SB Nation’s Jon Bois Answers Our Questions

SB Nation's Jon Bois

SB Nation's Jon Bois

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SB Nation associate editor Jon Bois is not your typical sports writer. While so many others in the business focus on only the top players or simply regurgitate trade rumors, Bois dwells in the dark, opting instead to enlighten his audience about the topics not oft discussed, such as the stupidity of the kickoff or the batting career of Mets pitcher Koo Dae-Sung. As Bois himself writes, “We’re not telling these stories because they’re important, we’re telling them because we feel like it.” Bois operates mostly through video, sometimes with a written account to go along. He has grossed over 10 million views between his own personal YouTube channel and that of SB Nation.

And we interviewed him.

Mr. Bois offered some valuable insight into his career, his process for making videos, and even dished out some solid advice for those interested in the field of journalism. Here it is.

For anyone who is unaware, could you briefly summarize what your job at SB Nation entails?

My official title is Creative Director of SB Nation Labs. My job is to develop new ways to tell a story, whether it’s through writing, videos, illustrations, or all of the above.

 

What first got you interested in sports? Which is your favorite?

My story is similar to that of a lot of sports fans: they got me young. My parents loved watching sports, so as a little kid I took to them pretty quickly. I also had the time of my life playing sports with other kids in my neighborhood. Collecting baseball cards was a big deal too. The Internet barely existed when I was 10 years old, and baseball cards were one of my primary means of appreciating my favorite athletes. I used to read the stats on the backs over and over and try to figure out what made those guys so great.

Football tends to be the sport I watch and think about the most, but man alive do I love the NBA. It’s such a beautiful sport.

What inspired you to take up writing at SB Nation? Why write about sports for a living?

I was actually writing on the Internet for about eight years before I joined SB Nation in 2009. I knew I wanted to write for a living, but hadn’t specifically planned on sports. At the time, I just sort of naturally gravitated toward sportswriting because that’s where the jobs were. Sports are so beautiful and fascinating, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine a more exciting thing to write about.

What does your typical day look like?

I wake up around eight o’clock (sometimes I wish I were an early-morning person, but I am definitely not). I’ll have a cup of coffee and do a little bit work in the morning — writing, planning, researching, etc. — just to have a little time to myself. Around 10, I’ll take the train into the office. I work on projects, have meetings, and shoot the breeze about any ideas my friends and I might have. I’ll usually head home at seven or eight, although I’ll occasionally pull a late shift.

Then I go home and cook. I’m always the one who makes dinner at my house. It might not be exciting to a lot of people, but I love cooking, even if it’s something simple. After a day of staring at a computer screen, it’s really great to, you know, work with my hands and create something in real life.

 

You are most well known for your three series, “Breaking Madden”, “Pretty Good”, and “Chart Party”. Do you have a favorite?

That’s a tough question. I have fond memories of Breaking Madden, but it took so much time to make that I could only do it for so long. Pretty Good is really exciting, because no two episodes are the same and it’s fun to tackle a totally new challenge each time. I think Chart Party’s my favorite. They’re so fun to do, and it’s a great feeling to give sports nerds (like me) the sorts of videos they probably wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Describe the process of making one of your videos. How long does the average piece take to produce?

I’ve got this giant spreadsheet I keep that’s full of ideas for videos. I’ve kept it for years now, there are about 85 ideas in there by this point. Sometimes I’ll just take an idea out of that list and get to work, but a lot of times, I’ll have a conversation with a coworker that sparks a completely new idea, and I’m like, “I have to make this right now.”

So I spend a couple days doing as much research as I can, crunching numbers and going through old newspapers. This is when I really find out whether or not this is a story I should run with. If not, that’s okay, and those couple of days are just the cost of finding that out.

After that, I do a lot of stuff at the same time. I’ll write a couple hundred words, build the visuals for the video, and then write the next couple hundred. Sometimes a story turns out to be pretty straightforward, and I can finish the whole thing within two weeks. Other times, I realize that things run a lot deeper than I originally thought, and it can take four to six weeks.

 

What’s your favorite piece you’ve ever worked on?

Another tough one! I have to say 17776, the fictional series I wrote last summer. It was exciting and daunting and fun and discouraging and deeply meaningful, all at the same time. And when it was all done, seeing how much it meant to other people was absolutely the greatest experience of my professional life.

 

Which piece did you find the most frustrating to work on, and what made it so tough?

