A Q&A with Daniel Roberts of Yahoo Finance on covering sports media, the cuts at ESPN and the “daily hamster wheel” of journalism

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 Daniel Roberts, a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Daniel writes about a bunch of different industries, but he has done particularly great work on sports business and media and technology. Here, we discuss with him how he wound up covering sports business, what it’s like to cover layoffs and his thoughts on the recent cuts at ESPN. Daniel has fascinating insights into the world of journalism that I have no doubt you’ll want to read.

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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?

This is what I wanted to do from as early as middle school, which sounds extremely lame and sentimental but is the truth. I wanted to write feature stories for a print magazine. So after Middlebury I went straight to J-school at Columbia. (Boring, and I don’t recommend J-school to younger people when they ask me advice, because of the prohibitive cost and debt, but 2009 was a bad job-market year, and it did work out well for me.) From there, my first job was at the Bronx Times Reporter, a hyperlocal paper in the Bronx that was owned by News Corp.; our stories ran online at the New York Post website. From there, I went to Fortune Magazine, was there for more than five years, and then jumped to Yahoo Finance in 2016.

2. Before you came to Yahoo you managed Fortune’s 40 Under 40 franchise. It’s always a wonder to me how a series like that comes about. Doing it once seems hard and political, let alone doing it annually. What is it like to put one of those together? How much politics is involved? How much are you being lobbied by people who want to be on it?

The entrepreneurs and executives themselves don’t lobby, but their PR/comms people do—relentlessly. Unlike numbers-based lists like the Forbes 40 Under 40, or the Fortune “Best Companies to Work For,” which is led by an outside firm, the 40 Under 40 was an editorial product, meaning subjective, and that was both freeing and stressful. Our decisions were rooted somewhat in numbers like revenue, employee base and number of users, but also in hard-to-quantify judgments about buzz and potential. Many of the businesspeople that made the list were founders, and their startups were still new and rising and certainly not profitable yet, so it wasn’t always easy to determine whether they belonged, and if so, where they should rank. It made for lots of juicy debates among the Fortune staff. (Perhaps that’s all a long way of saying: Yes, of course the process was political, but we tried our best to also keep it fair, defensible, etc.)

3. What is covering the sports-media landscape like at this time? It seems like no company is really too sure about its business model—it’s all mostly a best guess, rather than concrete. Do you find the execs to be realistic or optimistic or pessimistic? And how do you find those execs to be different from those you’ve covered in other areas?

I think sports media faces the same problems the rest of the media faces—news as a commodity that everyone has, cord-cutting, proliferation of short bite-sized clips on social media (I mean both text stories/summaries/aggregations and video clips, like those text-on-screen horrors). It is not a pretty business right now. And the execs all acknowledge that, but they all also believe (surprise!) that their outlet or publication or digital media business is the one place that gets it and will somehow magically float above it all. But the reality is that whether it’s a legacy print title like Sports Illustrated or a digital brand like BuzzFeed, everyone is in the same boat. The only answer, I think, is to constantly adapt and evolve. No strategy is permanent.

4. What is it like to report on media at a time when no job is safe? Does it ever feel a little too meta? Every time I see a story about another round of layoffs somewhere, all I think is that it’s not me this time. How do you feel as you write about the growth, machinations and, let’s be frank, preservation attempts of your own industry?

Man, writing layoff stories sucks. There’s the tiny thrill of a scoop when you have one, but the sad reality is that the information you’re reporting will be received as another new cause for dismay. I’ve had this feeling with recent stories about cuts at Time Inc., ESPN and others. (Another realization you have when you write those stories is you discover it’s really only fellow media people that care and read media stories, unless it’s a big, big company.) That being said, it’s not the case that layoffs or cuts somewhere necessarily signals a major failure or disaster at that business. Companies sometimes make cuts and add new people in the very same month. It’s just the ups and downs of this (bad) business, for now, as consumers continue to settle into how they consume news and content.

5.  As we talk about layoffs, it’s impossible to ignore the big news in sports media right now: the massive cuts at ESPN. What did you make of what happened, and what does it say about sports media moving forward? In 2017, can a “Worldwide Leader” really exist?

ESPN is facing major headwinds, but it’s not going away anytime soon. It blows my mind how every single time we write about ESPN now, you get the comments and tweets from people screaming that they WENT LIBERAL and THAT’S WHAT THEY GET and so on. Even if you do think ESPN got too political in the last few years, it’s a misunderstanding of the business to say that’s why ESPN profits are down. People don’t (can’t, really) call their cable provider saying they want to cancel just one channel. ESPN’s problem is skyrocketing rights fees. Anyway, layoffs happen; this round was more scrutinized and felt more harrowing because it was people that viewers recognize, but ESPN has had far larger layoff rounds twice in the past five years. It has to adjust but still has time to do it. And laugh if you want, but yep, as far as I’m concerned ESPN still earns the title of ‘Worldwide Leader’ in sports television. (But in 10 years, will anyone watch traditional television?)

