostly because I couldn’t make enough money at BP for that to be my primary endeavor, at least not for very long. I was either a graphic designer moonlighting as a writer or vice versa, whereas I can make a living with SI as my primary outlet, and hopefully continue to supplement that income with more books. While it’s certainly a big deal getting access via my BBWAA card (which happened when I was still at BP), the shift in emphasis of analytics hasn’t been that drastic. SI brought me in less to do reporting and up-close-and-personal feature articles than to supply an analytical bent to the news of the day. As I was reminded just this past week, I’ve still got a ways to go as a reporter, in that I have to do better at getting into the mindset of looking for stories and honing my skill at getting players, coaches, managers or whomever to tell me something interesting and unique.

The bottom line is that I consider myself a baseball writer, perhaps more of an analyst than a reporter but somebody whose goal is to get better at every facet of what that entails.

8. Jared wrote a story earlier this year on the rise of voters revealing their ballots ahead of the Hall of Fame announcement, sometimes even before all votes have been submitted. What has this phenomenon done to Hall of Fame voting? Where is that line between wanting transparency and also wanting to maintain the integrity of the vote.

 As I said before, it’s turned the voting process into more of a spectator sport. You can go back through old newspapers during “ballot season” and see voters chime in on behalf of individual candidates, but it’s rare to find somebody dissecting the whole ballot for readers to see, in part because voters were very reticent to check off more than a few names because of dumb customs like distinguishing between first-ballot guys and the rest or ensuring that nobody is voted in unanimously. Over the past couple of years, thanks to the ballot-aggregating efforts of Darren Viola at Baseball Think Factory, Ryan Thibodaux at the Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, and even within the BBWAA, we’ve got maybe 50% of the electorate reporting their ballots in advance and 70% reporting once the results are in. In 2018, for the first time, it will be mandatory to reveal ballots after the results are in.

I’m all in favor of transparency. Transparency leads to a better, more fair process, and I don’t think it harms the integrity of the vote one iota unless you’re complaining about another dumb custom, which is writers throwing a personal favorite who’s a non-viable candidate — a David Eckstein — a token vote. Given how crowded the ballots have become thanks to the split in the electorate over how to handle PED-linked candidates, there are more than 10 players who meet the standards on any given ballot, and to waste a vote on an Eckstein-type player when, say, Tim Raines is running out of time in his eligibility is, to me, unconscionable and far more damaging to the integrity of the process.

It’s already true that consensus coalesces around a candidate once he reaches a certain percentage of the vote; Gil Hodges and Jack Morris are the only guys not on the current ballot who received at least 60% of the vote and never got in, and Morris will be up for a small-committee vote this winter. Even at 50% of the vote, you’re only talking about a couple more guys who have yet to be elected, and most of them — all except Lee Smith, if I recall — still have eligibility remaining. What this transparency does is speed up that coalescence, which is a good thing, because we should be honoring these players while they’re alive and around to enjoy it instead of waiting until they’re dead, like the voters did with Ron Santo. The personal vendettas involved there did far more to threaten the integrity of the vote than publishing ballots ever did.

9. Who are the three biggest Hall of Fame snubs? Who are the three most undeserving Hall of Famers? Which active player should be in the Hall of Fame that might surprise the average fan?

 Snubs:

  • Minnie Minoso, a pioneering black Latin American player whose entry into the majors was forestalled by the color line, a player whom Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda called “the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos.” He was simply one of the best ballplayers of the 1950s and early ’60s according to the advanced metrics.
  • Dick Allen, one of the premier hitters from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, very misunderstood by the Phillies organization, which had no clue as to the intense racism to which he was exposed in the minors and majors, and by the middle-aged white writers who couldn’t even be bothered to call him by his name of choice, Dick instead of Richie.
  • Edgar Martinez, the best designated hitter of all time, a player who even after WAR assesses the built-in penalty of DHing (which he did for 72% of his career, playing a very credible third base in the rest of the time), produced more value than the average Hall third baseman and the average Hall position player.

There are more on the current ballot than just Edgar, too. Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling (whose post-career self-immolation shouldn’t be relevant but has become so thanks to his insistence upon attacking the electorate), Larry Walker, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should all be in. I make the case for all of these guys in the book.

Undeserving:

Tommy McCarthy, a 19th-century right fielder who’s in not for his mediocre stats but for his popularization of the hit-and-run, the outfield trap play and the fake bunt. He should have been recognized as a pioneer, à la Candy Cummings, when the Old Timers’ Committee voted him in back in 1946.

Rick Ferrell, a 1930s-40s catcher who isn’t even close to being as good a candidate (or a hitter) as his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell.

And then a ton of players voted in by the Veterans Committee during the tenures of Giants and Cardinals second baseman Frankie Frisch (1967-72) and  Giants first baseman Bill Terry (1971-76) — those guys elected several former teammates from their era. Not only was it a high-offense era when .300 hitters were a dime a dozen (the entire NL hit .300 in 1930), but these guys had short-ish, low-peak careers, and the whiff of cronyism is unmistakable. Third baseman Fred Lindstrom, outfielders Chick Hafey and Ross Youngs, pitcher Jess Haines and some others from that wave rank among the worst at their positions according to JAWS.

As for active players, I’d point to Adrian Beltre, who’s now fourth in JAWS at the position and second on the defensive side to only Brooks Robinson. His late-career surge has carried him past the 3,000 hit mark, with over 400 homers (he’s one of 10 such players), so he’s probably a lock, but it’s just that fans and media have taken a long time to note his progress. The other I’d point to is Carlos Beltran, who lost some prime time to injuries and is vilified by Mets fans — and still, some in the media — for taking a single goddamn pitch for a strike.  He’s eighth in JAWS among center fielders, within a rounding error of the averages at the position. One of the rules of thumb with JAWS is anybody who’s in the top 10 at the position, even if they’re a whisker or two below the standards, is almost certainly worthy of enshrinement.

10. A few years ago, you ran in the Brewers sausage race at Miller Park. Wait, let me repeat that: You RAN IN THE BREWERS SAUSAGE RACE AT MILLER PARK. There are 100 questions we could ask about this experience, but in the interest of space: Um, can you please tell us everything about this experience? Like, no detail would be too minuscule.

Oh, that was so cool to do. Not quite as cool as getting to do “The Cooperstown Casebook” and having it receive the reception that it’s gotten but just a great moment that’s earned some bragging rights. I wrote up the whole thing for the Baseball Analysts blog back in 2005, shortly after I ran it. Incidentally, that was the blog of Rich Lederer, who led the grassroots campaign to get Bert Blyleven elected.

I ran as the Hot Dog on a Sunday afternoon, which means that unlike the other days of the week, it’s a relay where you tag a kid who finishes the race. We finished third, with Mark Grant, the former pitcher and current Padres color guy, leaving us all in the dust. Those costumes stink and are awkward as hell to move in and to see out of. Fearing crashes and torn ACLs, me and the other three contestants thought we had agreed that this would be “a Sunday jog,” but Grant, being the jock whose masculinity was apparently on the line, violated the treaty. I inadvertently traded paint with the German sausage, which was being run by the Twins’ CFO. You can see the video here.

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A Q&A with Wallace Matthews on covering boxing, avoiding hot takes and why he stopped voting for the Hall of Fame

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 Wallace Matthews, who’s currently writing for The New York Times. Wally has had a fascinating career, cutting his teeth as a boxing writer, transitioning to a columnist role and serving as a baseball beat writer. He’s one of the most passionate columnists working today, with a writing voice that you simply can’t ignore. Here, we talk about his attempt to make it as a professional boxer, his transition to journalism and what it’s like to quit a job in protest.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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 wouldn’t recommend my route into the business for anyone, but it worked for me. For one thing, I didn’t even go to college until I was 23. I was a fuckup in high school and decided I’d rather be a professional boxer than go to school, so I wasted five years pursuing that. Getting my jaw busted in a sparring session sent me a message that maybe I should try something else, although I was dumb enough to fight with it a week later.

Anyway, I chose to go to school in 1980 (C.W. Post on Long Island), didn’t know what my major would be and discovered to my surprise that writing was pretty easy for me. So I gradually moved into journalism hoping to someday become a political reporter. I wasn’t particularly interested in covering sports, other than maybe boxing. In my junior year, I applied for an internship at Newsday, which I didn’t get. They gave it to some guy I can barely remember. Name of Verducci or something like that. (Only kidding; Tom’s a good friend.) But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from someone named Bob Herzog, who offered me a part-time job in sports taking high-school scores. The pay was $8.75 an hour, which was a fortune in in 1983, so I grabbed it.

