An Interview with Charles Robinson
“What attracted me to Yahoo was a hunger to do enterprising journalism and very little cynicism…Things are so lucrative – all the ad dollars are shifting to the Internet – so the big attraction was they had a plan for growth and they wanted to do it right away.”
“People equated Yahoo with an Internet search engine…They would think, “That’s weird – why would a search engine be covering sports?” It was a significant hurdle.”
“My second year on the beat we broke the Reggie Bush story…That to me was the moon landing – our seminal moment – all of a sudden everyone looked at us and said “Wow, they can do impact journalism”.”
“Eric Mangini probably is the most boring coach I’ve ever encountered in my life, which is funny, because he’s the youngest. I don’t know if he’s reserved because he’s young, but have you ever heard the expression ‘watching paint dry’?”
Charles Robinson: Interviewed on September 1, 2006
Position: NFL reporter, Yahoo.com
Born: 1977, Grand Rapids, Mi.
Education: Michigan State, BJ, 2000
Career: Detroit Free Press 2000, Oakland (Mi.) Press, 2000-2003, Orlando Sentinel 2003-2004, Yahoo Sports 2004 –
Hobbies: reading, music, “anything not sports-related”
Favorite Sports Movie: The Natural
Q. Who gets better pressbox seating? Newspapers or Yahoo?
A. Dan Wetzel, our national columnist, said I think Yahoo translated into
English means ‘auxiliary pressbox’. Great line. Dan said, “I’ve gotten to know the Asian press corps better than anybody”. The first year it was always the auxiliary pressbox. We always were sitting with the Japanese stringers or NFL China. I was covering the NFC championship game this year in the auxiliary box. The guy from the Oakland Press, where I used to work, had a front row seat. He passed me and said, “You’re moving up in the world but back in the pressbox.”
Q. Why are you covering the NFL instead of another sport?
A. I don’t think I’ve ever chosen how I wanted my career to go. I’ve allowed things to happen more than I drove myself to any one place. I envisioned myself more as a long-form enterprise writer. That’s what I was doing at the Orlando Sentinel – also covering NFL regional stories – but then this opened up to me. I really didn’t realize how much I missed beat writing when I left Oakland – I covered the Lions for Oakland – and how much I missed the competitive day-to-day situation. Ultimately I will be more of a long form writer – I like the investigative side of long form writing – but at this point I relish the competition in beat writing – the daily grind thing.
This job opened up and the NFL was my area of expertise and I couldn’t pass it up. I really liked the company too – at that point it was a budding entity that had never done this before. The atmosphere was very different than any newspapers I worked for. If I was going to take a risk and be a senior writer I had better do it now rather than later – to see if I was cut out for it.
Q. Is Yahoo Sports a real sports department?
A. I wouldn’t say it’s complete yet. It’s grown exponentially. When I got arrived there was one national columnist, two Nascar writers and myself. And then a band of former pro athletes who were analysts for us – I wouldn’t call them journalists – more pseudo-journalists – more for entertainment value and analysis than journalistic work. Since then the writing staff has gone from four to eight to ten and they’re hiring every day – plus there are freelance guys who work for us. The editing staff has grown quite a bit but we’re still in our infancy.
What attracted me to Yahoo was a hunger to do enterprising journalism and very little cynicism. I thought this is what fledgling newsrooms must have been like years ago before things got so cynical and budget-driven and everything was about the size of the news hole and the cost to travel to a source. It felt to me like budget journalism – it hasn’t been like that at Yahoo. Things are so lucrative – all the ad dollars are shifting to the Internet – so the big attraction was they had a plan for growth and they wanted to do it right away. They were careful with the hires they made – people who could work together – forward thinking journalists. I never thought I would leave newspapers but Yahoo has grown so much now and it’s still developing. It doesn’t have a seasoned feel to it yet but as we’ve added people – such as Jason Cole, the NFL writer from the Miami Herald – he’s probably 15 years older than me and clearly more knowledgeable – it’s a good mix to have. It turns out we’ve worked well together.
Q. What’s the reaction when you say you write for Yahoo sports?
A. I knew it would be a hurdle. Early on it was disbelief maybe. People equated Yahoo with an Internet search engine. It was very hard for this journalistic enterprise to eclipse what has been burned into the brains of everyone. They would think, “That’s weird – why would a search engine be covering sports?” It was a significant hurdle. I had to go on relationships a lot and explain a heckuva lot. And I had to prove things – telling people they would see me a lot, at the same functions as national writers from Espn.com, Sportsline or the Dallas Morning News, as any normal journalist. Probably there was skepticism initially. But as the year went on I was at the owner’s meetings, I was there for the draft, the combine, everything that happened that year in the NFL. We probably crossed the threshold when they had the off-season meeting in Maui – one of those trips where only the hard-core organizations would go due to finances – we showed up and that opened up some eyes. It showed we were serious. It also showed we had the chops to cover the league.
