Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Private Audience with the King

The WWOD? Interview with King Kaufman, sportswriter and leader of the new school.

Having majored in English, it was probably Laura Miller's literary criticism that first caused me to bookmark while I was in college. Then it was probably the (mostly) liberal content that kept me sporadically coming back while my United Students Against Sweatshops phase was in full bloom. Ultimately, though, it was discovering the sports content that made a daily visitor to that space for a decade.

The author of most Salon's sportswriting was a columnist with the regal sobriquet King Kaufman. He was articulate, well-read, versatile and progressive. And his caricature had tattoo. Once it became apparent that he was willing, and able, to cover international soccer without the condescension that was de rigueur for virtually every other domestic columnist, well, then I was hooked. His "Sports Daily" became as much a part of my routine as tooth brushing.

While print columnists were still reading tobacco spit Rorschachs and writing paeans to the brave men lining their pockets with our ticket money, Kaufman embraced sabermetrics and demanded that sports fans consumers be given the best product available, even if that meant breaking tradition. Like another Internet sports columnist gaining popularity at the same time, Kaufman provided a fan's eye view of sports. The King, perhaps appropriately, lacked the common touch that became the Sports Guy's oeuvre, but this ultimately was his strength. King wasn't merely the everyfan, rather he represented the best– or, at least, better-case fan, one who was sober, intellectually curious and possessing a sense of fair play that superseded his desire to see his team win. Most important, his insights were actually insightful in all of the ways that most of us aspire to be when we are pontificating to half-listening friends in a crowded bar while watching the NCAA Tournament or while waiting on line for the men's room at our tax-dollar built local stadium. He didn't necessarily write as the everyfan, but he advocated on behalf of the everyfan, and in the years before Fire Joe Morgan, Awful Announcing and Deadspin he was really the only one.

Not that long ago, I learned that the King had been brought aboard at upstart open-source network Bleacher Report as the manager of writer development. To put it mildly, I was surprised and intrigued by the news, as BR's reputation was more or less antithetical to everything that King had accomplished at Salon. I assumed that he must be bringing some sort of missionary zeal to a place that is largely viewed as a leper colony by other writers on the Interwebs. Rather than just assume, I sent him an email and asked. Exceedingly gracious and gregarious, the King was kind enough to talk about his recent career move and various other sporting topics.

WWOD: Your resume sort of reads like a Modern History of Sportswriting in America, how did you go from print boxing writer to columnist at pioneering online liberal political affairs magazine?

King Kaufman: You make it sound so sprawling. It wasn't exactly Jack London going straight from covering the “Great White Hope” fight to a gig at Deadspin. The leap wasn't as big as it might sound. Salon was founded by David Talbot, who left his job as the arts/style editor of the San Francisco Examiner to do it. I was a copy editor on the arts/style desk, the last in a long series of jobs I had at the paper, some in sports, some not. Talbot took some Examiner people with him, not including me.

But we stayed in touch. I left the paper shortly after he did, at the start of 1996, for a job at a different dot-com, now long forgotten and with good reason. That dot-com eventually moved into the same building as Salon, the China Basin Building, that skyscraper on its side that's across Third Street from AT&T Park, though AT&T Park wasn't there yet. I used to park my car roughly where home plate is — for three bucks a day! Run, kids! Grandpa's tellin' stories of the old days!

Anyway, David and my former Examiner mates and I — Gary Kamiya, Mignon Khargie, Scott Rosenberg and Andrew Ross — still talked. We'd run into each other on campus, as it were, and when layoffs were on the horizon at the dot-com where I worked, I literally walked about a quarter mile down that enormous hallway to Salon and asked David for a job. He hired me as Salon's first copy editor. I was the copy chief. The chief of me.

WWOD: Once you began your daily column, did you have any marching orders from your editors at Salon? Any guiding principle that you established for yourself?

King: I had no marching orders. For the first few years at Salon I was an editor, though everyone wrote sometimes, including me. I wrote about sports and other things. For a while in 1999 or so I tried a daily sports column but it wasn't very good because I didn't have enough time to devote to it. I became a full-time writer in 2000 or '01, writing about all sorts of things, including sports.

During the 2002 Winter Olympics I wrote just about that, and it got a great response, including a fan letter from Berkeley Breathed, the great cartoonist, which I thought was really cool. So David called me up and said, "How about writing about sports all the time." I actually hesitated at first, for some reason, but when David said, "You don't have to write about golf," I went for it.

