A Q&A with Conor Orr of NFL.com on the journalism “bro network,” the value of J-school and being from Scranton

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 Conor Orr, a national football reporter for NFL.com. Conor is a go-to source for all things National Football League, and with the season getting underway, now is the perfect time to have him as a guest. Like Jared, he also is a former sports editor of The Daily Orange, which is another big point in his favor.

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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?

My break came thanks to two people: Andy McCullough, now the Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times and Drew Van Esselstyn, then the sports editor of the Star-Ledger. Andy was an intern at the time and I was a senior at the Daily Orange looking for a post-graduate internship. I applied to 50 papers — at the time, I only wanted to work at a newspaper — and only heard back from the Ledger. Andy would let me know when Drew was in his office, so I would scramble to my computer and send emails about how much I enjoyed the Sunday sections he put together or an enterprise story one of his writers put together. But the thing was, I meant every word. Drew ran the best sports section in the country for a long time. Mike Garafolo on the Giants, Jenny Vrentas on the Jets, Marc Carig on the Yankees, Brendan Prunty on colleges, Tom Luicci on Rutgers, Steve Politi winning award after award for his columns, Matt Stanmyre and Jackie Friedman doing high school enterprise and the sage Dave Hutchinson making it all run with his dogged work ethic. And Drew did it with class and understanding. He was funny and compassionate and smart. The way he treated his staff was something all of us came to truly appreciate later on in our careers.

After four years there, the paper started to focus more on digital, which was understandable but I wanted to keep alive my pipe dream of writing longer thought out pieces regularly. That’s when I reached out to Gregg Rosenthal, then the editor of NFL.com’s news operation. We’d met while I interned at NBC Sports digital and had coffee a few times while I was planning the move. I think once he said “You can write whatever you want, as long as you help out on the news,” I was sold on moving.

2. Having covered the NFL for The Star-Ledger, what do you see as the main differences in covering it now while working for a league-affiliated outlet? What are the perks? Are there downsides?

The perks are an insane amount of resources and no print deadlines. Our research department is pretty incredible at the NFL, as is our video department. I recently did a piece on the Trent Richardson trade and wanted to include a section on how many trades there had been each season over the last decade. An hour later I get an email back with a detailed response from a guy genuinely fired up about it. The only downside I would say is that there isn’t as much camaraderie. I have some awesome co-workers, but most of our conversations take place over text or Slack. When we get together at the Super Bowl or the combine I genuinely look forward to it, but it only might be once or twice a year.

When I worked for a newspaper, there was sort of an all-encompassing comfort. Stanmyre was my next door neighbor for some time in Montclair. Jorge, Mike V. and I used to play basketball together. Politi would pour me a cup full of gin when I came by to drop off my fantasy football dues. It was like a little community.

3. Do you feel like working for NFL.com compromises you at all as a reporter covering the league? How freely can you talk about things like concussions or national anthem protests or other existential league issues as freely, compared to your tenure working at a newspaper?

The only time I’ve ever been told “No” at NFL.com was when I asked to expense Tom Brady’s cookbook and try his diet for a month. And that wasn’t because the league was worried about it. It was just a stupid idea. Fat Guy Goes On Diet! Classic! I’ve sense settled on the 21 Day Fix.

I have the amount of freedom I hoped for, even during the Tom Brady suspension for example. In that way, I think it taught me to be a better reporter. Instead of just flying off the handle, regurgitating the take du jour, I read all the legal papers. I talked to labor lawyers. I read the collective bargaining agreement. I didn’t come down on one side because, at the time, I was handling sort of the Associated Press-style news stories as it was breaking. But the league never questioned the way I framed any of my articles.

4. What have the challenges been transitioning from covering just one or two teams at the Star-Ledger to now covering all 32 teams? How do you think you’re viewed differently now that you’re a national reporter? Do you think that sources treat you differently? Do people try to cultivate you now as an outlet?

