A Q&A With the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro on the tabloid wars, column writing and John Calipari

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Mike Vaccaro. He’s the columnist at the New York Post and one of the best in the country. He’s also written three books, so he’s an author. Really, he needs little introduction. Just read everything he writes here and in print.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else,sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop.

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

I always like to say I cheated – so many of my friends had no idea what they wanted to be when they grew up when they were juniors and seniors in college. I knew exactly what I wanted to be – exactly – from when I was 10 years old. My old man used to bring the Post home with him from work – it was an afternoon paper then – and I used to absorb every word of the sports section. I remember my father explaining to me the first time we went to a baseball game what sports writers did. He pointed to the press box. And I couldn’t believe that was actually someone’s job. So it’s true – I was 10 years old and wanted to be Steve Serby (Serby loves when I tell him that).

Once I knew what I wanted to do I was all-in. I was always an OK writer, and had good teachers who encouraged me to keep writing. I remember the advice one gave me: writing is like a muscle, you need reps to make it bigger and better. It’s a line I feed aspiring journalists all the time now. For me it meant volunteering at my local paper in high school, it meant accepting every assignment I could in college – some of it for little or no pay (who cared about being paid?).

It may be that the two most important things that ever happened to me in my career were negatives. I gagged on every single one of my internship interviews for the summer between junior and senior year. I mean it: every one. I think I put the editor of the Bergen Record to sleep with my lecture about the nobility of a free press. Out of options I wound up getting incredibly lucky one day when the editor of the local paper, the Olean Times-Herald, called as a favor to one of his friends who worked at St. Bonaventure, where I went to college. I’d had dreams of working at the Times or Newsday that summer but Chuck Ward said, “I’ll pay you five bucks an hour and every day this summer you’re going to go out and find a story and I’ll print it.” It was the most astonishing internship ever. It really was. Five days a week I went out looking for stories and had no choice but to find them or else a house ad would go where my story was supposed to. An incredible opportunity.

The second time was when I got fired.

I got a full-time job at the Times-Herald right out of school covering sports, and two years later was hired at the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, Ark. I was young, single, figured it would be a hoot to cover the SEC, and it was, all of it. It’s where I learned to write columns, sometimes wrote seven a week, and it was exhilarating and exhausting and I was also the sports editor, and terrible at the job, and I also thought I was a lot smarter than I was. I needed to be humbled. On June 15, 1993, I was. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Every job I’ve had since – Middletown Times Herald-Record, Kansas City Star, Newark Star-Ledger, and the Post – I’ve taken those lessons learned and helped them fuel me. I had as much ambition as anyone but I also was smart enough to realize you needed more than ambition. It was a long road getting here, but I’m happy as hell to be here, almost 14 years after joining the Post.

2. What’s the role and responsibility of a columnist now? In a sports landscape dominated by and saturated with so-called “hot takes,” how has the role of the columnist evolved in recent years?

I think I may have a unique view of the way the landscape has changed. I know a lot of veteran mainstream media guys who roll their eyes at the Internet guys, still, and I just don’t get it. To me, their proliferation has helped me immeasurably because it’s required me to never let go of the roots of what helped me get the job in the first place: a willingness to work very, very hard, and also never forgetting that the very best columnists are reporters first, and the very best columns are products of that reporting.

I’d like to think I would’ve kept that edge anyway, but the beauty is I’ve never had to worry. I love the passion and energy bloggers bring, I love the fact that they write not because it’s the way they pay the rent (some of them anyway) but because they have a genuine interest and self-investment in the subject matter. And so for me to stay relevant in a media world where they have a well-earned foothold, I have to keep paying rent for my place in it, too. That’s also a good thing.

For one thing, it means I have to minimize the times I write columns looking down from 30,000 feet – or, more pointedly, from my living room. Look, if you write 200-225 columns a year, as I do, some of them are going to be that way – Muhammad Ali’s death was announced at midnight; I had 40 minutes to get something into the paper. You can’t always be where you want to be. But you can also choose to be where you need to be, even if you can get away without the extra effort – from your bosses, because your readers will spot you the moment you go half-assed.

