An Interview with Eric Raskin
Eric Raskin: Interviewed on October 26, 2011
Position: Freelance writer/editor (most notably: Grantland.com, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine)
Born: 1975, Philadelphia
Education: Brown University, 1997, AB in Mathematical Economics
Career: Full-time jobs: Managing Editor of The Ring magazine, 1997-2005; Editor-in-Chief of ALL IN magazine, 2005-2008 & 2009-2011; Senior Content Producer for Full Tilt Poker Academy, 2008-2009. Freelance jobs at various times 2005-present: The Ring contributing editor, ESPN.com boxing columnist, Grantland.com boxing writer, HBO.com boxing writer, ESPN The Magazine boxing writer, Boxing Monthly writer, TheSweetScience.com columnist, Maxboxing.com columnist.
Personal: “Married since 2005 to my beautiful wife Robin, with two amazing kids, Olivia (4) and Eli (2)—and I must give a shout-out as well to our mystery mutt Rodney (6).”
Favorite restaurant (home): “I think my wife would be embarrassed if I stated publicly that Arby’s is my favorite restaurant, so instead I’ll go with Isaac Newton’s, a neighborhood joint in Newtown, Pennsylvania that’s both kid-friendly and good for a low-key ‘date night’ meal.”
Favorite restaurant (away): “I don’t travel terribly often, and when I do, I don’t necessarily eat fancy. Give me a decent coffee shop, and I’ll manage. Still, to answer the question: My older brother took me to a sushi place in L.A. about eight years ago that absolutely blew me away. It’s called Sushi Nozawa, and the chef is affectionately known as “The Sushi Nazi.” Fortunately, I followed the rules and never had to be lectured, “You are pushing your luck, little man.”
Favorite hotel: “The great majority of my traveling over the years has been to Vegas, and I stayed at the Wynn in 2005, just a few months after it opened. With all due respect to Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, etc., the Wynn was the only one where I checked into my room and thought, This is really swanky … I’m not sure I’m worthy of staying here.”
Q. Nice piece in Grantland
. How did you get that assignment?
A. Thank you. There’s still a small element of mystery to the story of how I got the assignment for the Leonard-Hagler oral history, one detail that I haven’t been able to fill in. But here’s the story from my perspective:
On March 31 of this year, I got an email informing me that “SportsGuy33” was following me on Twitter. I’ve been a huge Bill Simmons fan since about 2002, probably read every word he wrote in that time span, I listen to all of his podcasts, etc. So my first thought was, Someone who’s tech savvy is playing an early April Fool’s Day joke on me. Then I got a direct message from him, simply giving me his email address and asking me to email him. Moments later, I noticed he’d un-followed me on Twitter; he just followed me long enough to send me a direct message.
Anyway, we traded a couple of quick emails, in which he said he wanted to assign a boxing feature and he thought I might be the right guy, then he CC’d the deputy editor of the site, Dan Fierman, and Dan finally told me what the assignment was—not really a writing assignment, but more a test of interviewing, reporting, and editing, the oral history of the Leonard-Hagler fight.
Once the assignment had begun to move forward, I asked Dan out of curiosity, “How did you guys land on my name as the guy for this?” Dan said there had been a big editorial meeting involving numerous people, and Bill was a fan of the oral history format and wanted to roll out a few of them around the time of the site’s launch. The Leonard-Hagler fight was on his list. He asked the room if anybody knew of a good boxing writer, someone gave him my name, and he jotted it down and said he’d contact me. Dan doesn’t remember who that someone was, so I’m still not sure whom to thank for getting me on Grantland’s radar.
Q. Why boxing, and how did you come to be a free-lance journalist?
A. This is going to sound corny, but I feel like boxing found me more than I found it. I watched very little boxing as a kid—we didn’t have cable TV until I was almost out of high school, and by the late ’80s, it was nearly impossible to be a boxing fan without cable. When I graduated college in ’97, I knew I wanted to go into sports journalism, I moved back home to the Philly suburbs for the summer, and I responded to an ad in the newspaper looking for a sports editor in another suburban town not far away. It turned out the job was with The Ring magazine, which had a staff of three editors, and two of them were suddenly departing at the same time. That meant they were fairly desperate to hire someone, and a knowledge of boxing was secondary to being able to write and edit. They offered me the job, and the money was god-awful, but I figured I had to start somewhere.
After about a month on the job, I went to my first live fight card, and in the co-featured bout, Arturo Gatti knocked out Gabe Ruelas in what turned out to be the Fight of the Year. I was hooked. What I thought might be a one-year job on the road to covering a more mainstream sport for a more mainstream publication stretched into seven years full-time and seven more since as a freelance boxing writer.
