The Lake Effect: Lessons Learned from a Life Well Written

The following was written by Fairfield University senior Nicole Funaro for my Sports Journalism course. The assignment called on them to interview a nationally-recognized sports writer. Nicole talked with Thomas Lake. — Matt

By Nicole Funaro

Thomas-Lake1-171x300It only took two rings before I was greeted with a cautious “hello.” His voice sounded like he had been debating whether or not to pick up, and understandably so, considering an unknown Connecticut number lit up the screen of the Atlanta-based writer’s phone. But once I nervously, yet proudly asserted that I was one of Matt’s students, his voice smoothed and softened. Our introduction and opening pleasantries gave way to my first question, and then I, the novice, was tasked with interviewing the seasoned professional. And this “seasoned professional” wasn’t just anyone; it was CNN Digital’s senior writer, Thomas Lake.

While Lake now sits atop CNN’s digital news outlet, he never dreamed of holding such a title — that is, he never dreamed of it because he never set out to pursue journalism in the first place. As a student at Herkimer Community College in upstate New York, Lake was a general studies major with little idea of what career he’d pursue, something that followed him even as he began Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts a few years later. However, inspiration finally came when he took a feature writing class with a professor named Steve Crowe.

“I’d always enjoyed writing, and taking this class sort of showed me what the possibilities were,” he said. “That someone could spend their career and actually get paid telling exciting stories — it sounded very appealing to me.”

That wasn’t the only thing Lake got out of Crowe’s class: Crowe helped him land an internship in the fall of his senior year at the Salem News, a paper for which Crowe previously worked. Following his senior year, a young Lake bounced from working at a twice-weekly newspaper in rural Georgia — a paper where he said he “got to make some of [his] worst rookie mistakes on a very small stage” — to serving as a full-time staffer at the Salem Times, to finally landing what he thought was his dream job with the St. Petersburg Times.

But by 2008, Lake was already eyeing his next move and decided to send an email to one of his favorite writers, Gary Smith.

“Amazingly,” Lake said, “he wrote back. I sent him a story I had done at the St. Petersburg Times, and he liked it well enough that he got on the phone to the big boss, the editor of Sports Illustrated in New York, and said, ‘Hey, you should give this kid a chance.’”

And the rest, as they say, is history. He stayed with the magazine until 2015 when his position was eliminated due to budget cuts, then taking his knack for storytelling to CNN as an “outsider” looking in on the complex world of politics. With a book about the 2016 presidential election (“Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything”) under his belt, a circuitous career to look back on and more still to come, Lake said the topics he writes about are of little importance; in fact, he doesn’t much care for sports or politics. Instead, he looks for universal themes to transform into rich stories.

“I love finding moments of human drama and split-second decisions people make that have long-term consequences,” he explained, something he certainly achieved in his most famous work, “2 on 5.”

A time-hopping wonder that simultaneously foreshadows and reflects, Lake’s omniscient approach to telling the story of an underdog Alabama basketball team in “2 on 5” shelves the traditional Cinderella story and talks fate, hardship, redemption and demise. For Lake, weaving the intricate tale required some contemplation of his own.

“I think a huge part of the best writing is thinking — stopping and thinking,” he said. “There was so much that I did on that story in particular, just sitting there in silence with no distractions, nothing fragmenting my attention at all and sitting alone in a cheap hotel room.”

It seems that minimizing distraction has been Lake’s MO all along; once he decided to pursue journalism, he’s never once broken his focus, always keeping his eyes fixed on his next move. Even when considering budding journalists, Lake offered more of the same.

“Report and write as much as you can,” he said. “Keep a journal or some other kind of notebook. Sit on the quad and just write descriptions of what you’re seeing — your sensory experiences — because all that just flexes those muscles. Ultimately, you’re only as good as your ability to put experiences into words, and so you’ve got to be practicing that and then reading the best writing.”

I hung up the phone and sat in amazement. “I just spoke to a writer for CNN, a place that maybe I’ll work some day,” I thought. After all, that’s why I wanted to interview him in the first place: to make a connection at an organization where maybe I too could catch one of the lucky breaks that seemed to mark Lake’s own career.

As I reflected on our conversation, a wave of mixed emotions consumed me. I was at once hungry for the experiences he’s had, envious of his writing abilities and hopeful. Hopeful that if I keep writing just like he advised, maybe I could carve out a similar place for myself in journalism. I ran through the rest of the day hearing two rings of the phone and three words echoing in my head: just keep writing.

 

 

Lawsuit against Ashland University will define value of tenure

Ashland University recently announced that it granted tenure to three faculty members.

I worked with two of the faculty who received tenure prior to leaving for Fairfield University in Connecticut last year. While I am incredibly happy that the hard work these faculty have done has been recognized, I worry that the reward of tenure is meaningless at AU.

In August 2015, several tenured faculty — the university has never actually said how many — were told their jobs were being eliminated. As of January 2017, they are no longer employed by AU. This move on the administration’s part is the primary reason I left AU. I no longer felt the tenure I was granted in 2014 meant anything.

