An Interview with King Kaufman
“My demo is genius-level lit majors who chuckle to themselves at even
the most subtle jokes and allusions I throw in, happy in the knowledge that they’re among the few who would get them all, and also pleased at how good-looking they are. Seriously, I don’t know. They seem to be really smart, mostly pretty well educated, a mix of ages that skew older than the Web in general I’m guessing but still plenty of collegiate types. Overwhelmingly American and male. Probably pretty white.”
King Kaufman: Interviewed on July 23, 2008
Position: Sports columnist, Salon.com
Born: 1963, Los Angeles
Education: UC-Berkeley, ’86 BA History, ’89 MJ Journalism
Career: Netguide Live, Montclarion, Berkeley Voice, 1986-89; San Francisco Examiner, 89-1996; Salon, 1997 –
Personal: Married, two kids, 5 and almost 3.
Favorite restaurant (home): Home Plate, Cow Hollow. “Breakfast – I rarely go out to breakfast, rarely go to Cow Hollow, so it’s really a treat when I find myself there.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Janko’s Little Zagreb, Bloomington, Ind., “Steak.”
Favorite hotel: “I don’t travel enough to have a favorite.”
King Kaufman, excerpted from Salon.com, March 8, 2007:
I’d been writing about sports on and off over my first five years at Salon, and the Sports Daily wouldn’t debut for 15 more months.
But when I reviewed ESPN’s first original movie, “A Season on the Brink,” on March 8, 2002, it was my first piece after the boss had said, “How about just writing sports?”
That is: Quit writing about other stuff.
My last non-sports piece had been a feature about a Web site that presented furniture porn.
Like, photos of chairs and tables appearing to get it on. I can’t imagine what David Talbot might have been thinking when he took me off that beat, but when the boss says write sports, you write sports.
I’ve been thinking lately, because of the time of year, that two of the ideas prominent in my columns five years ago have become a lot more mainstream. One is that college basketball teams from so-called mid-major conferences are able to play on the same level as the big-conference powers.
The tide was just starting to turn five years ago, thanks to Gonzaga, but it was still routine for good teams from smaller conferences, teams like Southern Illinois, to get seeded around 12th in the NCAA Tournament while lesser teams from the big conferences were pulling down 4- and 5-seeds. That doesn’t happen anymore, and Cinderella runs by the likes of Vermont, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and George Mason have taught the most casual of bracket fillers that winners can come from anywhere in March.
The other idea is sabermetrics, the rise of which in baseball has been well documented. I was late to this party, just coming to embrace some of the ideas spelled out by Bill James
in the ’80s when I began this column. But even I was ahead of the curve by a bit. Five years ago, it was unusual to see on-base percentage on a TV graphic. Not anymore. Good.
The world hasn’t caught up to my brilliant ideas to remove timeouts from basketball and place-kicking from football, but I’m willing to give you people five more years.
Or until the boss says, “How about just working maintenance?”
Q. How would you describe what you do for Salon? Is it a blog? A
column? How often do you post? And how has it evolved since you
A. Yes, it’s a blog or a column. The first post after it changed over to
a blog format, which was recently, was about whether it’s a blog or a
column. My conclusion: Call it whatever you want.
I’m not fond of the word blog. It’s not descriptive enough. A blog
can be a 9-year-old’s occasional thoughts about Miley Cyrus or it can
be the best reporter in the world’s essential-reading “Reporter’s
Notebook”-style column. So I still like the word column because that
word carries some meaning. It says, or at least implies, that some
thought, preparation and professionalism went into the writing of it,
that there are certain standards at work, that someone hired you to
do it, so it’s not just something you do on your own. At least one
other person in the world thinks it’s worthwhile. Also, I’m just sick
of the word “blog.” But seriously, anyone calling it a blog gets no
argument from me.
I generally post two to three items a day. I now have the freedom to
post whenever I want to, and so there’s a temptation to just spew. I
try to fight that, to make each item, even if it’s very short, a well-
crafted piece. In that way — being able to post throughout the day,
and having the freedom to write something even if I only have 100
words to say about it, without having to wait until I have a column
that needs or can use an extra 100-word item — it’s different than
it used to be, when I posted once a day, like a newspaper column.