In a world of HOT TAKES, it’s also as important as ever as a columnist to be like a starting pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire. Yes, you’d better be able and willing to fire the coach or trade the quarterback. That’s your fastball. But you’d also better be able to be funny (that’s the curve), be imaginative enough to build a column out of nothing but your brain and your phone book (the change-up) and able to write with emotion and soul when the occasion calls for it (your slider). And you’d better be willing to mix them up, sometimes all in a given week or two.

3. What is the art of writing a column? It seems so much more difficult than just a game-story or a feature story or simple analysis. What are you thinking and trying to do when you sit down at the computer with an hour or half hour to deadline and need to write something that kills?

If there’s one thing I pride myself at now it’s this: I know what the column is, whether it’s a game I’m covering, whether it’s writing about someone who’s died, whether it’s a big news story of the day. That’s not to say I can write a great column every time out of the gate; I don’t. But after doing this for the better part of 30 years now, I can absolutely identify in real time – with probably a 98% success rate – WHAT the column is – a play, a quote, an understanding of what happened and what it means. And really, that’s 80% of the battle. To me if you pick the wrong column – not the wrong opinion, mind you, but the wrong talking point, the wrong subject – then it doesn’t matter how pretty you write it or how passionately you say it, it’s not going to happen for you that day.

I’m not sure who first said this to me, but I’ve adopted it as my own credo, even though it’s more of something I aspire to than something I ardently believe but it goes like this: “I’m better than anyone who’s faster than me, and faster than anyone who’s better than me.” To me, that summarizes what it is to be an effective deadline columnist – write it well, but write it quick. Get to the point. Don’t fuck around, because people don’t have time to weed through your dense, elegant stylings. That’s the trick, really: be true to your talent but don’t let it get in the way. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I’m learning it still.

4. Do the tabloid wars still exist? Do you still feel like it’s the Post vs. the Daily News? Especially as both newspapers have felt the pain of cost-cutting and the attrition of the journalism industry?

Whether or not they exist as a business model, they certainly exist among the folks in the field. I can promise you that when I’m at a Knicks game, for instance, I not only want to write the best column I can write but I want to kick Frank Isola’s ass when both our columns are posted overnight and published in the morning. And I know with great certainty he wants to do the same to me. That’s the energy that living in a multi-paper town definitely brings. I love being at a big baseball game alongside Bob Klapisch, Tyler Kepner, Dave Lennon, Steve Politi and John Harper and seeing them punch away at the keyboard, knowing they’re looking for just the right quote, or the perfect anecdote or observation, or just the right turn of phrase, that will make their account of the big Mets-Nats or Yanks-Sox game just a little different – a little better – than the rest of us. That’s something that no amount of cost-cutting and belt-tightening will ever take away from those of us who choose to work in New York. Part of the reason we’re here in the first place is because we crave the competition.

I was lucky. Long before I ever arrived in New York I was at the absolute center of one of the great – and largely unknown – newspaper wars in America. In the early 1990s in Northwest Arkansas – home to the Arkansas Razorbacks football, basketball and baseball teams, of which there was over-the-top-rabid interest – there were six – SIX! – daily papers that fought each other every day for University of Arkansas news. They were the Northwest Arkansas Times (my paper), the Springdale Morning News, the Arkansas Democrat, the Arkansas Gazette (those two papers, based in Little Rock but with fully staffed Fayetteville bureaus, ultimately merged), the Rogers Daily News and the Benton County Daily Record. It was a bloodbath every morning but it was the greatest training ground – and proving ground – anywhere in sports writing. It was SUCH great fun.

5. Your day job is to write, usually, something like 700-800 words at a time, usually on deadline, but you’ve also written a few books (Emperors and Idiots: The Hundred Year Rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox, From the Very Beginning to the End of the Curse, The First Fall Classic, and 1941: The Greatest Year in Sports). What made you want to do that and what’s the transition from working within those two structures? I imagine it’s just so, so different. And why would you want to do so much … writing?

