Taking a break: Sherman Report on hiatus

Just wanted to let everyone know that Sherman Report is on hiatus.

My plate suddenly got very full. My duties include teaching at the content lab at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism during the winter quarter. I am very excited about that opportunity.

As a result, I don’t have the time required to maintain the site. I am not shutting down Sherman Report. Just taking a break.

I will continue to do tweets on sports media issues via my Twitter feed: @Sherman_Report.

Also, please look for my columns on sports media for the Chicago Tribune and Poynter.

Many thanks for your support through the years.


New Year’s inspiration: Kenneth Jennings pushes on 27 years after devastating football injury

Kenneth JenningsIn 1989, I did a three-part series on Kenneth Jennings, chronicling his new life after suffering a devastating football injury during a high school game. It truly was one of the highlights of my career. I never saw him down or complain about his situation.

Twenty-seven years later, he has the same approach to life. Here’s a link to my story in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Take a few moments to read the story and please share with others. There is plenty we all can learn from Mr. Jennings.

An excerpt:


Kenneth Jennings doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t celebrate the day he took his final steps and moved his arms for the last time. He even has a term for it.

“I just celebrated my 27th re-birthday,” Jennings said.

On Oct. 8, 1988, Jennings, then a junior at Simeon High School, suffered a broken neck during the opening kickoff of a game against Corliss. The catastrophic collision left him a quadriplegic. He faced a future unable to move anything from the neck down. And it wasn’t supposed to be a long future. At the time, doctors only gave him 10 years to live.

Jennings, though, never views that day as the worst in his life. Quite the contrary.

“People say, ‘How can you celebrate a tragedy?’” Jennings said. “I say, I was reborn on that day. Everything I had was taken away from me. I was like a newborn. I had to relearn everything. How to talk; how to breathe on my own; a new way of life. Every year that I’m still here, (his ‘re-birthday’) is a way of thinking that God gave my life back to me. How do you not celebrate a gift?”

In more conventional birthday terms, Jennings now is 45. It has been nearly three decades since I wrote a three-part series about him for the Tribune in June, 1989 chronicling his transition to a new life with his work at the Rehabilitation Center of Chicago.

Initially, I thought it was going to be the most depressing assignment I ever covered. The kid just had his life shattered. Instead, Jennings’ unfailing upbeat approach produced the most moving and inspirational stories of my career.

As so often happens, after the initial burst of publicity, a person fades from view, never to be heard from again. People, though, should hear the rest of Jennings’ story.

Jennings now dedicates a good portion of his life to giving back. He returned to his old school this fall as an assistant football coach at Simeon. With the help of caregivers, he lives alone in a house on Chicago’s South Side. But Jennings often has company, allowing troubled inner-city students to crash in his extra bedroom if they have nowhere else to go.

Jennings also has a foundation, Gridiron Alliance, whose mission is to ensure high school athletes have insurance to cover the huge expense of catastrophic injuries. Jennings was instrumental in getting Illinois to pass legislation providing the coverage in 2013. In April, he received the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award.

“Life is not about us,” Jennings said. “We all need to get help. God has brought many people in my life. I’ve had so many people help me. Why wouldn’t I do it for others?”

Favorite posts from 2015: One journalist’s journey from ESPN to shining shoes

Jeff BradleyAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


For the bulk of his professional life, Jeff Bradley has spent his summers at a Major League ballpark. He had high-profile beats covering baseball for ESPN The Magazine and the Newark Star-Ledger.

But last summer was different. Struggling to make ends meet ever since being let go by the Star-Ledger in January of 2013, Bradley worked as a clubhouse attendant at a country club near his home in New Jersey. He shined shoes, vacuumed the carpet and kept the bathrooms clean.

Bradley likely is the only clubhouse attendant who also has written about Derek Jeter for national publications. A few times, Bradley was mistaken for being a member. On other occasions, he ran into people who knew him as “the sportswriter,” prompting the inevitable questions of what happened?