But I think the writing and the voice and the themes are pretty similar.
It’s still me. The method of delivery has changed a little is all.
I think you can see from the syntactical sloppiness of these written
responses that some effort goes into what I publish! A good deal of
what I do is going back and taking out commas and dashes.
Q. How would you describe a typical King Kaufman reader? What’s your demo?
A. My demo is genius-level lit majors who chuckle to themselves at even
the most subtle jokes and allusions I throw in, happy in the knowledge that they’re among the few who would get them all, and also pleased at how good-looking they are.
Seriously, I don’t know. They seem to be really smart, mostly pretty
well educated, a mix of ages that skew older than the Web in general
I’m guessing but still plenty of collegiate types. Overwhelmingly
American and male. Probably pretty white.
Q. Why aren’t there more King Kaufman videos? How would you
characterize your video persona?
A. Well, I just got started, and the producer I was working with, John
Henion of DoublePlay TV, who’s great, left that company, and the
whole thing kind of got put on hold. I’d like to get back into it and
do more. I’m just starting to learn how to do it.
I don’t know what my persona is. That’s one of the things I’m trying to learn about, but I suspect it’ll end up being a lot like my print – if I may use
that word – how about “writing” persona – only on video.
Q. Are you naturally a wise guy or is that just your writing shtick?
A. Probably some of both. I’m a wittier writer than I am in person but I
have my moments in person, especially if I’m among people I know
pretty well. I guess I’m kind of sarcastic and a smartass, though
I’ve gotten better at keeping that in check as I’ve gotten older. I
learned that the world doesn’t necessarily need to hear my every
sarcastic remark and caustic opinion. But if I’m getting paid for it…
Q. Is King your real name? Is Kaufman?
A. If you say King or Kaufman, I turn around.
Q. Other ‘Kings’ you admire?
A. King Kelly? Martin Luther King Jr.? Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman?
Never really thought much about it. King Cobra?
Q. You wrote this about Barry Bonds, “If you can put up a .400 on-base percentage with power, some team’s going to sign you unless you’re actually standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in your hand. And even then, four or five teams will ask if it’s your gun. One or
two will ask if anybody else knows about the body.” What went wrong?
A. We shall see, we shall see, he wrote on July 23. Still a ways to go.
Nobody’s gotten desperate enough yet. I’m still betting someone will.
But if nobody signs him I’d say what went wrong is that I
Under-estimated clubs’ desire to steer clear of public relations and/or clubhouse chemistry problems even at the expense of missing out on
likely improving their team on the field. I might have made the same decision myself, by the way. Not to want him around, that is. I’ll just be surprised if there isn’t some team willing to take a flyer.
Q. After Ahmed Almaktoum won the gold in the men’s double trap,
becoming the first person from the United Arab Emirates ever to win a
medal, you wrote: “I did a double-take when I saw him celebrating
his victory — a Middle Eastern man in a head scarf and an ammo vest
jubilantly holding a shotgun over his head. Whoa! Did I switch to a
news channel?” Which was more amusing, Ahmed or the double trap event?
A. What I wrote was, I hope, amusing. I don’t think Ahmed or the event
were particularly amusing. I like to think I added value there.
Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports?
A. Is it flies that fly in random patterns in search of food? That’s
kind of like me surfing the Web. I don’t really have a system — I
will go here first, then here, then there, same as yesterday. I
don’t really have a go-to site or writer or newspaper or whatever
that I rely on. I cast around. Through the process of that, I kind of
absorb the news.
I have my favorite places. The Baseball Primer newsblog is great for baseball news and commentary, and I wish there was something exactly like it for every sport. Google News is good. Rotoworld is very good. It’s interested in the fantasy angle, but it ends up giving you the news, player by player. On TV there’s the ubiquitous ESPN, though I actually watch very
little ESPN for news. “Outside the Lines” is good, though I don’t catch it very often. I like “Pardon the Interruption,” but again, don’t see it much. I mostly use TV to actually watch events.I have my favorite writers too, but nobody who I must read every day or every time they write.
