Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blogger Interviews: Dan Steinberg

We're running a segment here at The Big Picture where we'll interview some of the biggest names in the sports blogosphere. What's the point? Well, these guys spend countless, thankless hours writing, so a little recognition from time to time is well warranted. Think of this as the blogger's version of a reach-around or something.

Joining us today is Dan Steinberg who is a staff member at The Washington Post and writes the kick-ass D.C. Sports Bog. You can find out what the heck the Bog is all about here. The picture above is brand new and we're mildly disappointed the old one's gone. Dan was wearing a very cool hat. We want to get one just like it. Anyway, here's Dan to take it away. Be gentle.

1. The rundown:

Name: Dan Steinberg
Age: 30
Location: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Journalist/blogger.
Favorite team: I grew up a Buffalo Bills fan. I haven’t really rooted for a team since I was hired by The Post five years ago. Seriously. The Washington Wizards and D.C. United have been most fruitful for blogging purposes.
Links to your favorite all-time posts you've written. (3-5)
Irish Igloo Part I and Part II
Roberto Donna Cheese video Part I and Part II
NASCAR fans eating fancy beer and cheese
Gilbert Arenas has phenomenal swag, text and video
Time per day spent blogging and perusing the blogosphere: 10-12 hours, I guess.

2. Take us through a typical day of blogging for you. And because you, unlike most bloggers, do real life reporting, how does that fit in? Do you head to a Wizards practice, for example, get some good material, and write from there? Details please.

This probably isn’t very interesting, but one of the founding principles of the Bog was that I would provide a morning dose of every link concerning every local sports team, from blogs to mainstream stories to online columnists. That was a major justification for the Bog’s existence. So when this thing launched in September, I would get up at 6:30, spend about two hours searching and reading and summarizing, post the morning links around 8:30, bang my head into the wall, look at online job ads, and then spend the next 10-14 hours trying to find other bloggable items, both online and out at actual events.

Gradually, I began giving up the morning links, for a few reasons. First, I didn’t think I was uncovering things that hardcore fans wouldn’t have found by themselves. Second, the formatting was such that the links were obscuring the rest of my blog. Third, so many of the newspaper stories were rather useless; no one really needs to read seven different versions of a Redskins game story, with the same quotes and stats over and over.

Fourth and most important, I felt like I had something that very few bloggers have: press credentials. I felt like I needed to use that to my advantage; that the things people liked about my stuff (to the extent anyone liked anything about my stuff) was that I combined those formal credentials with a blogger’s more informal sensibilities. So I figured the more time I spent away from my own living room, the better. Also, I was going to physically die if I kept going out to sporting events until 10 or 11 at night and then waking up at 6:30 to read sports stories.

By the way, this is not to say that a link dump doesn’t serve a purpose—it clearly does, and many people do that very well—just that it wasn’t how I was likely to find my biggest audience. My boss still isn’t 100 percent signed up with that idea, and I might find myself collecting 243 links about the Nationals tomorrow morning.

Anyhow, now I wake up a bit later, skip the mad search for every single repetitive Redskins story, and try to concentrate on highlighting details that aren’t likely to be in our paper, both from other people’s stuff and from my own wanderings. I have a Washington Post-issued air card, so I can blog from anywhere. If I go to a team’s practice, I’ll usually try to find a source of power nearby and spend a few hours blogging on-site. Also, once I’ve committed to a practice, I’m not allowed to not find good material, so if nothing happens I have to try to make “nothing happened” sound entertaining.

3. We're journalists and suspect we have many readers who are or aspire to be too. Since you blog (bog) for a newspaper -- meaning two things: 1.) They likely pay you 2.) You likely don't blog from your basement in your underwear like every other sports blogger -- can you take us through your career path and tell us how to go about getting a job in sports journalism?

Well, I blog from my living room in my underwear. Not sure how much different that really is.

