Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. LX
Starting on a new sports beat isn't merely challenging—it's daunting and terrifying and damn near impossible. So here's some advice for rookies stepping into the cage.
In all my years as a journalist, I’ve only been a true daily beat writer one time.
It happened in the lord’s year of 1996, when—after bouncing from food writer to fashion writer to music writer to cops reporter—The (Nashville) Tennessean wisely moved me to the sports department.
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Where I was handed (wait for it) the high school wrestling beat.
Yes, 27 years ago a major metropolitan broadsheet had enough staff and enough dough that one spindly boy (me) was plucked to focus, oh, 90 percent of his energies on Middle Tennessean’s prep grappling circuit.
I only covered wrestling for one season, and what I remember is A) I knew nothing about the sport. B) I really knew nothing about the sport. C) I asked an endless buffet of base-level wrestling questions. D) I focused more on personalities and rivalries than suplexes and biellmann spins. E) I legitimately loved it.
I loved the intensity. I loved the speed. I loved how eager the wrestlers were to be covered and profiled. I loved that, in Overton High’s Charles McTorry, I had a legitimate superstar to focus upon, and that his rivalry with Father' Ryan’s Kevin Baltz felt—to me—very much like Ali-Frazier or Navratilova-Evert …
Alas, that was many moons ago.
As the years have passed, I’ve drifted away from those glorious younger days. I wrote long features for Sports Illustrated, wrote columns for ESPN, wrote books. But the genesis of beat writing hasn’t completely left me. Deep down, I still itch to get a story first; to secure some one-on-one time with the star cornerback, with the returning-from-injury pitcher, with Charles McTorry and Kevin Baltz.
Which is why I’m into this week’s subject: The beat writer.
Or, really, the new beat writer.
As we speak, a young scribe I know is in the opening weeks of starting a new beat, and his highs and lows, ups and downs, zigs and zags remind me that taking on a beat is extraordinarily hard and trying. It’s not just the unfamiliar turf. No, it’s the unfamiliar turf while competing against other writers who are profoundly familiar with the turf. It’s not just having to write daily. No, it’s having to write daily while regularly having to do so on the fly. It’s not just typing out 800 words. No, it’s typing out 800 words while also Tweeting, IGing, TikToking. It’s not just dealing with athletes who care not for your existence. No, it’s dealing with PR people/SIDs who lead you astray, social media agitators who think you’re a buffoon, editors who tear your words to pieces.
In other words: Breaking into a new beat is really fucking hard.
“It’s overwhelming,” says Jen McCaffrey, who covers the Red Sox for The Athletic. “You feel you need to prove or show everything all at once, but it’s not doable or sustainable.”
So what’s the best way to start a new beat?
To quote the immortal Chuck D: “Yo Flav, read on …”
“Introduce yourself,” says Gary Phillips.
And the rookie New York Daily News’ Yankee beat writer knows whereof he speaks. When we are thrust into new environments, humans tend to retreat to a corner, where they can observe from afar and find comfort. It is, as a new beat writer, an awful approach. As Phillips says, the first thing one should do on the job is meet people. The media relations people, of course. But also the players, the coaches, the trainers, the cheerleaders, the massage therapists, the clubhouse security guards. “Spend the first few days on the beat introducing yourself to [the people] you’re going to be talking to so that they know who you are,” Phillips added. “‘Hi, I’m Gary Phillips, and I’m the new beat writer for the Daily News. I’m looking forward to getting to know you this season.’” Not everyone will remember the interaction, but some will appreciate it.”
Adds Christopher Price, Boston Globe Pats beat writer: “Find out the security guard’s favorite sort of Dunkin’ coffee, and pick one up for them one morning. Stop and talk to the woman at the entry booth to the media parking lot. Complement the grounds crew or someone from the ticket office or the pro shop. Some of my favorite stories from covering the Patriots have come from people in those roles.”