I left The Ring’s editorial staff in ’05 because I was about to get married and needed to earn a better living, and I took a job in New York as the sole editor of a startup poker magazine called ALL IN. I’ll skip various gory details and just say that ALL IN went out of business in February of 2011, and the pursuit of a full-time editorial job that will pay me what I need to feed my family has been a real struggle. So while looking for jobs, I’ve soldiered along as the busiest quote-unquote unemployed man you’ve ever seen, chasing down as much freelance work as I can get and taking on various project gigs—most notably, a two-month stretch in New York editing ESPN’s annual fantasy football guide, which unfortunately never saw the light of day because the NFL lockout wasn’t resolved in time.
Q. What are your main gigs – tell us about your typical schedule?
A. My schedule really varies from day to day and week to week, but I have a few gigs that are on a regular schedule, such as my weekly column on TheSweetScience.com, the subscription-based boxing podcast that I co-host twice a month called Ring Theory, and a poker column that runs twice every month. I also have quite a few gigs that just involve me pitching topics and angles as frequently as I can, such as Grantland.com, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, and HBO.com.
Back when I was full-time with ALL IN and freelancing on the side, I was working a lot of 60-hour weeks. As a full-time freelancer, I’ve probably been working more in the range of 30-40 hours a week. But the brutal part is all the time you spend hustling but not getting paid. On top of those 30-40 hours I spend writing, interviewing, etc., I probably spend 20 or 25 hours a week just thinking about boxing, watching boxing, formulating ideas, reading articles, and ultimately crafting and emailing pitches. Sometimes that work leads to paying assignments, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Q. What is the financial reality of life as a free-lance journalist in your field – tell us about your struggle?
A. I’m not going to reveal exactly what I make, of course … but since I took a lot of econ classes in college, let’s use “widgets” and do some rounding. When I was working for The Ring in my 20s, I was earning about one widget per year. From 2005-2007, between my job at ALL IN and my freelance work, I was earning about three widgets. From 2008-2010, as I got a few higher-paying freelance gigs, I was making about four widgets.
Now, as a full-time freelancer, I’m back down to about two widgets, and I just can’t figure out how to get it much higher than that. If I was still just a single guy, no wife, no kids, no mortgage, just individual health insurance to pay for, I’d be doing just fine financially.
But in the situation I’m in, two widgets simply isn’t cutting it. I haven’t been able to find a full-time job in writing or editing that pays adequately—I’m obviously not going to go back to an entry-level position—and I’ve learned the hard way this year that I can’t make ends meet without a full-time job. At times I feel like a success, when I look at where my byline is running, the work I’m doing, and how much more money I’m making now than I was throughout my 20s. But for the most part, this year has not been successful—at least not financially. So I’m planning to go into another field very soon. I have a job lined up that I won’t go into details about here. Once that job starts, I’ll continue writing on the side, but far less prolifically than I am now. You know, unless someone reads this and offers me a great full-time editing/writing/broadcasting job …
Q. What is your family situation and how do you maintain work/life balance?
A. I’ll say this: It would all be a lot easier if my son would learn how to sleep. Of course, my kids are the greatest thing in the world, nothing makes me happier than they do, but the reality is that my son recently turned two and still gets up before the sun almost every morning, and my ability to function optimally in my work life suffers as a result.
Anyway, my wife works from home also, and both sets of grandparents live nearby, so there’s constantly free babysitting available. I just have to be flexible. If I have deadlines to hit, my wife is on kid duty and I’m more or less able to focus on my work. But I know that from about 5-9 in the morning and 5-8 at night, I’m feeding the kids, getting them dressed, giving them baths, walking the dog, playing with the kids, etc., so unless I have work that needs to get done urgently, my windows for doing work are between 9-5 and after 8:00 at night.
It’s chaotic, but I’m thankful to be able to spend so much time with my family. I know a lot of guys who leave for work before their kids are up and come home after their kids have gone to bed, so I’ll take this over that.
Q. Who and what are your influences as a journalist?
A. I’m not just kissing butt when I say that Simmons has been a strong influence. Also, Nigel Collins and Stu Saks, my mentors at The Ring, were huge influences in shaping my editing skills. I think by doing so much editing throughout my career, I’ve managed to borrow writing techniques from many of the better writers I’ve worked with, and I’ve come away with a versatile style that allows me to take on all different types of assignments. I pride myself on not being just a “game story” guy or a “personality profile” guy or an “OpEd” guy.
Unfortunately, as a guy who reads, writes, and edits all day, I don’t end up doing a whole lot of leisure reading. I make it through about one or two books a year. And I wasn’t big into reading in high school or college. So I think in terms of outside influences, besides Simmons, I don’t have many.
