Taylor Shold: Tell us a little about yourself, how did you land as the Editor-In-Chief at The Athletic Toronto?
James Mirtle: Long story short here — I went to Ryerson journalism for grad school, was hired by The Globe and Mail as an intern, and spent 11 years working my way up there. Covered the Leafs from 2008 to 2016 before leaving to run The Athletic’s Toronto branch about 14 months ago.
I grew up in Kamloops, B.C. and lived there for 20 years before moving to Toronto to get into the media. It was a crazy, crazy hockey town when I was a kid because the Blazers were the best team in the country for about a decade. I loved the game so much, right from the beginning. It’s why I went into the media — I just wanted to be closer to hockey.
Taylor: How has networking helped your career?
James: I’m a quiet guy and this business can be hard for introverts to network in sometimes. But the hockey world has been incredibly welcoming, for the most part. In the early days, when I was simply writing for my own site online, I made a lot of really great connections who reached out in response to my work. The advice I’ve gotten from icons like Elliotte Friedman, Ray Ferraro, Stephen Brunt (and a lot of others I’m forgetting about) over the years has been invaluable. Sometimes it felt a little surreal early on. Now after 10 years in the press box, you feel like you belong.
Taylor: You were a pioneer when it comes to hockey blogging over a decade ago using blogspot… how important is it today for young writers to start their own website or be active on social media if they want to get noticed?
James: Started in 2004, to be exact. Ancient history as far as the web is concerned. Back then, sites got noticed by referrals from other, larger sites. There weren’t many hockey blogs so we were all interconnected, having the kinds of discussions you see on Twitter these days.
I think it’s absolutely vital when you’re starting out to get in your reps any way you can. Practice. If you go back and read what I was writing 14 years ago, it was a mess. Finding your voice and building your profile in the industry takes a long time. It’s a combination of hard work and perseverance. You have to love it — and live it.
I learned so much doing that stupid blogspot site those four years and then working for SBN/Vox after that. It helped set me up well for what we’re doing now with The Athletic.
Taylor: Print media is in trouble, but with a site like The Athletic here now, can you offer any optimism for people who want to get into writing full-time?
James: It’s really, really tough right now. I mean it was hard when I broke in. I was on a part-time contract at The Globe for years, working five nights a week on the desk and then covering a thankless event every weekend.
That’s not even an avenue to a career anymore. The papers are tearing their sports sections apart and getting rid of internship programs. The Star just announced they’re not travelling with teams, something I don’t think most of us ever saw coming even five years ago.
Who was the last really great, fresh voice, under 40 years old, at a newspaper? It’s just not a training ground anymore.
The only optimism I can offer is that there’s room for you to carve out your own niche. You don’t need to wait in line at a unionized media company for someone to retire to do the work you want to do. Finding a way to get paid for it can be tough, but I’m hopeful there’ll be more outlets like The Athletic in the future.
What we’re doing is working. And we’re finding great young people like Jack Han, Scott Wheeler, Dom Luszczyszyn, Murat Ates, Rachel Doerrie and Seerat Sohi. We’re giving them a chance — and they’re excelling. The industry needs to find its next generation, and it felt for a while like that wasn’t happening on the writing side.
Taylor: When you are hiring for The Athletic or getting pitched ideas, how can people stand out and what characteristics are you looking for in new articles/writers?
James: It just has to pop. It has to be not only good but different. Give me something to think about. Tell me something I don’t know. Dig deeper. Depth is the No. 1 thing we want at The Athletic.
I’m always scouring the blogs and personal websites for new voices. It’s part of why I follow so many people on Twitter. We don’t want to just be home for established voices; we want to help amplify new ones. The internet has been a great equalizer with that side of things. It changed my career for the better.
Taylor: Finally, what is your best piece of advice for a young writer today?
James: Put in the work. Don’t be afraid to be different. And don’t get discouraged if it takes you years to get where you want to be. It’s a process — and it’s built on those first two things I mentioned.
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