Fortunately, seven faculty members whose jobs were eliminated have filed a lawsuit against the university claiming administrators violated the rules and regulations that govern the university when it comes to this type of act. (You can read the entire complaint by clicking here.)

This is an incredibly important lawsuit, not just for Ashland University, but for universities in general. It boils down to what the definition of the word restructure is, and it has the potential to destroy tenure, the staple of academic freedom that has made American universities the great institutions they are.

The university’s rules and regulations contain wording that allows the administration to eliminate tenured faculty members. The first reason is because the university is on the verge of financial collapse. Here, the Board of Trustees would have to declare something called “financial exigency.” Once a board declares that, it’s open season on tenured faculty, all in the effort to save the university.

It’s no secret that AU has not done well when it comes to managing money over the last decade. However, the trustees have not declared financial exigency.

Other than dire financial straits, according to the rules and regulations, the university can remove tenured faculty members because of the “formal discontinuance of a program or department,” or the “formal restructuring of a program or department of instruction.”

The seven faculty members claim, according to their lawsuit, that the university has not restructured anything. No departments have been eliminated. Curriculum has remained virtually the same. The classes these faculty taught are still being offered to students, albeit taught by significantly lower-paid, part-time faculty.

The university, on the other hand, has claimed that a prioritization process conducted in 2014-15 identified departments that could possibly be restructured, and that was in essence a restructuring. I know this because I heard it many times when faculty questioned the administration about the firings before I left AU.

Basically, AU is arguing that simply saying the university should restructure is an act of restructuring.

Why is this important?

If the university prevails in this lawsuit, then tenure is dead at Ashland University. It would mean that any time the university felt the need to get rid of a faculty member, for any reason at all, they could simply say “We’re restructuring. You’re fired.”

This is chilling. In higher education, faculty need to be able to question the moves administrators make, and vice versa. Universities depend on shared governance, where the faculty and the administration make decisions together for the betterment of the institution.

Why do I care about this? I’m an alumnus, and I care about AU. This is something all alumni should care about, because if the administration prevails, AU will no longer be able to attract the type of faculty who made us who we are today.

It won’t be the AU that we know and love. It probably already isn’t.

Sincerely,

Matt Tullis, ‘98

Sandy Hook, CT

 

The Bridge

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The actual pedestrian bridge.

There’s an enclosed pedestrian bridge that spans Locust Street in Akron. It connects a parking garage and medical building to the third floor entrance of Akron Children’s Hospital. I crossed that bridge on January 4, 1991. I was scared, tired, still not sure of what was going on. I didn’t know why I was in Akron, other than the fact that I had been exhausted for the last couple weeks, that I had a severe pain in my back, and that doctors in Wooster had said something about leukemia. But I didn’t know what that was or what it meant. I didn’t know how long I would be there. I didn’t know what I would face in the coming days, months and years. I couldn’t comprehend all of the ways in which, in crossing that bridge, my life would change. I couldn’t comprehend that I would never be the same, or, that it would take me nearly a quarter-century to realize that my life was never the same, and any attempts to get back to the Matt I was before I crossed the bridge were futile.

I think about how that bridge can never be uncrossed. Indeed, trying to uncross it, trying to understand and unpack everything that crossing it that first time meant, has caused me to cross that bridge — both figuratively and literally — hundreds of more times. Because when I go to Akron Children’s Hospital to visit with my old nurses or to look at my medical records or to participate in an event the hospital is having, I always park in that same old parking garage and enter the same way, despite the fact the hospital has built a new parking garage and created a new, much nicer, main entrance. I can’t park anywhere else, because I feel I have to always enter the hospital the exact same way from which I initially came.

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The view, toward my old room and the Ronald McDonald House.

I walk across that bridge and I look out to the left and see the Ronald McDonald House. I see the space where Room 462 used to look out on the intersection of Locust and State. In my mind’s eye, I can see it exactly as I saw it when I crossed over the first time. And when I look forward, I see the same teal and pink carpet leading straight ahead to a welcome desk that is still staffed by elderly volunteers, and I see those orange elevators behind the volunteers, elevators that sometime around 9:30 a.m. on January 4, 1991, took me up as I sat in a wheelchair to the fourth floor. I still take those same elevators because I don’t know any other way, nor do I want to. When I am in that space, on that bridge, walking past that desk, standing in the elevator, my heart races and everything comes back in clear bursts. And instead of making me scared or confused, I feel calm, like that is the place I am meant to be.

 

Queen of the Zoo

I wrote this story in December 2006 for the Columbus Dispatch as Colo, the world’s first captive-born gorilla, was about to turn 50 years old. Even then, she was the oldest-known gorilla in the world. Hard to believe she has just turned 60 years old.

One of the things I loved most about doing this story was watching Tom Dodge make the amazing portrait of Colo that ran as dominant art on Page 1.

