A Q&A with Rob Dauster and Troy Machir, the creators of Ballin’ Is A Habit, the state of college basketball media, forging a media career from scratch and which writers can actually ball

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, we have something a little different: a joint Q&A with Rob Dauster and Troy Machir. Rob is college basketball writer for NBC Sports. Troy is a senior digital producer for CSN Mid-Atlantic. Mike has known each of them for a bit, back to the days when they ran the cult classic CBB site Ballin’ Is A Habit. These two guys didn’t follow anything resembling a traditional road into the sports media, and they have both moved on to full-time jobs in the industry. Here, they discuss breaking into the business and offer insight into how aspiring journalists can forge a path just by starting a blog.

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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?

Rob: So I played basketball in college, and when I graduated, I was kind of stuck in this spot where I didn’t know if I wanted to try to go into coaching or go into the real world and get a real job. I did the latter … and I was miserable. I got a job with a lobbying firm on K Street in DC and hated it. The salary barely covered my rent and I spent my day answering phones and collating packets that were hundreds of pages long. It sucked, and I found myself spending my days reading every single story on ESPN.com. To kill time, I started my own blog, which was originally just a place where I wrote terrible rants about the Yankees and UConn basketball. Within three months, I was putting more time and effort into that than I was my actual job, so I quit, got a job bartending and set out to my a career as a writer.

That blog turned into Ballin’ is a Habit. Within a few months Troy, who was coaching lacrosse at the time, joined forces with me. We moved into an apartment we could actually afford and, six years later, we finally found outlets willing to employ us full-time.

Troy: My first full-time job in journalism (more importantly: FULL BENEFITS) didn’t come until 2013. I graduated college in 2009. I spent four years working 2+ jobs in and around sports: SID work, radio broadcasting, TV production, game operations, HS/AAU coaching, event management, recruiting, marketing, blogging. You name it and I did it for at least a few months – to go along with my two semi full-time jobs in insurance marketing and event management. It was great and awful at the same time. I nearly gave up. I contemplated leaving the sports dream behind a month before I accepted the full-time gig. I had spent my formative post-college years working 6 days a week, giving up most weekends, working all the damn time. But it was so much fun because I (along with Rob Dauster) got to forge my own path and do it in a field I absolutely loved. When I did accept a social media editor position at Sporting News in early 2013, I knew it was because I went out and made something for myself. I didn’t work my way up a ladder. I didn’t get my foot in the door from connections. I had something to show people, I let my work do the talking and it was damn rewarding. It’s a corny tale of not giving up, but it kinda feels awesome having lived it.

I spent three incredible years at Sporting News as an associate social media editor and eventually the senior social media editor by the time I left for my current job, I had been sent to cover Super Bowl 50, flown across the country to do an interview with Ronda Rousey  and countless other things I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. I’m now in charge of a digital news desk for a sports TV outlet. I’ve deviated a bit from college hoops in terms my main job focus, but it’s never too far away.

2. Ballin’ Is A Habit, I think, was kind of a fresh way of covering college basketball on the internet. It seemed like college basketball sites had less of a national look and more of a segmented way of considering the sport because of school- or conference-based fandom. What were you trying to do with the site? What did you hope it would do for your careers?

Rob: Honestly? I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do with the site when it first started. I was a terrible writer. I had never really spent much time reading any independent blogs, and I was basically just looking for an outlet to express some thoughts on a subject I felt I knew a lot about. Initially, I would just watch the games, take some notes and then write my thoughts on what happened. It was so, so, so bad. (I’ve gone back and read some of it before, which was painful. I didn’t even know what a lede was.)

And that’s where Troy came in. He really was the brains behind a lot of it. He had all these brilliant ideas for #content: The Morning Dump (where we just linked a bunch of relevant news items or good stories), The Pregame Beat, The All-Hair Team, The All-Name Team, the Twitter Must-Follow List, the #POSTERIZED series. I don’t think we ever really discussed any long-term plan for it. We would just come up with stuff we thought was funny/awesome/unique and post about it.

Troy: Deep down, Rob and I are both smarter than people (and ourselves) give us credit for. OK, maybe “smarter” isn’t the right word. “More aware,” maybe? Something like that. But on the surface, we’re both pretty basic. It didn’t take long, maybe a case of beer or two, to figure out that we were both addicted to college hoops, liked talking about beer, food, rap music, and both wanted to end up working in sports media. That was basically the foundation of it all. Luckily, our visions kinda stayed parallel over the months and years and the rest worked itself out.