My first day on the job, I got The Talk that all Newsday part-timers get from Dick Sandler, the sports editor. Basically, it went, “You’ll never get hired here full time, so don’t even ask. Now go answer the phones.”

Two years later, he hired me to be his boxing writer.  (Mark Herrmann and Rich Cimini got hired the same day.)

What impressed him was that one day in between taking high-school scores, ripping wire copy and dummying pages, I made a phone call to Las Vegas and got Larry Holmes on the phone. He wound up telling me he was planning to fight Michael Spinks for his 49th fight, which would have tied Rocky Marciano’s unbeaten record for heavyweights had he won. He didn’t. But I did. Sandler rethought his attitude toward hiring part-timers. To this day, I remind Larry Holmes that if he didn’t like something I wrote about him, he had no one but himself to blame.

2. After about seven seasons at ESPN, you’re now freelancing regularly for The New York Times, mostly covering the Yankees and Mets as a backup to the beat writers. How much of a difference have you noticed at the Times, in terms of the types of stories you’re asked to write, the style of editing and the style of writing? How is covering a baseball team different for the NYT than it was for ESPN?

At its core, this job is the same no matter who you work for. There’s a game in front of you and a guy on the other end of a phone.

But there is no doubt that the Times is different from any other place I’ve ever worked. The editing is at a much higher level, and you know even before you hit the keys that whatever you write better be accurate. I can’t say that about some of the other places I’ve worked. The Times requires a level of detail that can sometimes seem trivial or annoying, but you come to realize there’s a method to it, and having worked with them for the past four months has given me a new appreciation for the accuracy of their work. Because of the fact-checking process they’ve put me through, I know when I read someone else’s story in the Times, I can trust the information in it.

Otherwise, there’s no real difference in coverage. It’s just better.

3. After leaving ESPN but before landing at the Times, you were doing some work for NY Sports Day, a small online outlet that covers local sports. In this space, we have talked a lot about writers working for free, for school credit or for well-below market value. Everybody has a different opinion on the practice. But most of those people have been younger writers, folks just starting out in their careers. What was that calculation like for you, an experienced writer with name recognition? Why did you think taking that gig was the right call, as opposed to publishing columns on a personal blog or a platform like Medium?

First of all, the site is run by a friend of mine, Joe McDonald, and I’m also friendly with a lot of the writers there. I’ve known Rich Mancuso forever, and Billy Coppola and Ray Negron. So I was happy to work with people I knew and liked. Secondly, I thought it was important to keep my hand I the game, for a couple of reasons. For one, I wanted to keep my tools sharp, and I thought continuing to write was the best way to do that. Also, since it was the fall and winter, I knew I would have the chance to write some things I had enjoyed doing before but hadn’t been given the opportunity to do at my previous employer, like boxing and NFL stuff. And at this stage of my career, I thought it was vital to keep my name out there and let editors know that I was far from finished in this business.

4. While you’ve been a baseball writer lately, you’re a boxing guy at heart. Not only are you one of the best boxing writers in America, you have some experience in the ring yourself! We’ve never had a boxing writer as a guest before. How would you assess the state of boxing coverage in 2017? How could it be improved? What caused the drop in popularity in boxing across the country, and what needs to happen for that to change?

There was a time, as you know, when newspapers put their best writers on boxing, which is why guys like Red Smith, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Cannon and A.J. Liebling did so much boxing. Now, as a niche sport, it lives mainly on boxing-specific websites, and while many of the people who cover it now are incredibly dedicated and tuned-in to the minutiae, it generally attracts young writers who haven’t really honed their writing skills to the level that used to be required of boxing writers.

So while there’s plenty of information out there, I think there’s a dearth of real knowledge. and boxing is one of the few sports I really think you need to have participated in to really understand. You can never understand the pain, fear, desperation and hopelessness — or the exhilaration and bloodlust — experienced by a boxer unless you’ve felt those things yourself. That’s what I always thought I brought to my boxing coverage. I felt what the fighters were feeling and, luckily, was able to communicate it.

The only real way to improve the quality of today’s boxing writers is for editors to start assigning their top guys to it again, but given the diminished audience for the sport and the obsession with page clicks, I don’t see that ever happening.

5. We recently had Jeff Gluck as a newsletter guest, where we talked about his decision to quit his job at USA Today and start his own website to cover NASCAR. It’s been a big success so far, with readers across the country showing a willingness to pay for Jeff’s top-notch coverage. It seems boxing is similar to NASCAR, in that it’s a niche sport with a rabid fan base likely looking for coverage. Do you think a similar start-up outlet for boxing could work? How much thought have you given to venturing out on your own with a boxing site?

I do, and it’s something that I have considered, because I think hardcore boxing fans are starved for quality, in-depth coverage with a sense of historical perspective that goes back a little further than the turn of the millennium. However, with a son in college and a daughter about to graduate high school, it’s a financial risk that I’m not prepared to take at the moment. Maybe sometime in the future.

6. It’s no secret you had a fiery exit from the New York Post in 2002, which was chronicled in this article in the Observer. Your departure from ESPN, at least publicly, was considerably more amicable. How much did you learn from the fallout of your Post exit? Would you have handled it differently if given another chance? What advice would you give to young journalists — or anyone, really — who feel like they’ve been wronged by their employer?

What I learned from my experience at the Post is that none of us in this business is indispensable. I had written a column that pointed out the moral hypocrisy of the Post, and they refused to run it without cutting out the parts that criticized the paper.

In my mind, it became a censorship issue and an integrity test. I gave them an ultimatum — run my column as I wrote it, or I quit — and thought that as their lead columnist for eight years, they would certainly acquiesce. They didn’t, and I had to keep my word, because I believe that a threat not carried out is as good as a death sentence. If you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t do it, no one will ever trust you or respect you again. So in that respect, I would do the same thing again, although knowing what I now know, I would not have made that threat in the first place.

My epiphany on this came a few months later when Dave Anderson had a column on the Masters killed by the Times. Unlike me, he didn’t insist on anything or make any ridiculous threats. He accepted the judgment of his bosses even thought he disagreed with it. That showed me something. If a columnist as accomplished as Dave Anderson could live with that, so could I.

What I would tell a young journalist is never to compromise your principles but be a little more diplomatic in your conversations with your bosses. Everyone is replaceable in this business, and if you’re going to die on a hill, make it the right one.

7. That same fiery personality is also what makes you such a fantastic columnist. You have genuine emotion regarding the topics you write about, and that passion spills out onto the page. It’s evident how much you care about what you’re writing. How important do you think that quality is for a columnist? How do make sure that you don’t drift into “hot-take territory,” something you never seem to do. In 2017, when everybody on the planet seems to have an opinion about sports, what makes for a good sports columnist that stands out above the fray?

Real passion is the only reason to write a column or to read one. Fake passion is easily detectable and the biggest load of shit in our business. The so-called “hot take” is some contrived bullshit designed not to inform, but to inflame, and those who engage in it can not be trusted because their opinions are not their own, They are solely created in order to get a reaction, and hopefully, page views. Sophisticated readers know the difference and steer clear of frauds who engage in that sort of nonsense.

I know that I haven’t always been right in my opinions, but I can honestly tell you I’ve never written a column I did not fully believe in at the time that I wrote it. Anyone who has isn’t worth your time as a reader.

8. If you could, how would you change how baseball is covered today? How about boxing?

Baseball needs to require its players to be in the clubhouse during media availability. In fact, if everyone was in the room for say, 30 minutes a day, there would be no need for a horde of media members to hang around for an hour just talking to one another. Everyone would get his and her work done in a reasonable amount of time, and I think we’d all get along better.

Boxing coverage, I think, is fine for the most part, mainly because the athletes are so much more accessible and media-friendly than those in our rigidly-controlled team sports. I do not like the trend, however, of moving the ringside press further and further away from the action and selling seats in front to high rollers. You can’t really cover a fight well if you can’t see it better than the guy in his living room.

9. In addition to you writing, you also have plenty of experience as a radio host, spending years doing a talk show for ESPN Radio in New York. What sort of background did you have in radio? How did you learn the skills? What are the biggest mistakes writers make when on radio? And how important has that radio experience been for your career as a journalist?

I had zero background in radio before I started hosting a drive-time show on ESPN up against Mike and the Mad Dog. The GM of the station thought I was a great guest and chose to give me a tryout. I thought I sucked at the beginning and gradually worked my way up to mediocre. But I must say it was the most enjoyable job I’ve had in media, and I especially liked it on payday.

In the beginning, hosting a radio show is like driving a car for the first time. There seems to be a million things to remember — check the mirrors, put it in reverse, hit your blinker, glance behind you, take your foot off the break — that it feels overwhelming, But with repetition, it becomes second nature, and after hosting the drive-time show for three years. I was able to slide back into the host chair after having not done it for 10 years and pick it right up again. Instead of driving a car, now it was like riding a bicycle.

