An Interview with Tom Jolly
“We’re constantly evaluating how we do things and why. For instance, not many years ago, half of our reporters were assigned to cover specific teams in the New York area. Now, only a few are assigned to local teams; others are writing about issues like doping, science and business. Even those who are covering local teams are writing more analytically about those teams than about the games they play.”
“We have reporters filing stories in mid-morning when possible. Judy Battista files her NFL Fast Forward analysis for posting on Monday morning when readers are in the office, talking about yesterday’s games. Pete Thamel and other college sports reporters file their college football stories for posting Friday morning when people are starting to talk about Saturday’s games.”
“It’s true that owning a share of the Yankees’ chief rival makes us an easy target for critics. Many of the news organization’s policies are aimed at preventing even the appearance of a conflict of interest and ownership in a share of the Red Sox obviously creates the appearance of conflict. Still, it defies logic to think that we really would have a bias in our coverage.”
Position: Sports editor, The New York Times
Born: 1955, Massena, N.Y.
Education: Ohio Wesleyan University, 1977, B.A. in journalism
Career: Ohio politics, 1977-1979; Delaware (Ohio) Gazette, 1979-1982; Annapolis (Md.) Capital, 1982-1985; Pittsburgh Press, 1985-1992; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1993; New York Times, 1993-present
Personal: Married (Linda) with five children (Sarah, 26; Rachel, 24; Russell, 21; Joelle, 19; Claire, 18.)
Favorite restaurant (home): Blue Point Grill, Princeton. “Great seafood perfectly prepared. And my daughter Rachel worked there last summer.”
Favorite restaurant (away): “The last place I had a great meal.”
Favorite hotel: “Anywhere that’s a vacation spot.”
Tom Jolly’s Facebook status updates:
Jan. 6, 2008:
“Tom is feeling sorry for his many Buckeye friends.”
Jan 3, 2008:
“Tom is wondering if there’s such a thing as too much football.”
Dec. 23, 2008:
“Tom is wondering what it’s like to have Yankee money.”
Nov. 29, 2008:
“Tom is happy he has never been remotely tempted to carry a gun, especially when going out for fun.”
Nov. 25, 2008:
“Tom is annoyed that ESPN isn’t giving the Times credit for a story our reporter broke.”
Nov. 17, 2008:
“Tom is separating Facebook and Twitter to save my sanity.”
Nov. 5, 2008:
“Tom is marveling at the line of people waiting to buy a historic edition of the New York Times.”
Oct. 26, 2008:
“Tom is wondering why new shoes cause blisters. It’s not like I’ve been running around barefoot for the past few weeks.”
Q. Everybody agrees that this is a brave new world for sports media. How is that reflected in the Times sports coverage? How much has it changed in the last five years?
A. Five years ago, I never would have dreamed that I’d be talking now about video and interactive graphics, strategizing about when to release stories on the Web, discussing cooperative agreements with other Web sites and third-party vendors … so much has changed that it’s difficult to remember what the “old world” was like.
Then again, I wouldn’t have dreamed that newspapers would be wrestling with such difficult economic issues either. It’s terribly sad to see so many talented people losing their jobs through no fault of their own.
I’m grateful for the relative stability of the Times and the forward-thinking approach our leaders have encouraged. Helping maintain that stability is a big part of my job, as is being aggressive in our pursuit of online and digital journalism.
Five years ago, reporters would argue against posting articles online before they appeared in print, fearing that the competition would take advantage and match their work. The best sign of progress: Now, reporters get upset if they think their articles aren’t posted quickly enough.
We’ve also altered the news cycle as much as possible, with reporters writing for the Web site first in order to give our online audience fresh material throughout the day. We don’t want our site to sit idle all day, or depend on wire copy that’s available to everyone. Online readers would go elsewhere if we didn’t give them a reason to come to us.
Of course, news and events can’t be rescheduled, but with so many big events happening so late at night, we’ve recognized the value of occasionally allowing our columnists to soak up the atmosphere and writing for the Web the next morning. This often produces better results than writing a pregame column that goes out to the majority of our readers and then rushing madly to recast the piece for the small percentage of the audience that gets the final copies of the paper.
