An Interview with Helene Elliott
“At a lot of places the hockey beat is a place to test young writers and see if they can handle something bigger.”
“What bothers me is when people call blogging “citizen journalism.” I’ve seen stuff written about me on blogs that’s just inaccurate.”
“If you are an mlb.com correspondent and you start writing things critical of Bud Selig do you think you would keep your job? It may not be edited by MLB but MLB would remember what you wrote. When it came time to pick the correspondents for next season they would go in another direction.”
Helene Elliott: Interviewed Sept. 12, 2006
Position: Columnist, LA Times
Born: 1956, Brooklyn, NY.
Education: Northwestern, BJ, 1977.
Career: Chicago Sun-Times 1977-79, Newsday 1979-89, LA Times 1989 –
Hobbies: “who has time?”
Favorite sports movies: Pride of the Yankees, Slapshot
Honors: Hockey Hall of Fame, 2005, Elmer Ferguson Award for distinguished writing
Q. Is it true the Times is not covering the Kings and Ducks on the road?
A. Correct. We have a new sports editor (Randy Harvey) who believes that the numbers do not justify the expense and space for hockey in the paper. He sees hockey as a niche sport.
Q. Did you have any input?
A. No. He’s the boss. I’m the worker bee. I was upset. Anytime the sport you cover is downgraded in the eyes of your boss, my reaction was ‘wait a minute, he’s telling me I’m wasting my time’. But when you look at a paper like the LA Times where the sports section has shrunk so badly over the last 10 years or so, and look at all the pro and college teams we have to cram in, plus horse racing, the NFL, Olympics, participatory sports – there’s just so much space and you have to make some tough decisions.
Q. What was the reaction by the NHL?
A. I’m told it was a topic at the recent p.r. meetings for the entire weekend. I covered the Stanley Cup finals this year. Of the 30 teams in the league more than half were not represented by reporters at the finals. Anaheim had nobody. Atlanta, Buffalo – nobody. Boston – only the Globe was there. Columbus wasn’t. Chicago and Colorado – only some of the games. Neither Detroit paper sent a reporter to the finals. Nobody from Newsday, nobody from the New York Post. Nobody from Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Jose, or Washington. Nobody from Tampa Bay – the defending Cup champions.
Q. Breathtaking. What’s the NHL’s spin on it?
A. The league said newspapers aren’t as important as they used to be – they lack immediacy – all this kind of nonsense. They should have been panicked.
We’re seeing shrinking sports sections. When I came out to California there were six or seven department store chains that would buy five to eight pages of ads per week. Now those stores have consolidated, so you don’t have all those stores buying ads. You don’t have the independent car dealerships buying ads. You don’t have the pages and ad space, therefore sections are shrinking. Editors have to make choices. Also, this was an Olympics year. Some papers spent their money going to the Olympics.
Q. Is your NASCAR coverage increasing?
A. Yes. We brought somebody in from the business side specifically to cover it.
Q. Will NASCAR be covered more than hockey?
A. No. The Ducks are going to be good. We’re going to go to more games if they’re in it. Chris Pronger’s first game back in Edmonton – we’ll cover that. Kings coach Marc Crawford’s first game back in Vancouver – we’ll do that.
We have two hockey teams, two basketball teams, USC and UCLA – just to much – plus we cover the NFL extensively. It’s like trying to put 20 tons of fertilizer into a 10-pound bag every day. If I’m the NHL I’m worried about NASCAR – absolutely. I’m worried about a lot of things.
Q. Overall, how is the NHL doing after the lockout?
A. The league still has a lot of problems. The decision to go with OLN as the US cable outlet could be a huge mistake. Commissioner Bettman said OLN gives the league great treatment, but it doesn’t matter if nobody can get OLN. Last spring the Ducks made it to the Western Conference finals but an astonishing percentage of cable homes in Orange County couldn’t get OLN. It had exclusive rights to the conference finals. So the core audience couldn’t watch its home team. That’s incredibly damaging. Plus they came back from the lockout and did all these wonderful rules changes to increase scoring and limit the things that bog down the game and then they go on a stupid ad campaign. They don’t know to market their strength, which is the players.
In many ways the league is where it was before the lockout. It got back its core audience, but it’s facing the same problem it did before – how to get casual fans to become hockey fans. Attendance came back, but that wasn’t the problem, it was TV money and expanding into areas not traditionally hockey areas, in the south and west. It’s getting the casual fan to notice the speed and skill of the game and translate it into TV audience.
