Each Thursday, we share an essay or story just for our Patreon subscribers that covers everything from sports to history to culture. As we get BTT launched, we’re making this content available to everyone for the first few weeks. We’d love to have your support, and if you become a BTT Backer for just $5 a month, you’ll get this type of content each and every week.
Our first conversation is with Richard Johnson, a Brooklyn-based sportswriter who has worked for ESPN and SB Nation. Recently, he just helped launched Moon Crew, a new college football newsletter, and published The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends Of The NCAA, a collection of essays and stories, with several of his former SB Nation colleagues.
BTT: When did journalism, writing in particular, become something you decided to pursue?
RJ: The writing thing, for me, didn’t happen until college. I went to the University of Florida and started out thinking I was going to be on TV. My degree is in broadcast journalism. About halfway through college, I thought to myself ‘I don’t love TV, it’s not my favorite medium.’ I’m talking about the normal, two-minute newscast thing — I think it lacks some context to the stories I want to tell.
I started doing some writing, and I really fell in love with it, probably around my junior year of college. I covered a team in a beat capacity, I really, really enjoyed it. In my senior year, I started working for the school paper, and I deeply loved the medium.
BTT: What was your professional journey like?
RJ: I would not recommend this route. I graduated in 2015, and I worked for ESPN. And it was like a foot-in-the-door job at ESPN. I did editing for the website for about a year.
In the summer of 2016, I had planned to move to Bristol, Connecticut. I had stayed in Florida for a year, and I was like ‘I want to move to Bristol, and I want to do the ESPN thing.’ I thought to myself let’s keep doing ESPN, and I will move up ESPN’s ranks and be a career ESPN guy. In 30 or 40 years, I will look back on my career and have gotten where I wanted to go inside of ESPN.
That’s not how it worked.
I would tell people that ESPN comes and gets you from somewhere. The days of working through ESPN all the way up — I’m not going to say they’re over — but that’s not exactly how it works these days.
So, I was in my living room about to leave for Bristol in two weeks — all my stuff is in my parent’s living room — and I got a call from Bud Elliott at SB Nation. He says ‘hey, SB Nation is looking for college football writers, and I think you should apply.’ I remember telling him I can’t, and he said ‘yes, you can’ … so I did.
I took my first interview with SB Nation in a hotel on my way to Connecticut with my mom. I took my second interview in an absolutely stark, empty apartment on the floor because I didn’t have anything in there, and I had just moved in.
After a year and two weeks total of ESPN work, I got an offer letter from SB Nation, and the rest is history. I started at SB Nation in week three of the 2016 football season, and I have not really looked back until I got furloughed on May 1 and ended up taking the buyout and ending my employment voluntarily at Vox Media.
BTT: Do you think the model of individual writers having greater control over their content, through things like newsletters or Patreon, is something the industry is trending toward?
RJ: I think so. I think that something that is more, for lack of a better term, writer-based or community-based is the future. Now, it’s not the future for everybody. Health insurance is cool to have, so you know, if you have something that can give you that or you have a spouse that can provide that so you can go out and do the SubStack thing, that’s really good. I live in New York state, so New York has state health insurance and I can do that.
I will say this, from an audience perspective, the audience likes paying you the creator directly. We’ve seen that in the book. The audience does not necessarily want to pay the media entity you work for. The audience would much rather pay you directly and cut out the middleman that is a large corporation. I think that is where you have a more one-to-one relationship with your readers, and you really get to see it play out.
We leap-of-faithed the book and set it at 99 cents-plus, pay what you want for a pre-order. We ended up with an average that was roughly about $17.50 up until we released it. Now we released it at a higher price because that was part of our plan. But the pre-order phase was really good because when you do a pay-what-you-want or donation model, you give the power to the reader in a very real way. If they like you enough, the reader starts to feel an obligation to compensate you. Maybe they would otherwise pay $5 for a subscription, but now they may pay you $10 because it’s going directly into your pocket. Well, now you’ve got double that subscriber fee.
A quick plug for our newsletter
Signing up is free and easy, and we promise we won’t overload you with emails! By signing up, you’re just letting us how much you enjoy this content.
We saw that play out with the book and how it could work, so I do think it’s a viable model. It’s writer-focused and writer-controlled, and it skirts corporations. I tell every class I talk to, look, you better be prepared to be fired in this business. I have so far outrun the outright firing, I’ve been furloughed, but I’ve avoided the outright pink slip. That is a reality of our industry.
BTT: What’s the best press box food you’ve ever had?
RJ: I actually had BBQ at Vandy, of all places. It wasn’t stadium food or what have you. I covered a game there in college, and that was it.
At some point I want to get out to a Seattle Seahawks game because, apparently, they have legitimate Starbucks coffee in there with good food. Also, I have a buddy who covered a Thanksgiving Day game at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, and they were like, yeah, it’s legitimate Thanksgiving food. Jerry Jones spares no expense for the press box meal.
What are you looking for in an editor?
I want honesty. I want context. If you’re making a change, I want to know why. I want to talk through why.
I want an open, honest relationship with an editor. I want an editor who I feel in sync with and, as far as overarching ideas, I want an editor who is part of the process throughout. I want an editor who has been with me through every step of the work and the process, from the germination of the idea to its publication.
I love having extra eyes as we get closer to publication, but, for most of the process until you’ve got a semi-finished piece of work, I love working with an editor lockstep the whole time.
What article have you written that you’re most proud of?
The one I’m most proud of is an article I wrote a few years ago about Black coaching and systemic barriers to why we don’t necessarily have more Black coaches, and how the pipeline to Black coaches has been cut off historically because they’re cut off to Black players. That is the thing I’m most proud of, and I think still stands up three or four years after it was written.
Portions of this interview were edited for brevity.