An Interview with Tom Keegan
“Oftentimes the talented writers get so many compliments they start to think they’re more interesting than they really are. They start to write about themselves instead of the people the readers really want to read about. Like a great actor who starts overacting…”
“Really good radio people make it sound easy but it isn’t easy if you don’t have the innate rhythm that enables you to keep talking at the same upbeat pace never searching for a word. “
“In this market you’ve got to read Facebook.com and MySpace.com – you read what the college athletes post to see if they’re giving hints – and you read high school athletes to get an indication where they’re going.”
Tom Keegan: Interviewed on November 17, 2006
Position: Sports Editor, Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World
Born: 1959, Rochester, NY
Education: Marquette 1981, journalism
Career: Orange County Register 1984-89, The National 90-91, The Daily Southtown 91-94, Baltimore Sun 94, NY Post 95-2002, ESPN Radio NYC 2002-05, Lawrence Journal World 2005-
Personal: Married, four children
Favorite restaurant (home): Tellers, Lawrence, “best salad I’ve ever eaten – not that I’ve eaten many – get the front window table to watch people walking by”
Favorite restaurant (away): Capital Grille, Providence, “great beef but best strawberry cheesecake ever”
Favorite hotel: Marriott “anywhere – for the points”
Author of: “Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms” an autobiography of Elden Auker, 2001; “My 60 Years in Baseball”, a biography of Ernie Harwell, 2002; “The First Baseman”, 2006.
Tom Keegan excerpted from the Lawrence Journal World, October 28, 2006:
The better the challenge, the more pure the course, the worse cross country is as a spectator sport.
Rim Rock Farm, with its hills and trees and twists and turns, is precisely what a cross country course should be. Normally, the best way to view a race there would be from a helicopter with a telescope. Or from a treetop. As it is, only those in as good a shape as the competitors (read: nobody) can see much of the race.
Friday morning’s event wasn’t normal. It was memorable. Bearded Kansas University junior Colby Wissel made it so.
On a cold and wet morning in which KU’s two-time-defending champion Benson Chesang finished 12th, Wissel kept the Big 12 individual title at KU with a kick to the finish line that called to mind old cap-wearing Olympic middle-distance runner Dave Wottle.
A junior from tiny Elm Creek, Neb., Wissel knows Rim Rock like a KU football crowd knows late-game disappointment. Wissel runs the course often, and not only in practice. He runs it in his leisure time, too, with his dog, Molly, an Irish setter, at his side.
A runner always tries to look ahead, tries to resist the temptation to turn and look over his shoulder at what might be gaining on him. Afterward, Wissel thought he had done a good job of that. In reality, he turned over his left shoulder five times after passing second-place finisher Joe Thorne from the University of Texas and over his right shoulder once while pumping his fist in the air.
As he approached the finish line, Wissel raised both arms in the air as the crowd cheered wildly for him.
He ran a smart race, a gutsy one, a clutch one.
Q. That’s the best cross country story I’ve read this season – the only one – to be honest. How did you do it?
A. I was totally inspired by Colby, the guy who ran the race – watching his kick. It brought me back as kid running – 140 pounds ago – and watching Dave Wottle on TV. I got goose bumps watching him – just to see a competitor doing it that great. He wasn’t expected to win, but he refused to lose. It was 9 in the morning and cold. It was just him – he was the inspiration.
Q. Good writing can come from a good event, but can it come from a bad event?
A. It can if you keep challenging yourself to report the heck out of it until you find something. Whenever people are involved there’s the chance of a good story, if you make it about the people.
Q. Can you write a bad story out of a good event?
A. Yeah – if you get in the way and try to make it about yourself. Oftentimes the talented writers get so many compliments they start to think they’re more interesting than they really are. They start to write about themselves instead of the people the readers really want to read about. Like a great actor who starts overacting – he’s getting his ass kissed so much nobody ever tells him he’s overacting. I saw Al Pacino on “Inside the Actors’ Studio” recently – he’s an example of that.