Q. What sports media do you consume and why?
A. For the most part, my sports media comes in two forms: online articles and podcasts. I don’t really read printed newspapers anymore, only subscribe to a couple of magazines, and as I just noted, don’t read many books. I watch SportsCenter and my local Comcast SportsNet sports news show when I can, and same goes for PTI and Real Sports and E:60, but I wouldn’t say I watch any of those shows consistently. For me, it’s mostly web articles and podcasts.
Twitter has made my online reading much easier. I follow the boxing writers I enjoy, click links to their articles, and don’t have to check out every single site every single day. Not to sound like a corporate shill, but I click on almost everything that goes up on Grantland – and probably read about half of the articles in their entirety. I’ll read news articles to stay informed, naturally, but I’m much more drawn to writing that entertains me. Straight reporting bores me for the most part, and this constant competition among reporters to “break” a story that everyone will have posted 15 minutes later seems a bit silly, though I understand why reporting and breaking news is important. Ultimately, though, my preference is toward creative angles and compelling writing.
The biggest way in which my sports media consumption has changed in the past couple of years is with my obsession with podcasts. It was Simmons’ BS Report that drew me in, and now I probably listen to about 10 hours’ worth of podcasts a week. If I’m walking my dog, going for a jog, or driving in my car by myself, the iPod is plugged in and I’m listening to podcasts. I’ve lost all touch with music as a result, but that’s okay; I’m reaching that crusty old age where I think the music of my youth, and long before my youth, is all far superior to anything that’s out there now anyway.
Q. Ideal work situation?
A. That’s a tough question to answer. I’ve grown used to working from home, and I’d love to be able to edit from home or be a staff writer somewhere, while also pursuing side projects. But I’m also open to commuting to New York – as I did for about two years while working for ALL IN, and I’ve found that I can be extremely productive on the train. Hey, in a perfect world, I’d find a single job that pays me so well I can give up the freelance work and dedicate myself fully to that job without chasing down extra income. But I think most people would agree that, nowadays, it’s near impossible to make a comfortable living working 40 hours a week, in any industry.
Q. Goals as a writer/journalist?
A. I guess, in light of my current situation, goal number one is to find a way to feed my family again as a writer/journalist. But approaching the question from a creativity perspective, I feel I’ve achieved a fair amount as a boxing writer. I’d say there are three major ambitions that I have yet to make any headway on.
The first is writing about other sports—I was hoping Grantland might give me an opportunity to branch out and write about the Phillies or the Eagles or pop culture, but so far, those pitches haven’t gained any traction. The second is broadcasting. I’ve made some talking-head appearances on TV here and there, but haven’t really been able to get my foot in the door beyond that. And the third is writing a book. I actually spoke with a couple of literary agents earlier this year about a boxing book idea I had, but boxing is a tough sell and my idea—which everyone I spoke to agreed was highly compelling but a bit too negative to instill confidence that a publisher would latch on—didn’t quite get off the ground.
Someday, though, I’d love to face the challenge of writing a book. My oral history of the Leonard-Hagler fight, which started with some 75,000 words of raw quotes and ultimately ran 13,000 words, was like a four-week test run on writing a book, and I have to say, it enhanced my desire to work on massive projects like that.
Q. What piece of work are you especially proud of?
A. This is obvious and a bit redundant to discuss again, but the Leonard-Hagler oral history stands out. The feedback I got on that was overwhelming. And it took a lot of determination to get it off the ground, because for two months, Hagler’s people turned me away. I finally had to drive from Philly to upstate New York on less than 12 hours’ notice to interview him in person in order for the article to become a reality. Then I conducted about 30 more interviews over the phone in a span of three weeks. It was a major time commitment, and when I had all the quotes, the process of patching them together to tell the story was oddly thrilling.
But if I had to name something else I’m particularly proud of, I would say it’s ALL IN magazine. For most of the mag’s run, I was an editorial staff of one – along with an art director, we had a limited budget, and we put out a magazine that I feel blew away the competition. In 2010, I interviewed Norman Chad—the longtime sports columnist and ESPN poker commentator—and he told me the same thing, that he’d been meaning to get a hold of me for a while to tell me how much he enjoyed the magazine and that he felt it was the best in the genre by far. I’m not trying to knock our competition. A couple of the other poker magazines, which had larger staffs and were better run from a business perspective, are still operating, which means they got the last laugh. But from an editorial perspective, I feel enormous pride over ALL IN. Throughout my time there, when people found out how bare-bones the operation was, they were usually astounded by it.
(SMG thanks Eric Raskin for his cooperation)