3 GREAT STORIES: The all-Grantland edition

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The web site Grantland.com covers a lot of ground … with various degrees of success.

An off-shoot of ESPN’s web site, helmed by its most popular writer, Bill Simmons, the Grantland site is a hub for creative writing on sports and entertainment. At its best, it features some of the sports world’s most perceptive and insightful writers (particularly Zach Lowe, who runs circles around most basketball analysts) and does as good a job as anyone in joyfully tackling the frivolity of show business. At its worst, it often seems hypocritical, transparently searching for the type of clickbait (promoting “‘hot takes’ … dunks, GIFs and more” in its sports coverage) it elsewhere claims to disavow (regularly parodying those same knee-jerk hot sports takes).

But Grantland’s contributors do one thing particularly well: analyze themselves.

Many of the site’s columns involve turning the lens inward, performing the classic storytelling trick of exposing the process of journalism. The writers often insert themselves into stories and discuss their thought process about the very story they are covering. Again, sometimes this comes off as stale and self-promoting. But often it provides a great window into how the media works — especially in the highly-scrutinized worlds of sports and entertainment.

This past week showed three examples of Grantland at its best:

At least one real, authentic moment of humanity with Cameron Diaz (7/23/14, Grantland): Take this story, in which writer Alex Pappademas covers the site’s “Rom-Com Week” — yes, a week devoted to romantic comedies in the movies — by chatting with one of the genre’s more notable actresses, Cameron Diaz.

The problem for Pappademas? His interview with Diaz is a bit of an awkward mess, patrolled by PR folks and unable to produce the kind of honest insight he had desired.

So he focuses his article on just that: the awkwardness.

He sets the tone by sprinkling his first few paragraphs with sentences that read like mental note-jotting, treating himself almost like a detective going to interview a key witness. Throughout the description of his allotted time with Diaz, he documents numerous moments of ridiculousness, exposing more about the process than about Diaz.

It’s an enjoyable — and informative — ride.

Donating your body to sportswriting (7/24/14, Grantland): Just as informative, and far more probing, is Bryan Curtis’ examination of why fallen-from-grace athletes so often choose to drop their media shield. The writer looks at the cases of Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, and Lance Armstrong, all of whom became pariahs in their sports and have tried to use the press to enable their journey to redemption.

In an era where “think-piece” has become a journalistic buzzword, Curtis provides an example of when such a story works best. You cannot help but respect the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of his analysis, such as when he delineates why writers jump at the chance to interview such disgraced figures:

What do writers get out of talking to an athlete at his lowest? First, it changes the balance of power. When an athlete is an All-Star, the reporter is a supplicant. LeBron James offered a gentle reminder this month. When an athlete is in exile, he becomes the supplicant. He needs us — or, at least, he’s willing to give us five minutes before turning his back.

The Lowe Post: Lee Jenkins (7/24/14, Grantland): Speaking of writers landing big interviews, nobody pulled a bigger one this month than Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, who became the vessel for LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” essay that announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In this podcast, Jenkins talks with the aforementioned Zach Lowe, and the discussion turns into two analytical minds delving into the mindset of the media.

Again, following Lowe’s work is already a treat. He consistently brings tremendous insight into the sport he covers (basketball), in terms of both on-the-court analysis and off-the-court discussion. He clearly likes to think big and deeply, and he is matched on this podcast by a feature reporter who does the same.

The interchange is fascinating, and another example of Grantland’s finest.

Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

2 thoughts on “3 GREAT STORIES: The all-Grantland edition

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