“Sure, it was embarrassing sometimes,” Bradley said. “But most people, if they have heart, say, ‘I respect what you’re doing. You’re doing what you’ve got to do [for your family].”

Bradley decided to write about his situation on his website last week. In a phone interview, he said he didn’t rehash the frustrations and hardships he has endured so “people could feel sorry for me.”

“I just felt like this is what has come to for a lot of people who used to work as journalists,” said Bradley, whose resume also includes stints at Sports Illustrated and the New York Daily News.

Indeed, the comments to Bradley’s post depict a depressing snapshot of an industry where long-time sportswriters find themselves in no-man’s land. Several veterans commiserated with Bradley by sharing similar experiences after being jettisoned from their jobs.

Rachel Shuster, formerly of USA Today, writes: “I drive for Uber, where if I happen to mention, no, this is not my life’s dream.”

Diane Pucin, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, writes: “This is pretty much my story…Even been rejected for a grocery store checked out job.”

David Andriesen, once the national baseball writer for the now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer, decided to become a kindergarten teacher. He writes: “I remember telling my wife, ‘I can’t switch careers now. If I went back to get a Masters to teach, I wouldn’t even start until I was 43.’ She said, ‘You have 20 more years to work, and you’re going to be 43 whether you’re a teacher or not.’”

Wendell Barnhouse, formerly of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, recently lost his job with as a correspondent for the Big 12 website. He writes: “I doubt seriously I’ll find anything involving sports.”

Filip Bondy, who recently was laid off from the New York Daily News, writes: “Seems as if, in our business, 50 is the new 66.”

Bradley wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “I know there are a lot of us out there,” he said.

At age 51, Bradley said it has been more than a year since he had a meaningful job interview. He continues to contribute to SI.com and the New York Times, among other outlets. However, life as a free lancer is hardly lucrative these days.

He writes in his post: “The reality, however, is that I’d have to write 300 stories per year for those two outlets to make half of what I used to make at ESPN The Magazine. It’s impossible to write 300 stories per year. If you crushed it, you could write 150, which would mean I’d make a quarter of what I used to make. I have not crushed it. So, maybe that explains why I became the locker room guy.”

In our phone interview, Bradley, like most journalists in his situation, has heard the “exposure” angle one too many times.

“You hear, ‘I can’t pay you, but it’s great exposure. You’ll get a lot of page views,’” Bradley said. “It’s insulting. I’d rather clean toilets and golf shoes and get paid than write for free.”

Bradley said working as a clubhouse attendant became a necessary alternative this summer. His wife is a special education teacher [“She’s the rock star,” he said], and they have a college freshman and a high school senior.

“Every month, there are bills to be paid,” said Bradley, who earned $15 per hour plus tips at the club. “I’m not bringing in enough freelancing. As stupid as it sounds, I knew I was getting a check every week.”

The club, though, is closed for the season. Bradley continues to look for work and writes when he can.

He believes he has the talent to make a contribution somewhere. The comments section to Bradley’s post included a note of support from John Papanek, his former editor at ESPN The Magazine.

Papanek writes: “Please do me a favor. Next time you find yourself with a foot inside the door of someone who needs a proven professional, versatile and excellent communicator, tell them to call me.”

Bradley, though, isn’t holding out hope that his phone will ring for a full-time position any time soon. Regarding the journalist business, he says, “I believe there are assignments out there [for free lancers willing to work for low fees], I just don’t believe there are any jobs out there.”

As for his future, Bradley has a firm grip on reality. He is willing to return to the country club next spring, adding, “if they’ll have me back.”



Favorite posts from 2015: What NHL announcer Mike Emrick can teach you about language and journalism

mike-emrick-h1000-headshot_standardAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


I approached Mike Emrick with a request prior to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at the United Center in Chicago Monday.