I love writing my column more than anything else in the world. I really do. I love the daily-ness of it, the immediacy of it, the history-in-a-hurry aspect of it. If there’s one thing about it that leaves me wanting it’s this: columns aren’t necessarily a great legacy to leave behind. There are typos. There is rushed writing. There are points you wanted to say better that you just didn’t have time to. And of course there are opinions you state with absolute certainty that, through the lens and prism of history, are proven to be – shall we say, wrong. As one of the many who gleefully fired Tom Coughlin and then watched him win two Super Bowls, I can say: there ought to be a support group for us.

That’s why books appeal to me so. You take one subject, you report it and research it exhaustively, you become somewhat expert at it, and if you’re lucky and you do it right that’s something you get to leave behind forever. I’m incredibly humbled that three things I’ve written will forever have a home inside the Library of Congress for instance. That’s a kick.

And from a writing standpoint, there’s something incredibly liberating about being able to write about something for 80,000 words when you’re used to 800-word spasms. And it’s funny: I swear that whenever I am in the midst of a writing splurge for a book, I find that I write sharper, better, smarter columns. I don’t know that I necessarily recommend that kind of schedule for everyone, but it works for me.

6. Having worked in Arkansas, Kansas City, Newark, and the Post, what do you think about about the lore of the New York media market? Do you believe in the supremacy of that or is it just something created by, well, the New York media? And has the Internet flattened out the messaging and market disparity for other places?

I think the fact that I worked in other markets has actually alleviated whatever parochial feelings I may have had for the New York media when I was growing up – and what I may still feel about it if I’d never worked in those places. Because I can tell you: there are great sports journalists everywhere, in every corner of the country. Chuck Culpepper is one of the business’ most beloved writers at the Washington Post but I remember hungrily insisting to my editor in Arkansas that we had to subscribe to the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader because we needed to be able to read Chuck every day. Same with Pat Forde when he was in Louisville, and later Jeff Pearlman in Nashville. And Adrian Wojnarowski, Jeff Passan, John Canzano and John Branch at the Fresno Bee. And Joe Posnanski in Augusta, Ga. And that’s just a few examples.

And yes, certainly: the internet has made New York less of a must-work-here draw, same as the city is no longer as essential to pro athletes like LeBron James who have learned that Madison Avenue can just as easily come to them as the other way around.

That said, it is the city that makes working here so vital, and so much fun. As I say all the time to anyone who’ll listen: I’m a local columnist. But New York City is just about the best local beat to have as a columnist, at least in my view. I like the city’s rhythms, I have an intimate understanding of the nine pro teams who play here as well as the local colleges who play hoops here. I’d like to think I could work in Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, but I don’t know if my column would work the same way in those cities simply because this is home in a way those could never be.

7. What’s your favorite story of an angry call you’ve gotten the morning after a column runs and the subject of it is now unloading on you?

It’s more an angry call my boss got, but I think you’ll like it anyway.

Many years ago after Mike Jarvis had all but run St. John’s into the ground and was fired midway through the season, there was a movement among the school’s money people – small at first, but gaining steam – to make a huge run at John Calipari, who had just started at Memphis a year or two earlier, was just starting to build what became a monster there. Now, I’d followed Cal’s career from the start, knew all the crazy stories at UMass, dealt with him when he was with the Nets. I’m probably a good 75% less self-righteous now than I was then (at least I hope so), but in that moment, 2003 or so, the very idea of Cal at St. John’s was anathema to me. So I wrote a column saying so, gathering all my favorite stories about Cal’s reign of terror at UMass, other things I’d gleaned covering college ball as long as I did. And the resulting column was so vicious (and not incidentally so filled with damning testimony) that there was no way St. John’s could hire Cal after that. A lot of St. John’s people were furious at me for a long time after that (which I can’t blame them).

