A Q&A With Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report about covering the NFL, the writing process, and Buffalo’s wings

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 Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report. He’s proven himself to be one of the best feature writers covering the NFL after stints in Green Bay and Buffalo. Now he’s gone national. Tyler and Jared have known each other since college, too. Tyler talks about his writing process, how breaks through with sources and which wings are best in Buffalo.

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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?

This is all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever dreamt of doing, to be honest.

Way, way, way, wayyyy back to when I was eight years old, I wrote a (clears throat) distinguished “Packer Weekly” publication for my parents with a $1 written in the top right corner of the cover page. As a kid, I never missed a snap of the Green Bay Packers so, hey, why not make my own handmade publication? This then morphed into an “NFL Draft Preview” I submitted to sports editor Chuck Pollock around, say, 11 years old and to my amazement Chuck wrote back. Can still remember reading Chuck’s letter today with the Times Herald letterhead. He told me then he’d hire me as a sports intern when I turn 16 and he was true to his word.

Through high school, I covered sports at the Times Herald, attended St. John Fisher College to keep a fledging football career alive and then transferred to Syracuse. No doubt about it, that decision sparked a career in journalism as much as anything.

Writing for the Daily Orange — and being around an insanely competitive staff — was an experience that made us. When you see names like Eli Saslow, Greg Bishop and Pete Thamel on the D.O. walls, it pushes you. We were all best friends at 744 Ostrom and challenged each other every day, every night.

I can still picture a woozy John Clayton at 5 a.m. powering through our Football Preview tab. Guys like Matt Gelb, Andy McCullough and Zach Schonburn were never afraid to supply a punch of tough love on a story. It’s truly a special place. Just thinking about us kicking WAER’s ass in Media Cup makes me miss celebratory beers with Matt “EZE” Ehalt, Conor Orr, Meredith Galante and [Jared].

Through college, internships absolutely helped. One summer I lived out of a hotel in tiny Shawano, Wisc., to cover Packers minicamp and training camp. True story: there’s a cult in Shawano. Google that if you want to freak yourself out. That also was the summer Brett Favre tried to take his job back from Aaron Rodgers, which was quite the baptism by fire for a snot-nosed, not-yet-balding 20-year-old. My first job out of college was at the Fayetteville Observer covering high schools, I covered the Packers for four years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Bills for a season at the Buffalo News and now I’m here doing NFL features at the Bleacher Report.

I’ve been grateful to have editors willing to take a chance on me at every stop and even more grateful to work with incredible writers. Bob McGinn and Tom Silverstein provided an absolute crash course on covering the NFL at the JS.

This past off-season, Bleacher Report reached out to me about this job and I could not pass it up.

2. You recently took a job at Bleacher Report, an outlet that appears to be growing at a promising rate. That said, it also has had to deal with a stigma that it’s not a place for “serious journalism.” What made you realize that it was no longer just a content farm? How have you found that sources treat B/R? How about other journalists? What has your experience been thus far?

B/R made the commitment. You could see this transformation happening two, three, even four years ago. Gems like Mike Freeman and Lars Anderson and Jason Cole and Howard Beck started popping into my Twitter feed and I found myself reading Bleacher Report more… and more… and more… and could not get enough.

Still remember dropping everything I was doing to read Mike’s jaw-dropping deep dive on Darren Sharper’s sick past. Around that time, I was working on a Sharper story of my own, tracking down Sharper’s former teammates and coaches to investigate the mind of monster. Mike’s story floored me. Clearly, this was a place deeply committed to journalism and storytelling.

As much I enjoyed the totality of a beat — blabbing with Bob at his kitchen table for our “Packers Podcast” — I’ve always dug the deep dives more than anything. Hanging out with Brett Favre on his back deck. Eating lunch with Bart Starr. Working out with Richie Incognito. This was the kind of stuff B/R told me they’d like me to do full time and the high-impact direction they were headed.

So far, I’ve been absolutely loving every second of it and my editor Collin McCollough is as sharp as it gets in this business. Whether it’s Doug Farrar and his legion of scouts breaking down film or Mike Tanier’s outside-the-box take on a storyline, I’d like to think we all bring something different.

