A Q&A with Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the role of a columnist, trolling on Twitter and running shirtless in the rain

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 Sielski, a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Mike is a former colleague of Jared’s at The Wall Street Journal who went on to bigger and better things in Philly. He’s one of the smartest, funniest, most insightful sports columnists around, which makes him a perfect guest. Here, we discuss the future of the local sports columnist, his transition from the Journal to the Inquirer and some of his best and most memorable pieces.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way–at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

As a kid, I loved watching sports, reading about sports, and playing sports, and I always felt in my bones that my career would end up being in sports media. I worked on my high-school paper and wrote a monthly column for our local weekly, but I didn’t fall in love with writing and journalism until I was well into college at La Salle University. I started writing for the student paper as a freshman but didn’t enjoy it all that much. It seemed a chore at a time when I was trying to adjust to a new environment, take care of my studies, build a social life, etc. My second semester, I decided to pledge a fraternity. Figuring I wouldn’t have much spare time, I thought about quitting the paper. I didn’t have the chance.

One day, the sports editor asked to meet with me. He said he was quitting the paper and wanted me to take over as sports editor. I told him I wasn’t all that interested. He rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he said. “You’re the fourth person I’ve asked already!” Four people before moi? I immediately changed my mind and told him I’d take the job. My 18-year-old ego was bruised, and I was gonna show him.

There was one moment that crystallized where I was headed, where my heart was. My sophomore year, I was editing the sports section, writing a weekly column, and covering the women’s basketball beat. On a Sunday afternoon, La Salle’s women’s team crushed Notre Dame, a big upset. I was there, and I had a number of friends who played on the team, and I thought, Man, this was exciting and interesting, and I’m happy for my friends, and I want to capture what this game was really like. For the first time, I treated one of my articles like I treated all my academic assignments. I bled over the story like I bleed over my columns now. And when the piece came out, I received more positive feedback on it than I had on any of my previous stories. I had approached the article differently, more seriously, and people picked up on the difference. That was it. I was hooked.

I came across an edition of The Best American Sports Writing in a bookstore, bought it, and kept buying the latest edition year after year, reading the stories to see how the writers had reported and crafted them. I met Bill Lyon, the lead sports columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, whom I’d grown up reading and admiring, and he helped get me a job as a stringer covering high-school football for the paper. I wrote letters to every newspaper in the Philadelphia area, from Trenton to Wilmington, and got a summer internship at The Intelligencer, one of the two papers in Bucks County, Pa., not far from where I lived. I got into Columbia University’s grad program for journalism and decided that it was worth thousands of dollars in student loans to go to New York and learn how to report and write in that environment, with those peers and instructors. When I graduated from Columbia, The Intelligencer hired me as a full-time sportswriter—box scores over the phone, football on Friday nights, stats you kept yourself by scribbling in pencil on a legal pad (because pencils don’t smear in the rain or have ink that freezes in the cold). I was on my way.

2. One aspect of your career path in particular interests me. You left a job as a national sports reporter at The Wall Street Journal to become a sports columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, essentially going from a smaller position at a larger publication to taking a more prominent position at a more local outlet. How did you weigh that when you decided to make the jump? What is it about being a local columnist that appeals to you? What do you miss about the national gig?

Being an Inquirer sports columnist had been my dream job since college, but I had pretty much put the possibility out of my mind. I enjoyed working at The Journal, covering the New York Jets and the National Hockey League. I loved working in the New York market. When my friend Phil Sheridan, who was one of The Inquirer’s lead sports columnists, decided to leave the paper to take a job with ESPN, I called him, talked about his decision with him, and congratulated him. Given the gloomy economics of newspapers—this was the late summer of 2013—I never considered that The Inquirer would hire someone to replace Phil. I didn’t bother applying for the opening because I assumed there would be no opening. Two weeks later, John Quinn, The Inquirer’s sports editor at the time, called me and asked if I wanted to interview. A few days after our interview, John called again and offered me the job.

