In past offseasons I’ve enjoyed taking the time to interview members of the media that I respect and admire. This summer I decided to continue that tradition with a little twist. We’re doing a series of interviews with CelticsBlog Alumni!
You see, we have been blessed as a blog to have some very talented writers that went on to full time gigs elsewhere. As sad as I’ve been to see them go, I’ve been several times more proud of them and happy to see them produce and thrive wherever they go.
Our first interview subject is a “recent grad” (if you will) of CelticsBlog that you should all know and remember well: Jared Weiss. Here are my questions for him and his thoughtful responses.
1. What have you been up to since leaving CelticsBlog and what you enjoy about your current position?
It feels like it’s been a lifetime since I departed CelticsBlog, but it’s actually been less than a year. On media day last year, I launched a new site at USA Today SMG called Celtics Wire, which for a long time was just myself writing 6 times a day before I was joined by CelticsBlog alum Greg Cassoli. In April last year, I left USA Today to join The Athletic when we launched in a columnist role, generally writing one or two longform pieces a week. But with the playoffs starting, I was writing after every single game, if not more.
USA Today was a good learning experience in high-intensity modern journalism, as I was responsible for publishing about 40 stories a week, ranging from quick aggregation or breaking news pieces to extensive film breakdowns. It felt like I was writing my college thesis all over again, working 16 hours a day between two jobs and seeing wordpress in my dreams. Moving to The Athletic, I was able to fall back into a more sustainable role like what I had at CelticsBlog, picking out a specific story on which to focus my time and resources. When I was at CelticsBlog, Jeff was really generous giving me the time to work on pieces of my own design around my role hosting the Garden Report – which I still jump on from time to time—and I had really missed that luxury. Thankfully, I’ve been able to enjoy that with great support from our editors in my new gig.
2. Tell us how you got your start in the industry and what role (if any) CelticsBlog played in it. (Yes, I’m totally fishing for compliments here.)
I literally got my start in the industry through CelticsBlog. When I was in college in 2010, my daily routine was to check CelticsBlog and Hoopshype every morning and go through Shirley’s daily links. One day I saw an ad from North Station Sports looking for a Celtics writer. I had been honing my craft in the CB forums under the name I Love Getting Rondo’d and decided to send in a piece on how Rondo was improving as a ballhandler in space running the pick and roll. I was quickly hired by Nick Gelso, who merged NSS with a few other companies to create CLNS Radio. A year after doing blogging and so-hosting a live radio show called The Block Party, which I still insist was good no matter how bad it really was, I got a credential to cover the Celtics.
After my first season covering the team, which was the 2012 lockout shortened season where I got to start my career by watching LeBron James play the best game of his life to take down the Celtics and go on to win a title, we formed a partnership with CetlicsBlog to host an in-arena video post game show I named The Garden Report. We shot the thing on go pro using my iPhone 3G as the mic and it took about 4 hours to import the video, synch the audio, and then export and upload the video. Let’s just say we watched the sun rise plenty of times that year. I’m grateful to Jimmy Toscano, Evans Clinchy and our producers over the years Lucas Parolin, Kyle George and Jeremy Karpf for working all those hours all those years. We had a lot of fun and occasionally made some great TV.
As time went on, Jeff let me do more and more writing, eventually becoming a full writer on top of my hosting duties a few years ago. I would spend games sitting with Kevin O’Connor talking about probably everything in life but the game we were watching itself, then go off to write. That was probably the most fun I had in the job and it was a treat to watch Kevin’s rapid ascension, which made me want to stop treating this job like a hobby compared to my day job and take it really seriously. Thankfully, it’s been working out well.
3. Who are some of your idols and/or mentors in the media and what impact have they had on your career?
Well of course, being around Kevin and having really substantive and thought-provoking discussions probably did more for me than any other interaction. I often felt constrained in what I could discuss with people in and out of the industry because it was too philosophically abstract, but Kevin is a great thought leader and debating and exploring things with him allowed me to actually really put my vapid thoughts together and eventually put them into my own work.