I think a lot of newspaper guys are way too self-conscious on the air, either on radio or TV. they forget that the conversational skills and story-telling ability that make them good writers are the same things that make a good radio host. A successful talk show should sound like a conversation that your listeners want to join in on. But you can’t do that unless you’re loose on the air, and most writers I’ve heard aren’t.

I think if radio has taught me anything, it’s how to ask a question a little more diplomatically, because you never want to run the risk of having your guest blow you off on the air.

10. At NY Sports Day, you wrote one piece that certainly generated some attention: You announced your decision to stop voting for the Hall of Fame. You talked about how the experience of voting has gotten worse over the years. What led you to that conclusion? Should writers be voting at all? If not, who should?

I take Hall of Fame voting very seriously, because I know how much it means to the players, but over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to come up with a ballot that I could feel good about, for several reasons. The biggest, of course, is the eligibility of more and more guys who either used PEDs or could reasonably be suspected of it. And while I certainly hate to keep Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens off my ballot, I also can’t justify voting for players who may have accomplished their numbers or added to them by fraudulent or illegal means.

Plus, voting for the Hall has become a thankless task, between the criticism, which can get quite personal, from fans who disagree with your ballot, as well as the rudeness from some of the players to the media. In that column I told the story of a pitcher, a borderline Hall of Famer who I eventually voted for under pressure and persuasion from some colleagues, who after he got in, berated a bunch of reporters in my presence as “sheep.” (OK, it was Bert Blyleven.) I felt like telling him to go fuck himself and wished at that point I could have taken back my vote. Then, when Curt Schilling “joked” about lynching reporters, that wad the last straw for me. I don’t need to be a Hall of Fame voter to satisfy my ego or to impress strangers at cocktail parties, and it’s a lot of work to come up with an acceptable ballot. The “benefits” of it were far outweighed for me by the drawbacks. And thankfully, the Times doesn’t allow it’s reporters to vote for the Hall. So it’s all good.

BONUS: Mayweather-McGregor… thoughts?

My thoughts on Mayweather-McGregor? There are more suckers in this country than even I ever could have imagined.

A Q&A with Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs on his jump from a traditional newspaper, writing a book and why all journalists should understand how to use data

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 Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs. Travis spent a few years covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but now he’s killing it over at FanGraphs, bringing a mix of data analysis and traditional reporting to a website that traditionally has focused on statistics. Here, we discuss the importance of mainstream journalists understanding how to use data, the future of FanGraphs and where this era of Big Data is going next.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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 followed what was a traditional route, a path I am not sure exists any longer. After graduating from Ohio State in 2002, I spent a lot of time at FedEx-Kinkos printing off copies of articles, personalizing cover letters, scattering them off throughout the country in manila envelopes. I chose journalism later in my college career. I wasn’t savvy or aware enough to land a significant internship, so I started out at the bottom, covering preps for a small daily newspaper in Rocky Mount, N.C. The idea way back at the turn of the century was sort of like minor league baseball, to try and advance up the chain to larger markets. I moved on to Myrtle Beach and later the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, which was my first big break as it allowed me to write for a 100,000-circulation newspaper and cover a major Division I beat (Clemson football/basketball/baseball). I was there four years, which included the first full three seasons of the Dabo Swinney era.

All along, though, baseball was a passion, and I was particularly interested in the sabermetric side of the sport. I subscribed to Baseball Prospectus and have BP annuals dating back to 2006. I always wanted to write about baseball, but it’s tough to land a baseball beat position. So I was fortunate after nine years in the Carolinas to receive an opportunity to cover the Pirates and Major League Baseball for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was a hybrid baseball beat/enterprise guy four full seasons (2013-16). I covered about 100 games and was tasked with much of the Sunday enterprise content. In January I began working full-time at FanGraphs. 

 The model I followed, moving up the newspaper chain, I am not sure it is really viable any longer, given the state of the industry. The collapse of the print newspaper hit very close to home last fall as the Tribune-Review ceased its printing operation in most of Pittsburgh and the company had a number of layoffs. I felt fortunate to retain a job, but it also felt like I needed to find a new platform from which to write about baseball. Today, if feels like the Wild West out there, but I’d like to believe there will always be a place for quality reporting, storytelling and analysis. 

2. Your move to FanGraphs was a fascinating one and appeared to mark the start of a new era for the site: combining its already strong data analysis with real reporting from an experienced journalist. What do you think your hire says about where FanGraphs is going, and what appealed to you about the job there?

I don’t think FanGraphs is trying to go mainstream, but I do think it is appealing to a larger and more diverse audience than it was five or seven years ago. FanGraphs wants to grow and has grown. Data analysis will always be the foundation of the site, but data-based reporting has a place there, too, I believe. We are a website focused on analysis but also understanding — and understanding of process — so I think reporting can help there and the evolution is a natural one.

3. So you’ve been crushing it over there, producing a string of fascinating stories. Perhaps the most memorable is your ongoing series into baseball’s fly-ball revolution and the wholesale changes currently happening to the swing. What drew you to this topic, and what continues to interest you about it? What has the response been, both from folks inside baseball and the general readership?

That’s very kind of you. The air-ball revolution is fascinating to me for a few reasons. For starters, it seems like pitchers — evaluating their stuff through location, velocity and movement via PITCHf/x — and defenses (i.e. shifts and alignment) had the advantage early in the Big Data era. I think the data edge was one reason why the run environment was so depressed just a few seasons ago, Now with Statcast launch angles and exit velocities, it seems like hitters have some data tools with which to fight back. 

The other interesting element that you’ve written about, Jared, are the private hitting instructors outside the game.  They are an outside group fighting traditional hitting orthodoxy, which is always an interesting contest of wills and ideas. 

Basically, it just seemed like an interesting story that could be having a real impact along with what might be a juiced ball. The response inside the game has been mixed. There is still a fair amount of pushback within major league clubhouses from my experience, particularly from the hitting coaches employed there.  But I’ve come across some players that like seeing the message out there.  I’m surprised by the number of players that read FanGraphs. Joey Votto, Zack Greinke and Daniel Murphy are among the players I’ve encountered that check out our humble website.

4. In a media landscape where access to baseball players continues to shrink — and almost certainly will shrink further as time goes on — how important is it for the modern baseball writer to be literate in analytics and data analysis? How much resistance do you think still exists among the average baseball writer?

Being literate in analytics is, as you rightly note, is important in this era where access is becoming tighter. We have less access to players, fewer opportunities to ask about what is going on out of the field, so we require other means to evaluate performance and understand decision making. I think what has hurt the media-reporter relationship, also, is the technology and social media. Every smart phone has a video recorder that will record any misstep. 

As for the other point, there was quite a bit resistance from a segment of writers when I entered baseball writing in 2013. I was criticized for using fancy stats. But I have seen that resistance among writers dissipate each season. Writers that once scoffed at using WAR and FIP in analysis are now using Statcast readings in game stories. We’re reaching a greater acceptance level in regard to new-age stats, or perhaps what should simply be known as “better stats.” I think that acceptance level is a good thing. But I do think it’s important how you employ numbers; you don’t want to overwhelm people with them or use them just to use them. I find it best to use them to explain a process or phenomenon.

 5. Hey, you wrote a book a couple years ago! It’s called “Big Data Baseball,” and it’s a great look at how the Pirates went from being pitiful to being really good. Ever since “Moneyball” came out in 2003, it seems every team has tried to capture that magic formula, with varying success. What do you think the Pirates did that made them different and successful, and how did you go about outlining that in the book? How do you write a book that stands out among the crowd of books about baseball’s analytics revolution?

 That’s very kind of you, gents. The Pirates’ edge in 2013-15 was more communication and collaboration (and Andrew McCutchen) than anything else. They basically had the same access to information, and much of the same information, that other teams did — it’s just they were able to promote better buy-in and get more data-based concepts onto the field. The Pirates were the first club to have an analyst, Mike Fitzgerald, embedded with the team on the road. It helped break down barriers. Coaches and players would come to him and Dan Fox, who led the analytics department, with questions they had not considered. That collaboration helped not only get coaches and players to buy into defensive shifts, but to have the effect enhanced by sequencing and pitch type philosophies from coaches. That helped lead to record ground-ball rates.  It was top-down and bottom-up communication. Now, the Pirates did buy into pitch framing early (signing Russell Martin after the 2012 season), and they drilled beyond Francisco Liriano’s and A.J. Burnett’s shaky surface numbers to find value, but I think the lasting lesson of the book is that of the importance and value-adding nature of collaboration. 

