“The Ballad of Kiwi Gardner” was an entirely new reporting approach for Mashable, at a time when our company was heavily bootstrapping and pressed for resources.
Writer Sam Laird, a sports savant with a rabid hunger for unearthing rich subcultures, saw an opportunity with young athlete Kiwi Gardner. Hailing from a tough neighborhood in Oakland, California, the 5’7″ teenage basketball player had become a cult YouTube superstar, a fan favorite for his acrobatics, otherworldly speed and sunny personality. By 2010, Kiwi had earned millions of YouTube clicks and an awestruck fan following.
On the other hand, in mainstream media, Kiwi didn’t yet exist. Writer Sam recognized that Kiwi teetered on the cusp of stardom, destined to become a professional basketball player, and maybe one day, an NBA legend.
It was a style of reporting Mashable had never attempted, especially with a staff writer who otherwise faced a daily quota of news stories. It required months of Sam’s attention, to establish a level of trust, companionship and access to sources, a recipe so essential for game-changing feature writing. Sam essentially became a family member, learning how Kiwi’s grandmother nailed a regulation metal rim to his bedroom wall when he was a toddler. He shadowed Travis Farris, the cameraman who’d made Kiwi a YouTube viral sensation worldwide. He tracked Kiwi’s progress across the country when he played in the Big East Conference in 2011, and when he returned home for summer to play in the Pro-Am, alongside NBA stars. (In one Pro-Am game, Kiwi scored more than 50 points alone.)
At the end of the day, though, this was as sports story … for a Mashable audience. At the time, our readers were accustomed to seeing gadget reviews and Silicon Valley startup profiles on Mashable. It was a time of huge transition for Mashable, and Sam’s story was an experiment, a risk we hoped would pioneer a new, strategic direction for the company.
Rather than tiptoe conservatively into a new content strategy, we made a big decision. The editors sat down with our dev team and collaborated on Mashable’s first longform product, an immersive design full of big juicy images, looping video, interactive graphics, animated maps and responsive scrolling. Weeks of building, tweaks and all-nighters later, it published.
In a nutshell, we rocked it.
We watched as the analytics soared. Shares, referrals, pageviews climbed well above average. News outlets (even competitors) picked it up. But the most telling information was time on site. Off the record: Readers stayed with this piece for an average 10 minutes each. Huge.
Not only had we conceived a new content design, we’d tested a new writing approach all together. Sam’s story and reporting remain a benchmark for our company to this day. His knack for human emotion, his attention to detail and his editor’s insight make “The Ballad of Kiwi Gardner” a must-read, a sports story well beyond athletics — a tale of adversity, friendship and unwavering conviction against the odds.