I told him that I thought aspiring journalists and broadcasters–and established ones for that matter–can learn quite a bit if they pay close attention to his calls of hockey games for NBC and NBCSN. I asked him to share some of his lessons and insights about the art of mastering the English language.

“Well, I’d certainly like to try,” said Emrick, who is his working his 14th Stanley Cup Final with the Chicago-Tampa Bay series.

Emrick has more than a passing interest in teaching.  He got his nickname, “Doc,” for receiving his Ph.D in communications from Bowling Green in 1976. His dissertation was on the history of broadcasting in baseball.

For a while, it appeared as if he would be better known as Professor Emrick. The son of two parents who were teachers, he taught some college classes in speech. The education route was looming as a viable Plan B with each rejection letter he got in his bid to become a hockey announcer.

“I still have the binder,” Emrick said. “There’s some famous names on that stationery. They said, ‘We don’t have any place for you right now.’”

Eventually, Emrick landed a minor league play-by-play job in Port Huron, Mich. in 1973, setting him on the path for a NHL Hall of Fame broadcast career. Now 68, he has reached such iconic status that he is referred to as “the Vin Scully of hockey.” Or as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says, “Vin Scully is the Mike Emrick of baseball.”

Like Scully, Emrick is a master storyteller and is exceptionally skilled in using vivid descriptions. The Big Lead’s Stephen Douglas once documented how Emrick used 153 different verbs to describe puck movement in a game.

No less than Frank Deford, hardly a slouch himself as a writer, lauded Emrick in a NPR commentary.Deford said, “The eloquence he brings to such a bombastic activity is the sort of giant contradiction that even overwhelms irony.”

At the top of our interview, I told Emrick I felt that the premium on writing has diminished in the 140-character new media age. He shares the same concerns.

“Words are the hammers and nails to build a sentence,” Emrick said. “You probably talk to young people about the value of putting together a good sentence, even a spoken one. This will sound like an old guy talking, but it is sort of a lost art.”

Emrick then told a story he heard while sitting next to a job recruiter on a plane.

“He said he talked to a young lady from Haddonfield, N.J. who ‘blew me away,’” Emrick said. “He said, ‘I asked myself why? She put together a good sentence; she made eye contact; and she had a good hand shake. I’m thinking why is that unusual?’ But he added, ‘Today, that’s unusual.’”

Emrick obviously has some natural talent, but he also needed to build a foundation. Looking back, he said it came from reading at a young age.

The short version is that Emrick recommends reading as the best method to improve writing and verbal skills. Naturally, though, he puts it in a much more colorful way.

“Reading is the No. 1 thing that builds vocabulary,” Emrick said. “Read the fun stuff, but also read something with more than a couple syllables. It’s fine to enjoy a milk shake, but also eat a good salad now and then. The milk shake may be fun, but you also need to do something that’s good for yourself.”

Emrick also talked about the importance of learning from role models in the business. In his case, it started by listening to Bob Chase, a minor league hockey announcer in Ft. Wayne who still is calling games at the age of 89. Richard Deitsch of SI.com did a story on Chase this week.

“He is so good at formulating sentences,” Emrick said. “Hearing the King’s English come out over the radio at a young age was very helpful to me.”

Later, Emrick had the good fortune of spending time with Ernie Harwell, the long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers, while researching his Ph.D dissertation. He saw how legendary announcers like Harwell and Scully use stories to connect with their audience. Emrick is big on stories, as he always tries to incorporate a few in his calls.

“I usually have five minutes of material that I have to whack down to 20 seconds,” Emrick said. “But I think the stories are the most lasting. When I listen to someone speak, usually once a week on Sunday, it is the stories that I remember. The stories are far greater than statistics. Stats are here today, gone tomorrow. I remember stories from 20-25 years ago.”

I asked Emrick how he came up with the approach to use so many different verbs to describe puck movement? The list includes pitch forked, shuffleboards, and ladled. I mean, who uses “ladled” in a hockey call?

Again, it came from another influence from his youth, Lyle Stieg, a hockey announcer in Dayton.

