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March 28 2013

14:26

Just one question … for Michael Graff, on the death of Earl Badu

Big buzz earlier this month when Michael Graff‘s story on the suicide of former University of Maryland basketball walk-on Earl Badu hit SB Nation‘s longform wing:

You know the wish can’t come true, but people say it all the time to hide their own fears, so you’ll open with it, too: You wish he could just be happy. It would be easier that way. You could just hang curtains around everything else — the past, the future, the end — and you could look down through a tunnel at him and say, Freeze. Stay right there. And he’d remain locked in this memory, the little guy with the big heart playing in the final minute of the final game of a storied arena.

Graff

Graff

The piece, edited by Best American Sports Writing boss Glenn Stout, managed to resonate in spite of—because of?—almost no access to, or cooperation from, Badu’s family and friends. So from Graff, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., and also writes for Our State magazine, I wanted to know: How’d he do that?

Here’s what he said:

I was in my office in September writing about the symphony, of all things, when I read a brief on the Washington Post’s website that said Earl Badu committed suicide. The report showed that he jumped off an overpass and “onto Interstate 695.” I couldn’t believe it. Anybody who knew about Maryland’s 2002 national championship team remembered Earl. He was the Terps’ all-time Rudy. I remembered the basket he scored late in the last game at Cole, and I remembered just how loved he was by the fans. And now all I could picture was this scene with cars swerving around his body.

I waited. In mid-November I sent a half-hearted pitch to my editor, Glenn Stout, and said, basically, “Here’s an idea. I don’t know if I can get it. But if you think you’d want it, I’ll try.” Glenn said go.

I knew I had these two moments in time, moments that most humans never experience—a big shot, and a suicide. All I had to do, I figured, was fill up the 10 years in between.

Throughout December, I struggled with access. I live in North Carolina. And coaches and athletes from big places like Maryland have a lot going on. So it’s easier for them to work with writers they know, especially on hard stories like this. I was way behind. But I figured I had one thing going for me: I cared about it.

I started in the athletic department. I was honest in my requests. I told everybody up front that I was going to write about the suicide. Then I let them decide whether they wanted to participate. I didn’t want to mislead anyone.

I requested public records. The incident report showed that the suicide took place in two locations—the house and the top of the bridge. His parents were involved; other people were involved. Also, he didn’t jump onto the road. He jumped into a ditch.

The biggest blows came when Badu’s parents and Juan Dixon, his best friend on the team, decided not to participate. I contacted an old friend of mine who knows Juan and his brother Phil personally. That friend called the Dixons, and they said they wanted to be respectful of Earl’s family. I had Earl’s parents’ address from the police report. I called them twice. I left two messages. Then I mailed them a letter. When their attorney called me on Jan. 7, I was actually in my truck and on my way to their house. I decided to leave them alone, at his request.

I talked to Glenn throughout the process. I told him I was having a hard time filling up the middle. He said, “The unknown is part of the story.” That stuck. (Ed. note: The unknown, in fact, can serve as the theme of a story, as Alan Huffman showed in his recent “Why’s this so good?” breakdown of a Carol Smith piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The lack of access forced the story to become deeper than the space between two moments in time; it became a story about the space between life and death.

In a way, the main character became suicide, not Earl.

I put myself in every place I could see him. I drove to the courthouse. Basic Internet court-record searches showed his legal trouble, $300,000 in debt to Alan Cornfield. Those troubles came to life in scenes in court documents. One of them was the scene of Earl on a cell phone in court, telling the judge to let him finish the call.

I drove to the house. I wrote what I saw and felt, turned around, and got the heck out of there. At the edge of the neighborhood, I started recording more notes. I recorded them all the way to the top of the bridge, where I stopped. I got out, walked around, put my hands on the wall and looked down. I hurried back to my truck. I put a notebook on the armrest and, with my hand shaking, I wrote this: “Jumping takes courage.”

I kept calling people. I found some of his old high school coaches and teammates. The farther out I got, the more people talked. They told me about the Earl they knew. They loved him.

I spent three months with this story, off and on and between other things. I went to bed with it and woke up with it. After a while, the question changed from “How do I get the story?” to “Why am I doing it? What’s the greater good?”

I guess in a small way, I wanted to change the way readers saw the next person they passed. Obviously, we enter every situation carrying our own life experiences. It’s easy to look at every end-of-the-bench player and think of him in a Rudy type of way. If he’s not great at basketball or football, we think, he must be a “good student,” or a “hard worker.” I’ve seen sportswriters lead players into those answers for years, and I’ve watched how they’ve shaped those humans. It’s not fair; we’re more complicated than that.

Suicide as a character, then, is a tornado that spins all over the place. It isn’t a solitary act. It spins onto a basketball floor. Into the eyes of fans. Into the words of sportscasters and writers. Into the pressure to make money. Into a courtroom. Onto a bridge. It makes teachers and friends and family and bosses and everybody who’s ever been in contact with the victim feel connected in a really bad way.

That’s why I waited until the end to introduce the other people in the story. Not many people cared that Andre Collins hit that last shot. But he did. It wasn’t Earl.

Nobody even knew about Rodney Welsh and Janet Stout, two people whose names were sort of hidden in the police report. But Earl changed their lives that day. Rodney, especially, still can’t sleep at night because of it. I thought that made it important to write about them, and to do it at the bottom—as real endings to those two stories that I introduced at the top.

