A Q&A with Yaron Weitzman on access journalism, dealing with PR people and covering the modern NBA

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 Yaron Weitzman. a fantastic basketball writer who covers the Knicks and the NBA for Bleacher Report. Yaron has an interesting background and consistently churns out some of the most interesting and creative sports stories you will ever read, which makes him the perfect guest. Here, we talk about the modern journalism landscape, how he comes up with all those fun story ideas and what it’s like to cover basketball as an observant Jewish person.

  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?

Is this the part where I’m supposed to talk about how I’ve always been a lover of journalism and reading and how as a kid I would carry Hemingway with me wherever I went?

The (sort of) CliffsNotes: I’ve always loved sports. But I also basically stopped growing after, like, my freshman year of high school (my basketball card would list me at 5-foot-8), and, well, when it comes to my athleticism, the Jew in me is strong. In other words, playing any sports at any level past high school was never really an option. At first I thought I wanted to be either an agent or a GM (yuck, I know). I went to NYU to study sports management—and quickly learned that business, of any sort, wasn’t really my thing. So I joined the school newspaper and started writing (mostly bad Bill Simmons imitations, but I guess we all start somewhere). I enjoyed it, and thought I was pretty solid. I thought about switching majors, but the credit math would have been tough, so instead I sort of gave myself a crash course in journalism: reading, meeting with accomplished writers/journalists (I have to give a special shoutout to Jeff Pearlman here), expanding my scope. The ironic part is that in high school I hated reading; I’d choose my summer reading assignments based on which books had been turned into movies and wouldn’t read more than the SparkNotes. (Do those still exist?)

Anyway, after college I did the networking game and a friend of my grandmother’s gave my résumé to the sports editor at the Journal News in New York, who gave me a part-time job covering high school sports. Around the same time I worked another connection—one of my best friends went to college with Tzvi Twersky, then an editor at SLAM. That internship was huge for me; SLAM, and Ben Osborne, the former EIC there, gave me so many amazing opportunities, and I basically wrote for them from 2011 until last month. Along the way I got a part-time gig at SB Nation and started freelancing more. I pitched an Adam Morrison where are they now? profile to Bleacher Report, which came out well and got me in the door there, and, well, here we are.

  1. You, of course, now cover the Knicks and the NBA. But you started your career much lower in the journalism hierarchy, covering prep sports for the Journal News, a local paper in New York that serves Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. (Jared interned there and briefly worked there before joining the Journal, too.) It used to be that this was how journalists advanced in their careers, rising from small local papers to bigger, more prominent outlets. Increasingly, however, we see young people straight out of school jumping immediately onto major beats. How important for your career was it to have the experience covering local high school sports before the pros? What did you learn from that that applies to covering pros?

Fun fact: I’m pretty sure I sat at Jared’s former desk.

For me, that job was everything. I refer to it as my graduate school journalism program. A lot of that is because before that I didn’t really know what being a journalist was; again, I thought it meant writing like Bill Simmons (and this is not meant as a jab at Simmons). I know it’s a complete cliché to be the writer who talks about the small town newspaper that taught you everything you know, but for me that really is the truth. That gig taught me how to write fast; work the phones for basic information, i.e., begging a high school softball coach to give you her scores and stats from that night so you can pass them along to your editor for the next day’s paper and finally go home; write on deadline; get facts right (I may or may not have misspelled three names in my first ever story for the paper, for which I was, rightfully, nearly fired)… all the basic tools journalists need.

So, to answer your second question: I don’t know (how’s that for a take?!). I think the important thing for anyone just starting out is to work somewhere where you’ll able to: A) report, B) write fast/on deadline, C) receive some editing. (Also, I’ll add one more: a place where you learn that stories and facts matter and that there’s a responsibility that comes with writing about people, something you really learn when the JV basketball player’s mom tells you she hung up your story on her fridge but also wishes her maiden name was spelled correctly.)

Unfortunately, these sorts of jobs are vanishing, and in this crazy field you need to take what you can get, but being at a place where those things existed made my career. Can that happen at the pro level? Sure, why not. It will be harder, and you’ll be in the spotlight, meaning mistakes will get more attention. But it can be done. And, with local journalism vanishing, I’m not sure young writers have much of a choice.

  1. You do a lot of things really well as a reporter, but one type of story you’ve appear to have mastered is looking back at an NBA player after retirement and bringing you inside his life. You’ve profiled Cherokee Parks, Jared Jeffries, Rony Seikaly, Sebastian Telfair and more. What about these kinds of stories appeals to you? How do you go about finding them? What value do you think they serve?

(Please feel free to keep e-mailing me these sort of compliments for the next few weeks).