The boring story is, like every kid who played strat-o-matic a bit too much, I always wanted to be a sports writer. My experience covering sports at Delaware (first story: equestrian team) made me think maybe I didn’t want to do be a sports writer. So I had a D.C. non-profit job, and then I spent 18 months working in the cheese department for Whole Foods Market, and then I again decided I wanted to be a sports writer, so I started taking down high school field hockey scores and making photocopies and talking to deranged callers as a Post newsaide. The truth is, a friend of a friend was in charge of hiring sports newsaides at the time, so I got very lucky with that, and I got very lucky with a few random writing assignments, and a bunch of editors were way nicer to me than they needed to be, etc, until I got a full-time writing job.

4. You went from covering a beat to becoming The Post's lead blogger, now covering, essentially, lots of beats. Seems like a great gig. How'd you swing it? You pitch it to the brass or did they come to you?

I don’t think I’d say “lead” blogger. So many of our beat writers are now blogging, and doing an unbelievable job at it, concerning subjects that are of intense interest to our readers, such as the Redskins. Whereas I write about what sorts of clothes the Wizards wear. But yeah, my deal is pretty close to ideal: no editors, no pressure to break news on the Redskins’ punting situation, no deadlines.

Two years ago I did a two-day blog from the ACC men’s basketball tournament. I believe I was handed that gig because I was youngish, and didn’t have a beat, and the bosses figured I knew something I might be able to relate to all these damn young people out there. I happened to come down with the worst case of the flu I’ve ever had right before the tourney, and I was extremely medicated during the whole event, and people seemed to like my overly medicated ramblings well enough. So then I did some other brief blogs, and then I went to the Winter Olympics in Turin and spent three weeks writing about the New Zealand curling team and Piedmontese cheese, and when I came back I had trouble imagining myself spending the rest of my career writing stories about which team won which game, instead of covering post-game parties in which New Zealand Olympic curlers watch an Italian rock band perform Dire Straits tunes in a community hall while their sisters and girlfriends dance in the back.. I just couldn’t maintain the illusion that these sports results actually mattered as anything other than entertainment. So I let it be known that I wanted to do something like this blog, and I got a one-year chance to see what I could make of it. And now the year is about halfway up, and I still don’t know the answer.

5. OK, let's get down to business here. Dan Shanoff was very complimentary last week and said your blog (bog), "Is the template for how every 'traditional' media outlet should be approaching blogs: Original reporting, distinct (and likeable) voice, fundamental understanding of the sports-blog universe. Steinberg has created the gold standard."

If this blog (bog) has had the success that it has, why the hell aren't other papers getting the idea?

Dan Shanoff, whom I’ve never met, has been exceedingly kind to me. I think it’s because I used to cover his high school’s girls’ volleyball team. (The Whitman Vikings).

And while I need every bit of pub I can muster, I think, on the whole, I’d probably disagree with him. There are certainly people who want distinct voice and lots of cross-linking from their MSM sports blogs. (Dan Shanoff, for example.) But I would guess that there are far more people who want a direct pipeline to the beat reporter for the Redskins, or the Trail Blazers, or the Red Wings, or whatever their favorite team is. That’s what the stodgy old papers can offer that the proverbial man-in-his-underwear cannot. And the best MSM bloggers will be actual insiders who learn to write like bloggers. Jason La Canfora, our Redskins beat writer, is building every bit the community I am over on his Redskins blog, and he’s doing so while also pumping out thousands of words for our newspaper, which still pays the bills. Beat writer blogs are fast becoming a staple, and it seems virtually every paper is realizing this.

And more and more beat reporters are finding a distinct voice in their blogs, which compliments what people really want (information). I think they’d be well-served by linking to the rest of the blog world, and I think they will, eventually. I also think every columnist will have a blog pretty soon, and that those columnist blogs will fill more of the role I’ve been trying to fill, voice-wise.

6. Many mainstream media outlets now have blogs, but they don't connect with the blogosphere the way you do. Why (or how) did you get involved with the sports blogosphere and how has it helped with the bog?

Is this where I get to start launching my polemics? I’m gonna say yes, it is.