As far as the experience, it’s been positive. People are on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all day, every day so that’s where we are. B/R was ahead of the curve with this approach. The players I’ve met with so far are guys in their 20’s and early 30’s, so a lot of them are on B/R daily.

3. You are, to put it mildly, an exceptional writer, able to use your own words to elevate any story. We talk a lot about the reporting process here, but rarely have we discussed the writing process. To what extent is your writing ability inborn, versus something that can be taught? What’s the hardest part of the process for you? 

Well, dang, that’s very kind of you to say. Thanks a lot. Certainly believe here that the reporting must drive the writing. Always. I’ve never looked at those two as separate entities. If the reporting is solid, if you’ve talked to 25-plus folks for a story and have anecdote upon anecdote and your notebook is scribbled with details from wherever you’ve been, the writing should flow naturally.  

One part of the process that helps is transcribing every single word every single person tells me and then printing it all out as a 40-page packet. I’ll re-read it all, re-read again, highlight with different colors, underline, jot notes in the margins, etc. Doing this helps me further grasp each conversation and how the story will all weave together.

From there, I’ll plot a map out. And from there, I’ll write.

The hardest part of the process? If we’re talking about the whole process, I’ll say access. The NFL isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for every single interview request. Some teams are better than others. Yet whether it’s been at B/R or at newspapers, teams have flat-out denied requests or limited one-on-one’s to 10-15 minutes. That can make churning out magazine-style stories difficult, of course.

In time, I’ve learned to circumvent the system. I’ve often met up with players at restaurants, in town, at their apartments, wherever. Because at the end of the day, we’re humans talking to humans. If a player does not want to sit down to chat, hey, that’s their prerogative. I’ll never be offended. But if a player does want their story told and does want it told right over an extended interview? That’s their prerogative, too. They’re adults capable of making this decision. Thankfully, many players have been cooperative over the years and are willing to open up.

4. It seems that we are reminded constantly that the NFL is a pretty ugly organization, and the declining ratings suggest fans are starting to notice. How would you assess the state of the NFL? Do you ever struggle with writing about it, considering you’ve seen behind that curtain? And how much moral soul-searching do you do in covering a sport that is inherently dangerous but unbelievably popular?

Damn, that’s such a great question, Jared. You SOB.

When I was in Atlanta with Chris Borland for my first story at B/R, he put me right on the spot, too, and asked how I reconcile covering this league when I know it has so grossly mishandled concussions over the years. Obviously, much is flawed about the game. There’s no “safe” way to play. Any suggestion to the contrary is a lie. This concussion crisis isn’t going away anytime soon.

I just think, as reporters, we can’t put our heads in the sand and act like this problem doesn’t exist. It’s our duty to deliver the good, the bad and the ugly to the general public. We cannot mince words in detailing the viciousness of this sport, whether it’s a guy like Torell Troup looking back at the Bills making him play through a broken back or the 15 concussions another guy played through.

Hell, only 5-10 years ago, nobody had a clue what a concussion did to your brain. League of Denial changed the game forever.  

All this being said, there’s a reason football is now America’s game. Even Borland, the player who brought concussion awareness to the forefront unlike any player ever, likened the game to a drug. The violence, the adrenaline rush, the fact that you need that player next to you to be successful is different than any other sport. Whether you’re playing or watching football, the experience is different. It’s pathetic, man. I still have dreams about our Ellicottville high school football team (this time) beating Randolph at Ralph Wilson Stadium. I still dream about launching a 22 Jet Pass to my old receiver, Kyle Mendell on our mud-slopped home field.

There is something special about football. So even while knowing after the fact that I probably suffered two or three concussions myself, I also agree with those who say this game can instill lessons that last a lifetime. Leadership. Toughness. Teamwork. Work ethic. Football can make us who we are later in life… yet concussions can also change who we are later in life.

What a dilemma.

Would I let my son play? Thankfully, I’m a single 29-year-old who doesn’t have to make that decision yet.

5. You’ve written incredibly poignant stories, like one detailing the many losses and traumas that Marcell Dareus has suffered. How do you go about building a relationship with Dareus close enough that he’ll let you in to talk about that and that his family will, and how did you talk to him for it? Can you just go through the reporting process on this.

