As active members of the sports Twitter community, we’ve found that often times we don’t know all that much about the people behind our favorite accounts. These people are constantly present as we share viewing experiences and occasionally interact as friends would, but we only know as much about them as their 140 character updates allow.
The idea of this series is to help inject some additional personality and background into some of our favorite follows (and hopefully yours too) on the Twitter dot com while finding out about what and why they do what they do; the tools and strategies they’re using to continue growing their audience; and their thoughts on things they care about and are well-versed in.
-This week we got a chance to sit down with Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines), the sports writer and blogger who has produced many of the most popular GIFs and screencaps found in the sports corner of the Internet.
After earning a PhD in molecular biology and spending several years working as a scientist and crime scene investigator, Cork’s Tampa Bay Rays blog earned him a full-time gig as a sports writer for Business Insider, where he has been churning out mainstream and offbeat sports news for a few years now.
I sat down to chat with Cork about how the strange path from self-proclaimed “science nerd” to well-respected sports writer came about; how he manages to balance work with two young daughters at home; his daily task of producing the images that sports fans want to see, and more.
To start, where did you grow up?
I grew up in a military family so I was all over the place. I was born in California but most of my childhood was spent in Florida – in the Tampa area. I’ve moved around a lot and went to a lot of schools, I eventually settled in Iowa of all places and went to college there.
You’ve gone through some pretty extensive schooling. Where did that take place?
I did my undergrad at the University of Iowa and then from there I went on to New York City to study molecular biology for grad school. I was kind of a zoo rat; I loved animals and began working with the genetics of animals. I was working at the Bronx Zoo for a couple of years, mostly working with whales and dolphins. I also worked at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan for seven or eight years.
After I finished my PhD at Fordham University, I stayed in New York for about 4 or 5 years and just kept working. After that, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I live now.
How did you get from molecular biology to sports writing?
When I first moved down to Texas I was doing crime scene investigative work. It was a lot of the same work I was doing with the animals – a lot of the genetics work translated to the same equipment and same tests that I was doing with the state of Texas’ crime lab and their DNA work.
I originally started out in the sports blogging world doing a blog covering the Tampa Bay Rays called Rays Index. That was just kind of a hobby, it was something I had done through grad school and afterwards and it was always just kind of on the side. I built up a little bit of a following doing that and I’ve been doing it on the side while doing the animal thing in New York and the crime scene thing in Texas. It got kind of popular and eventually I got the opportunity to do it full-time.
At that point, I had two little babies at home and the crime scene work was kind of taxing so it was a nice opportunity and something I really wanted to do. When the opportunity came I sort of jumped at it. There were no more 3 A.M. calls to go out to a crime scene….instead, it was 10:00 at night watching baseball game, which is a lot easier and a lot more fun.
And how did the opportunity to do it full-time come about?
That came through Business Insider. One of the editors at Business Insider is from the Tampa area and knew me through my blogging at Rays Index. When BI was trying to expand into the sports arena they asked me to come on board and write there.
At first I started out part-time, just doing a couple posts a day. From there, things started working out and about a year later they asked me to join full-time. I’ve been full-time there for about two years.
Can you give me an idea of what your day-to-day looks like?
I’m usually up pretty early, before the rest of the family at 5:30-6:00. That’s when I kind of lay the groundwork for the day. I go through tons of Twitter feeds, RSS feeds, reading different sites to see what people are talking about and what the hot stories are. I make a list of the stories that I need or want to write about.
After that, I get my girls up and get them ready. By 7:00 or 7:30 I’m usually down at my computer and that’s where the writing and the fun stuff starts. It’s usually constant stream of writing during the day based on what I collected in the morning, but if there are any major daytime sporting events that may break it up. That takes up a good chunk of my day but it’s usually not too hardcore or stressful.
The late afternoon/early evening is usually time with the girls, picking them up and hanging out with them for a little while. When they go to bed, that’s when the fun stuff starts. I’ll usually have four or five games going on my computer and another one on the TV, just watching what’s going on and waiting for the fun, entertaining moments to happen.
So you have two little daughters?
Yep! A three-year old and a four-year old.
Wow. Is it hard for you to find a balance between work and family?
Actually, I don’t think so. There are times when it gets a little stressful but I have an office that’s right next to the kitchen and the living room. We keep a pretty open house so it’s not like I’m down a hallway or in the basement or hidden away…there’s not even a door to my office. I call it my “Daddy Cave” and the girls are in here a lot hanging out with me, even when I’m working. They’ve got an art table in here.
One of the nice things about the job is that it’s pretty easy to step away for a few minutes to hang out with them. There will even be times where one of them is sitting on my lap while I’m typing or watching a game or something, so there’s a lot of interaction still.
Again, it works out pretty nice between the games usually start after they go to bed and the late afternoon/early evening is time when I’m not usually working anyways so I get to hang out with them.
I’m a fairly organized person – probably a little over-obsessive really – so I’m pretty good about getting my work done and not procrastinating so I do have that time later on when the girls are home.
Can you describe the “Daddy Cave” setup to me?
