Matt Tullis, English and Digital Journalism professor at Fairfield University, created a place on the internet that gathers the best of the best in terms of writers and reporters. In 2013, Matt (who was, at that moment, professor at Ashland University) started a show named Gangrey: The Podcast and, since then, he talked with almost 50 of the most well-known narrative journalists in the US about the amazing pieces they’ve written. All this with help from Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times reporter and founder of narrative journalism website Gangrey.com.
Hearing legends of this business talking about the craft of stories is a gold mine in terms of tips & tricks. For this, we have to appreciate Matt's work, who’s in charge of producing the whole show. Here’s what that's like for him:
Versiunea in limba romana se gaseste aici.
I started off as a journalism major at a small liberal arts school in Ohio (Ashland University). Initially, I wanted to be a sports reporter, and that’s all I did for three years in college. But then I did an internship covering news at my local newspaper and I pretty much left sports for a while. I worked at a small daily newspaper called The Daily Record in Wooster, Ohio, for four years, and then went to grad school for three years.
I went full-time for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, but on the side, I continued reporting for the Star News in Wilmington on a pretty regular basis. When I finished my MFA, I actually went back to The Daily Record in Ohio for about eight months before landing a job at the Columbus Dispatch.
I was on the enterprise team at the Dispatch, but did a lot of stories related to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Eventually, I made the jump to academia and started teaching at Ashland University in 2008. I kept writing, though, primarily for regional and trade magazines.
And then, in 2012, I published my first piece with SB Nation Longform and have been focused, as a reporter and writer, on longer, more in-depth types of stories since.
I love being a professor because I get a great amount of joy in helping students write great pieces of journalism. I often view myself as their editor more than their professor, like I am there to help them make their work the best it can possibly be.
I also try very hard to get across just how important strong journalists are to a society, whether those journalists are doing investigative work or writing feature stories. They are all important to understanding the communities in which we live.
If I can get a handful of students to buy into those ideas in any given semester, then I think we’re making progress.
I don’t know what drives me, other than I just don’t want to stop doing what I do, and I’m always looking for ways to get better. I just think that’s a pretty good and fun way to live.
Why are stories important?
Last summer, I got my first tattoo. I got “Stories can save us.” tattooed onto my left forearm. It’s from the first sentence of the last chapter of Tim O’Brien’s amazing novel “The Things They Carried.” The chapter is titled “The Lives of the Dead”.
It’s about a girl the young narrator remembers from his youth, a girl who died of a brain tumor. Throughout the chapter, the narrator is imagining ways in which he can bring the girl back to life through words, through stories.
I’ve been trying to do that in a lot of ways for a long time. I’ve got a memoir that should be coming out sometime in 2017, and it’s about when I had leukemia as a teenager. But really it’s about the people I knew who didn’t survive, and my attempts to give them a life in stories.
I want to learn more about them and see if I can conjure them up, if only for a bit, so other people will learn about these people I think about on a daily basis.
It’s those stories that keep us going, that connect us to those in our past and will connect us to those in the future. The stories we tell ultimately define who we are, as individuals, but also as a society.
Probably the most important moment in my career was when I quit newspapers in 2002 to go to grad school and get a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I was writing a lot for the Star News as a freelancer while I was doing my graduate work, and because of that, I started seeing the possibilities that could exist as a writer and as a reporter. I saw ways in which my writing could make my reported, journalistic stories better.
And I saw ways in which my reporting clearly made my writing, even the memoir I was working on, better. So I went back into the newspaper industry with an entirely different mindset.
I wanted to be a reporter, but I also wanted to tell the stories in a community in a way that people would want to read them.
Then, when I was at the Columbus Dispatch, a colleague told me about Gangrey.com, and that pretty much pulled me in all the way. Once I saw that there were people out there doing the type of stuff that I only dreamed about, and not only that, but also coming together on that one website and talking about those stories, I knew that I wanted to do that type of work myself.
And then I made the jump to academia and I realized that I was in a great position to help students develop a passion for those types of stories as well as teach them what it takes to do them.
Gangrey: The Podcast
In 2013, I moderated a virtual round-table discussion on how journalism fit into the realm of creative nonfiction, and, to a larger extent, creative writing.
The discussion included Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times, Chris Jones of Esquire and Thomas Lake of Sports Illustrated. It was a great discussion, and Creative Nonfiction, the literary magazine, published it, and it was incredibly well-received.
