Cottage Industry For Sportswriters p.

By: Mark Fitzgerald These days, you are as likely to catch a newspaper sports columnist on the tube or the radio as in his newsroom sp.

IN THE BEGINNING, there was Will McDonough.
The year was 1985. CBS was looking for a new analyst for its Sunday professional football pregame shows.
And the unlikely choice was McDonough ? not an ex-athlete or an ex-coach or a blow-dried television pro but a rumpled Boston Globe sportswriter who would keep on writing for the paper.
"What [they] decided," USA Today "Sports on TV" columnist Rudy Martzke said, "was, hey, we want some expertise on the NFL [National Football League] on our show and who better than . . . one of the best newspaper writers on professional football?
"Now nobody has ever accused Will McDonough of being the greatest-looking guy on TV," Martzke added, "but it worked out. And it started a cottage industry."
Did it ever.
These days, you are as likely ? in some cases, much more likely ? to catch a newspaper sports columnist on the tube or on the radio as in his newsroom.
Suddenly, the hottest new sports broadcasters work at newspapers.
And the biggest sportswriting names in newspapers are on the air: Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News; Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post; Bryan Burwell, Hal Bodley and Gordon Forbes of USA Today; Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times; Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, and ? it sometimes seems ? the entire Boston Globe sports staff.
This growing gaggle of sportswriters cum broadcasters amuses the godfather of the trend. McDonough well recalls the criticism he received when he began moonlighting on the air.
"I told people then that my paper seemed to think it was all right, so why should they worry about it? Now the same people who used to write about that crap are the same ones who ask me if I know how they can get on the air. I'm very happy that it's worked out," McDonough said with a wry chuckle.
What happened in the years that followed McDonough's first appearance on the air is that sports broadcast programming simply exploded.
Local broadcast and cable stations dramatically increased their sports
programming. Cable channel ESPN proved that there was an audience for 24-hour televised sports.
Soon, every city of any size had a local all-sports cable station ? and even a movie channel such as HBO was devoting hours and hours to sports programming.
This trend only accelerated in the past two or three years as radio stations throughout the nation switched to all-sports talk radio formats.
To feed this ravenous programming maw ? and to add quickly some professional cachet to these new shows ? broadcast and cable outlets aggressively are recruiting newspaper sportswriters.
Of course, broadcast news and sports departments always have looked to people with newspaper experience to fill their ranks.
Before Brent Musburger went to CBS and later ABC Sports, for example, he was a sportswriter at the Sun-Times.
What is different now, however, is that these new broadcasters are staying with their papers.
And when they are on the air, they repeatedly are identified as newspaper writers.
"I am a newspaper writer who is working on broadcasts," Albom said in a comment repeated in different ways by virtually all these new sportswriters/broadcasters.
Albom also is perhaps the best example of the "cottage industry" that this marriage of newswriters and sports broadcasting has spawned.
In a Chicago interview during his recent tour to promote Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk and the American Dream, his book about the 1992 University of Michigan basketball team of freshmen, Albom professed some wonder at the audience for ever-expanding sports programming.
"I'm amazed that people can watch the [pro football] pregame show, then the game, then the local news and a local show by the coach or whatever and then another network show ? three shows after the game ? and then tune into sports talk radio and talk about the same game. I don't know if it makes you smarter or just more addicted," he said.
But a rabid sports fan could keep himself occupied just following Albom around the dial.
He appears on ESPN's The Sports Reporters talk show and on the new ESPN2 network, which tries to appeal to a younger audience.
Albom also does commentaries on ESPN Radio. And, as with other sportswriters, he gets constant invitations to comment on radio call-in shows. In fact, his recent visit to Chi-cago provided a good example of the circularity of this new phenomenon: Among his stops was a midday radio show on WMVP-AM hosted by another newspaperman, Mariotti.
Albom's most visible forum, however, probably is ESPN's NFL PrimeTime Monday, which airs for a full 90 minutes before Monday Night Football on ABC.
He leads a fast-paced panel discussion with two or three other sportswriters.
Regulars Skip Bayless, who has been self-syndicated since the Dallas Times Herald folded, and Wilbon energetically kick around issues serious and silly.
Wilbon is no stranger to the electronic media.
He was a regular on a Black Entertainment Television sports program and before that appeared on a local Washington Post Co.-owned cable channel called Home Team Sports Cable.
And, of course, he has been a sportswriter for 13 years at one of the biggest and best-known newspapers in the country.
But NFL PrimeTime Monday, he said, provided entr?e to an entirely new level of celebrity.
"When I got [to PrimeTime], it was like getting a White House press pass," he said. When Wilbon introduced himself to Charles Barkley recently, for example, the Phoenix Suns basketball player snapped with mock indignation: "Don't you think I know who you are?"
