An Interview with Henry Abbott
Intro: Survival of the Fittest
On his way to founding the pre-eminent NBA blog, True Hoops, Henry Abbott lived in a jungle in Ecuador and covered the Ecuadorian elections for CBS radio. But that was then. Now Abbott rules over a different kind of jungle – a network of bloggers in every NBA city that draws more than a million readers every month.
Founded in 2005, True Hoops was purchased by ESPN in 2007, which makes Abbott an entrepreneurial model for bloggers who claw for scraps in a Darwinian cyberspace. In this interview, Abbott answers one question – about the human side of blogging – with a link to his own blog, which not only saved him time, but drove SMG’s massive traffic to True Hoops. Thus did Abbott demonstrate, with deftness, a practical skill that we can only envy. — SM
Henry Abbott: Interviewed on March 11, 2011
Position: Says “senior writer” on the business card, but I’m a blogger. ESPN.com’s TrueHoop blogger, and the co-founder of the TrueHoop Network.
Born: 1974, England
Education: B.A. (honors) NYU Journalism, 1995
Career: 1995 CBS Network Radio News desk assistant; 1996 Cooking etc. at a cloud forest reserve in Ecuador; 1997 Reporter and producer at CBS affiliate in Madison, WI; 1998 Full-time freelance writing at Gekko Productions, “co-founded with my lovely wife”. Work for HOOP, Inside Stuff, Men’s Journal etc.; 2005 Start TrueHoop; 2007 TrueHoop moves to ESPN.com; 2009 Launch the TrueHoop Network, an affiliation between ESPN and a “fantastic collection of the best independent NBA blogs”
Personal: Married with two kids
Favorite restaurant (home): Matt’s Red Rooster, Flemington NJ. “Run by friends and always good.”
Favorite restaurant (away): “If I’m at Cafe Mingo in Portland OR it means I’m not just on vacation, but enjoying great food, in a charming environment, on a date with my wife. Awesome.”
Favorite hotel: “Hotels to me are all about wireless and work. For pleasure, I’ll take a house with a pool and sun and tons of family and friends who really know how to cook.”
Q. You are the head of a blogging empire – which you founded and sold to ESPN. Give us a description of your job.
A. TrueHoop is ESPN.com’s NBA blog. Nowadays many smart people (Marc Stein! John Hollinger! J.A. Adande!) contribute, but I’m still both the baldest and the only one for whom it’s a full-time job.
In addition, we have three dozen independent blogs that are affiliated with ESPN through the TrueHoop Network, which is the result of many long hours of working closely with the fabulous Kevin Arnovitz. There’s a TrueHoop Network blog in every NBA city, and a few more besides. That’s about two years old, and while it has always been a hotbed of quality, I’m insanely proud of the work the network has been doing lately. There are more than a million monthly unique readers every month in the network alone, and rightly so. My expectations — of quality, of import, of traffic, of credibility — are getting a little crazy.
Worth noting: Not all, but nearly everyone who has gotten their first full-time NBA media jobs in the last two years first worked in this network.
Q. How did you start your career?
A. After interning all over and more than a little work in college radio (I was co-news director and founded a show called Citywide
), I snagged a job as CBS network radio news desk assistant before I graduated from NYU. Then a stream of reporting and producing type jobs, along with roughly a decade of freelancing, mainly for magazines.
Q. How did you conceive and make a success of TrueHoop?
A. Writing for NBA magazines gave me a certain set of contacts and insights. Magazine publishing allowed me to get about 1 percent of those into print, typically eight weeks after it seemed relevant.
I resisted blogging for ages, but eventually my friend Alex, at a Christmas party in Brooklyn, basically forced me to start a blog. He’s a pretty big dude. So I did, and I quickly discovered putting ideas into a conversation in real time for everyone was much more exciting and relevant than putting them onto paper for a few people.
Q. What does it take to make it – in ability and finances – as an independent sports blogger in 2011?
A. Unknown. I tell TrueHoop Network bloggers every chance I get that the key is to pick a niche and own it, to get it right, to build credibility, to build relationships, and to work really hard for a long time.
People who don’t do all that seem to fail. Some who do all that succeed, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of them, although I suspect there’ll be a lot more of that as it becomes clear we’re going about this the right way and these are young writers you can trust.
It does not require all that much money, but it sure does take time.
The main point is: In 2011, you simply cannot e-mail decision makers and tell them about the kind of work you intend to do. Video, audio, writing … it’s all almost free or cheap to produce, if you have the time and know-how. Do it. Show us.
Q. Tell us about the human side of some of the people in your TrueHoop Network.
The long and short of it is that I feel they have placed a hell of a lot of trust in us. They are all over the map, socioeconomically, but they are united in having worked really hard to try to serve sports fans in a new and better way, while buying into a vision from ESPN, from Kevin and from me.
That they have poured so much passion and smarts into the whole thing, for basically no money … well, let’s just say I’m determined not to eff this up.
Q. How much basketball do you watch?
A. Most nights from when my kids go to bed until I can keep my eyes open no longer. Sometimes I also get up early and watch more while riding the exercise bike in the basement. Then if there’s a play I need to see again, every game is online one way or another at work.
Q. How do you maintain a balance between work and non-work?
A. Weekends are the key. I’m lucky that I not only get to cover the NBA, but by and large I get to do so five days a week and mostly without travel.
That said, during the playoffs it all kinds of goes to hell for me. I’m physically incapable of sleeping in, so I’m up late watching West Coast games, then up early. Haggard from tax day to the fourth of July. That’s punctuated with a 20-day trip to the Finals. As soon as you touch down it’s a dead sprint to what’s often the biggest traffic day of the year … the draft, which is a week later.
I know, nobody wants to hear it — these are great problems to have in this economy.
But I pity the fool who stands between me and the vacation with my family that follows all that.
Q. Who were your writing and journalistic influences?
A. I read the New Yorker like a junkie, and before that it was Harper’s. As a guy who studied TV and radio and worked at CBS, I loved me some Charles Kuralt. Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” is fantastic and life-changing. Ira Glass and “This American Life.” I interned for a PBS show Robert Krulwich hosted (“Edge”), and love all his work including and especially “Radiolab.” My college roommate has long encouraged me to emulate Bill Bryson. Wright Thompson is a stud. Sarah Vowell may be the voice of my generation. And who doesn’t love Darcy Frey, Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam?
Q. What kind of stories are you drawn to?
A. The truth! The opportunities for me, as a journalist, are topics where there’s a lot of “group think” and assuming going on. I like to wreck my car into a pile of assumptions, and see if I can’t get some new kinds of thinking going.
Since challenging the broad assumption that Kobe Bryant is the king of crunch time a while back, I get lots of e-mails from people saying “damn you! Now every time Kobe catches the ball in crunch time all I can think about are your damned stats saying he misses most of the time.” I take no joy in smearing Bryant, but I take a lot of joy in opening eyes.
(SMG thanks Henry Abbott for his cooperation)