A wise man, our old pal Andy McCullough at the D.O., once told me that we’re not “interviewing,” we’re having “conversations.” And we’re not talking to “sources,” we’re talking to “people.” I’ve tried to keep that in my head.

Put yourself in the shoes of a professional athlete.

Every day, they get cameras and recorders and mass humanity shoved into their face. They’re asked about X’s and O’s, the route they ran, the ball they dropped, the impact of wins and losses on repeat. No wonder so many of them shift into autopilot. I’m certainly no expert on this, but I just try to combat this pack mentality as much as possible. On the beat I tried to shoot the bull with players.

Those Packers DB’s loved the NBA so we’d debate LeBron and KD and Kobe. Jayrone Elliott? Huge Cavs fan. And in Buffalo, I’d talk politics with Richie Incognito. If I had what I needed for the day on the beat, why not learn something new about someone? Sure beats standing alone in the middle of the locker room waiting to get kicked out. This job is a free education.

Once after a training camp practice in Buffalo, there was a scrum around Incognito outside. Rather than stick a recorder in there, I figured I’d walk alongside a player headed to the dining hall across campus. To be honest, I had no clue who this was. Turns out, it was Mario Butler. And about five minutes into our convo, when asked why he has any chance in hell of making this team, Butler explained how his father was once murdered, chopped to pieces and shoved into his own refrigerator.

Uh… what? It pays to be curious.

As for Dareus, he must’ve just reached a point where he was ready to get a lot off his chest. I actually asked the Bills to get some time with him to the side, they were accommodating and Dareus let loose. He’s human. He hurts. Literally everyone around him is dying and it messed up his head. Maybe it was therapeutic for him to finally talk about it publicly.

From our perspective, it just helps to remember these guys are human. I think they appreciate us approaching them from that perspective.

6. What will NFL reporting look like in 5 years? 10 years? Bleacher Report is making a concerted and wonderful commitment to substantive storytelling. But sites like PFT and countless others are in a nuts and bolts and quick model. The underlying middle ground is obviously information but what will the delivery models look like?

I have no clue what NFL coverage will look like in 5-10 years. And I don’t think anybody on earth does.

You know what’s wild? Our last year at Syracuse, in a public speaking class, I did a presentation on this wacky new website called “Twitter.” In a class of 25, maybe four people had ever heard of it. That was the fall of 2009. Five years from now, could Snapchat be the dominant form of news consumption? Instagram? Something we’ve never heard of?

All in all, I do believe there’s two ends to the spectrum. On one end, is the PFT model. And make no mistake, PFT absolutely changed the game. Mike Florio capitalized on a country’s desire for news in real time. Fans aren’t waiting to pick up a newspaper at 8 a.m. They’re at work hitting “refresh” on a website or constantly tapping open an app on their phone. Newspapers that do not embrace this line of thinking will die. Newspapers that do flood all platforms 24/7 will thrive. Just by looking around, most do embrace this philosophy.

People want fast food but they also still savor a juicy ribeye steak.

The metrics also show there still is a strong desire for storytelling. On the other end of the spectrum is the enterprise story, the feature, the story that asks you to sit down with a cup of coffee. Readers absolutely still want this. At least I hope so. Our longform stories at B/R have generated a ton of clicks and interest. The fact that my bosses are so committed to this is very encouraging. And any time Wright Thompson writes a story, I feel like the world stops. We all literally stop everything we’re doing to read his masterpieces on Ted Williams, Tiger Woods or Jason Rabedeaux.

As for that classical 800-word daily story you used to read, maybe that’s been taken to the woodshed and shot.

7. What do you look for when you decide to burrow in on a subject for an in-depth story? Is it just timeliness about a star? Is something that catches your eye? Basically, what is your way of finding and deciding on big stories?

When I was covering the Packers and Bills, being around a single team every day, I certainly got to know players and their backgrounds organically. They see you every day, trust you, one conversation leads to another, bam, you’ve got an original story.