In other words, your outreach matters. And if you, as a new beat writer, show the initiative to approach strangers, extend a hand and ID yourself, it sets a tone that will last. Be confident (even if you’re not). Be complimentary (“Man, I’m excited to be covering you” and “That block against Watt last week was incredible”). Be enthusiastic, even if you’re terrified. Smile, even if you feel inclined to ralph. Don’t make it about you—because, truth be told, 99 of 100 athletes won’t give two shits about your personal life (there’s a great story about Buster Olney covering the Yankees for the New York Times, showing up one day with a thumb splint and having but a single Bronx Bomber so much as notice). Be proactive, dammit.
Let’s take a step back.
Before you follow Phillips’ advice and introduce yourself, make sure you know your shit. In fact, this may well be the most important sliver a wisdom a new beat writer will ever, ever, ever, ever receive: Know your shit. What this means—specifically—is separating yourself from the other bobos by possessing as much off-the-bat information as humanly possible. “Study [players’] bios in the media guide,” says Price. Say, for example, you’re the new University of New Hampshire men’s basketball beat writer. The first thing you should do upon accepting the job is go to the team’s website—and live there. Jot down notes on every player. Not about stats, but about their humanity. Know the athletes’ faces so well that—upon initial introduction—you can say, “Hey, Barry” before a staffer says, “This is Barry.”
Also, dig. Dwell. Jot. Peruse. Absorb. Forward Promise Opurum’s favorite musician is Rod Wave. It says so right there on the website. So when you have your first day with the Wildcats, make sure Opurum knows you listen to Rod Wave (and, if you don’t, make sure you take five minutes and do so).
“Hey, Promise, I’m Jeff Pearlman from the Union Leader. Just wanted to introduce myself.”
“I saw you’re a big Rod Wave fan.”
“‘Call Your Friends’ is a great song.”
“Make them laugh,” says Mike Payton, Detroit Lions beat writer for AtoZ Sports. “Talk about a Tweet you saw them put up the other day or a song they put in their Instagram story. They’re just normal people that have likes and interests like you do.”
Also, give yourself a deep lesson in team history. “With few exceptions, when you start on a beat that beat will have existed long before you got there—could be a dozen years, could be generations, could be, in the case of some baseball beats, more than a century,” says Derrick Goold, Cardinals writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Even a first-year beat, like expansion team STL City SC in St. Louis, arrives on the shoulders of soccer’s history in the city that stretches back more than 50 years. Use that to your an advantage. Benefit from all of that coverage and information that came before you got there. Plunge into the past on your beat. You don’t have to do it all at once, but early in your time on the beat learn about the history of the beat.”
Derrick is right. The New Hampshire Wildcats, for example, have never qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Know that. They’ve never produced an NBA player. Know that. They’ve had guys wind up in all corners of Europe and Africa. Know that. You don’t have to have figures memorized, but grasp the basics. Make yourself wise enough that you can enter the office of Nathan Davis, the new head coach, and sound like an aspiring guru. Make him think, “This is a dude worth talking to.”
“Do as much research as you can so you don't reveal your inexperience/lack of knowledge,” says Bill Rabinowitz, who covers Ohio State for the Columbus Dispatch. “My beat partner was really good at that when he joined me on the beat five years ago. He came from covering USC but had clearly done his homework on Ohio State and it showed. It earned him instant respect.”
When one jumps on a new beat, it feels like 1,000 swords entering your body at once. You don’t know where to turn. You don’t know how to turn. You want to sound smart. You want to break stories. You want to prove to your new employer that you’re worth the dough. You want to do it all. You need to do it all.
Now, with that out of your system, take a deep breath. Chill.
“Don't think you know everything because you're suddenly on the beat,” says Erik Boland, Yankees beat writer for Newsday. “I'm in year 15 doing this and still feel like I don't know even half of what I should know about the Yankees.”
The reality is, you are all but certain to take an old-fashioned, Balboa-over-Morrison-in-an-alley ass beating for a good while. If, as an example, Erik leaves the Yankee beat and you’re hired to replace him, you arrive 99 yards behind the Big Apple competition in a 100-yard dash. Simply put, Bryan Hoch of MLB.com and Joel Sherman of the New York Post know everything you don’t. And no matter how many hands you shake and media guides you consume, only time and experience can close the gap. Developing true go-to sources takes time. Understanding the intricacies of an organization/program also takes time. Making sure Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone recognize you takes time. The rhythms of the beat take time. Entering the clubhouse and not feeling like an interloper takes time.