____________________________________

By Matt Tullis
Columbus Dispatch

images-coloIt’s early in the morning and Colo sits in her normal spot, the center of Cage 1. She is wedged between two concrete trees. A milk crate is on her right, and a rope dangles in front of her.

Her head is tilted back, her chin juts into the air, her eyes are half-closed and looking down.

A chute opens at the top of her exhibit area, and the world’s first captive-born gorilla stirs from her reverie at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She grabs the rope with her curled, arthritic fingers and pulls herself up. She slowly makes her way up the tree, climbing toward breakfast: a banana, grapefruit, apple, sweet potato, cucumber and turnip, as well as iceberg lettuce, carrots and broccoli.

She would have taken these fake trees in bounds when she was younger, but they are steep and slippery and youth is fleeting, even for gorillas.

The world outside the glass

On Friday, Colo turns 50, the equivalent of 100 human years. No one knows how long she will live, though, because Colo is the mold from which captive-born gorillas are made.

Docents Sara Jane Rowland and Sharon Kruyer walk into the public viewing aisle in the gorilla house and look into Cage 1.

“Hi, Queen Bee,” Rowland says.

“Good morning, Queen,” Kruyer says.

The two women have just finished chopping vegetables for the gorillas’ two daily meals. Their attention moves from Colo to Cage 2, where Mumbah, a 41-year-old silverback, watches his group play with 2-year-old Dotty, Colo’s great-granddaughter.

Colo watches this, too. Dotty tags Cassie, Colo’s 13-year-old granddaughter, and runs across the hay-covered, concrete floor. Cassie gives chase, grabs Dotty and rolls. Dotty jumps and spins before clapping her hands against the glass. Little boys and girls, at the zoo with their mothers, giggle and point.

It’s enough now for Colo to just watch the ruckus. She doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. She gave birth to three children and, though they were taken from her at birth, she served as a surrogate mother for three of her grandchildren, including the twins, Mosuba and Macombo II (Mac), born in 1983.

Her line, including four great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, is scattered among zoos across the country. It’s strongest here in Columbus, where Mac, Cassie, Jumoke, Nkosi (Nick) and Dotty make up one-third of the zoo’s gorilla collection.

Mac and Nick aren’t on display but, from her spot, Colo can watch her granddaughters and great-granddaughter play all day long.

The world outside the mesh

Debby Ames stands at the mesh, the back part of the gorilla cages, and calls for Colo. The Queen glances over but doesn’t move.

“Colo. Can you come over here for me? I’ve got some sweet potato for you.”

Ames looks away from the cage.

“Now you see the attitude,” she says.

Ames has been training Colo for four years. She works with Colo at the mesh, getting her to place her hands in different spots, pushing her shoulder up to the mesh to receive injections and moving her chest close to accommodate a stethoscope.

Colo doesn’t always cooperate.

“She’s my toughest because she doesn’t think she should have to work for anything,” Ames says.

Each keeper has a relationship with Colo, as well as a favorite story. For Ames, it’s the time Colo took a toothbrush out of her hand and started brushing her own teeth.

Dan Nellis started at the zoo in 1992 and was the first male keeper to work with Colo since 1979. She spit on him for two years, he says.

“Then she figured out I wasn’t going to leave and she started hitting on me,” he said. “They tell you not to get attached, but you can’t help it.”

Mike Zedekar likes the story of Colo and the hat. A few years back, she wore a ball cap. Zedekar always wears a cap at work and, one day, when he was cleaning outside her cage, he turned it backward. Colo did the same. He turned it sideways, and she copied him once more. Now that she doesn’t have a hat of her own, she tries to take his whenever he walks by.

All the keepers tell the one about the toy keys. A few years ago, a child dropped a ring of plastic keys into the outdoor gorilla exhibit. Colo pounced on them. She knew the keepers would barter for them.

Colo held out for cookies, but instead of turning over the entire key ring for one cookie, she broke the keys into tiny pieces and traded each one for a treat. As usual, she got her way.

As Colo’s training winds down, Ames sprinkles her with affirmation: “Good girl” and “very good.” Colo has allowed Ames to brush her teeth. She has done her best to place her ear, shoulder, back and chest against the mesh — all for cranberry juice and slivers of sweet potato.

When the food is gone, she walks slowly back to her spot, lowers herself to the floor and resumes her stately pose.

The world in between

Colo has been at the zoo longer than any other creature. Because of that, she gets her wish: to be left alone. She moves infrequently, to the mesh for food or drink or to the window to get a visitor’s attention. She scratches her armpits and nose. She plays with a milk crate. She swings the rope back and forth.

But most often, she just sits, her head held high, in that one spot where everyone can see her and she can see everyone. It’s the world between the glass and the mesh, a world into which she became the first gorilla ever born. When she was born they called her Cuddles, but only for a short time.

Now there is nothing cuddly about her. She is stubborn, stuck in her ways, a gorilla through and through.

Her distinctive heart-shape brow is a crown, raised high on her head as she watches her people come and go.

