Interview with David Gardner: “I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with the subject.”

David Gardner is a writer and editor with extensive experience in the sports writing industry.

He has worked for Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports, and his stories have been published in The Washington Post, ESPN, and other outlets. He started his career as a collegiate correspondent for The St. Petersburg Times and has a passion for telling stories that matter.

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Hi David, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you talk to us about your journalism career and how you got your start writing about sports?

It’s great to be here! Thanks so much for thinking of me. As a boy growing up in Tampa, I fell in love with Florida Gators football. To this day, I can’t really explain it, since no one in my family was a huge sports fan. But I became engrossed with the games.

As I got older, I also developed an interest in writing. At first, it took the form of bad song lyrics for bands that I was in — and even worse poetry for girls I was interested in. Eventually, I realized that I could marry a pair of passions I had and do some sports writing.

My journalism story is unfortunately pretty typical in that I started writing for no money, and then I wrote for almost no money, and then I wrote for very little money, and eventually I worked my way up toward being able to make a living off doing what I love. I feel very fortunate now, but one change I hope to see in journalism is for there to be more paid opportunities for young writers and editors.

What led you to work for the Pulitzer Prize-winning enterprise team at The St. Petersburg Times and later for outlets such as Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports?

To describe me as having worked for the enterprise team at the St. Petersburg Times would be a bit of a stretch — really, they just let me hang around for a few weeks while I was in college. That was an amazing opportunity, though.

The enterprise team at that time was a murderer’s row of narrative storytelling: The top editor, Mike Wilson, went on to lead FiveThirtyEight and The Dallas Morning News, and he’s now at The New York Times; and the second in command, Kelley Benham, is a Pulitzer finalist and a professor at Indiana.

The writers included Pulitzer winner Tom French, Pulitzer winner Lane DeGregory, Pulitzer winner Leonora LaPeter Anton, Pulitzer finalist Ben Montgomery and Michael Kruse, who’s now a must-read staff writer at Politico Magazine. Just being around them and soaking up their wisdom was the best education I could have ever asked for.

After college, I traveled the world for a year, where I met my wonderful wife, Asher. She’s from California, so I took the first job I could find out West, which was at CBS Sports. Then I dragged her back to the East Coast to work at Sports Illustrated. Again, that was just an incredible newsroom with world-class writers and editors, including my mentor and my writing hero, Gary Smith.

At Sports Illustrated, I was an editor for the website, but I wanted to write full-time, so I took a job at B/R Mag. That team was incredibly talented too. Really, the takeaway here is that I’ve somehow managed to surround myself with amazing colleagues. 

Your story “In hip-hop and basketball, Flau’jae Johnson is a two-way star” highlights a unique combination of interests. What was it about Johnson’s story that made you want to write about her?

This is a really interesting moment in college sports, and I thought that Johnson’s story highlighted the potentially transformative power of NIL reform. For the non-sports fans: Until recently, college athletes weren’t able to profit from their name, image or likeness. But now Flau’jae found herself on this new frontier, and I wanted to know how she was going to navigate this almost unprecedented path of balancing basketball and music and being a college student. (By the way, she’s balling on all fronts right now.)

She also had a really powerful personal story. The reason she raps is because her father was an up-and-coming Atlanta rapper before he was tragically murdered. She never got to meet her dad, but she carries on his legacy with her music.

The article “Knicks Rookie Quentin Grimes Can’t Stop Scrolling, Either” focuses on the impact of social media on sports. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media?

That’s a big question, and it’s probably better answered by a professor in a research paper. But I do think that the transformation has been powerful. Some athletes, like Kevin Durant, have really taken to social media as a way to engage with fans on a regular basis. Others use it as a way to build out a lifestyle brand or to make money on sponsorships. But I do think the biggest impact has been the way it has changed their relationship with the media.

Reporters used to be the gatekeepers of athlete stories. We had the cameras and the magazine covers and the large audiences. But it’s not that way anymore. Mostly, that’s a good thing. Everyone deserves a chance to tell their story in their own voice. But there are still lots of times where I think a journalist can tell a story in such a way that it connects with readers and that it contextualizes the athlete’s story amid larger trends in the sport or in society. 