There wasn’t much weighing. Don’t get me wrong: I would have stayed at The Journal as long as it would have had me, and the things I miss most about working there are easy to identify. 1) The people there are incredibly talented and smart and diligent, and I made great, lifelong friends there and within the New York sports-media market. 2) Working in New York is a thrill—the competitiveness, the sense that you’re at the center of everything. 3) One of my favorite movie lines is delivered by Al Pacino in The Insider: I’m Lowell Bergman, and I’m from ‘60 Minutes.’ You know, you take the ‘60 Minutes’ out of that sentence, nobody returns your phone call.” I felt the same way every day at The Journal.

Still, it’s not every day that someone offers you your dream job. At The Inquirer, I have freedom—in topics, in tone, in style—that being a sports reporter at The Journal just didn’t afford me, and I know Philadelphia sports: the history, the mindset of the fan base, the kinds of stories that play here. Specialization is coin of the realm these days, and I think that applies to a local sports columnist, too. It’s one of the reasons Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post is so great; nobody knows and understands the entire New York sports scene better. He’s an expert, and The Post needs an expert in that role. The Journal, with a few exceptions, is an editor-driven place, and while its sports coverage has been in many regards imaginative and innovative, The Wall Street Journal doesn’t need to cover sports. The Philadelphia Inquirer does. Sports matters more in Philadelphia, to The Inquirer, than it does to The Journal. Plus, the columnist gig made life easier for me and my family. It was closer to home (we live in Bucks County), and it was more money. I couldn’t say no.

3. You have a lot of haters. There’s nothing wrong with that. You wouldn’t be doing your job as a columnist if you didn’t! But being on the receiving end of all that on social-media hate, what’s it like? How do you keep the crazies from getting to you? And how did you develop your Twitter persona, which often results in you snarking back at the trolls? It’s somewhere between satire and reality.

The really nasty and vile emails and posts that come my way bother my wife and my father, I think, more than they bother me. They’re just words, and until someone starts egging my house or sending me death threats or becoming a bona fide threat to my precious bodily fluids (that one was for all you fellow Kubrick fans out there), I’ll do my best to laugh them off. At The Wall Street Journal, I got emails like “Is Rex Ryan related to Paul Ryan?” A week after I started at The Inquirer, I wrote a column that was critical of the Flyers, and within 10 minutes of the column’s appearance on Philly.com, I got an email from a reader who wished that someone would defecate on my chest. I knew I was home again.

My Twitter persona is snarkier than I would like it to be; it’s something I’m trying to work on. Too many times, I respond to readers (or people who clearly haven’t read my columns but have an opinion of them anyway) in a manner that makes me look like a know-it-all or a snob or a jerk, and I don’t mean to come off that way. Often, I’m just chop-busting my friends and colleagues. Usually, I’m making my lame “My column:” joke, in which I post an outrageous statement (or what I think is an outrageous statement), add the “My column:” tagline without a link, and stand back to watch how many people get fired up over something I haven’t actually written. Most of the time, I try to deflect the insults with humor. I believe self-deprecation reveals character. It shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you can laugh at yourself, and it’s a nifty judo move to deploy whenever someone starts throwing 140-character haymakers at you. It gives them nowhere to go.

I’d be lying if I said the criticism and craziness didn’t get to me at times, if only because I try as hard as I can to do my job well and wish (selfishly) every single reader or social-media user understood and at least pretended to respect that. Though, obviously, I often write columns that aren’t gems, I don’t mail in any pieces. I do the work. I make phone calls. I talk to people. I think before I write. I don’t take positions that I don’t believe or know not to be true just to gin up controversy or have a “hot take.” I understand, I guess, that many people won’t separate my work from the jokes I make on Twitter. But so much of Twitter is just noise and junk and so many people who follow Philadelphia sports take things so seriously that it’s hard to resist having a little fun with them.

4. When I think “Mike Sielski,” I immediately think of many of the weird, wacky, hilarious stories you’ve written. One classic that comes to mind is when you talked to a zoologist about the football Wildcat formation. What is the inspiration behind those ideas? In a sports media landscape filled with tons of self-important work and blazing takes, how important is it to point out the absurdity of sports? How do you decide what’s too far? Is running in the rain shirtless like Tebow too far?