That was the extent of my marching orders. I didn't have to write about golf. I think I wrote about golf four times in seven years. Once defending Tiger Woods when someone criticized him for not speaking up about social issues, once about the controversy over letting women in to Augusta — though those two might have been one piece — and I think I might have written something about Annika Sorenstam playing with men and Michelle Wie being so young.

I had complete freedom. The guiding principle I established for myself after a while was that this was a conversation. Blogs existed in 2002 but they weren't nearly so dominant as a format and, while it seems hard to believe now, Salon did not have comments at the end of its stories. We had an old-fashioned, curated, letters to the editor column.

But I got e-mails. Lots of them. And I answered every single one. I used to say that the conversation in my in box was way better than my columns. I began lobbying then at Salon for us to print every letter that came in, which we finally did in the form of comments years later. But I quickly realized that what I was doing was not a one-way street, or a pronouncement from on high. It was a conversation with my readers. That's now a mainstream blogging point of view, but it wasn't then.

I also came to think of the over-arching theme of my column as "what it's like to be a sports fan." I was writing from the point of view of a fan, or a better way to put it would be the point of view of a sports consumer, because fandom for any one team was not the view. An informed consumer who sometimes — though often not — had more access than the average, but still a consumer, a fan. My joking tagline for the column was: "Like talking to the guy on the next barstool, if the guy on the next barstool were pretty smart and not drunk." It was a joke but I meant it.

Sometimes what it's like to be a sports fan is all about "Did you see last night's game?" Sometimes it's wrestling with the ethical issues around watching college sports given that massive corruption is not just present, but a necessary component of the system.

That fan point of view is why I wrote a lot of what is essentially media criticism. Because most sports fans consume most sports not by attending live events, but by watching, listening, reading and — I was deficient in covering this — playing video games.

WWOD: What's the most dramatic sporting event that you've covered in person?

King: I'll tell you the first thing that popped into my mind. I was covering baseball for my college newspaper, the Daily Californian. It was a mid-week non-conference game between Cal and Cal State San Luis Obispo. The game didn't mean much of anything, but it was just one of those epic games. High-scoring, see-saw, extra innings, and all of this on a nasty, cold, stormy day — outlined against a blue gray October sky, if you will, only there was no blue. There were intermittent, pretty severe hail storms, which is pretty unusual in the Bay Area.

So SLO wins in extra innings on a double by some guy, and I'll never forget his postgame quote. I asked him what was going through his mind in the key at-bat. He said, "It's cold, it's dark, I'm tired, there's snow on the field, I got a midterm tomorrow. I just wanted to get a hit and get us outta here."

It was an early lesson in narrative and story line and drama. How we're interpreting all of that is not necessarily how it's happening on the field. And that's not a bad thing. It really was a dramatic game, for me, and my story reflected that. Being young and all, I may have referenced the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. But to the players on the field, it was all about, dang, it's cold out here.

WWOD: In your opinion, what's the most inspired analysis you've delivered from afar?

King: I'm not sure how much inspired analysis I've ever delivered. Common sense, which is not so common, well thought out and well written. I aspire to that and I'm happy when I achieve it.

The two things that I think resonated most with readers in the years I had the column at Salon were my insight, illustrated through the “Panel o' Experts,” that experts are not necessarily any smarter about sports than average fans, and my pleas, my cris de couer, to the television networks to, for the love of everything decent and kind in the universe, show us the damn ball, or wherever the action is, rather than indulging their artistic side with creative camera angles that make other TV people go ooh and ah and leave the rest of us going, "Where's the damn ball?!"

WWOD: Did you ever have to explain the Neifi Index to Neifi?

King: No. I tried to reach him for a chapter I wrote about him in the book Top of the Order, but his career was over by that time and I failed.

WWOD: At Salon you wrote a blog called “The Future of Journalism.” Well?

King: I co-wrote it for most of the time it existed with Katharine Mieszkowski, who's twice the journalist I am on my best day. She's at the Bay Citizen now.

I got interested in the subject when Salon dropped my column and offered me a job as an editor, which, in the midst of the crash, I was happy to take. I'd had my nose in my own work for about eight years, so when I looked around me for the first time in a long time, I was amazed at the revolution that was going on. I'd been vaguely aware, but hadn't really paid attention.

It was kind of like when I was first introduced to sabermetrics. I couldn't get enough. I was, and am still, fascinated by the possibilities, by the pace of change, by the problems and issues that have arisen and the various ideas people have to deal with them. And, frankly, as with sabermetrics, I became fascinated by the willful ignorance and inflated self-regard of the old guard as it raged against clear reality with increasingly unhinged arguments.