Finding hybrid front-office staffers that are comfortable in the clubhouse and with spreadsheets is key. Open-minded coaches are a must. And like with anything, I think we’ve seen a number of clubs copy-cat the best practices.

6. One thing that has stood out in recent years is MLB’s effort to jump into the analytics fray. The league started Statcast and is clearly trying to take back a piece of the pie from all the amazing blogs and websites out there studying and analyzing baseball statistics. It’s good data, too! As an independent journalist, how do you reconcile wanting to write about data without simply promoting the MLB propaganda machine? What should be MLB’s role as analytics continue to become the mainstream?

 At FanGraphs, we’d love to see all Statcast data become available  — and BaseballSavant has a ton of wonderful data and tools — but I also understand that MLB pumped a ton of cash and man hours into the Statcast project, and they want a return in the investment. I personally do not feel like I am playing into the MLB propaganda machine when I cite Statcast data any more so than I do when I cite a player’s on-base percentage. At the end of the day, it’s not a perfect arrangement, but the information is giving us a better understanding of performance. Information wants to be free, right? So I suspect the public will have more and more access to the information. 

7. August Fagerstrom used to work for FanGraphs. He recently announced that he took a job with the Milwaukee Brewers as a baseball operations analyst, making him the latest writer to make the jump to the inside. He joins a large, successful group of folks from places like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus who have had great careers with major-league organizations. Why do you think teams view analytics writers as assets? How much of what you do every day do you think applies to what teams are doing? Would you ever consider such a jump?

I find this trend to be interesting, too. I asked Indians GM Mike Chernoff — who has hired a number of writers — this very question for The Athletic.

“The Baseball America hires, it was not a plan to go hire Baseball America people. We found exceptional people,” Chernoff said. “It’s probably more a credit to Baseball America and the type of people they are hiring. Guys who are really passionate about the game doing incredible work there and willing to put in unbelievable hours to continue doing that work. They had a very open- and learning-oriented mindset. I think writers often have that mindset.

“In any job we are hiring for, we are looking for passionate, curious people.”

I’d like to think many writers are curious and passionate. I would like to think I am curious and care about what I do. You hope it is an informed curiosity that leads to asking the right question, which is so important. 

I think some of what I do applies to what teams are engaged in in their front offices: Why or how is this working? What is the next big thing? Where might there be hidden value? Is there another way to think about this?  Asking those types of questions, I think, has a lot of cross-over what teams do. I create plenty of heat maps, too.

 8. If you could, what would you change about how baseball — and especially baseball statistics — are covered and written about?

I still think there is too much focus on the game story and game coverage in an era where every game is televised or streamed on the web. I think game coverage must be thought of differently. I think one danger of, say, Statcast is overwhelming people with information. We don’t need to know the exit velocity and launch angle over every ball in play. We don’t need to know the win probability at every point in the game. Everything in moderation, even stats.

 9. In addition to your work at FanGraphs, you’ve also done some writing for The Athletic, a new subscription site that has launched in several markets. That means you work for one free outlet and one not-free outlet. Why do you think those models work for the particular outlets? What other differences have you noticed in terms of strategy or approach between the two?

The free model works for FanGraphs since it has become a trusted analytical brand and draws significant traffic, along with a relatively lean but industrious full-time work force. The size of our “newsroom” and the lack of a print product makes FanGraphs’ model much different than much of traditional media. FanGraphs does needs clicks and content. The Athletic is eschewing advertising and a focus on clicks and is solely based on subscriptions. Like FanGraphs, The Athletic is seeking smart analysis, but it is also more of an outlet for traditional journalism and reporting. Basically, The Athletic is covering the same local pro beats that newspapers and other outlets have always done. We believe people will spend 10 to 20 minutes to read a well-reported, well-written piece even in the age of Twitter. The bet is as traditional outlets decline in some regional markets, people will want to pay for smart, thoughtful sportswriting. I think we are seeing it work in Toronto and Chicago. The Cleveland site has been well received from what I have been told and experienced. They are models at polar opposite ends the spectrum, but I think each model can succeed  because  they are serving specific audiences with leaner staffs. I hope they work. Society benefits from paid journalists.

10. You’re still a Pittsburgh guy as far as I’m concerned. Primanti Bros.: Local institution or gross mess?

Can it be both? I’m not a fan of many of the sandwiches, but they have an impressive amount of craft beer options on draft. So even if you’re not into french-fry covered sandwiches, there is something there for you.

A Q&A with Charlotte Wilder of SB Nation on her climb up the journalism ladder and writing about the “fringes of sports.”