In absence of experience, however, what one can turn toward is originality and creativity and dogged observation. Maybe you can’t score quality time with the quarterback. But see the backup kicker over there? The one no one talks to? Well, he was born one of seven siblings. All seven are kickers. That’s a story. See the equipment manager? Freddie? His dad—the man who instilled Freddie’s love for gear—just died in a tragic bass fishing accident. That’s a story, too. “Use your ability to watch, day to day, and see patterns or stories or problems emerge,” says Goold. “Early in one spring training, I just watched BP, saw something unusual about a player’s bat, knew it was different than bats players usually use, and that became a story that was ahead of a trend that swept baseball. The same goes for seeing a player work at a new position in football, a skater miss a shift with his line in hockey, a player not participating in certain drills in soccer, or—and here’s a good one—a pitching coach standing on the opposite end of the dugout from the manager. All are stories that you get from observation.”
Also, not for nothing, the greater the exposure, the greater the observation. Or, as Andy Larsen—Utah Jazz beat writer for the Salt Lake Tribune—says: “Be at everything. Games and practices, of course … but team and player charity events, season ticket holder functions, player sponsorship appearances, whatever. If you’re aware it’s happening, get there.”
Several years ago, Larsen attended an event for Jazz season ticket holders and listened as Quinn Snyder, head coach at the time, broke down the team’s playbook in ways the reporter had never before heard. “That,” says Larsen, “led to a fruitful story two weeks later.”
Final point on this: Bad beat writers follow the pack. It’s true, and the phenomenon is easy to spot in every market. The pack moves to the quarterback. Then the halfback. Then the coach. They all go together. Moo. Moo.
But don’t have to. Your job isn’t merely nuts and bolts. It’s to inform and enlighten the reader, and to do so in ways your competitors aren’t. So when you’re inside a locker room or clubhouse, turn left when others turn right. Watch closely what the players are coaches are doing. Not just the big guns. Everyone. The scrubs. The guys on IR. “[Don’t] spend your time in the clubhouse standing around talking to other reporters,” says Boland. “It's tempting when clubhouses are often empty and it seems like there's no one else to talk to but there's generally someone in there, whether it be a seldom-used reliever, utility player, coach, video guy, etc. You have a better chance of learning something from them than from conversations with other media people. I know what that probably makes me sound like but, at this stage, I kind of am what I am.”
I’m gonna shut up now, and allow the pros to offer some of their best tips. Because this stuff is gold:
Eric Branch, San Francisco Chronicle 49ers beat writer: “You got the job for a reason. Trust your instincts. Ask questions. Don’t be shy. After covering mostly preps and small colleges, I began covering the 49ers in 2010. Three players and an assistant coach left the team that season for ‘personal reasons.’ Their head coach, Mike Singletary, who didn’t think quarterback was the NFL’s most important position, was fired. Their offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, who oversaw a 1920s offense, was fired. They had Frank Gore. Patrick Willis. Justin Smith. Vernon Davis. Michael Crabtree. Takeo Spikes. They went 6-10. I didn’t have beat experience. But I knew it wasn’t normal for an NFL head coach to lay on his side, sunning himself like a cat, while his offensive coordinator conducted his outdoor press conference a few feet away. I politely began asking a few pointed what’s-going-on-here questions during pressers, initially with sweaty palms and a knot in my stomach. The PR director quickly pulled me aside. His message: You’re new. Know your role. Keep quiet. Of course, the role – the job – is to cover the team. There’s no probationary period.”
Justin Toscano, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves beat writer: “Take care of yourself. Please. Don’t be afraid to be totally off on your off days. No one can do this full go 24/7. If you get proper rest and relaxation, you’ll be at your best. There’s so much pressure to be on at all times because a beat is so all-encompassing, but you need to flip off the switch at times.”
