New York Times’ John Branch Tells Our Stories To The World
John Branch is a staff writer for the sports department of The New York Times, the esteemed daily newspaper with average circulation exceeding 2 million. He's been with the Times for 10 years. In that time he's most notably won a Pulitzer Prize for "Snow Fall," a multimedia masterpiece documenting the 2012 fatal avalanche at Tunnel Creek (the out-of-bounds backcountry of Steven's Pass Ski Area); his byline covers a wide range including the "big four" sports, investigative feature writing, and notably Olympic snowboarding. He works from his home office in the Bay area with a somewhat undefined beat, which he summarizes as the "West Coast sports correspondent."
I try to write about it as people explain it to me with the respect that this is the real world and a real thing that exists that people care about.
Branch, who does not snowboard but grew up skiing in Colorado, first started covering snowboarding in December 2009 on the brink of one of the most dramatic series of events to play out in snowboarding—Kevin Pearce's head injury followed by Danny Davis' ATV accident ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Branch's coverage immediately stood out from the stereotyped, lingo-reliant, parental-point-of-view coverage we had endured from the mainstream press since snowboarding's first foray into the 1998 winter Olympics. Absent were the Flying Tomato references and "wacky" trick names. Branch's serious reporting of those accidents and his resulting Olympic coverage instead focused on the skill and the potential consequences, the nuances of progression, insightful athlete profiles, and the lifestyle outside of competition. Branch credits his desire to learn in helping him cover snowboarding authentically. He described the challenge as a tightrope walk between keeping credibility with the people who know the sport, but also explaining it at a level for readers new to the sport. He says, "I try to write about it as people explain it to me with the respect that this is the real world and a real thing that exists that people care passionately about."
He hasn't found action sports to be particularly hard to penetrate. Branch says, "What I do find is that the people involved are hungry to have people understand what it is that they do beyond their somewhat insular world. And so they're all very eager to explain it, in my experience. And people just appreciate that I'm willing to take the time to understand the world that they live in."
He's since published some 50 articles on snowboarding in the Times, helping to elevate the sport and giving everyday people incredibly authentic insight into snowboarding. Like it or not, this connection came about because of the Olympics. Branch explains his Olympic beat, he says: "I'll know about a year out before the Olympics which sports I'm going to be responsible for covering and then I start keeping my eyes and ears out for interesting stories. There are some stories you know you're going to have to do, then you try to go a little deeper and do some that aren't quite so obvious."
What I do find is that the people involved are hungry to have people understand what it is that they do beyond their somewhat insular world. And so they're all very eager to explain it.
His deeper coverage has included a profile on Greg Bretz' relationship with his dad, a lift maintenance supervisor at Mammoth Mountain, as well as an in-depth series following Kevin Pearce's recovery—stories that emotionally connect the audience to our sport in a way that play-by-play event coverage never will. This in-depth understanding of snowboarding is most notable in his 2014 Winter Olympic halfpipe wrap-up story, which wasn't about the glory of the event, but rather about the ambivalent relationship snowboarding still has with the Olympics and FIS told through a stoke-filled post-Olympic day of freeriding Rosa Khutor resort with Danny Davis and Greg Bretz. A look at snowboarding that you really wouldn't ever expect an outsider to understand, much less translate to a worldwide audience.
Outside of the Olympics, Branch has shown a knack for elevating stories within little niches to become big stories on a worldwide scale. Take for example his recent front-page Times coverage of climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's Yosemite Dawn Wall bid in which Branch was able to shine the spotlight on something that was taking place way off the grid. Branch got a heads up from his sports editor that the pair were embarking on this climb, and says, "So I went on Twitter and saw that Kevin Jorgeson was tweeting, I followed him and within a minute he followed me. And I'm like, 'Wow, he's active on Twitter for a guy on the side of a cliff.' I told him I was interested in talking to him and that I may be coming to Yosemite and doing a story from there 'if you're able and willing to talk.' Within a minute, he's like, 'Yeah that'd be great, sure.' So literally within two minutes I was having a convo with Kevin from the side of Dawn Wall, which tells you something about 2015 for one thing." Branch's Dawn Wall coverage took off at the Times influencing TV networks and print outlets around the world.
In a recent article in Climbing Magazine, Kevin Jorgeson credits John Branch's coverage as well as Melissa Block at NPR for launching this story into the mainstream: "They both told the story not from a climbing or sports perspective but from a human engagement perspective. They communicated it from the angle of the dream, the challenge, the struggle, the teamwork, and all of that. It wasn't hard facts about pitch count, difficulty, gear, rope length—all that trivial, benign stuff. Instead, they successfully conveyed the reason why we all love climbing in a way that wasn't climbing specific." Branch's Dawn Wall coverage appeared on the front page of the Times three times over a two-week period including the initial story, a profile on Caldwell, and the story of their successful climb.
This same human interest approach is also what led Branch to dig further into the Tunnel Creek avalanche and eventually led to the Pulitzer Prize winning "Snow Fall" feature piecing together all the details and decisions of that deadly day as well as accurately informing readers on the growing lure and hazards of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The immersive online article created along with Times graphic designers, web developers, videographers, and photographers set a new high bar for its integration of video, photos, and graphics into long-form feature writing—a template that is now the new norm for multi-media online features. The web story alone accounted for 3.5 million page views in the first six days and the print feature was released as a 14-page special print section.
Branch expects to continue covering Olympic snowboarding (next up PyeongChang 2018) and is following the unfolding Olympic skateboarding story from the sidelines for now. His somewhat undefined beat also gives him plenty of time to look for stories outside of the mainstream to develop and tell. Whether it's through the Olympics or a chance tweet, it's good to know we've got a talented reporter in high places able to share our stories with the world.
Editor’s Note: In our Summer 2015 Issue of TransWorld Business, we took a look at some of the ways our industry is striving to "future proof" businesses, squashing the status quo along the way. The visionaries and influencers we profiled range from the R&D team at Bell Helmets, New York Times staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner John Branch, Burton's sustainability efforts lead by Donna Carpenter and Ali Kenney, and progressive surfboard shaper Daniel "Tomo" Thomson.