She is the Queen.

mtullis@dispatch.com

A couple pieces on school inequality worth checking out

This piece was written Yohuru Williams, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University (my new dean, by the way, something I couldn’t be happier about, both in my joining Fairfield and having him as a dean) on school inequality, why charter schools are not the answer and outlining why those salivating over charter schools are misappropriating the Civil Rights Movement. There’s one thought that really stands out in a piece that makes incredibly strong arguments:

“This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.”

This rings especially true after I listened to the most recent episode of This American Life, which was about how Missouri accidentally desegregated schools. The accident happened when the state pulled accreditation from the Normandy School District. That district borders Ferguson, Missouri, and is the district that Michael Brown graduated from. The accidental desegregation resulted in higher test scores for students who ended up in better schools, but the state quickly took care of that “accident,” so the inner city kids ended up back at the schools that were failing them originally.

 

 

 

Reaction at the fairgrounds: ‘I think we’re at war’

From The Daily Record in Wooster, Ohio. This is the first story I wrote on Sept. 11, 2001. It ran in a special edition that the newspaper put out the same day as the attacks. I was at the Wayne County Fair working the subscription tent when what was happening finally started to dawn on everyone there. I ended up using the back of subscription forms to take notes.

img_7215By Matt Tullis
Staff Writer

WOOSTER — People gathered around the WQKT 104.5 FM radio booth Tuesday morning, straining to listen to the live feed from CNN radio that was carrying the latest news on the apparent terrorist attack in the eastern United States earlier that morning.

Outside the fairgrounds entrance, flags flew at half-mast. Inside the grandstand, the only noise was the bits and pieces of news that spewed from the half-dozen radios that were sitting in booths advertising everything from pianos to real estate.

As people gathered around the WQKT booth, “The Star-Spangled Banner” began outside, the start of what was still to be a day of harness racing.

Eyes welled up. Anger poured out.

“I think we’re at war,” said Art Clappe, an Akron resident who came to the fair. “If we ain’t at war, we’re damn close to it.”

Wayne County Fair Board member Herb Berry said there were no plans to cancel any fair activities as of Tuesday afternoon.

Mike Brekenridge, program manager at WQKT, said people were stopping by the booth as soon as the news broke. They would stay for 10 or 15 minutes before moving on, but ultimately they came back, unable to stay away from the horrific news updates, he said.

“It’s really disturbing,” Breckenridge said. “Nobody is smiling around here today, that’s for sure.”

Breckenridge said the radio station would carry continuous coverage well into the night.

“No other programming seems appropriate, at least not at this time,” he said. “This is far more important than anything else we could put on the air.”

While Breckenridge stood next to the booth, several people expressed absolute rage at what happened. One woman assumed Osama bin Laden, a Saudi terrorist and known enemy of the United States, was to blame for the attack.

“We should murder the son-of-a-bitch,” she said before walking away.

Murel Cameron of Canal Fulton said it was hard to express exactly what he was feeling.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” Cameron said. “Everybody is pretty much in shock. We get bits and pieces. Shock is the main word.”

John Weeman and his family vacationed in New York City last year. During the visit, they went to the World Trade Center.

It’s terrible,” he said. “The number of people that died.” Weeman paused. “We were in the Trade Center last year on vacation, and it could hold all of Wayne County.”

Linda Flory has 3-year-old and a 4-year-old daughters. While she takes solace in her faith, Flory said this is something that her children won’t be able to understand, at least not for now.

“I believe God is in control,” Flory said. “We don’t know the future, but we know who holds the future if you just put your trust in him.”

As she handed out tracts of Christian literature, labeled “The Beginning of the End,” Flory said she has noticed people are definitely not in a typical fair-going mood.

“People are all scared, dazed,” she said. “I just feel sick about it.”

Rolling Wheels Estates

I was cleaning out the file cabinet in my office at Ashland University when I came upon a bunch of folders that contained a lot of my writing from grad school. This included three short stories and an essay that, when I read it, made me realize that its real life was only the first section, and only as a piece of fiction. Two of the four pieces of writing (the essay, specifically that first section of the essay) and one of the short stories were set in a trailer park. The short story was set in the real trailer park that my essay started out in.

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That’s Rolling Wheels Estates, the trailer park I spent the most formative young years of my life, 1979 to 1985. It’s the place I had five birthdays, from five to ten. When I read that work, I thought, hey, that’s not as bad as I thought it was! Maybe I’ll post it on the blog!

I’ve had second thoughts about that, but the writing got me thinking more about that trailer park. One thing about nostalgia is that it doesn’t trigger until you haven’t visited it in a while, and, well, I still visit that trailer park on a regular basis because that’s where my in-laws live. That being said, I’ve never really taken the time to just walk around and let it soak in. I’ve walked around with the kids a couple times, showed them where I lived and where my brothers and I rode our bikes. But that’s about it.

The other day, though, I took Emery, my soon-to-be 12 year old son, to his grandparents so he could mow their yard. While he did that, I took a walk. I found that I just wanted to walk around and think about this place, especially in light of the fact I will soon be moving far away from it, again.

