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Arts & Culture

"Bullshit artist" Mike Sager is publishing the new new journalism

Writer-publisher recounts how he came to establish a modern haven for long-form nonfiction

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

The first night, at 10 [minutes] after 2 a.m., all of a sudden, this wire in the corner from Reuters starts going “Ding, ding, ding: The Pope died.” He died on my watch. Ding ding ding, the fucking pope is dead. Within the next 10 minutes, I actually heard the night editor pick up the phone and say, “Stop the presses.”

So going from that first night, how did you progress?

It became this thing where I was going to try to get hired and I was in the building and I applied for every job and tried to freelance for every editor and I was the ubiquitous guy. I’d work all night and go home and change and come back and it would be this thing, like “I saw your twin last night, haha.” I would corner people in the snack room, and [Bob] Woodward was one of them. He was the editor of the metro section. That’s how I became a reporter. I just kind of decided I was going to do that. I just love it. I love typing. I need something to type about. I love it. And being in the newsroom, I was really struck by the fact that I had a college degree and didn’t know shit. You could spend a whole day going from desk to desk, talking to people, and one was smarter and brighter than the next. But they were Washington people who lacked some of the dimension I wanted for my work, that I had to leave to go do. But I learned the bedrock of what I do by doing it their way, which was fucking impeccable shit. I mean, Bob Woodward was your boss.

How did you get beyond that into the more nuanced long-form pieces?

Two years into my tenure at the Post, a new editor, Walt Harrington, came in and asked me if I’d ever read Tom Wolfe, and I was like, “Who?” I was trying to do this shit like a typical young writer who didn’t want to read. Harrington gave me The New Journalism. I went home and read it and had an epiphany when I read about the “scoop slobs” and the “feature artists.” Then I just basically had to read. Like Ice Cube told me, “Ain’t nobody givin’ up no ass.” Nobody gives up no ass, to me at least. The process is like shoveling a huge pile of shit and then you have to go climb up it.

What I do is not the most popular thing. It’s kind of cult-ish. There’s a few thousand people out there who are really interested in what I do. But I’m not mass. I’ve always liked the [nonfiction] long short story. The perfect length today is the like 10- to 20-thousand-word [story].

Magazines like the New Yorker used to be able to run stories that length.

Yeah, and like Rolling Stone sometimes, and Esquire has really published my longest stuff. The golden age of everything I’ve done has been through Esquire. I need a good strong editor, because most editors know what they want.

How does that work for you with the Sager Group, since you are effectively the editor?

I’m not really a guy who needs a whole lot of editing. Peter Griffin, my editor at Esquire, is great at making tweaks in my brain along the way. But I work it until it is done. I do need a copy editor. We have two copy editors here. And I have a proofreader who used to be the librarian at the Washington Post. More than half of my budget for every book goes into paying these old-fashioned people for old-fashioned jobs.

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