“He said you have to come up with different words because there are things in this game that are repetitive,” Emrick said. “He said, ‘If you say it the same way all the time, you’ll drive people nuts.’ I realized I had to expand my hockey vocabulary.”

Clearly, Emrick enjoyed sharing his lessons. However, time finally ran out on our class. He had a little thing like getting ready to call a Stanley Cup Final game.

Emrick, though, wanted to share one last pearl. In a speech he once gave to college students, he offered his advice on how to go into a job interview. Among the key points: Coming in clean-shaven; making eye contact; and ditching the cell phone.

Given his background, it hardly is a surprise that Emick’s list included using sound, well-constructed sentences.

“If you use the word ‘like’ in every other paragraph, strike it,” Emrick said. “It will convey an inability to communicate effectively.”

Emrick then added one bonus tip. “Before you go into the interview, say a prayer,” he said.



Favorite posts from 2015: Outside the Lines celebrates 25 years of hard-hitting journalism

Bob Ley and OTLAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


Bob Ley boils down the essence of “Outside The Lines.”

“Let’s go commit some journalism,” Ley said.

There isn’t another show on sports television — and few others in television, period — that can match ESPN’s crown jewel when it comes to committing quality journalism on a regular basis. “Outside the Lines,” also known as OTL, will celebrate its 25th anniversary Tuesday with a one-hour special on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET.

Ley, who was the anchor for the first OTL on May 7, 1990, admits the landmark anniversary caught him by surprise.

“A bunch of us were sitting around and we went, ‘Holy crap, we’ve been doing this for 25 years,’” Ley said. “They cleared out an hour in primetime for us to do a show. The task has been uplifting and unfortunate because it’s been impossible to decide what to put in.”

OTL initially was conceived by former ESPN executive John Walsh as a periodic special to allow the network to take what Ley calls “a deep dive” into subjects that go beyond the playing field. The first show examined the obstacles athletes face in adjusting to life after retirement.

In 2000, OTL became a regular staple on Sunday mornings and now also airs Monday through Friday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Quite simply, it is consistently the best program on ESPN. There are numerous days when other outlets are required to react to a story “first reported by ‘Outside The Lines.’”

In lauding OTL’s anniversary, ESPN president John Skipper called Ley, “The Walter Cronkite of sports journalism.” Ley found that platitude to be “extremely humbling.”

However, a more apt comparison for Ley and OTL might be to the vintage heyday of Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline.” On most days, the show gives an intense examination to one or two subjects.

Many of those shows have dealt with issues that detail the profound impact of sports on our culture: Sexual abuse, PEDs, racial issues, to name a few. For instance, Sunday’s show featured an excellent follow-up report from John Barr on the plight of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired after OTL did a show in 2013 revealing videos that exposed his questionable coaching practices.

“It’s not highlights and it’s not sexy sometimes,” said OTL producer David Brofsky. “Plenty of our topics are ones you won’t see other shows ever touching. We’re going to do those stories because they are important, and we’re going to do them well.”

In addition to its own staff, OTL works with ESPN’s enterprise unit. Ley points to a recent picture of himself with Barr, Tom Farrey and Mark Fainaru-Wada, three of the best reporters in the business, as an example of ESPN’s depth of talent.

However, there is a considerable investment to maintain a staff of that quality. Fox Sports 1 recently made cutbacks in its news division.

Ley says the journalism commitment should be an essential part of ESPN’s overall mission.

“Sports are such a big part of our culture,” Ley said. “There are going to be times when stories arise and people will tune to ESPN [for coverage]. When we cover these stories, you want to have that credibility and track record.”

Ley says OTL has caused “church-and-state” issues with sensitive stories on ESPN’s network partners with pro and college leagues. Brofsky maintains network executives never have told OTL to stay away from covering a story, and that includes the NFL concussion issue.

Ley admits the fallout from ESPN pulling out of the “League of Denial” concussion documentary with PBS had an impact on OTL because of the perception issues.

