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We live in the unfortunate era of the Me-Me-Me, I-I-I journalist. But is it OK to break out the first person from time to time? And, if so, when? And how?
I think this week’s substack entry will be particularly great.
Mainly because it’s written by me.
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About using the first person.
And even though I am doing the writing here, and it’s appearing on the substack I started (me! me! me!), I must confess the idea for the entry belongs to Seth Wickersham, the longtime ESPN scribe who, while excellent, isn’t me. I. Eh, me and I. Me or I.
If you are of a certain age (older than, oh, 40), you almost certainly had a journalism professor (probably professors) tell you that first person should be avoided in nearly all non-column circumstances. And, in many ways, that’s a wise way to approach instructing future scribes. I mean, I serve as an adjunct at Chapman University, and—unless told otherwise—pretty much every first-year student I’ve ever had needed to be informed that in a news article about, oh, a nearby traffic accident, you can’t break out an I or Me. They certainly had to learn that when writing about a baseball game between Chapman and Occidental, the chronicler wouldn’t write something like, “I watched the game and I thought Cole Minato played well.”
Why the necessary indoctrination? Because from the time we’re in first and second grades, we’re programed to write in the first person. I love Superman because. My favorite baseball player is Ron Hodges because. Me and my brother eat hamburgers and we believe they’re great. It’s the only thing we know, and—if you really think about it—most humans (certainly non-journalists) spend the majority of existence living in a first-person universe.
And, as a veteran writer, I’m torn. On the one hand, I can still hear Chuck Stone and Bill Fleishman, my old University of Delaware professors, admonishing me for using I and Me. I can still see the editors at The Review, the student newspaper, red penning every first-person reference out of a copy. Again, we were all indoctrinated to think in such a voice.
But as I sit here, 51 and grumpy, is it still wrong to write in the first person? I mean, is there an argument to make that it’s useful? Impactful? Worthwhile?
Should I actually devote more time to writing in the first person?
Back in the day, if I wanted to take a shit without taking a shit, I’d drive to the local newsstand and pick up a copy of Equire or GQ.
Now, that sounds a bit douchey, and I don’t mean it as such. Both magazines were fantastic reads stocked with some of the world’s great writers.
But, without fail, every issue included at least one celebrity profile written in the first person. If the subject were, oh, Wesley Snipes, it’d be, “I’m driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with Wesley Snipes, and he looks at me and laughs. ‘Jessica,’ he says, ‘we’re gonna have ourselves a day'.’ He appears dashing-yet-nonchalant, a pair of $7,000 Bentley Platinum sunglasses shielding his chocolatey brown eyes. And just having Wesley speak my name is otherworldly.”
If that feels slightly exaggerated, well—it’s not slightly exaggerated. Those magazines were odes to first-person writing; odes to making the reader feel as if they’re along for the ride with Wesley Snipes and Jessica. And while, technically, the approach worked (you were along for the ride), it also pissed me off. It came across as showoff-ish and lazy. I walked away from most of those articles being OK with Wesley Snipes, but hoping to never meet Jessica—the type of person who has a meal at Per Se, then devotes seven hours of the following day to telling you every detail of her $350 cuisine.
And I think, for many scribes my age, those lifestyle magazines served as true turn-offs to the first-person approach. “There are times for first person,” says Steve Cannella, Sports Illustrated’s editor in chief. “But you don’t wanna use writing as an opportunity to show off to your friends—’Look where I am! Look who I’m with!’”
Cannella’s point is an important one. In this era of me-me-me journalism, where folks rise to fame on the magic carpet of CHECK OUT THIS PHOTO OF ME WITH …. madness, it’s easy to fall into first person as a not-so-humble humble brag. When Tyler Kepner, the longtime New York Times baseball scribe who recently shifted to The Athletic, wrote an introductory column for his new employer, he used first person—which made sense. Because it was his HELLO to the readers. But otherwise? Nah. “Take my second (Athletic) story, about Zac Gallen and his case for the NL Cy Young Award,” Kepner told me. “I could have easily put ‘I’ throughout that column. But I have nothing to do with it. The reader knows who’s writing it because my name is on the story. And as the writer, I’m the one deciding what is relevant enough to include. So why would I need to say ‘I think’ this or that? And why would I need to say something like this? ‘I found Gallen by his locker in the Diamondbacks clubhouse. We’d spoken before and I found him to be an introspective guy with a deep curiosity for his craft.’
