The Byliners is a new series featuring the best sportswriters in journalism today. The format will traditionally be Q&A with an emphasis on sports journalism landscape, how technology has reshaped sports reporting and what print publications are employing to be successful in the future.
Larry Stone is a veteran sports columnist and national baseball writer for the Seattle Times. He was named the 2011 National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Sportswriter of the Year Award in Washington. During the All-Star break Larry Stone took some time to talk about his career as a print sportswriter. The following is my Q&A with him:
“I didn’t really think about it growing up and then I went off to college. I went to Cal-Berkeley. At the end of my freshman year I was reading the school paper, The Daily Californian, and there was a notice that said, ‘Sportswriters Wanted,’ and it sounded like fun, intriguing. So I went into the office and it just so happened that the person covering Cal baseball had come down with mono that week and they were desperate for a baseball writer.”
Was baseball your passion or did you just fall into that?
“Baseball was my passion. I grew up in Southern California and I was a fanatical Dodger fan. I lived and died by the Dodgers. At that stage in my life I was a total baseball fanatic.”
When through the discovery process did you realize sportswriting was it for you?
“I think I knew right away. The Cal baseball coach was the legendary Jackie Jensen; that kind of spiced things up. I owe him a debt of gratitude because I was so scared to death when I first went to his office for my first interview and he couldn’t have been more gracious. I liked the challenge of making a baseball game creative.”
Did you cover baseball your entire college career?
“I did, but baseball is a spring sport and I ended up covering water polo in the fall. It was actually a big sport at Cal, they were coming off a national title. It taught me a valuable lesson that even if you’re not an expert at something you have to kind of become an expert. I knew zero about water polo, but that’s part of working for a newspaper. You’re going to be given assignments that you’re not an expert on but you have to figure out ways to become one – or ask the right questions. That was valuable later in my career when I was a general assignment reporter covering everything.”
You finish college and get your first job where?
“I wanted to stay on the West coast, so I sent my resume up-and-down the coast and I got hired by the Yakima Herald Republic. They hired me to be a staff writer. There was actually a five-man staff. We covered everything: high schools, one small college (Central Washington University), one JC (junior college) and the ability to make the two-and-one-half hour drive over the mountains to cover the Seahawks, the University of Washington or Washington State, A lot of diversity helped me, and to get a taste of the ‘big time’ was nice. If I were just covering high schools I’d have gone crazy, but to know I could cover the Seahawks or the Huskies, that was the little carrot that kept us going.”
In 1986, Stone signed on with Bellevue Journal American as beat writer for the Seattle Mariners. One year later Stone made the move to the Bay area to work for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The newspaper was expanding their coverage to include the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors.
It was a great time to be a sportswriter in the Bay area. The Giants were in the World Series in 1987 and 1989 and the Oakland Athletics were in the Series in 1988 and 1989. These were not forgettable Fall Classic series either. In 1988, Kirk Gibson hit the legendary walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley at Chavez Ravine. The 1989 World Series stole national news headlines when a massive earthquake struck the Bay area just prior to Game Three. Stone covered both games.
On the earthquake game:
“My home was in Oakland. My wife and daughter went to visit her mom in Washington, so she was home, but I drove home not knowing if my house was still standing (it was). That was a wild day. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was a major story and we had to be on it. The whole next week was surreal with the now famous press conference with commissioner Faye Vincent by candlelight. My whole city – Oakland – was in shambles. That was sad. This was more than just a baseball story this was a human interest story.”
Was that the most memorable story you’ve ever worked on, and reported on?
“Yes. It was just so unique. I’ve covered some great games that I’ll never forget, from Kirk Gibson, Joe Carter, there’s lots of great games but it’s not very often there’s a earthquake in the middle of a World Series game.”
If you were back at Cal-Berkeley today, in today’s culture, with today’s technology, would you want to be a sports reporter?
“I probably would. I don’t know if I’d want to be a newspaper reporter because I think I would sense the decline of the industry. I’d probably shoot for the Internet, but I’d probably want to do the same thing.”