I know this is a trite thing to say, but I really have no idea what a blog is, technically speaking. Seriously, I sometimes speak to high school and college classes about what I do (answer: try to find YouTube clips of local college basketball coaches doing commercials, go to locker rooms and ask stupid questions), and I have no idea how to define the concept of blogging. Seems it’s used for virtually any piece of online writing nowadays. In the sports world, let me mention two of my favorite NBA blogs. TrueHoop is a brilliantly executed collection of hoops news from around the country, largely made up of links with fairly brief commentary, which is mixed in with original reporting and occasional opinion pieces. Wizznutzz is a completely ridiculous satirical fantasy about one basketball franchise, complete with nutty original songs, fab t-shirts, esoteric Scandinavian reference sand borderline tasteless jokes. Aside from the fact that both sites reside on these internets, and that neither takes itself too seriously, they really have nothing in common at all. But for some reason they’re both “blogs.” (Oh, here’s something else they have in common: Sam Smith doesn’t read either one.)

So to me, the “sports blogosphere,” the way you mean it, is really a state of mind more than anything else. There should be a code somewhere -- maybe there is, and I never got my copy -- but it’s about not taking yourself too seriously, not taking sports too seriously, regarding other sources of information as a friendly help rather than competition, freely crediting those sources of information and rooting for them to succeed, harboring some strange resentment against ESPN and all its manifestations despite watching ESPN and listening to ESPN radio and subscribing to the Mag, signing your life over to the Internet (and heading to the Internet sober or non-sober), trusting that the grownups don’t really get what you’re talking about half the time, and rooting for the Deadspinners and Cantstopthebleeders, both, to win the battle for hearts and minds. By that standard, Truehoop and Wizznutzz both qualify as sports blogs, and despite what I said above, a large number of so-called MSM sports blogs do not.

For a variety of random reasons, I happen to find myself in a situation where The Post (which is as mainstream as it gets) is paying me a salary. But my mindset is probably more in line with the typical blogger -- if such a thing exists -- than the typical reporter, so I’ve tried to make myself a part of that world.

Plus it’s lonely out there. And if you mention bloggers by name, they’ll find your blog, and give you a click, which will please the bean counters who decide whether to keep paying your salary.

But I also think it’s generational. I just got back from a D.C. sports bloggers happy hour. There were about 19 people there. About 17 were white males under the age of 35 or so. Thirty years from now, what we once knew as blogs will be old and stale, and our children will make fun of us, and call us decaying, and make jokes about how we bloggers should just hurry up and die already. As much as Will Leitch and Matt Ufford and Unsilent Majority and the rest might rule the universe right now, there’s a pretty slim chance a 20-year-old kid will think they’re cool in 2053. So we’ve got to enjoy this while it lasts, and while TV stations are offering to put us on TV for no reason other than our association with that word, blog. I’m getting nostalgic already.

7. This might not be a fair question, but where will newspapers be in five years? And where should sports writers be looking for jobs right now?

I have no idea where newspapers will be. Wherever it is, it’ll probably be worse than where we are today, which is worse than yesterday was and slightly better than tomorrow will be. But I’m no visionary.

If I were a kid just graduating from college, there’s no way I’d take a writing job that didn’t include a significant online component. Of course, if I were a kid just graduating from college, I’d probably go to grad school at some nice Midwestern campus and try to become a history professor or something, so I’m a bad person to ask.

8. There are all sorts of wonderful blogs out there. A few you'd recommend?

Way, way too many to try, but I wanna give one more shoutout to the Wizznutzz, and not just because I’ve become friendly with the creative geniuses behind the site. They provide virtually no news -- hell, they provide virtually nothing that is true. They spend much of their time writing about NBA players who are no longer in the league, and people who don’t exist. They disappear for days at a time without explanation. But I idolize the site for one overriding reason: there isn’t anything else like it anywhere in the world. If I want to read that sort of deranged writing, or hear those sorts of soul-bending melodies about Peter John Ramos, there’s literally only one place in the world to go. It’s virtually impossible to be original when writing about sports, and they somehow pull it off.