“The reader knows I talked to him — again, it’s my name on the story. And if I want to convey those qualities, I should be able to show them to the reader somehow, or just directly say it: ‘Gallen is an introspective guy with a deep curiosity for his craft.”
I spoke to a dozen or so veteran journalists for this piece, and the vast majority shared Kepner’s belief/perspective. Namely, first person is OK on the rarest of rare occasions—but should never be overused or exhausted. “It felt incredibly uncomfortable to me,” said Jean-Jacques Taylor, longtime football writer. “I rarely did it as a columnist at Dallas Morning News or ESPN. But I used personal pronouns all the time. Like we, us, they, yours because I wanted the columns to feel like we were having a conversation over coffee or breakfast In the morning. So I tried to give it a first person feel without using I.”
Added Josh Reinitz, Hocker Writers chronicler: “I struggle with it. I do all kinds of gymnastics to avoid it. As chroniclers of what we are reporting I don't think we should put ourselves in the story. I also don't often believe in absolutes so I'm sure there may be times it os appropriate but often it is usually lazy writing.”
And yet …
When done well, first-person stories kick ass.
It’s that simple.
It’s that true.
To reiterate from above, I am not a believer in the gratuitous first-person piece. I don’t care that Wesley Snipes knows your name. I don’t care that Bradley Cooper bought you a Diet Coke. I don’t care that you ate pizza with Taylor Swift, that you did shots with Pusha T.
I. Don’t. Care.
But sometimes, when nailed just right, first person works extraordinarily well. “The most important thing an author can decide early on in storytelling is point of view,” said Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times. “And sometimes, first person is best.” It’s all about taking the reader on a journey; on making the person holding your magazine or (in these days) scanning your website feel as if they’re along for the ride. It’s about developing a level of intimacy that somehow leaps from there to here, without feeling as if it’s leaping from there to here. “[One effective approach] is when a story is in large part driven by the writer’s interest or backstory, and that writer happens to be eloquent in writing about themselves,” said Chris Ballard, my former Sports Illustrated colleague and an excellent first-person implementor. “It feels like this is a pretty small subsection of writers, but those that can pull it off are often really good at it.”
When I asked Wickersham about this phenomenon, he offered the Exhibit A of THE FINAL COMEBACK OF AXL ROSE, a 2006 piece written for GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I’d never seen this piece, or heard of this piece, or (to be painfully honest) heard of John Jeremiah Sullivan (hey, we all have holes).
Then I started reading …
And fuckity fuck—that’s some exquisite storytelling. And through the 10,000 or so words, it only gets better and better.
There’s this …
And this …
And this …
The whole story feels like a rollercoaster ride, and you don’t want to get off. Another article Wickersham cited was Tom Junod’s 2016 piece for ESPN, EUGENE MONROE HAS A FOOTBALL PROBLEM. Which opens thusly …
Seth is right—the story sizzles. And it sizzles, in large part, because Junod dives in and interviews Monroe while smoking weed with him. It’s uber immersive, but read the piece and it’s the polar opposite of HEY, LOOK AT ME GETTING HIGH WITH A FOOTBALL PLAYER! It’s smart, funny, it’s delicate, it’s precise. The first person comes, the first person goes. And when it comes, it’s there for a reason …
I can’t overstate this point—so I’ll overstate it. These articles we write are not about us. Again: They are not about us. We live in an era of instant celebrity, where people will dive into picnic tables and box an alligator to gain a morsel of social media hype. We have more and more writers entering the business who think being re-Tweeted by LeBron James is more important than being cited in the New York Times. We are living in the most I-I-I-I Era in journalism history, and far too many aspiring professionals rise through the ranks looking at Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless and thinking, “That’s what I want! Fame!”
As a result, we are overwhelmed with first-person writing that (well) blows. “Nobody really gives a shit about you,” NBA.com’s Shaun Powell told me—and while it’s true in a personal sense (nobody gives a shit about me), it’s also true in the writing sense. Someone going to ESPN.com to peruse 5,000 words on Tom Brady isn’t doing so to learn about the self-important writer. “Those stories,” said Amie Just of the Lincoln Journal Star, “aren’t about me.”
And the reason the pieces cited above (by Sullivan and Junod) work is because even when utilizing first person, the stories are never about the writers. Never, ever, ever. They take you somewhere (check). They offer intimacy (check). You learn a ton of stuff (check). They’re beautifully written (check).
