An Interview with Gene Wojciechowski
“My number one pet peeve is the writer unable to formulate an actual question. What they say is “Can you talk about this?” Sometimes they just say, “Talk about this.” I don’t know where it came from but whoever originated it needs to be gut-taped to an iron pole and lowered into God’s fiery hell – it is the laziest tool in sports journalism.”
“There’s an art to asking a great question…. it’s not the first question that gets the best answer – it’s the follow-up.”
“If you’re a betting man generally speaking the TV and radio guy is going to ask a dumber question than the sportswriter – although it’s more of an even proposition these days.”
Gene Wojciechowski. Interviewed August 30, 2006.
Position: National Columnist, ESPN.com, staff writer, ESPN the Magazine.
Born: 1957, Salina, Kansas
Education: University of Tennessee, BJ, 1979.
Career: Ft. Lauderdale News, 1980-83; Denver Post 1983-84; Dallas Morning News 1984-86; LA Times 1986-95; Chicago Tribune 1996-98; ESPN the Magazine 1998 – , ESPN.com 2005-
Personal: married, two children
Hobbies: golf, hoops
Favorite sports movie: Slapshot
Author of: “Pond Scum and Vultures: America’s Sportswriters Talk About Their Glamorous Profession”, 1990
Q. Do athletes still refer to sportswriters as “Pond Scum”?
A. The Mormons do, the really religious guys do – otherwise there are really inventive four-letter variations of that phrase now. I wouldn’t say they do. But there are all sorts of nicknames and most aren’t things you would mention in front of your Mom.
Q. If you could update the book what would you add?
A. I haven’t reread it. I’d be interested to see if it would feel old to me. I don’t know if I would update it. I don’t think things would change much. The names would change. Some of the stories would change. The general theme I don’t think would ever change. We are considered by some athletes and coaches as a sub-species. And that’s how it’s always going to be. We’re the ones who ask the dumb questions – we’re the pains in the butts. We’re the know-nothings and that will never change. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re spectacularly wrong.
Q. You wrote that no one aspires to become a sportswriter – it just happens. Is that still true?
A. That was the case with me and I guess I extrapolated through the entire civilization. No, I don’t think it’s true. I get e-mails from college kids – I try to discourage them immediately – saying I’d love to do what you do. I counsel them to seek professional care and then I try to help them anyway I can.
I tell them to do the Boy Scout thing. Be prepared. Be prepared to start at the bottom, and to not make much money, and to be discouraged, and to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. And if you’re willing to do all those things you’ve got a shot, if you’ve got talent. I don’t ever sugarcoat it. It’s a different business than it was before. It used to be that a job with a newspaper was set for life if you wanted to stay. There was a different kind of writing – a thing called a ‘takeout’ where you could write a long story and nobody said it was too long. That’s a dinosaur now, which is a pity. And this wonderful bizarre chaotic thing known as the Internet sprang up and that has changed the rules – in a good way – but they have changed.
Q. Do news reporters still consider sports journalism the Toy Department?
A. Absolutely. That is their biggest mistake – it comes from a certain degree of arrogance and ignorance and feeling of superiority. There’s a reason why when the Rodney King riots were going on in LA that the (LA Times) news desk came to the sports desk and assigned writers – I was one of them – to south central LA. Sportswriters are entirely adaptable – we can cover just about anything – because we’ve had to in sports.
I’d love to see Bob Woodward cover a world series on deadline – see him work both clubhouses – I guarantee he’ll have more trouble doing that than I had covering the LA riots. It looks easy – it isn’t.
Q. You wrote that sportswriters are the foot soldiers of journalism, and love it. Is that still true?
A. I think so – especially the beat guys. Whatever they pay the beat guys in this country it isn’t enough and never has been. Especially the baseball beat guys. That was the hardest job I ever had and the best.