First, thanks for saying those stories were “hilarious.” I’ve been fortunate to work with two of the funniest sports columnists (and writers) in America, Jason Gay and Bob Ford. It’s tough to write funny, and I appreciate the kind words.

I suspect you think of the Wildcat story and others like it because I did more of those pieces when I was working at The Journal, particularly while Mike and I were covering the Jets. I mean, I spent a year covering the Mets and a year-and-a-half covering the Jets—including Tim Tebow’s entire tenure with the team—and if you can’t point out the absurdity of sports in those situations, you had better find another way to earn a living. And The Journal’s editors and readers loved those sorts of pieces, in part because most of them viewed pro sports as a diversion, a respite from the heavy financial, political, and foreign news that they were consuming in the rest of the paper and on WSJ.com.

Philly is different. Those stories were, at their core, silly, and there isn’t much room for silliness in the coverage of Philadelphia sports. Too much of the region’s collective cultural identity is tied to the success and (more often) failure of the local teams. If you laugh at Philadelphia sports, Philadelphians think you’re laughing at them, and they don’t take kindly to that. Around here, I can tackle the absurdity of sports better on Twitter than in an actual column.

As for the Tebow-style run, here’s the true story behind that: One day during the Jets’ 2012 training camp at SUNY-Cortland, Tebow was signing autographs after practice. It started to rain. By the time he finished signing, he was soaked, and with the entire media contingent looking on, he ripped off his shirt as he jogged off the field. It became a meme, as big or bigger than anything else he did during his time in New York.

A year later, we’re back at Cortland—we the media, not Tebow. The sky opens up again. Sheets of rain, lightning, the works. As the Jets stop practice and everyone starts to dash for shelter, my friend Brian Costello of The New York Post says to me, “I dare you to take off your shirt and do a Tebow.” I remove my credential, hand it to Coz, take off the gray polo shirt I was wearing, and sprint a few hundred yards until I’m underneath the concrete grandstands of the football stadium. I put my shirt back on, but Seth Walder of the Daily News asked me to take it off again so he could get a photo. I agreed to do so only on the condition that he not post the picture online. He said OK, so I took my shirt off just long enough for him to snap the photo, then headed up to the stadium press box to work.

After a few minutes, the photo appeared on Twitter. Seth had forwarded it to his co-worker Manish Mehta, who had posted it online. There was my ghostly paleness, for the world to see. One of my female colleagues approached me later and whispered to me, “You have nothing to be ashamed of.” I still don’t know if she meant it as a compliment or said it out of pity.

5. In your current job, you don’t focus just on one sport. You’re expected to be something of an authority on four professional teams and a bunch of colleges. How difficult is it to juggle all of that and stay up to date on so much? How do you go about doing that and building sources across an entire city and network of sports?

The same way you do it when you cover a single team or sport as a beat writer: You do your homework. You show up. You talk to people. When you talk to people, you try to ask thoughtful questions that make it clear you’re looking for more than a sound bite or a quote to fit into an empty space in your column. You make calls. You rely on the beat writers you work with—and we have terrific ones—for background. The notion that columnists don’t have to report, that they can write or opine from a pose of omniscience, as if God has touched them and bestowed them with insight that no other mortals possess, is ridiculous to me, especially now that everyone’s work is available online for everyone to see. You can tell who doesn’t do their homework. I don’t want to be someone like that.

Now, having said that, reporting/writing as a columnist and reporting/writing as a beat writer aren’t the same thing. As a beat writer, you have to get close to people who can give you information. At times, you have to protect them. As a columnist, I don’t want to protect or get too close to anyone. I have and have had good relationships with players, coaches, and executives, but when I criticize them, I try to be as up-front and honest as possible about why I’m doing it. Generally, they understand and respect that, especially if they see that you’re putting in the work.

6. What is the definition and value of access nowadays? You’ve said a smart rule for you is to go where the cameras aren’t. But access is also often used to give us insider-y type news and abused to write fluffy profiles. What is the right purpose and use of access?

