Terry McDonell on the Importance of Long Form Journalism

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012We conclude our week-long feature on The Best American Magazine Writing 2012 where we probably should have started, namely Terry McDonell’s introduction. Terry McDonell has been an editor for many magazines and is currently editor of Time Inc. Sports.

In the introduction he discusses the excitement an editor feels when he receives a piece by a favorite author. He then tells the story behind the story of Chris Ballard’s article, Dwayne Dedmon’s Leap of Faith, published in Sports Illustrated and included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2012.

For all top editors there are many private and sublime thrills that no one else can borrow, such as opening a new piece by a favorite writer. You crack the file and you know, just reading the lede, that it will absolutely make your mix and give your entire issue a subtext that will echo how smart you want the magazine to be. I first heard this articulated by Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books when he was explaining the joys of editing Zadie Smith. Graydon Carter no doubt felt the same way opening a piece from Hitchens. For me it has become a long list, especially where I work now at Sports Illustrated, which received a nomination for SI senior writer Chris Ballard’s profile of Dewayne Dedmon, a naturally gifted basketball player on his way to being seven feet tall.

Like every piece in this collection, “Dewayne Dedmon’s Leap of Faith” has a publishing story behind it. This is where to look for additional understanding of the author of a particular story and also the workings of the magazine. The idea for the Dedmon piece came, like many do, from the margins of the news. Ballard read an item, maybe one hundred words or so, noting that a seventeen-year-old from Antelope Valley, northeast of L.A., had signed to play basketball at USC but that he hadn’t played at all in high school “because of religious reasons.” Bingo.

A little digging turned up that Dedmon was a Jehovah’s Witness and that it was his mother who had forbidden him from playing. That’s where the stories ended and where Ballard’s began. When he pitched the story to his editors in New York, there were questions about where the narrative would go and if Dedmon would be a high profile enough player. Editors were skeptical until Ballard, who lives in Berkeley, flew to L.A. to meet Dedmon, talking to him and, more importantly, listening. “I began to understand that the story had its own soul,” Ballard says. “Dedmon was a likable protagonist, sure, but more important, he remained conflicted—torn between what he wanted and his love for his mother.”

From there, Ballard took the long road, laying down his story brick by brick, meticulously tracking Dedmon’s growth from guileless boy to budding superstar. When, at eighteen, Dedmon defied his mother, his became a story of faith—in both God and personal transformation. “As a father myself,” Ballard says, “I was fascinated by the questions that came up about religion, authority, family bonds and following one’s passion.”

The piece was an investment over eighteen months and underlines the importance of enterprise on the part of the writer and patience on the part of the editors.

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