Q. Why the hardest?
A. Because it’s every day. Every day. It’s like having to carry a 90-pound backpack up a hill every day. Players don’t want you in there. Managers get sick of you. It’s 162 games plus spring training plus the playoffs if they make it. Your family has to send photos to remind you of what they look like – you’re on the road so much. Covering a losing team is beyond miserable. You’re competing against two or three or four guys. It’s one of the great remaining battlegrounds of sports journalism.
Q. Who are the good ones?
A. The good ones are amazing to me. Paul Sullivan (Chicago Tribune). Mike DiGiovanna (LA Times). Hal McCoy (Dayton Daily News). Tracy Ringolsby (Rocky Mountain News). Phil Rogers (Chicago Tribune) – though he’s now the national guy. They’re all around the country and we take them for granted. And the guys on the Internet: Tim Kurkjian (ESPN.com) is one of my favorites. John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli (ESPN.com) – I’ve been in rooms with them when I thought they would hold a parade because they found out a second team offensive guard got an offer sheet. They were thrilled to get the information – even now they are after years on the beat. When you can still be that excited about something that’s pretty good – it means you love doing your job.
Q. You wrote that athletes are convinced sportswriters are up to no good. Has the athlete-sports media relationship changed since you wrote the book?
A. I’ve learned it all depends on the athlete and writer. If you ask crisp intelligent provocative questions you’ll usually get crisp thoughtful answers and that leads to an understanding at the least and sometimes – not a friendship – but a professional friendship where they learn to respect you and you them – where they begin to trust you and know you aren’t wasting their time and you know they aren’t going to jack you around. I still think most coaches and athletes are suspicious of sportswriters and then they have to be convinced otherwise – if you can you’ll do pretty well in this business – and I’m not talking about sucking up but just earning their respect and trust. And you know what? A lot of times they have reason to be suspicious. We’re not their friends and we’re not necessarily their enemies. There’s a great divide about what they think we’re there for and what we’re really there for – a lot of times they’re not sure. Some players think we’re necessary evils always trying to get a scoop – and we don’t care how we do it – but smart players and managers know we’ve got a job to do and will try to help us do it within reason. Some think that if you’re covering the team for the hometown paper you should be with them – you have to explain you’re not on anybody’s side – you’re there to serve the reader. If I’m a beat reporter I’m there to gather as much information as I can and tell a story every day in every game story. And as the season unfolds I give you context and perspective and analysis – and if that means I have to ask Dusty Baker really difficult questions that’s what it means. Guys like Dusty understand – other guys don’t and never will.
Q. You wrote that nothing annoys a sportswriter like a radio or television person? Is that still true?
A. I don’t notice it as much anymore. But if you’re a betting man generally speaking the TV and radio guy is going to ask a dumber question than the sportswriter – although it’s more of an even proposition these days. My number one pet peeve is the writer unable to formulate an actual question. What they say is “Can you talk about this?” Sometimes they just say, “Talk about this.” I don’t know where it came from but whoever originated it needs to be gut-taped to an iron pole and lowered into God’s fiery hell – it is the laziest tool in sports journalism.
There’s an art to asking a great question. Practice. I have a friend who is one of the top writers in the country. Sometimes he can’t get out of his own way when he starts interviewing. His questions go on longer than the Emancipation Proclamation – you lose the guy you’re talking to. I look at my notes – if it gets painful listening to me ask then I know I’ve gone on too long. I try to keep questions short and sweet – I try to ask them in a way that they’ve never heard. Sometimes I’ll be flippant or smart-assey or try to crack a joke with the question – and other times I’ve learned that if you ask the obvious question everybody else is afraid to ask you’ll get some of the best answers.
