An Interview with Tim Layden (Part 2)
“I was reading my own clips – a lot of them had long opening anecdotes. Now I wonder if I needed those. A lot of my profiles involved long intros with detail about the time and place and person. I think it’s good to check that and see if it feels right. The short answer is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re under time pressure, sitting on a 6000-word story with five days to write it, that’s a different kind of pressure. Sometimes you just have to write what you have to get started.”
“If you hit everything you get linked to and let that cascade it’s just too much if you try and read everything. I can’t imagine being a national columnist and trying to be on top of every piece of news every day. It would just wear me out.”
“Nobody at SI has addressed the tug-of-war between the website and the magazine. Institutionally, as a group what do we do about this? If we write a story for the web at midweek, because that’s the growth part of the organization, but then it becomes a part of the story on the weekend, nobody has told us what to do. Or what exactly do you do for the web if you think your story will hold for three days?”
Tim Layden: Interviewed on July 16, 2007
Position: senior writer, general assignment, Sports Illustrated
Born: 1956, Whitehall, NY
Education: Williams, 1978, English
Career: Schenectady Gazette 1978-86, Albany Times Union 86-88, Newsday 88-94, Sports Illustrated 94 –
Personal: married (Janet), two children (Kristin, Kevin)
Favorite restaurant (home): Harvest Cafe, Simsbury, Ct. “Fresh, innovative lunches. My wife and I have been going since
we moved to CT in 1995. Friendly, unpretentious, relaxing”
Favorite restaurant (road): Sapporo, Louisville, Ky, ‘sushi – go through at debry with mark beech, writer/repoerter at SI – we love to gather people for sushi in Louisivile – noeses turne dup at us – grat spot”
Favorite hotel: “I hate all of them – being in hotel means you’re on road and away from family – every time I check in I just want to get my work done and get home”
Tim Layden excerpted from Sports Illustrated, November 9, 1998:
Mother and son lived alone in a tiny three-room apartment at Fifth and Robidoux in the northwest Missouri city of St. Joseph. They had moved there from Salina, Kans., in 1945, after Marionetta Snyder divorced her husband, Tom, a traveling salesman. The son, Bill, was six years old at the time of the move. For the next 12 years he slept on a Murphy bed in the living room next to his mother, who slept on a rollaway cot.
Bill learned to swim at the YMCA pool six blocks away, and he played five sports at Lafayette High. His mother worked tirelessly. She would leave the apartment before Bill awakened and walk to the Townsend and Wall department store, where she was a sales clerk and buyer. Often she wouldn’t return until after Bill went to sleep at night. She never owned a car, never even got a driver’s license. She just worked. “We didn’t have much, but she provided me with all that she could. She literally gave up her life for me,” says Bill. Marionetta died in 1996 at age 78. “She taught me that what the Lord gives you is time,” he says, “and 24 hours a day is all you get.”
This workday ends at midnight, when Bill Snyder, 59, walks down the narrow carpeted hallway from his office into the foyer of the Vanier Football Complex at Kansas State, where he has been coach for 10 seasons. His only concession to the lateness of the hour is a slight loosening of his yellow necktie, which complements his gray wool suit. He pushes open a glass door and walks into the cool prairie night, pausing to lock the building because he’s the last to leave. His dark green Cadillac sits at the curb. “You could drive by the complex after leaving a party at 2 o’clock in the morning, and his car would be there,” says Kansas City Chiefs wideout Kevin Lockett, who played for Snyder from 1993 to ’96.
…He’s home now. The suit jacket is laid neatly across the cooking island in the kitchen of his house in an upscale development three minutes from the stadium. In six hours he will be back in the office, chasing perfection again. Snyder is at the top of his profession and in the race for a national title. Yet, like any perfectionist, he despises finite goals. “If we’re fortunate enough to win a national championship, I don’t believe it would be a culminating experience,” he says. “There’s no finality in any of this for me, other than death.”
Is he happy? “I’m not unhappy,” he says.
Soon the only sound in the kitchen is the rhythmic clacking of dress shoes on the hardwood floor, followed by the opening of a refrigerator door and the whisper of cool air flowing into the room.