So much about the park hasn’t changed. There are trailers still in that park that were there thirty years ago. The sign out front is still the same. The small brick building that I have vague and foggy memories of sitting on the floor while Mom and Dad filled out the paperwork to buy the trailer that we were going to move into 107 Evergreen is still there, but it’s boarded up and not used anymore.

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The old brick building back in the park that was a laundromat is still there too, but it’s also boarded up and graffitied. There used to be a basketball hoop back behind that laundromat, or at least I thought there was, but there isn’t anymore. I did find a post hole, though, hidden in the tall grass, where that hoop used to be.

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The tan double-wide the park’s caretakers lived in is still there, right next to 107 Evergreen, where a different trailer sits.

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But the woods that I used to stare into which was directly across the drive is still there, although it seems far smaller and not nearly as wide as I remember thinking it was as a kid. 

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Finally, the pond and the rusted out chainlink fence, with barbed wire at the top, is still there too, as are the geese.

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The short story I wrote that was set in the trailer park was called The Fence, and it was about a little boy who wanted nothing more than to get inside that rusted out fence. That was what I wanted when I was young. I hit so many baseballs and threw so many footballs and kicked so many kickballs into the pond that they often times gathered in one corner of pond, where the cattails grew thick, and after about a week, Harold, the caretaker, would walk out, unlock the padlock, open the gate and walk around collecting the things I had sent flying over the fence.

One thing there wasn’t in the pond was a bunch of balls. According to my mother-in-law, there aren’t any kids living in the park anymore. That, I think, is kind of sad, because that trailer park was pretty much the best place I could ever imagine growing up.

Breaking down Deadspin’s breakdown of SB Nation Longform’s Holtzclaw story

For the last couple weeks, I’ve been watching the reaction to SB Nation Longform’s “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw” story. I’ve read just about everything, I think, that has been published online about how the story came to be, and then the aftermath, which included SB Nation’s firing Longform editor Glenn Stout and then Deadspin’s attempt to explain how the story happened, a poorly-reported piece that put the blame solely on Stout.

I’ve watched this as someone who is completely, 100 percent biased in Stout’s favor based on my own experience in working with him. Stout edited all five of my stories for SB Nation Longform, including “The Gyms of Holmes County,” the piece that went up one week before the Holtzclaw story.

I read the Holtzclaw story too, and came to the same conclusion just about everyone else did. It was bad. It was supremely bad. It was much too long, and it did come off, as many critics have said, as overly sympathetic to a man who was sentenced to 263 years in prison for using his position as a police officer to rape and sexually assault 13 African-American women. Jeff Arnold should have never been the writer on that piece (he couldn’t pull off what he had initially pitched, which, by the way, was a good idea). And it wasn’t Stout’s best moment as an editor, as I’m sure he would admit now.

But what has resulted has not been a discussion on how these types of stories should best be told (and they can be told, just read Tom Junod’s “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry,” which ran in GQ in 1995), but rather a character assassination on Stout. There has been this attempt to show Stout as a sexist, racist, white-privileged old man who pushed this story through, disregarding so many objections. That has truly baffled me, because that is not the Glenn Stout I’ve worked with.

Quite the opposite, Stout has been the most compassionate editor who has ever laid eyes on my words. And also the best. I’ve worked with a lot of editors in my career as a journalist, and no editor has ever worked so hard to make my stories better.

The narrative regarding what happened with the Holtzclaw story has largely been driven by Deadspin, which is part of the Gawker family (the website currently being sued by Hulk Hogan for posting a sex tape featuring the former professional wrestler). The Deadspin piece “How SB Nation Published Their Daniel Holtzclaw” came out 10 days after the Holtzclaw story was originally published and then retracted entirely.

In the Deadspin piece, Howard, who was recently selected for a David Carr Fellowship at The New York Times, argues that Stout ran roughshod over other editors at SB Nation and that he marginalized the voice of a female, African-American editor who had concerns about the Holtzclaw story. And he makes an argument that Stout equated long stories with good stories, and that he only wanted masculine pieces in which every word was “dripping with gravity.”

Stout fired back the other day, with comments from his lawyer, who said the Deadspin piece was “false and defamatory.” In comments from his lawyer, Stout outlined his side of the story, particularly regarding how the Holtzclaw piece came to see the light of day.

I read the Deadspin piece multiple times in order to get some separation from my adoration of Stout. Because the publication process Howard outlined didn’t match my own experience, and because the description of a Stout was completely foreign to me, I wanted to look at Howard’s story as an exercise in reporting. Who did he talk to? Who didn’t he talk to? What was present? What was missing?

As I looked at the story that way, I saw a piece that, in my mind, conveniently scapegoated a freelance writer and the lowest ranking editor at SB Nation, one who worked remotely in Vermont, and let everyone who works at the SB Nation offices in New York off the hook.

Howard’s story — and again, this is the story that has driven the narrative — consists of interviews only with SB Nation/Vox staffers and leaked memos from SB Nation. He relies heavily on anonymous sources. He didn’t approach any of the most regular or most recent freelancers that Stout worked with, the writers who knew Stout and the entire SB Nation Longform process, the best. And he marginalizes all of the amazing, diverse work Stout did in the nearly three-and-a-half years leading up to the Holtzclaw story.

***

The process for publishing an SB Nation Longform story that Howard describes in his piece doesn’t resemble the process I have experienced, or many other freelancers have experienced.

Howard describes a situation where Stout is running a “fiefdom,” in which all other SB Nation editors are afraid of him, including Managing Editor Brian Floyd. This ignores that fact that, in the SB Nation food chain of editors, Stout was at the bottom. Still, Howard paints a portrait of Stout as a man who runs the show. He commissions the stories, oversees the reporting, edits the stories and then tells higher-up SB Nation editors to run them.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, all stories that Stout assigns have to be signed off on by Spencer Hall, the SB Nation editorial director. I know this, because when I’ve pitched stories that Glenn ultimately accepted (and he didn’t accept all of my pitches, not even close), it came with something like, I love this story idea. Let me run it by Spencer.

Additionally, to my knowledge, my work was always read by higher up editors like Hall and Floyd before it went live, as was the work by other freelancers. And those editors often made changes, or suggested changes that were ultimately made. It was a truly collaborative process, one that worked wonders for more than three years. It was hardly a fiefdom (which, by the way, would be incredibly hard for Stout to run from Vermont).

The piece that Howard’s story hinges on is an interview with Elena Bergeron, a senior editor at SB Nation and experienced journalist. I have never worked with Bergeron, and indeed, I had never seen her name in relation to SB Nation until Howard’s piece. All of this to say, I don’t think she had ever been brought in to look at my work as an editor. But then again, I rarely did a story that was controversial, as I tended to stick with straight-forward feature-type pieces.

Howard reports that Bergeron had to read the story twice because it was so bad, and that she sent an email to Hall, Kevin Lockland (vice president of editorial at SB Nation), Stout and Floyd on Monday evening expressing her concerns. She then told Howard about a conference call with Stout and Floyd on Tuesday (according to Howard, Hall was on vacation and Lockland was traveling) that “devolved into an argument” with Stout disregarding Bergeron’s objections. Ultimately, the three hung up and nothing was resolved. This account has been disputed by Stout’s lawyer, who says the call was productive and that Bergeron ultimately gave her approval for the story and even thanked Stout via email for listening to her concerns.

“With Hall and Lockland gone,” Howard continues, “Floyd had more editorial power than he was accustomed to, but, according to sources at the site, still didn’t feel he had the authority to unilaterally pull the article.”

This sentence creates all sorts of problems journalistically, particularly the fact that Howard is essentially using anonymous sources to get inside Floyd’s head. The question remains; was the source Floyd? If it was Floyd, why did he feel the need to be anonymous? After all, Bergeron is named in the piece, and she ranks below Floyd in the SB Nation hierarchy, and if Bergeron had permission from the company to let her name appear in the story, certainly Floyd would have as well.

It would have been helpful for Howard to talk to Floyd, given that he was also on the phone call with Bergeron and Stout, and yet there are no comments from Floyd in the story. In many ways, Floyd is completely invisible here, given a pass. Not only are there no comments tied to his name, there’s not even a mention of whether Howard tried to get a comment from him; if he did, there is nothing to say that Floyd refused to comment, and this despite the fact there is a mention that Stout refused multiple times to comment.

But there are even more problems with the reporting, particularly in relation to this phone call and what happened in the next 24 hours. What Howard doesn’t answer in his piece is what happened after the phone conference.

As it is, in Howard’s piece, we’re left with an unsatisfactory phone conference; with Floyd not pulling the story; and then a producer scheduling the story for around noon on Wednesday, which is about the time Longform stories always went live.

If I’m the reporter on this story, and I’m talking to Bergeron, I would have a lot more questions. For instance, what was Floyd like in that conference call? Did he side with Bergeron or Stout? Was he as concerned about the story as Bergeron was? What did Bergeron do after that phone call if she wasn’t happy with the fact the problems were not resolved? Did she contact Hall or Lockland? Did she send more emails?

Surely there was a way to contact Hall while he was on vacation. Surely someone could have gotten hold of Lockland. Why were both of them so unreachable?

One thing that would have been hugely helpful to include in Howard’s story is the original email Bergeron sent to the four editors. Howard either didn’t ask for it (most likely) or he asked for it and was turned down (least likely given one would assume that would show up in the story somewhere).

If so many people at SB Nation were so concerned, surely someone pushed back harder, trying to convince Floyd to pull the story. Surely Floyd was concerned himself. Surely someone was in contact with Hall as soon as he showed up on Wednesday morning.

Instead, Howard makes a point of saying that Hall spent Wednesday morning — just hours before a 12,000-word story that copy editors, producers and senior editors were all convinced was unpublishable would be published — “getting settled.”

