Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, his or her interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Mirin Fader, the newly hired writer-at-large at Bleacher Report. Mirin's written a bunch of really cool stuff already in her career, which makes her a perfect guest in this space. Here, we talk about her move to B/R, the process of reporting her fantastic LaMelo Ball profile and how her own basketball playing experience has helped her career.
1. We start all our Q&As in the same way — at the beginning. How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?
I was a basketball player all my life. Basketball was my passion. It was who I was and who I wanted to be. I ended up playing my first year in college but ultimately decided I wanted to be a writer. I actually started writing the first day I picked up a ball, back in elementary school, but writing was something I did just for me. It was how I expressed myself, writing in my journal every day. It wasn't until my sophomore year of college, when I transferred to Occidental College, that I shifted gears and realized I wanted to be a sports writer. I fell in love with my major, English, and spent hours reading books, and I knew journalism would be the perfect way to blend my passions.
Of course, having zero professional writing experience, the first gig I had during college was writing obits for a local paper (yes, obits!). I also covered Oxy's basketball team (and other sports) for the college's website, and began freelancing for SLAM and Dime. I interned for the Clippers, the Sparks and ABC Sports. When I graduated in 2013, I began writing for the Orange County Register. I was a staff writer there for the next 4 1/2 years, writing sports features. I began free-lancing for espnW and Bleacher Report on the side during that time, which led me to my current position as writer-at-large for B/R Mag.
I think what led me to where I am now is having the mentality of always hustling, always pitching, always trying to prove myself. No matter how many "No's" I got, I came back with five more pitches the next time. You have to be dogged. It's also about being open. You have to bring the same enthusiasm for when you're asked to cover Little League as when you're asked to cover the NBA. It's about always being ready and saying "yes" to stories, even if you don't have any interest in them. I also think going to a small liberal arts college and majoring in English really helped me. A lot of my friends went to big journalism schools at big-time D-I programs, but I spent time learning how to close read, analyze text/details and get the repetitions I needed to improve my craft.
2. There was a time in your life when all you wanted to do wasn’t to write about basketball — but to play it. You even aspired to play overseas at some point! What was the moment that made you fully commit to trying to become a sports writer instead of a basketball player? From a practical standpoint, how much have you found your playing experience in college helping you as a reporter? How much do you talk about it with athletes you cover? Also, would you be willing to come be a ringer on Jared's intramural league team? The squad could use you.
I would be honored to be on your team! I'm small but scrappy at 5-1.
I think every athlete gets to that point where she just knows in her heart that her time is coming to a close. I knew upon transferring that I needed to find a new route, a new space to house my passion. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because writing allowed me to reinvent myself in a more meaningful way.
I definitely think my playing experience helps me as a reporter. Athletes are complex, driven people that have to face failure every day, and I think coming in with that understanding allows me to connect with them. I think being an undersized player and going through struggles with that also helps me relate to the kind of adversity athletes sometimes face. I do mention my own experiences during interviews, but only in a way that helps me learn more about the person I'm interviewing. There is nothing worse than a journalist who makes the story about herself. Athletes can immediately tell which reporters "get it" and which don't.
3. Let’s talk about your new job: writer-at-large at Bleacher Report. What exactly will you be doing in that position? Why did you decide to take to leave the freelancing world and commit yourself to just one outlet? What is it about what Bleacher Report is doing that appealed to you?
I'm so grateful to have joined B/R's team! I'm going to be writing features for B/R Mag, our premier storytelling platform. I had been writing features for B/R Mag for the past year as a freelancer (while also writing for ESPN and other outlets), while I was looking for my next full-time move after the OC Register. It's really nice to now have found a place that I can fully devote my time to. (There is truly no grind like the freelance grind!)
I love what Bleacher Report is doing in terms of multimedia storytelling. I'm encouraged to cultivate pitches that include not just text but ideas for video, for social, for graphics. B/R is a really collaborative, innovative place. It's really challenging me to think beyond conventional ways to tell a story.
4. Speaking of Bleacher Report, in February, you wrote an amazing story for them about LaMelo Ball and his strange pro career in Lithuania. You spent three weeks there reporting, which is pretty incredible. How did that story come to be? What was the process of pitching it like? How difficult was it for you to find an outlet willing to send you to Europe to report the piece? What does it say about Bleacher Report that it did so?
Thank you! I am very lucky that my editors approached me with the pitch/story and asked me to do it. I couldn't say "yes" fast enough. It was an incredible opportunity for me to grow as a reporter and as a person, and it meant a lot to me that they trusted me to go halfway around the world, for that long, to cover a story. I think it shows how committed B/R is to giving its writers the resources they need to succeed and to tell meaningful stories. Every team at B/R worked hard on this story for more than seven weeks, from social to video to graphics to design to editing to copy editing, and it was really cool to see how a cross-platform story can come together.
5. What was the reporting process like for the Ball story? You mention in the piece that you had worked with the family to get access, but at some point, that access was cut off to all media. What did that do to the story? How problematic was that for you? What did you do when you found out you’d no longer have access to the Balls? Why did you stay in Lithuania?