Q. How important is the opening anecdote?
A. I had this argument sitting in an airport in Italy with Michael Farber – I love to talk the craft of writing with him. He lectured me on his opinion that the anecdote is over-used and passé. All of us lean on it when it’s not meaningful. I don’t know how to start a story so I’m going to run off four grafs with description, clouds and cars and when I’m done I’ll start the story. He said ‘sometimes a story just starts. Write a declarative sentence and just go. If you’ve got great access and scenes you can get to that eventually’. I said ‘sometimes an anecdote can set up what a story is’.
Over the years at SI people have used the opening anecdote as a way of showing off. Look at me, I’m in Michael Jordan’s living room and I’m going to make you read about it for 500 words so you know I’m there.
I was reading my own clips – a lot of them had long opening anecdotes. Now I wonder if I needed those. A lot of my profiles involved long intros with detail about the time and place and person. I think it’s good to check that and see if it feels right. The short answer is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re under time pressure, sitting on a 6000-word story with five days to write it, that’s a different kind of pressure. Sometimes you just have to write what you have to get started.
I once wrote a piece on Bill Snyder, the football coach at Kansas State. Snyder was a strange inaccessible guy, a megalomaniac who ran an obsessive program and took K-State from nothing to being a contender. The only time he talked to media was on Wednesdays from 12 to 1. I went there three straight Wednesdays from Connecticut. One time I asked if I could follow him home and shake hands in his driveway. He asked why. I said ‘that’s who you are and it will help me better’. He said sure. I followed him at midnight to his house – he got a cold dinner out of the refrigerator and sat down and ate.
The anecdote at the beginning was a story he told about his mother raising him in a small apartment and sleeping on a cot, which I could recreate. Then I used his best quotes – the ones that best summarized the story I was about to tell, which is a common device good writers and bad writers use. I used the scene where I followed him to his house as the kicker.
In a way I felt I was tricking the reader because I only spent three minutes at his house that night, and I asked to go. But I didn’t create the circumstances of him going home late and getting the cold plate of food and picking at it. By following him I was able to bring closure to the story in an accurate and representative way that validated the way the story started.
When you use those anecdotes you always wonder if they work or not, if they enhance the piece of just show that you can write. Nobody bats a thousand on it. We all need a way to make a story move along and connect good material. That’s one of the hardest things to figure out.
Q. How much travel is involved in your job?
A. About 100 days a year, though it fluctuates. In Olympic years it goes up. In the last 20 years my low is 75 days and my high would be 200, but I haven’t been near 200 in a few years. You make concessions. Baseball guys don’t have control over their travel. I don’t cut corners on material – I cut corners on comfort. I’ll take the 6 a.m. flight out and the 7 p.m. flight home. It’s exhausting. But it enables you to stay home and watch your son play hockey or your daughter row in a race. As a result you’re kind of tired all the time.
Q. Is it hard on your health?
A. I’m pretty healthy. I exercise diligently. I was a runner for a long time and now I’m a biker. I don’t drink much and I don’t smoke. It does affect sleep. You get a few more colds. For stories connected to events SI has morning deadlines on Sunday and Monday and you have to stay up and file in the morning at least 15 times a year.
It’s something you accept. If you have discipline and speed you don’t have to stay up all night. When I first came to SI to cover college football I would get to my hotel room by 8 and be done by midnight. I had that newspaper edge, but I lost it over time and got slower. Long features are different. You file those on Thursday on your own time.
There’s a great emphasis today on being a specialist. I never enjoyed staying on the same thing, or talking to the same G.M. every day. I’m thankful SI lets me do different things. Even when I covered college football I did the Winter Olympics and when Bill Nack left in 2001 I got into horse racing, which is a great storytelling beat.
Q. Where do you find information?
A. Depends on the topic I’m researching. I’ll go to a whole new realm of websites if I’m not working on a particular story. With some restraint I’ll go to the New York Times, USA Today, ESPN, and SI.com and shut it down after that – because you can eat up a day reading. If you hit everything you get linked to and let that cascade it’s just too much if you try and read everything. I can’t imagine being a national columnist and trying to be on top of every piece of news every day. It would just wear me out.
