Amy K. Nelson's original dream was to be a war reporter. And though she ended up in the sports arena instead of the military theater, she's still driven by the same impulses. "There is an adrenaline and rushit sort of makes me tick," she tells Gelf. "When I'm injected into something that is high-impact, smart reporting, high-stress, I thrive."
"There is an adrenaline and rush that I love the most; it sort of makes me tick."
Nelson is currently doing her thriving at the online sports network SB Nation. Mostly a text-based site since its creation in 2003, SB Nation in the last year has made a push towards producing high-quality video content, thanks in part to a boost in venture-capital funding. The site brought in some big names in the sports-blog world for help with the move: people such asDan Rubenstein, Matt Ufford, and Bomani Jones.But perhaps their biggest addition to the newly-formed video staff was then-ESPN veteran Nelson. She had started with ESPN: The Magazine in late 2004, and transitioned to ESPN.com in 2005. In her nearly seven years with the company, Nelson saw her responsibilities at the company grow from feature writing to include frequent TV appearances on ESPN shows such as Rome Is Burning and First Take.
While Nelson occasionally covered the NFL, the bulk of her writing was about baseball. Some of her most notable pieces at ESPN included a follow-up on umpire Jim Joyce and former Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga after their infamous "imperfect game," and her profile of Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison's relationship with his father.
The move to SB Nation gave Nelson her own show, Full Nelson, and the freedom to pursue stories she may not have been able to at the Worldwide Leader. Since the official SB Nation video launch in early 2012, Nelson's stories have been anything but traditional. Her first Full Nelson episode, to give an example, was a profile of the Brooklyn arm-wrestling scene. Nelson has gone on to create some of SB Nation's most interesting video content, including traditional interviews with athletes, video profiles on unique athletes such as Nationals reliever Drew Storen, and a story on minor-league-baseball part-owner Bill Murray. Yes, that Bill Murray.
Nelson's most recent piece was an oral history looking back on the Costacos brothers' sports-poster empire of the 1980s and 90s; it took Nelson more than nine months just to get all of the interviews. Gelf spoke to Nelson by email about the idea and evolution of the Costacos piece, moving from print to video, her role at SB Nation, her time working at ESPN, and just what she's going to do next. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: First off, I wanted to talk a little bit about the most recent story you did on the Costacos brothers. When watching and reading the story, I was amazed at just how many big names you were able to get for this. I noticed you had an interview with Charles Barkley in August 2012, so this was obviously something that took some time to produce.
How did the idea for the story come about? And how did it all come together?
The Andre Dawson one, for example, happened because we were already down there shooting another Full Nelson. We don't have a ton of resources so we had to pick our spots on travel. My only regret is not getting more athletes. We were this close to getting Bosworth, and were about to book a flight, but he was hard to nail down. He's the one athlete I really, really wanted. My goal is actually to make it into a full-length documentary, and I've heard from a lot of athletes and others from that era who would love to be a part of it and wished they had for this piece! So if there are any people out there reading with a pile of money to contribute, hit me up.
Gelf Magazine: When you were at ESPN, you seemed to have a pretty defined role there as a baseball writer. At SB Nation, you've essentially flipped. Now, you've got your own online show/feature, with on-camera pieces encompassing a large part of your work. Plus, you've been able to branch out from just doing baseball. What would you say your role is with SB Nation?
Amy K Nelson: I was brought on originally to help launch our YouTube channel, so the focus of all my work leading up to launch and last summer was mostly video. I was a writer at ESPN but I also appeared on First Take weekly and contributed to Baseball Tonight and Outside The Lines, ESPNews, etc. I'd say I was already a cross-platform journalist there, so moving to video wasn't much of a transition, in terms of doing on-camera work. Now I'm making sure I still am writing while also continuing to do on-camera work.
Gelf Magazine: What's your experience been like so far doing video online? Was there any part of you that was worried about getting lost with all the content produced online on a daily basis?