Geoff Baker, Seattle Times NHL beat writer: “Stay in very good physical shape. Seriously, not just so the players don’t make fun of you behind your back. More just to get into a disciplined daily routine and so you can withstand the constant travel rigors. Beat writing can be an endurance test. It isn’t just about doing stories daily. It’s about doing fresh, interesting stories daily and your mind needs to be sharp and focused for that in the midst of constant fatigue. Tough to do that if your body is not in shape. And all of the late nights of eating and drinking on the road can quickly take a toll. You don’t need to become a bodybuilder or anything. But regular cardio workouts in a hotel gym should be a priority whenever possible. That is, if you plan on lasting as a (good) beat writer beyond a few seasons. Many can’t handle the stress and physical challenge.”
Pat Leonard, New York Daily News Giants beat writer: “The most important thing is showing up. Every day. Especially the day after you write something critical. Always be accountable. You are covering people, and your words about them matter to them, their families and their friends. Being present daily demonstrates your commitment to the details, to the people you’re covering and to the job. The ‘right’ people, the people who ‘get it,’ will notice and respond to that.”
Taylor Kyles, Patriots CLNS beat reporter “Lean on your strengths, but try to chip away at perceived weaknesses to avoid becoming stagnant or falling behind. Be gracious to yourself and kind to others (but don’t allow yourself to be pushed around). Know the difference between looking up to/learning from others and comparing yourself to them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but also be aware of the timing and manner in which you ask them.”
Phillips: “Beat work requires lots of flying and nights in hotels. Make sure you have accounts for Marriott and two or three preferred airlines so that you can rack up rewards points and treat yourself to a nice vacation down the road.”
You’ll need it.
The Quaz Five with … Dr. Elliot Lieberman
Dr. Elliot Lieberman is a Highland Park, Ill.-based physician and—along with his wife, Dr. Emily Lieberman—a mass-shooting survivor working to bring back the assault weapons ban. You can read more about their efforts here.
1. You and your family survived a mass shooting. In blunt terms, what is that to experience?: July 4, 2022 was terrifying, horrible, and incomprehensible. As the popping sound of a semi-automatic rifle rattled off almost endlessly, I ran for my life down an alley, carrying a school-age child in my arms like a baby. My wife hid in a single occupancy bathroom with our other child, her disabled parents and several strangers in the dark for two hours. We were in shock and turned immediately to survival mode. We didn't know how many shooters there were, which direction the bullets were headed or who the next target might be. Fortunately, no one in our family was physically injured, but we mourned for our neighbors whose lives were taken and ached for the dozens more injured. We felt broken, as a town and as a country. In the weeks and months that followed, we experienced flashbacks, post-traumatic stress with loud noises and insecurity about our safety. Everyone around us suffered, which provided comfort to know that no one, or no family, was alone. Time has helped, but we all feel forever impacted by the event that day. It is impossible to drive down our town's main street without visions of bullets whizzing from a rooftop above a drug store across the street to the main plaza in front of our town's most central diner. The reminders are forever.
2. You and your wife Emily are working to reframe gun violence as a public health crisis. What exactly does that entail?: In the face of adversity, we decided we couldn't just sit back idly. We decided to turn our trauma into action. As physicians, Emily and I both gravitated to our personal areas of expertise: medicine. We began studying firearm research in medical journals and connecting with gun safety experts across the country. We were astonished by what we found. There is considerable evidence from a public health perspective in favor of gun safety legislation. Much of this research has been performed on state specific gun laws, and, as we all know, guns do not withstand state borders. Even in areas such as Chicago, where gun laws are amongst the most strict in the nation, most of the guns recovered from crime scenes come from neighboring states, where very few gun laws exist. In areas like the Northeast, gun death rates are much lower since most states in the region have stricter laws. And now, as of 2020, for the first time in our country's history, firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death in children. As we digested this data, we realized that communities remain unsafe in the absence of federal legislation on universal background checks, safe storage, extreme risk protection orders and an assault weapon ban. Studies that have evaluated these laws demonstrate that they work. Our mission involves the facilitation of discussions between our network of experts and physician constituents with their federal representation. We've engaged with the media and met with the Surgeon General, the Director of the ATF and over two hundred lawmakers in Washington. The battle will be long, and it won't be easy, but the momentum is building. More and more physicians are engaging with us, and the voices are getting louder.