One of our reporters points out that stories and columns that are posted during the day inevitably produce a bigger footprint because they’re fresh to Web readers and they still get the print audience the next day.
To make these changes work, we also had to restructure our newsroom, with more editors working on the dayside to handle the copy that is now being filed early. We’ve added Web producers, too, of course, and created what we’re calling writer-editors who can edit copy from other reporters and write for the Web themselves.
The unexpected dividend of all this is that it has made the print section better too. Instead of planning our story budget based strictly on the amount of space we expect in the paper, we take the opposite approach: The paper consists of the best of what’s on our Web site each day.
We’re doing more than simply transitioning traditional content to the Web, though. Last spring, we created a weekly golf feature called On Par that consisted of written content by Bill Pennington and a video that featured Bill in often humorous situations that resolved themselves with a tip from a pro.
For the Olympics, we mobilized some 200 people in all realms of the news organization to create new digital modules for schedules and results, interactive graphics, video and other features.
During the college football season, we produced a weekly video previewing the weekend’s games.
We regularly create audio slide shows to accompany features and other appropriate stories and some of our action sports videos have turned into youtube hits.
We’re in a multi-platform world and while it can sometimes make your head spin, it’s a lot of fun, too.
Q. Who and what is your competition? Do you have both a national and local strategy? What are you doing that gives you a competitive edge?
A. We look at everyone as our competition. We may not have the staff size to compete on every front, but by marshalling the resources we do have, we expect to be the go-to source of information on all of the big stories of the moment. The same goes for events that attract interest beyond the hardcore sports audience, like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, the World Series, U.S. Open tennis and the Tour de France.
When the Times sports section was expanded in the late 1980s, the goal was to compete with the New York tabs, but as our reach has grown, so has our mission. Practically speaking, we’re producing a news report for three audiences: a New York edition, a national edition and an international Web site. But in some ways, our audience is defined more by its interests than by its location. Many of our readers – online and print – are business leaders (or on that career track), educators and other curious types who are interested in the larger issues of the world. A significant percentage of our Web readers live outside the United States.
Everything that appears print goes on the Web site, as does a lot of additional material that is produced exclusively for the Web. Soon, our site will also include the content of the International Herald Tribune.
In the New York print edition, we focus on the most important local news without getting bogged down in minutiae – the “pulled hamstring stories” — while also keeping readers informed about the most significant and interesting issues around the world.
The national edition is often laid out differently, with a more magazine-like focus. We can’t possibly cover the local news in every area we’re distributed, but the local papers can’t cover the national issues either, and that’s our strength.
We’re constantly evaluating how we do things and why. For instance, not many years ago, half of our reporters were assigned to cover specific teams in the New York area. Now, only a few are assigned to local teams; others are writing about issues like doping, science and business. Even those who are covering local teams are writing more analytically about those teams than about the games they play.
We’re not trying to be everything to everyone. For example, we don’t buy into the idea that we need to publish a Giants or Jets story every day just because some readers would like us to. We’d rather have a reporter produce one smart, insightful piece than three based on little more than locker room chatter.
We understand that readers have choices, and we believe that those who choose to read The New York Times are looking to us for thoughtful, trustworthy journalism. We’re committed to meeting those expectations, in print and on the Web.
Q. What is your protocol for publishing web content vis-à-vis print? Breaking news vis-à-vis features?
A. Clear-cut: We are a Web-first publication. Everything goes on the Web before it goes into print. Breaking news always has the priority, but on quiet days we strategically post enterprise and feature stories on the Web to give our readers something fresh when they come back to our site.
As I said earlier, we have reporters filing stories in mid-morning when possible. Judy Battista files her NFL Fast Forward analysis for posting on Monday morning when readers are in the office, talking about yesterday’s games. Pete Thamel and other college sports reporters file their college football stories for posting Friday morning when people are starting to talk about Saturday’s games.
