Talking about "talk about"

I’ve asked “talk about” questions.

There. I’ve said it.

If you’re a sports reporter reading this, there’s a good chance you have, too. Be honest.

By now, you’ve seen the Chris Sale video:

Look. That’s a bad way to ask a question. But the piling on about it on sports media twitter was just as bad. As my friend Joe Werkmeister pointed out:

There are two truths: A. "Talk about" is not always a bad way to ask a question. It’s not optimal, and yes often it can come off as a command but sometimes it works just fine. I’ve used it on The Other 51. A guest makes an interesting point at the end of an answer, and I want to explore it further, so I will say “can you talk about that?” Yes, that is different because it is actually a question, but the larger point remains.

B. This judging of journalists by other journalists is really bothersome to me. Journalism is hard. Interviewing is hard. It’s even harder to do in the modern sports press conference, which is not at all conducive to good journalistic practices. It’s harder still when every moment of our job is televised or streamed live to an audience that has falling levels of trust in us. At a time when a swath of our population distrusts us at best, ridiculing a fellow journalist because they didn’t ask a question properly feels unseemly.

This is a venial sin sports twitter treats like a mortal one.

Leaving sports journalism's never easy

From my sister’s Twitter feed on Sunday, her last day as a full-time sports reporter for The Buffalo News:

For almost 20 years, I’ve joked that sports writing is our family business. My sister spent nearly two decades at the Buffalo News. I took her job at The Olean Times Herald’s sports department at the start of my own career. I’ve never made it a secret that I became a sports writer because my big sister was one. She did it better than I ever could, served the profession as president of AWSM and, as a woman in this business, was braver than I ever had to be.

But now, for the first time since the 1990s, nobody in our family is a full-time newspaper journalist. We’re still involved in the business — Amy is still The News’ running columnist, I teach and do this work. The family business is no more.

And it’s fine. It’s more than fine. It’s great.

Neither one of us left journalism on bad terms. We were lucky in that we weren’t laid off or forced into a buyout. We left for new opportunities — me to teach, Amy to work for the wonderful Kevin Guest House in Buffalo.

This is an aspect of the business you don’t hear about. We hear about the journalists who get laid off, who have their jobs changed on them, who leave for the greener pastures of TV and The Athletic. But sometimes, people leave because they want to do something new.

Look, being a sports writer is a great job. You get paid to watch sports. But it’s still a job. One that requires lot of night work, a lot of weekend work, a lot of travel. Every sports writer has a list of family functions that they’ve missed due to the job. It’s an unfortunate occupational hazard.

At some point, some of us just want something new and different. It’s not an indictment of the industry so much as our own personal evolution. This is not a new thing. In James McGrath’s book “The Rose Man of Sing Sing,” he details how at the turn of the 20th century, journalism was often a gateway career. It was what young men did before they went into law or politics or other professions.

From me, looking back at my decision to leave journalism nearly 10 years ago:

But more than any of that, more than the economic problems of the industry or the changing culture of newsrooms, it wasn't just that the industry had changed or that the job had changed. I had changed.

Being a sports reporter had been my dream job since I was 18. But dreams change. There's a great line in High Fidelity, where Laura tells Rob "You have to allow things to happen to people, most importantly yourself." Gradually, I realized I didn't want to be a reporter anymore. I didn't want to be a beat writer first and a husband (and father) second. I know a lot of reporters who can do that balance and do so marvelously. But I couldn't — or, more accurately, I didn't want to. I didn't want to spend my nights at stadiums and gyms anymore. That night with my wife's former professor inspired me. I found myself being drawn more to the notion of being a professor than of being a reporter. That excited me far more than writing for a news organization.

I wasn't 18 anymore. It was time to put the dreams of that 18-year-old, and the dreams others had for me, to rest.

I had new dreams to follow.

Sometimes, leaving sports journalism isn’t about what you’re running from.

Sometimes, it’s about what you’re running toward.

Why I Left Newspapers (anniversary edition)

(Editor's note: Today (Aug. 29, 2019) is the ninth anniversary of my final day as a newspaper journalist. I first posted this blog many years ago, while I was still a grad student at Syracuse. Some of the references are dated, and I haven't changed the year count in a few places but it felt right to share it again today.) It was early in baseball season — May 2006, I think. My first year covering the Double-A Binghamton Mets. A little bit before the game started, I got an IM from my girlfriend (now wife) with a video clip of her niece (now my niece) performing in a dance recital. As the grounds crew watered the infield and the crowd started to file into the stadium, I watched my niece dance. And mixed in with pride was a wave of sadness.

Would this be how I connected with my daughter some day? Would I be watching her dance recitals on a laptop in the press box rather than from the front row?


Three years ago today, I walked out of the Press & Sun-Bulletin's newsroom for the last time, ending my career as a sports writer. I still love my farewell blog post, because it so accurately captures my feelings at the time.

Leaving that job was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made.

It's also the third best decision of my life, behind only asking my wife to marry me and our decision to have our daughter.

Funny how the decisions that are so hard at the time turn out to be such no-brainers in hindsight.


It was early in baseball season — now, it's 2007. My fiancee (now wife) and I went to visit one of her former college journalism professors and a classmate. We spent the night at a bar in the middle of Madison County, not far from Turning Stone Casino, sharing stories long into the night over excellent wings and plenty of beer.

Watching the three of them — my fiancee (now wife), her friend and their old professor — I was inspired. The bond that they had, the connection between student and professor, ran so deep, was so real. It reminded me of my connections with my favorite professors. It had nothing to do with how well they were prepared for the job market, or what kind of success they had had. It was a real, personal bond.

Watching the three of them, I realized how much I wanted to teach.


Do you miss it?

I used to get that question a lot. Now, not so much, but in that first year or two, people would ask me if I missed being in the newsroom, missed being on the beat.