"In 13 years at the newspaper, it was always the newspaper's reputation that mattered in getting access," Wilbon said. "Now, it's an individual thing."
Indeed, every sportswriter interviewed agreed that his access to athletes soared once he got on the air.
"I get much more respect ? and I say this with regret ? because I'm on ESPN," said Albom, who in 1988 made the sports pages when then-relief pitcher Willie Hernandez dumped a cooler of water on his head in the Detroit Tigers locker room.
"The comment I hear all the time is, 'When are you gonna hook me up? When are you gonna get me on TV?' They never say, 'When are you gonna write a big feature story on me?' " Albom added.
Or consider Burwell, who wrote for the Daily News and Detroit News before becoming a columnist at USA Today.
He experienced an overnight change in access when he began commenting on HBO's Inside the NFL.
"In 15 years in the business, I had been to maybe one [athlete's] house, maybe two guys' houses. Now I get invited all the time," he said.
"And the most amazing thing," add-ed Burwell, who has been confronted by his share of sullen athletes during the years, "is they want you to like them!"
This preference for journalists who are on the air probably does not reflect a disinterest in newspapers, journalists argued.
"A ballplayer likes to go on TV because he knows he's not going to be misquoted," McDonough said.
But just as athletes like the certainty of an electronic sound bite, electronic sports organizations prefer the expertise that a newspaper sportswriter brings, McDonough said.
"People are going for specialization. The [newspaper] guy is . . . a specialist," he said.
McDonough and others said the hiring of newspaper people is just a continuation of a trend that began long ago.
"If you look back, all through the 1960s, none of the people in the broadcast booth were athletes, all of them were [professional] broadcasters," McDonough said.
Broadcast sports had great success adding athletes and former coaches as analysts. Sportswriters are proving equally adept.
Indeed, the on-air staffs of the newest and hottest television sports shows are virtually all ex-jocks and print journalists.
"I'd say the odd man out is the guy who just studied broadcasting," Albom said.
"I think there's a little bit of an inferiority complex left over on the part of broadcasters, which isn't really [justified]," he added. "There are some who are very good, very professional TV and radio people. However, newspaper writers do lend a sense of authenticity, a pedigree of legitimacy."
Burwell recalled that when he was a field reporter at Sports Channel's New York Nightly, producers were "amazed" that they did not have to provide him with prepared questions for the athletes.
Broadcast sports news executives readily acknowledged that newspaper sportswriters have some built-in advantages.
"Local newspaper people are always a positive . . . [because] they are highly professional people who are experts on local sports and have a feeling for local sports interest," said Lorna Gladstone, operations director at all-sports radio station KFAN-AM in Minneapolis and its FM counterpart, KEEY. KFAN leans heavily on Twin Cities newspaper writers for its on-air personalities.
Star Tribune columnist Dan Barrerio co-hosts the daily afternoon drive-time show. Star Tribune writer Kurt Brown hosts the Vikings pregame show during football season and his colleague Steve Aschburner fills in regularly. Even the newspaper's hunting columnist, Ron Schara, has a weekly show.
But in sports-mad Minneapolis and St. Paul, sportswriters are not limited to KFAN's all-sports format, Gladstone noted.
"The interesting thing about the Twin Cities is that virtually ? no, not virtually ? every high-profile newspaper sportswriter is on a radio station," she said.
In addition to their instant name recognition, sportswriters with full-time newspaper jobs are cheaper for radio stations to hire, she added.
"There are often no [health] benefits, sometimes the salaries are lower [than full-time radio employees] and there are promotional relationships you can develop with a newspaper," Gladstone said.
But there are disadvantages, too, she added.
For one thing, sportswriters tend to minimize the very real skills that a broadcaster needs.
"They aren't broadcasters and many stations find that if they use too many newspaper people, there are problems. [Sportswriters] do not know how to hit a network break; they don't know how to go out on time," she said.
Newspaper assignments also limit flexibility, she said.
More important, though, newspaper journalism ethics limit these reporters.
"You can't take them out on a call to advertisers because that would be a conflict of interest," Gladstone said.
Indeed, newspapers and their writers are only beginning to explore what conflicts this burgeoning of on-air work may bring.
The Bible says a man cannot serve two masters. So how can sportswriters be journalists for two news organizations?
"It's a real important debate in this business," said Mariotti, the Sun-Times' top sports columnist and host of a midday talk show on all-sports WMVP-AM.
Like many others, Mariotti has a simple response. "I am the Sun-Times columnist first and foremost. I will never break a story on the air. If I have a piece of breaking information, I am never ever going to put that on the air before it appears in my column," he said.
Similarly, Wilbon said, "I feel my loyalties are to the Post. I won't scoop my own paper."