Q. Would you advise young journalists to aspire to the hockey beat?
A. We’re seeing in a lot of places that the hockey beat is a jumping-off beat to something better. Jason Laconfora (Washington Post) started as a hockey writer, then was promoted to the Redskins – he’s risen in the star alignment. At my own paper Mike Bresnahan was the Kings writer for a season and was promoted to the Lakers. The Lakers and Dodgers arguable are the top two beats at this paper. At a lot of places the hockey beat is a place to test young writers and see if they can handle something bigger.
Q. How do you feel about that?
A. I don’t know. It is what it is. It’s reality except for Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and a few other cities. Hockey is not the premier beat, and if you’re an ambitious young reporter you want to be covering the sport and team that gets the most attention. It you’re in a city like Nashville or Columbus where there aren’t that many pro beats it’s a plum assignment.
Q. Why do you cover hockey?
A. I’m a general columnist now. As of Labor Day.
A. Thank you, I think. I always loved hockey. I found hockey players the best players to deal with – the least spoiled and least selfish. You don’t see NHL players refusing to talk like athletes in some other sports. They’re more accessible, more down to earth, less spoiled by the cult of personality you find in other sports.
Q. How long did you cover hockey?
A. Since 1980 on and off. I was hired by the LA Times as a baseball writer and I did the Angels for three seasons and the Lakers for a season, but I always seemed to go back to hockey.
Q. Your reaction to winning the Hockey Hall of Fame writer’s award?
A. I was stunned. Totally surprised. I never expected it.
Q. Did you have difficulty as a woman covering hockey?
A. Early on I dealt with the locker room issue, but hockey teams were probably among the first to grant equal access to female reporters. For a number of years the Maple Leafs wouldn’t, but even they came around. The players are so good to deal with they don’t care about gender – they’re so happy to get some exposure and get the game out to the public.
Q. As a general columnist will you shy away from hockey columns?
A. No. I did one yesterday (September 11th) on Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis being killed on Flight 175 out of Boston. During the summer the Ducks signed a kid from the LA area who had played youth hockey in the area – it wasn’t just a hockey column – it was indicative of a trend we’ve seen here, of kids playing the game after Gretzky came here. You see more California kids in college hockey and in the junior leagues in Canada. I’m not going to shy away from hockey columns but I won’t do every column on hockey – there might not be enough going on to warrant that. But if there is a hockey column to do I’d probably get first call on it, as opposed to Plaschke or Adande.
Q. Writers you admire?
A. Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune – he’s so versatile and enthusiastic and he finds quirks and angles you don’t see very often. Scott Ostler (SF Chronicle) is clever and an easy read. He’s so funny – you can be funny without trying hard.
Q. Where do you get your information?
A. I’m a newspaper reader. I’m also online quite a bit for out-of-town papers. For hockey I go to the Canadian newspaper websites or TSN, the Canadian TV network. I go to sportspages.com and branch out from there. I’ve got many bookmarks.
Q. What about blogs?
A. Not that many. I go to fan websites sometimes. Depends on how much time I have. You can get too engrossed in blogs and reading when you should be out there talking to people.
Q. Can you characterize the general quality of blogs?
A. It varies really. What bothers me is when people call blogging “citizen journalism.” I’ve seen stuff written about me on blogs that’s just inaccurate. One wrote that I got my job because my father was in the business – my father had nothing to do with journalism. There’s a lot of inaccurate stuff out there. Some are accurate and raise good questions. A reporter wants to know what fans are thinking and asking and going through a fan website can be useful.
Q. Can you name one or two?
A. Letsgokings.com. That’s one I look at about the Kings.
Q. Are sports journalists working harder than 25 years ago?
A. I would say so. It’s like being on the job 24/7, if not for the paper then for the website. It used to be if your event finished too late for the paper you could go home and go to sleep. Now you do it for the website. If there’s no room for a notebook or column or feature you do it for the web. There is this eternal search for content.
Plus our job has changed – we’re dealing with labor and contractual matters like the hockey lockout and baseball strike. You have to be able to write economics. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know. Our job probably encompasses more than every before.
On top of that some blog says the Kings or Ducks are doing something and you have to react to that. Or you have to react to the team websites. Or the athletes’ own websites, which they use to make announcements.
Q. Are writers for the league websites doing real journalism? Mlb.com for example?
A. It’s an arm of Major League Baseball. If you are an mlb.com correspondent and you start writing things critical of Bud Selig do you think you would keep your job? It may not be edited by MLB but MLB would remember what you wrote. When it came time to pick the correspondents for next season they would go in another direction.
Q. How should readers approach league sites?
A. With healthy skepticism.
(SMG thanks Helene Elliott for her cooperation)