An Interview with Jon Solomon

An Interview with Jon Solomon

An Interview with Jon Solomon

“The Clemson and South Carolina beats are more competitive than people realize.”

“I have all the respect in the world for beat reporters. They’re the lifeblood of the sports section…they’re working crazy hours.”

“Columnists now – and I don’t want to generalize – are caricatures. They’re so opinionated. They have to have a take on everything.”

Jon Solomon. Interviewed August 29, 2006

Position: enterprise reporter, Birmingham News

Born: 1976, Gaithersburg, Md.

Education: University of Maryland, BA, 1998

Career: Washington Post (part-time) 1998-99, Anderson (SC) Independent-Mail 1999-2003, The State (Columbia SC) 2003-2005, Birmingham News 2005 –

Personal: married, (expecting)

Hobbies: reading, movies, softball

Favorite Sports Movie: Hoosiers

Jon Solomon excerpted from the Anderson Independent-Mail, 2003:

We like Radio because of who he is, yes. There he is every Friday night, funny and caring, leading cheers in the stands and tending to injured players on the sideline – the constant showman proving he can live a good life in spite of his diminished mind.

We love Radio because we recognize those traits.

Anderson, South Carolina might be perceived as behind the times. The Confederate flag still flies on our Statehouse’s grounds, traffic jams consist of sitting through two left-turn lights on Clemson Boulevard, and nonexistent street lamps make our city anything but electric.

But we get Radio. You can’t deny us that. We’ve been able to get him for decades now, and we love that no one tunes in to hear Radio like us.

If that sounds a tad self-centered about a community, so be it. Anderson is growing bigger by the day; shopping centers, steakhouses and movie theaters have commercialized the community into Everywhere America. Radio still distinguishes us, we tell ourselves.

Our relationship with a mentally retarded black man, beginning when a white football coach discovered Radio loitering around T.L. Hanna High School practices, speaks to our values. It reminds us of words we learned from our mother: tolerance, humility, dedication, compassion.

Communities can be built on those words alone. Had teachers, administrators, coaches and students at Hanna not accepted those principles to heart unconditionally, Anderson would be a poorer place.

Life is short, so, so short. Radio was dealt a bad hand. He is a high school junior for life with limited thinking abilities, a stubborn attitude and a gift for living. Harold Jones, a teacher first and a football coach second, was wise enough to see the latter and gave Radio a home when others would not.

Q. What are you working on?

A. We’re doing a project on the quality of education college athletes get. It’s still in its early stages. It could go in many different directions.

Q. How would you describe your job as an enterprise reporter?

A. Much different. My working hours are more normal – which is nice. When I covered the Clemson beat for seven seasons I had a lot of project ideas but no time to do them. I was doing two stories a day, traveling, and working 70-80 hours a week. Then I come to a job like this, moving out of state, and have to develop new sources, and it’s ironic, because I have more time but the ideas don’t flow as much because you’re not on the beat. If there were some way to combine both it would be amazing.

Q. Why did you move from The State to Birmingham?

A. It was a chance to work on in-depth stories and tackle issues I just didn’t have time to do.

Q. What was it like covering Clemson in a medium-size market?

A. The Clemson beat and South Carolina beats are more competitive than people realize. You’ve got the Greenville News, the Charleston Post and Courier, The State, and Anderson. Plus fan websites, rivals.com and scout.com.

Q. What’s it like competing against rivals.com and scout.com?

A. They operate with a much different mentality. They’re constantly putting up minutiae they advertise as breaking news – tiny little details. It’s great for die-hard fans, but newspapers only have so many inches. Newspapers can’t offer as much detail – they have to offer perspective. We offer a filter – here is what you really need to know.

Mostly they’re competing against each other, and it’s more cutthroat. A lot of their key sources are coaches on staff. Their biggest thing is recruiting and committing. When someone commits they get a heads up. If they cross the coaches with a story they get cut out. You won’t find them writing critical or analytical stories.

Q. Won’t that limit their appeal?

A. Maybe to the mainstream. Their lifeblood is recruiting. And they have a message board – fans read it for rumors and trash talk.

Q. Couldn’t newspapers do that?

A. Newspapers are slowly starting to do that. At The State we had a Q&A forum for the beat reporters. We got questions and could answer them when we wanted to. It was a good dialogue with readers and let them see how we went about doing our work. I think it opened their eyes about how and why we do things.

Q. Do you worry about what rivals.com and scout.com are posting?

A. You have to. I don’t now – which is a relief. I’m not constantly checking Internet sites and boards. It’s a must today. You feel slimy for doing it and you feel stupid for making a call based on something you saw but if you don’t you risk seeing it in somebody else’s story.