Q. You’re saying Al Pacino overacts – are you sure you want to go out on a limb?
A. Yep. If he had anybody in his life to edit his behavior he wouldn’t have that poufy hairdo that looks ridiculous.
Q. And some sportswriters fall into Pacino’s trap?
A. Some would have been well known if they hadn’t fallen into that habit – they would have gotten better. You didn’t see Mike Royko using “I” a lot and he was great.
Q. “Albert Belle glared exclusively at the Post yesterday.” Did you write that lead?
A. Yes. I’ll take responsibility.
Q. “Albert Belle glared exclusively at the Post yesterday.” Excuse me for repeating – it’s just so perfect. What’s the story behind the lead?
A. It was hard doing the reporting on that – because it was terrifying. Half a dozen guys were standing in the middle of the Indians clubhouse and the only player there was Albert. Nobody was going up to him because they figured he wouldn’t talk. I gave it a shot – I went up to him and introduced myself and told him what I wanted to talk about. He didn’t change expression – he scowled at me the whole time – his glare was glued on me – but he didn’t say a word. I’m surprised I still don’t have nightmares from that.
At first I thought, “Am I being too much of a clown writing this?” And then I thought, “What the heck – people will get a kick out of it.”
Marty Noble (mlb.com) put it in a pre-season baseball magazine as the “lead of the year”. That’s why a lot of people saw it.
When I applied for the Lawrence job it was on the top of my pile of clips. I figured why not let them know the real person they’re interviewing.
By the way, Bob Verdi (Chicago Tribune) had the best line about Albert Belle: “Playing cards three feet from me in the White Sox clubhouse, Albert Belle could not be reached for comment.”
Q. Other memorable leads?
A. Jimmy Roberts once told me he loved my lead after the Mets played a terrible game: “If Bobby Valentine had known he would one day manage a team that butchered the game this badly he never would have invented the game in the first place.”
Q. Is it safe to say you value humor in writing?
A. My all-time favorite column was Gene Collier’s annual ‘trite trophy’ column – he’s now a Metro columnist (Pittsburgh Post Gazette). He would pick out a new cliché that came into vogue and do an experiment to demonstrate how ridiculous that cliché is – like “when these teams meet you can throw out the record books”. He went to some college and got a record book and threw it out the window – and detailed it – a couple pages came loose.
I conducted my own experiment. One year the hot cliché was “thinking outside the box”. I sat inside a box and tried to think about Billie Jean King – but the more I tried the more I kept thinking about Anna Kournikova. So then I sat outside the box and the same thing happened. So thinking outside the box didn’t help. I did it as a radio commentary but I wrote it up and submitted it to Gene and he ran it.
Q. Do you have any writing do’s and don’ts?
A. Yes. I’ve prepared a guide for part-timers on my staff. For instance, the first number in a game story has to be the final score, and it has to be in the first three grafs. Don’t use quotes unless they add to the story. The first time you write something go back and reduce it by 10 percent. Then go back and reduce that by 10 percent – writers are wordy when they’re starting out.
Q. Who do you like to read?
A. The two guys in Boston are great – Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy (Boston Globe). Jason Whitlock and Joe Posnanski (KC Star) are a good tandem – their opposite styles compliment each other – they’re both compelling reads. Bob Nightengale (USA Today) is good – he’s such a manic reporter. John McGrath (Tacoma News Tribune) is good – I worked with him at The National – he would torture himself all day just procrastinating.
Another guy is Mike Lupica (NY Daily News) – he’s a controversial figure and a lot of people are jealous of him. But in New York people are so hooked on wanting to see his take when something big happens. They’re also hooked on (WFAN radio) Mike and Mad Dog’s take – I was as well – they’re smart takes. Francesa gives the insight and Russo gives the emotion – Lupica does both. He wrote one of the best things I ever read – every young guy getting into the business ought to read it in “Best American Sportswriting of the Century” – called “My Brother’s Keeper” – about Billy Conigliaro taking care of his brother Tony.
The person in the business I’m most grateful to is Steve Bisheff
(Orange County Register). He critiqued all the work of the part-timers and posted the critiques on the wall. It was a great motivator. Reading his copy also was a big help.