If by "Well?" you mean what's the future of journalism, I get to paraphrase my favorite line from Mark Twain: I'm gratified to be able to answer promptly. I don't know.

These are chaotic, revolutionary times and I don't think too many people are able to see too far into the future. Naught will change but mutability for a while. That's like the fourth high-falutin' reference in this interview. I ate my Wheaties today.

But I will say I remain, as I was when I was working on that blog in the summer of 2009, an optimist. I believe that society has certain needs — information, watchdogs on our institutions, analysis of yesterday's game and so on — and that our society is pretty good at finding ways to fill needs like those. The ignorant, uneducated, bigoted people who were running around two centuries ago figured it out. I think we can too.

One thing that will help is to be clear about what we're talking about. Whenever you hear someone talking about how we need to save journalism, chances are you can replace the word "journalism" with "my paying job." And while I feel for anyone who loses any job, I'd feel a lot worse about losing the important watchdog role that newspapers and other old-guard media play if they actually did a little of it once in a while.

WWOD: Why Bleacher Report?

King: Bleacher Report recruited me. They approached me about this job, we talked about it, I liked what they had to say, liked the people I met, and we were able to strike a deal.

What I like about Bleacher Report is it's a startup, so it has that startup energy, though I've come on a couple of years into the process. So it's not brand-new startup energy, but it's still got a new, fresh, exciting vibe to it. I really enjoyed that about the early days of Salon, and had come to miss it there as it inevitably dissipated over the years.

I also like that it's doing something new, and it's smart and nimble and willing to experiment. I can't emphasize enough how smart the people at Bleacher Report are, and how smart I think it is as a company. It's not known for real smart content. That's one of the things I was brought in to change. But it's a really smart company, and obviously I think that someday soon it will be known as the home of smart content as at least part of what it offers.

I feel like I'm on the front lines of what I used to call, in the blog, Future of Journalism world. Not that Bleacher Report is the Future of Journalism. I don't think that. But I think the model it's using is one small piece in that puzzle.

WWOD: How has the reception been at BR? From the writers that you are attempting to mentor? And from your friends and peers?

The reception has been great, and kind of surprising in some ways. When we first announced that I was hiring on, I thought I was going to get roasted as, I don't know, a sellout or something, sacrificing my standards to go to work at this horrible evil content farm that strangles puppies or whatever. Because that seemed to be the attitude toward Bleacher Report of a lot of people I knew — or "knew," in that online, virtual-only sense.

But it wasn't like that. It caused a little ripple in the circles I move in, but it wasn't negative at all. It was raised eyebrows, certainly, but the reaction was more like: "This is interesting. I'm eager to see how this plays out." Several people said, or tweeted, that they were going to have to give Bleacher Report another look, which is great. All we can ever ask of people is to judge us based on what we're doing now, not based on what you saw in the past.

Within Bleacher Report, of course my co-workers in the office were very welcoming, which I expected. But I didn't know what the reaction from the writer community would be. I was coming in under the banner of "This guy's going to improve the quality of the writing." And right away I set to work on a couple of tasks, creating educational materials and directly critiquing some of Bleacher Report's top writers. I thought I might get a reaction like "Who's this guy to tell me? I've got a million page views. I'm doing just fine, thank you very much."

I haven't gotten a whiff of that. The writers mostly seem to be interested in what I have to say and grateful to have the feedback. A lot of them are eager, hungry to improve their writing. They say things like "Fire away, I can take it. I just want to get better at this and make my living at it."

Now, some people don't say anything, and for all I know every one of them is thinking, "Who's this guy to tell me? I've got a million page views. I'm doing just fine, thank you very much." But nobody has said that.

WWOD: Who is your top upset pick in the NCAA tournament?

King: Northern Colorado, my new favorite 15-seed. Coach B.J. Hill wrote a Guest Column for Bleacher Report — our first — about life as a potential Cinderella, which is to say life as an underdog. It was really good. My California Golden Bears aren't in the tournament, again, so I'm hoping to bandwagon on to the Northern Colorado Bears all the way to the Final Four.

Now, being a realist, and knowing that that game is tipping off mere hours after I send this to you, I'll tell you that in my bracket, the lowest seeds I have going the farthest are St. Johns and Georgetown, both No. 6's that I have going to the Sweet 16 — and that that is based on absolutely nothing. My NCAA Tournament brackets are always based on a pretty solid foundation of ignorance, but this year more than ever.

No comments: