The story I desperately wanted to write

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So I’m feeling a really good journalism high right now.

Why? Because a story I wrote for Deadspin, THE PARAGRAPH: THE FALLOUT FROM SPORTSWRITING’S FILTHIEST FUCK-UP, is up to 308,000 reads in two days.

Now, I usually don’t pay that much attention to the metrics of online media. I mean, when I publish pieces for Bleacher Report, someone with the site will (if things are going well) perhaps drop an e-mail with, “Hey, you’re up to XXX,XXX reads.” Which is cool and appreciated, but not really needed. At this point in my career, I genuinely focus upon doing my best, hoping things work out—then moving on toward the next assignment. If the work generates a shitload of eyeballs—awesome! If it doesn’t, well, I gave my all.

So why is this one so meaningful? Multiple reasons. First, no one wanted it. And, by no one, I pretty much mean no one. I pitched it to a friend at The New Yorker. He passed (didn’t see what the focus could be). I pitched it to Bleacher Report. They passed (like many outlets, there was (I think) an understandable trepidation about writing on media). I mentioned it to someone at ESPN and was assured they wouldn’t bite. On and on and on.

Deadspin? Well, I’ve had a pretty hot and cold relationship with Deadspin through the years. On the bright side, they’ve been great with excerpting my books and I’ve written a small handful of stuff for them. On the dark side, they’ve mocked and ridiculed me more than once. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes, eh, um, yeah.

That said, I really like what Barry Petschesky, the site’s editor, is doing, and from the beginning he’s struck me as a fair, decent guy. Also, I really don’t hold stupid grudges. So I reached out to Barry via Twitter DM and tossed the idea his way. His response:

A. He loved it.

B. He could pay me $500.

I was thrilled.

Now, in case you don’t know, $500 for what turned out to be a 5,000-word story is terrible. It’s 10 cents per word, and most of my career I’ve made—bare minimum—$1-to-$2 per word. So why was I thrilled? Because I … knew … this … was … a … fucking … great … potential … story. Anyone who has worked long enough in journalism has seen something like what happened in Gallatin. Hell, in many ways I was Nick DeLeonibus during my early days at The Tennessean. I took nothing seriously. I inserted curses into copy. I was immature and all-knowing and obnoxious beyond belief. In fact, I’m pretty sure my history drew me to this narrative. No, I never reached the journalistic depths of “Dixon sucks donkey dicks.” But I easily could have.

So with a Deadspin agreement, I went about making calls. I probably reached out to, oh, 30 people. Twenty or so spoke. I knew Nick DeLeonibus had passed two years ago, but I wasn’t aware of the details. That’s why one of the first folks I left a message for was Dottie, his mother. I called—got nothing. Called—got nothing. Called—got nothing. Then one day, a voice message. “Hi Jeff, it’s Dottie DeLeonibus. Give me a call if you still …”


The other key figure was Kris Freeman, the sports editor. I tracked Kris down via Twitter, and we DMed quite a bit before he agreed to speak on the record. Kris is a truly wonderful man, and he was worried about the implications of a story that would, inevitably, dredge up some old ugliness. But, ultimately, I think—as a former scribe—he could empathize with my plight. He probably spoke because, were he in my shoes, he’d want someone to talk.

I’m babbling. I usually hate what I write. I do. I read it, count all the things I did wrong, bemoan missed opportunities, etc. This time, however, I feel genuinely accomplished.

Nobody wanted this story.

But I did.

7 thoughts on “The story I desperately wanted to write”

  1. It was a great one! Your empathy, not sure if that’s the right word, for all persons involved made it great reading. Thinking of myself as a fresh college grad, could see something happening like this, in any industry.

  2. This was a great piece. I saw the headline on Deadspin and then when I read the byline, I knew that it wouldn’t disappoint and I was glad to be correct. Really well done.

    I was a reporter for a mid-sized weekly a long time ago and our newsroom was a lot like you described. We had four papers coming out of our building and they were all staffed by people in their 20’s. My best friend since I was a week old was my sports editor, I was an assistant editor on the news side. Me, him and my editor were the only people who filled the paper every week. The only difference between my story and yours was that my editors were great and always on top of things. If not, any one of us, could have been DeLeonibus.

    After I read your story I immediately shared it with all of my co-workers from my paper days. I hadn’t spoken to them in a while, so thank you for letting us reconnect.

  3. A pal of mine who has been a journalist by trade for 38 years told me about this incident — he remembered reading about it at the time in Editor & Publisher and wondering how on earth something so ghastly could have happened and what became of the players in this drama.

    Your story answers it brilliantly.

    I would like to have seen the paper’s post-disaster story and Nick’s apology letter, as well. What did he say? What could you say?

    One thing’s certain…he lived with it for the rest of his life, and it absolutely killed him much too early.

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