And Albom added, "The Free Press has been the most wonderful place in the world for me ? and I appreciate it. If I'm covering a football game for the Free Press, I'm not going on ESPN to talk about it. When the newspaper has me, it has me."
Occasionally, that attitude can be controversial. For example, when Lupica joined WFAN-AM in New York City as co-host of a midday talk show last spring, he too said he would not break stories on the radio station because his allegiance was to the paper.
"Nonsense," wrote Phil Mushnick, a sports TV columnist at rival tabloid the New York Post. "They [Lupica and his co-host, a local television journalist] have both provided themselves with per se conflicts of interest. When newsmen have conflicts, they're less inclined to expose the conflicts of those they've been charged to cover."
In most cases, though, broadcasters want sportswriters for their analysis and opinion rather than for breaking news.
"When I had the opportunity to go to CBS," McDonough said, "the CBS people . . . said, 'Listen, we don't want your scoops. We don't want to create a problem for you. What we want is your knowledge."
Nevertheless, McDonough consistently is the on-air NFL commentator with the most exclusives. So since the beginning, he and the Globe have had an explicit understanding.
"I went to my editors at the Globe and said, 'Look, I work for you from Monday to Saturday and I work for [the network] on Sunday," McDonough said.
That understanding is fine with Globe executive sports editor Don Skwar.
"NBC ? bottom line ? pays him a pretty penny to get whatever he has. For him to save what he gets until Monday I think would be asking a little much," Skwar said.
And there is no doubt that McDonough's appearances on NBC help the Globe.
"The pluses are fairly obvious to us," Skwar said. "He's recognized as the preeminent pro football sportswriter in the country as a result of his appearances."
And, Skwar said, McDonough's access to news is greater than ever because of his network connection.
The Globe gets the same kind of reflected glory from Peter Gammons, a contributing columnist whose ESPN reporting about pro baseball has earned him nationwide recognition for his writing as well.
Globe writer Lesley Visser also now is regarded as one of the best TV reporters on pro football. Basketball writer Jackie McMullan is gaining recognition for quality National Basketball Association reporting on ESPN's SportsCenter.
Writers tend to see their on-air exposure as a win-win situation for themselves and their papers ? and they mostly think that this fit should have happened long before now.
"Newspapers are always the last to recognize any forward progress ? on anything from using color pictures to whatever," Wilbon said. But many editors remain cautious even while recognizing the benefits.
"It's good exposure for the newspaper," said Mark Nadler, executive editor and vice president of the Sun-Times.
"It helps attract people out there who might not read the paper regularly. I hope radio works as a sort of teaser for the paper."
But broadcasting opportunities can wear down a sportswriter, Nadler said.
"Writing a column is a full-time job, especially for someone who writes as much as Jay [Mariotti]. We wanted to be careful he was not spread so thin it would lessen the quality of the newspaper work," Nadler said.
Indeed, when Mariotti took the daily WMVP-AM radio job, he agreed to drop his commentaries on the local CBS affiliate and on the local Sports Channel program Sports Fire.
"Secondly," Nadler said, "there's always a concern with these shows that their marketability depends on the quality of their information and opinion ? and, of course, that's what the newspaper has to offer, too."
Nevertheless, newspapers would appear to have little reason to fear that their sportswriters will desert them to go on the air full-time.
Take it, once more, from the godfather of the trend.
"You stay with the newspaper for the security," McDonough said. "Things change on TV on a whim."
That lesson was driven home to the Globe writer every August when CBS would take its publicity photos for the upcoming football season.
"Every year, the 'team picture' changed," McDonough said. "And now at NBC, my contract is up at the end of the year. Say they might not have pro football next year? What if I'd given up the Globe. Then what would [the media] do with a 58-year-old guy?"
Another factor keeps sportswriters ink-stained: To a person, they regard themselves as journalists first ? and they recognize the built-in limitations that brings in TV and radio.
"I'm very careful," Albom said. "I don't want to become a clown. The quickest way to get ahead [on TV] is to be a Dick Vitale, a John Madden. But I have the parameters of a journalist that I have to work within because ultimately that is what I am ? a journalist."
? ("I went to my editors at the Globe and said, 'Look, I work for you from Monday to Saturday and I work for [the network] on Sunday." ? Will McDonough of the Boston Globe, who in 1985 became the first sportswriter to do network TV sports commentary while remaining at his newspaper) [Photo and Caption]
? ("I am the Sun-Times columnist first and foremost. I will never break a story on the air. If I have a piece of breaking information, I am never ever going to put that on the air before it appears in my column." ? Jay Mariotti, Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist and host of a midday talk show on WMVP-AM in Chicago) [Photo and Caption]
? (Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mitch Albom (second from left) makes a point during an ESPN cable-TV sports program. Author Dick Schaap and Mike Lupica, a sports columnist at the New York Daily News, are seated to the right of Albom.)


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