I joined Bleacher Report to cover the AFC South on August 1st, 2014. As of August, 1st, 2015 — the day my one-year contract runs out — the position will no longer exist. (You can read more about that here if you’re inclined.)
I know you’ve probably read plenty of horror stories about Bleacher Report by now. Even if they aren’t recent, there’s still a perception gap they’re trying to catch up on. This isn’t one of those. My editors were friendly and understanding. (To the point where they gave me several in-season days off as I struggled with bronchitis.) The support group was nice, and the programming people I worked with had a terrific grasp of where things stand in the industry.
In fact, looking at it through their lenses, I actually concur with their assessment of their own situation. My role was expendable. I could feel it happening as people above me in the pecking order — national writers, and sometimes video guys — pecked away the big angles I was supposed to cover. I probably wrote as much about Allen Hurns as I did about J.J. Watt this season. And, as awesome as Allen Hurns is, nobody is planning a website with advertising quotas around Allen Hurns pieces.
I’ve been in this game for a while now. I signed on at Football Outsiders in 2011, but I’ve been laboring solely as a sports writer since about 2009. If I have a regret, it’s that I’ve been too coachable. It’s that I’ve let other people control my writing and mold me into what they want me to be.
Felix Salmon’s recent piece was so buzzworthy that it even infiltrated Sports Twitter for most of last week. The main crux of the piece is that journalism jobs are disappearing left and right, and the majority of those that remain are going to be “cog in the machine” jobs, as he puts it. I will be honest with you, I pulled some of the resumes of the people who applied for the editor job I got at Football Outsiders. There were probably 20 qualified applicants for that job. Fangraphs recently tried to hire one writer and wound up hiring five. Dave Cameron said he probably could have hired 20. Entry-level writing jobs in this profession aren’t easy to come by, and barely pay subsistence wage. Salmon is right, to an extent.
But the problem I am beginning to see is that by taking a cog job, you also trap yourself in cog work. I believe strongly in the idea of Pareto’s Principle. I certainly see it in how I read about football. The top 20 percent of football writers get my reads. The top 20 percent of new ideas, information, graphs, and so on draw most of my attention. Unless it hits one of those intersections, I’m probably not going to read it.
Having done this for an NFL season, I have a lot more respect for beat writers than I used to. I didn’t do half of their job. I don’t go to games for quotes. (I’d love to come back though, Texans PR staff!) I didn’t watch practices. In other words, I skipped most of the bullshit that doesn’t actually matter. But it is extremely hard to gussy up cog work, no matter how good you are. Unless you have inside information, sources, and the like, there’s not really much need to pay attention to a writer working in that 80 percent field. I didn’t have those. I had what I thought was well-reasoned analysis and enough tables to open my own IKEA. The target audience enjoyed it, but I wasn’t boosting my stock or anything.
Despite the best intentions of both sides, I was put into a job where I couldn’t really elevate myself by people who didn’t really need me to do that job. It’s kind of funny, looking back on it.
More often than not, I agree with the sentiment that past performance is our best indicator of future production. Admitting this means admitting that I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet. While I’ve been proud of things I’ve written individually, I haven’t done it consistently yet. I am still learning. Still trying to do my best on a daily basis. On everything from writing to functioning like a normal human being.
I’ve shared this before, but both of my parents died rather suddenly on me. My dad passed away in 2010, and I was 25 when my mom died of a stroke in 2011. What I probably haven’t gotten into before is what a non-functioning zero of an asswart I felt I was at that age. I sponged hard off my mother’s kindness. I was entitled and felt owed something by the world (over things I won’t get into here) that set me into depression for most of my teenage years.
When my mom died, that net was gone, and I fell hard. I’d never rented a place before. Never cooked anything more complicated than eggs. Never shopped for my own groceries or clothes that weren’t jerseys. Never paid my own taxes or managed money. So, for the last four years, I’ve been learning a lot about this whole “life” thing. To do this, I’ve had to put a lot of my life on autopilot at different points. For instance, I haven’t really given myself much of a chance to grieve — that still comes out at strange times. And, more importantly for the purposes of this post, I’ve mostly tried to follow orders at work. I haven’t fought hard enough on subjects I’m passionate about yet. I haven’t completely devoted myself to the crafts I know would improve my writing and football acumen. I can and have done well enough with what I know, so perhaps this is a case of impossibly high standards I’m setting for myself, but I think it mostly comes down to time. I’ve learned so much over the past four years, but there’s still so much more to learn. I honestly don’t even know how to swim. Or ride a bike. I feel like a slothful Ned Flanders.
I’m 29 years old now. 30 in June. I don’t really know where I go from here, and I probably won’t have a solid idea until I take a vacation and get some distance from the situation. Obviously the goal is to keep writing about football (maybe other sports?), but how I get there is … well, it’s a story still waiting to be written. Do I write only what I think is important and see where that gets me, regardless of the short-term effects on my income? Do I find my way into another job where I’ll be writing about the fifth-highest 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine because nobody believes in me punching above that class? Is there a middle ground somewhere (editing?)? Do I take the Chase Stuart model and turn this into a hobby while pursuing some other career? It’s kind of all on the table at this point, and I feel extremely fortunate that the ticking clock on that is still a ways in the distance.
But as I sit here reflecting on the ride, I just wish I’d been able to take more agency in my career path sooner. My advice to young writers? Don’t let anyone tell you what you can do if you can avoid it.