“It was not a pleasant situation,” Ley said. “I think if all parties had to revisit that situation, we might have had a different outcome.”

OTL, though, never backed off its coverage of concussions, breaking several stories. “Has anyone been more aggressive on concussions than ‘Outside The Lines’?” Ley said.

Ley remains the show’s constant presence through the years. Brofsky marvels at his commitment.

“What makes Bob so good is that he cares so much about what we do,” Brofsky said. “I’ll get an email from Bob at 1 in the morning and then another one at 6 [a.m.]. His preparation is amazing.”

The good news for OTL is that Ley, 60, recently signed a new multi-year contract with ESPN. That means he should be around for the show’s 30th anniversary in 2020. However, he wouldn’t commit to being on hand for the 50th anniversary.

“I just hope I’m on the right side of the grass,” he said.

The enthusiasm remains strong for Ley. He says breaking stories on OTL “never gets old.”

“We’re proud of what we’ve created,” Ley said. “The tough part is to maintain that quality. Nobody sets the bar higher than we do for ourselves.”


Here’s more reading on OTL:

The complete rundown for what will be featured on Tuesday’s show via my site at Sherman Report.

Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News does a Q/A with Ley.

Richard Deitsch of SI.com has interviews and continues to his campaign to get ESPN to give OTL better placement.


Favorite posts from 2015: Former White House communications director on similarities, differences of covering sports and politics

P092206ED-1215.jpgAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


Kevin Sullivan’s vast career in public relations has taken him from the NBA to NBC to the White House. Sports always have been a focal point, even for the most important job interview of his life.

In 2006, Sullivan was recommended to serve as the communications director for George Bush. However, he still had to pass the test in meeting the president.

Sullivan knew Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, was a big sports fan. So he was ready when the president asked, “Where are you from?”

“Chicago, sir. White Sox, not Cubs,” said Sullivan, a native of Chicago’s South Side.

Sullivan obviously had the credentials, but the sports connection helped seal the deal. He then had a front row seat in the White House through the end of Bush’s second term.

Sullivan writes about that experience and more in a new e-book, “Breaking Through: Communications Lessons from the Locker Room, Boardroom and White House.” After leaving Washington, he opened his own strategic communications firm, advising a mix of corporations, sports teams and leagues. He also continues to work for the former president, serving as a communication consultant for the Bush Presidential Center.

Sullivan’s book offers his perspective and advice to PR professionals on how to survive in the new media landscape. He has seen it all in a career in which he served in PR roles with the Dallas Mavericks, NBC Sports, NBC Universal along with working in the White House. Naturally, the sports angle pops up frequently throughout the book.

“In Washington, a lot of conversations start by talking about your favorite team,” Sullivan said.

In an interview, Sullivan notes the PR similarities between the sports and political worlds.

“Sports is a tremendous training ground to work in any field,” Sullivan said. “In sports, it is about information and access, just like in the White House. There’s the pressure to break stories.

“In sports, passions run high. It’s the best part of working in sports. The same is true about Washington…[Reporters who cover sports and politics] both understand they are covering something that is important to people.”

Tiger Woods probably would be surprised to learn that there was a “Tiger Woods Rule” during Sullivan’s tenure in the White House. It stemmed from Sullivan’s days at NBC Sports when the network was writing a boilerplate release for an upcoming golf tournament. Dick Ebersol, then NBC Sports’ chairman, noted that Woods was playing after a long layoff.

“He said, ‘Let’s get [the part about Woods] at the top,” Sullivan said. “He wanted us to play up that he was coming back from injury and that we would have his return on our network. I never had looked at it that way. Tell the story. Paint a picture. Get to the good stuff right away.”

Hence, the “Tiger Woods Rule,” which went from NBC Sports to the White House.

“In Washington, if you’re explaining, you’re losing,” Sullivan said. “That’s why you’ve got to keep it simple.”