Ian Thomsen was probably the first reporter that ever really made me feel like I deserved to be in the locker room. In my first year on the job, I just basically hid in the scrum and filmed pressers, not writing or doing anything of journalistic importance. I felt like I didn’t really deserve to be there, especially considering I was a college kid who hadn’t climbed through the ranks at a paper or received an internship from a prestigious outlet. But while I had barely any journalistic skills -- my experience was that I had taken Paul Flannery’s journalism seminar at BU and got a B I think – I felt I knew the game better than most people of my experience.
So one day, I’m in a scrum for Steve Nash, who was my favorite player ever and my idol both as an athlete and person. Eventually it whittles down to just Ian and I and I’m just sticking around because I have no idea what to do and I don’t want my moment with Nash to end. Ian finished up his questions and gave me a nod, telling me to go for it. Everyone else had just ignored me up until that point and getting that nod was what I needed to have the confidence to ask Steve a question. Steve looked up from the training table with a Bud Light in his hand, smiled and said, “So what do you want to talk about?” 20 minutes later, we were still debating screening angles on pick-and-roll against different coverages when the PR guy had to basically rip Steve off the table to make the last bus. I haven’t spoken to Steve since, but that remains the best moment of my career right next to asking Bill Walton one question in a 10 minute interview.
4. What has been the biggest thing you’ve learned along the way and what advice would you give to aspiring writers and people trying to break into the sports media business.
I came in with a few values that I maintain to this day about setting goals and standards. When I started writing mediocre blog posts, I always used Zach Lowe – who was running SI’s NBA blog when I started – as my standard I was trying to achieve. My interests and approach were similar to him and every time I read his work, I felt like I learned basketball all over again by the time I was done reading it. I never was satisfied with people saying I was writing well for a college kid who was just starting out. I wanted to write as well as Lowe and continue to strive for that to this day. I have significant confidence in my capability while recognizing my weaknesses and faults. But I always keep the loftiest goal at the end of the tunnel for myself and never compromise that.
My other prioritized virtue was to find my niche and emphasize it. I like other sports like football, soccer, golf, tennis and, of course, Sepak Takraw, but I was always all in as a basketball writer. So to me, that meant studying the game from every angle to be able to analyze the game like a player or coach would. I basically see two general paths in being a valuable basketball writer: either you know the game or you have the access. I started working in this industry thinking it would be a hobby on top of my work in the public sector, mainly because it seemed far fetched that I could ever be qualified to get a job in the industry. But I kept studying and learning and eventually got to that level.
It leads to the question of whether people should study journalism in college, get a masters at a J school and try to dive all in working in the industry. I think that path depends on what kind of person you are. I look at a lot of people I see coming out of J school and think they’re better journalists than I am, but most of the time I think my basketball acumen is stronger. They probably have the capability to narrow that gap and have a skill advantage, but I’ve also been getting invaluable experience and learning on the job from a blogger career pathway (with credentials most importantly). Meanwhile, I have financial security which most young journalists do not have because I’ve been working a day job since I started with an internship at the MA statehouse when I was 20. There is a counterbalance between the hunger of someone who is desperate to make it and the patience of someone who wants to do it on their own terms and play the long game. I’ve had the luxury to play the long game and do it in every regard, from reporting a single story to managing my entire career. My work in the public sector and as a political science major at BU who focused on global geopolitics gave me a unique perspective that I have further built into my niche. But it’s meant working all day and all night almost every day, hardly sleeping and making significant sacrifices in my personal life to get there. Regardless of how you divide your time and career, there are people who are working from when they get up to when they go to bed and you’ll have to either be a complete genius or keep up with them to make it. Often times the ones who really make it have a little bit of both.
The other thing that’s important is to build relationships with your peers and not be obsessed with chasing people who have clout. One great example I remember learning this when I was at the NBA Draft half a decade ago, when I was trying to network with a famous person. They were polite but not really interested. Later that evening, I met Danny LeRoux and we ended up hitting it off and getting dinner that night in Manhattan. We became buddies and as Danny’s career took off, he was gracious enough to bring me in for things like contributing for The Athletic a few years back when it was starting out, to joining him every year for his Atlantic Division preview pod with Tim Bontemps and the Dunc’d On Celtics season preview pod. Those are high-profile appearances for my niche audience and has been really helpful in growing my profile and eventually getting new jobs. It’s the same thing for networking with sources. Connect with people your age and they will ascend to positions of power over time. If you can establish a genuine relationship of mutual respect and be a genuine friend or acquaintance, you will be able to benefit in the long run.