I guess the answer to this is also 17776. It was so tough, because it was such a weird concept that I had trouble explaining it to people while I was writing it. As a result, I was mostly on my own from a creative standpoint. The freedom you get from that is terrific, but the drawback is that ultimately, you have to be your own cheerleader. That can be tough.

 

Your ideas – for example, your evaluation of Barry Bonds’s 2004 season as if he had never picked up a bat – are really out there. How do you come up with video topics, be it which aspect of Madden to expose next, which insane story to share, or which statistical adventure to undertake?

I pay close attention to things that interest me. When I looked at Barry Bonds’ 2004 stat line, I just stared at those 232 walks, and I realized that if I found them so interesting, others might as well.

And when I do come across something I’m interested in, I always, always, always write it down. If I look at in a week and think it’s stupid, no big deal. But the worst thing in the world would be to miss out on an amazing idea because I was too lazy to write it down.

 

Your videos are very unique stylistically, with lots of 3D schematics of cities and smooth jazz galore. What’s that all about? What influences this style?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve just loved maps. I’m the sort of weirdo who will open Google Earth and start scrolling through it just for fun, just to see how everything’s built and where everything leads.

I also genuinely love corny smooth jazz, and I found it to be an easy way to set my stuff apart from other sports videos. That’s really important. These days, it’s usually not enough to do something really well. It’s more important to do something different, and that includes sounding different.

You often incorporate politics into your shows, particularly “Pretty Good”. Do you feel that this is an important part of your work? In other words, do you make a point to use your platform as a means to offer your opinion on certain political or social matters not necessarily related to sports?

I don’t make it a point, necessarily. It’s not really part of my mission. But I do tend to tell stories from a personal perspective — I have to tell the audience why I think this is a story worth telling, so that naturally means telling them how I feel about it. Sometimes it’s impossible for me to do that without wading into politics.

 

Why the image of Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes on almost every social media icon?

Calvin and Hobbes has always been my chief creative inspiration, for reasons that would probably take 10,000 words to properly explain. So in part, it’s in tribute. But in part, it serves as a sort of reminder for me to be true to that spirit. Calvin and Hobbes found a way to be subversive, loving, heartfelt, and wildly creative at the same time. That’s how I want to be, and that’s what I want to put out there.

 

When you’re not writing for SB Nation, what are you doing?

I love exploring New York, where I’ve lived for the last three years or so. I do that by going on bike rides, walking through neighborhoods I’ve never visited, and checking out restaurants and cuisines that are new to me. I love this city so much, it’s almost as though New York City is my hobby.

If I’m too lazy for any of that stuff, I love playing video games. I don’t have a ton of time for them these days, but they make for a great escape. I always wondered how old I’d be when I got too old for video games. I’m 35 and the answer is still no. Hopefully the answer is always no.

If you weren’t a sports writer, what would you be?

Years and years ago, I worked at a call center, doing tech support for an internet service provider. Honestly, I loved it. It was so great to talk to total strangers, many of whom were angry because their Internet wasn’t working, and try to surprise them by actually fixing their problems. Failing that, I could at least let them know they were being heard by somebody. If every job in the world paid the same, and I didn’t have the opportunity to make Internet stuff for a living, I think I’d do that.

 

Any advice for the aspiring writer?

The one thing I always recommend is to learn different skills beyond simply writing — Photoshop, video editing, data visualization, podcasting, web developing, et cetera. Whatever you find fun and interesting, really. It’s okay if you’re not great at them at first, just start small, look up tutorials, and experiment a little.

My hope is that in the future, there will be a healthy job market solely for good writing, but the journalism industry at large is in a state of flux. It’s sad to see so many jobs disappearing. On the bright side, I think there are still plenty of places for those who can find some sort of way to stand out, and having a diverse skill set is a great way to do that. The Internet is an incredible medium that allows you to tell a story in all kinds of different ways, and it kind of seems like a pity to just stop at writing.

Which, of course, is not to say that writing isn’t important; it’s still the most important skill you can improve. But the more tools you have at your disposal to tell a story, the happier you’ll be with it, and the happier your audience will be to experience it.

One other piece of advice: try to get in with a group of people who want to create stuff alongside you. Maybe that’s in the workplace, or maybe it’s just you and some friends starting a blog. It’s invaluable to have some buddies around you to encourage each other and push one another to be better.

Many thanks to Mr. Bois for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct the above email interview. If you’re interested in checking out his videos, which you totally should be, you can find all of his content and more on the SB Nation website or YouTube channel. Alternatively, go check out his channel instead.

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