Q. You spent three years in radio – did that affect your writing?
A. It actually helped when I got back to writing a column. You’ve got to get to the point right away and not dance around – you just hammer it hard and keep hammering it home. Really good radio people make it sound easy but it isn’t easy if you don’t have the innate rhythm that enables you to keep talking at the same upbeat pace never searching for a word. A good radio person can do that. I don’t have that rhythm. My opinions were insightful and hard-hitting and honest. But someone with that presence and rhythm could say less interesting things and still be a more compelling listen only because people are less distracted. They could be listening to me and tune me out when I searched for a word.
Q. Who has good delivery?
A. Michael Savage – the right wing guy – has great presence. Brandon Tierney (WEPN) in New York has real presence on the air. Chris Russo – the Mad Dog.
Q. How would you describe the general tenor of sports talk radio?
A. Sometimes you have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If you get too insightful you’re going to lose a lot of the audience that doesn’t want to think. People are doing 8 million things while listening. The good hosts – like Mike Francesa – can be insightful and still capture an audience. It’s a different medium and you’ve got to get the ratings – so your tenor better not be low-key. Radio probably attracts guys who are a little on the loud side.
Q. Why are print guys usually dismissive of talk radio?
A. One reason is the radio guys sometimes will read their stuff and use some of it to enhance their own knowledge and yet never say, “I read this from so-and-so and he had a good point”. They only talk about writers when they blast them. When I did radio I didn’t do that – I credited the writers.
Q. Would talk radio hosts benefit by having to do print work?
A. They definitely would be less likely to criticize writers. I don’t know – it might make them think too much instead of just being emotional.
Q. What went into your decision to jump to radio?
A. A couple things. Wally Matthews had left the Post for radio and I expressed an interest in replacing him as the general columnist – instead of being baseball columnist. I was told I wouldn’t be considered for that. So I looked for something else and found the radio gig. It had earning potential and I had two kids in college. The ceiling was really high – if it had been a hit I could have made a lot of money. It was definitely a gamble that didn’t work. But I’m happy where I ended up.
Q. How did you get to Lawrence?
A. After I lost the radio job and got replaced by Stephen A. Smith I had a book deal – “First Baseman” – so I was able to sit back and not just desperately leap. I had lunch with Matt McHale, the assistant SE at the LA Daily News, and he said he knew a job I would be perfect for. He knew I loved college basketball and liked working with young writers. The job was described as an old-fashioned SE who would be writing instead of office planning.
Q. How much do you write for the Journal World?
A. This week in seven days I will write seven columns and a feature. It’s a lot of writing but unlike anywhere else I worked it’s an eight-minute commute – so I have four extra hours a day. Nobody is holding a gun to my head telling me to write that much.
Our circulation is about 20,000, and our staff has seven full-timers and five part-timers. The space is great. For every KU football and basketball game we have two inside pages plus a cover. Our average section is anywhere from eight to 12 pages. We do a lot of special sections – which is unheard of for papers with our circulation.
Q. Is your paper profitable?
A. It’s profitable. Not a big profit, because the owner, Dolph C. Simons Jr., puts the money right back in. His grandfather bought the paper for 50 bucks – he also has the cable (Sunflower Broadband Channel 6) in town. We work with the TV people – convergence is a big word at the Journal. Our TV show, “The Drive”, got picked up by Fox College Sports Central.
Q. What’s the difference between writing in Lawrence and writing in New York?
A. You localize it more here in terms of high schools and KU. In New York it’s more about what they say and here it’s more about what they do. In New York there’s always some big flap going on and you get into a competitive mode where you want to see if you can get the sexiest quote. They’re more into controversy. There’s plenty of controversy here, too – it’s just that people are so into the team. Some things you do the same. Whatever the hot story is you just write it. You write what people are talking about.
