Whitlock reflects on his career: Amid bluster and bravado, some valuable journalism advice

As readers of this blog know, Jason Whitlock and I haven’t been the best of friends.

So I wasn’t expecting much when I saw the latest entry in Still No Cheering in the Press Box, the sportswriter interview project by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism at Maryland. The subject was none other than my old pal Jason.

You could be sure there was plenty of Whitlock’s bravado in there. Such as:

I’m sure I’ve said many things I regret, but what you need to keep in mind about me that’s different than most is that I’m 47, I’m not married and I don’t have kids.

I can be more provocative and fearless than many of my peers, who are married with kids. The repercussions that they suffer affect other people. Here, it’s just me.

That’s a somewhat ridiculous statement, considering there are plenty of provocative and fearless journalists who are married with kids. Whitlock’s hero, Mike Royko, was married and had children.

Whitlock also had an interesting perspective on his initial break-up with ESPN and then his reunion.

I worked at ESPN for six years, left for seven years and during the six or seven years that I left, I was a thorn in ESPN’s side. Not because I disliked ESPN but because ESPN has been the world’s most powerful institution in sports and it needed to be questioned by someone with stature and credibility.

Whitlock later says he left because ESPN wasn’t paying him enough. Regardless, there definitely was considerable bitterness that led to him lashing out at his former company. Now all is hunky dory again.

Yet despite all the bluster, Whitlock actually had some insights and advice on journalism that are worth sharing.

Whitlock felt he benefited by starting small:

After a year of writing various stories, The Charlotte Observer interviewed me and gave me a job covering high school sports for them at one of their bureaus in South Carolina.

That was my first full-time job and I think I got paid $403 a week. I was a growing boy; it was hard to eat on $403 dollars a week.

Starting in smaller markets is the route to go. There are a lot of people that study at journalism school and say “Oh, I think it’ll be cool,” and they get out of school and they find out they have to go to a small market and this is particularly true for African-Americans.

We want to be in a big city where there are a lot of African-Americans and a good social life and we say, “No, I am not going to do that.”

I wanted it so badly that I didn’t care where I had to go to get a job. I wrote nearly every newspaper in the country looking for a job.

You go to a small market like that, and particularly for someone like me who wasn’t very good, it was a great place to learn and hone my craft.

When I did get to a major market, I would be better than someone that came out of college and goes to a major market and has to do all the learning that I did in the minor leagues.

Whitlock talked about developing a niche:

When something happens in the NFL, people think “Oh, let me see what Peter King says.” Everybody has to have something like that, and for me, I knew it was going to be the intersection of sports and culture and sports and race.

When something that goes on in the sports world goes along racial lines, I wanted people to think “Oh, I want to see what Whitlock has to say.”

On stirring the pot:

I think most people are sheep, and again, one of the things that I like to tell young journalists is if you’re going to be a journalist and not just a writer, you have to be comfortable when other people are uncomfortable around you.

Too many people enter this profession hoping that they’ll walk into a press box or walk into a locker room hoping that everyone is happy to see them. I don’t really care. … I want my family to be happy to see me; I want my friends to be happy to see me; I relatively want my coworkers to be happy to see me, but the people that I cover, it’s not that I want them to hate me, but I don’t care what they’re feeling.

On his new website at ESPN:

I’m going to be launching this website that will be directed at African American sports fans, and I think that that will

1: foster an environment where we as African Americans can do some self-analysis, and

2: I think it will help some people in the African-American community understand where I’m coming from.

I feel like sometimes people think “You’re too tough on us; you’re too tough on black people.”

And I think, by doing this website, they’re going to see that it’s tough love, it’s not disrespect. It’s belief and self-confidence in us that we can handle self-examination and some of the things that we are doing in our culture. That’s healthy for us. I think that if things go well, my voice on black cultural issues will get stronger and more respected.

On learning the landscape:

My advice [to young journalists] would be to really understand and study journalism. So many people are focused on how they can capitalize on all of these new opportunities in journalism, but they have virtually no understanding of what journalism is.

And on the power of the written word:

You have to remember that broadcasting is, to me, mostly for entertainment. It’s for marketing your written content; for marking the other stuff that you do.

I’m a journalist at the end of the day, so I believe in the written word, I believe in newspapers and I believe that the most important conversations and analysis happens in writing.

But, I do think that the things you do on TV can elevate your reach as a writer and it’s important.

I think that we’re reading more than ever, we’re just reading it on the Internet and in different forms.

We’re reading with more immediacy than previously intended, and so, while some of it isn’t as thoughtful, we will eventually figure it out: How to be thoughtful on the Internet, the same way we were thoughtful in the newspapers.

I never thought I would say this, but I am going share Whitlock’s story with my sports journalism class at DePaul this fall. There are some good lessons in there.





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