Why Will Leitch Writes

Last week, I introduced to the wide readership a line of inquiry down which the very famous Jonah Keri had gotten me started. The line of inquiry concerns those bloggers who, despite almost no promise of financial compensation or notoriety, have persisted in their craft.

The question I posed — after having considered Will Leitch’s suggestion from his Costas Now episode that blogging is a really hard work — the question I posed goes like this:

Why do it? If, as Leitch suggests, it’s hard work, why do it? If, as I can tell you personally, it provides very little in the way of fame and/or cash money, why do it?

I’ve posed this same series of questions — or at least ones very similar to them — to some of the interweb’s more thoughtful baseball writers. This (and maybe next) week, I’ll be sharing their responses in these electronic pages.

Today’s willing participant is actually Mr. Leitch himself. Besides serving as the founding editor of Deadspin and a current contributing editor to New York Magazine, and besides authoring a number of real-live books (including the very recent Are We Winning?, available wherever the internet is present), Will Leitch is also one of the few living humans capable of expressing seven emotions at once, as this photographic evidence suggests:

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Leitch: I’m not sure I’m the ideal person for this, because I’d been starving as a writer for nearly a decade before Deadspin finally launched. I started writing on the Web, back at The Black Table and, before that, with Life As A Loser, because I wanted to get better, because the Web was the perfect place to hone your craft out in public, in real time, with people letting you know what was working and what wasn’t. It also allowed me to do all this for free, and I mean “allowed”: I would have never been able to develop a voice had I been having to sing for my supper. It was an advantage to work it all out with nobody paying and few people reading. I did it because I have no idea how to do anything else. I wrote about a subject I know and care about and, with any luck, I’ll get to keep doing it forever.

Cistulli: I know from God Save the Fan that you harbored notions of becoming an Official Sporting Journalist from pretty early on. I also know that a particularly horrid encounter with Robert Traylor’s babymaker went some way towards disabusing you of that notion, at least so far as beat reporting or whatever. That was — what? — 1997 or 98? What was your next step then? Was it liberating? frightening?

Leitch: I tried to get out of any sort of sportswriting whatsoever; I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a film critic, which, if it weren’t a profession that’s even more endangered than Internet Sports Wag, I’d still be doing. (Or at least trying to.) I went back into it in ‘99, working for The Sporting News, but that mostly involved sitting in a corporate plaza in suburban St. Louis at 2 a.m. waiting for the Sonics-Trail Blazers game to end so I could load the box score for the Website. (This might have been a backward move.) By the time I moved to NYC in 2000, I’d had enough of the sports game. I only got back into it because of Deadspin, because I thought it might be fun to write about something I knew in a way I knew how to do it. I certainly would have never come back to “traditional” sports reporting, not that it mattered, because certainly no one would have asked me to.

Cistulli: This is a crass question, but relevant in the context of this series: when did you start making actual cash money from writing? making a living? And did it change how you perceived yourself?

This isn’t to suggest that you immediately puffed out your chest and spat on the poor — although maybe that happened, I don’t know. Rather, my question is: did you ever worry, as you gained notoriety and legitimacy in the mainstream, that you’d lose the freedom to keep using that voice that you’d developed in the Wild West of the internet?

Leitch: Well, in 2003 and 2004 I worked for Registered Rep. magazine, covering the financial services industry. I am sad to say I was not industrious enough a reporter to uncover credit default swaps; I apologize, America. Anyway, technically, I was “making a living” at writing, but I’m not sure I’d classify what I was doing there “writing.” (I suspect my editors from then would agree with me on that one.) In my spare time — and, really, during my work hours — I was working on The Black Table with friends, for no money, only because it was thought it was our last real chance to do what we’d come out to NYC to do. (Whatever that was.)

It wasn’t until I successfully pitched Deadspin to Nick Denton and Lockhart Steele that I was actually making a living writing exactly what I wanted. I will say this: If I had not had that opportunity, to do it full-time, I’m not sure I would have tried to do it from scratch, for nothing. I’d already done that with The Black Table. I don’t necessarily think Deadspin became popular because of anything I did; I think I had the advantage of being the only person on the Web sports blogging full-time. We just got there first. Because of that, by the time I went to New York mag, I was fairly confident in my abilities, and my voice. I haven’t changed much since I got here, even though I now do occasionally have to ask questions of a shirtless Nick Swisher.

Cistulli: In re the interactivity of a blogger and his audience, two questions.

One: how ought a young writer steel himself against the sort of vitriol that is native to the comments section of a website? With how many grains of salt should he take it? (I concede that “writer” is pretty broad here, but I’ll invite you to speculate wildly.)

Two: do you think it’s possible that, because of the panoply (yes, I said “panoply”) of voices that the internet allows, that we’re basically in a golden age of sportswriting right now? that the internet, in fact, allows for better material because the barrier of entry is so low?

Leitch: One: If you are unable to handle people calling you an idiot on the Internet, you are heretofore encouraged to pursue a career as an anonymous banker. (I will soon be asking you for a loan, in exchange for this advice.) It’s amazing to me that people, intelligent people, actually get offended by what random strangers with fake names say about them. This is the Internet: You are writing for an audience, you are putting your name out there. You do not get to pick and choose your audience. If you cannot handle being called an asshole, or being informed that you know various members of your nuclear family in the Biblical sense, you have no business writing on the Internet. I’m sorry. This is what I believe.

When I met with Bob Costas before the infamous Bissinger program, he asked me, “Why is the Web so mean? Every page I go to, there’s someone saying something awful about someone.” I tried to explain to him that this is not an indictment of the Internet; it is an indictment of humanity. Those people have always been out there. It’s just that you can hear them now. This is WHAT THIS IS. All you can do is have confidence in your own abilities. I certainly never begrudge anyone saying anything they want on the Internet. That’s what I do, and I’m just another human being like they are. I get no special privileges. This is part of the deal.

Two: Yes. I think we’re in a golden age of sportswriting, and journalism, and writing, and all of it. There is more journalism being done today than any other time, ever. Some of it is paid, some of it isn’t, but it’s difficult to find anything that isn’t being covered. Why do people not think this is a good thing? This is a good thing! Sifting the dreck from the gold isn’t particularly difficult to do. I am more informed about everything that I care about — which is not necessarily, I grant you, the same thing as being more informed about everything — than I could have ever imagined. This is what we should want. This is the good ole days.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Kent Bonham
12 years ago

Is that naugahyde?