One of the goals of the ICSMMblog is to reconnect alumni/alumnae with the program, and in so doing, educate current undergraduate and graduate students on the various paths we have taken to achieve success in the industry. The interview that appears below is part of an alumni/alumnae Q&A series that seeks to do just that. If you have an alumni/alumnae connection that you’d like to see featured in this space, email email@example.com your suggestion(s).
By Will Weiss ’00
Many students who enroll at Ithaca College with designs on a career in Sport Media typically forge their educational path through the Park School, the School of Health Science & Human Performance, or a major/minor combination in those two schools. Brandon Guarneri ’06 took a less conventional route: through the School of Humanities & Sciences as a writing major, with a concentration in feature writing, and a history minor.
You may recognize Brandon’s name from his byline and its place on the masthead of Men’s Fitness magazine, where he serves as an associate editor. During his tenure at MF, which continues to be among the Top-3 fastest growing men’s titles, Brandon has written about nutrition, and profiled numerous athletes and celebrities, trainers, coaches. His work has also appeared in UFC Magazine, WWE Magazine, and the New York Post.
Brandon’s full portfolio, as well as musings about life, sport, culture, and anything else that comes to mind, are available on his personal website. You can follow him on Twitter @BrandonGuarneri. Read on for his insight into the sport media world.
Will Weiss: What were some highlights of your Ithaca College experience? What co-curricular work, classes, professors and/or mentors helped shape your time at IC?
Brandon Guarneri: I’m not sure whether this was wise or dumb, but I told myself I wasn’t going to IC to get job training. I truly wanted an education. My experience was great. Not only did I have several extremely helpful and knowledgeable professors like Linda Godfrey and Barbara Adams, I was able to get some great experience working on titles while I was a student. I contributed to Buzzsaw Haircut my junior and senior years and served as a columnist for The Ithacan during part of my senior year. Both opportunities gave me the chance to write for a publication. All the classwork on South Hill won’t amount to anything if you can’t work within a team, take direction and meet deadlines.
As for mentors, Sean Hyson, my colleague at MF, who is a 2003 graduate of IC, was incredibly helpful to me. He took me under his wing when I got here and brought me along, getting me bylines from early on and even sharing a feature-byline with me. Our collaboration remains one of the stories I’m most proud of. We did a ton of back research for it and even dug up some of the old-time bodybuilders. I got Dave Draper on the phone and sat down with Lou Ferrigno. It was so cool.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tom Kerr.
I had him later in my college career — for a senior seminar — and he helped me in lots of ways. Barbara Adams was instrumental as well. And Linda Godfrey — she was the first one to tell me I knew what I was doing. She just knew. It made me feel so good. I knew that she knew, and that was enough to get the ball rolling. From there, I’m proud to say, I was unstoppable. I would have run through a wall for this life.
WW: At what point did you “just know” you wanted to be a writer? Was there a singular moment, either during your time at IC or before, that clinched it for you?
BG: I always knew that I wanted to write — I can remember telling girls in high school that I would be a writer, and they’d scrunch their faces and ask, “What kind of writer? Books?” I didn’t know. Once I started reading GQ’s first-person features, I knew. I remember taking Personal Essay freshman year and writing about how Hulk Hogan symbolized America. I actually wrote my senior thesis on cultural and ethnic stereotypes in pro wrestling. One day, I hope to really flesh that out. But that first Hulk Hogan essay struck a chord in me. I realized I was good with words.
Working on Buzzsaw made me feel like I had real writer responsibilities. I remember staying in some nights to write drafts of stories. Sure, I probably didn’t need to do that, but if I wasn’t willing to give up a few beers on a Tuesday night, then what was I willing to give up?
If you’re willing to quit, you have to be willing to admit that you quit; to say that whatever stopped you was tougher than you. I never wanted to admit that. I’ve never wanted to accept that I couldn’t do this.
WW: What got you interested in this particular genre of writing? On a certain level, is there a level of specialization required to write knowledgeably on fitness, exercise, nutrition, etc.?
BG: I’ve been lifting weights since I was 15 years old, and I’ve always been interested in physical culture — pro wrestling, sports, bodybuilding, everything like that. It all boils down to motivation. If you can understand what makes a reader get off the couch, you’re going to be able to find that common ground with any expert or athlete you speak to.