For one, I just find that older guys, be them former players or current vets, have more to say. This is not a knock on young players; you just absorb the world differently when you’re, say, 22. I find stories about young players (assuming you’re like me and want to do all you can to avoid the chip on the shoulder theme) evolve more into stories about what those players represent about the NBA and culture, or what their lives can teach us about the world (and obviously there are MANY exceptions to this, such as DeAndre Ayton, which was a pleasant surprise). The older guys, on other hand, have lived. To put it in basic (nauseating) storytelling terms: Their lives have more concrete arcs, ones they understand and are able, and willing, to articulate.

Also, on a practical level: the older guys are often just easier to get to. There are, like, 15 levels of PR people/agents standing between reporters and NBA players, and with the young dudes, everyone’s more guarded, meaning not as open to talking about some of the “negative” stuff in their lives. I say “negative” because often these details or stories are not negative but, rather, human, which is the stuff that allows readers to connect with a story. Retired guys, on the other hand, are often just a call away, and vets can usually make their own calls in terms of media (J.J. Redick, for example, is fantastic at being his own “PR guy,” which, of course, makes sense because he’s an adult and knows what he wants to talk about and what he doesn’t).

  1. Another type of Yaron story I enjoy are the ones that take the reader inside a weird subculture of the NBA. There’s this one about NBA butt-slaps. And this one about players agreeing to take plays off. Or this one about the NBA players reacting to the final days of AIM. How do players react to being act questions like that, ones that are clearly far beyond the norm of what they are typically asked about? Have you encountered any who don’t play ball with you or recognize the lighthearted nature of these stories? Again, how do you conceive of the ideas?

Man, you’re asking me to give away the secret sauce. I got no fallback plan, man. If too many other people start doing this stuff I’m screwed.

I’ll start with where these ideas come from, because that kind of answers the first question, too. Basically, it’s sort of a back-and-forth with my editor (shoutout to the brilliant Chris Trenchard!). So the butt-slaps one, for example, was all him, I believe. He’d seen something happen during a game the night before, asked me if I’d like to ask some guys about it and we got a story out of it. Others, like AIM, just came from me reading the Times one day and seeing the news that AIM was going out of business. I’m always reading with an eye for story ideasm and I thought that could be a fun idea. Basically anything that I find interesting or funny (sports are fun after all, right?).

This sort of leads us into the first question. After I have an idea like that, I have to test it, right? I’m around the Knicks the most frequently and there are a few guys in that locker room I sort of lean on. Ron Baker is one. Kyle O’Quinn sometimes, though he’s VERY hit or miss, but if he wants he can give a great quote. Lance Thomas calls me “Random Question Guy,” which I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it works. Basically, by this point I kind of know which Knicks players I can start the reporting process with, and from there I just cast a wide net as teams come through New York and Brooklyn. There are definitely times where guys don’t really get what I’m trying to do, but for the most part I think they’re so thrilled to be asked a question that has nothing to do with, like, free agency or a third quarter turnover that they’re open to it.

I think the best example of how these stories come about, though, is the one about players agreeing to take plays off. Originally, Trenchard had sent me a note seeing if I wanted to ask guys about the unwritten rules to how players line up for rebounds before for foul shots. I asked Trey Burke about it, he didn’t really have anything for me, but said that guys sometimes ask each other whether they’re going for the rebound. That was the first I ever heard of that, which piqued my interest. I asked around and found that this was a legit thing.

Basically I just try to notice if I find myself noticing anything, ask the right people the right questions, and go from there.

(God, I hope I don’t sound like a blowhard.)

  1. You tweeted this recently. For reporters, it’s wasn’t a surprise to see a PR person asking to see the story in advance. We’ve all gotten it from time to time. We obviously say no. How do you react when this kind of ask is made? Do you think readers are aware of the push/pull between reporters and PR/agents/subjects? How often do you feel like you’re being asked to pass ethical lines?

I mostly laugh—and give the PR person credit for shooting his or her shot. I have no issue with them doing it; it’s their job to control the story as much as possible. If someone is willing to give in there, well, job well done.

But, I’m going push back on something you said: “We” obviously don’t all say “no” because if “we” did then PR people wouldn’t even ask. Clearly, some writers/outlets are acquiescing to this request, and it’s just making this gig more difficult.