Throughout the baseball playoffs, we assigned one reporter each day to write an analysis or feature piece that would go up on the Web in the morning and in the paper the following day. That required careful planning and smart reporting so events didn’t outrun the stories, but it worked well and produced heavy traffic on the Web.
Q. How do you generate ideas for enterprise stories?
A. There’s no one answer, but it’s as simple, and as complicated, as observing anything that’s potentially relevant. A few years ago, my wife, an interior designer, mentioned in passing that the price of leather furniture had suddenly skyrocketed. I told the business editor what she had noticed and it turned into a story about how the mad-cow scare had increased the cost of leather.
Two years ago, Alan Schwarz learned that the brain of the former Eagles player Andre Waters had shown advanced signs of deterioration due to football injuries. He wrote a story about it and then one on a related issue, and then another and another. The point is, sticking with a story can pay dividends too.
Along those same lines, Pete Thamel has followed a line of reporting he discovered on academic short-cuts for high school athletes. Again, one story led to another and because Pete stuck with the reporting, he ended up with an award-winning series of stories.
You can’t force it, or it shows. But when you see something that’s out of the ordinary, asking why is the first step toward a good enterprise story.
Q. How do you keep your reporters energized and at the top of their games?
A. Thank you for acknowledging that they all are. First, most of our folks already are highly energized. Second, I think it’s invigorating for them that we encourage them to look for stories that are different and challenging. We don’t want them doing the same thing day after day, which they agree. Third, as our night editor, Carl Nelson, would say: Know your players. Some people are energized by praise, some by being constantly charging forward, some by being given creative space, others by constantly being tested. One size doesn’t fit all.
Q. Who were the influences on your career and how?
A. I’ll resist the temptation to answer in the form of an Oscar-like speech because there have been so many, but I do have to start with my parents. My mother encouraged me to write creatively and my father encouraged me to think critically. Throughout my years in school, I was fortunate to come into contact with a number of teachers, friends and mentors who inspired and challenged me. I’ve worked with so many smart people, from Red Reed, the wise old editor of the 9,000-circulation Delaware Gazette, to Bill Keller at the Times. I’ve been fortunate to meet many other thoughtful people who have been influences in one way or another. I’ve tried to gain something from every experience along the way, both personally and professionally. I love to read, especially great writing.
Influences come from everywhere if you’re open to them. One of my favorite parts of my job is the creative process. Kicking around ideas, thinking of new approaches to everything we do. That means being open to new ideas, from anyone – inside the newsroom and out. We always say there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Some ideas may be off base or not fully formed, but any of them can start a conversation. Many good ideas come from listening, and many more come through collaborating.
Learning is an essential part of journalism, after all, and it’ll be time to quit if I ever feel like I have lost interest in that.
Q. A traditional criticism of the Times is that it lacks humor. John Branch, in reporting on JJ Putz’ arrival as a reliever for the Mets, wrote: “The word “putz” is vulgar Yiddish slang for penis. It is more often used in English as a synonym for fool or idiot.” Is this an example of the Times taking a light subject and making it ponderous? Is the traditional criticism valid?
A. Ah, yes, the Times has long employed an editing team assigned to quash any signs of humor that may inadvertently surface. Seriously, this question reminds me of the comedy club heckler who hollers, “Say something funny.”
Geez, you didn’t see those golf videos, did you?
I thought the Putz story was pretty funny in its premise alone, and we thought it needed an explanation of the Yiddish definition to fully explain that the word is a vulgarity, but, hey, if it came off as ponderous to someone else, that’s the way it goes. (Don’t blame John Branch, though. His name and “ponderous” should never appear in the same sentence!)
Wasn’t it Roger Clemens who pointed out how hard it is to disprove a negative? O.K., maybe he’s not the best point of comparison, but we do have fun and I think most readers see signs of it on a regular basis.