My second year on the beat we broke the Reggie Bush story – last April. That to me was the moon landing – our seminal moment – all of a sudden everyone looked at us and said “Wow, they can do impact journalism. They’re not just covering games and providing little nuggets. They can investigate something and produce good hard-edged well-sourced journalism and breaking news.” After that story I noticed there were a lot of general managers and coaches and other journalists who said that really was eye-opening. When we walked in to cover a team or meet with an athlete there was a new level of respect – of recognition. It’s something that will diminish if we don’t follow up in a correct way – we have to push for high journalistic standards. It’s crazy to think we went two years building our credibility in short steps and this story took us the rest of the way. Previously I worked for organizations that had credibility that got you in the door. Now I’m thinking, “Wow, we’re building credibility from scratch.”
Q. How did you work the Bush story? (Bush’s parents lived in a California house owned by a man who had sought to handle Bush’s professional marketing while he still was playing for USC)
A. During the combine in February I got a tip from a source – it was ambiguous – we were talking about the changing nature of the NFL draft and how guys don’t go with full-service agents – and the source said cryptically “What do you know about the Reggie Bush situation – I hear he’s really screwed up.” He said Bush was involved with some kind of Indian tribe dispute about representation. I pushed for some more and he backed off. A month later I was in Austin for Vince Young’s pro day workout and I ran into a scouting source who was wired into all the West Coast guys. I mentioned it and he flipped out – he was shocked that anybody knew about it. He was the source that broke it open – spelled out the details – he had a wealth of information. Now I had facts and names to work with. It took us until the week before the draft before I could go to San Diego and work it with parts and pieces of Reggie’s family and friends that were involved.
When I confirmed it a month after first hearing of it I went to my bosses and said we have to be very patient with this. One thing about the Internet – the news cycle has sped up to the point where so many stories aren’t fleshed out – it’s a minute to minute situation rather than day to day – and we break pieces of stories rather than entire stories. I didn’t want that to happen with this story. To their credit my bosses said to come back when I was ready – don’t feel like I needed to rush. We took an approach that could easily have gotten us beat. In the final days other reporters were on it – Jason Cole was on it for the Miami Herald, Liz Mullen from Sports Business Journal, Jim Trotter of the San Diego Union Tribune. We were fortunate to get our facts in place and get it first – literally six hours after we posted it, at noon, on a Sunday, the Miami Herald had it. And then things became a daily scramble to break new details. It became the epitome of what journalism is nowadays. I can remember breaking things at a print outlet and you had a day to think about the next story. Now it’s literally hours.
Q. Then why are scoops still important, if they are?
A. Depends on what kind of scoop you’re talking about. There are a lot of inane detail type scoops – it’s inane what we force people to credit us with. Yahoo has learned that an offensive tackle for such-and-such team is contemplating retirement – small pieces of information yet it’s so competitive everyone considers information proprietary. Unfortunately it’s manipulated what journalism is about – we have to be part o the story and we have to be credited with breaking this little bit of news. To me a genuine scoop is enterprise – bringing to light something that has broader impact on sports in some way that would not have been presented if you hadn’t brought it to light.
Q. Did other news organizations credit Yahoo with the Bush story?
A. Yes. ESPN, that same night, credited Yahoo with having broken the story. Quite a few actually did. Eventually you get to see where the line was drawn. Some news agencies credited the Miami Herald. Associated Press initially credited the Miami Herald. I think we got our fair share of credit. Nobody in the office was complaining. My bosses aren’t driven by credit. They were just happy we produced something we hadn’t done before. It was gratifying to see these other news entities coming with everything they had – we want to attain that level of respect.
When we think of who we’re competing with we would like to aspire to compete with Espn.com. They were very good about crediting us. I would like to think we would do the same.
Q. Do you compete with Google? Is there a Google sports staff?
A. There isn’t but that question is always raised. Other print journalists ask if Yahoo is a sign more Internet giants are going to get into the business. Because ad revenue has shifted so drastically I would not be surprised if someday there is a Google Sports. AOL has a sports staff. For a long time all Yahoo did was carry other people’s content.
Q. So tell us: is Charles Woodson washed-up or not?
A. (laughing) Well, with the Packers probably. It’s a situation where he’s probably at that point in his career – it’s such an isolated position – he can’t do it on his own. He needs help. Unfortunately he’s not in that situation with Green Bay. He’s going to have a lot of pressure on him, and people who know more than I do say his skills have eroded to the point where he’s no longer the elite player he was coming out of Michigan. I’m not sure he’s worth $10 million in the first season – they pay him like he’s an elite cornerback – and I’m not sure what the Packers are getting.