Amy K. Nelson: Of course. Any time you move into a new world, there always is trepidation. But I've said this countless times: They have followed through on what they pitched to me back in the fall of 2011. Our head of Vox Studios, Chad Mumm, said, "Listen: No one out there is making sports content that actually looks good. One thing I can promise you is our shit will look better than anyone else's, and we'll be doing it way cheaper than everyone else." And he has followed through on that 100 percent (on all counts!). There is an aesthetic look, with our sister sites at the Verge and Polygon, that is distinctly Vox. It's the No. 1 comment I get when I see my other media friends and, coming from a photography background, it's awesome. I mean, did you see the life-and-death-of-the-arcade piece the Verge ran a few weeks ago? Sick.
Gelf Magazine: The video portfolio for SB Nation is pretty diversified. I mean, you can say that you and Spencer Hall both produce video content for the company, but there's a pretty big difference between Shutdown Fullback and the content you and others at SB Nation create. What would you say is the ultimate plan for SB Nation and its online-video push?
Amy K. Nelson: Well that's above my pay grade! You're right, it is a little all over the place. But that's also SB Nation; it's a network of over 300 blogs. Our national site, under Spencer's new leadership, I think is establishing itself as a go-to for live sporting events and news analysiswe have some amazing writers who consistently nail it, and nail it in real time. Not easy. And of course I like to think of ourselves as the worldwide leader in GIFs, even if everyone else has gotten into the game. As for video, I hope it will continue to value superior visual storytelling with depth.
Gelf Magazine: Right after you'd left ESPN and joined SB Nation, you did a podcast with Bruce Feldman and Pat Forde, who had both recently left the company. You mentioned a big reason for leaving was getting the opportunity to cover stories that were off the beaten path, things that you wouldn't have had the time or the freedom to cover at ESPN. Were there ever stories you proposed that weren't considered "big" enough to warrant coverage at ESPN? When you reflect on your time so far at SB Nation and at ESPN, what sorts of freedoms do you have now that you never would have been given before?
Amy K. Nelson: I know questions about ESPN will inevitably come up, but sometimes I feel it's almost unfair to compare the two companies. ESPN is a juggernaut, a massive place with thousands of people working who are seasoned and super-talented, and it's also corporate. When I was there, ESPN never said, "You can't do that story." It's just there are so many people there who do so much and who do so many great things so it's not always an available avenue. For instance, this Poster Boys project I don't think I'd ever have been able to do because it automatically would have been thought of as 30 for 30 territory, a space I didn't work in while there.
And I also knew SB Nation would allow me to go cover other sports, and attend events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four, when back at ESPN we had an army of others who covered those events. And in terms of freedoms, for the most part, as long as the money is there, the people I work with are all on board with pitches. They are smart, creative people and, in the instance of the Poster Boys, as soon as they heard it they were like,"'Duh, do this. No one else is doing this and it's awesome."
Same with the Newtown story I did. That was a one-man crew: My former producer Greg T. Gordon, was camera, audio, editor. All of it. And we turned that around in a day. They said go and we went. There is an adrenaline and rush that I love the most; it sort of makes me tick. My original dream was to be a war photographer, so when I'm injected into something that is high-impact, smart reporting, and high-stress, I thrive. And they trusted us enough to just go for it, and we produced what I believe, is the first sports-angle story from Newtown. I'm very proud of that piece.
Working with so many people who are in their 20s allows for a cool, creative environment to just jump in and attack something with no reservations. I wanted to be in that environment. It doesn't mean that frustrations don't come with that dynamic, and there are plenty, but I think the main difference is just more autonomy and fewer people to contend with when it comes to telling stories.
Gelf Magazine: SB Nation doesn't have a reputation for breaking a whole lot of news. Most of the written and video content tends to be analysis and focused on features, rather than breaking hard news. Is that something that could come down the line, or do you envision SB Nation sticking to the niche it's already carved out?
Amy K. Nelson: I'm not sure. I think the digital space is a fascinating one right now, and with the rise of social it's morphing at an alarming rate. I think we're all trying to figure this all out, but I know a huge focus of Vox is quality, quality, quality. Be it visually, written, in our voices, or multimedia.
Gelf Magazine: Without giving away too much, what should we looking to see from you story-wise in the near future?
Amy K. Nelson: Some AMAZING stuff. Because, you know, everything I touch is SO AMAZING.