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 Charlotte Wilder of SB Nation. Charlotte is something of a Renaissance woman. She’s a fantastic writer, an excellent photographer and truly versatile journalist perfect for the modern media landscape. Unlike many of our guests, she didn’t necessarily aspire to write about sports, but we’re all lucky that she wound up covering them. Here, we discuss her unusual career path, the stories she chooses to pursue and how to take a great food pic for Instagram.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. My mom was a journalist and used to bring me on reporting trips with her. She took me to a dog sled race in Wyoming, to see how churches in Venice get restored, to watch dancers from the wings of the New York City Ballet. I grew up watching this badass woman ask questions and tell stories in a male-dominated field. I never questioned whether it was possible.
I had to take a circuitous route to do it, though: I went to Colby College, which I loved, but it was limited in terms of connections to the media world.  When I went into the career center, the Very Important Career Man asked me what my dream job was. “On staff at Esquire,” I said. He goes, “Hmm, well we don’t know anyone in that world, but we do have a ton of connections to the insurance world in Portland, Maine!”
I also didn’t do myself any favors because I was focused on poetry and photography in college; I thought I was going to be a poet or get my MFA in fine art until I was like, “Wait…how does one be a poet? And why can’t I remember how to use Photoshop? And why am trying to do either of those things when all I want to do is go places and meet people and write about it?”
But I hadn’t had any summer jobs in media or been the editor of the paper or done any of the things you’re supposed to do if you want to work in this field. So during an internship I had at a literary agency right after I graduated, I’d finish my work by, like, 10 a.m., and then post on my blog that I’d started during my junior year of college — photos, essays, interviews — five times a day or so. It makes me cringe to read now (and it’s not online anymore so don’t even try to find it), but I loved doing it, people read it for some reason, and it got me freelance jobs at Boston Magazine. The catch-22 about breaking into this business is that no one gives you a chance if you don’t have clips, but it’s hard to get clips if you don’t have clips. My hope was that my blog would show I could write and was obsessive enough to do it on my own.
The landscape has changed so much that I don’t know if this career bushwhacking approach would work today, but six years ago it did — based on my blog and freelance work, America’s Test Kitchen hired me as a web editor for its TV show and its two magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country. I was there for about two years, then Boston.com hired me as a general reporter in 2014. USA TODAY Sports became aware of me and hired me away from Boston.com in March 2016 (when I officially became a sportswriter, I guess), and then SB Nation hired me away from USA TODAY after seven months. I’ve been at SB Nation since November 2016.
It’s been kind of a wild ride; I had three different jobs and lived in three different cities last year. But I haven’t taken a single day at any of these positions for granted, and I try to go as hard as I can, because I know it could all go away. I remember what it’s like not to have this career and desperately want it.
2. You do a lot of experiential, first-person work, which is awesome. Your story on going to the Kentucky Derby earned wide applause. It was great. We also liked other stories, like you watching WrestleMania for the first time. We enjoy them because you’re not lying to the reader that you’re some kind of expert or trying to fake your way through something you’re doing for the first time. Fresh eyes are a great way to explore a topic. Do you ever worry about reporting and writing about something you’re not familiar with? How do you balance the story being about your experience and about the issue itself?
Thanks, first of all, for the kind words. That means a lot, because I know that when I do a “stranger in a strange land” type of piece it’s a very fine needle to thread. My nightmare is coming across as though I think I know someone’s home better than they do or sounding condescending. I think that’s why I turn to humor a lot with my work in general. I find making jokes a much more effective way to cut someone powerful down or expose something than standing on a soapbox.
When it comes to writing one of those pieces, though, the first thing I do is assume that I know absolutely nothing. I research the hell out of what I’m covering before I get there (except WrestleMania — went in totally blind to that for the effect of being totally blind). I read everything on the Derby that I could find and talked to a lot of people from the area and some folks involved with the race before I went there. I always want to honor the places and people I write about by being as well informed as I can be, and, once I get there, by asking as many questions as possible, even the ones that seem obvious. Asking obvious questions is, I’ve found, when I get the most surprising answers.
I think writing about subjects I have no expertise in is effective because it makes me question certain things that people who do know them have taken for granted. I also try not to have an agenda or a preconceived notion of what I’ll find when I go somewhere — I’ll have an idea, of course, about where the story will go, or what the themes will end up being, but I’m always thrilled if I get somewhere and find out that I was completely wrong. Being willing to scrap an idea and pivot depending on what you find is a the key to being a good and honest reporter, I believe.
I don’t ever want a story to be about me; I’m not the point. I try to use my lens and my experience of attempting to figure something out as a way to bring the reader along on that discovery process. I hope that’s how it comes across. I don’t know if it always does. I’m sure there are people out there who think I’m a hack who writes about herself, but fingers crossed that it lands more often than it doesn’t.
3. A quick Google search for your name shows that you’ve worked at and written for a lot of places before reaching SB Nation (including America’s Test Kitchen — what was that like?!). Is it fatiguing to have spread yourself across so many outlets? Also, our sense is that journalism’s business model will leave fewer full-time jobs available and lead to much more freelancing, leaving writers to be much more self-sufficient. What is the freedom in having more versatility and the difficulties in not having a true home that gives you benefits and a set salary?
Well, I do have benefits and a set salary. I only freelanced full time for about six months when I was fresh out of school — other than that I’ve been full-time on staff at every outlet I’ve worked at, for which I am beyond grateful. I know that’s rare these days. I haven’t felt fatigued, though; if anything it’s been invigorating to get to write about so many different things at so many different places and work with a variety of editors.
I feel so lucky to work with so many people I love at SB Nation,and to feel like they believe in the stranger things I try to do. They send me around the country so I can tell stories. It’s my dream.
4. You’ve written a lot about non-sports stuff — art, food, trains — which makes me jealous. How do you think writing about different topics and issues improves your writing? Do you think that kind of variety should be encouraged? Especially for sportswriters — to get their head out of writing about transactions and games and try to see the world a little? 
Well, until I worked at For The Win, I wasn’t a sportswriter. They kind of took a chance on me — Nate Scott, who’s a fantastic editor, was there at the time, and he vouched for me, even though I don’t think I even knew who James Harden was at that point. My background is in culture writing and general reporting; I wasn’t really a huge sports fan before I entered this world. I liked sports, and I understood sports, and I played sports, but I wasn’t immersed in the news cycle. I didn’t really pay attention or watch that many games, to be honest. It was kind of a leap of faith to make the jump into this field.
Learning the characters, the narratives, the storylines of this insane industry was like drinking from a fire hose those first six months; it kind of felt like getting a master’s degree in sports. I’m up to speed now, but at the beginning I was like… who the hell is D’Angelo Russell and why is Nick Young mad at him and what does this have to do with basketball? My editors at FTW were very patient with me as I Googled every single person in the news hits I had to write. And I’m sure I still sounded like a total moron early and often in the beginning.
Veering into sports has been, hands down, the best decision I ever made. I love sportswriting because it can encompass so much. I joke that “____ is sports” on Twitter a lot, but it actually came from a pretty earnest place. Sports isn’t everything, but it is a lot: I mean, look, I get to write about “The Bachelorette,” I got to go cover the Super Bowl, I wrote about Kentucky Derby… I’m working on a story about fishermen in Maine right now. The stories in this world can be as silly or as serious as you want them to be.
When it comes to subject matter, I’m not picky; I just want to write about things that people care about, or take them into a world they don’t yet know they care about. People always care about sports, and they’re often a huge part of the national conversation. I always feel like I’m in the mix.
But, to answer you question: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of value in writing about something you don’t know because it forces you to really dissect something and make an effort to understand it. If sports is what you know, maybe get outside it for a story, or write about an aspect of the games you cover that you normally wouldn’t. Sports still surprises me that way. For example; the NBA draft lottery rolled around and I was like, “Wait, that’s how this works? That’s so dumb.” And my coworkers were like, “Ha, we just accepted it because it’s what we’ve always done, but you’re right, it is dumb. Write about how dumb it is.” So I did.
Get outside your bubble every once in awhile, because when you go back into it, it’ll make you look at the things inside with a different lens.
5. So, apparently, you worked at a job for literally one day then quit. What was the job? What were the circumstances? What do you consider when you’re switching jobs?
Ha, oh man, where did you find that? Did I say that publicly somewhere? Guess I did. Man, I can really run my mouth. Well, here’s the story: After my internship at the literary agency, I was like, “Hmmm maybe I should get a job so I can, you know, move out of my parents’ house and feed myself.” So I convinced an email marketing startup to create a position for me — me! A 22 year-old kid! I showed up on the first day and spent the whole time posting on my blog. I realized I didn’t give two shits about email marketing as I sat there — I was almost blacking out because I got so panicked, thinking, “I’M SUPPOSED TO BE A WRITER!”
My boss called me into her office and was like, “I’m so glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll be just as passionate about email marketing as I am.” I looked up and there was this big-ass word cloud above her desk that said, “Do what you love” and “Live the dream” and all of that. I remember calling my mom and being like, “You need to meet me at this bar after work because I need a drink.”
I got there and my mom had a glass of wine waiting for me and I was like, I can’t go back, I need to be a writer, I really think I can be a writer. She was like yeah, I agree. So I sent the company an email saying I didn’t want to waste its time. The company was like … are you serious? It’s been a day. And I said, “Yeah, goodbye forever.”
From there I convinced a few small businesses to pay me to do their social media while I worked on my blog until I eventually got hired by America’s Test Kitchen (the social media stuff was such a racket — I’d, like, schedule tweets on TweetDeck and call it a day). Oh, there were also three weeks at a PR firm in the mix there, but that’s a whole other story. Basically: I was kind of a con artist in my early 20s, but hey, it all worked out in the end.
6. You said once of your career that “my story is one of privilege.” You lived with your parents after college in pursuit of a writing career, worked on your personal blog and tried to get everything up and running. Obviously, that worked out well for you. Breaking news: Going back to living with your parents after college kind of sucks, especially if your friends have jobs and apartments. But it seems like that’s kind of normal for young writers, especially since jobs are hard to come by and salaries keep getting depressed. What was the calculus you made in choosing how to pursue your career and the financial toll that would take? Any advice you’d offer to people just out of school or about to graduate who might need to figure out these same decisions?
Yeah, mine is definitely a story of privilege. My parents let me live at home and eat their food for a year while I got my career off the ground. It was a huge help not to have to pay rent as I scraped together clips and worked on my blog. I was able to devote all my time and energy to getting where I wanted to go because my family was financially able and willing to support me.
I often tell people who reach out and ask for advice about doing this job that this career is more of a compulsion than it is a choice. You can make so much more money doing something else. Almost any industry is more stable than media right now. This is something you do because you love it so much that you can’t see yourself doing anything else. Because you start blacking out when you try to take another job in email marketing. I think you  have to be a little bit nuts and a whole lot driven.
So if you have that drive, and you’re determined to do it, go for it. Sure, it’s a shitty time in the industry, but there are jobs, and if you’re multi-faceted — and can do stuff like video editing, podcast editing, social, in addition to writing — that increases your chances of getting hired. But you have to work your ass off, and it will become very clear to you very soon if you’re willing to do that.
This is such a competitive field. That said, talent does rise. I’d suggest developing your voice and making what you do very clear. I write about the fringes of sports and have kind of found this strange lane, which helps differentiate my work, I think. That’s been helpful for my career.
I hate when established writers tell kids “Don’t do this,” because a ton of people said that to me when I was trying to get my foot in the door, and I was like … no, I’m going to do this. Telling me not to do this isn’t going to stop me, it’s just going to make me determined to prove that I can.
So I say: Do it. Try your hardest. But know what you’re getting into, and that it’s probably going to require a ton of work for not a ton of money for a while.
7. It seems like you have real photography skill and have invested time and money into it. But also, you have a vibrant Instagram account. I’ve read you talk about food photography and especially the food pic on IG. Let’s try to settle this once and for all, because I think Jared and I have had this conversation before: Is the food pic pretentious? Even if it is, what’s the key to a great food pic? And what’s the most shame you’ve ever felt while taking one?
Yeah, I thought I was going to be a photographer for a while, and I still take a lot of the photos for my features. But in terms of food pics, I don’t know…I think they’re pretentious if you’re a douchebag. If you’re a nice person and you’re like, “Hey, check out my avocado toast!” then who cares? (But I guess that’s how anything works…if you suck I’m probably going to hate your Instagram). I don’t know, man, I guess I just generally don’t really care what other people do if it isn’t harmful to anyone else. If you want to Instagram your Pumpkin Spice Latte, go for it. Do what makes you happy. Am I going to make fun of that photo of your acai bowl? Yeah, I am. But don’t let that stop you.
Yes, I feel like a total asshole when I stand up at a fancy restaurant and take an aerial shot of a goddamn pizza. I post fewer food pictures now, but the key to a good one? Probably good light. But the key to a good picture of anything is good light. Maybe, like, an array of plates. Some runny egg yolk. A big ol’ piece of bread flanked by wine glasses. Go nuts.
8. You wrote a fantastic story about the Patriot’s Trump problem. What was the feedback you received for that story, not only on Twitter — I’m sure I can guess how that went down — but also from your friends, family and your community? As a native Bostonian, what was that story like to write and also to put the place you represent under a microscope?
Oof, that was a doozy. I actually don’t like to talk about the fallout that much because it all came from one radio station in Boston and I don’t want to start the feud back up again. But it got really nasty and personal and definitely felt like it had to do with the fact that I am a woman. I think I’ll write about it someday, because it got at a lot of things that drive me crazy about this industry and that I think are worth exploring. For now I’ll just say that I got a barrage of garbage on Twitter, and my parents got hate calls from angry listeners at their house in Massachusetts and had to go to the police, and it was truly awful.
The more rational reaction aside from that, though, was mixed. I had some friends in Boston who were like, “Yeah, I agree, the team’s connection to Trump is a problem for me.” But I had others who were pissed that I wrote it, who felt that I was accusing them of being bad people if they still liked the team, which I wasn’t. What bothered me the most was that some people took it as an opinion piece rather than reported analysis, even though I never said how I felt about all of it. Sure, I hate Trump, but I didn’t include my views on the team’s connection because I was really conflicted; I still loved the team through it all.
But to answer the second part of your question: When it comes to writing about a place I’m from, that’s the only time I feel like I know what I’m talking about from any point of any expertise. You asked earlier about writing about stuff I don’t know, and I honestly feel that way with every piece that isn’t about the culture of Boston, or Maine, where I lived for a while. Or the boating world which I worked in from the time I was 15-22 in the summers. Or Boston sports, or poetry, or hot dogs. I have a few things I know, and writing about them allows me to really get in there and root around in the psyche of the people who live in the place or do the thing, because I have the context and shared experiences to be able to understand it from the inside out rather than the outside in.
The stakes can feel higher when I write about what I know. There’s as much pressure to do what I know justice as there is with writing about something I’m unfamiliar with, but this time, if I mess up, my friends and family are pissed rather than strangers. You only get to write about home so many times and I care about home more than anything. I don’t want to fuck it up.
9. What, if anything, do you think should change about the way sports is covered?
I wish there were more positions for writers doing ambitious, big work that takes time. I also wish it didn’t feel like the industry were burning down around us; every day it seems like writers I’ve admired forever are getting laid off or fired because people high up are making stupid decisions that don’t make sense. I know at some point in my career I’ll be laid off — I just hope that there will be a job for me somewhere else when that happens. Or maybe I’ll just say to hell with it and become a lobsterwoman in Maine.
I am so, so, so, so lucky to be in a feature-writing position. But most jobs come with quotas, or a certain amount of requisite blogging, to drive traffic.There are a lot of young writers getting ground down by the blog mines and the daily churn of the content factory who aren’t getting a chance to develop storytelling chops, or to work on more ambitious projects because places won’t fund them.
You gotta drive traffic; I get that. I just wish it weren’t so grueling for so many people (and that so many spectacular people didn’t keep losing their goddamn jobs). I certainly put my time in doing that, but it kind of turns you into a shell of a human after you put 5,000 on the internet that you wrote in the span of eight hours and then go home to work on a feature because you want to show people you can, and if you don’t do it when you’re not blogging, when are you going to do it?
That’s not sustainable. This industry needs to be better at supporting development for writers more. Editors matter. Don’t cut those positions.
10. You’ve done several tag-along stories with athletes as they do some kind of promotional appearance and you get some time with them. With David Ortiz. With Noah Syndergaard. Whatever the hell JD & The Straight Shot was going for. How do you get these guys to break down a little? And what’s your approach when you know they’re just trying to sell product (or give the impression they definitely don’t know who the Knicks are drafting)?
I said earlier that I use humor a lot to try to upend a situation and make people think about something differently. I definitely do this with athletes, too; I’ll make a joke off the bat, try to make them feel comfortable with me. They’re usually so guarded, and rightfully so. I want to make it clear to people that I won’t ever actively try to screw them over. I will, however, report the truth, so if you end up screwing yourself over, I’m not going to save you. I try to call it like I see it.
In terms of promotional things, I get that this business, when it comes to access, is often based on PR stuff. So if I have an opportunity to hang out with Ortiz and it’s because of a book signing, fine. But I’m never going to write the, “buy Ortiz’s book” piece. I’m going to write the “here’s what I think I learned about Ortiz by tagging along to a book signing.” And I usually turn down blatant product pitches — the only reason I did the Syndergaard thing is because I thought it was so funny that he’s sponsored by Cholula. Who gets sponsored by HOT SAUCE? It cracked me up, so I went to try to figure it out. And it turns out the dude just loves hot sauce.
I also think I have a knack for getting people to play along with me, if that makes sense. Once someone realizes I’m not out to get them, they’re more willing to joke around and have a fun conversation. I love talking to people and figuring out what makes them tick, so spending time with athletes is kind of a challenge; can I get this person to open up? And if they do, can I do justice to what they say? And if they don’t, can I at least get something funny out of it, even if it ends up being, “Hey, look how silly I was for thinking I could get this person to talk to me.”
I believe in being self-deprecating. Self-awareness is key in this business; if you’re willing to make yourself look silly and laugh at yourself and have fun with the work, I think people are more willing to listen to you on the occasions you ask them to take you seriously.
Bonus question: Who is the most famous Charlotte Wilder? Any relation to the poet?
Ha, yeah. The playwright Thornton Wilder was a relative somehow, and his sister Charlotte was a poet. She’s who the Wikipedia page for Charlotte Wilder references, which cracks me up, because the last sentence is “Charlotte Wilder suffered a mental breakdown in 1940, the repercussions of which lasted until her death.”
I’m like…yeah, sounds about right. If I ever get my own Wikipedia page I’m going to edit that same line in.