As for your questions about whether readers understand what’s going on behind the scenes: No, I don’t think the majority fully grasp just how much of an access business sports writing is and how that access dictates so much of what comes out. I think most of us who do this regularly have at least caught glimpses of how the sausage is made, and how so much of the reporting—I’ll say around the NBA since it’s what I know best—is based off access. Obviously all reporting is relationship based, and building relationships is what good reporters do. But I do think there’s more horse trading and favor-doing around the world of NBA journalism than exists in other journalism fields. An example: I was once working on a story an agent didn’t love and he said to me something along the lines of: “Just ask Big Time Reporter X how much we can help your career if you’re on our side.” I do not think I’m the first NBA reporter to be offered this sort of bribe.

  1. A personal question: You are an observant Jewish person. You also happen to be a sports writer, an industry where games are often played on Friday nights and Saturdays — the Jewish sabbath. How have you maneuvered your work life around your religious obligations? Has it ever been an issue with potential employers? How and when do you bring it up? Basically, how do you handle the two aspects of your life?

I’m disappointed with you for not making a reference to “The Big Lebowski.”

So for one, I’ve benefited from the digital media age, where even though we cover sports 24/7, for the most part there are not many “stories” (features and columns) being published on weekend. Most of the time the posts are quick-hitting recaps or, like, social media highlights. So that’s been helpful.

I’ve also purposely tried to avoid the straight beat writer path. I’ve never had a job where I have to file a story after every game, and probably never will. It’s just something that can’t be done if you’re a Sabbath observer. I figured out early on that if I wanted to do this job I needed to focus on writing stories that wouldn’t be tied to the 24-hour news cycle. And, yeah, I’m probably restricting myself a bit, but I’ve always just looked at is as obstacle that can be overcome with hustle and hard work, and organization/planning. So is it ideal that I can’t go to NBA games on Friday night? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it prevents me from doing my job. Maybe I just have to go to an additional practice or start reporting a story a few days earlier.

The hardest part for me has been having to explain to, say, a PR person that the NBA All Star who I’m waiting to hear from for a profile has to call before sundown on Friday night and can’t call me on Saturday. That’s a tough one, and, to be honest, has probably cost me a few stories (this can become really difficult when doing the freelance thing). And when that happens it sucks. Same goes for when someone texts you something that could be news, but you don’t see it until hours later, and by then the news has already trickled into the world. But this lifestyle is a choice I’ve made, and once you accept that there’s nothing that can be done in these situations, well, you just move on to the next thing. That’s not to say I don’t get angry or frustrated, but I try not to wallow for too long.

I have to add, though, that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have bosses, and colleagues who are not only understanding, but have never given off a hint of frustration over the restrictions. Ben Osborne at SLAM and now at Bleacher Report (that Tzvi Twersky, who I mentioned earlier, is also a Sabbath observer, worked there too no doubt helped). Chris Trenchard at B/R. Even the sports editor at the Journal News when I was there, a guy named Sean Mayer. He gave me a job even though I couldn’t work Friday nights, which in the world of high school sports is, well, not ideal. But I worked Saturday nights and Sunday nights instead, and Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which my colleagues appreciated, and which is really the attitude I’ve taken with me—Friday night and Saturday day might be out, but I’m “on” any other time any other day.

One side note: As I get older, and I have a wife and kid now, I find that the benefits of being “forced” to unplug for 24 hours, meaning no phones, computers, TVs, etc., far outweigh the negatives. Whoever came up with the Sabbath restrictions—be it some sort of deity or a bunch of men sitting in a circle in the Sinai—knew what they were doing with those rules.

(The whole “husbands need to give a divorce if a wife wants one” thing, though, not so much.)

  1. What would you change about basketball writing if you could?

Interesting question. I think my biggest gripe is how access has been mostly cut off. But I don’t mean this in the typical grumpy sports writer way. Like, I’ll never begrudge a player for not wanting to do an interview. For the most part, I view all interviews (unless it’s on something more hard-hitting) as favors, meaning something an athlete is under no obligation to give.

What bugs me, though, is how PR people often rob athletes of the opportunity to talk. Whether it’s a request that never makes it to the athlete, or making the athlete think that any story that’s not, like, 1,000 words about their favorite charity is a hit job. I think a lot of today’s players are smart and interesting and have smart and interesting back-stories and thoughts but are coached up so much that they’re afraid to open up. Which is fine, but that’s also why, I think, so much of today’s NBA coverage is GM-centric and transaction focused. That’s the side of the business that is open.

My favorite example of this is the Dion Waiters essay that ran on the Players’ Tribune. There are so many PR people that would have killed all the meat in there, which is fine, but then no one would have read it. Instead, everything that is real was left in and the story went viral—and Dion got to tell his story. I think that’s a good lesson. Not everything has to be squeaky clean. Human traits, personality—that’s the stuff readers find interesting.

