How ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson got his remarkable Johnny Manziel story.

These highlights basically break down Wright’s approach as a journalist and his stunningly labor-intensive methods of figuring out what his story is going to be about, as well as the conversations he had with his editors to make his stories as good as possible.

It’s absolutely worth a few minutes if you’re a journalist or a writer, and even if you’re just a casual reader, you’ll appreciate how much work and thinking truly goes into getting and then developing these types of stories.

Enjoy …

Chad Millman: Do you want to be on the Johnny Football beat right now?

Wright Thompson: No. (laughs)

Chad: (laughs)

Wright: And I’m not gonna be on it for much longer. You know this—I like to parachute in, do my thing, and leave. And I think events conspired, so I’m down here for a couple days checking it out and then I’ll hopefully move on to whatever comes next.

[…]

Wright: A very werid thing is happening here, and I just wanted to bear witness to it. Nobody has ever really dealt with this in college football before and I wanted to see what the weirdness looked like up close. So I started with Texas A&M and they were having a really hard time getting to him. Finally, I just went down there. And called Nate*, and so Nate did in two days what Texas A&M couldn’t do in four months.

* (“Uncle Nate.” Wright: “Johnny’s assistant/friend/confidante/confessor/designated driver/media manager. Someone Johnny trusts, they went to high school together. He’s the Forrest Gump of Johnny Manziel’s life. He’s everywhere. He’s at the center of these autograph allegations, and he’s how I got to Johny for the magazine story.”) 

Chad: How did you even get to Nate?

Wright: I’m trying to remember that. Someone gave me his number. I heard he existed, and that he was the guy. So I texted him and said I’m coming down there, I’m talking to Texas A&M but I understand that you are the man with the palace keys. And can you get me with Johnny? So I was supposed to go out and meet him, and Johnny didn’t come, so I hung out with Nate and his parents. And then the next day, Nate called me at like 8 o’clock in the morning, and said, can you get to Tyler, Texas by 11? Which is about three hours away. And he sent me the address and I just got in the car and went.

Chad: So what do you think is going to be happening when you get to Tyler, Texas?

Wright: I honestly had no idea. I knew Johnny would be playing golf with his dad. So I met his dad at his grandma’s house and we were gonna go find Johnny. You’ve done these things. I honestly had no idea. And I sort of don’t ever believe access is going to happen until I’m there with the person. So part of me wondered, is this a wild good chase? Am I just driving to Tyler—but you gotta go. And it turned out to be great.

Chad: Well that’s also what happens. You don’t believe access is going to happen until you’re there, but you’re not gonna get the access unless you get there. And a lot of times, this is inside baseball, a lot of people might not care about this, but so many times we’re waiting on someone saying, yeah, you’ll meet with him this time this day, and that’s not how you end up getting the story instead of just going there to see what the options will be. Because, by the way, the options will always be better if you’re there, and you can get to Tyler, Texas in three hours, versus if you’re in Oxford, Mississippi (where Wright lives) and they’re like oh yeah, we’re playing golf today, you wanna come? 

Wright: Oh yeah, you always wanna be there. One of the great benefits of working for a place like ESPN is the resources that, you can just go check in a hotel room in Bryan, Texas, and say, I’m not leaving. I’m gonna stay here until this works. And in a lot of ways that’s the only way to do it. The reason I’m here now is because I’m going to see if I can get Johnny or somebody again. It’s that exact same thing. It doesn’t do me any good to be in Oxford and have him say, yeah, and then I gotta go drive and … it could all change by the time I get there. So I just went to College Station and then started working, so if somebody says yes, I’m six minutes away.

[…]

Chad: How long are you gonna stay in Texas?

Wright: I dunno, probably a couple more days, then I’m done.

Chad: You’re basically on a stakeout, so what do you do everyday?

Wright: Well, right now, I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room smoking a cigar and talking to you. You do nothing. You just sit.

Chad: Isn’t that frustrating?

Wright: Oh, yeah. It’s awful. It’s like the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. Every moment I sit here in my hotel room, Johnny’s out there getting stronger.

Chad: Right. Where do you think he is right now? Is he training? In a film room? Is there practice going on?

Wright: He’s probably resting. They have practice goign on, so losing himself in the daily grind, I would bet.

Chad: What’s your goal? You get Johnny Manziel, what happens? Are you sitting with him? Do you try to build another 6,000-word story out of it? What happens?

Wright: Well it’s not gonna happen. So it’s basically moot. I wouldn’t write another 6,000-word story. I hate going back to stuff. You know that. You write the thing, and I’ve said basically everything I have to say about it. But you have to go down here and try.

Chad: You feel obligated as a journalist.

Wright: There’s actually some truth to that. I probably have the best shot at getting him, so it’s worth a shot.