It’s much more likely to surface in the form of something offbeat, like our story on Packer fans’ “cover-10 plan” for games in single-digit temperatures, Harvey Araton writing in the imagined voice of Phil Jackson, a “mad lib” on Brett Favre, and a piece built around a spy store owner’s explanation of what Bill Belichick should have done if he were serious about stealing signals from opposing coaches.
When Tiger Woods’s caddy created a stir with his comments about Phil Mickelson, we ran a list of other caddy controversies that included Danny Noonan and Ty Webb and a picture from “Caddyshack.” With a story on Seattle’s woeful year in sports, Wayne Kamidoi, our art director, put a coffee stain on the display page. Rich Sandomir imagined circumspect Jets coach Eric Mangini as a TV color man:
Chris Berman: Eric Mangini is standing by in San Diego with the Chargers’ injury report. A big welcome to ESPN, Coach. What about LaDainian Tomlinson’s ankle?
Eric Mangini: Boom, it’s between his toes and his shin.
Berman: Understood, but what about the sprain he sustained last week?
Mangini: It’s not my policy to discuss injuries in the media.
Berman: But, coach, you are part of the media. So the ankle — which one is it?
Mangini: The right or the left.
Berman: You don’t know or you won’t tell us?
Mangini: One of those, Chris.
Q. In a tight economy, what will be the most difficult coverage decisions?
A. We always talk about maximizing the value of what we do. Are we giving readers added value by sending our reporters to cover a story, or could we do something else that would be of greater worth? In a tighter economy, we’ll try to make sure that we’re investing in stories of the highest possible value to the greatest number of readers.
For instance, we’d rather use the wires for coverage of routine games and spend our money on enterprise and investigative work or other reports that are distinctive. Obviously, the tighter the economy gets, the more difficult those choices become, but our chief objective is to continue to focus on the high value journalism that readers expect of The New York Times. Readers can get game results anywhere; our aim is to meet the expectation that we will give them something more.
Q. If the NY Times sells its stake in the Boston Red Sox, can the Yankees finally expect fair coverage?
A. Oh, brother. I take back all the nice things I said.
Sigh … from my point of view, one of the best things that could come from the New York Times Company selling its stake in the Boston Red Sox is that I won’t have to answer questions like this any more. The absolute best thing would be if the revenue from the sale helps strengthen our journalism.
In the meantime:
In a perfect world, The New York Times would make millions of dollars without advertising or investments and would be exempt from paying taxes, utility bills and equipment expenses, freeing its journalists from any and all possible conflicts.
It’s not a perfect world.
The New York Times newspaper is owned by the New York Times Company, which pays taxes, buys equipment and owns a number of other newspapers and Web sites, including About.com
. It also owns about a 17 percent share of the Red Sox, an investment that includes the New England Sports Network.
It’s true that owning a share of the Yankees’ chief rival makes us an easy target for critics. Many of the news organization’s policies are aimed at preventing even the appearance of a conflict of interest and ownership in a share of the Red Sox obviously creates the appearance of conflict.
Still, it defies logic to think that we really would have a bias in our coverage. Our Yankees writer, Tyler Kepner, is not only one of the best baseball writers in the country, he’s one of the most scrupulous. Besides, does anyone really think a news organization based in New York could somehow profit by promoting an out-of-town team? Do they think we’re quietly trying to convert Yankees fans into Red Sox fans?
We have written a lot about the Red Sox in recent years, but that’s because many of the best stories in baseball have involved the Yankees and the Red Sox – two of the biggest rivals in sports, two teams with some of the biggest stars in baseball and two of the most successful teams over that time.
Of course, the appearance of conflict isn’t welcome. But the company made its decision to buy into the Red Sox and it’s up to us to stay aware of the perceptions. That’s why we note NYTCO’s share of the team whenever it is pertinent and why we were the first to report that NYTCO executives received World Series rings in 2004.
It has never had any bearing on how we have covered the Yankees and never will, even if the company holds onto its stake.
John Branch, from the New York Times, December 18, 2008:
introduced another face and arm for their bullpen on Thursday by illuminating the giant new scoreboard at Citi Field.