It seems like you need to have some kind of training for my work, some sort of certificate. While it’s true that it helps, my job isn’t to be a trainer — it’s to be a writer and editor. So I don’t necessarily need to be licensed to do that.
Trainers, strength coaches, guys in the fitness world — they need to be certified, and they serve as our experts. It certainly helps to know your way around a weight room. I’ve done tons of interviews with actors who honestly couldn’t tell me what exercises they do. They explain them and then I tell them what they’re called. There’s a tone you need to have, and it helps to actually be in the gym to get that tone. A buddy once told me that you don’t need to be a chicken to write about eggs. That’s definitely true. But if you’re going to work on a dairy farm, you might as well know the difference between “over easy” and “sunny side up.”
WW: How important were internships in establishing your career path? You were an intern at Men’s Fitness before becoming a staffer.
BG: I’ve always said that I have the playbook for getting a job in publishing. I had six credits left when my class was just a few weeks away from graduation senior year. I used that time to leverage internships. I got a chance to join Media Matters, a news watch group out of Washington, D.C., that summer, and within two weeks was sharing an apartment with two Chinese exchange students and commuting an hour into D.C. to fact-check transcripts. I loved every second of it.
From there, I had an in with Men’s Fitness — Sean Hyson ‘03. At that time, he was the Fitness Editor; he’s now Group Fitness Director. We shared the same advisor, Barbara Adams, who saw for me what I couldn’t yet see for myself — that the contact was probably enough to at least get me to the top of the pile of resumes. Building from my D.C. internship probably helped some.
When I started at MF, one of the first questions I was asked was, “How many days can you come in?” I told them that as long as they were open every day, I’d be there. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. This business is difficult, mostly because no one thinks about the tangible things you need to do to stay afloat. You can’t rely on just showing up. Internships are for kicking ass. That’s how you get noticed, not mailing it in for two hours every other Monday and Wednesday.
I was able to recognize that we had a small staff, and if I proved myself, hopefully my co-workers would come to rely on me. Part of it was luck, too. I got on with a staff that had a need, and I filled that need. Every publication is different. I researched and checked transcripts. I was writing soon after. Whatever it was, I sunk my teeth into it. I never viewed it (my internship) as schoolwork. It was an opportunity.
My advice: Be a sponge. You do not know anything about publishing before you start, and that’s fine. Learn how to deal with PR people, manage several projects at once and work on deadline. You should be trying to learn the editorial side of the business, get a grasp on expectations, and pick your colleagues’ brains. You can learn something from every single professional encounter you have, from the first time you sign in at the front desk. Just don’t be too proud to actually digest what you learn.
If you’re going to sit at a desk and wait for someone to tell you what to do every day, I doubt that you’ll stick. Being self-motivated is crucial.
The industry has totally changed from when I started my career. Now, you’ll find smaller budgets and staffs with employees who handle more than one job at once. Lots of students leave college very trained in how to get grades. They just try to pass, to get by. If your goal is to make an impression and build your career, you do not want to be one of those people. One very important thing: There may not be such a thing as a stupid question, but if you can Google something and get an answer, maybe you shouldn’t be bothering somebody else.
WW: You’ve been at MF for nearly five years now. These days, that’s an eternity to be at one company — particularly a media company. You’ve been able to stay there amid some turnover, with the magazine going from Weider Publications to American Media, and through changes on the editorial staff. How have you done it?
BG: I had already shown Men’s Fitness I could function as an intern. I started with them in the Fall of 2006. Within two months, they offered me a freelance position. Seven months (and a new editor-in-chief) later, I was made a staffer.
Every change of hierarchy is an opportunity to reprove yourself. Embrace that. Every boss has their own set of expectations, rules and guidelines. Make it your business to learn them. When a new editor-in-chief comes in, the magazine changes, either a little or a lot. Being able to adjust to those changes are crucial. Try to always have an answer, as long as there’s some substance behind it. No matter who is in charge, you have a responsibility to yourself to do the best you can. At least, that’s how I’ve always approached my work. Everyone has bad days, but you have to be able to separate yourself from the rest of the room. Don’t aspire to just be the best in your immediate circle. I hope this doesn’t sound trite — but have your own standard of what is acceptable. Push yourself beyond what you know is the bare minimum.