When I’m meeting with an athlete to convince them to talk to me, I usually tell them that all the hours they’ve put into becoming a professional in their sport, I’ve put in to become a professional writer. And I dedicate myself to the craft in the same way that they do. And if they trust me, we can create something powerful together.

How do you go about finding and researching the stories you write?

I read the news a lot. Many of my story ideas start with a seed of an idea I see as a throwaway line in a column or a news story. For example, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay D-I men’s basketball player. 

In an interview with another outlet, he mentioned that he hadn’t been fully accepted by his family. The interviewer didn’t follow up, so I did. And I found out his twin brother had been in jail for a violent crime. What started off as a story about a basketball player became a story about identity and family.

Other stories come from friends and sources. Sometimes an editor or a writer friend will point me to something that they think would spark my interest. I’m always grateful when they do.

In terms of research, I try to be as exhaustive as possible. When I sit down to do an interview with someone, I want to know as much as possible about them as possible. And not only that, I want to have thought deeply about their life so that I can ask insightful questions about it. I want to know what’s been covered so far so that I can start uncovering more. 

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Can you walk us through your typical day as a reporter?

The beauty of being a reporter is that there’s no typical day. Some days I’m spending almost the entire day reading a book about a subject that I want to better understand, or I’m reading every single story I can find about a potential profile subject.

On days when I’m reporting, I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with the subject, and I’m often forgetting to eat or drink as a consequence of that. I want to be really consumed by their world so that I can share it with the reader in the clearest way possible.

Then, on days when I’m writing, well … it’s a lot of staring at the page and hoping that something happens. Then when that doesn’t work, I tend to take a long walk. I don’t bring my phone or my headphones. I just wander around and try to let the story take shape in my head. When I return, I normally have a starting point. If I’m lucky, it’s the one I stick with. If not, then it’s lots of drafts until I see daylight again.

How do you balance the need for in-depth reporting with the tight deadlines often faced in sports journalism?

It’s definitely a challenge. And I’m not sure that “balance” would be the right way to describe the situation that I arrive at in the end. But I try to work with my editors to come up with a timeline that works for both of us. As writers, we have to remember that the editors have a newspaper to fill tomorrow, or a magazine to fill this month, or a website to fill right now. I try to be respectful of that pressure they face and of the deadlines that I am given.

Knowing that I’m not a fast writer, I try to be a fast reporter. When I get an assignment, I get going immediately on identifying the interviews I want and working quickly to do them. The writing is faster and better when it draws from a well of deep reporting. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

One of my personal projects last year was to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Before beginning the book(s), I only knew about the madeleine scene and the long sentences. I didn’t expect to be as immersed as I was. Proust created an entire world in a way that I’ve never experienced from another writer.

At times, it’s almost excruciatingly boring — there’s a section in the middle about the etymology of town names along a train ride that could put an entire auditorium to sleep if read aloud. But at other times, it’s haunting in its beauty and in its insights, and it’s engrossing in its absolute lust for and love of life. And apparently Proust himself was quite a character. So I’d love to have the chance to spend some time with him.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

I try to read a blend of fiction, nonfiction and philosophy. Normally the way that works is that I’m reading a philosophical or spiritual book in the morning, nonfiction when I’m working during the day and fiction as I’m unwinding.

The current trio is pretty funny. The spiritual book at the moment is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. The nonfiction book is Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection because even though I’m only in my early 30s, my lower back just kills me. If any readers have other recommendations, please send them my way. And the fiction book is Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I love the characters she creates.

My list of favorite books is long, but I’d point to James Baldwin, Jennifer Egan, Gabriel García Márquez, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy, Ocean Vuong and Colson Whitehead as some of my favorite authors. I put them in alphabetical order because trying to come up with any other ranking system would probably take me the rest of the year.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I have a comically small desk that looks like it was plucked from a public elementary school. But I like it. I don’t keep much on it besides my laptop, my noise-canceling headphones, my planner and a fake Bonsai plant from IKEA. I try to have as little as possible in my creative space so that I’m not distracted from the work. It’s right by the window, which matters the most to me. I like to write in the light.

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