It’s difficult but exciting. I think I can write more about what interests me now, and I’m not confined to one locker room. That being said, I was extremely lucky to be in the locker rooms I was. Rex Ryan’s Jets and the end of the Tom Coughlin era in New York. Both taught me so much about what coaches privately expect from reporters and what reporters should expect from coaches. And, Bart Scott told me I looked like a virgin during the Tim Tebow era. He was talking about Tebow’s wait-until-marriage preference then pointed at me and said ‘Like this guy. He knows what I’m talking about.’ There’s something about having everyone in a small but familiar group laughing at you that takes the shame factor out of the job. Everyone gets embarrassed whether they care to admit it or not.

In terms of being treated differently, I honestly think there was one guy — an agent at a West Coast-based management firm — who NEVER called me back when I was a beat writer that called me back when I got the job. I ignored it and we’ve still never actually spoken. I have people I trust that can help me on a national level and who have never steered me wrong. Those are the people I continue to check in with, because they’ve always been kind and helpful.

5. You and I — and this has been talked about with others, too — have talked about the echo chamber of journalism Twitter. I call it the journalism bro network, which passes around and praises stories loudly and almost blindly for the people who are in it. What do you think is the effect of this on what gets deemed as a good story, who sees it, and who gets jobs?

I remember reading an interview with David Foster Wallace after Infinite Jest came out and he said the praise was uncomfortable because, in his head, he knew that most of the critics who lauded it could not have possibly had time to finish the book. That doesn’t seem to be a problem on Sports Journalist Twitter, where stuff is labeled a “Great Read” seconds after the publish time. I think it absolutely helps people get jobs, but that is not a problem unique to our industry. There are always hard working people who write brilliantly but never get the credit they deserve and there are always others who put stuff out to a standing ovation once a month and its pretty horrible. That’s not to say we all don’t write horrible stuff from time to time. I like to do it at least once a day.

6. Is it possible to build sources and get to know players in an NFL locker room? Access is much more limited than in baseball, hockey, and the NBA, and there’s a lot of going to Player X’s charity events and whatnot. There’s also a more naturally antagonistic relationship between team and reporter in the NFL, it seems. Not to mention that the NFL media is hypersensitive to any morsel of news or quotes. How well can you really get to know players in the NFL, compared to other sports? Have any experiences you can share or players you think you’ve built up good rapports with?

I think its easy to say — like many reporters do — that oh I ignored the pack. I zigged when others zagged and now every weekend I hang out with Antonio Brown at his agent’s house and shoot pool. After I left the Giants beat, one of the players I ended up building and keeping a good relationship with told me that I was not taken seriously by some players because I looked like I was 12 and had never done an athletic thing in my life (true). But I also took that as a shot at my preparedness and demeanor. I try to always remember that whenever I’m interviewing a player or coach now.

The nice thing about writing nationally is that I can kind of pick my spots better and give myself an opportunity to come across as less of a foof even if that is a fool’s errand in the long run. I had coffee with a Seahawks player the night before the Seahawks beat the Panthers in the playoffs back in 2015 and, for a longer piece on No. 12 overall pick Sheldon Rankins that came out before the draft, we spent a few hours on the phone together going through everything. In that way, I think I can build some trust and write something that fairly encapsulated their feelings in that setting. In the locker room, it is just too hard now — unless you’ve had those experiences outside of the facility to create some sort of foundation.

I have a lot of respect for people who can just go up to a player at his locker and strike up a conversation. Unless someone wanted to talk about Chopped, I really didn’t have a strong ability to hold up a conversation in that setting and I think I ended up coming off as squirmy.

7. You, like Jared, came from the very well-respected Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, unlike Mike, who didn’t major in journalism and is a graduate of The Daily Targum. How necessary is it for an aspiring journalist to go to journalism school? To what extent do you think your career success thus far can be attributed to having gone to Newhouse? Factoring in the job market and the cost of college, what would you tell a high school student thinking about going to J-school?  