Q. What’s more exciting: an NFL exhibition game or a MLB spring training game?
A. Chinese water torture. It’s funny because the first week of the exhibition season is exciting. I’m a Midwest guy – I compare it to the first week of snow – it looks great and beautiful and then you’ve seen it and you say to yourself “I’m done with this.”
Q. As a general rule, which position players give the best interviews?
A. It’s so hit-and-miss. I think offensive linemen give good interviews. Part of it is they’re not groomed. Quarterbacks on the NFL level are so handled by the p.r. department and the agents and they’ve been in the spotlight for so long that you tend to get a lot of clichés. Offensive linemen tend to know what everybody is supposed to do on the field and most don’t fit into the mold of dumb jocks. Offensive linemen are more blue-collar, more raw, and far easier to have a real conversation with. And a lot of them are eager to talk – typically they don’t get a lot of interview requests.
Q. Which coaches are the best interviews?
A. Information-wise in terms of football knowledge, Bill Belichick is amazing. If you want specifics about his team you won’t get a lot but if you want general information about the game he’s very smart. Jeff Fisher is very personable and a fun guy to talk to with a vast knowledge of the league. Some guys are good for entertainment value – Bill Parcells – listening to him is more of a jousting match than a press conference. Almost all head coaches if you have them one-on-one are good. It’s the press conference situation that sets them apart and you see how they go about the job – it really is theater.
I haven’t been in a Belichick press conference when I haven’t been entertained – like a Bobby Knight press conference. Eric Mangini probably is the most boring coach I’ve ever encountered in my life, which is funny, because he’s the youngest. I don’t know if he’s reserved because he’s young, but have you ever heard the expression ‘watching paint dry’? Eric Mangini is where Nick Saban was when he was at Michigan State before he developed style and confidence. When Nick was at Michigan State every press conference was nervous – you never knew how he would react to even mundane questions. I didn’t encounter him again until he was with the Dolphins and you could see he mellowed out a bit – it was easier to interact with him as a reporter. Maybe that will happen to Eric. The funny thing is, he’s in New York. I don’t think I’ve seen more characters in a press corps than in New York. The back-and-forth is amazing. I remember at a mini camp people in the press corps were taking shots at each other during a press conference. Even Mangini was laughing. It was almost like the press conference was reversed.
Q. Do you like your work?
A. I’m the envy of my friends who are doctors and lawyers and engineers. My job is their dream job – sometimes we lose sight of that. I try to think in terms of when I was in college what I would have thought of myself if I knew in ten years this is where I would be. There are always periods when we’re grinding and thinking “My god, this has less than glamorous points to it.” I try to remind myself of how lucky I am.”
(SMG thanks Charles Robinson for his cooperation)
(do not use the following notes)
wheni started joe fall wa wiwth detnews, he told stories about his life – I thought if I can liast as long in thisbusienss I will hav elived a full life – so often wer’e stiting rpessbox sitting shoulder to shoulder aattached to laptops – no often we get chanceee to know – on beat in Detroit I got chanceto know people – so manypeple have such colorful lives
jack saylor in detoit, free press almost 40 years – in b ar or hotel jack stis down at piano and playing – like a piano bar atmpshers then evyerone was singing – lot of vivid things in lives of sports writers – sadly enough I’m approaching 8 years in business and I have none
I’m the envy of freindsnad, doctors and engineers, my job is their dream job, sometimes we lsoes sight of that – I try to think of in terms of when I was in college what would I think of myself if I knew in 10 yars this is wherr ei was going to be – always peioeds where we’e gridnign and thingk omy god this has less than glamours points- I try to remind myself how lucky I am I have friends even in industry bouncing around staff shrinkgng and looking
(dan Wetzel is very funny- embodiemtn of hardest working njorunalist I’ve ver met – worked for bkb times – grinding at col bkb level – he livedin detoirt – bkb times was out of troy – was the pro fb weekly of its day – scramblighn to make ends meet – tons of free lance – even at pt he ended up going to cbs.sprotsline – he trained to be a blackjack dealer –it ws atthat point where he didntknow if it was going to happen to him – I readim at sprotsline I thought he was the bst col bkb guy in country – most unassuming we3llconnected gguy I ever met – never drops a name – at dinenr once cllphoen ran it wass was bobby kniht – I heard stream of f-en this and that – he hung up and didn’t say anything – he wrote glory road with don Haskins – wrote tarks biography – “sole influence’ abouthow sneaker comapneis polluting bkb – mid to late 30s –
Are other search engines your main competitors?