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.

A Q&A with Jeff Gluck of JeffGluck.com on venturing out on his own, his connection with readers and covering NASCAR in 2017

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 Jeff Gluck of the new JeffGluck.com, a one-stop shop for all things NASCAR. Jeff recently left his job covering NASCAR for USA Today and decided to venture out on his own. He’s now covering NASCAR through his own site, which is funded by reader contributions. It’s a fascinating model, one that’s likely going to continue to pick up traction as time passes. That’s why we wanted Jeff as a Q&A guest. Here, we discuss the formation of site, how it’s going so far and how to make a venture like this work.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

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?

During my freshman year of college at University of Delaware, I was thumbing through the course catalog for spring semester and stumbled across a class that seemed too good to be true: sports writing. In the course description, it said students would be required to attend a Philadelphia Phillies or 76ers game during the course of the semester to “cover” the event. Required? As an avid sports fan, that sounded amazing to me. Unfortunately, it was an upper-level class, so I had to beg the professor to let me in. That man, Bill Fleischman, is responsible for my career. He allowed me to take the class on the condition I start writing for the school newspaper at the same time. I’d never considered myself much of a writer, but something clicked when it came to writing about sports.

As far as being a NASCAR writer, that’s a path I would have never imagined growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I certainly had no interest in NASCAR all the way through college and poked fun at those who liked a sport consisting of all left turns. But at my first newspaper job in Rocky Mount, N.C., the sports editor urged me to cover a race two hours away in Rockingham. Once I experienced a race in person, I realized why NASCAR was so interesting to people: The scale of the tracks, the speed, the sound and the access were all very attractive to a sports fan. Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a NASCAR writer no matter what it took and spent the next few years working my way up the ladder through various jobs.

2. How did you know it was the right time to venture out on your own? You’re not the first sports reporter to try a solo endeavor like this, but there still isn’t much precedent for it. How much apprehension did you have, and what did you see as the pros and cons?

In the months before I decided to leave USA Today, my bosses had made it clear they needed a NASCAR writer in Charlotte. That’s understandable, since most NASCAR teams and drivers are based there. But my wife, Sarah, was trying to become a child life specialist at a children’s hospital — and those positions are not easy to get. We knew we would have to expand the search well beyond Charlotte if she was going to land a job somewhere. So essentially, the choice wasn’t that difficult: career or family. And especially since Sarah was trying to help sick children and my profession was writing about cars going in circles, it seemed like a no-brainer.