And I think everything worked out the way it did for three reasons: 1) We worked our asses off and made it hard for others to keep up. 2) Our talents meshed incredibly well together, him focusing on reporting/analysis while I handled content/management. 3) It was fun for us.

College hoops is fun. Drinking beer and eating nachos is fun. It never felt like work. Real work sucked. That was one of the motivating factors behind it all. We both knew what we wanted to do: We just wanted to say “screw this” and do it. We did. 

As for goals? Again, we’re basic. The goal was to get full-time jobs in sports media, preferably hoops. For me, I was focused on enjoying the journey and putting enough into it that the goal couldn’t be anything but success, whatever that success might be.

3. When did you know something had really hit with it and was taking off?

Rob: For me, it didn’t really hit home until we went on the #BIAHRoadTrip. We went to places like Missouri State and Belmont and actually had fans coming over to say, ‘Hello, enjoy your site,’ etc. I knew we were getting readers – Troy would have to fact check this, but I think we maxed at 75,000 uniques a month – but seeing numbers on the backend of Blogspot and actually having real people you’ve never met tell you they enjoy this thing you created is totally different.

The moment that always stands out to me actually happened last summer. My grandmother, who recently passed away, was a huuuuuuuuuuge Nationals fan, but she wasn’t in the best of health and never made it to her first game until last July. Her favorite player on the team was the backup center fielder named Michael Taylor (she thought he was cute). So I decided I was going to get her a baseball signed my him. I knew a guy that covered the team, and he put me in touch with a guy named Kyle Brostowitz, who works in the communications department there. I told him my story, and it turns out he’s a huge Marquette fan, had read BIAH and was always talking Golden Eagles with us on Twitter. Long story short, he delivered a signed Michael Taylor baseball to her – totally made her day – but for me, it was this, ‘Holy shit, people remember us?’ moment. I guess we were doing something right.

Troy: Sigh. #McBuckets or #DunkCity. Even CryingJordan.com. Take your pick.

But one thing I’m really the proud of is POSTERIZED. Rob gave me an idea, and I ran with it. It was basic: look for dunk videos, every day and every night. It was a fun project for me. It became part of my news gathering process. As we all are aware, people love dunks. It’s consumable material by all fans, not just college hoops junkies, so it was a vehicle to get our content out in front of everyone. We’d be the first to get an unreal dunk from an Arkansas Pine Bluff game, and if you saw it on a national CBB blog, Deadspin or SportsByBrooks (RIP) in 2009, it more than likely came from POSTERIZED. And by putting extra effort to make it my own, we really cornered the market in a viral area and gave ourselves yet another way to stand out. WHERE IS MY FREE T-SHIRT, FGCU?

4. As you got more immersed in college basketball reporting and in more mainstream media, how did you notice your assumptions about college basketball and college basketball reporting changing?

Rob: My big thing is that I always want to make sure I’m a fan first, meaning that if I ever get to the point where I don’t get excited by big dunks or I’m not fired up about sitting court-side for a huge game, it’s time to walk away. I’m not getting rich doing this. If I’m not waking up every day saying,”These people are actually paying me to do this?” then I’ll go find another job.

As far as the reporting side of it goes, college hoops has always been weird to me because: 1) There are literally 351 Division I teams and more than 100 programs that can be defined as high-major, and 2) it’s something of a niche sport even with all those teams.

Where college basketball matters, it matters more than anything else – Kentucky, Kansas, Bloomington, Wichita, Omaha, etc. – and when it finally reaches the national consciousness in February and March, it becomes the most important sports story for a solid six weeks before suddenly going on an eight month hiatus. It’s just a weird sport to cover.

Troy: I am terrified of change. I am in favor of slight alterations and modifications based on the world evolving around us. But wholesale change scares the crap out of me. I honestly haven’t noticed a lot about how online reporting of college hoops has changed from a technical reporting standpoint. I think maybe because I’ve always been somewhat self-aware when it comes to college hoops. I love it. I think it’s the greatest sport in all the land. But I’m also readily aware that not many share these sentiments. For the unwashed masses, college basketball is a one-month sport, and I am more than OK with that. Does it bother me that the national media tend to only pick up on it in mid-February? Not really, because they all missed out on a bunch of fun games in November, December and January. There is certainly more aggregation of basic college news, but I think that could be said about most sports.

