Last week, Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report spoke with my post-grad group. Fader isn’t much older than the college grads in the group, so she is the perfect representation of what many of them can become if they keep at it, learning and working and refining their skills. I grabbed some of her thoughts here (edited for clarity).
On finding interesting and unique stories:
“You want to write an interesting story that, say, your grandma might want to read. She doesn’t need to know anything about basketball to understand the Brandon Ingram story. The first thing is recognizing that you want your stories to be very human and grounded in the universal. When I think of trying to find ‘the story,’ I don’t say who’s averaging 20 points a game. I say, who’s an interesting personality that maybe I want to know more about? I start with a question like, ‘how can I find an interesting personality to unpack in a different way?’
“One of the main things that I use is actually local news. I’m going to be really sad if all local news disappears for numerous reasons but I will literally read the papers of pretty much every state in America. And sometimes you’ll find like a 300-word blurb about an athlete and you have to ask yourself, is this a national story? Does this deserve more than 300 words.
“You’re fighting for people’s time and memory in long form. Don’t just go after somebody because they’re really successful. I profiled Nassir Little when he was at the end of the bench and everything was going wrong in his life. I found that so much more interesting than profiling Zion Williams. You want to pick topics that are really rich for human themes.”
“I think the first thing is to frame what an interview is in your mind. I like to go in there thinking that I’m going to have a conversation. It’s just I want it to be a casual conversation where I tell myself lthat I’m just here to learn about the other person. If you psych yourself up and you’re like, ‘oh my god, it’s my interview with a capital I, and we’re sitting here and what’s my next question,’ it’s so unnatural and you’re not going to get anything natural. The first thing is if you want your subject to relax, you’re going to have to go in there a bit relaxed and that’s the hardest thing as a young reporter. You haven’t done it enough to be relaxed.
“I always tell the subject, ‘I really want this to be informal. I just want to understand your story better.’ I find that saying that at the beginning kind of lets them let their guard down. You have to understand that you’re never going to know the person. You’re just trying to create a snapshot for the reader of who somebody is in a certain time and space. So however you can, come as close to understanding who somebody is. That’s your job.
“I ask a billion followup questions. If somebody in the interview tells me, ‘Yeah, I was feeling really sad,’ and they end there, you have to keep digging. Say, ‘you know how like when you say sad, do you mean like depressed or can you help me understand a bit more how you were feeling?’ And then they give you more. You say, ‘well, what was your worst moment? What was your lowest moment?’
“Sometimes you just have to ask for the anecdote because subjects don’t think in terms of anecdotes. They’re not like ‘Yeah, so one time when I was 7, I was in the car. The car is red, and it had a holder for this. And by the way, my mom and I used to listen to the song in the car and that has sentimental value.’ That’s literally not how it goes. You can’t be afraid to ask, ‘What color was the car?’
“And I was like, ‘Look, I just really need an anecdote from your childhood that illustrates blah, blah, blah.’ They were like, oh, and then they gave that to me.
“So, the rich anecdotes come from follow up after follow up and not being afraid to look stupid. Half of being a sportswriter, I feel, is making a fool of yourself. If you’re ever embarrassed to ask a followup, just make fun of it. ‘I know it’s just a stupid journalism question but what song was playing in the background?’ And we know it’s not stupid, but they don’t think like us. So that’s sort of how I go about it.
“If you hesitate, guess what? Another person won’t and they will get the story and you’ll be mad at yourself. And they will keep getting the jobs and you will be in your apartment wishing you would have gone there. You’ve got a job to do and if you don’t want to look stupid or not make the extra call or don’t ask the question, I’m telling you, somebody else is and you’re going to be mad at yourself for being too afraid.
“It’s not that you’re not going to have fear throughout your career. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is, like, I’m always nervous, I’m always fearful, but I’m going to push past it. That’s how you get better. That’s really all this is.”