Basically, I’ve got my computer, my iPad – sometimes two iPads – and a TV. The important part, though, is getting the different video feeds. At this point, I have 11 different tuners that I have access to. In this office alone, I have two DirecTV boxes and a Time Warner cable box. I can also access the feed of another box in the other room.
My computer has three screens and usually one of the screens is dedicated just to Twitter. When games are on, I’ll have four or five games going on the middle screen. I try not to do more than four, any more than that and it gets a little overwhelming. The third screen is where I’m writing and doing the work-related stuff.
It took me a while to get the setup to where I really liked it and it’s starting to work out pretty well.
Important question here: Where do you stand on the GIF pronunciation? Are you a hard G or soft G guy?
I guess how I’ve always said it is with a hard G, but I always joke about it because I almost never actually say the word out loud. That argument is kind of silly to me because, personally, it doesn’t come up in conversation very much. To me, it’s just G-I-F.
Same here, but now it’s confusing because the GFY pronunciation isn’t really compatible with the hard G!
Right?! [laughs] That’s funny because I actually struggle with that and I actually say ‘giffy’ (with a hard G) and it doesn’t make sense because the whole purpose of the name is to be ‘jiffy.’
I’ve noticed that you’ve started using the GFY more. How do you compare it to the GIF?
I am. I’ve noticed in some cases that it’s got some advantages and, of course, some disadvantages to it. I see it as being that next medium that’s just not perfected yet. From what I understand, there are some older browsers that it doesn’t really work very well on and it doesn’t actually embed the file in a tweet like some GIFs do. They don’t want me doing the GFYs at Business Insider yet because of compatibility issues on some mediums, so it’s kind of on hold there.
I’m playing with it and I feel like there are certain situations – like when you’ve got a longer clip and you don’t want to cut it down to three or four seconds for a GIF – the GFY works really nice. I’ve found that at this point I’ve found a balance where I’m using both of them but I’m hoping we can eventually move to the GFYs full-time.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of what you do?
That’s a good question. I guess the most rewarding part is being able to deliver stuff to people that they may not otherwise be able to consume. And while there’s more sports on TV than there ever has been, the ability for a typical sports fan to get it all is a little more difficult. They’ll get the little snippets and mainstream stories, but the little stuff – the water cooler fodder – may slip under the radar, so the ability to deliver content that people may miss is great.
And then there are the stories that break that everyone is covering, the mainstream ones that 50 different sites are jumping on. In my stories, I always try to offer a little bit extra and dig a little bit deeper. I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I’m actually able to deliver a story that’s not the same one written at a hundred other places.
What do you consider to be the most frustrating part?“As much as I love the other guys that do what I do, you still want to win.”
The most frustrating part is the computer. [laughs] Sometimes there’s just so much going on and so many programs running, then something happens and you want to get that up there so quickly. And as much as I love the other guys that do what I do and we get along pretty well, there’s still the sense that you want to get it out there first and win the race. Sometimes the computer just doesn’t want to cooperate and that’s probably the most frustrating part.
Other than that, there’s not really a whole lot of frustrations.
I know sometimes attribution becomes a big deal. Do you get frustrated when you see people or sites take your stuff without credit to you?
I generally don’t get too upset about it, I know that some other people do. There have been a few instances where it’s bothered me, but that’s very rare. There may be once or twice a year where something like that bugs me but, even then, I’m not the type of person who will go on Twitter and rant about it or call anybody out.
I hate watermarking, I wish I didn’t have to do that. I don’t ever want to take credit away from the network or the cameramen who actually produce those images, but at the same time I feel like I have to because that’s the only way anyone is ever going to know who got it up on the Internet. One thing I try to never do is crop out the network logo because I never want anyone losing credit for their work.
Sometimes I’ll laugh and shake my head when I see something not sourced that is pretty blatant, but generally it’s not something I get too worked up about.
Do you ever get complaints from networks or leagues about copyright infringement?
Most of the networks are pretty understanding and they like that their work is being shared and talked about. Whenever they’ve presented a complaint or told me not to do something I’ve always said “no problem, if you don’t want me to do that anymore then I won’t do it anymore and I’ll do it the way you want me to do it.”
Some networks and sports are little pickier than others but most are pretty understanding as long as we don’t go too far. In the early days I think there were more gray areas where we were feeling each other out but I haven’t seen or heard any complaints in a long time. I try to present what they’re doing without stepping on their toes.
Where do you feel there’s the most freedom, as far as leagues or sports go?
In my experience the NBA has been great and I’ve had a little experience with the NHL and never had a problem with them. Major League Baseball has warmed up a little bit but they’ve probably been the stingier of the four leagues so whenever I do one of their clips I always try to include MLB’s own video because they’ve gotten better at producing those.
“I didn’t do a GIF or video of [the Kevin Ware leg injury] because I couldn’t stand to watch it. I regret that.”
Where do you draw the line when it comes to controversial stuff – like injuries – that people might question?
My mindset is that if there are people out there that want to see it, then I’m probably going to do it. The big one recently was probably the Kevin Ware injury in the NCAA tournament last year when he broke his leg. I didn’t do a GIF or video of that, mostly because I couldn’t stand to watch it.