But not once do you feel as if the article has been hijacked.
“I have let the answer to one question help dictate what I do when I hit crossroads since the beginning of my editing career: ‘Does it serve the reader?’” said Iliana Limón Romero, the Los Angeles Times’ assistant managing editor for sports. “I used to be the type of reporter who recoiled from using first person casually and anyone who wasn't a columnist making it about themselves. And even among the columnists I read, I preferred healthy dose of reporting to back up opinions. But over time, I have seen that readers don't know who to trust. Don't know how to sort the chaos out around them. And earnest voices, sharing perspectives that may or may not be similar to the readers or the teams we cover, have the best chance of being relevant to readers. In some cases, that means some ‘I’ usage makes sense. In some cases, first person is the best way to make a connection. It's not a column, it's a heartfelt story or a clearly outlined perspective that the reader can choose agree with or not.”
The Quaz Five with … Rustin Dodd
Rustin Dodd is a writer for The Athletic and co-author of the new book, “Kingdom Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs, and How a Once Swingin' Cow Town Chased the Ultimate Comeback.” You can follow him on Xitter here.
1. Your new book, "Kingdom Quarterback," is about both Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City. Why not just Mahomes?: Well, there are a couple reasons, including a specific one I’ll spell out in a moment. But I guess I’ll start with the origins of the book: My co-author Mark Dent and I both grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City in the 1990s. This was during the Marty Schottenheimer era of the Chiefs, which was defined by a string of backup quarterbacks from San Francisco (and an aging Joe Montana) and a run of genuine playoff heartbreak. It was also during a particularly fallow period for Kansas City. The city — like many around the country — had been hollowed out by decades of suburbanization, white flight and failed attempts at re-development. But things had started to turn during the mid 2000s and early 2010s, and the rebirth coincided with an unlikely series of events: the Royals won the World Series in 2015, and two years later the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes. When the Chiefs won the Super Bowl over the 49ers in early 2020, it seemed obvious to anyone watching closely that it was just the beginning. Later that summer, in the midst of the pandemic, Mark called me with a question: Was there a book to be done on Kansas City? It wasn’t just Mahomes. There were a lot of energy currents moving through Kansas City. Mark and I joke about this now, but this was right when Season 1 of Ted Lasso was taking off. Jason Sudeikis grew up in the same Kansas City suburb that we did, and in some small but not insignificant way, the show seemed to be capturing a worldview that felt very Kansas City. At the same time, the protests that were roiling the country that summer had exploded in Kansas City in an unexpected way, and much of the energy resulted in a local conversation about an early 20th century real estate developer named J.C. Nichols — who had shaped most of Kansas City and left it deeply segregated. Nichols is a pretty well known figure in Kansas City, but his influence on the rest of America — on how we all live, redlining, and the creation of modern suburbia writ large — has been largely overlooked. At least, we definitely thought so. I would imagine most Americans outside of Kansas City have never heard of him, but when Builder magazine named its most influential real estate figures of the 20th century, he was third behind FDR and Henry Ford. If we were going to tell this story of Kansas City’s resurgence, we had to tell the story of its history—which we saw as uniquely representative of so many other cities in America. Put another way: Kansas City felt universal in a way that made it feel important. It may seem like the story of Kansas City and the story of Mahomes are disparate tales. But you can’t tell the story of Kansas City without the Chiefs—the relationship is that important—and more important: the existence of Mahomes in Kansas City almost felt like a miracle. Not that his talent or transcendent skill is a miracle—that can be explained by his genetics, his childhood and his own hard work. But the actual circumstances that brought this quarterback to this city at this moment in time—it felt like an incredibly special story to tell.
2. What are the complications in writing about someone as young as Mahomes?: What are the complications? Well, this is the other reason we didn’t want to focus just on Patrick Mahomes. He just turned 28 years old. He just started his sixth season as a starting quarterback in the NFL. If he plays until he is 40, as most generational quarterbacks do, he’s probably not even a third of the way into his career. It would be foolish to think you could capture an athlete like you might in a traditional biography. We were more interested in answering three questions: How did he get here? Why is he so incredibly good at quarterback? And why is the experience of watching him produce so much joy? We weren’t trying to make any sweeping statements about who Mahomes is, in part because I don’t think any of us are fully formed at 28 years old. I know I wasn’t. We were more concerned with trying to capture the phenomenon at this moment in time.