But even though the decision was obvious, it was still terrifying. I felt like I was jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Journalism jobs aren’t easy to come by in general, let alone in NASCAR where the media corps have been shrinking over the last decade. I knew there were a lot of readers who would be willing to help me — thanks to Twitter — but I was very worried the scale wouldn’t be enough to support a full-time career once I started my own site. In the back of my head, I came to terms with driving Uber or working at Starbucks while writing on the side in order to get the new venture off the ground for a year or two. But I underestimated the response from people willing to support my coverage.

3. One thing that’s particularly interesting about your site is… it’s free. You aren’t charging for content, but are soliciting, essentially, donations through Patreon to keep the coverage coming. Why did you decide to go with that model? To what extent do you think this is the future of journalism — a small group of readers funding the enterprise almost as a public service?

There’s a sports writer in Pittsburgh, Dejan Kovacevic, who has an extremely successful website that uses a subscription model. At first, I thought of doing something similar and putting all my content behind a paywall. (EDITOR’S NOTE: We had Dejan as a previous Q&A guest.)

Ultimately, it didn’t feel right for a couple reasons. One is NASCAR has a very blue-collar fan base, many of whom said they couldn’t afford cable when many races started airing there. So if they couldn’t spend any extra money to watch their favorite sport on TV, they probably also didn’t have extra money to spend on supporting a writer whose content was previously free. That seemed like a slap in the face to my readers: Thanks for clicking on my links over the years, but now you have to pay to read them.

In addition, the prospect of putting a ceiling on what I wrote didn’t seem to bode well for future interviews. For example: Why would a driver consent to a one-on-one interview if it could only be read by a few hundred people?

4. Obviously, everyone is looking for the pay model of journalism that works. We all need to make money. To what extent do you think what you’re doing can work not only on an individual level, but as something that could scale up into a news organization?

I don’t think it’s necessarily about the individual over an organization — although the personal connection helps. But really, this model would work anywhere there’s a niche. It’s about community. Whether that’s a local sports team or news about a specific topic (like the environment or personal finance), readers will rally around outlets they know are trustworthy and will consistently provide content they find valuable.

5. What makes NASCAR the right sport to attempt something like this? How much of your success do you attribute to the fact that it’s NASCAR, as opposed to, say, college football. To what extent do you think a solo venture like this could work with other sports?

Building off the last question, NASCAR as a sport is sort of a tight-knit community. If you see someone driving down the road with a New York Jets sticker on their car and you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, you don’t think, “Oh, there’s another NFL fan like me!” But if you see someone with a driver’s sticker on his or her car — even if it’s not the driver you root for — you identify with that person as a fellow NASCAR fan. In that sense, it’s the same effect as a local sports team. This likely wouldn’t work as well for a general NFL writer or a national NBA writer, because the audience might be too broad.

6. One thing that sticks out about your coverage is how you involve the readers in your content decisions. It’s not like it used to be, where publications decide what to write, and put it out there for readers to judge. You, for example, polled your readers about whether you should attend the Indy 500 or the Coke 600, and used the response accordingly. How important is it in modern journalism to maintain that conversation with the audience — to be a person, not just a byline?

My readers now are also my bosses. I’m writing directly for them, so I want to make sure whatever I produce — whether it’s stories, interviews or podcasts — is not wasting their time. Because if they don’t like what I’m doing or are no longer interested, my Patreon pledges could easily go away.

But in general, I’ve always felt an organization’s readers should be treated the same as customers. That’s why the race to the bottom with chasing clicks bothers me so much. Executives at large media companies are so obsessed with page views that they’re willing to sacrifice trust and credibility with their readers for a short-term gain. By tricking or teasing readers into clicking on something, it discourages them from coming back regularly. Why would a news outlet intentionally waste its readers’ time by playing games with links? Don’t use clickbait, just give them the information. Readers will be loyal in return.

7. How much harder is your day-to-day job now that you’re not with USA Today? How has access changed? How about just your quality of life outside of work, in terms of stress and hours and the like?

I’m definitely working longer hours than I ever have in my life, but much of that is because my job is now different. At USA Today or SBNation.com, the job was 90 percent producing content and 10 percent interacting on social media or building relationships with readers. Essentially, any reader interaction top of the content was a bonus. But now that’s not the case. Maintaining a conversation with the audience and making connections with it is equally as important as actually writing a column or recording a podcast. It’s crucial for me to express my genuine appreciation for the readers, because they are literally providing me with an income. So whether it’s writing back to emails, participating in a Facebook group, responding to direct messages — or even texting with some readers — the communication takes a lot of time. I’m still trying to figure out the balance. At the same time, I’m enjoying the job more than ever because of the personal relationships with readers; I’ve made genuine friendships through this.

8. How much of a boon was the Kyle Busch video for you and your site? Since you’re not going off a traffic/hits model, what effect did that have? Was the benefit just to get your site’s name out and, we assume, more contributions? How does stuff like that impact your business model?

If there was ever a time to go viral, that was it. NASCAR fights are fairly rare, and I certainly didn’t expect to record one when I pulled out my phone to follow Kyle Busch down pit road. But the effect was massive for me in two ways: First, it showed value to my existing audience because I would not have been at that race had it not sent me their with it pledges. So I think that reinforced the decision to support me.

Second, it was obviously a huge boost in terms of publicity. I decided to give away the video to any outlet that requested it, as long as it provided credit. Although it’s difficult to measure what impact it had, I’ve had several people in the months since tell me they had never heard of me before the fight video.


9. It seems like you have a particularly good relationship with the drivers you cover. You got a nice little double-take when you debuted your new outlet. And we’re hoping we’ll get one of those hats when they come off the production line. Are NASCAR drivers more personable that most athletes? Is that a reflection of the access you get?

Ha, no hats yet! But NASCAR drivers are mostly a pleasure to work with, and the primary reason is the sponsorship aspect of racing. Without a sponsor, drivers have no job (unless they’re independently wealthy) — so it’s vital for them to appear marketable and accessible. Sure, they all get cranky at times — it’s a high-pressure situation racing door-to-door at 200 mph while sealed inside sweltering cockpits — but for the most part, they need the media because it gives them a platform to talk about their sponsor. In addition, there just aren’t that many beat reporters who cover NASCAR anymore — so most of the drivers know all the media members by name.

10. We both live in the New York metropolitan area where NASCAR isn’t exactly part of the sports footprint. How much of your coverage is regionally based to areas where people love racing, and how much attention do you see for the sport in New York or L.A. or cities we wouldn’t normally identify as NASCAR-friendly? And how would you sell the sport to get new fans paying attention?

The statistics probably don’t back this up, but I feel like I have as many readers from non-traditional NASCAR markets — California, New England, the upper Midwest — as the South. I just moved to Portland, Ore., — where my wife ended up getting a job — and put out a call to Twitter followers in the area to meet up for a NASCAR viewing party at a sports bar. We had about 15 people show up to watch the race, which I thought was a pretty decent number and not exactly something you’d see on “Portlandia.”

But there’s no doubt NASCAR isn’t as popular in the cities as in rural America. There’s no easy answer to solving that. NASCAR has been trying to overcome the redneck stereotype for years, but it persists and is a turnoff for potential new fans. In reality, though, the drivers themselves are almost all from outside the South these days. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a SoCal dude who grew up outside San Diego. The three most recent champs other than Johnson are from California (Kevin Harvick), Las Vegas (Kyle Busch) and the Detroit suburbs (Brad Keselowski). The best two drivers of this season are from the Sacramento area (Kyle Larson) and New Jersey (Martin Truex Jr.).

NASCAR can’t just convince people to start tuning in, though — it has to be something people decide on their own. The best idea might be a long-term play: Get drivers into elementary schools for appearances, give away youth tickets by the bunches and start building a new generation of race fans.

A Q&A with Daniel Roberts of Yahoo Finance on covering sports media, the cuts at ESPN and the “daily hamster wheel” of 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 Daniel Roberts, a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Daniel writes about a bunch of different industries, but he has done particularly great work on sports business and media and technology. Here, we discuss with him how he wound up covering sports business, what it’s like to cover layoffs and his thoughts on the recent cuts at ESPN. Daniel has fascinating insights into the world of journalism that I have no doubt you’ll want to read.

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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?

This is what I wanted to do from as early as middle school, which sounds extremely lame and sentimental but is the truth. I wanted to write feature stories for a print magazine. So after Middlebury I went straight to J-school at Columbia. (Boring, and I don’t recommend J-school to younger people when they ask me advice, because of the prohibitive cost and debt, but 2009 was a bad job-market year, and it did work out well for me.) From there, my first job was at the Bronx Times Reporter, a hyperlocal paper in the Bronx that was owned by News Corp.; our stories ran online at the New York Post website. From there, I went to Fortune Magazine, was there for more than five years, and then jumped to Yahoo Finance in 2016.

