Our off-season interview series continues with Ben Montgomery. He's an award winning, Pulitzer Prize finalist staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times. No one does long form non-fiction better. Like the interview from October with his colleague Michael Kruse, this has very little to do with sports and nothing to do with baseball. We have some of the best journalistic minds in the industry working in our back yard, it'd be a shame not to take advantage of that. We discuss his career, his thoughts on the current state of media, what he would change about sports and much more. Enjoy.
Erik Hahmann: I'll start you off like I did your buddy and co-worker Michael Kruse, how did you come to work for the Times? (give a little of your background if you could)
Ben Montgomery: I was kind of aimless in college. I wanted initially to study ag business or vet medicine and go back to Oklahoma to help my brother and granddad run the family farm. "No," said my wife, who is much smarter than me, and somehow I found journalism. We graduated in 2000 and borrowed my dad's pickup and snaked from Russellville, Ark., to Watertown, N.Y., trying to find me a newspaper job. My resume was crap - some part-time work for the Russellville Courier and the Arkansas Fish and Wildlife Magazine. Somehow I got an offer from the San Angelo (Texas) Standard Times, a beautiful little paper in West Texas, where they let me write about a high-profile crook. Within a year, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., called and I moved up and quickly came to understand that I wanted to do stories, not articles. And it seemed like the best place to do that was at the St. Pete Times; they were doing the best work in the business. I sent a few resumes down but I couldn't get much traction. Then the Tampa Tribune offered me a job and I took it thinking I'd try to beat the Times every day, thinking maybe they'd notice. They did and I left the Trib for the Times in 2006 after about 10 months. Had to pay them $14,000 to cover my moving expenses because I left before my two-year contract expired. It was the best $14,000 I ever spent.
EH: What should be a reporter's highest goal?
BM: To have the guts for empathy.
EH: This is a very broad question so feel free to take it in any direction you wish, are you happy with the current state of media?
BM: Heavens no. I'm sheltered a little at the Times from the woes of the industry, but it's rare that I'm impressed by out of town newspapers, and I buy them - all of them - everywhere I go. Seems like so much slash and burn has skinned a lot of papers down to nothing. To beef jerky. They read horrible and look irrelevant and feel like the flesh of a 100-year-old man. How many stories are we missing because the corporate owners won't employ enough people to give a few of them the time to roam around and be curious? How much better could towns and cities all over the map be if newspapers were still the connective tissue? That's what's slipping: that connective tissue. This'll change when papers are bone dry and the money-sucking shareholders cut them loose and good people who care about the minutia that constitutes a place buy back the daily papers and return them to doorsteps. It will change, too. I'm confident. I'm going to start the trend when I make enough money to buy a little newspaper. I'm going to call it The Avenger and the whole damn thing is going to be printed in Old English. I'm bringing back the women's pages. Wait till you see my staff.
EH: Are there currently any trends in reporting, be it TV, newspaper, internet, that you're particularly happy or unhappy with?
BM: Reporting can be super easy - and super uninteresting - if you're doing all your work on the telephone and computer. I'm a fan of social media - whatever that is -- and I'm not opposed to calling for sources through those avenues, but what you get back is rarely, if ever, good stuff. Young people: Go. Put the keys in the ignition and get the hell out of the office.
EH: How much should writers listen to their audience?
BM: A woman wrote me a few days ago to correct a mistake; I used repelled rather than rappelled. I’m a moron. I thanked her. But I hear from some strange birds, too. Like this guy: hhttp://www.xtranormal.com/
I guess you listen when you should.
EH: You have free reign for a day, what changes would you make in the way sports are covered in America?
BM: I'd eliminate press boxes. Reporters would have to buy a ticket (and a Miller Lite and a chili cheese dog), like everyone else. And I'd outlaw those awful half-time sideline interviews. And I'd make a rule that reporters could never use a quote spoken during a post-game press conference.
EH: You're writing in the Times has covered a variety of topics, ranging from the aspirations of a little know presidential candidate, to a bunny that helped unite a Tampa neighborhood. Where do your story ideas come from? How many are assignments from your editor and how many are your own?
BM: Ninety percent are mine. The rest come from other reporters or my editors. Mine come from being out and about and talking to people and being curious and reading the bathroom walls. I find some buried deep in wire stories or in the police briefs(!), where you're typically given the climax and your job is simply going back and figuring out the rising action. And they come from photographers. They're some of the best sources in the business because they're always meeting new people.
EH: In 2010 you were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Best Local Reporting for your series "For Their Own Good", documenting decades of abuse at a Florida reform school. You'll likely be nominated this year for "Spectacle: The lynching of Claude Neal." Are awards such as the Pulitzer important to you? Or are they ancillary benefits to telling an important story?
BM: Awards let you know you're on the right track. And they make your mother proud. Mine keeps them in a drawer in my old bedroom. That's the reward. And there's something nice about sending those stories out into the world, too.
EH: What's the most difficult story you've ever written? Most rewarding?
BM: For Their Own Good was tough. It was big and complicated, with two dozen characters and lots of moving parts and lots of people who didn't want to talk. And stake-outs in a small town are no fun at all.
Spectacle was probably the most rewarding. Claude Neal’s family tried for a long time to get somebody to listen.
EH: One sentence tip for any aspiring journalists?
BM: If you keep busting your ass, you can do a lot of good in the world.