One night in February, about a week before the deadline, I dreamed about Earl. I dreamed he was in a room, something like a dressing room inside an arena. He was leaning against a pillar, talking to his mom. And out of nowhere, Earl turned to me and he said, “This is all about a girl.”

I woke up stunned. Had I gone wrong? I was one week away from turning in the story, and I didn’t have a girl anywhere. All I had was money. That actually helped me let go of some blocks and turn this in.

Reporters believe we need to know everything about a story before writing it. We hold stories or never publish them because a source won’t call back. But sometimes not knowing is just part of it. Especially with suicide. And I know this from personal experience: It didn’t matter if I talked to every person who came into contact with Earl in his life, I’d still have one source missing—the main one, the only one who knew what it was like to live with that despair.

I wrote the first draft in first person. A friend who’s an editor read it and had hesitations with my character that way. That’s when I decided to try the whole thing in second person. I think I was able to be more honest that way. The global “you” made it easier to talk about, which I guess is sort of telling. I turned it in at 2 a.m. the day of the deadline. Glenn wrote me three emails before 9 a.m., and we were on the phone working through revision notes by 10. The first version ended with Janet Stout. Glenn liked that, but he said he wanted me to try a few others. If they didn’t work, we’d stay with Janet.

A few days later, I sat down in my chair in a corner of the living room with a cup of coffee. My neighbor is a single mother. Her two boys were in their driveway playing basketball. They’re about 10 and 12. They call me “Mr. Mike.” They don’t have a goal. They make hoops with their arms. The one making the hoop counted down the seconds: “5-4-3-2-1.” The other one shoots. Then they switch. I got my laptop, sat in the chair, turned around, closed my eyes, listened to their shoes and voices, and wrote the ending.

kruse-m1Michael Kruse is an award-winning staff writer on the enterprise team at the Tampa Bay Times. He recently gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. His “Just One Question” column has covered stories by Lane DeGregory, Gene Weingarten, and others.  

May 26 2011

14:00

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

June 11 2010

15:51

June 09 2010

14:21

SB Nation CEO on how we’re fans of teams, not sports, T.V. shows, not T.V., and what that means for news

SB Nation — short for Sports Blog Nation — just announced it’s launching 20 new regional sports sites, with Houston and Dallas launching tomorrow aimed at competing with local newspapers’ sports sections and the new wave of local sports competitors like the ESPN local sites. SB Nation is a network of over 250 sites, most of them written by fans now paid on a contract basis. The vast majority of those writers have day jobs outside blogging. (Most common: lawyer.) Individual member blogs focus on one team or one sport, while the flagship site covers news of national interest.

SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff is a former AOL executive with big plans for the site; at AOL, he was involved in the growth of prominent sites like TMZ and Engadget. I spoke with Bankoff this week about SB Nation’s expansion in the context of what news organizations can learn from the success of his project. “I actually think there is a bigger media story here,” Bankoff told me; he sees an opportunity for media companies to borrow some of SB Nation’s ideas. Here are a few.

Voice and perspective

SB Nation tosses aside the idea of objectivity. The premise of the site is to get sports fans hooked on their blogs written by sports fans. “We actually embrace fan bias and fan perspective,” Bankoff told me, adding that doesn’t mean they’re always cheerleaders: “Fans can be the most vocal critics of a team.” Writing with a point of view is still contentious in traditional newsrooms. It also helps that SB Nation sites focus on aggregation of and commentary on other people’s reporting than its own original work.

Focused content

Think of a typical newspaper sports section. It covers everything sports. Football, baseball, soccer, gymnastics — whatever season it is, that’s what you get. There’s a regional emphasis, but still, golf and ice skating live on the same pages. Bankoff’s approach is to think about people’s habits, rather than a broad topic. “We’re not fans of sports — we’re fans of teams,” Bankoff says. “We’re not fans of television. We’re fans of shows.” Are we interested in health? Perhaps, but we’re definitely interested in a disease, when we have one. Creating a community around a topic online needs to be sharply focused and relevant to readers.

Leverage repeat visitors

The potential to update a story in realtime is one of the great promises of the web. SB Nation has developed a good way to present updates, not unlike a tag page but with a sharper design. “One of our key innovations is the ’story stream,’” Bankoff told me, urging me to browse to the front page of his flagship. There I noticed several ongoing stories noting the number of updates posted, plus some links with time stamps. Clicking the update bar takes the reader to a stream of posts, organized by time stamp. An individual update provides the reader a link to the stream. Bankoff said it’s particularly handy for users following a story on a mobile device. (And repeat readers who keep hitting “Reload” for the latest updates are obviously appealing from an advertising perspective.)

“It was a little bit of an experiment,” Bankoff said. He wanted to improve on the various ways bloggers have updated stories in the past: the long single post with many updates pasted on top of each other, the tag (that is not immediately obvious to users), the disconnected posts that might appear in a “related posts” section. Those models have their merits but can be “clunky” and difficult for the user to navigate, he said. Bankoff said user feedback to the format has been positive.

Scalability

SB Nation has another advantage: It’s designed to expand. It’s the same instinct behind AOL’s hyperlocal project Patch (which hopes to launch “hundreds” of sites by the end of the year) and, on a smaller scale, the Gothamist or Gawker sites: Leverage the cost of the overhead of one site by running many. This is particularly important when you’ve invested in technology. SB Nation has a team of half a dozen developers who’ve built a shared platform that allows hundreds of users to contribute to the network sites at once, plus tools like the story stream and mobile products. With the technology in place, expansion becomes much less expensive. “We can expand in many directions,” Bankoff said.

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