A Q&A with Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated on writing about writers and the ‘Bayless-ization’ of sports media

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 Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. Richard is most known for covering sports media, and we talk to him about how he wound up on the beat, why he keeps going after Skip Bayless and why people are curious about how the sausage is made.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

Few things are more self-aggrandizing than someone writing about their professional resume so I’ll try to make this short. I started writing for my local newspaper at 16, covered my first pro sporting event (indoor soccer) at 17, and spent most of my time in college (University at Buffalo) writing for the student newspaper, The Spectrum. I stayed in Buffalo after I graduated to cover the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres for a big weekly ($10 per story), as well as the pop culture scene in Buffalo. I also did sports radio: I won a tryout to co-host a daily sports show on a 50,000-watt station before my partner and I were canceled for the syndicated G. Gordon Liddy show (Nixon’s revenge for my liberal-teacher mother).

Despite my love for the city of Buffalo, I knew I wanted to go to grad school for journalism. So I applied to Cal, Columbia, and Missouri, and eventually ended up in grad school in New York City. After graduation I had a choice between doing news at the Louisville Courier-Journal or working as an intern at Sports Illustrated For Kids. A famous Columbia professor, Judith Crist, always referred to Time-Inc. as the cafeteria of life and if you ever had a chance to work for a magazine there, you should jump at it. So I took the SI For Kids internship and basically lived at the magazine. SI For Kids hired me after the internship ended. Where fate played a hand for me is all of the SI For Kids editors were former SI reporters and editors. They knew my dream was to work at SI and they supported me interviewing with SI. In 1997 I was hired by Sports Illustrated and that’s been job since. My career arc must sound alien to today’s grads, staying at the same place for this long.    

2. Why get into media reporting? We know you cover basketball, the Olympics and other sports, but sports media has become your primary gig. How did this come about, and when did it become evident to you that it could be a viable beat?

It just sort of happened. As a reporter and writer-reporter at SI, my beats were tennis, women’s basketball, the Olympics, and working for SI’s commemorative division, which are the magazines we do when a team wins a championship. When the now-defunct SI For Women started, editor Sandy Rosenbush (who is a mentor and now works at ESPN) brought me to that publication to be an assistant editor. That was a great learning experience.

About 10 years ago, former SI Group Editor Paul Fichtenbaum asked me to become SI.com’s special projects editor, which meant conceptualizing and conceiving projects to get the magazine writers involved in the web site. At the time there was not much cross-over between the two groups and since I knew and had worked with all the mag writers, I feel like I helped (at least in a small way) to make the parts of the brand more integrated. I told Paul that I never wanted to stop writing even with the special projects role so I pitched him on writing some media stuff.

I had previously worked on the magazine’s media page – which had a terrific history with writers such as William Taaffe and John Walters. So Paul let me write a column every other week or so and that’s where it started. It became a much more viable beat in truth thanks to places like Deadspin and other sports blogs, who recognized how much interest there was in sports media. As newspapers stopped covering sports media as a beat, the blogosphere filled the void and did so with quality and fresh stuff. I always believed it could be a viable beat.

3. Why do you think so many people are interested in the ins and outs of sports media? Media members aren’t supposed to be celebrities, but it seems that readers now follow their movements and transactions almost as much as athletes (or is that too insular a view?!) What is it about sports media that makes readers want to know, for the lack of a better term, how the sausage is made?

Simple. Because you live with these people every day. Who is more well known in popular sporting culture? Al Michaels, Joe Buck, or the third starter on the San Diego Padres? Sports media is a multi-billion dollar industry, led by ESPN, the most dominant sports brand in the country.

You are inundated and consume sports media daily, hourly.  It stands to reason that from transactional reporting to longer, thoughtful pieces, sports fans would have interest in those who bring you the games. I think that’s particularly true with the under-30 set who have grown up on opinion-based shows and sports media members in every city having multi-media platforms. I’m still amazed that more outlets have not decided to cover the space. They are leaving page views and relevance on the table.

4. You’ve been very vocal about the shoddy “carnival barking” (to borrow one phrase that you’ve used) that First Take, ESPN and now Fox Sports have put out, focusing in particular on television personalities like Skip Bayless and Darren Rovell. Why do you think it’s important to continuously criticize them rather than make that critique once or a few times and move on? And, since many of these “carnival barkers” are already not well thought-of in mainstream media, do you ever worry that you’re grabbing for low-hanging fruit by making them the brunt of your criticism?

Good, fair question. First, I wouldn’t put Rovell anywhere near Bayless in terms of loathsome figures, and Rovell and I have ceased firing on each other over the last year. We will always have our difference about the humanity of sports but I don’t think Rovell is evil at his core. When I tweet about Skip Bayless or those embracing the Bayless-ization of the sports media, my intended message is not to Skip Bayless: It’s about highlighting this stuff to the management that employs the circus, whether they care or not, as well as to point out to sports fans how much of con this is.

If and when I become too much of a caricature calling out this stuff, meaning my shtick has become calling out their shtick, I should be criticized. I do worry about it and I’ve tried to pull back on this on Twitter. First and foremost, I try to use my social media feeds to highlight great work, including the work of competitors. I’ve written 100,000+ words/podcasts over the calendar year on SI.com that have nothing to do with carnival barkers. I think most people who follow me would agree with that. But I can definitely get attracted to low-hanging fruit and I’m self-aware enough to know that if someone I respect points it out, I best pull back.