3. When a figure is as respected as Mahomes in Kansas City, can you write negatively of him? Would that worry you?: The short answer is yes. And I don’t think it would worry us. We were much more concerned about telling an accurate and compelling story. At the risk of spoiling our own book, there’s not much negative about Patrick Mahomes in the 300-some pages. I suppose that’s partly because he hasn’t taken many wrong steps since arriving in Kansas City. I suppose that’s also because so much of our narrative focused on what I mentioned above — and because of the sprawling nature of our book. If our book was a traditional biography, I do think it would be a little different. We did a lot of reporting on Mahomes’ childhood and family history in East Texas. But it’s not meant to be comprehensive. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out answer. But we saw it as one piece of a large narrative.
4. How hard was it to get the book deal? What was the process?: In some ways, it felt way too easy! But that was partly because this was the first book for both Mark and I, and we were such novices when it came to the industry. I just kept expecting something to go wrong, so I was shocked when a couple offers came in and we had a deal with Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. But let me back up: Mark and I started researching and formulating our idea in late 2020. Of course, we have day jobs as reporters, so it was very much on the side. Just a little bit here and there. And when the Chiefs got blown out by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl in early 2021, we kind of put the idea on the back-burner. We came back to it in the summer of 2021, and started to put together our proposal. Mark had put together another book proposal before, and we relied heavily on advice from the great journalist Mary Pilon. (I also got some helpful advice from my friend Pedro Moura, who had just gone through the process, and my friend Reeves Wiedeman, who wrote a great book about Adam Neumann and WeWork.) We finished our whole proposal before we went looking for agents. I honestly don’t know if that’s the most common approach for first-time authors, or if it’s smarter to pitch agents on an idea before doing the whole proposal. But in any case, once we had the proposal, we just started cold-emailing agents with query letters. Daniel Greenberg from the Levine | Greenberg | Rostan literary agency believed in our idea, and I think we had a book deal about three weeks later. Which was around September or early October of 2021. So, yeah, in some sense the whole process took about a year. But I think we were so certain that people would look at our proposal and be like: “What in the hell is this?” So when we had a deal in a couple weeks, I just remember feeling like: “OK, that felt way too easy.”
5. You co-wrote the book with Mark Dent. How does that go? What's the division of labor?: It’s a good question because I’ve done a lot of co-bylined stories for my day job, and most times it can be really, really hard to divide up the writing in a piece. If you’re writing a 3,000-word feature, somebody has to take the lead and just crank out the first draft. But Mark and I had a pretty good process. We met in journalism school at the University of Kansas and have edited each other’s work for the last 15 years. We have similar styles and tastes. So we basically had a fairly detailed chapter outline and we divided it up by chapter. Each chapter would become its own Google doc, and once a draft was finished, we’d share it and the other person would edit it, give notes, and sometimes full re-write sections. (That was also because there was a ton of overlap on the research and reporting components.) It was actually fairly enjoyable. I’ve heard from authors who talk about how lonely the process can feel, and how mentally taxing it can be to wonder if what they’ve written is “good” or whatever. Mark and I were able to give each other instant feedback, smooth out the rough edges, and just be honest about when something didn’t work or was confusing. We had a terrific editor at Dutton, Jill Schwartzman, but I think our overall copy benefited from having that extra layer of editing. There are obviously a lot of books that demand a singular voice—or where you really need one author for narrative coherence. But if you have a good friend to write a book with, I highly recommend it!
Bonus (rank in order—favorite to least): Joe Delaney, grape soda, Sharpies, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bruno Mars, Macho Man Randy Savage, "Mississippi Burning," Memphis bbq: 1. Joe Delaney (obviously) 2. Macho Man Randy Savage 3. Grape soda 4. Sharpies 5. Kentucky Fried Chicken 6. Bruno Mars 7. Memphis BBQ 8. “Mississippi Burning”
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
Here’s a wacky idea—ask me any journalism question you like, and I’ll try and answer honestly and with the heart-of-a-champion power one can expect from a mediocre substack.
Hit me up in my Twitter DMs, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or just use the comments section here …
From Jay: Curt Schilling was in the news yet again for being an asshole. Where does he rank when it comes to jerk athletes you’ve covered?: So I probably spoke with Schilling once or twice as a writer during my Sports Illustrated days, and he was fairly unremarkable from my point of view. In clubhouses, however, he was uniquely disliked, mistrusted and kept at arm’s length.