Naturally, Sullivan said there are some fundamental differences in the coverage of sports and Washington. He contends sports entities are poor at setting the record straight.

Recently, Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban went on the offensive about what he considered an inaccurate ESPN report about a potential free agent. Sullivan believes Cuban’s reaction was a rarity in sports.

“The one thing sports can learn from is the notion of rapid response,” Sullivan said. “You rarely see someone in sports say, ‘That’s just wrong’ like Cuban did. It happens every day in Washington. If a reporter gets it wrong, or the story is misleading, you should correct it.”

Another difference involves what Sullivan terms “the transaction” between the subject and reporter. In Washington, the terms of an interview are often discussed, and it involves some give-and-take.

Sullivan recalled an instance when Bush was giving exit interviews during the end of his term. Bush wanted to talk his Faith-Based initiative.

“We told him that there would be questions about the economy and other issues,” Sullivan said. “But we said if he was able to address two or three questions about [the Faith-Based initiative], that would be a good bargain for us. He understood it. In sports, I’m not sure that happens as much [with coaches and top executives].”

Sullivan maintains there is one common thread between sports, Washington, and every other entity: Building relationships between PR representatives and reporters. Reporters always have had a high regard for Sullivan dating back to his Mavericks days. Besides an easy-going demeanor, Sullivan conveys a feeling of trust; the sense that he is looking out for everyone’s best interests.

“It really all gets back to relationship building,” Sullivan said. “It’s important to build relationships when you’re not selling a story. When I’m working with clients, I have a checklist. One of the questions is, ‘Who do you have relationships with [in the media]?’ If you don’t have those relationships, you better start building on that.”


Favorite posts from 2015: The slow death of boxscores in newspapers

Baseball box scoreAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


Forget “Dick and Jane.” I learned to read by studying the baseball box scores in the newspaper. Many of you probably did the same if sports dominated your early years.

Once you deciphered the code, the box score provided almost everything you needed to know about a game. It told you that Mickey Mantle went 1 for 3 with a run scored as the result of his 36th homer of the season. Or that Sandy Koufax recorded 13 strikeouts in shutting out the Giants.

The box score has been a staple of newspapers since the 1800s. Yet like everything else in the ever changing world of media, its future is precarious in print editions, as sports editors wrestle with diminishing space and resources. They also wonder if running the box scores is essential given their instant availability on a multitude of websites.

The Charlotte Observer, along with sister papers the Raleigh News & Observer and the Rock Hill Herald, took the step and eliminated the baseball scores from their print editions this year. Mike Persinger, the sports editor of the Charlotte Observer, said it was a move that had been discussed for the last 6 or 7 years.

“We always came away thinking, ‘It’s too soon,’” Persinger said.

However, budget cutbacks forced the papers to reconsider the decision this year. Persinger said the baseball box score page (which the three papers share) took a staffer four hours (a half-shift) to produce. The sports editors felt those resources could be used elsewhere.

“It was not an easy decision, but in some ways it was,” Persinger said. “Why were we running something that is widely available elsewhere? For most of our younger readers, if they care about the Red Sox, or want the latest on their fantasy team, they are going to get those statistics and box scores elsewhere and get them faster than they would in the newspaper.”

As you would expect, the majority of complaints came from older readers. Persinger said he personally responded to more than 700 calls and emails from readers who objected to the decision.

“I understand where they are coming from,” Persinger said. “I broke a habit that in some cases goes back 50 to 60 years. A habit of waking up in the morning and looking at the box scores in the paper.”

Speaking personally, I broke my newspaper box score habit several years ago with the dawn of the digital age. I get the White Sox box scores sent directly to my phone immediately after games. Given the season they have had, it is remarkable my phone still is in one piece.

I also have a professional reason why I advocate getting rid of the baseball box score in newspapers. As a contributor on sports media for the Chicago Tribune, it is frustrating to hear that a column has to hold in the print edition because of a lack of space.