While I was in the midst of doing that, one of my students came up to me and said: “You know all these people. You should do a podcast.” I didn’t really know that many people who were doing the kind of literary journalism I was interested in, even if my student thought I did.
I also didn’t even know what a podcast was. But I found out, and started formulating how and what I could do as a podcast. I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to just interview reporters about the amazing stories they’ve written.
I needed a name for the podcast, and I wanted something that could help generate an audience rather quickly. I hate doing something in a vacuum. If I was going to do this podcast, I wanted people to listen to it.
So I called Ben, who had founded the site Gangrey.com (which changed me fundamentally when it came to knowing what could be done in feature writing, and what was being done, including in newspapers), and I told him I wanted to do a podcast and I wanted to call it Gangrey: The Podcast, and he thought it was a great idea, and off we went.
Ben knew a whole lot more of these reporters and writers than I did, and if I ever needed to get in touch with someone, and it wasn’t obvious how I could reach them, I would ask Ben and he would shoot me their email address.
I was lucky when I started this in that I worked at a university that had a great student radio station. At the time, Ashland had an amazing audio professor named Steve Suess (he’s since moved on from Ashland) and he basically taught me how to record and edit and add production values to the podcast. The department I worked in had a great recording studio that I was able to use, and everything just clicked.
Why is it important for such a show to exist?
The podcast succeeds, I think, when it is able to really break down the reporting and writing process of a particular story. For me, one thing I struggle with a lot of coming up with story ideas, and so one of the first questions I almost always ask my guests is “How did you come up with this story idea?” I know, from teaching for more than eight years now, that for young reporters, the hardest thing is often finding the right stories to tell.
I went to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction conference for the first time in July, and was amazed at how many young people I ran into who said they listen to the podcast and that it’s helped them start thinking about doing bigger, narrative-style projects.
I think maybe that’s why it’s important, because not everyone ends up at Mizzou (Missouri School of Journalism, the oldest journalism school in the world) or at Indiana University taking classes with Kelley and Tom French, but everyone can sit down and listen to Kelley talk about her series “Never Let Go,” or listen to Ben Montgomery talk about reporting “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” or listen to Wright Thompson talk about reporting on Michael Jordan.
I think that’s helpful, especially for young reporters, because doing this can be really scary and it’s good to know how the best in the business do it and then try to model them.
The recording process
Up until now, I recorded the podcast in the studios of WRDL 88.9 FM, the student radio station at Ashland University. We had a production studio there, which had an iMac with Adobe Audition, a mixing board, and a microphone.
I typically used Skype to conduct the interviews, although I could also use the telephone. I’ve only ever had two guests actually in the studio — Brian Mockenhaupt and Walt Harrington. They were both were visiting Ashland at the time for the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference.
Of course, I’ve left Ashland now, and am now an assistant professor of English and Digital Journalism at Fairfield University. I’ll be recording the podcasts in a similar studio in WVOF 88.5 FM, which is the student-run radio station at Fairfield.
How do you decide upon the guest writer?
I wish I had some sort of criteria I could give you or something, but it’s really pretty simple. If I read a story, or now sometimes a book, and I find myself wanting to talk to the writer/reporter about what I just read, I find a way to reach out to them.
The great thing about technology is we can talk to just about anyone, anywhere, so in all but two episodes, the interview was conducted over the phone or via Skype.
When I read a story I want to talk about, I just find a way to reach out to the reporter. It’s so easy to get in touch with people nowadays.
Some of the early podcast episodes came about because I tweeted at the reporter, telling them I liked their story and wanted to talk to them on the podcast. Having the Gangrey name associated with the podcast definitely helped there.
Often times, I realize that the reporter and I have some mutual friend somewhere. The first episode I recorded in Connecticut was with Kate Miles, an environmental writer who writes for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and also writes books.
She wrote a story about an older female hiker who got lost on the Appalachian Trail and ended up starving to death while trying to be rescued. It just so happened that Ben Montgomery posted that story on Facebook and mentioned that Kate was a friend of his, so I contacted him and asked him to put me and Kate in touch.
Ultimately it turned out that Kate and I had a lot of mutual friends that we didn’t even know about. But truly, Ben Montgomery has been instrumental in helping get me in touch with at least half of the podcast guests total, and I’m really grateful for that.