I’m not sure how these things go in 2023, but back in the day you could be a racist xenophobe (John Rocker), a loudmouth bully (Will Clark), a dismissive dickhead (Barry Bonds), a gnat on an ass (David Wells) and survive. But what one could not be was a phony. And Schilling—from sea to shining sea—was widely regarded as a fraud. He was (and probably still is) the dude who smiles to your face and bashes behind your back. I know Randy Johnson couldn’t stand him in Arizona, and Pedro Martinez had little use for him in Boston.
He was, mostly, exhausting. An oxygen-sucking bullshit artsit.
That said, I do believe he belongs in the Hall.
A random old article worth revisiting …
This is from the March 24, 1996 Los Angeles Daily News. I was looking for something about NBA star Cedric Ceballos’ disappearance from the Lakers, and found this gem via the Daily News’ Michael Ventre ….
This week’s college writer you should follow on Xitter …
Stefano Fendrich, USC junior
The sports editor of the Daily Trojan writes a pro-level piece on his anger and frustration over the way the Southern Cal football program treated Luca Evans, the journalist who had his credentials temporarily revoked.
What I love, love, love about LUCA EVANS’ DEBACLE WORRIES ME is Stefano takes a national media piece and makes it personal.
Writes Stefano …
One can follow Fendrich on Xitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: Chris Snow, the former Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune writer who then become the Calgary Flames assistant general manager, has spent the past several years battling ALS with courage, grace, class, kindness and strength. His wife Kelsie, also a former sports scribe, has been by his side, documenting much of it via her social media feed and podcast. I say, without exaggeration, that every step has been (from my vantage) both crushing and triumphant. They are nothing short of heroes.
On Wednesday via Xitter, Kelsie announced that Chris went into cardiac arrest, and will not be waking up. “Chris is the most beautiful, brilliant person I’ll ever know, and doing life without him feels untenable,” she wrote. “Hug your people.”
A Gofundme for Kelsie and her children has been set up. Please donate.
Musing 2: Journalism can be daunting and hard and scary. But, ultimately, it’s about holding truth to power. I don’t know the identity of the NBC reporter asking the question here, but I’m 100 percent certain Republican congressman Jason Smith didn’t see this truck coming down the road at 200 mph.
Musing 3: I’m so proud of Luca Evans, the USC beat writer for the Southern California News Group and my former Chapman University student. The university’s football program tried bullying him into submission—and it backfired spectacularly. I’m not saying this is Will McDonough punching Raymond Clayborn, but it was an enormous victory for those of us who chronicle the world of sports. Lincoln Riley thought he was King Kong—and then he backpedaled into a crouch.
Musing 4: Embarrassed to say I’m finally watching “Ted Lasso.” The show is obviously fantastic, the acting brilliant, the writing sharp. But there was one scene that spoke to me, and it was when Roy Kent told Trent Crimm, the journalist, why he loathes him with such high spittle levels. It all dated back to a piece Crimm wrote when Kent was a 17-year-old rookie, and Crimm tore his game apart. Kent never forgot, and carried the crumpled-up piece in his wallet for decades.
So why did this resonate? Because, back in the day, I was Trent Crimm. It was fun to rip, bash, degrade, dump, dismiss. And then, one day, you wake up and realize you were an assfuck.
That was me.
Musing 5: Thanks for all the kind words, RE: the end of “Winning Time.” It’s been a beautiful reminder that kindness still reigns, even when those in charge aspire for us to all be ugly. I’ll never forget Jim Hecht, the brainchild behind it all, coming to my house back in 2014 and explaining the dream. I never, ever, ever, ever thought it would happen. But it did.
Musing 6: Received a DM via Instagram a few minutes ago with someone asking, DID YOU WRITE THIS?—and linking to this 2007 ESPN.com column about a recently deceased wrestler named Abe Coleman. And, well, I have literally no memory of the piece. None. Zero. Zip. Ah, old age.
Musing 7: What a fun Washington Post piece from Zoe Glasser. Headlined, THE 9 BEST COFFEE SHOPS IN D.C., ACCORDING TO A WOMAN TRYING THEM ALL, we follow around a woman named Domonique Panton, whose mission is to try a cup o’ joe at every … single … cafe in Washington. “When I said I was going to visit every single coffee shop in Washington, D.C.,” she tole Glasser, “I meant it.” Panton’s IG feed is joy.
Musing 8: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast stars Ben Hochman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist and a man of the people.
Quote of the week …
Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.