Also, I’d like to second Shanoff’s argument in this space that the writing in blogs is often superior to the writing in mainstream outlets. The stuff at Kissing Suzy Kolber, for example, snaps more than just about anything you can find in the mainstream press. Reporting might be a skill that requires a fair bit of practice, but most of us have written a few sentences at one time or another in our lives. This blog stuff lets us all enjoy the snappy writers who were smart enough to choose another profession.

9. Most rewarding parts of blogging? Most frustrating?

In all honesty, it’s rewarding to be able to write whatever you want, without the constraints of space or time or the thoughts of an editor with whom you might disagree. And while I wouldn’t trade my position for a beat job in a million trillion years, it’s sometimes frustrating knowing you left a role where your work was automatically plopped in front of more than 600,000 people a day for a role in which you have to claw your way to an audience that’s much, much, much, much, much smaller than that.

10. Glaring differences between newspaper reporting/writing and blog reporting/writing?

Aside from deadline gamers, everything I write now is created more quickly than everything I used to write. Paradoxically, the things I write now are probably better thought-out, because I know there’s no safety net, that whatever I write needs to be exactly as I want it. I also can be more lax with some facts; when Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson are saying ridiculous things, I can publish their quotes and say “I have no idea if this is true.” That raises serious journalistic issues, which I prefer not to consider right now.

The voice, though, is the main thing. I try to make my blog posts sound like e-mails to a small group of friends. I use first-person incessantly. I make as many jokes as possible. I include ungodly numbers of asides. I skirt the boundaries of good taste. I never need to write artificial, ponderous prose about important third-quarter stops. I never have to quote boring coaches saying boring things. I never have to compare athletes to the Messiah.

11. In your photo on the bog, you're wearing a neat hat. Tell us you wear that all the time. Like all the time.

The photo changed! I thought I looked dumb, so I asked for a normal picture. That hat was a wonderful present from my wonderful wife, but she had my hat size wrong, and it doesn’t really fit. I don’t wear it outside of the house. Sorry.

12. We'll leave you with this: like we already said, you do real life reporting meaning you talk to real life athletes. Who's often a good interview? Who's duller than a brick wall?

Um, Gilbert Arenas once in a while says something interesting.

No, seriously, I’ve found a whole mess of the Wizards way more entertaining than they have any right to be, from Brendan Haywood to DeShawn Stevenson to Caron Butler to Roger Mason. Bobby Boswell of D.C. United will be a multimedia star. Former D.C. United forward Alecko Eskandarian is brilliant with the media. I could mention several more players from those two teams in particular.

Coaches, in general, are blogging death. Coaches don’t screw around. They don’t want to talk about their wardrobe or their iPods or their fantasy football teams. They want to win games. Which is totally boring.

(Past interviews; also found on right sidebar: Dawizofodds; Matt Ufford; The Mighty MJD; Jamie Mottram; The Big Lead; The Cavalier; Will Leitch; Dan Shanoff).


THN said...

When did the love die?

Signal to Noise said...

(golf clap)

Good job.

Unsilent Majority said...

I was extremely medicated during the whole event, and people seemed to like my overly medicated ramblings well enough

Gonzo Journalism baby!

mutoni said...

seriously, throw adam a bone! i can't take his wailing anymore :)

The Big Picture said...

haha mutoni. adam knows his time will come...

Thigh Master said...

i think for this interview, you shoulda renamed the comments, 'pithy comments'

twins15 said...

As always, great stuff Zach and something I always look forward to reading.

MDG said...

There were about 19 people there. About 17 were white males under the age of 35 or so.

I had the group pegged at all under 31. And one of those 19 had never read a blog in her life. Not that I'm complaining cause she was cute.

Marco said...

Another great blogger interview

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

I love blog can ask the questions readers care about, and not get stuck on the kind of questions that drove people to blogging in the first place.


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