5. What do you think of the fact that some of the best and most followed college basketball reporters now are people who came up through the blog route? I’m thinking you guys, Matt Norlander, Jeff Borzello, and I’m sure I’m missing others. I don’t think that trend has been reflected as much in other sports.

Rob: Honestly, I think it says a lot about the quality of the writing that was around on those independent sites. Because of the weird schedule of college hoops, I think most of the coverage online was done by beat reporters and college football writers that would make the switch to college hoops after the bowl games — the Pat Fordes and Dan Wetzels of the world. It created the void for the diehards that were looking for content during the earlier parts of the season, and those blogs filled that void. Then when some of the bigger outlets started hiring college hoops writers, they found themselves in a spot where they could hire someone for the beat or bring in a person that was already on the beat. Luckily for guys like me, they decided on the latter.

Troy: I love it. Guys like Norlander, Borzello, Jeff Eisenberg, Raphielle Johnson, etc. There was a great personal and community pride in all of us working on independent sites, building them from scratch, but all really working together, pushing each other and helping each other out.

We all get it. College hoops is a smaller community compared to NBA, NFL, MLB or CFB Twitter. But it also meant that we each could carve out voices for ourselves. You’d be surprised how much bonding you can do at 1:30am on a Wednesday morning when St. Mary’s is playing Pacific. Also, they’re all good people to be around and converse with. Norlander is a great guy. Same with Eisenberg. Raphielle Johnson might be one of the nicest people I’ve ever interacted with. Borzello, well, I can’t say enough about him. He’s an egomaniac; it’s great. If you need a guy to inject high-school trash talk into your group, he’s the only man for the job. Getting to know some of these people individually was great and not only do I value their opinions, I just enjoyed getting to know them.

6. Rob, what is the job of a national CBB reporter now? How much of it is focusing on trying to tell the stories of the players and coaches out there, and how much is trying to focus on recruiting? How do you view the job?

Rob: The recruiting aspect of it is always going to be important as long as there are one-and-done freshmen. It’s unavoidable, and it’s absolutely part of the beat these days.

I still think the priority of my job is when the kids finally get to the college level, but there are always going to be some interesting stories on the recruiting trail to tell. For example, I wrote a long feature this summer on Michael Porter Jr., who is one of eight kids in a vegetarian family where the dad is a college basketball coach that was hired at Missouri to get his two oldest daughters to play there and then at Washington to get Michael, a top-five player in 2017, to sign. That sounds kind of shady on the surface, but I reported the hell out of that and the real story is much more nuanced.

 Troy: Rob smells.

7. Troy, do you feel like college basketball coverage and what the readers want has changed over the last five years or so? People seem to be more antagonistic, especially against the NCAA.

Rob: My two cents:  I think there are more people that are anti-NCAA because of the terrific writing about why amateurism is wrong.

Troy: I think that for the most part, much is the same from a content standpoint. Most college hoops fans are fans of their college hoops team. A good majority only want a few things: detailed analysis of THEIR team, highlight-dunk, buzzer-beating Harlem Shake videos, rankings/lists and shock/controversy news. But I think with every passing year, tired tropes get cemented even more: criticizing Kentucky only for the page views, not covering the west coast, treating Coach K like a golden god, etc. This has affected the national perception of college hoops media. The problem is, people on the internet have opinions that cannot be changed. So the goal is continue to try and reach a section of audience you weren’t or hadn’t been able to reach in the past.

8. What would you change about how college basketball is reported on?  

Rob: Honestly, there isn’t much that I would change. I would love if every program was as accessible as, say, Wisconsin or Michigan State, and I would love if everyone I wanted to do a story on was willing to participate in the story I wanted to write.

I like that advanced stats and websites like KenPom.com are very much a thing in college hoops and I love that, as a whole, we the media have pushed back on the use of the RPI. And to be totally frank, I think that the folks in charge of some of the decisions in college basketball pay attention to the stories that we write. When there are cogent arguments made against things like the use of the RPI in NCAA tournament bracketing or calling the Round of 64 the “second round” of the NCAA tournament, the people in charge listen. That means the reporting’s working, right?