Obviously, working this long on a fitness magazine, I have discussed and written about Arnold Schwarzenegger many times. And there’s this old quote about Arnold, and I don’t have it exactly right. It’s something like, “If Arnold was happy being the biggest guy in his gym, he never would have left Austria.” And, you know, there’s something to that. You have to raise your own bar and find ways to continue to push yourself if you want to be great.
I just wanted this so bad. I convinced myself that no one was going to have more energy, ideas or stamina than me when it came to this job. Everything I was asked to do, I took on. When I couldn’t do anything else, I took on more and made it work. I didn’t wait for assignments; I sought them out.
WW: Among the many athletes and celebrities you’ve profiled, who gave you the best overall experience (accessibility, openness to answering a broad range of questions, etc.)?
BG: I’m lucky. I’ve had opportunities to speak with athletes from MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and fighters from MMA and boxing, as well as tons of pro wrestlers, celebrities and actors. They’ve all given me something.
It’s really hard to choose which has been my favorite. I spent a half hour in a hotel room with George Foreman once. I got a chance to speak with Floyd Mayweather a few days after he beat Oscar De La Hoya. Access can be tricky, with PR people hovering and their approval pending, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing more than trotting out talking points. Most guys have been forthcoming, but again — that’s to a point. Quotes are usually very controlled.
Overall, the best access I’ve ever gotten would probably be my story on the Alabama Crimson Tide football team’s off-season training program. I watched the team lift together, interviewed coaches and players, and soaked up what the reality of a 7 a.m. workout really meant.
WW: How have social media and other distribution outlets changed the nature of your job?
BG: Honestly, it hasn’t changed much. I contribute to MensFitness.com, and over the last year I’ve started BrandonGuarneri.com, a place where I can write about whatever I’d like to write about. I do tweet links to my web stories and maintain a Twitter presence, because as someone in my position I just think it makes sense. But I’m not consumed with it. I post much less on Facebook than I used to. Just because you can share everything you’re thinking 24 hours a day doesn’t mean you should. It’s important to have a presence online, but it’s also important to not be obsessed with it.
WW: What are your career goals now? Have they changed since your days on the South Hill?
BG: Being only 27 with nearly five years of experience under my belt makes me unique. I used to tell people I wanted to be an editor-in-chief before I turned 35. I just want to keep doing good work.
WW: What advice do you have for current students or grad students looking to break into the editorial world?
BG: I think that most students who want to get into writing need to make sure this is what they want to do with their lives. Jobs like mine are not readily available. They’re created. I carved a place for myself into the masthead, and I still remember how proud I was just to see my name in the magazine. If that feeling won’t be enough to satisfy someone, they may not actually want to write. They might just want people to think they have a cool job.
I’m reluctant to say that I know a lot about this or that — I’m still so young, I’m still so new. I know what’s worked for me. I’ve been lucky. I found a need at this magazine, and worked my ass off to prove to everyone here that I could be trusted. Now, I work hard to make sure to never violate that trust. Having a strong belief in your own chops and a willingness to accept criticism and coaching is unbelievably important. Getting like-minded people around you will help.
If I were starting out today, I’d reach out to as many people as I could with any semblance of a connection me. Connections are everywhere. I’d never met Sean Hyson before my internship, but because he was an IC grad, he became a contact. You need to leverage those relationships, because you never know who has an opening.
Of every piece of advice I can give, of every story of an interview or a quote, the single-most important thing I can pass on is to treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s really that simple. If you’d be annoyed at someone for not doing a thorough job on an assignment, make sure you’re thorough. If you would want someone to do something extra, be the one who does extra work yourself.
As far as actual writing advice, it’s important to learn about meat and gravy. Meat is the details, the way someone speaks, looks or dressed. It’s how they answer your question and what they do when they answer it. It’s substantive. Gravy’s ingredients are the adjectives and flowery language, the explanatory prose that covers up the lack of meat. When I’m cutting a story, unnecessary language is the first thing that goes. You don’t have a lot of room in print. Make every word count.
Online, of course, you don’t have the same restrictions, but you have others. So write for the medium you’re assigned. Believe in yourself. Read great writers. Hang out with people who challenge you. Get close with your advisor. Learn how to socialize with people without drinking. Focus on figuring out who you want to be, and then take tangible steps to become that person. And treat every single assignment you get — from your first transcript to a multi-page feature — as the most important thing in the world.