Q. Is the atmosphere less cynical?
A. I would have thought that. Readers maybe take the perspective of the athletes more in a college town than in New York but I remember in New York with the baseball teams they can get pretty nasty if you criticize their favorite player. I remember one guy dressed up in Mets gear trying to look like Mike Piazza – sitting four rows behind the dugout. He yells my name out before a game – “Keegan, your writing” – and he is holding his thumbs up and when I look at him he slowly turns them downward and he screams, “You suck you suck”.
Q. That doesn’t happen in Lawrence?
A. No. But the anonymous e-mails are super nasty. If someone signs them I respond. If they don’t I return it and say you have to sign it if you want a response.
Q. Have you riled up your readers?
A. I wrote a column in the dead of summer on KU basketball explaining how it’s possible – a longshot – for the following reasons the way the schedule plays out – that KU could become the first undefeated national champion since 1976. The reaction was really nasty – how could I put that kind of pressure on them, blah blah. My prediction was looking good after one game, but now they’re 1-1 after a loss at home to Oral Roberts. I expected the link to be sent to me – and I didn’t have to wait too long.
Q. Do you cover the pro sports in Kansas City?
A. Not much. Probably six or eight baseball games – two or three were Jim Leyland columns – I had a relationship with him. I got to know him his first year with the Pirates as a visiting writer – I always found his office to be one of the most honest and interesting. It still feels like a manager’s office and not too many of them do anymore – a lot of managers don’t let you in their office – they do it on the field.
Q. Your take on access issues?
A. It really bothers me. They’re all trying to herd you – you all get the same stuff – it’s really hard to be at your best when you don’t have the access.
Q. Is that true in college sports?
A. It’s more the case than I would have guessed. For football the lockerroom is closed – they’ll bring you certain players you request after games – but not all the ones you request. You get access on one day, Tuesday, and often the players you want aren’t around. In basketball the lockerrooms are closed and you sometimes can get them five minutes before practice once a week – or they’ll bring three players to an interview room – that’s frustrating. But our beat writer has great access to (KU basketball coach) Bill Self.
Q. Do you pay attention to bloggers?
A. You do. Beat writers read the message boards – it makes their job so hard – there are good rumors and bad rumors and you have to check out everything. It’s also hard because anonymous posters are just destroying them – nobody posts and says so-and-so is a good writer – anonymity empowers cowards. It hurts to read that stuff.
When I was reading them I was getting destroyed so I stopped reading them. I get enough e-mails – I don’t need to read the message boards.
In this market you’ve got to read Facebook.com and MySpace.com – you read what the college athletes post to see if they’re giving hints – and you read high school athletes to get an indication where they’re going.
You get tips – like Terrell Arthur on MySpace was pictured with Sherron Collins – which was an indication that KU might not be out of Collins’ picture. He ended up going to KU – he was ready to hold a press conference to announce he was going to Baylor then he cancelled it – he said he had a dream during the night that he was playing with KU. Made me wonder if there was a bidding war and he was dreaming about all the cash.
Q. Your take on rivals.com and scout.com – are they doing journalism?
A. They’ve got a wide range. Tim Fitzgerald, at gopowercat.com, used to be at our paper – he’s a journalist – he does his site like a journalist.
Other ones you hear stories about the guy being so tight with the coaching staff that they tell him when they want him to call a recruit. Or if something is leaked the coaches don’t like they’ll contact the operator of the website and find out who posted it – it can get that sleazy. Let’s say a player leaked something – or a friend of a player leaked something – and the coaches want to know. It’s espionage.
They end up getting stories but they’re not playing by the same rules. Some are good journalists who took their skills to the web, but others aren’t. Then you end up looking bad. It’s a hard job being a beat writer.
It’s such a hard job now. I wonder if kids who get into it now will turn 30 and decide, “this isn’t for me”. Somebody once told me – and it’s kind of true – that 30 is the age when a lot of people leave journalism.
Q. Has the definition of news changed?
A. Sports have gotten so insanely popular – it’s news if the minute hand changes. Supposedly before I got to the Journal World – there was a headline: “KU’s Williams Has a Head Cold”. It shows how big KU is here. I guess it’s news if people read it.
(SMG thanks Tom Keegan for his cooperation)