It’s Sunday – not exactly the day of the week you expect to spend reading a massive wall-of-text article from Salon.com which quotes Matt Jones, Pat Forde, and Pete Thamel (amongst other notables). But it happened. Check out this piece from Brian Weinberg titled “Backstage at the Final Four”. The title may be a bit misleading, as you don’t get the backstage scoop on athletes and coaches. Instead, you see the behind the scenes sports-journalism world, from the feuds to the cliques.
I woke up a bit late, posted the morning links, and came across a tweet from former KSR-er Fake Gimel featuring this article. Before I could digest the whole thing, I had to prepare a cup of coffee and take a deep breath. By the end of this piece, I’d further realize my reaction to long articles is a sign of the shifting dynamics in journalism – from long print piece to quick, digital news bursts.
In fact, reporting on this article is kind of a ‘sportsblog Inception’ moment. I’m writing a blog post about an article, quoting it instead of people, and commentating around it. To make matters more interesting, the piece talks about the site that I’m writing for and the man who called me in early 2011 to offer me this particular position at KentuckySportsRadio.com.
But what exactly is my position? I’m a writer, but I make no claims of being a journalist. I know what journalism takes – I date a journalist, and she’s heading to Northwestern for graduate school. She kicks my ass when it comes to writing journalistic pieces. However, the writing on this site is journalism in many ways, but we bring it in ‘the most ridiculous manner possible’ and admit out biases, as Matt says in the article. We are a fan-site that just so happens to be pretty huge thanks to a few strokes of luck and the rise of a new era of sports media. The fun-loving approach that started as a podcast with MJ and friends has turned into an full-blown media entity, or as Weinberg calls it, “media villain #1 at the Final Four”.
Here’s a long excerpt when he begins to discuss KSR:
“Now that U of L made it to the Final Four,” somebody says sardonically, “Matt Jones has to admit Louisville exists.”
Matt Jones is the chief media villain at the Final Four, the creator of a fan website/blog devoted to the University of Kentucky. The misleadingly named Kentuckysportsradio.com gets up to 150,000 unique visitors per day, and, as Jones likes to brag, it looks like it was produced on an Atari. It’s worth a visit for non-Kentucky fans for an advertisement link to Boone’s Butcher Shop, where you’ll find the following grammar: “Boone’s offers custom processing of your beef, hog, lamb, goat, buffalo, wild game and a numerous amount of other animals.”
A cherubic 34-year-old with a Duke law degree, Jones and his KSR writers popularized the slogan “Louisville doesn’t exist.” But Jones is a smart, media-savvy guy, and it’s his relentless criticism of nationally esteemed basketball writers like Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports and Pete Thamel of the New York Times that has earned him outcast status in arena workrooms.
Not that Jones is trying to be one of the guys. At the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament at the YUM Center in Louisville, he tweeted out to his 46,000 followers that Forde was in the workroom “openly cheering” for teams playing on TV, a “yearly tradition.” This was in reference to the 2010 tournament, when Jones “called out” Forde for allegedly buying a round of drinks after Kentucky lost to West Virginia. Forde has been one of the more outspoken critics of Kentucky’s head coach, John Calipari, the only coach in history to have not one, but two Final Four appearances “vacated” by the NCAA for rules violations. On KSR, Jones and writers, under the guise of journalistic ombudsmen (but acting as what others might call fans with a press pass), regularly accuse Forde of having an agenda to attack Calipari. They claim he mentions Calipari’s checkered past whenever possible in his national articles, and that he yearns to “take down” Calipari through investigative reporting. Basically, they remind Kentucky’s fan base, known as the Big Blue Nation, to hate this writer. The most extreme segment of Kentucky’s fan base is notorious for sending hate mail and, in rare cases, issuing death threats. Forde lives in Louisville and has no geographical buffer. Here at the Final Four, they’ll share a workspace, representing two very different approaches to modern sports journalism.
It’s fair to say that this writer came in with viewing KSR and Matt as the ‘villain’ as what he had been told by the media ranks. As the article progresses, you’ll see the perspective shift.