[…]

Chad: Explain to people what it’s like when you’re in the middle of this whirlwind and you know you’re getting a killer story—you know you’re getting something special. Tell me, what are you thinking at various moments?

Wright: You try not to think a ton. I always hav ea list of things I want to ask people. Not questions, just talking points. But mostly, you just want to not get lazy, because the next scene could be the one you build your whole story around. You never know what’s going to be the thing. So you just want to be fully engaged. I got an email five or six years ago before I went to go do a story, from Eric Neal. He was an E-Ticket writer, now he’s the editor at ESPNLA. And he basically, I was on the way, I was on some reporting trip, and he was just like, stay with the scenes and the people and don’t try to imbue it all with meaning. And I have that email in my wallet still. I carry it with me everywhere. That’s the thing. Don’t try to figure out what the metaphor for whatever—just get it. Write everything down. I was doing a Jack Nicklaus profile one time and after a day or two he just stopped and said, what are you writing down? And I said, everything. I’ll figure out what it means when I get home, but you jus twant to stay. You can get sort of lazy. Because 10 hours, 12 hours, four hours, is a long time with people. And the newness and excitement of a scene can wear off and you miss it, because you almost get put to sleep. So you want to stay focused.

Chad: How do you take notes?

Wright: I have these steno pads. I record a lot of stuff, because you just can’t get dialogue right, and I like dialogue instead of “quotes,” because I think one, it’s a show don’t tell, you get to see people interact, and you get to build character and provide information at the same time because of how people say things and how they interact with each other, and you can miss the nuances of dialogue. And I just write down everything.

Chad: What does that mean, everything? 

Wright: There’s always one or two details that make a scene come alive. Because sometimes I think that good-slash-bad reporters just stack up every single detail because someone told them one time that details are what’s important. They’re not all important. So I write down what people, if someone says something interesting, I’ll write down a snippet of what they said so I can get the tape later and find out exactly what it was, and you know, write down what they were doing when they said it, because those are nice bridges when you can fold something into action. And so there’s a lot of that. I want descriptions of people as they’re doing the things. So I burn through notebooks.

Chad: And how do you collect all that? 

Wright: I get home and I type out all the notebooks and then I transcribe all the tape, then I print it out, I send it to Susan at UPS Oxford, she prints it out and three-hole punches it and I put it in a binder, then I take a pen and start reading through it. So I’ll read through it and make notes, and the arc starts to occur to me then and a lot of times I’ll just riff and write long paragraphs on the back of pages about thoughts that occur, then I’ll go back through it and make a notecard for every scene or quote or thing I want to use, then I’ll lay them all out and order them, and usually I’m writing outlines as I read through these things, so by the time I’ve read through the binders a couple of times, somewhere on the back of a page will be the outline.

Chad: That is a labor intensive process for every story.

Wright: There has to be a more efficient way to do it, because it really is horribly inefficient. And takes a really long time. But I feel like—the Italy story we ran online and in the magazine about a month or so ago. I got home, and the turnaround on that was so tight that I sort of cheated on the front end. I only read through the notes once instead of a couple of times because I didn’t want to burn two more days reading the notes. And I felt like deep in the process I didn’t do some of the work, because we re-wrote that story. Essentially one and a half times. I rewrote it once with Jay (Lovinger, Wright’s ESPN.com editor), and then we made a lot of changes right up before it ran after talking with you and Bruce (Kelley, an ESPN Mag deputy editor), and I feel like the reason that the arc wasn’t exactly right was because I cheated on the process.

Chad: That’s interesting, because that story did, it felt a little bit less focused when it came in.

Wright: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s what it was. I was in such a time crunch that I had to start triaging. When you finish a story, you’ve spent roughly the same amount of time reporting, outlining, thinking and writing. And if you cheat on any one of those four things it snowballs later, and it creates a problem you have to fix on the back end. And I feel like that’s what happened there. Like honestly, I really felt like the problems with that story were because I didn’t do the work.

Chad: But your writing goes fast. You turn stories around really quickly.

Wright: I write really fast. But the other stuff I do slow.

Chad: But it’s probably written fast because you’ve already thought about it.

Wright: I’ve written it in my head. It’s almost like transcribing my thoughts at that point. There are whole paragraphs in that story that I wrote out by hand. And even when I’m transcribing notes or tape, I’ll hit pause and then write for awhile. So in the notes, there are whole paragraphs. And I think that when I don’t do that, I sit down to start writing and I’m spending too much time fixing problems I should’ve solved earlier instead of just concentrating on words.

Chad: The story on ESPN.com today, what was that process? Did you go down to Texas with your binder? Because it’s basically a feature on Uncle Nate, and his relationship with Manziel, and his role at the center of whatever’s going on. How did that process go?