I try to put time into what I’m going to ask. But I don’t plan all of my questions. Sometimes I’ll go in cold but I’ll have three questions I’ll build around. If you build a checklist you get married to it and you don’t listen to the answers – if he’s saying something that would make a great follow-up and you’re looking at your list. It’s not the first question that gets the best answer – it’s the follow-up. They’re ready for the first one but the second one might get you something. Watch Barbara Walters or Bob Costas do an interview. Or listen to Rick Reilly follow somebody after a press conference. I see everybody get up at press conferences and walk out. I’m not bragging but I’ve learned that if you get up and walk out with the guy sometimes he’ll stop and say something he won’t in front of 200 people. Tiger Woods will do that sometimes. Meanwhile, seven-eighths of the room will have gone to the press room. That’s okay – they got what they want. I learned working for ESPN Magazine that you have to get something nobody elsea has. Working for dot.com I do some of the same things – not to the same extent – but something – even just to get an extra quote.
I’m lucky if I have six really good friends in the business and we talk about sportswriting all the time. Reilly is my best friend, and we talk about reporting and questioning and writing techniques and devices. Ivan Maisel (ESPN.com). Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune). Bill Plaschke (LA Times). We talk about our work.
Q. Is sportsjournalists.com helpful?
A. I read it once in awhile but the fact that it’s anonymous bothers me. So I don’t take it seriously. If they used their names you could have a dialogue.
Q. You wrote that without sportswriters there would be no sports lore. Is that still true?
A. Sure. I would love to compile some of the best leads in the last 10 or 15 years. I think
sportswriters were more celebrated in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – especially newspaper reporters because that was the central way of getting information. There still is fantastic writing being done – my highest compliment is “I wish I had written that” and I still say that a lot. We have a lot of great writers out there.
A. Reilly. Plaschke. I love T.J. Simers (LA Times). He’s done something not too many people can do – he’s invented a different kind of notes column. People try to duplicate it but you can’t because there’s only one TJ – he’s the most fearless writer I’ve ever met – he’ll end up in the bottom of the Hudson River one day. I feel bad about trying to come up with a list. Those are the guys I know. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) is good. There are some real craftsmen out there on the websites and in magazines.
Tennessee, where I went to school, has me back to talk to journalism classes. I tell them to read everybody in sports and non-sports related – good writing is good writing. You can apply what you read from George Will’s column to something in sportswriting – the way he sets up a paragraph, the turn of a phrase, the way he finds his theme and carries it along. (The late) Shelby Strother told me a long time ago there should always be a guy walking through a window into your bedroom that you’re not ready for. You have to set the reader up. Always have a strong central theme to carry the story start to finish. There’s a guy named Mike Penner, who still works for the LA Times, and used to cover baseball. I don’t think he liked baseball but nobody could tell a story like Penner. Gordon Edes (Boston Globe) does the same thing – he tells a story every day.
Q. You recently wrote that Tiger Woods is the greatest athlete ever. But golfers are not required to perform in pain. How can he be the greatest athlete ever without having to perform in pain?
A. Well, there are different forms of pain. Woods has had to deal with the pain of losing his father/best friend – and has responded with a missed cut, a second place at the Western and then four consecutive victories, including two majors. I would argue that he responded brilliantly to the mental pain and anguish of losing the man who taught him the game and mentored him for most of his life.
As for physical pain, well, there’s a reason why he subjects himself to some of the most exhausting workouts of any Tour players. Granted, it’s not the same as what an NFL player goes through, but that’s the nature of their respective sports. Tiger puts a tremendous amount of stress on his body. His swing is beyond violent. And while some would laugh – and in a small way I understand why – try walking 72 holes in the July heat and humidity of, say, New York or western Pennsylvania, or Tulsa – and do it with the pressure of trying to win a major (Bethpage, Oakmont, Southern Hills). There’s a reason why they’re drenched in sweat.
But of course, you can’t compare the pain of playing football with the pain or discomfort of playing golf. But almost nothing – conditions, pressure, opponents, etc. – affects Woods. Put it this way: if he were an NFL player and had the appropriate physical skills, I think he’d have similar success. That’s how mentally strong he is.
(SMG thanks Gene Wojciechowski for his cooperation)