Last week, I made the argument to Joe Knowles, the Trib’s associate managing editor for sports,   the paper’s readers would be better served with a full page of interesting stories from staffers, including my columns, rather than a full page of baseball box scores, many of which are meaningless games in September.

In an email, Knowles acknowledged that the “clock is ticking on (baseball) box scores.” Interestingly, the Tribune already has eliminated running NBA and NHL box scores, a decision that Knowles said generated only a handful of complaints. He still plans to run NFL summaries in print because of fantasy football players. However, he notes, “I doubt many of those people rely on the printed newspaper for that data.”

Knowles writes of baseball box scores:

“Agate in general feels a bit like an anachronism in the newspaper and we have been scaling it back gradually for a while now. Right now, with the Cubs being relevant again, I don’t think we’d pull the plug on baseball agate for 2016, but conditions – foreseen and unforeseen — may dictate that we consider it.”

Circumstances already prevailed for the papers in North Carolina. Persinger said some of the disgruntled readers are appeased when he informs them that the box scores can be found in the Observer’s digital edition.

However, Persinger knows for some readers, the online version isn’t an option.

“For whatever reason, there are some people who won’t use a computer,” Persinger said. “Those are the people I feel the worst about. But I can’t help them. It’s just the way our industry is changing.”


Favorite posts from 2015: The lost art of using the phone

phoneAs we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.


At the dawn of 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution. I vowed to try to rely less on email and actually use the good old-fashioned phone to reach out to public relations people on my various beats. Even if I didn’t have anything on the agenda, I planned to dial someone’s number just to see what was going on.

You know, how’s the family? What’s the latest at your place?

Of course, New Year’s resolutions never stick. So along with my vow to read more and eat less, I haven’t come close to calling PR folks as much as I had hoped.

I make that admission to show that I am just as guilty as anyone in being part of a horrible trend in media: Journalists and PR people have forgotten how to use the phone.

I’m not saying nobody uses the phone. However, I am fairly confident about this thought: Perhaps not since Alexander Graham Bell unveiled his new invention has the phone been used less in media interactions at many levels.

“If [using the phone] has become a lost art, that’s a damn shame,” said Vince Wladika, the former PR head for Fox Sports who now does consulting for companies like Comcast and Tribune Media.

Indeed, it’s all about sending emails, texting, and communicating through social media these days. If you are a reporter, think about how many calls you receive from PR representatives making a story pitch. I’m fairly sure the answer is, not many.

To be fair, many PR representatives will counter that the majority of reporters would prefer to be contacted by email with a story pitch. There’s an implied, “Don’t bother me with a phone call.”

Kevin Sullivan, who served as communications director under George Bush, recalled being with a reporter at an event when her phone rang.

“She said, ‘I don’t answer the phone unless someone has an appointment to call me,’” said Sullivan, whose consulting firm Kevin Sullivan Communications includes many sports clients.

Sullivan’s point: “We rely on emailing and texting at our own peril.”

The negative ramifications are felt many ways. With only email communication, stories don’t get flushed out properly. Basically, the chain of emails revolves around setting up an interview with the subject and then perhaps some follow-up exchanges between the reporter and PR person, usually in 75 words or less.

“If you’re doing it by email, you don’t hear the tonality, the innuendo in someone’s voice,” Wladika said. “There’s no real exchange of ideas.”

There’s more. Back in the old days, like the 90s and early 2000s, I had regular conversations with PR people. How else were we going to communicate?

However, I can’t tell you how many times those calls led to a story, often a really good story, when I wasn’t necessarily looking for one. It usually was the result of hearing something that had me going, “I didn’t know that.”

That doesn’t happen with email.

“It just can’t be as meaningful when there’s no conversation,” Sullivan said.

Malcolm Moran, the director of the sports journalism program at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, believes there’s something even bigger at stake with the heavy reliance on emails.

“The technology has overtaken relationship building and maintenance,” Moran said.