First things first: I think we have to establish a definition of what we mean by “access.” There’s “access” in which a TV reporter gets a 30-second “exclusive” with an athlete, sticks a microphone in the athlete’s face, and asks, “How awesome is it to be so awesome?” There’s “access” in which sportswriters stand around a locker room or clubhouse, wait for athletes to show up, collect quotes, transcribe the quotes, and file a story that doesn’t reveal anything new or interesting. Then there’s “access” in which you take advantage of being around your subjects: talking to them, getting to know them a little, watching them, observing them, noticing details, understanding them and their day-to-day culture.

The purpose of access should be to let readers, fans, etc., know what it really going on with the particular franchises, teams, and people you cover—to give them a palpable sense of what it’s like to be there. I like people, as Harvey Araton once put it, to “walk around” in my columns. I like to see things, pick up on actions, facial gestures, dialogue, and let those observations and tools do the work for me. It’s the whole “Show, don’t tell” cliché, but it’s true.

When I said, “Go where the cameras aren’t,” I’m pretty sure it was in reference to a column I wrote on Thanksgiving 2014 about Mark Sanchez and his dad, Nick. Sanchez had a terrific game that day for the Eagles against the Cowboys—two years after he’d become a national embarrassment on Thanksgiving night for the “butt-fumble”—and I was there, in Arlington, to see him redeem himself. More, I had met Nick while covering the Jets. I could have written “Hey, Mark Sanchez had a great game in a big win for the Eagles” from my couch in between bites of turkey and stuffing. But I was there, and I had resources at my disposal that “access” had afforded me. If I hadn’t used them, The Inquirer would have wasted several hundred dollars on my plane ticket, rental car, and hotel room.

Here’s the thing: I definitely don’t think a media member or sportswriter needs “access” to produce excellent work. But if you have access, you should make damn good use of it.

7. You’ve written about Bill Lyon, a Philly sportswriting bulwark who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He is a mentor and friend to you. And you’ve written about your son and autism. Is it difficult to suddenly be invested emotionally in something you write and make your work personal? Did you hesitate about writing about either subject?

I don’t often personalize my columns, for two reasons. One, there’s so much first-person writing on the Internet nowadays, and so much of it is dull and self-indulgent, that I’d rather swim against the tide. Two, I just haven’t led all that interesting a life. So I try to pick my spots.

I had a different approach for each of the two columns you mentioned. For the piece about my son Evan, the juxtaposition of his love (at the time) for the Phillies and the detached perspective I have to maintain while covering them was the key. If Evan was infatuated with snakes and killer whales then (as he is now), I wouldn’t have thought to write a column about him. The Bill Lyon piece was a bit trickier, because even though we’ve known each other for a long time, and even though the arc of our relationship shows what a great and generous man he is, I didn’t want to make the column about me. I considered not including any personal anecdotes at all, but my wife and my parents persuaded me that the piece would have more impact if I personalized it.

The funny part is, once I settled on the approaches and sat down at the laptop, the columns just poured out. It was like I knew the words by heart before I even began writing them.

8. You wrote a little while back about Dan Barbarisi’s book about Daily Fantasy Sports and said it made you think about the type of sports coverage you and we should provide. Have you thought more about this? What kind of coverage should we be providing? Is it journalism? Is it content? Are we in the business of fan service, or do we no longer get to dictate what the audience reads?

I have thought more about it, and I wish I had a better answer than, “There’s room for a little bit of everything.” Obviously, the days of YOU’LL GET YOUR GAME STORIES AND BOX SCORES AND LIKE IT! are all but gone, and I love doing podcasts and talk-shows and all of that stuff. So much of your mission depends on where you work, whom you work for and what you think your audience wants and needs that it’s tough to make any kind of generalization.

I’ll say this: I’m glad that I work at a place and in a role where journalism and independence are still valued. And I hold out hope that the words still matter, that there are people out there who appreciate good writing, good storytelling, and in-depth reporting. At the moment, I’m finishing a draft of a longform piece, one that I’ve been working on for months. It’s really long (probably too long) and really detailed, and its subject has been out of the public eye for a while, and it has nothing to do with any of Philadelphia’s major pro franchises, and I have no idea how many people will read it or even click on the headline. But I think it’s a great story, and I love reading these kinds of pieces when they’re at their best, and so I’m going to trying to write the kind of piece that I like to read. We’ll see.