There are only two times I've truly missed it. The first was September 2009, when the Binghamton University men's basketball team began to implode in scandal. I've got a thing for covering college sports scandals, and this was a good one. Every day brought a new revelation, a new piece of the story. While that was breaking, I missed it. I missed being in the middle of a story, trying to track down the source you need, trying to confirm the rumor you've read online or heard from somebody on the desk. "The chase" is how Charlie Jaworski, my old editor in Binghamton, referred to it. And dammit, it was intoxicating.

Of course, not being at the paper allowed me to attend a U2 concert and spend a weekend with my wife (now wife) instead of spending all hours on the phone or the computer ...

The other time I've missed it? The first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. God, that's such a fun day to be a college basketball reporter.

Otherwise?

I miss parts of it. I miss writing every day. I miss the moment when you're writing a story and suddenly the whole thing makes sense, everything unfolding in front of you like a chess board. I miss writing on deadline, pounding out a story in 15 minutes, so focused on my keyboard that I never once saw the fireworks that the B-Mets often had after games. I miss the small level of celebrity that being a reporter brought. I miss the camaraderie of the old newsroom.


Let's get real for a second:

One of the reasons I left was that I wasn't good enough to move up the career ladder anymore. Let's be honest. This isn't self-deprecation or a ploy to get compliments. I wasn't good enough for the big leagues of journalism. I didn't have it. I've been told that I didn't have enough asshole in me to be a truly great reporter, and it's true. I hate making people mad. I didn't have the ability to do that job at the highest levels.

That started becoming clear to me around 2008, 2009.

It was around that time that things started to go from kind of bad to really bad in our industry. By that point, moving up in the industry was already difficult. Fewer jobs were available. Bigger papers weren't hiring feature writers anymore. More beats were being consolidated, so there were fewer beat jobs. The ones that were out there got hundreds of applicants.

But things kept getting worse. The layoffs started, followed by the furloughs. Wondering every six months if you were still going to have a job was bad enough. Wondering every six months if you were still going to have a job while trying to figure out how to make ends meet when you lose a week of pay each quarter. Then the job cuts kept coming. The industry still hasn't figured itself out.

More striking — it stopped being fun.

The newsrooms I worked in used to be fantastic, vital places. There was an energy to the room, especially when news was breaking. Being a reporter could be, above all else, fun.

That was long gone by 2009. The layoffs, the furloughs, the space cuts, all of it, sucked the life out of the room, out of the industry.

For this, I blame newspaper owners. By their actions, by their slavish devotion to print profit margins at any cost, by their desire to maximize profit while minimizing the quality of the product, by their inability or unwillingness to embrace digital news, they have sucked so much of the soul out of a business I love.

It's telling that when anyone leaves the business, my first reaction (and that of almost everyone else I know) is "Good move. Smart decision."


But more than any of that, more than the economic problems of the industry or the changing culture of newsrooms, it wasn't just that the industry had changed or that the job had changed. I had changed.

Being a sports reporter had been my dream job since I was 18. But dreams change. There's a great line in High Fidelity, where Laura tells Rob "You have to allow things to happen to people, most importantly yourself." Gradually, I realized I didn't want to be a reporter anymore. I didn't want to be a beat writer first and a husband (and father) second. I know a lot of reporters who can do that balance and do so marvelously. But I couldn't — or, more accurately, I didn't want to. I didn't want to spend my nights at stadiums and gyms anymore. That night with my wife's former professor inspired me. I found myself being drawn more to the notion of being a professor than of being a reporter. That excited me far more than writing for a news organization.

I wasn't 18 anymore. It was time to put the dreams of that 18-year-old, and the dreams others had for me, to rest.

I had new dreams to follow.


Monday nights this semester, I have a late class that runs until 8 p.m. During the class' break the other day, I got a text from my wife. It was a video of our daughter, nearly 2 years old, saying "Hi, Daddy" and then leaning in to give the phone a kiss.

After steadying my knees and stopping myself from bursting into tears in the Newhouse 1 men's room, I flashed back to that video of my now-niece at the dance recital. Here I was, working late, getting videos sent to me of things I was missing. Have things changed at all?

But this feels different. Being in school has given me the chance to be at home with our daughter most days since she was born. (And I can't complain at all, when my wife works nine-hour days supporting our family while I'm in school. She's making the real sacrifice, and I'm in awe of it daily.)

This didn't feel like anything I was missing.

This felt like something waiting for me. Something new. Something good.

It felt like the future.

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How I used Jason Isbell to teach feature writing

My sports writing and reporting students at SUNY Oswego are working on their final projects, in which they are supposed to write a longer-form enterprise story on an event, topic or issue that interests them.

And to teach them a valuable lesson about feature writing, I tuned to Jason Isbell.

The lesson here is not just the vividness of Isbell’s writing, his use of details or the simplicity of his language — although he’s among the best lyricists in music today.

The lesson is what’s not in the song.

There’s no solution.

There’s no answer. Isbell’s narrator in “Last of My Kind” doesn’t try to solve the problem, or make big proclamations about the state of the world, his place in or or about how to fix the world. The song is an observation of the faded pictures in his mind.

This is a valuable tool for young writers. Too often, I’ve read stories where my students feel like they have to take a stand on the issue they are reporting. They feel like they have to take a side. Or they feel like their job is to present a solution to the issue they’re writing about. They feel compelled to offer a solution.

That’s not often true. Just because you are writing a story about an issue doesn’t mean you have to solve it. Those solutions can feel forced and make the writing feel labored. It can also lead to bad reporting habits, where a young writer only looks for evidence that supports their point of view.

Sometimes, the real power in reporting can come from simply observing a situation and writing what you observe in clean, clear, evocative language.