Main challenges in producing the podcast
The biggest challenge for me is figuring out a way to make each episode sound different. I always want to know the same types of things: How did the reporter find out about the story? How did they start the reporting process? What was their thought process like as they started writing the story? On and on and on. So the challenge is trying to get to those issues without it sounding like I am a broken record.
Early on, a challenge for me was the technology and the actual recording of the podcast. I had no knowledge whatsoever of recording and editing audio and then adding production value to something.
There are a couple early episodes that are just not that good, not because of the guests, but because I was freaking out about something on the production end that I just couldn’t figure out - and so, got flustered and didn’t do a good job of interviewing the person.
Fortunately, the more episodes I did, the more comfortable I got. Now it’s just a matter of me making sure I know what I’m doing, and making sure I’m conducting a good and interesting interview.
Basically I always start out by talking about the most recent story (or in some cases book) that my guest has written. That’s the piece that grabbed my attention and made me want to talk to them. When we’re done talking about that, we almost always move on to one or two more pieces the person has written. And that’s pretty much it.
The episodes run pretty much untouched from the original, raw audio, although sometimes I go in and make some edits to clean up glitches in the recording (like if a call drops or Skype is being sketchy) or glitches in my brain (I start to ask questions every once in a while that even I have trouble following, and sometimes I start to ask questions and then words just leave me and there is just this awkward silence).
Other than cleaning that stuff up a bit, the structure is just literally the conversation I had with the writer.
I tried for a few episodes last year to add new elements to the show — a second interview segment and a third segment in which a listener talked about a book or magazine story they had just read that was amazing — but it just didn’t take off like I thought it would, and it was a hell of a lot more work for me. So I scrapped that pretty quickly and went back to the simple format of one reporter talking about some stories he or she wrote.
After I’ve recorded the interview, I record the introduction and the stuff that comes at the end. Then I do a bit of editing, like I mentioned above.
And then I just throw it into an Adobe Audition file and add some production elements (like the Ashland Journalism and Digital Media tag that, until now, always ran at the beginning). I add the music beds and play around with those a bit, and then I mix it all together, upload it to the web and I’ve got a new podcast episode.
I recently went through a major migration where I moved all of the episodes from one podcast host to another, and that took a bit of time. But now every episode is available on SoundCloud, which allowed me to also embed the episodes on Gangreythepodcast.com. That made the website look 100 times better.
Podcasts in the US
I am by no means an expert in podcasts. I know that I listen to them because it’s almost always better than what is on the radio. I pretty much only listen to them when I’m driving, and I like the fact that I can learn new things and think about things I’ve never really thought about before while I’m going to work or coming home.
They are incredibly convenient, and they can come at you in small enough snippets that you never really lose track of what you’re listening to.
I think they’re important because it is a new way to make this huge world smaller. I pretty much only listen to podcasts that, in essence, are forms of literary journalism, just in a podcast form (This American Life, RadioLab, etc.), and I’m finding there are more and more and more of those popping up every day. And that is awesome. It’s just one more way to tell stories.
Truth is, I’ve never made a penny on the podcast. I’ve supported the podcast with my own money (fortunately, it’s not really that expensive to do something like this, especially since I have always had free access to a really good production studio).
I’ve never really even thought about trying to monetize it. I do it because I just love to do it.
What should Gangrey: The Podcast listeners expect next?
The thing I’m most excited about is the fact that I should be back to pushing out a new episode every two weeks. I did that back in 2013-14, and it was amazing. Listenership spiked. I felt like the podcast was doing really well. And then, unfortunately, I found I just didn’t have the time because of increased commitments at the university where I was teaching. I felt like the podcast languished a bit. That’s one of the reasons I decided to make the move to a new university.
Now that I’m at Fairfield University, I’m able to make the podcast a priority again, and I love that the university is excited about the podcast. Over the summer, I migrated all of the old episodes to SoundCloud. I cleaned up the website so it is much less confusing, and even updated a lot of the posts with new stories that people I’ve talked with have written since they were on the podcast.
And I’ve been using social media to push out those old episodes to hopefully find some new people who haven’t heard it yet. One of the things I’ve noticed this summer is just how many people who have been on the podcast have gone on to do amazing things since being a guest (written books, won awards, etc.), and that creates a great opportunity to share those episodes again.