Wright: Well I had the Word doc in my computer. Johnny Football Notes. So I think there are two paragraphs in there that you probably recognize because we cut like 500 words for space from the story, and the 500 words that got cut were mostly about Nate. So a couple of those paragraphs I just went back into an earlier draft of a story and cut-and-pasted. If you notice the end of the story today was a 150-word version of the original last scene of the Manziel story. That was a good call by you. It had a different end when I turned it in, and we changed it, because you wanted to, and you were right. So I used that. Then I got the notes and I did a Control-F for Nate. So I went through the original notees, I took out everything in there about Nate, put it in a separate doc, Nate Notes, and then started that way.

Chad: When did you decide when you got down there that you’d be writing about Nate for today?

Wright: It was in the back of my head. I wanted to get him and write all-new stuff. […] That was the idea. But I don’t know. I’m an old newspaper guy. And I just couldn’t bear to be there and not work. It just felt wrong. I got down there, I’m in College Station, I’m writing something. Because I don’t know, it just felt like, I don’t know, to justify it to myself. I have a really weird guilt-based work ethic.

Chad: And you’re also spending our money.

Wright: I am spending your money. And I treat it like it’s my money. So I’m down there on someone else’s dime and I feel like, you know, you should get your money’s worth.

Chad: It’s funny, you mention the ending of the story in the magazine, and you were talking about dialogue before. Your feature in the magazine is largely about this tug-and-pull between Johnny Football, who is sort of becoming this beast of a character, and Johnny Manziel, who’s 19, 20 years old and figuring it all out as he goes along, and this ties it all together. Because we talked about the scene with the teacher on the golf course, and she asks for his autograph, and she’s walking away, and then she turns around and she says to him, hey, you know, you’re still Jonathan. As if she’s giving him a lesson. That he hasn’t gotten to big. So at the end of the story, there’s this great exchange, Paul Manziel, his father, and Johnny are sitting at his grandmother’s house. And the Heisman happens to be on a table between them. And they’re looking at it in awe and astonishment still, and the dad says something to the extent of, it says, Johnny Manziel on it, and the dad’s like, that’s funny, that’s not even his name. And Johnny sort of knowing which direction he’s going, says to his dad, my name’s not Jonathan. When you got that dialogue, what were you thinking that was saying about them?

Wright: Oh, I was giddy. Because the circular nature of those two comments existed immediately in my head, and so at that moment I knew exactly where it needed to start. And it’s interesting because this is a way inside baseball conversation, but the reason the story didn’t end there originally is I thought that I wanted it to feel like a dispatch from a day inside the hurricane, that it should have that feel and scope, so you catch him at the beginning and you end at the end. Jay talks about this all the time, the myth of transferrence. Just because you saw something, nobody else knows the stuff that stays in the notebook, so they’re not going to miss it, even though I can’t think about it on my own without knowing where it actually ended. So that was the thought process behind ending at this honky-tonk. And it’s interesting, because I think this is what you said, it almost felt expected, or like a trope. I thought it looked like a modern Texan Norman Rockwell, the cowboy-boots wearing Aggie quarterback in the honky tonk listening to music. But then you made the point and I did it, and I read it, and I’m like no this is much better.

Chad: What do you mean that’s where you knew where to start? When you saw that comment, that dialogue between them, you knew how to start the story?

Wright: Yeah, because I knew I had to have the teacher in the first section. Because there was a lot of discussion about, where do you start? I briefly considered starting with what is now the second section so that it was completely chronological. That was in my head up until that happened, and then I was like no it has to start here.

Chad: Remind people what that second section was. 

Wright: The second section was, On Tuesday in College Station With Nate. In the outline that section was called Welcome to the Fishbowl. I was getting my Kenny Chesney on. But that’s what, I felt like the order in which things needed to happen was, introduce Johnny and the central conflict in his life, which is how he’s handling stress and fame and the fact that his family is worried about him. Then I think you had to define the fishbowl, which is the instrument exerting pressure, then you had to see how it had already changed him and his family, and then you go back to the golf course and you’re caught up.

Chad: Except that’s not the way we went.

Wright: No. Well, it basically is. Because the first section is that, we talked about. Like, The Godfather. Then the second section’s The Fishbowl. Then the third section is all the things pressing on Johnny and changing him. The fourth section is the current present tense of that change. Then the fifth section is, we’re back at the golfcourse.

[…]

Chad: Well I look forward to your Johnny Manziel book you’re probably going to write after your time in Texas.

Wright: No. (laughs) No.

-30-

There’s even more good stuff in the pod about what problems Wright has with how people have taken parts of his story out of context, and much more. Definitely worth a listen. Check it out here.

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