Now, at Bleacher Report, I’m parachuting into cities as an outsider. It’s certainly more of a challenge to build those relationships but you’re also dealing with 32 teams instead of one so there are more stories to tell. Still getting my feet wet on this new process but it’s a combination of everything. I stay in contact with folks I covered the previous five seasons in the NFL via text, calls, emails. I try to read and research constantly. And it’s important to think outside of the box — my SE Collin has such a knack for this.

Curiosity can open a lot of doors. After each of the Packers’ and Bills’ drafts, I’d call up each draft pick on their cell phones, introduce myself and try to learn something new about them. Sometimes, this produces nothing more than casual conversation. Other times, it can lead to something bigger. Bills corner Kevon Seymour, for example, opened up about life in the “Snake Pits” and literally dodging bullets.

One general rule of thumb I try to follow is, what will have people talking at the bar? What’s the bite in a story that’ll resonate with dudes throwing back Labatt Blue Lites on a Saturday night? Attention spans run low in 2016. A story must pop.

8. If you could, what would you change about how the NFL is covered and reported on?

Definitely do believe there’s a ton of Grade-A journalism already out there. This league is full of enterprising beat writers, sharp columnists and devoted film junkies giving readers everything they want. I still remember my Dad setting sheets of 1994 QB statistics on the couch for me one morning and thinking it was the craziest thing on the planet. Stats!? NFL stats?! From the.. “Internet?!”

Now, everything is at our fingertips.

One thing I’d change — but doubt we’ll ever be able to change — is the public shaming of athletes for speaking their minds. You see this all the time. An athlete speaks candidly on a subject, that athlete is then crucified by fans (and some media) on Twitter, and then that athlete decides to clam up the rest of the season. He or she becomes a robot. This isn’t to say we outta celebrate outright madness a player may spew. But nobody should be complaining about clichéd, pre-packaged answers if they’re the same people complaining about an athlete speaking his mind.

9. What are three stories you read recently that you love?

“Who do you think you are? Bjorn Nittmo” by Tim Graham. Full disclosure: I’m biased. Tim is one of my closest friends in the biz. He’s a phenomenal person, first, but also a phenomenal writer. I’ll put his stories up against anybody in the country and this one, about a mysterious ex-kicker, is easily the best sports story I read all season. It’s vintage TG, from his curiosity to his heartfelt conversations with family members to his sublime writing. If you haven’t read this yet, do it ASAP.

“Weekend at Johnny’s” by Michael J. Mooney. There’s been so much written and said about Johnny Manziel already. His demise has been plastered across headlines everywhere. I loved this story in that it’s different than anything else written about the guy. Mooney follows the wreckage Johnny Football left behind. He goes to every bar, every club, every apartment to piece together the madness. It’s such a wild perspective that leaves you wanting more after each visit.

“After decades of defeat, Caltech finds formula for winning in conference” by Chris Ballard. This story was published a while back but was just printed in the 2016 BASW. Ballard is ridiculously talented in every way. His book “Art of a Beautiful Game” is required reading for anyone who likes basketball (and personally made me do a complete 180 on Kobe Bryant). And this story on a perennial loser learning to win is Ballard at his best. He’s so skilled at capturing personalities. His longform reads like a movie with conflict and conflict resolution. Loved this one.

10. You grew up outside of Buffalo and then worked at the Buffalo News. As far as I’m concerned, that makes you an expert in one very important topic: chicken wings. So tell us: Anchor Bar or Duff’s? What are restaurants outside Western New York doing wrong when it comes to making the perfect wing?

Neither!

At the risk of sounding like a snotty local, both spots are a bit overrated. If you’re in Western New York you absolutely MUST get your wings at Bar Bill Tavern in East Aurora. Believe it or not, we were just there last night. Bar Bill’s Cajun/Honey BBQ mix will have you crying tears of joy. I think their secret is using a paintbrush to spread the sauces on the wings. They’re meaty, tasty with just the right amount of zing. It’s not so hot you can’t savor the wing, yet not too mild you’re left wanting more.

In other words: Bar Bill supplies the quintessential chicken wing.

Restaurants outside of WNY too often don’t have enough meat on the bone, don’t have enough distinct flavors to offer and even serve the head of a chicken. Poor, poor Jared Cook.


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