The reporting process really taught me a lot about being adaptable and staying open, staying nimble. Sometimes you go into a story thinking it's about one thing, and you get there, and realize the story is about something completely different. That's what happened in this case. I had thought I was just writing about a 16-year-old from a famous basketball family who gets to go on a crazy-fun adventure around the globe, but the reality of the situation was much more grim. My editor, Christina Tapper, was amazing. She trusted my reporting from on the ground and encouraged me to follow my instincts on where the story was leading, and as a team, we changed our plan as it all unfolded.
It was a really difficult process, though. I had been sent away for a really long time to write this story, and without that access, I worried how I was going to pull off the story. I tried my best to remain calm and do everything I could to get closer to the Balls, like sneaking into practice and convincing team officials to let me stay, and finding people to translate for me so I could interview teammates, coaches and random people on the street. With Christina's guidance, I realized access wasn't just about interviewing, but observing. I had a front-row seat to what was happening, from the gym to the hotel, even if I didn't get to interview Melo himself. With other outlets going home after the first week, B/R realized there was a real opportunity to stick around and report things that other outlets didn't see.
6. Beyond the Ball story, you also won first place for magazine-length features at the U.S. Basketball Writers Association writing contest for a piece you authored for Bleacher Report on Mo’ne Davis. What inspired you to write that story? Realistically, what do you think the future is for Davis? As someone yourself who spent a lot of time playing basketball against boys, how much did you find yourself relating to Davis? How did that influence the reporting and writing of the story?
Bleacher Report asked me to write the Mo'ne Davis story. It was my first story for B/R. Like you said, I grew up playing with boys, so I was really excited, because I knew we'd be able to relate for that reason. I think having that connection was important, as we spent most of our time together on the court in Philly. I felt like most of the stories written about her were very positive in the sense that there weren't as many stories exploring the difficulties of being the only girl or the difficulties of being famous, so I think I was able to ask her questions that maybe another reporter with different experiences might not have thought of.
I see her impact going far beyond being a player. I think eventually she could be a really successful D-I coach. She's very smart. Her basketball IQ is very high. She sees plays before they happen. She has a personality that people gravitate to.
7. I don’t think we’ve ever asked anybody a question on this topic: You are an award-winning sports-writer, having been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Orange County Press Club. How much have those awards helped you in your career? Realistically, how important is it for a young sports-writer to have rewards on his or her resumé? Generally speaking, what do you think about the practice of sports journalism awards?
I'm really honored and grateful to have won those awards. I'm not sure to the extent to which they have helped me, or if younger writers need them on their resumé or not. I just turned 27, so at this point in my career I really look at my writing as a craft that I need to constantly improve on. Rather than focus on awards, I'm focusing how I can better develop my voice in my pieces, how I can get better at pacing a narrative, how I can embed quotes more seamlessly. I am a constant work in progress!
8. Though basketball is your passion and first love, you have written about other sports as well. At Bleacher Report, you will be writing about all sports. Why have you chosen to go down that path as opposed to just focusing on basketball and making your name as a basketball writer? What are the pros and cons of the two strategies? What do you see yourself doing moving forward -- continuing to broaden your area of coverage or going back to mainly basketball?
It's funny, when I first started out, all I wanted to write about was basketball. I was very tunnel vision. Then I got to the OC Register and suddenly I was assigned water polo. And baseball. And soccer. And softball. The more sports I covered, the more I got out of my comfort zone. And the more I fell in love with writing features, the more I realized that what mattered wasn't the sport. It was about the story, the person I'm profiling. A good story is a good story, regardless of what sport it is. I like that I won't have a specific beat at B/R. I want to be counted on to do anything at any moment. Golf? I'm in. Football? I'm in. Swimming? I'm in.
The pros are that there are so many more possibilities. You can write more and meet more people. You learn different things. And I think you increase your chance of getting jobs. The truth is, when you graduate college, you may not be able to write about your dream sport. Being versatile, and flexible, is necessary.
The con is that you may have fewer "sources" than, say, a person who has been on the NBA or NFL beat all his life. But I still think broadening your horizon, in this economy, when you need to be able to do different things and be adaptable, is always a good thing. I want to be an author one day. To be honest, I see myself eventually writing non-sports features at some point in my life. I want to challenge myself and try new things.
9. What needs to change about sports writing?
I wish there was more access to athletes. Pitching a story for me often comes down to, will I be able to get this person or not? It's really tough. I've done write-arounds, and I actually enjoy interviewing 20 people close to the person, to try to find more about a person I will never talk to. It's kind of like uncovering a mystery. But I wish there was more access.
10. You once said that in light of your height (5-foot-1), you have learned to put your basketball training to good use by boxing out other reporters to not get swallowed up in giant scrums. We are both taller than you, but we have also fallen victim to scrum craziness and could use some help, so could you please share your technique so we know for the future?
Haha! You have to be AGGRESSIVE! Show up 40 minutes early. Find the main stage. Stake your claim, and then when people try to elbow you out, get between the elbows/arms and stand firm (seriously, people will push your back--you have to hold your pose). You have to have a strong arm holding your recorder out for so long (it truly sucks), but if you are able to maneuver between tall people, you can get closer than anyone.
Also, I like going to the non-star scrums. Sometimes it's way better to go over to the eighth man who has five other reporters around him than be one of 40 reporters trying to get a stale quote from a franchise player. Often the guys who have the fewest people around them have the most interesting things to say. Go to those guys.
You can find our full collection of Q&As here.