6. You recently wrote a pretty epic story about the messy dealings of Chat Sports and the seedy side of sports media business. How did you hear about that, and how did that story come about?

I was lucky enough to get a tip from someone who knew about the situation there, and that speaks to cultivating sources and relationships and carving out a body of work in a certain beat. The person reached out to me and gave me one version of the story, but as is often the case, once you really dive down the rabbit hole and start reporting and filling in gaps, you learn more and discover some things that might paint a different picture from the one you got from your original source. Suffice it to say, yes, that was a fun one, but also depressing in some ways, and it’s understandable why it incited such a response from sports media folks. Once one of the subjects of the story sent me an email in which he impersonated me (but, he insisted, just to show me what he was accusing someone else of doing… uhhhh), I knew I had something zesty on my hands.

7. What led you to covering sports business? Did you view yourself as a business reporter who wound up in sports, or a sports reporter who wound up in business? How important is it to be a sports fan to cover sports as an industry?

I get asked that a lot, and the better answer is neither: I’d say I was a sports fan who wound up as a business reporter and pursued sports-related business stories. I never followed business deeply before I went to Fortune and never would have predicted I’d cover business. But I also believe that once people have the basic foundation of reporting skills–knowing how to pick up the phone and call people, quickly email potential sources or officials, do some deep googling, etc.–most reporters can adapt to any beat. And while it’s great to build up some cred in a beat and have an area of passion, it’s also important to be versatile and broad (I also cover a lot of tech, for example).    

8. What, if anything, would you change about how the business of media is covered at this time?

I just want more outlets to do it. You can count on two hands (okay, maybe three hands) the number of great, prominent media reporters, and that’s weird. Publications should make media reporting a valued area, but instead, many of them are doing the opposite, cutting back on it (e.g. Politico recently), because it doesn’t always click.

9. You have an entry on your blog about going to hear Salman Rushdie speak. He gives out a salient piece of advice for writers. I’m not going to run the whole quote, but this part intrigued you and now me: “There are enough books in the world…If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing.” I love that sentiment, and I get what he’s saying for authors, but what interests me is what you think about it in terms of modern digital media. Can that same zealous approach work for the writer working today that must create #content and endless oodles of words to fill the ad space? There are mountains of posts and stories out there, and we always need more. For those that got into journalism or have stayed in it for the writing and reporting, how should they go about working in a job where selectivity and prudence is best, but asks for much more?

Great of you to notice that, and I’m sure you’re the first person to visit my blog in months. (Side note: I used to love blogging, but with the daily hamster wheel it’s hard to find the time, right? And these days, when journos do blog, they tend to do it at Medium, or they have a Tiny Letter newsletter; fewer, I feel like, are posting to a WordPress or Tumblr site. No time.) Yes, I am constantly conscious of striking a balance between doing short, newsy posts that have news value but probably are stale by tomorrow, and working on longer stories that might take a couple weeks and require reporting and interviews, but will, you hope, have a little bit longer shelf life. That’s the condition of the internet journalist, right? I’m very lucky that Yahoo Finance lets me do both. I’m well aware not all web sites are like that, but I also think that some of them do too much of the longform and give the writers too long a leash, which won’t help them if, god forbid, they end up in the job market again and have never been somewhere that required them to write quickly on a same-day news deadline.

I do think the hamster-wheel issue particularly plagues online sports media lately. Every day there’s a new viral story about a LaVar Ball comment, or a Joel Embiid Instagram post, or a Mets fan’s viral rant about the subway shutting down, and Every. Single. Sports. Site. does a post on it. And sure, they have to–some editor is cracking the whip, saying, “Hurry up, get it online, everyone is talking about this!” But it’s just a click game, and it feels pretty empty.

I did a tweet about this once and used a dumb Gronk story (him laughing at the number 69), but you could easily do one of these every day about any story you choose, but for whatever reason, the tweet got a lot of attention:

And while many of the replies were the equivalent of an eye-roll, i.e. agreeing with my implied point, some of the replies were kind of salty, from people thinking I was disparaging the writers that write these posts, etc. And I wasn’t trying to do that, but I do think there is something depressing about this daily game now where every single site writes the same post and the only difference is what headline they go with, and there has to be a better way to cover sports news online. Right?

10. You’re a Boston guy who moved to NYC. How do you compare the food scenes, and who has the better Italian food?

Ooooh, good question. I’d have to say New York (especially Brooklyn) has better food than Boston, including better pizza and pasta (uh oh), but no one–no one!–has better seafood than Massachusetts. Let me shout out the lobster rolls at Captain Frosty’s on the Cape.

In Cobble Hill, where I live, right around me there’s a slew of reliable spots I can recommend: Henry Public, Mooburger, Ghang, Joya, Hibino, Colonie, to name some of my picks. Enjoy. You can find me at Pedlar (coffee) or at Angry Wade’s (beer, popcorn, darts).

This was fun, thanks. Keep reading and supporting good work online, everybody!

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