Weinberg notes that the court is mic’d to get that old-school fieldhouse ambiance inside the Superdome. He points out that Jerry Palm was charging Jay-Z’s phone (#teamblackberry it seems). He also discusses seating arrangements and points out that the print and online friction, specially with fan sites, causes a visible divide in the media rooms. He interviews the ‘incendiary’ yet always wonderful Gregg Doyel and states this after Matt comes by to say hello…
For the first time in the workroom, I feel self-conscious about the company I’m keeping. If Jones and Doyel are friends, is Doyel media villain No. 2? I like Doyel, and am keeping an open mind about Jones, but I want others to talk to me, like Pat Forde.
Next, Weinberg chats with Seth Davis, who utters to of the most incredulous and painstakingly awkward lines in history to some ladies: “Hey gorgeous, times two” and “Hey there, hot lady.” Wow.
But quickly after that, Weinberg is interviewing Pat Forde. Forde refused to talk about Matt and KSR specifically, but he did comment on how he can do more ‘investigative’ stories at Yahoo without interfering with the broadcasting right interests and that he questions the legitimacy of all these fan-sites getting press access (shocking!). Check out the article for more.
Eventually, Pete Thamel gets his interview with the writer, where he doesn’t say much of anything interesting. I laughed at Weinberg’s descriptions of him though…
After checking with his editor at the New York Times, and perhaps doing a background check on me, Pete Thamel has agreed to chat – but declines to talk about fan sites specifically. (“It doesn’t do me any good,” he says.) He’s 34 with a dark nefarious brow, or maybe it’s an inquisitive sleuth’s brow.
Matt Jones was next on Weinberg’s plate. Check out his bit here:
A few tables away from Thamel, I sit down with Jones. I tell him what I’m writing, and how surprised I am at the candor I’ve encountered.
He jokes, “If there’s one thing the media likes to talk about more than sports, it’s themselves.”
How does it feel? You’re pretty much the villain here.
“It’s like the JFK quote: ‘Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.’ A lot of them don’t even like that I’m here. I’m an outsider because I didn’t go to journalism school. They like to think of themselves as unbiased reporters, but I think that’s bogus. Everyone has biases.
“It’s the lawyer in me. I like to face my critics.” He nods in the direction of Thamel. “There’s Pete Thamel from the New York Times. I’d like to talk to him, but he won’t talk to me. He acts like he doesn’t know who I am, but that’s a lie.”
During our interview, Jones and I will discuss his relationship with Forde, how things went so terribly wrong. As he talks, his face reddens from what I take to be embarrassment. He says he wants to patch things up with Forde, and seems to understand that stopping his “gotcha” tweets might be a good place to start. At the same time, he’s not going to stop being an outspoken lightning rod.
“These guys are failed athletes. Who do they hate most? The retired pro-athletes on TV getting paid millions of dollars [as commentators].”
Assuming you’re not getting paid millions, what do they hate about you?
“That I admit my bias. But I criticize Calipari all the time. I’m not a guy who sees things in black and white. Most of them have been doing this so long they’re jaded and not fans anymore. I’ve had a few guys say I’m my own boss [acknowledging his freedom] and that I don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s [journalistic] standards.
“The one thing I have to be careful about is when I report bad news. There was a quarterback who got arrested for marijuana possession, and because I was a lawyer at the time, I heard about it before anyone else. I had it verified to 98 percent, enough to post on the site, but on the 2 percent chance I was wrong, there was no incentive to rush to bad news.”
How does KSR do financially? I ask.
“In two years time we expect to be doing pretty well.” He names numbers he doesn’t want published, and I’m taken aback. The blog currently has two other paid employees, one fulltime, and Jones expects to hire more. “It’ll take some corporate sponsorships. And we need Calipari to stay at Kentucky. It helps when the team is good.”
Is the media ever going to accept you?
“Professors [at Kentucky universities and colleges] will invite me to speak to their classes. I’ve spoken to classes in leadership, sports marketing, business … but never journalism.”
Later, out in the concourse, I spot Matt Jones talking on his cellphone, doing a post-game radio call-in show for fans back in Kentucky. He gives me a winning smile and a thumbs up, unabashedly ecstatic about Kentucky’s eighth national championship.
This is a pretty great piece that contextualizes the place for sites like KSR in the sports-journalism world. I think the writer came in very wary of Matt and all of us at KSR, but Matt’s interview came off as the most rational and reasonable. Definitely give this solid piece a read if you’ve got the time.