2. Before you came to Yahoo you managed Fortune’s 40 Under 40 franchise. It’s always a wonder to me how a series like that comes about. Doing it once seems hard and political, let alone doing it annually. What is it like to put one of those together? How much politics is involved? How much are you being lobbied by people who want to be on it?

The entrepreneurs and executives themselves don’t lobby, but their PR/comms people do—relentlessly. Unlike numbers-based lists like the Forbes 40 Under 40, or the Fortune “Best Companies to Work For,” which is led by an outside firm, the 40 Under 40 was an editorial product, meaning subjective, and that was both freeing and stressful. Our decisions were rooted somewhat in numbers like revenue, employee base and number of users, but also in hard-to-quantify judgments about buzz and potential. Many of the businesspeople that made the list were founders, and their startups were still new and rising and certainly not profitable yet, so it wasn’t always easy to determine whether they belonged, and if so, where they should rank. It made for lots of juicy debates among the Fortune staff. (Perhaps that’s all a long way of saying: Yes, of course the process was political, but we tried our best to also keep it fair, defensible, etc.)

3. What is covering the sports-media landscape like at this time? It seems like no company is really too sure about its business model—it’s all mostly a best guess, rather than concrete. Do you find the execs to be realistic or optimistic or pessimistic? And how do you find those execs to be different from those you’ve covered in other areas?

I think sports media faces the same problems the rest of the media faces—news as a commodity that everyone has, cord-cutting, proliferation of short bite-sized clips on social media (I mean both text stories/summaries/aggregations and video clips, like those text-on-screen horrors). It is not a pretty business right now. And the execs all acknowledge that, but they all also believe (surprise!) that their outlet or publication or digital media business is the one place that gets it and will somehow magically float above it all. But the reality is that whether it’s a legacy print title like Sports Illustrated or a digital brand like BuzzFeed, everyone is in the same boat. The only answer, I think, is to constantly adapt and evolve. No strategy is permanent.

4. What is it like to report on media at a time when no job is safe? Does it ever feel a little too meta? Every time I see a story about another round of layoffs somewhere, all I think is that it’s not me this time. How do you feel as you write about the growth, machinations and, let’s be frank, preservation attempts of your own industry?

Man, writing layoff stories sucks. There’s the tiny thrill of a scoop when you have one, but the sad reality is that the information you’re reporting will be received as another new cause for dismay. I’ve had this feeling with recent stories about cuts at Time Inc., ESPN and others. (Another realization you have when you write those stories is you discover it’s really only fellow media people that care and read media stories, unless it’s a big, big company.) That being said, it’s not the case that layoffs or cuts somewhere necessarily signals a major failure or disaster at that business. Companies sometimes make cuts and add new people in the very same month. It’s just the ups and downs of this (bad) business, for now, as consumers continue to settle into how they consume news and content.

5.  As we talk about layoffs, it’s impossible to ignore the big news in sports media right now: the massive cuts at ESPN. What did you make of what happened, and what does it say about sports media moving forward? In 2017, can a “Worldwide Leader” really exist?

ESPN is facing major headwinds, but it’s not going away anytime soon. It blows my mind how every single time we write about ESPN now, you get the comments and tweets from people screaming that they WENT LIBERAL and THAT’S WHAT THEY GET and so on. Even if you do think ESPN got too political in the last few years, it’s a misunderstanding of the business to say that’s why ESPN profits are down. People don’t (can’t, really) call their cable provider saying they want to cancel just one channel. ESPN’s problem is skyrocketing rights fees. Anyway, layoffs happen; this round was more scrutinized and felt more harrowing because it was people that viewers recognize, but ESPN has had far larger layoff rounds twice in the past five years. It has to adjust but still has time to do it. And laugh if you want, but yep, as far as I’m concerned ESPN still earns the title of ‘Worldwide Leader’ in sports television. (But in 10 years, will anyone watch traditional television?)

6. You recently wrote a pretty epic story about the messy dealings of Chat Sports and the seedy side of sports media business. How did you hear about that, and how did that story come about?

I was lucky enough to get a tip from someone who knew about the situation there, and that speaks to cultivating sources and relationships and carving out a body of work in a certain beat. The person reached out to me and gave me one version of the story, but as is often the case, once you really dive down the rabbit hole and start reporting and filling in gaps, you learn more and discover some things that might paint a different picture from the one you got from your original source. Suffice it to say, yes, that was a fun one, but also depressing in some ways, and it’s understandable why it incited such a response from sports media folks. Once one of the subjects of the story sent me an email in which he impersonated me (but, he insisted, just to show me what he was accusing someone else of doing… uhhhh), I knew I had something zesty on my hands.

7. What led you to covering sports business? Did you view yourself as a business reporter who wound up in sports, or a sports reporter who wound up in business? How important is it to be a sports fan to cover sports as an industry?

I get asked that a lot, and the better answer is neither: I’d say I was a sports fan who wound up as a business reporter and pursued sports-related business stories. I never followed business deeply before I went to Fortune and never would have predicted I’d cover business. But I also believe that once people have the basic foundation of reporting skills–knowing how to pick up the phone and call people, quickly email potential sources or officials, do some deep googling, etc.–most reporters can adapt to any beat. And while it’s great to build up some cred in a beat and have an area of passion, it’s also important to be versatile and broad (I also cover a lot of tech, for example).    

8. What, if anything, would you change about how the business of media is covered at this time?

I just want more outlets to do it. You can count on two hands (okay, maybe three hands) the number of great, prominent media reporters, and that’s weird. Publications should make media reporting a valued area, but instead, many of them are doing the opposite, cutting back on it (e.g. Politico recently), because it doesn’t always click.

9. You have an entry on your blog about going to hear Salman Rushdie speak. He gives out a salient piece of advice for writers. I’m not going to run the whole quote, but this part intrigued you and now me: “There are enough books in the world…If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing.” I love that sentiment, and I get what he’s saying for authors, but what interests me is what you think about it in terms of modern digital media. Can that same zealous approach work for the writer working today that must create #content and endless oodles of words to fill the ad space? There are mountains of posts and stories out there, and we always need more. For those that got into journalism or have stayed in it for the writing and reporting, how should they go about working in a job where selectivity and prudence is best, but asks for much more?

Great of you to notice that, and I’m sure you’re the first person to visit my blog in months. (Side note: I used to love blogging, but with the daily hamster wheel it’s hard to find the time, right? And these days, when journos do blog, they tend to do it at Medium, or they have a Tiny Letter newsletter; fewer, I feel like, are posting to a WordPress or Tumblr site. No time.) Yes, I am constantly conscious of striking a balance between doing short, newsy posts that have news value but probably are stale by tomorrow, and working on longer stories that might take a couple weeks and require reporting and interviews, but will, you hope, have a little bit longer shelf life. That’s the condition of the internet journalist, right? I’m very lucky that Yahoo Finance lets me do both. I’m well aware not all web sites are like that, but I also think that some of them do too much of the longform and give the writers too long a leash, which won’t help them if, god forbid, they end up in the job market again and have never been somewhere that required them to write quickly on a same-day news deadline.

I do think the hamster-wheel issue particularly plagues online sports media lately. Every day there’s a new viral story about a LaVar Ball comment, or a Joel Embiid Instagram post, or a Mets fan’s viral rant about the subway shutting down, and Every. Single. Sports. Site. does a post on it. And sure, they have to–some editor is cracking the whip, saying, “Hurry up, get it online, everyone is talking about this!” But it’s just a click game, and it feels pretty empty.

I did a tweet about this once and used a dumb Gronk story (him laughing at the number 69), but you could easily do one of these every day about any story you choose, but for whatever reason, the tweet got a lot of attention:

And while many of the replies were the equivalent of an eye-roll, i.e. agreeing with my implied point, some of the replies were kind of salty, from people thinking I was disparaging the writers that write these posts, etc. And I wasn’t trying to do that, but I do think there is something depressing about this daily game now where every single site writes the same post and the only difference is what headline they go with, and there has to be a better way to cover sports news online. Right?

10. You’re a Boston guy who moved to NYC. How do you compare the food scenes, and who has the better Italian food?

Ooooh, good question. I’d have to say New York (especially Brooklyn) has better food than Boston, including better pizza and pasta (uh oh), but no one–no one!–has better seafood than Massachusetts. Let me shout out the lobster rolls at Captain Frosty’s on the Cape.

In Cobble Hill, where I live, right around me there’s a slew of reliable spots I can recommend: Henry Public, Mooburger, Ghang, Joya, Hibino, Colonie, to name some of my picks. Enjoy. You can find me at Pedlar (coffee) or at Angry Wade’s (beer, popcorn, darts).

This was fun, thanks. Keep reading and supporting good work online, everybody!