But Cal …

Well, the morning the column ran, my sports editor at the time, Greg Gallo, played his voice mail and there was Cal, shouting at peak volume, motherfucking me and motherfucking the Post and motherfucking Gallo, all but taunting him that he didn’t have the balls to call him back but here’s my cell phone anyway. Now one great thing about working for Gallo was: he didn’t give a shit about who was pissed at us. So he basically shrugged his shoulders, dialed the number. Cal answered.

“John, Greg Gallo here. It sounds like you’re angry.”

Well, Cal basically repeated his entire voice mail, again at peak volume, and if you know Gallo you know he just let him go, didn’t interrupt, let him have his say. Then Cal said, “So let me ask you something, Greg: It’s OK with you if Mike Vaccaro wakes up one morning and says, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna go after Cal today, I’m gonna rip Cal a new asshole.’ That’s acceptable to you?”

Gallo paused for a second and then said, “That’s why I pay him, John.”

And Cal, he just laughed and said, “Well, I guess that’s that.” And hung up.

8. I’ve read you expertly buffeting or crushing a subject. Sometimes it’s like an assassin taking someone down at the knees quickly and acutely. Sometimes it’s you just dropping an anvil. How do you do it? What’s the style behind your criticism by deconstruction? Because i think there are few better than you at that and the New York teams afford you so many opportunities.

Well, that’s nice of you to say.

Here’s the thing: I think the fact that I’m judicious in my use of my blowtorch makes it a lot more effective than if I just aimed at everybody and everything and just started firing every day. Honestly, every time I’m assigned to write a column my intention is to celebrate sports, to capture a cool moment and tell my readers what it was like to be there. Those are the fun days. Listen, we all hear the same bitch from readers, right? “All you want to do is sell papers. All you want are clicks.”And sure: that’s why we do this, is to be read, on whatever platform you’re talking about. But here’s a little secret nobody believes: Good news is good for business. Every time the Giants or the Yankees have won championships, we have to print thousands of extra papers that day because people go crazy buying them. When the Mets were in the playoffs last year, you couldn’t find a Post anywhere at any newsstand, they were gone as soon as they arrived. You know when we don’t sell a lot of papers? When the Knicks suck, when the Jets stink, when the Yankees are boring, when the Mets are in total disarray, when the Giants are in the tank.

That said? Sometimes you have to light the torch. And when you use it judiciously, it has a huge impact. Look, maybe St. John’s doesn’t hire Calipari in ’03 anyway, but my column certainly played a small role in coming to that conclusion. I’m not saying Sandy Alderson traded for Yoenis Cespedes because I eviscerated him a few weeks earlier for letting the team die on the vine – but I know for a fact the column stirred readers, and fans, and the Mets are certainly a team that’s very fan-sensitive. I don’t know that I can aspire to be Dick Young, who in his prime was basically a clearinghouse for the local teams, they knew if they screwed up they’d have to answer for it in Young’s column. I don’t think any media has that profound an impact any more. But as a part of the conversation? A good, old-fashioned rip by the local columnist remains a definite mainstay.

9. Who are writers you read and who people should read who you think aren’t getting enough due? (And don’t work at the New York Post — because that’s not fair)

Part of my reputation among my fellow scribes is that I do have an addiction to reading just about anything I can get my hands on every day, a jones that the advent of the internet has only helped foster and feed. I like the idea that you want some under-valued names, and I’m less worried about insulting folks I don’t list here as I am the ones I do saying, “Hey, who said I’m underrated?”

But for the sake of the question, I’ll mention five.

