Friday, September 28, 2012

On The Ground: ESPN/Esquire's Chris Jones on his comments at Fast Break

I wrote a pretty in-depth look at context and criticism over at Awful Announcing that was published today. Doing interviews is rewarding, but you often wind up with more material than you can use, and it would seem a particular shame to take anyone out of context in a piece about context. It's also a good chance to show those interested just how the sausage gets made. (Hilariously, the origin of that quote itself is in dispute.) Thus, continuing the On The Ground interview series, I'm using this space to post my questions and the full on-the-record responses I received. First up, my interview with Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine/Esquire, whose comments as relayed in this piece started this whole thing. I first just asked him if there's additional context I should consider. Here's what he had to say.

Glad you're writing a piece about that night. It was fun.

I'd say, first off, make sure you read the rest of the quotes from me in that story. I think I've been really supportive of young writers and have gone out of my way to provide advice and encouragement. I believe that optimism and open-heartedness are important.

That part of the story you're talking about—and that's not a quote; that's in the writer's voice—came after Akil, one of the other panelists, talked about how your "likability" factor will play a big role in how far you go. I was agreeing with him: Journalism is a people business, built in a lot of ways on connections and relationships. You know that. It's important not only to get your job, of course—because so often, you'll get a break because someone else puts in a good word for you, which has been the case with my own career—but it's just as important once you're in this business. At both of my shops, I work closely and usually one-on-one with my editors, and if either one of us was an asshole, it wouldn't work. There has to be trust and faith and all sorts of good things there.

So if I see a young writer talking shit to veterans, about shops, just generally being cynical and miserable, I'll remember that. I'm hardly a gatekeeper, but if someone did ask me what I thought of someone, and I'd seen them acting like an asshole online, I wouldn't recommend them. (I'm not talking about thoughtful criticism here, by the way; I'm talking about being a snarky jerk, purposeless stuff.) Why would I? Who wants to work with assholes? If two writers were of equal ability, I'd pick the nice guy. The vast majority of people would. So my advice at Fast Break was: Don't be a dick. It is a bad career move. Tell me I suck and I'm an idiot and ESPN or Esquire sucks and then ask me for help getting a gig? Not going to happen. Give me a good reason why it should. This seems like common sense to me.

That led to a couple of follow-ups. My questions: 1. You say you're not talking about thoughtful criticism, but being a snarky jerk. Where would you draw the line between those two? 2. Hypothetically, you're hiring someone for an ESPN position. (I know that's not your job; I'm just interested in how you would react here.) Candidates A and B are completely identical in all other respects, but A has written a post criticizing ESPN for handling of a specific media issue (let's say Craig James), while B hasn't said anything on the issue. Assume A's post is not personally rude to anyone and doesn't say "ESPN sucks" as a blanket statement, but questions ESPN's journalistic integrity in this specific matter. Would that make a difference in your hypothetical hire, or are the two candidates still identical? Here are his responses:

1. This is a hard question. It's a bit like the old line about pornography: I know it when I see it. I'll give you an example of what I would consider constructive. If someone asked me why I started a story a particular way—did I consider a different beginning, perhaps this part of the story or that one? Maybe that would have been better? I'd have no problem with that. In fact, I'd be impressed by that, because I love talking about writing and because it shows thought and care. Snark would be something like, I thought that story sucked, beginning was zzzzzzz, tl;dr. (tl;dr, for me... You might as well put on a dunce cap.) I'm not saying AT ALL that writers shouldn't question other writers. But there's a way to do it that's positive. For me, again, it comes down to thought and care. You can see that in a story, right, when a writer has made careful choices and has thought about what he's doing? I can see the same thing in criticism. Carelessness, mindlessness, is an epidemic. It is a huge red flag for me.

2. Again, for me—and you're right, this would never happen; I've never hired anyone—but again it comes down to tone. Is the criticism thoughtful and fair and constructive? No problem. In fact, could be a positive. Is it mean and useless and destructive? Problem.

This stuff is important to me, because I'm pretty passionate about young writers and the choices they make. I see too often young writers making dumb, possibly career-altering mistakes for no good reason—slagging future potential employers for a fist bump from their bros. If that's what's important to you, then you're not my kind of writer. It's like the difference between an artist and a vandal. In addition to care, purpose is what matters to me. Are your intentions good or bad? That matters a lot to me.

Thanks to Chris for answering the questions here. You can read my full thoughts on the situation here and follow Chris on Twitter here


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