Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Under Further Review No. 5: Greg Hanlon

Every so often, a piece of writing comes your way, hits you in the face and really makes you think about human behavior and how things work. Greg Hanlon's recent story on Sports on Earth about former Major League Baseball player Chad Curtis did just that for me. I could say it's about a 10-year outfielder now behind bars on multiple counts related to sexual misconduct with minors. But that doesn't even begin to tell the horrid and uncomfortable tale. I highly suggest you take some time to read it all as Hanlon laid it out.

In addition to Sports on Earth, Hanlon's writing has also appeared in The New York Times, SB Nation, Capital New York and Slate. He has also written a book on the 2011-12 Super Bowl champion New York Giants called "Our Town."

Hanlon spoke with us about the access he got for the Curtis story, pitching freelance stories, writing about sensitive topics and writing a book.

On May 1...
Kevin Rossi: He's in jail and you get access to him... How does that kind of access come about?
Greg Hanlon: I got lucky. He is kind of delusional, which is sad and even the mere fact that he was granting the interview was an important piece to the story. It's due diligence to at least ask for the interview. I've done it a bunch of times and I've been turned down a bunch of times. This was the first time somebody said yes. It's pretty straightforward. You contact the media relations or public information people at the prison, you ask and normally they say no. They ask the inmate. A lot of the times the prisons themselves don't even let you talk to the inmates. In this case, Curtis wanted to talk because in his mind he's innocent and saw this as an opportunity to get his version of the story out. As it happened, he hung himself,* so it was counter-productive to what he wanted to accomplish.
KR: And this was something that you were really surprised that he actually said yes and agreed to do so?
GH: Yea, I was. I tried to go in there with an open mind. Obviously when someone has been proven guilty, to a degree there's a presumption of guilt, but still your job is to report the story. You have to report what your reporting says.
KR: One thing that I really enjoyed about the story was he came off deranged but all you really had to do was lay out the story. He really did the work to look like that.
GH: Again, I kind of got lucky. It was pretty clear cut. It's sad but the story was there, and it didn't really take any extraordinary powers of observation to see that. Once you have something that's so compelling like that, the challenge is not having the writing get in the way. It was just so obvious and apparent that he was delusional. He just couldn't really fess up to things, and there were all of these denial mechanisms and a whole facade. That was the story and it's really a matter of making it flow. There's no need to over-explain when it's that obvious and that compelling.
KR: It's almost one of those stories as a writer where you know in theory to stay out of the way, but until you really have a story that lines up like this one did, it's hard to fully understand.
GH: Totally. It's always a challenge to know how much you have to calibrate your voice to the material.
KR: Another thing I was wondering with this story was whether you pitched it around to different places or just to Sports on Earth.
GH: I just pitched it to them. It was my first story for them, but I had a pretty friendly email relationship with one of the editors there. So, I pitched it to them because really the only other outlet that would take it would have been SB Nation, but they had just run similar story on David Meggett, the former football who is a rapist. Since I had just done a sort of sexual predator story for them, I kind of figured they wouldn't have wanted back-to-back. But by no means am I an expert on getting my stuff accepted. There's really no magic bullet there.
KR: It sounds like you have to find yourself an uplifting story there.
GH: It's been a little intense. With the Curtis story, I never had any contact with the victims while I was researching them, but when you're dealing with another person's tragedy, it's always a little tense because it's your story and you're applying yourself professionally to something that is someone else's life-changing experience. And that's challenging. It's very rewarding at the same time.
KR: When handled with care.
GH: Exactly.
KR: When dealing with a sensitive topic and obviously something that has changed the lives of the people included in the story, does that also come back to telling the facts and telling the story how it is?
GH: I think you put it well. The material itself is so shocking that you don't need to ham it up with your voice. With the sensitivity, you kind of want to not play it salaciously. I don't want to say you want to tone it down. There's an obligation to not go for shock value or be cheesy or sound like some silly late night crime drama. There's an obligation to play it in a sober voice but also sort of underscore the pain and tragedy of it.
KR: When it comes to the pitch, I think a story like that jumps off of the page in its own right, but is there tip or go-to advice that you think about in terms of making a freelance pitch?
GH: That's a good question. Before I kind of knew editors and they trusted me, not that I'm [a big shot] now, but when I was a total nobody, my pitches sucked and it was frustrating for many years. If they don't really know who you are, you have to have a "cute" angle or a "that's a new way to look at things" or "that's novel." What would work well in the market, what would generate clicks. Put yourself in the editor's position. That's a key.
KR: That's a good, general over-arching tip, especially these days depending on what you're writing for. And you also wrote a book.
GH: Yea, it was more of a compilation of articles than it was a beginning, middle and end-type thing. During the football season in 2011, I would write these profiles that I would tie into the games. Every week I would write these profiles, like 1,500 words. Something a little more full of voice and a little more style than a newspaper profile but by no means was it the definitive story of say Jason Pierre-Paul. So I would do all of this reporting and then the game would happen, and when you have all of these stories about how the offensive line [messed] it up or the rapid reaction stuff, I thought a good way to differentiate myself and provide something of value was to tie in these profiles into the prevailing feelings of the game. Sometimes it worked out great. I would pick a player on Monday and start reporting it. I would have all of my notes and some ideas, and then the game would happen and I go turn it around. I didn't have much time to write these things. I did this for both the Giants and the Jets that year in 2011, and the Giants end up winning the Super Bowl and I had all of these profiles on them from throughout the season. So, I wrote some kind of connective tissue passages with some post-thought to give it some structure, and there it was.
KR: So the original thought wasn't to make them into a book, it just sort of happened that way?
GH: Yea I just had all of this stuff that I thought had some more staying power instead of evaporating into the ethos.
KR: You certainly picked the right season to do it.
GH: It worked out well for sure.

Thank you to Greg Hanlon for sharing his sports journalism insights with us. Follow him on Twitter @GregHanlon.

* - Curtis didn't physically hang himself, which is where my mind initially floated during my phone call with Greg. Curtis just did not come off in the innocent light he had hoped. Must be too many prison movies for me.

Under Further Review:
No. 4 - Josh Verlin
No. 3 - Kami Mattioli
No. 2 - Aaron Bracy
No. 1 - Adam Hermann


Kevin Rossi is a senior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is serving as the Sports Information Assistant for Drexel Athletics and will also intern at Comcast SportsNet in web production later in the spring. Kevin has writing experience with, The Triangle, Temple University, and various outlets in a freelance capacity. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

Connect with Kevin Rossi on LinkedIn.

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