That doesn’t sound like what a top editor would be doing when he returns from vacation to find shit hitting the fan because a really bad story was about to be published. This leads me to believe that those in the New York SB Nation offices weren’t nearly as concerned about the Holtzclaw piece as they now claim.

If you look closely enough at Howard’s reporting, you see only an interview with Bergeron. You see Kevin Lockland denying that he had read the Holtzclaw piece. You see Hall, at the very end of this 3,100-word story, saying that Stout had been fired. And you see nothing from Floyd.

***

Howard uses comments from freelancers to build a picture of how SB Nation Longform worked, but not one of the freelancers is named. And he didn’t contact any of the most regular freelancers for Longform, the writers and reporters who worked most closely with Stout.

Brin-Jonathan Butler, Brandon Sneed, Eva Holland, Michael Graff, and I contributed 32 of SB Nation Longform’s 200 stories. All of our work was edited by Stout. Additionally, the three most recent stories published immediately before the Holtzclaw story were written by Butler, Graff and me.

And yet, Howard did not reach out to any of us for a comment on this situation. Instead, the only time a freelancer’s name shows up in the story is when he quotes one of my tweets.

The tweet Howard used said “My story on Stella Walsh went through 9 drafts, all based on feedback from Glenn. The first draft of that story was bad. He made it better.” It was one of eight tweets I pushed out after reading the first Deadspin piece that speculated that Stout had been or would be fired.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 1.59.12 PM

This was, apparently, Howard’s attempt to show he was giving the “other side” their chance to defend Stout.

Most of the anonymous freelancers are used by Howard as ammunition to set up this idea that Stout cared more about the number of words in a story rather than what those words actually said. But why grant anonymity to freelancers who are simply talking about how long stories typically were or about how contracts contained a word count? That hardly rises to the level of information one typically grants anonymity for.

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories — not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones,” Howard writes.

I was one of the first people to write for Stout when the Longform site launched. Back in 2012, he sent out a description of what he was doing and what he was looking for. He said he was looking for writers to pitch the kinds of stories that, “after I read them once, I want to read them again.”

“We hope to create a place where writers feel their work is valued and respected and attract readers who love good writing,” he said.

Nowhere in Stout’s initial outreach for the project did he mention word counts. Even after I started doing stories with him, the word counts were simply there as a placeholder, a spot where he thought the story might land, but understood it could go longer or it could go shorter. As long as the story was right, well, that was all that mattered.

***

“Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw” was a supremely bad story. But it’s not indicative of the work that appeared on SB Nation Longform under Stout’s leadership. Not even close.

Not every story that ran on SB Nation Longform was bad. Nor was every word dripping in “gravity,” or, “about embattled men, many of whom are white.” And if “most every piece reads as if the writer is trying to make it into The Best American Sports Writing, well, then, shame on those writers for attempting to write well.

“A pitch about a college football player,” Howard goes on, describing the Holtzclaw piece, “with professional ambitions who became a cop only to find himself rotting in jail for the rest of his life was precisely the kind of grim, muscular story Stout would go for.”

If Howard had simply looked at the site, he would have realized that the story run one week before the Holtzclaw piece was about high school girls’ basketball in Amish country. That story is not about embattled men. It’s not grim. It’s not muscular. It was about community. It was about history. It was about a different way of life.

That was the type of story Stout was looking for. A story that would tell him something he didn’t already know, and that would be written in a compelling way. He wanted characters he could latch on to, characters who would move him from point A to point B, and once he had made the journey, if the story was good enough, he would want to take a ride again.

To make the claim that Stout was only interested in stories about white guys and football, which is essentially what Howard has boiled him down to, is ridiculous and completely ignores the vast diversity of writers and stories he shepherded through SB Nation Longform.

I wrote about Stella Walsh, a gold medal sprinter from Cleveland in the 1930s. Stella was murdered in 1980, and the autopsy, leaked to the media, said she had male sex organs. The story focused on Stella’s life, how she was very much a woman no matter what the autopsy said.

Latria Graham, a new writer Stout brought into the Longform fold very recently, wrote a story on Josh Norman, the Carolina Panthers cornerback who got in a preseason fight with Cam Newton during a preseason practice. The story is about how Freeman ended up in the NFL, as well as how he overcame the fight with his team’s star.

Jacqueline Kantor wrote a story in December that followed the Frederick Douglass High School football team in Baltimore for the 2015 season, a season that started in the wake of the Freddie Gray killing and riots.

Dan England wrote about a woman, who, as a recovering drug addict, found solace and refuge in ultrarunning.

Eva Holland wrote about women climbing mountains, paddling in the world’s longest canoe race, and competing to be named Alaska Wilderness Woman.

William Browning wrote about a fugitive who was caught on the Appalachian Trail.

Kim Cross wrote about a quadruple amputee who rides a road bike and competes in wheelchair rugby at the highest level.

Brin-Jonathan Butler wrote about Cuba and human smuggling and rehabilitation and institutional racism in prisons.

Brandon Sneed wrote about a man who touched so many lives in Greenville, North Carolina that it didn’t seem possible, but it was.