5. Where do you see sports media headed in the future? What trends do you see and how would you like to see the industry adapt over time?
This question is always interesting to me as someone who works for The Athletic. Almost every time I release a story, at least one person will send vitriol my way for being a monster who hides behind a paywall. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the barrier to entry covering sports collapse as sites like CelticsBlog and even the Celtics subreddit have shown that a free and pretty much open-source site – considering the forums – can provide coverage that is worth the audience’s attention and loyalty. But that has diluted the supply of content to the point that free sites have become desperate for revenue and it’s become harder and harder to identify reliable quality. I was proud to be a part of maintaining CelticsBlog’s quality and reputation while I was here and I’m happy to see it continue. But there are so many other sites that are so inundated with ads, autoplay videos and other elements that it ruins the experience and keeps you away from them. There are some sites that make the autoplay video player almost impossible to get rid of, especially on mobile, or surprise you with a full page ad that covers the article and is tough to get rid of. These nuisances have allowed for the paywall model to flourish and why sites like The Athletic, or newspapers like the Globe, NYT and WaPo are back to strength.
Especially with the quality of people who are running patreons – particularly Ben Rohrbach’s Parquet Post comes to mind with the Celtics – there is a growing marketplace of paid content that is competing for your dollar. There are so many people from my generation and younger who refuse to pay for content and take offense to it. These are mostly knuckle draggers who are ignorant to the fact that you pay for the content because it’s higher quality and you’re paying the salaries of people who bring you higher quality content. But there is a good point to asserting you expect content to be free. It’s basically presenting you with a choice of getting free content that is not as convenient or paying for content that will be a cleaner experience. What is important is that CelticsBlog and The Athletic can co-exist and thrive in the same market. CelticsBlog covers every little story and approaches every angle. At the Athletic, Jay King and I are working to bring original reporting and storytelling and take unique angles that nobody else is doing. In order to earn your subscription, we have to give you something that complements what is available outside the confines of our paywall and we are happy to do that. And when we break news, it’s still coming up on our twitter for free. If you want our full analysis and further details, you need to pay the cover charge. What’s great about our site is that it’s about $3 a month and you get access to every single site in the national network, which means reading coverage from one of the top beat reporters for each team in the NBA. The reality is that all the newspapers started doing paywalls years ago and ESPN has been hiding a lot of their analysis behind the Insider paywall forever. The Athletic is not evil like people think, it’s just born out of this trend that the industry stalwarts have established and are trending further toward.
What’s great is that it opens up opportunities. People complained that The Athletic was destroying the industry by poaching talent from all the newspapers and other outlets. But when I got poached from CelticsBlog, that opened the door for Keith Smith, Alex Kungu, Andrew Doxy, Bobby Manning, Daniel Poarch, Chris Grenham, and Sam Sheehan to grow even further and they have been producing great work. When I left USA Today, it opened the door for Greg Cassoli to become the editor of a USA Today site and take a big step in his career. The demand for jobs in this industry has outweighed the supply more than almost any other industry in our economy. With an increase in job supply, particularly from a site like The Athletic who pays well and supports its writers at a professional level, it creates a clearer path for people like me who started out blogging for free for years to see a career at the end of the tunnel. In a dark period for journalism where the White House is successfully attacking our integrity and so many people are being compromised to appeal their work to the lowest common denominator – and don’t get me started about sponsored op-eds in major newspapers – the sports journalism industry is emerging from the nadir of Fox Sports’ failed pivot to video and finding a new dichotomy that should be more equitable and create a better product for the audience.
Thanks again for everything Jared. It was a pleasure working with you and I look forward to following your career! (Find Jared’s work at The Athletic)