Q. That sounds harrowing?

A. It is. When I was a beat reporter I would wake up and go to other newspapers and kick myself when I got beat. Then I went to message boards and websites. Often I would go late at night. Sometimes you make a call at 10 or 11 o’clock. Newspapers are starting to post news on a 24-hour news cycle. They’re still trying to find a balance of what is breaking news and what isn’t. If someone is demoted to second string is that breaking news?

Q. What kind of hours are beat reporters expected to work?

A. I have all the respect in the world for beat reporters. They’re the lifeblood of the sports section. Even now they’re the ones I call to set up stuff and get background. They’re working crazy hours.

Q. Are they paid for it?

A. I wouldn’t say so. That’s probably why you see so much turnover. That’s why I left. But the hours are more of a problem than the pay. Although I will say that employers are good about giving comp time and being flexible. But I remember covering Clemson, I had a week off in the summer, and I just couldn’t remove myself from the beat. I was still checking stuff and making calls. The only way I could forget it was to be out of town.

It takes a special mentality to be a beat reporter. You have to be a grinder and be competitive, too. You have to take it to heart if you get beat. You want to go out and get them back.

Q. Does the public have a positive view of sports media?

A. The public always feels sports media is not covering their team enough – and not positively enough.

Q. Does the public feel a connection to sports media?

A. Maybe the columnists. They see their faces and hear their voices. And now more columnists are on TV and radio. And in some ways columnists play up to that. Columnists now – and I don’t want to generalize – are caricatures. They’re so opinionated. They have to have a take on everything. Aren’t some issues gray instead of black and white – that require a debate instead of shouting? Internet and radio changes the way things are approached. Editors say that a story is “a good talker”. And a “talker” is what’s on the Internet message boards.

Somewhere along the line I hope we don’t lose the ability to create a reasonable and intelligent dialogue. And to do articles that make sense where we aren’t just shouting opinions.

Q. Why is it that one thing you never hear a columnist say is “I have no opinion on that”?

A. I went on a weekly sports opinion TV show in Birmingham. Before the show I told them I know nothing about Nascar and if it came up to go to the other guy. Nascar came up and the others discussed it. Then the host came to me and said “What about Nascar?” I said, “Is that the sport where they keep going round and round?” The host said, “That’s one way to put it”, and then he went on to something else.”

Q. Writers you admire?

A. Lots of beat writers. Ken Tysiac (Charlotte Observer). Joe Person (The State). Nationally, the Washington Post writers: Michael Wilbon, Sally Jenkins, Thomas Boswell. Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times). Joe Posnanski (KC Star). Ivan Maisel (espn.com). Dennis Dodd (CBS sportsline.com)

Q. Favorite sports book?

A. I read ‘Best American Sportswriting’ every year. It has so much material I’m not reading, from the magazines for instance. I like the stuff from Esquire and GQ, stuff that Charlie Pierce writes.

At Maryland I took a Baseball Literature class. I thought it would be a piece of cake but it was tough – I barely got a ‘B’. We read “Shoeless Joe”, “The Great American Novel” by Philip Roth, “Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo, and “That Natural”.

Q. Do you read blogs?

A. I read the wizardofodds.blogspot.com. It’s about college football. I like the links they do for stories around the country. I read deadspin.com. I like their links, and I like to see the fans’ perspective. Some of it you have to take with a grain of salt. There’s lots of candor and honesty in blogs, in some ways more so than newspapers, because you have to stay objective and down the middle.

I’m trying to start a blog. I’m trying to convince my editor to let me go to a college football game each Saturday and blog on the game. And also about my AP college football ranking votes, as well as my Heisman vote. It would be about college football.

Q. Do the blogs make newspapers seem tame and boring?

A. Maybe. But I still think at the end of the day the newspapers have an advantage because of their established credibility. They have a brand name. They just have to bring it to the Internet. When I covered Clemson for Anderson I could break a story that would go unnoticed. But when I got to The State all the stories I broke were noticed. There is a credibility that comes with being the largest newspaper in the state. That’s worth something. We have to hang our hats on that, and provide perspective and context.

Q. Do you play fantasy sports?

A. Fantasy football. It’s addictive.

Q. Do fantasy sites provide different information than regular sports media?

A. No, but it’s condensed. They’re getting their information from regular sports media. They’re just putting it all in one place so you can get at it. Maybe newspapers should do that. The newspapers are still generating the information.

Q. Where would the fantasy sites be without newspapers?

A. That’s the funny thing. People say they don’t read newspapers anymore. But we’re still providing the bulk of the news. Radios pick up our stuff. Newspapers are still the lifeblood. They just have to be smarter about how to package themselves. That’s why we’re seeing more and more on newspaper websites. Washingtonpost.com is tremendous.

Q. Career goals?

A. I’d like to keep writing enterprise, and to find good interesting stories. Maybe one day be a columnist, or a takeout writer. This is really enough for now.

(SMG thanks Jon Solomon for his cooperation)

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