Q. After Rush Limbaugh’s comment that “football is a lot like life”,
you wrote: “Football is nothing like life. It’s organized and neat
and rational. Everyone is either with you or against you, and the
boundaries are straight lines that are clearly marked. The only sport
that’s like life is bullfighting. And only for the bull.” Is it part
of your job description for Salon.com to put right-wing bloviators in
their place? How do you deal with left-wing bloviators?
A. I think my job is to write interesting things about sports.
Bloviators are often kind of interesting, whether they’re coming from
the right or left. There really aren’t too many of either in the
Limbaugh was interesting to me as a sports character less because of his politics than because of the role he played. He represented the catering of the sports networks to non- or casual fans, at the expense of their core audience, who they pretty much can’t alienate, because hardcore sports fans will put up with anything to watch the game. So ESPN brings in this guy, who has no particular insights or knowledge about football, because he’s famous and has a following and will cause controversy, all of which was
meant to bring in viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily watch football, or football pregame shows.
So, he came in and did his thing. The fact that his thing is right-
wing bloviating was secondary to me. If he were a jazz critic who
came in and tried to shoehorn his jazz agenda into the football
analysis the way Limbaugh shoehorned his right-wing agenda in, it
would have amounted to more or less the same thing. He just would
have referred to people as “cats” more often.
Or, as you suggest, if it were Ralph Nader or Noam Chomsky coming in
and spouting uninformed views about football from a lefty perspective
much more in tune with my own, it still would have sucked and I’d
have said so.
Q. What is it about the Bay Area that gives us great stories like
A. Nothing. Balco could have happened, has happened, and no doubt is
happening as we speak, anywhere. Haven’t they busted labs and
distributors in Florida and New York? I’m not sure there’s anything
about Balco that couldn’t have happened somewhere else. Maybe it’s
been easier just south of San Francisco, in the high-tech age, to
open a business that nobody knows what the heck you’re doing in there
without anybody really feeling the need to check up on it, because
there are all kinds of business that, even after it’s explained to you what they do, you have no idea what they do. But I don’t know. That’s probably true a lot of places. I don’t go to a lot of industrial parks.
I think I’m going to say there’s nothing really about the Bay Area
that produces better stories than anywhere else with a population as
large and diverse, and there are such places, and also nothing about
Balco that could only have happened here.
King Kaufman, posted on Salon.com, March 28, 2006:
Two sports-fan subcultures collided last week, and it wasn’t pretty, though it all ended up well enough.
ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd used some material off a Michigan football fan blog, presenting joke questions from a Wonderlic test on his show Wednesday without attribution, as though it were original material. When e-mails started flooding in objecting to the theft, Cowherd fired off a series of rude, taunting responses calling those with complaints whiners.
Almost certainly at the urging of his bosses at ESPN, Cowherd offered a sincere-sounding apology on the air Monday, five days after the incident.
Oddly, this case of radio plagiarism happened the same week conservative Washington Post blogger Ben Domenech’s print and online plagiarism
created a firestorm in political and media circles. Yet beyond the blogs, the Cowherd affair created nary a ripple.
about the incident headlined “What about radio journalism?” was posted on Jim Romenesko’s blog at Poynter.org and gained no traction with the media pros who haunt that site.
The creators of the M Zone,
the aggrieved football site, had declared themselves
“pissed” last week at Cowherd’s not giving them credit for their work, which was a satire on news reports about Texas quarterback Vince Young having done poorly on a Wonderlic test at the NFL Scouting combine.
The M Zone authors accepted Cowherd’s apology
Monday, writing, “It’s over.”
“We felt powerless,” wrote Yost, one of the M Zone’s founders, in an e-mail to me. “An almost-6-month-old blog against ‘the Worldwide Leader in Sports.’ But we were mad.”
So Yost and his M Zone partner, Benny, who both wish to remain anonymous because they don’t want co-workers to wonder if they spend more time on their blog than they do on their real jobs, asked readers to write to Cowherd and, at the suggestion of a reader, to ESPN ombudsman George Solomon.
A procedural note: I’ve made some minor trims to Yost’s e-mail comments.