3. It often all feels so helpless. I hear all the pro-gun voices, the pro-gun politicians, the states that suffer mass shootings and respond with, "We need ... MORE guns!" Is there any reason to think our nation's addiction to guns might change?: That's a great question. The narrative on gun ownership is most certainly polarized. The phrase, "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" was introduced by CEO of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy. As we delved further into the data, it has become abundantly clear that more guns do not make us more safe. For example, the presence of an armed officer on site in a school shooting actually increases the likelihood of mortality, averaging about three times as many fatalities compared to school shootings where an armed officer is absent. If guns made us safer, then the United States would be the safest country, since our rate of gun ownership is estimated to be the highest in the world. It will certainly take time to reverse this narrative and rally against the propaganda from the NRA, but we're hopeful that the presentation of public health data will help lead this discussion. The movement for gun violence prevention is building. More gun owners and parents are speaking out in support of stricter gun laws. As communities across the country are affected by mass shootings, it is becoming clear that no one is immune. Last summer, when President Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, there hadn't been any significant gun safety legislation in almost thirty years. The tide is turning. In a democracy, the power is with the people. And we'll soon find out if our elected officials are working for the people.
4. You're an ENT. What is the weirdest, craziest thing you've ever pulled/dislodged from someone's body?: Cockroaches in the ear!
5. How does being a physician, as well as experiencing a shooting, as well as seeing the fragility of life, impact your perspective on mortality? Do you think the inevitability of death scares you more than most? Less? Neither?: I think we all have to live in the moment and do our best to experience life and its meaning. It is not easy to balance the desire for public engagement with a fear of safety and insecurity, but as we've learned from the coronavirus pandemic, social isolation carries grave consequences as well. As a mass shooting survivor, I don't necessarily feel more scared of death than I did before our traumatic event. I'm cautiously optimistic that with the right balance of passion, professionalism and data, we can reverse this course and make communities safer once again.
BONUS [rank in order—favorite to least]: Lee Smith, B*Witched, your sphygmomanometer, Joan Rivers, Flavor Flav, your mom's cooking, Corn Flakes, Mike Ditka, eight-hour flights, the state of Maine, Jay-Z, the Bronx Zoo: My mom's cooking (you would know!), eight-hour flights (it's about the adventure), my sphygmomanometer, Mike Ditka, Corn Flakes, Jay-Z, Flavor Flav, Lee Smith, the Bronx Zoo, Joan Rivers, the state of Maine (they need to get on board with gun safety legislation), B*Witched
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
Here’s a wacky idea—ask me any journalism question you like, and I’ll try and answer honestly and with the heart-of-a-champion power one can expect from a mediocre substack.
Hit me up in my Twitter DMs, or via e-mail at email@example.com or just use the comments section here …
Via LanceLong64: Can you change a flat tire? And do you think most adult males are able to?: Strangely, I just had this discussion with Seth Davis via text. So, first, yes, I can change a flat tire. My dad, the great Stan Pearlman, taught me how when I was a young teen—and it’s done me very well in the ensuing decades. Perceptions be damned, it’s pretty easy—and you’ll always feel cool when no one else around you knows the difference between a lug nut and a peanut. One of my great life moments involves me, a very attractive woman, a rest stop and her needing help with a flat.
As for “most adult males”—no way. My guess is, oh, 15 percent of adults in 2023 can change a tire. Which is a bit of a shame.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On March 4, 1990, Hank Gathers—a 23-year-old basketball star at Loyola Marymount—collapsed during a game against Portland. He was pronounced dead later that evening of the heart-muscle disorder, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Monte Poole of the Oakland Tribune wrote about the tragedy in the following day’s newspaper …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Nicole Markus, summer editor in chief of the Daily Northwestern.
So the vast majority of student newspapers take a long, warm nap during the summer months. But not the Daily Northwestern, and not Markus, who served as the paper’s warm weather James T. Kirk. There’s a reason aspiring journalists attend Northwestern, and you can see it in the Daily Northwestern’s continued quality throughout June, July and August.
In particular, the 2023 Orientation Issue harkens back to the days when college publications sought to pump out high-level, high-quality, high-volume informational bliss. It’s ridiculously excellent, and Nicole and Co. deserve all sorts of props.