I could go on and on and on.

Howard can call Stout whatever he wants, but he can only do so while willfully ignoring the amazing body of work Stout helped assemble at SB Nation Longform. He worked with more than 100 different writers. He edited more than 200 stories.

He screwed up, badly, on one of them.

But instead of using that as a pretext to belittle and misrepresent all the good work his writers did, Howard should be asking: Where were Spencer Hall and Brian Floyd in all of this?

***

Michael Brick was a former New York Times reporter who recently passed away from colon cancer. Many of his friends and fellow reporters collected an amazing body of Brick’s work into a book titled “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name.”

I just read that book earlier this week. It’s an amazing collection. But still, the one thing that stands out most to me is a quote from Brick included in the foreword, written by Dan Barry of The New York Times.

This is what Brick once said, regarding writing and editors.

“That word, though, if it is a word: Overwritten. In recent years it’s become a sledgehammer in the hands of too many cowardly, unambitious, ladder-climbing, cow-in-a-swivel-chair editors. The good ones know how to tell you where to dial it back, and finding a good one is mission critical. I’ve been lucky in that regard. The bad ones are hanging a kneejerk, uninspired, boardroom groupthink scarlet O on stylish writing.”

As I read that paragraph, I immediately thought of Stout and Greg Howard’s piece on Stout. While Howard may not have used the word “overwritten” in his piece, he certainly used that idea as a sledgehammer to try and smash Stout’s legacy.

But for me, the true measure of an editor is who will follow him. No matter where Stout ends up, if he is editing work for a publication, that’s a publication I will write for. Brick said that finding a good editor is mission critical, and in Stout, I found not a good editor, but a great editor. And I know I’m not the only writer who feels that way.

 

 

 

Editor’s Letter: By Arnold Gingrich – Autumn 1933

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 9.36.49 AMAfter promising to do this months ago, I’ve finally started reading through the contents of Esquire’s “The Greatest Table of Contents of All Time” thanks to Esquire Classic. And by “started reading through,” I mean I’ve read Arnold Gingrich’s inaugural Editor’s Letter in the Autumn 1933 issue.

I’m going to go ahead and blame Jonathan Franzen for my delay, primarily because I’ve spent the last three weeks reading “Purity.” It’s a good novel, although not as great as “The Corrections” or “Freedom.” I mention this only because one of the main characters in the book wrote for, you guessed it, Esquire in the 1980s (I’m guessing on this decade).

There is only one piece on “The Greatest Table of Contents of All Time” from the 1980s, and that is Richard Ben Cramer’s “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” which was published in the June 1986 issue. Since I’m reading this table of contents in order, it might take me a while to get there, but I promise it will be before Franzen publishes another novel.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 9.38.50 AMAs for Gingrich’s first editor’s letter, it is fairly basic. It lays out what Esquire strives to be, and how it is going to do it. I find this particularly interesting as my journalism students at Ashland University are currently planning a magazine, which we intend to launch in late 2016. In many ways, Gingrich lays out exactly what any magazine must do as it starts up — identify an audience and describe how it is going to engage and entertain that audience.

It’s a pretty funny letter too, especially when it comes to the part about how Esquire is going to cover fashion.

“We have been studying men, and men’s clothes, for many years, and we have come to the conclusion that the average American male has too much inherent horse sense to be bothered very much by a lot of dress rules that nobody but a gigolo could possibly find either time or inclination to observe,” Gingrich wrote.

I’m not sure if this means I can still use the “I saw it in Esquire,” excuse when my wife questions the outfit I put on in the morning anymore or not.

This is just the first of many posts. And hopefully they’ll start coming fairly regularly. Next up will be a post on the Service and Charts section, which includes pieces by Helen Lawrenson in 1936, L. Rust Hills in 1963, and Tom Chiarella in 2003.

Esquire’s 1,000th issue

Esquire coverEsquire’s 1,000th issue — it’s October 2015 issue — was in my mailbox on Wednesday. I was excited because I had just pushed out a Gangrey: The Podcast episode a couple days earlier, in which I talked with Esquire editor Tyler Cabot about the new Esquire Classic.

Through Esquire Classic, one can now read every issue of Esquire; all 1,000 issues and counting, online. The magazine scanned in more than a quarter-million pages in order to build this massive archive.

As I was flipping through the pages of the new issue, I noticed that page 34 had a table of contents of sorts — “The Greatest Table of Contents of All Time: The Perfect Issue of Esquire.”

From the Cover (Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian, April 1968) to photo 1What I’ve Learned (Woody Allen, interviewed by Cal Fussman, September 2003), the list is made up of the best of the magazine’s best. There are essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nora Ephron. There is fiction by Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. There are features by Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace.

I figured that if Esquire were going to build this “Greatest Table of Contents of All Time,” the least I could do is read it. All of it. Every single piece.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Over the next month of so, I am going to read every single piece on this Table of Contents, and then each day, I’m going to write about what I read.

Hopefully it will be enlightening. I’m sure it will be for me.