  1. Les Carpenter, at the U.S. edition of the Guardian, who, full disclosure, is one of my best friends but even if he weren’t I’d read every word that comes out of his laptop. If he was only an idea guy he’d be the most valuable worker at 95% of the news operations in the U.S.A, but the fact he develops his ideas into gold-plated stories under his byline every single time is just remarkable.
  2. Bucky Gleason, at the Buffalo News, whose work I especially appreciate because I think he and I take identical approaches to the job. Bucky’s a Buffalo guy every bit as much as I’m a New York guy, so he brings the natural history and jaundiced eye to the stuff he writes about the Sabres and Bills and he isn’t afraid to try and be funny, either, which is something too few of us try as much as we should.
  3. Dom Amore, of the Hartford Courant, who covers UConn now but has covered the Yankees and Giants there in the past, and who at least a couple of times a year tackles an outside-the-envelope project in a way that only he could do it, submerging himself in the research and the reporting and always – ALWAYS – delivering the goods.
  4. Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman is, I admit, as much a personal choice as a professional one because she was a high school writer at the Kansas City Star when I went there as a take-out writer so I’ve seen her develop into a genuine must-read, someone who writes with heart and with compassion and, as anyone who saw Mike Gundy’s meltdown a few years ago, is absolutely fearless.
  5. Gary Shelton, who worked for so many years at the St. Petersburg Times and now is the voice and the talent behind garysheltonsports.com, which is right there alongside the Pittsburgh site that Dejan Kovacecic runs at the forefront of the new, intensely local sports sites. He’s a five-tool columnist and has been one for years.
10. You had a heart attack 10 years ago (and wrote a pithy column about it). One of the things you wrote afterwards was that “‘Press Box Diet’ won’t join South Beach or Atkins any time soon.” What was that experience like, to have to go through that while you were traveling (in Seattle) and away from family? And how tempting is life on the press box diet when you need to eat healthy but stadium food usually isn’t that and you’ve got an expense account that can keep you eating well and is a constant temptation at your better palate?

I do wish I’d started to type this when I was a little less hungry, and not sitting in the CitiField press box, pondering a walk to Shake Shack …

Here’s the thing: I spent so much time in my 20s and early 30s absolutely attacking my career, I mean getting after it hard, with both barrels, with blinders on, not caring about anything but business. I missed weddings, I missed christenings, I missed funerals. I know that I put a number of friendships I care about in jeopardy. If not for the fact that I hit the wife lottery I‘d probably be paying alimony now. Now, I say that unabashedly and with no regrets: the reason I am where I am, if I were to break it down, would probably look something like this: 10% talent; 20% right-place-right-time luck; 20% networking, 50% grinding, relentless hard work. And that may actually be low-balling it.

Point being: I didn’t much pay attention to details like eating right and working out and avoiding at least the occasional last call, all the landmines of the road. So when I woke up in Seattle that morning in January 2006, it was probably a long-overdue reckoning. It wasn’t fun. I was hereditarily disposed anyway (my father had his first heart attack at 40; I was 39) but there is an embarrassment factor too: you think people are looking at you and saying, “There’s the asshole who took such little care of himself, had so little respect for himself, he had a heart attack in his 30s.” I don’t know if I’d call this luck, but at almost exactly the same time Bob Kravitz, a friend of mine who was then at the Indianapolis Star, had the exact same issue: blocked artery, stent put in, loud warnings from his cardiologist. We became cardio pen pals for a while as a result and we still share war stories when we run into each other at events.

Look, if I’m being honest this is how I’ll describe my life now: I am obsessive about working out. Every day I do something, even on long road trips, that gets the heart rate going and at least burns a few calories. I pick my hotels on the road based on the exercise rooms they have. But I still do enjoy my dinners out, and a few postgame pops, not as much as back in the day but enough where that’s one of the reasons I’m so anal about working out.

Also (and this may be a corny way to end this but, oh, well): I really, really, really like my life now. I have the only job I’ve wanted since I was 10 years old, and it’s even better in practice than it ever was in theory. I really do have an amazing wife. None of the friends I all but dared to cut me off in my 20s ever did, so my network of pals is tremendous. These are the things I think about when I think that crushing an extra dinner roll or grabbing a seventh-inning hot dog is a good idea.

-30-


You can check out the first eight Q&As below:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s