In January, Sports Illustrated celebrated its 60th anniversary of existence with a special issue that featured the 60 best stories it had ever published. It was a significant moment for the iconic magazine that helped champion the art of what’s now known as “longform” magazine writing.
And there, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such sports literary heavyweights as Frank Deford and George Plimpton and Dan Jenkins and Gary Smith and even William Faulkner was Thomas Lake.
Lake’s piece was one of the more recent entries, a poignant story on the son of former NFL player Rae Carruth. A Carolina Panthers wide receiver, Carruth was convicted in 2001 of hiring three men to kill his pregnant girlfriend; their son was born prematurely shortly before his mother died of four gunshot wounds.
The implication seemed clear: Lake — who landed his dream job as a senior writer for the magazine in 2010 — had taken his place in the lineage of longform writing that is so richly part of the character of Sports Illustrated.
Two weeks later, Lake received a call at his home in Alanta from an editor in New York City. It wasn’t a call of congratulations; Lake was told the magazine had eliminated his position due to budget cuts.
It’s part of the new reality of print journalism, where the mantra is to do more with less and editors wrestle with how to engage readers with shorter attention spans and what was once considered necessity — staff photographers, in-house copy editors and longform writers who bring meaning and context to stories — is now deemed luxury.
And so one of the best longform writers in the business can suddenly find himself without a steady job.
“Sports Illustrated is the kind of job people get, and then want to keep for decades,” Lake says. “There’s not really a ‘next job’ after that. Where do you go at the age of 34 when a job at Sports Illustrated isn’t ahead of you, it’s behind you? But there it is; it’s time to try something new.”
Lake is part of what may be the last generation of magazine writers who came up the old-fashioned way, starting at a small-town newspaper, moving up to larger papers and, finally, reaching the Holy Grail of magazines where a writer can spend six weeks or longer researching and crafting a story.
His first newspaper job was in south Georgia at the paper in Jesup, where he was the only news reporter and also edited “the society pages,” the columns written by neighborhood correspondents that chronicled who visited whom, the topics of their conversations and what they had to eat and/or drink. They often ended with the phrase: And a good time was had by all.
From there, he eventually landed at the St. Petersburg Times, one of America’s great midsized newspapers with a tradition of strong narrative writing and stories that went deeper than simply grinding out the daily news grist. For ambitious reporters, the St. Pete Times was viewed as a stepping stone to the big papers — the New York Times and the Boston Globe — and even to magazines.
In 2008, Lake sent clips and story ideas to Rebecca Poynor Burns, then editor of Atlanta magazine. The magazine carries a long literary legacy as a nurturing ground for young writers, a list that includes Tom Junod, the longtime Esquire writer who has twice received National Magazine Awards.
Lake pitched a story on a Georgia soldier named Doc Hullender, a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment who died in Iraq. Not only did Lake get the assignment, he got a job as senior editor.
At the same time, Lake had sent an email — along with one of his stories — to his writing hero: Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith. Smith, who may be the best longform magazine writer alive, not only read Lake’s piece, he began to mentor the young writer.
“He helped me get my foot in the door at Sports Illustrated,” Lake says. “He liked my story and got on the phone to New York and said, ‘Give this kid a chance.’ That was the big break I was looking for.” Lake pauses to laugh. “Then it was a matter of actually doing the work.”
His ambition for his first SI story exceeded his level of skill. His first piece for SI was also the first magazine story he’d ever written. The piece, called “2 On 5,” was a look at what had happened to the guys on a high school basketball team that had famously won a game with just two players left on the court. The editors asked for a 3,000-word story, and Lake sent a draft to Smith for feedback.
First, Smith told him to disregard the number of words the SI editors had assigned him. “What they actually want is a great story,” Smith said. “Here’s how to give it to them.” Smith personally edited the story before Lake handed it in, spending a total of six hours on the phone going back and forth, and they turned the piece into what Lake had envisioned it to be.
“Gary knew what I wanted to do and sort of pulled me along the last mile,” says Lake. “One thing Gary told me was, ‘That was a one-time deal; from now on, you’re on your own, kid.’ So my challenge was to write a story without his help better than the one I did with his help. That was the burden on every story.”
It also gave Lake the sense of a debt, and the desire to turn it over by helping younger writers who now look up to him.
Lake’s story not only turned out substantially longer than 3,000 words, it received the Henry Luce Award for most outstanding story published by Time Inc. in 2008.
Lake took a full-time writing job with SI in 2010 and four of his stores have since been reprinted in the annual Best American Sports Writing anthology. Another story, “The Boy Who Died of Football,” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.
He carved out his niche in longform writing at Sports Illustrated, and it seemed he was positioned to take the mantle handed down by Gary Smith when he retired in 2014 after 32 years with the magazine.
Sports Illustrated is the kind of dream job that many writers work until retirement; in these turbulent times for magazines, that security is no longer there. Lake and his wife, Sara, have three children under the age of five. “The margins are kind of thin right now,” he says.
He has a novel circulating around New York that he worked on in his off time over the past three years. “It’s a story about a drowning man who thinks he can save other people by asking them to save him,” Lake says. “I’ve never tried anything like this before. I got an idea one day, and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone.”
A writer as established as Lake will be in demand, like a free agent baseball star on the open market. He has already embarked on his new freelance career with gusto. This week alone, he authored pieces for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He is writing a regular column for Atlanta and he’s looking at other magazines. “The trick is how can I as a freelancer make all these little pieces add up to the one big piece like I had before,” Lake says. “I haven’t figured out yet how to do that, but I’d better figure it out soon.”