One can follow Nicole on Twitter here. Bravo, kid.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: So ESPN’s Andrea Adelson wrote this excellent piece on Phillies pitcher Andrew Bellatti meeting with the widow of a man he killed in a motor vehicle accident. Truly, the story is terrific. But … I think Andrea misfired when she noted the original holy-shit-this-happened piece, written by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Alex Coffey, but failed to credit Alex in the article. It’s a tactic ESPN has taken far too often, and—journalistically—it pisses me off. Give credit where credit is due.
Musing 2: I caught some of the first GOP debate—and what struck me (and continues to strike me) is the kneeling down before Donald Trump. I mean, fuckity fuck—the guy literally held his own sit-down interview with (lapdog) Tucker Carlson as the debate was taking place. Which served as an enormous FUCK YOU to the GOP. But do these people have the courage to speak up? Of course not. Why? Because if (God willing) Orange Julius is somehow disqualified, they all want his insane voters.
Musing 3: If you haven’t seen Commanders owner Josh Harris accidentally shake Joe Buck’s hand, you haven’t lived [Bonus—Troy Aikman’s expression as it happens].
Musing 4: Well, Gannett newspapers have started using AI to write prep gamers. Which bothers me: A. Because the stories suck; B. Because so many of us cut our teeth doing preps, and the experience is extraordinarily important. Alas, as a former Gannett employee, this surprised me 0%.
Musing 5: I was thrilled to see Michael Bamberger, my former Sports Illustrated colleague, write DARRYL STRAWBERRY IS NOT TRYING TO SAVE YOU for the New York Times. Such a lovely story with Bamberger’s deft, unique touch.
Musing 6: Sorta random, but the story (to me) of the NFL pre-season has been Tyson Bagent, the undrafted rookie free agent quarterback out of Division II Shepherd University. An initial longshot to make the Bears, Bagent is now the frontrunner to wind up backing up Justin Fields. The kid can sling the pill.
Musing 7: As I type this I’m sitting in my local Peet’s coffee shop, and the guy a few tables over is speaking loudly on his phone, having some sort of business meeting …
And I just wanna say—on behalf of coffee shop writers everywhere—please shut the fuck up. Seriously. Shut. The. Fuck. Up. I know this isn’t a library, but it is a place where people come to work, to relax, to chat with friends. I certainly don’t sit here interviewing people for my books. And, on behalf of all present, none of us want to hear the intricacies of your latest investment scheme, Biff.
Musing 8: I am 6-foot-2 and about 198 pounds. Donald Trump, who stands about 6-foot-3, reported his weight yesterday in Atlanta at 215 pounds. Which led to an endless stream of really fantastic Tweets. Seriously.
Musing 9: A particularly tremendous piece of profile writing from Caryn Ganz of the New York Times, whose OLIVIA RODRIGO, POP’S BRIGHTEST NEW HOPE, JUST MAY BE A ROCK STAR harkens back to a day when stars allowed journalists to tag along and observe. Writes Ganz: “Olivia Rodrigo, the bearer of perhaps the most famous driver’s license in Los Angeles, piloted her black Range Rover to Westwood on a scorching late July afternoon. Six weeks remained before the release of her second album, ‘Guts,’ and she was racked with anxiety — about finding a spot for her SUV. (‘Parking in L.A. is a hellscape,’ she later proclaimed.) The car was her dream purchase, her favorite place to listen to music and yes, she feels guilty about the gas. She kept the stereo off as she circled her destination with increasing despair. A woman crossing a narrow street hustled out of Rodrigo’s path as she let out a ‘Sorry!,’ unaware that the apologetic 20-year-old behind the wheel was the youngest artist to debut atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.”
Musing 10: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Jordyn Holman, the New York Times’ prodigious business reporter/Waffle House guru.
Quote of the week …
True story: In 1999 I was tasked with compiling half of Sports Illustrated’s state-by-state 50 Greatest Athletes of the Century list. It was awful. I put Charles McTorry No. 34 in Tennessee because … I could.
Don’t read my Roger Clemens biography. It’s not good.
Elliot and Emily are also our cousins.