“We had no idea the response would be so overwhelmingly positive and the sheer numbers would be so staggering,” Yost writes. “It really seemed to have struck a nerve, not only among the online sports community, but bloggers in general.”
Cowherd fueled the outrage when, according to the M Zone and not disputed by ESPN, he responded to e-mails about the theft with replies such as, “WE WERE SENT IT … WE HAD NO IDEA … BUT THE INCESSANT WHINING … MEANS I WON’T GIVE YOU CREDIT NOW … GET OVER IT
“Those e-mails were inappropriate,” ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said Friday, “and we’ve spoken to Colin about them and he admitted he overreacted.” Krulewitz said Cowherd would not be available for an interview, and a call to Cowherd’s producer went unreturned.
Cowherd made an oblique reference to those e-mails in his on-air apology, saying, “I got upset. I took it very personally, because again I take great pride in being unique.”
Cowherd accepted blame for not checking on the origins of the fake Wonderlic test he says a listener sent in without attribution. “I just didn’t do a good enough job checking a hysterical e-mail,” he said, then heaped praise on the M Zone, saying, “It’s very funny. They’re still absolutely killing me, and that’s funny. My bosses made me look at that this morning. They said, ‘You’ve got to see what these guys are doing to you. It’s really good.’ And it is.”
I’ve worked online since the days when seeing a URL on a billboard was a noteworthy event — run, kids, Grandpa’s telling war stories again! — and I’m still interested in the ways the Web interacts and clashes with other media and other cultures.
“Benny, who works in finance, and I were talking and he brought up an interesting point,” Yosts writes. “Benny said, ‘I don’t think the two audiences [sports radio and sports blogs] overlap. With so many choices, sports fans are finding their niche as to where to get their sports info. If they get it online, there is no need to tune into MSM [mainstream media] for the same info — info they don’t control or have feedback on.'”
Case in point: Yost says that the M Zone got a bigger boost in hits Thursday, when sports blogs such as Deadspin
took up its cause, than it got Monday, when a nationally syndicated radio host spent four and a half minutes talking about how funny the M Zone is.
On the other hand — and cautioning that both he and Benny are fairly new amateur bloggers, not experts — Yost writes that he thinks sports blogs and the mainstream media are “merging in a way” as the mainstream becomes more personality-driven.
“With ‘Best Damn Sports Show’ and ‘SportsCenter’ being sold as entertainment instead of journalism, the guy at his computer and the six-figure ESPN anchor are the same guy,” he writes.
And one more point by Benny, as told to Yost: “There is resentment among some sports bloggers of this whole sportstainment culture in the MSM. Many of those fans wants scores and highlights and not schtick.”
I’ve written a lot
about TV networks forsaking hardcore sports fans, who the networks know will watch games and sports news shows no matter what nonsense they have to fight through, to focus instead on attracting more non-sports fans.
But I hadn’t thought about the parallel dynamic Benny brings up. The mainstream sports media, I think, is also becoming more gimmicky, more schtickified, if you will, as it tries to react to and keep up with the looser, more iconoclastic culture of the sports blogs.
It’s impossible not to overgeneralize when talking about “the media,” but I think there’s something to this. The mainstream media, afraid of looking like stick-in-the-muds in comparison with the no-holds-barred world of the blogs, rolls out more and more “edgy” stuff, as they say in TV. More Budweiser Hot Seats and newspaper columnists yelling at each other and in-depth reports about the five most-played songs on Reggie Bush’s iPod.
And the iconoclastic, new-media-savvy, blog-reading hardcore sports fan looks up from his laptop just long enough to say, “Did I miss the Pistons-Sixers highlights?”
Or, as in the Cowherd case, the mainstream media ignores the fusty old staid rules of ethics because, hey, dude, information wants to be free, right? Or the ostensible excuse: “Hey, someone sent us an e-mail. What are we supposed to do, check everything?”
And all the “amateurs” in blogland, the ones who have supposedly turned their back on the MSM and its creaky ways, rise up as one to harrumph, “It’s customary and proper to give credit where credit is due, sir.”
And that’s funnier than a fake Wonderlic test.
(SMG thanks King Kaufman for his cooperation)