NBC Sports links to us so I go there. I try to go to Deadspin and thebiglead.com., which is similar but not quite as snarky. It’s pretty clever for what it is – an alternative universe sports website. And there are many more than that now.
Q. Do you worry about breaking news?
A. I don’t. If I can break news that’s great, but nobody at SI expects me to. The news I break might be about somebody doing something fresh and different. It won’t be about an offer sheet – Peter King and Mike Silver will get those stories – they have 40 years between them on the NFL. Nobody expects me to get that stuff. Covering a Triple Crown horse race or the Olympics I will break news here and there but not of the earthshaking variety. I don’t like to get beat on things.
It’s tricky at SI. With the website you’re trying to hold your own but you’re also trying to develop weekly stories. Even though it may seem antiquated you have to have a story four days after the race – it still has to have pictures and fresh information. Which is hard to do in this day and age. It’s hard to do that and to write daily news every day. My weekly stories now contain information I’ve already written on the web.
It’s always been difficult, even for (Dan) Jenkins 25 years ago when he sat down on a Sunday night. A lot of what he wrote wouldn’t have appeared anywhere else, but now there’s a lot more media.
During the last Olympics I spent 22 days in Italy and wrote 21 stories for the web. I also wrote three weekly pieces, which I filed on each of three Sundays. In many cases the subject matter of my magazine stories would overlap the subject matter of my web stories.
I broke a couple of stories. One was a long piece on a skier’s family that hadn’t gone public, Julia Mancuso, an up-and-coming skier, whose father’s name was Ciro. He had been an epic marijuana dealer in the 70s and 80s and had spent a number of years in prison. Julia had been a little girl when the ATF and FBI arrested him – he had got very rich doing it – but he had never talked about it and no one had drawn a connection between his pot dealing and her skiing – his money had enabled her career. I talked with him and wrote a long piece and they put it on the website on Thursday. Nine days later she won a gold medal at the end of the Games, and I’m still the only one who had talked with this guy. I talked it over with Craig Neff, our editor, about how to do this for the magazine. I got some access to her and some more information, and I worked in the father angle as one of the hurdles she had overcome – the old adversity angle – and I used about 500 words that had appeared on the website 10 days earlier.
Q. How do you balance the needs of the magazine and website?
A. Nobody at SI has addressed the tug-of-war between the website and the magazine. Institutionally, as a group what do we do about this? If we write a story for the web at midweek, because that’s the growth part of the organization, but then it becomes a part of the story on the weekend, nobody has told us what to do. Or what exactly do you do for the web if you think your story will hold for three days?
It’s an unspoken battle – how much to give to the web. Every writer makes the decision on his or her own. There’s been talk of creating a position as a liaison to help make that decision.
Four days before the Kentucky Derby in 2004 I got some details on the lives of the owners of Smarty Jones, who almost won the Triple Crown. They had met through Alcoholics Anonymous and there were some other things about their life together that would make an interesting story. It would have made a nice web story for sure. I called the managing editor of the web and said I’ve got a good back story on Smarty Jones – I didn’t know he was going to win the Derby of course – but I said it would make a great magazine story next week or a great web story now and I can bang it out in an hour and a half. He said ‘do what you think is best’, which wasn’t a real answer. So I sat on it. And it held for the magazine.
No place in the American sports journalism landscape puts out 80 to 120 pages of solid stuff every week like SI. Even if there are parts of SI you don’t like there are usually darn good quality stories you don’t get anywhere else. Is it viewed as ponderous and slow – probably – maybe even within its own building. But there’s nobody at the web demanding that they get everything first. They tell us ‘everything you give us is a bonus’.
The pressure is all self-driven. I don’t have to write 20 web stories at the Olympics – I just do. It’s probably better for my survival in the business and it’s fun.
The tug-of-war between the web and the magazine is still subtle. The credo is still that the magazine comes first. There would be no website without the magazine. Or it would be a lesser entity. The brand name of SI still carries a lot of weight. Circulation is still 3.1 million, and it made $125 million last year. It’s still a powerful force regardless of where it is in history, even if it’s closer to its end than beginning. It’s still a force to be reckoned with.
(SMG thanks Tim Layden for his cooperation)