9. If TV programming is moving away reporting and highlights and being there and prioritizing debate and mindless blathering, what does that mean for the columnist in print and digital? Do you think the professional cachet of columnists has increased? Have you had to change your style at all because of that?

The value of being a general sports columnist, on a national scale, has declined, for the reasons I mentioned earlier about God-bestowed insight. Everyone has an opinion, and most everyone has a medium through which to express it, so why should we listen to what you have to say? The best national columnists these days—Dan Wetzel and Michael Rosenberg, Adrian Wojnarowski on the NBA, Bonnie Ford on the Olympics—make reporting the fulcrum of what they do. Locally, a columnist can build up credibility through his or her knowledge and experience—Vac in New York, Bob Ryan in Boston. I became a columnist for The Bucks County Courier Times in 2003, when I was 28, and I was under no illusions that people were going to care what a 28-year-old had to say about anything. When I got that job, I set out to be the guy who would make the extra phone call, linger a little longer in the locker room, or get an athlete or coach to open up about a sensitive issue. I haven’t changed that approach much, if at all.

I do think that the emphasis on debate and pontification has changed readers’ expectations of and reactions to any column that expresses a strong opinion. If I defend Sam Bradford or note that NBA teams are going to pursue Jay Wright, the default reaction, especially among younger readers, is to assume that I must be chasing clicks or trying to stir things up for the sake of stirring things up. It doesn’t occur to them that I might sincerely believe what I’m writing. Or that there’s tangible truth to support my position. Or—in the case of the Wright column, which I wrote the day before the 2016 national-championship game—that my only priority was to get ahead of a story that would soon become a popular discussion topic anyway.

That Bradford column is a good example of what I was getting at in my answer to your previous question, about approaching things journalistically. Once the Eagles made those two trades to get the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, there was this wave of excitement among fans and some media about the prospect of Carson Wentz’s arrival, and there seemed an expectation that everyone was supposed to ride the wave—including Sam Bradford, who had just been supplanted as the team’s likely long-term starting quarterback. But if you weren’t rooting for the Eagles, if you took a step back and looked at the situation dispassionately, it was easier to see what was going on.

10. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think you’ve gotten political on Twitter or in your work. That kind of makes you an outlier. Was there a conscious choice to avoid the politicization of sports journalism — it’s a thing, I’m told — or Inquirer policy? Is there any negligence in not covering the politics of and in sports, or should we still be separating court and state?

It’s a conscious choice. (We do have a company policy on the subject, but I don’t know the particulars of it off the top of my head.) I avoid getting political on Twitter and on Facebook, though, again, we have to define our terms. When I say “I avoid getting political,” I don’t mean that I don’t follow politics closely or have strong political views (I do), and I don’t mean that I avoid writing about topics where sports and politics intersect (I don’t avoid those topics). But I do refrain from posting any support or criticism of politicians and/or hot-button political issues, and I generally don’t insert politically related commentary or asides into my columns. I made a Donald Trump reference once in a column about the Flyers, but it was a reference to his hair, not to Russia or Justice Neil Gorsuch.

My view on this is pretty simple: Not everyone agrees with everyone about everything, and there’s way too much (digital and actual) screaming and yelling and screed-posting about politics nowadays as it is. So if I’m going to risk losing readers because of the positions I take, I’ll risk losing them because of the positions I take on sports, because my job is to take positions on sports. The morning after the presidential election, I appeared on a sports-radio show, and immediately the host asked me what I thought of the election’s outcome, and I said what I believed to be true: that no one listening cared what I thought about the election’s outcome. I was on to talk sports. Let’s talk sports.

If I weigh in on politics because I’m angry or pleased or just feel like weighing in, I figure one of three things could happen, and two of them are unhelpful. 1) A reader who agrees with me politically cheers me on and keeps reading me. 2) A reader who disagrees with me politically either stops reading me or doesn’t enjoy reading me as much. 3) A reader who agrees with me politically but is nonetheless tired of politics bleeding into every aspect of his or her daily existence gets annoyed and, maybe, stops reading me. The point of persuasive writing is to persuade, not to reaffirm your own self-righteousness.

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