That is a great question. I went back to Newhouse to help out Daily News columnist Gary Myers, who was teaching a class back in 2015 and told the kids that graduating from Newhouse is like showing up at a track and field event wearing a Nike sweatsuit. Everyone is going to think you are faster, but then there is actually a race to run. The real benefit of Newhouse for me was the competition. Maybe there’s five kids at Drexel who want to be Bob Costas. At Syracuse, every kid wants to be Bob Costas. I didn’t get into Newhouse from high school and the chancellor at the time rolled her eyes at me when I said I was going to get the grades to transfer in. You are literally one in 12,000 with a similar dream and ambition.

At the student newspaper when I was working there, Andy McCullough (LA Times), Zach Schonbrun (NY Times), Matt Ehalt (Bergen Record) Jared (Wall Street Journal), Tyler Dunne (Bleacher Report Labs), Mike Bonner (Mississippi Clarion-Ledger), Mike Cohen (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), Mark Cooper (Tulsa World), Zach Berman and Matt Gelb (Philadelphia Inquirer) and Brett LoGiurato (Executive editor and Trump surrogate for Business Insider) were all there putting out crazy good work week after week. We were wildly competitive but also helpful with one another.

Guys like Zach Berman, Matt Gelb, Andy McCullough and Schonbrun, who were a year older, were incredibly generous with their time and advice just like their older counterparts had been for them. In that way, we were all extremely lucky.

So I guess my advice for a student would be to find that place for them. Find a place where nothing is ever good enough and where you are challenged. If that is Syracuse, great. But I’ve heard amazing stories about student papers in Michigan, Penn State, St. Bonaventure, Ohio State, Colorado State, etc., etc.

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

1. Wright Thompson’s profile of Theo Epstein.

2. This New Yorker story about Trump’s first year in office.

3. This Pete Wells review of Pasquale Jones in Manhattan http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/dining/pasquale-jones-review-little-italy.html

9. What, if anything, would you change about the way that sports and football are covered and reported on?

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — but perspective. We talk about the good old days of journalism where athletes and reporters hung out at bars all the time. But back then, I feel like we weren’t so eager to take a few sentences out of what they said and use it as a launch pad for our own deep-seeded thoughts. I feel terrible when I do it but I try not to. I am lucky to have someone like Jenny Vrentas as a mentor in that way. She is so thoughtful and smart — and not only as a friend. Any time she writes something, it’s so deeply considerate and perfectly on point. I can’t imagine someone reading something she wrote and thinking “Well, that’s unfair.” I hope at some point I can get there.

10. We can’t interview Conor without asking him about his hometown, because Conor has a lot of feelings about his hometown: Scranton, Pa. Conor, what is the best part of Scranton? What should our readers know about your fare city in beautiful Northeastern Pennsylvania? Where do you rank in the pantheon of celebrities it has produced?

Scranton is the best city in America. The best chicken wings — Pappy’s — the best pizza — Maroni’s or Revellos — the best cheap beer — Lionshead (which was recently served to me at a midtown burger joint as their ‘craft select’ bottle of the week. A case of 24 bottles in high school was 11 dollars). But it’s the best to me because that is where I’m from. My wife makes fun of me because I love the pizza at this one pizzeria in north Jersey near our house. Just about every New Jersey pizza savant I know hates the place, but she had finally figured it out. I grew up liking bad pizza, and bad pizza tastes like the town I love — or something like that (but really, Maronis and Revellos are great. Please eat there).

Donald Trump recently visited, so that’s good. Eric Trump, his son, went into Clarks Summit, which is the little town I’m from right outside the city. George Bush once had ice cream at Manning’s, which is a fantastic dairy now run by a Princeton graduate, so even Zach Schonbrun might try it.

In terms of where I rank — right now I would say unranked. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton both have a connection (no matter how tangential) to the place. There’s like five NFL coaches — Mike Munchak, Vic Fangio, Bill Lazor, John McNulty. Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin. Also Lauren Weisberger, who wrote the Devil Wears Prada was born there. Plucky white basketball god Gerry McNamara.

I say it is the best but you all probably think where you come from is the best and isn’t that the point? I just want everyone to be happy.

 

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