“There is much more of an emphasis on immediacy. In the old days say you found out a trade was happening at 10am in the morning, unless you worked for a P.M. paper, there was absolutely nothing you could do with that news, except for develop it and work it. Now, the first thing you do is tweet it, then you’d blog it, then you write it for the Internet edition of your paper and, instead of reporting it your emphasis would be on getting it out there, first. There much more immediacy at the expense of reporting aspect of it and there’s pluses and minuses with that. Now I think you work a lot harder than you did because there are so many different realms that you have to present your story that you’re constantly writing for the Internet because it’s gotta be up there now and you end up writing many more stories and it makes for a much longer, arduous day.
There is no down time to think about possible story angles, it’s as if you have to react immediately. For someone who is a writer, like you, is that good or bad?
“Well, it’s good and bad. It doesn’t affect me quite as much because I am not the beat writer, so I have a lot of opportunity to develop my stories. You can long all you want for the good old days, but you just have to adapt. It’s the way it is. It’s not going to go back to the way it was. I know a lot of people my age, I’m 54, who say, ‘I’m never gonna blog or I’m never gonna tweet. That’s just counterproductive.’ I’ve tried to adapt and be current.”
How has today’s technology affected when and what you write? Do you keep one eye on what athletes are saying on social media?
“You have to follow, on Twitter, all the athletes you cover and occasionally they’ll break a story, but for the most part I’ve found that the tweets of athletes are innocuous observations of what they had for lunch or something like that (laughing).”
“You constantly have to be monitoring the blogs. The new hounds, the Rosenthal’s and the Heyman’s and the Buster Olney’s who are constantly breaking stories, ever baseball writer who tells you they aren’t checking MLBTradeRumors.com every half hour is lying (laughing) because you have to make sure that something isn’t happening on your beat and you don’t know it. To me it’s become more of a 24-hour operation and I think that’s to the detriment. You’re never off the clock … the stress level and the work load is higher.”
What is the most challenging part of your job responsibility?
“To balance the many master’s that you have. You’re still writing for the newspaper, that’s ultimately what you are is a newspaper reporter, but your also a blogger and you’re also writing immediately for your web edition too. I am constantly struggling to reconcile all three of those things – and also tweeting all along too. So, by the time you’re down to writing a newspaper story you’re burned out because you’ve been writing all day, reporting all day or monitoring all day and you still have that story to write for the newspaper. It’s hard to juggle all those things and I think that’s the biggest challenge.”
Your editor at the Seattle Times (Don Shelton), what are his expectations … and have they changed?
“I think so. He’s struggling along with everyone else trying to figure out how to balance all that. I would say that a lot of the blogging thing is self-imposed. He’s never said, ‘you’ve gotta blog.’ I, personally, realized that everyone else is blogging and I need to have that presence too. At our paper, how much you blog is entirely up to you. It’s personal pride to have a vibrant place where people want to go means having a post up every day even if it’s your day off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up late or gotten up early ahead of everybody to have something on my blog. A lot of it is our own personal desire to make our blog as good as possible.”
With more short form, blog style writing, do readers expect something different?
“Yes. They want more. Whatever you have they want more (laughing). They (readers) have become so accustomed to having this stream of copy that if you haven’t updated your blog they wonder why. If there’s a trade and you don’t have the story up in 15 minutes they want to know why you got beat on that. I think that’s part of the whole cycle that can be damaging to whole news process.”
Stone used the erroneous reporting on the Supreme Court healthcare decision as his example. The decision was so important to the entire country, and so widely sought, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS and ABC were obsessed with getting the story first. The obsession led to inaccurate reporting because the media focus was on getting the story on the air first.
What advice do you give to someone who wants to be a sports reporter today?
“First of all, I would advise them to learn as much of the technology (audio, video, blog and social media) as you can. That being said, you still have to report and be accurate and good writing is what separates you from everyone else. If you’re a very good writer, there will be a spot for you and you will be coveted. Read as much as you can and write as much as you can and your own style will develop.”
What, in your opinion, are the skills that editors are seeking when filling a position? Is there more of an emphasis on writing or the technology piece, or both?
“I think it is balance of both. I don’t think editors who hire anyone today who is just a luddite when it comes to technology, it’s just too important now … [but] if you were the world’s best podcaster but you still couldn’t write, I don’t think you’d get the job?
What is the future of long-form narrative sports reporting? Is there a place for it and, if so, where?
“ESPN.com has become, it’s essentially a newspaper online. You have some of the best long form writing you’ll ever see. They have Wright Thompson, the Bill Simmons Grantland thing. They have some of the best men and women doing some of the best writing done at any newspaper, at any time. I firmly believe that.”