Looking back on it, I regret that. If that happened now, I would do it but I woudn’t embed that kind of thing in a tweet, for example, and if I put it on the website I would bury it down with plenty of warning that it’s coming.
I understand that it’s a horrific injury and it’s stomach-churning that this young man has had this major horrific accident happen to him, but at the same time it’s a major news story and there are people who want to know and some who want to see. I feel like there’s an obligation, on my part, to cover exactly that. You just try to present it in a tasteful manner with plenty of warning.
You said you regret not making the Kevin Ware media. Is there one that you have made that you regret making?
No, not yet. The Kevin Ware one was one that I couldn’t stomach to do at the time but I understood why people were doing it.
Do you have any all-time favorite GIFs that you’ve made that stand out in your mind?
Yeah, I’ve got a folder of about 100 of them. [laughs] I think the best are the reaction shots. Those are ones that last, the ones you can use later on to express an emotion or a feeling. Those are the ones I enjoy the most.
There’s one of a soccer player laying on the ground and pounding the ground over and over again, he looks like he’s a three-year old and I laugh every time I see it.
Another one that’s stuck in my head is one of Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a goal and running over to the crowd and telling them to calm down.
And there’s one where Elliot Johnson slides into home and it’s probably the worst slide you’ve ever seen. He ended up tearing and ripping skin off his face. I got that in slow motion and it was great.
Aside from Business Insider, what are some sites that are on your daily blogroll?
If I go into listing them all I’m afraid there’s somebody I’ll miss and offend, but there are two that are must-reads for me every day and that’s The Big Lead – their roundup in the morning is great – and UniWatch. Those two, for whatever reason, are like my coffee in the morning.
Do you have any favorite Twitter accounts that you like checking in on every day?
I’m a big Twitter list guy. There’s one list in particular – and you’re on it – that has 60-70 of the GIF people out there. That’s kind of my can’t-miss list. I don’t ever want to miss one of their tweets because they have the stuff I want to see.
The accounts I follow are not all fun, unfortunately. There are people I follow because I need to know when they say something or do something. I don’t follow a lot of athletes or celebrities, it’s mostly work-based. If there’s one person on that list that I really have fun with that’s not necessarily work-based it’s @darth. His Darth Vader/Red Panda Photoshops get me every time and I can’t get enough of them.
Do you have certain strategy or approach to Twitter? And when did you see your follower count start to take off?
I got started with Twitter maybe back in 2008 just doing the Rays Index feed. That built up a little bit of a following but it really wasn’t until I started doing the GIFs and screencaps that I saw the followers go up.
That kind of stuff translates really well to Twitter people, they like the visual media and they like to see the stuff instead of just reading about it. For the most part, nobody out there really cares what I think or what I say [laughs] but they do like to see what’s going on.
It wasn’t until I started doing that that I saw the Twitter count go up, and that’s around the time I branched off and made my own personal account.
I try not to flood people’s timelines with too much. For the most part, I’d like to say that half of my tweets are some sort of screencap or GIF but I also have to promote my work from Business Insider and push that stuff out there.
What do you see for you next, work-wise? Do you have a dream job?
I just want to grow as a writer and as a journalist. Like I said, I’ve only been in the game full-time for a few years now, even though I was doing it casually for a lot longer than that. Writing has always been a big part of my career, even when I was a scientist there was a ton of writing in that.
I always chuckle when I have to tell my wife “sorry, I really have to watch sports.
There have been a few opportunities that have come along that I’ve turned down because I really like the work I’m doing with Business Insider. They’ve given me a lot of freedom and things are going well there. I really like the people I work with.
As far as where I see myself going, that’s a good question. At this point I’m still just trying to feel my way out as a journalist, finding my niche and growing my presence. Who knows what will come from that…if you had told me ten years ago that I was going to be a sports writer full-time, I wouldn’t have believed that but I love doing it now and I love where I am.
Knowing that, it’s hard for me to envision where I’ll be five or ten years from now. I envision that I’ll still be writing and still be doing the sports stuff. I guess the next logical step is being a writer/editor where I’m kind of running the show and handing out assignments as much as turning them in.
Having spent so much time and so much schooling doing science and winding up completely somewhere else, do you ever regret the commitment to molecular biology?
No regrets at all. I loved that work. I loved the time I spent doing it – and maybe I’ll go back to it eventually – but I did it for a long time and got a lot done. I just knew there were other things that I wanted to do and the sports writing was something that I loved doing.
Plus, being able to spend more time at home and more time with my kids and more time watching sports…there are worse things in the world that I could be doing.
I always chuckle when I have to tell my wife “sorry, I really have to watch this game. I can’t go to that 40-year old’s birthday party, I have to watch sports.” [laughs]
But that must be so devastating…
I know! [laughs] But she understands and she’s really good about it…I really don’t have any regrets about it at all.
Big-time thanks goes out to Cork for taking the time to sit down with me for this piece. If you haven’t already, you can follow him below:
Want to find out more about one of your favorite Twitter follows? Send us a suggestion for our next 140+ feature by emailing me at pete [at] next-impulse.com