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Archive for October, 2011

So long and thanks for all the fish…

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

This column has been a long time coming – fortunately I am a subscriber to “better late than never” philosophy.

As most frequent FasterSkier readers know, former FasterSkier Associate Editor Nat Herz retired at the end of last season. After two hard years on the circuit, he decided to take a well earned break relaxing in New York City and spending his free time pursuing a masters degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.

The story of how Nat came to work for FasterSkier is worth telling. The summer before his senior year at Bowdoin, I received an email from Nat, requesting a blog. Fortunately for all involved, this was early on in the dvelopment of the FS blogs, and our goal was to provide a variety of perspectives on the sport. Of course the first thing I did was look up his results on the internet—lets just say that ski speed wasn’t going to get him in the door.

But we already had Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall on board, so the “riduclous fast World Cup skier” slots were well covered. The “slow, yet enthusiastic, collegiate skier for a second-tier team” blog we were looking to fill was still open, and Nat did a good job of selling himself.

It also helped that my sister coached Nat for a year at the Putney School and bascially said “he is a great guy.”

We get blog requests all the time, and we have been fairly liberal in giving people an opportunity. Most are failures, not even once being able to post a once-a-week minimum. The fact that Nat not only wrote regularly, his entries were by far the most entertaining on the site.

Despite being a no-name in the greater US ski world, he quickly built up a following. Impressed by his work on the blog, and looking to expand FasterSkier’s coverage, I asked Nat if would be interested in spending a year working for FasterSkier. The deal was sealed over dinner at the Bowdoin dining hall following a classic rollerski in Brunswick—during which Nat was clearly trying to impress me—or at least not embarrass himself—oh how things have changed.

It would be a disservice at this point to use the tired cliche “the rest is history.” Nat had an immediate impact on FasterSkier, bringing a passion for skiing AND journalism. Despite a brief defection to an unnamed sort-of rival publication, Nat jumped in with both feet.

When I bought FasterSkier from founders Cory Smith and Torbjorn Karlsen, I received an email from Scott Jerome, the coach at the University of Fairbanks, asking what direction I would take the site. He believed there would be support for cross-country ski focussed rigorous journalism. This was definitely the biggest component in my vision for the site, but I also knew that it would take time—I did not come from a journalism background and recognized that there would be a significant learning curve. I also knew we had to increase revenue to support increased coverage.

We made steady progress, but the hiring of Nat was a watershed event. A quick look through the archives demonstrates this quickly enough. Quite a bit of our content two+ years ago  was not original, coming in the form of press releases and reprints from FIS and the like. We certainly did our own work, but nowhere near the scope of what we do now. Most of the content on FasterSkier now is original, written by FasterSkier staff.

Nat accelerated this process, constantly pushing for more and, most importantly, higher quality writing. Nat has helped shift the entire culture of FasterSkier, to one where skiing and journalistic integrity coexist. It would be exhausting to list everything that Nat was part of during his time with us, but the fact that we are now an internationally recognized publication is in no small part due to his efforts.

I have learned in both my careers (ski journalism and farming) that no one individual is irreplaceable. But Nat left a huge hole behind, one that we didn’t even try to specifically fill. It was not realistic to expect anyone to put in the time and effort as Nat, and to bring a similar skill set.

We decided, to keep moving forward, we would have to hire two people to step in. And that is with no disrespect to Audrey Mangan and Alex Matthews who have joined us. Both women are doing an excellent job and bring their own unique experience and skills, while pushing the site in new directions.

The fact that we felt we needed two highly qualified and motivated people to replace Nat speaks to that fact that he is truly exceptional. I would worry this would go to his head, but I know I only need remind him that over the course of an entire summer he only managed to defeat me in whiffle ball a single time. That should keep him on an even keel.

Nat’s work was not only valuable to FasterSkier, but to the ski community as a whole. I hope that everyone will join me in thanking him for his efforts.

The good news is that he is remaining involved with the site, pitching stories, providing advice and feedback to staff, and contributing the occasional article. He might even provide some primetime race coverage later in the winter.

On personal level, Nat has become a great friend and was a pleasure to travel with—from Vancouver to Oslo, and many places in between. I feel lucky to have shared so many great experiences with Nat over the last two years.