5. On the other side of the coin, you’ve been very vocal in your support for plenty of other media members and have especially worked hard to expose the difficulty women in the sports media face that might otherwise go unreported. To what extent do you view yourself as an advocate for these issues that you feel strongly about? Where is that line between “critic,” “reporter” and “advocate?”

Report with accuracy, opine with passion. I think that’s the line. But these lines cross, for sure, and I’m given a lot of freedom from SI on what to write about it. I’m undoubtedly going to write about things that I care about and that have impact on me. I was raised by a single parent and mostly surrounded by women growing up. I have a daughter. I co-teach at Columbia with someone who is a great advocate for women in the sports media (ESPN’s Jane McManus).

I have interviewed literally hundreds of women who have told me what they have gone through in the sports media and it’s far different than men. (Just read this piece on security precautions women in the sports media take when on the road.) Personally, I hate the word critic. That feels like someone who covers Broadway or writes about food. I’m not a fan of advocate either but one is always advocating something. I consider myself a writer who sometimes writes about sports media. If others define me differently, so it will be.

6. Journalists constantly are seeking the truth from sources. So when you talk to and report on journalists and people involved in media, how do they compare to non-journalistic sources in terms of being forthcoming, truthful, and willing to go on the record? Does their job lead to them being more honest? Or do they act like any other source when the tables are turned and they go from interviewer to interviewee?

I find sports journalists to be great gossips and sharers of information but far less willing to go on the record than traditional sources. I think part of that is the media economy we live in, where layoffs happen frequently and people are worried about their job. As a general rule, the more secure someone is in a media job, the more they will talk. My favorite people to write about are behind the scenes people because I find them to be both interesting and honest, especially producers and beat reporters.

7. To what extent do you worry that any negative reporting you do about the decision makers in sports media can cost your career down the line and anger possible future employers? What about the opposite: How much do you worry that positive coverage of another media outlet being viewed as lobbying for own benefit?

Great question, and one I think any person reporting and writing on media thinks about. Here is my approach as hokey as it might sound: I’m reporting and writing on behalf of readers across the country who do not have access to media decision-makers and personalities but care about what they see and read and hear in the sports media.

I hope the people and companies I write about it respect me as a professional but that’s pretty much where it begins and ends. You have to write for the reader, and ultimately, offer an honest take on what you see.

8. What are three stories that you read recently that you loved?

•This Christopher Goffard (L.A. Times) true-crime masterpiece might be the best thing I’ve read in 2016:

•I recently re-read Pamela Coloff  of Texas Monthly on Claire Wilson, who was critically wounded during the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting. The story is about how the path of a bullet change a life and it’s one of the best pieces of non-fiction journalism I’ve ever read:

• Tim Graham of the Buffalo News wrote a remarkable piece on an NFL kicker long ago forgotten:

9. You’ve been vocal about your distaste for Fox Sports’ turn to “hot-take”-style commentary and ethos. Now that SI and Fox Sports are business partners, how might that change your ability to continue to cover and potentially criticize Fox Sports as you see fit? What does their relationship say about your criticism, considering SI is now trying to profit off the very journalistic approach you have criticized so vehemently?

Fox Sports? I love Fox Sports. All hail our Fox Sports colleagues! Seriously, here is the important thing where I’m concerned: Sports Illustrated will maintain editorial oversight of its digital properties, magazine and social media feeds. It remains an independent news organization not beholden to anyone. My bosses have reiterated on multiple occasions that I not change my reporting and writing about Fox Sports on any medium, including social media.

SI has been my employer since grad school. I see the place with open eyes—at least as best as someone who has been there as long as I have can—but I trust that my editors are dealing me straight. In all my years at SI, through multiple editors and assignments far away from sports media, I’ve never had a piece killed for business reasons. No one knows what the future holds when the partnership gets active. For now, I’ll be reporting, writing, tweeting and podcasting about Fox Sports independently—the same as always. If the partnership helps keep some of my colleagues employed doing good journalism, I will be overjoyed. If we start heading down a bad path, I encourage others to cover this and cover it hard.

10. In addition to your work at SI, you are an adjunct professor at the prestigious Columbia Journalism School. What has that experience been like for you? How do students — who might know your work already — react to having you as a professor? And what have you learned about journalism from teaching it that perhaps you couldn’t have learned without the classroom experience?

Columbia has been a big part of my life for the last two decades. It put me in contact with people who care about journalism, with passion normally reserved for family. My grad school classmates now cover conflicts globally, civil wars, drug trafficking; they make what I do look amateur. The school made me a better consumer of journalism.  Five years ago I started working as an adjunct for a legendary professor named Sandy Padwe, who was the sports soul of the j-school. (Being Padwe’s adjunct was akin to being Bill Cartwright on Jordan’s Bulls.)

That exposed to me to what is great about teaching: It’s being around young people who remind you of the passion you had for the profession at 23. Last year ESPN’s Jane McManus and I took over the class after Sandy retired. We tried to run it in his vision, which is heavy on issues of race and gender and militarism in sports coverage, adding a touch of 21st century things like social media etc… The class brings in sports journalism practitioners from across the country, from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to Deadspin to the New York Times to MTV News to Vice Media. I’m not sure how good a teacher I am but I try to be there for my students both in the classroom and away from it, especially providing contacts. What I do know is journalism is still alive and well in the spirit of young people. Reporting and storytelling will exist long enough we pass this earth.


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