Also, if I’m already on my soapbox, less acceptance and reliance on anonymous “league sources”—and I’m saying this as someone who’s very guilt of throwing quotes from “league scouts” into his stories. Woj, who of course is a God, changed the game and I know many reporters feel they don’t have a choice but to follow in his path if they want to try to keep up. Like, if you’re reporting on a team exploring trade opportunities for a current player I get why a GM might not want to be quoted, and why you’d allow that. But I don’t see why a player opting out of his deal can’t be attributed to an agent as opposed to a “league source.”

  1. You recently ran a great piece in The Athletic about Bert Blyleven’s son and the Las Vegas shooting. I know that took a while for you to land somewhere. How much shopping around do you have to do on your stories? How have you found the state of the freelance market right now, and compared to, say, two years ago?

Speaking of freelance market—how much am I getting per word to fill out this megillah?

And the answer is, obviously, that it depends. Right now all my basketball writing is for B/R, so I’m not freelancing as much as I did the past couple of years. Of course, because this is how these things go, I find it easier to get stories placed now because I know more people from the biz (such as Emma Span at The Athletic, who did a great job editing that piece). Also, I just don’t think I was very good a few years ago.

But it’s hard, man. Especially at first, when no one really knows who you are. The hardest part, I find, and found, is doing the dance between pre-reporting a story so you know you have something before you pitch it while figuring out how to get that reporting done when you don’t technically have a home for the story yet. Also, you’re doing all that on spec, which sucks. What worked for me was having some steady writing gigs while doing all that freelancing. I know there are people that make a living freelancing, but I think most of them have contracts with outlets. Otherwise, I’m not sure how you can do it.

  1. You used to work at SB Nation and you’ve tweeted about your experience there. The site has been in the news (read: Deadspin) for how it pays (and doesn’t pay) its writers and staff. For some sportswriters SB Nation, or a site similar to it in pay scale, is the first introduction into the professional world. How do you evaluate your experience there?

How do you weigh the shittiness of writing for meager pay, or for free, against the necessity of finding outlets for your work and being seen?

Yeah, that’s an interesting place. I spent two years there, mostly working on what they call the NBA desk, which means eight hours at a computer two-to-three days a week. They pay you $10/hour for that. Not exactly fair wages.

On the other hand, I certainly got a lot out of it. My editor there was really one of the first people to closely edit my basketball writing, and he helped me immensely. And you definitely get some exposure there, which is nice. And there were, and still are, lots of great people at SB Nation. But overall I wasn’t a huge fan of the system. It’s not the money; I don’t, and didn’t mind hustling. It was the feeling that you were being treated like a very replaceable (which, obviously, I was), un-valued cog in a huge machine. An example: I’m still waiting for a response from my editor to the goodbye/thank you email I sent, after working with him for, you know, two years. Another example: The NBA All-Star Game was in New York one year while I was there (I’m too lazy to look up the year*) and I figured SB Nation would love to have some more boots on the ground at some of the media events the days before, and I offered to go, on a scheduled off day, and was told, “Nah, don’t worry about it.” Which, I mean, fine. But that kind of symbolized my whole experience there and why I couldn’t wait to move on. Being at SB Nation meant being in a box. I don’t think that part is great for young writers.

And yet, it definitely made a difference for me in my career. I don’t look back at those two years fondly, but I don’t regret them either. It’s the hustle, I guess. Do some stuff you don’t love so that hopefully one day you can do more stuff you do. But, yeah, Laura Wagner’s reporting on SB Nation has made me very happy and was very necessary, and I’m hoping it helps younger writers going forward.

*Editor’s note: It was 2015.

  1. You have a personal website, where you talk about yourself in third person, your own newsletter, and we’ve talked often about how awkward it is to promote yourself. How much of sports journalism now is brand promotion and salesmanship (of yourself, obviously)? Do you ever feel like having shame is a bad thing?

You’re asking me about shame? I just used, like, 3,500 words to talk about myself. But, yeah, I feel like that’s a big part of the game now, right? We both know places that base their hiring decision off how many Twitter followers a writer has. (This is not good for me. I’m hoping this Q+A helps. Really, it’s the only reason I’m participating.)

Jokes aside, it’s definitely awkward, at least for me. It doesn’t come naturally to me. But it all matters. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but there are times when I’m riding the subway and see an email with an invitation to do a radio interview and so I’ll get off the subway just to do the interview. I mean, I guess you don’t want to come off as a Rovell-ian, self-promotion monster. But there’s a definitely a game to be played, which sucks, and is probably not something that, like, Sy Hersh wants to hear. But it’s just the way things are. There are worse things in life than feeling the need to talk about yourself.

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