Troy: I do kinda wish we didn’t always have to look at the best players from an NBA standpoint. Even on Day 1 of the college hoops season, we’re talking about NBA prospects. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why, but I wish we could sit back more and just enjoy the journey. NBA Twitter is great but it’s like, ‘LET US HAVE OUR THING FOR JUST A LITTLE WHILE!’

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

Rob:  Wright Thompson on the Cubs is the kind of story that you’d think was made up if anyone other than Wright Thompson wrote it. This story on Jennifer Frey was really thorough and really depressing. And other than that, my reading the last month was about that thing that happened on Nov. 8 that sucked, so … I read The Girl On The Train on a flight last week. I’ll go with that.

Troy:  This is going to sound terrible, but I can’t even recall the best story I read this week. Not because there aren’t good stories. There are. Lots of them. But I can’t remember because I can’t even remember what this question was about. Today (Friday) was my day off, and I went into work for 4 hours. I can’t remember what I had for lunch. I don’t even know if I had lunch.

10. You guys were both college athletes. Troy, you were a three-year lacrosse goalie at Elizabethtown College. Rob, you played basketball at Vassar (and “took almost 90% of [your] field-goal attempts from beyond the three-point arc,” according to the internet). How has that influenced your writing world view? Who’s the best athlete amongst the college basketball reporter set? Who do you want if you’re starting a team?

Rob: Playing the sport has probably made me insufferable. I’ve already got enough of an ego, and I already think I’m right about everything, and now I have the ammo that ‘I played and you didn’t!’ Sometimes I need to take a step back and tell myself I’m being kind of an asshole. (Troy would admittedly agree with all of this.)

As far as the other reporters, I would absolutely start a team with C.J. Moore. He probably could’ve played in college. Jeff Borzello would be the last pick. He’s terrible, and I’m not saying that in the hopes that he’ll read this. The best athlete would probably be Bret Strelow or Myron Medcalf. Myron played college football and Bret is, I believe, a distance runner who is in crazy shape and shoots the piss out of it. We have a media pickup game every year at the Final Four and Bret is the dude who is still sprinting up and down the court while everyone else is sucking wind and sweating out last night’s Bud Heavys.

Troy: Journalists are often criticized for being nerds, goobers, dweebs and people who “never had their hand in the dirt.” I was a college athlete for three years (Top-3 all-time in E-Town save% history WHAT APPPPP!). I did the grind. I competed at a high level. I was a D-I recruit. I had to attend every class, every practice, an internship and still try to have a social life. So while I never hit a clutch 3-pointer in the NCAA tournament, I know what locker rooms are like and what is going through an athlete’s mind during a meltdown.

That doesn’t mean I know more than a writer who has never played, it just means i’m immune to criticism from the ignorant trolls and talking heads. The “you never played sports” argument is so dumb. People who study animal behavior were never animals themselves, yet we treat them as experts because they devoted their lives to the work. It’s the same with journalism. Does being a former college athlete give me a bit more clout? I dunno, maybe? If we only took advice from successful pro athletes, Magic Johnson penning long-form articles instead of Wright Thompson. Does anybody actually want that?

I think Raphielle Johnson was probably the best athlete. He was a wide receiver at Arizona or something. Norlander doesn’t look the part, but he can ball a bit. Borzello’s problem is that he’s incredibly short and while certainly a solid athlete at some point, he filled his own head with so much hype that we all know he ain’t THAT GOOD. Like: He’s OK. And that’s fine.  But he’s not as good as he thinks he is. Rob is a great shooter. I don’t know if he is good at any other sports tho. Softball maybe. He’s got two left feet tho. So it’s corner-3 or nothing. As an across the board sportsman, I think I’m the best. Notice that I did not say athlete: I am not fast and am not strong. I’m not quick (anymore). But if you take the college hoops blogosphere and put us through a multi-sport challenge: hoops, soccer, baseball, football, golf, tennis, hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, ping-pong, bowling, I am coming out with the best aggregate score. It is as simple as that. My goal in sports is to be able to show up at any random pickup game and always slide in as an OK-to-pretty good player. I’m 6’s across the board. A lot of these other guys are 8s and 1s.

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