“Mets welcome J. J.,” it read, deftly avoiding the use, or misuse, of the player’s surname.
J. J. Putz grew up in Michigan, and he said that the family pronounced its Hungarian name as “puts.” But the issue that remains for Putz, brought from the Seattle Mariners
to be a setup man and a part-time closer for the Mets in a three-team, 12-player trade, is not how he pronounces it. It is how others pronounce it, and use it in writing.
Talk about a setup man: someone named Putz in one of the most visible, all-or-nothing roles in New York sports. His new opponents may not include just National League sluggers, but the tabloid headline writers and New York fans with a history of unforgiving expectations, and little history of letting something like proper pronunciation get in the way of a good insult or cheap laugh.
Even Putz’s own general manager, Omar Minaya
, mistakenly mispronounced the name in discussing the trade last week in Las Vegas. When Minaya introduced Putz in the Citi Field clubhouse and draped him with a No. 40 jersey (with “Putz” on the back), he referred to Putz only as J. J.
“I’ve been dealing with that for years,” Putz said. “I’m not worried about it, man. It is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. I know how we say it. People can say whatever they want. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
Putz, a 6-foot-5-inch redhead with a rectangular patch of a beard on his chin, made the All-Star team in 2007. He arrived in New York with 101 career saves and a right arm that uncorks powerful fastballs and nasty split-finger pitches.
On Thursday, Putz, 31, expressed excitement about being in New York and mild disappointment in relinquishing his role as a closer to Francisco Rodríguez, signed by the Mets last week.
“I prefer closer,” Putz said. “But I prefer winning over anything.”
The word “putz” is vulgar Yiddish slang for penis. It is more often used in English as a synonym for fool or idiot.
“It seems like when bad words go from Yiddish to English, they lose some of their power,” said Paul Glasser, an associate dean at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan.
The columnists Steve Kelley of The Seattle Times and Art Thiel of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said they never heard Putz’s name used as an insult against him, either at the ball park or by letter writers and talk-radio callers in Seattle. Putz played for the Mariners from 2003 to 2008.
Putz said that he had rarely heard his name used derisively, even in high school in Michigan.
“Dude, I was bigger than everybody in high school,” he said.
But his last name may be no joking manner, particularly in New York. The 2000 United States Census reported that nearly two-thirds of the estimated 178,945 people in this country who speak Yiddish at home live in New York. New Jersey had the third-highest number of Yiddish speakers, after Florida.
The state of Washington had an estimated 423.
Unlike the major papers in Seattle, many of New York’s largest daily newspapers are tabloids, with reputations for biting, attention-grabbing headlines on the front page and the back page, which is reserved for sports. Recent examples include “Stray-Rod,” on reports of infidelity on the part of Alex Rodriguez; “Mangenius,” a mocking reference to Jets Coach Eric Mangini
; and “Marbury One Steph From Gone,” on the Knicks
’ plans to get rid of Stephon Marbury
As for the surname of the Mets’ new reliever, its use as a vulgarity has some history in New York. Ten years ago, Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato
lost a re-election bid to Charles Schumer
a couple of weeks after D’Amato called his opponent a variation of the term. If nothing else, it sparked debate about the meaning of the word and its level of appropriateness in any context.
That debate has risen again in some quarters, and is sure to grow as the baseball season approaches. Copy editors and headline writers at The Daily News, for example, have already discussed it among themselves.
“Putz is a problem,” said the veteran copy editor Bill Sweeney, noting that he was not speaking on behalf of the paper, but merely as a primary headline writer. “We definitely don’t look at it as an opportunity.”
The name, in fact, may be used less in headlines than usual, just to avoid accusations of double-entendre. “It’s almost a nightmare,” Sweeney said. “He’s going to be referred to a lot as J. J., that’s for sure.”
Greg Gallo, The New York Post’s sports editor, declined to comment on the paper’s potential use of the name.
Putz said: “I’m not worried about it. I can handle it.”
(SMG thanks Tom Jolly for his cooperation)