Indeed, relationships seem to be the biggest casualty of the email/text age. They can’t be the same when reporters and PR people aren’t having phone conversations, much less face-to-face contact [another infrequent exercise].

Wladika wondered if enough emphasis is being put on relationship building at the college level.

“Are people being taught to cultivate their contacts?” Wladika said.

Moran can’t speak for other schools, but he emphasizes it to his students.

“I tell them, ‘If you’re not making an effort to get to know [a PR person], why would they have reason to share anything with you?’” Moran said.

It goes beyond just working a story. Sullivan notes his life would have been completely different without those relationships. His career also includes being the PR man for the Dallas Mavericks and heading PR for NBC Sports.

“Everything good that happened to me professionally was the result of a relationship,” Sullivan said. “How do people do it today using emails and texts? How do you get those kinds of deep relationships?”

Sullivan, though, says it isn’t just the younger crowd when it comes to not using the phone. It is everyone.

“We’ve become so comfortable with digital, we’ve gotten out of practice [with the phone],” Sullivan said.

The irony, Wladika notes, is that in the age of cell phones, people are more accessible than they’ve ever been. Reporters and PR people should be talking on the phone more, not less.

“Theoretically, you can reach people anywhere at any time,” Wladika said. “Yet we don’t take advantage of it.”

There’s still 2-plus months left in 2015, but it’s not too early fire up a New Year’s resolution for 2016. Everyone in the business should reintroduce themselves to the good old-fashioned phone. And then resolve to use it.



Sports Media Friday: Is ESPN winning or losing? PR post cites ratings wins in primetime; Bloomberg story paints different picture

Koufax SISpanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports media:

There have many stories of late about ESPN losing subscribers. So the PR machine tried to reverse the spin and tell the other side of the story. It did a post on its Front Row blog noting sports’ dominance in ratings during prime time.

ESPN’s Dave Nagle writes:

ESPN’s marquee programming – including the NFL, highlighted by cable’s first playoff game; college football, including last January’s debut of the College Football playoff; the NBA, notably the NBA Finals on ABC which has won the night among all viewers 48 consecutive games; Major League Baseball; college basketball; and the ESPYS – drove viewership to new heights in the 52 weeks ending Monday, Dec. 14.

Demonstrating the “DVR-proof” nature of major live events – as well as the enduring appeal of sports as entertainment options multiply, sports won the night a total of 152 times – 42 percent of the time. And in 2015 – so far – 19 of the top 25 programs on cable in household viewership were sports events – 17 of them on ESPN.

Bulgrin added, “These data continue to prove that live sports have become a priority in the hierarchy of viewing choices – especially during prime time.”

Yet here comes a Bloomberg story citing ESPN’s ratings decline.

ESPN’s ratings are another sign of the changes rattling the TV industry. Live editions of “SportsCenter” are down 10 percent this year in total viewers, according to ESPN, while the Sunday pregame show “NFL Countdown” is down 13 percent. Overall, viewership has fallen 10 percent in 2015, though network executives say that’s really 4 percent excluding World Cup and NASCAR events that didn’t air this year.

Very cool photo gallery from Sports Illustrated showing the covers for every Sportsperson of the Year winner.

Rick Morrissey of the Sun-Times didn’t like Serena Williams’ cover photo in Sports Illustrated.

Congratulations to the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy for winning the Hall of Fame’s Spink Award.

Richard Deitsch says the Golden State Warriors need more national TV exposure.

Deitsch also talks to radio producers about their jobs.

NBC will be using various research methods to track how people consume the Olympics in Rio.

John Ourand of SBJ has his sports media predictions for 2016. He thinks CBS will keep Thursday Night Football.

David Feherty was candid about his personal issues in a Rolling Stone interview.

Dan Levy writes a touching piece on the incredible thing Marvel did for his son.

There was an auction in Chicago featuring the memorabilia of legendary Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse.

The “amazing story” of the stat man for Brent Musburger and Al Michaels.