Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

October 30, 2008

Bogged Down in Sports Projectiles

On the verge of leaving sportswriting, Dan Steinberg found salvation in blogging for the Washington Post, with a uniquely reportorial bent.

Joseph Ax

Mike Sellers's butt powder. The relative grossness of football-field vomit. The origin of the Redskins' "Hip Hip Hooray" chant. And, of course, all things Gilbert.

You may not always find the weightiest topics over at Dan Steinberg's D.C. Sports Bog—the "L" is missing thanks to Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen, who, when Steinberg told him why he would be leaving the beat, responded, "I don't even know what a bog is"—but you'll never lack for entertainment. Admit it: You've already stopped reading this to Google "Sellers and butt and powder." (We'll save you the trouble: Here are links to the aforementioned items.)

Dan Steinberg. Photo by Julia Ewan.
"Every single aspect of my life is now better than when I was a beat reporter."

Dan Steinberg. Photo by Julia Ewan.

It's not all fun and games for the 32-year-old Washington Post blogger—he does delve into more-serious issues—but his irreverent humor, coupled with a disarming (and charming) self-awareness, are his trademark features. The former Whole Foods cheese buyer and miserable beat writer was preparing to leave sports journalism altogether when he got the opportunity to start the Post's first sports blog in 2006. His assignment? "I sort of can do whatever I want," he says —so long as it has something to do with the "bog" of sports in the nation's capital.

His brand of blogging has sometimes stuck in the craw of more traditional columnists; he has clashed with Post colleague Tony Kornheiser, for instance, and Michael Wilbon has called him "Cheeseboy" and threatened to "beat [his] ass down". In the following interview, which was conducted by telephone and has been edited for length and clarity, Steinberg spoke with Gelf about Clinton Portis, blogging vs. beat reporting, and that time he pretended to be the president of Iceland. To hear more from Steinberg, Buzz Bissinger, and Drew Magary, come to Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, November 6, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of Buzz Bissinger's take on sports blogging?

Dan Steinberg: He got distracted with stuff like yelling about the writing style and how there are no writers. That's the last thing we need to criticize blogs for. A lot of them are really cleverly written and much better than stuff in newspapers. To me, there are two problems. One is that they steal stuff from people who are paid to go up to the press box. At the Olympics, it costs around $10,000 for one of our people to be over in China. If you borrow the juiciest part of one of our stories, it just doesn't seem right that our content can be appropriated like that.
The other thing is the whole taste issue. I don't know exactly where I come down on that. I think newspapers being puritanical about not using profanities is pretty ridiculous when any kid can turn on television and hear all those words that we're afraid to use. But there is some stuff that bugs me, like—just recently—the Deadspin thing with the up-skirt shot of Bonnie Bernstein. I mean, I clicked on it for sure, but it doesn't make me feel good. It's not necessarily a bad thing for the mass media to at least pretend to have higher standards of class than you might find in the bathroom bar. I think you can make a logical, reasoned case about that without ranting and raving like a madman.
The other thing that bothered me [about Bissinger's criticism] is speaking about blogs as a single entity—like all sports blogs share any kind of trait other than a publishing platform.


Watch Dan Steinberg in Entertainment Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Dan Steinberg at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on November 6.

GM: Unlike some bloggers, who don't do original reporting, you're much closer to a beat reporter, in the sense that you're in the locker room interviewing players. Do you envy those guys their freedom, or are you happy about the form your blog has taken?

DS: There are times when I wish that I could curse, or quote players cursing, because a lot of times it's funny, and it takes all the humor out to use brackets. I think that people are grown-up enough to hear the word "balls" used to describe someone's testicles without their brain exploding. So when Clinton Portis says "balls to the wall" and I can't use that, it's kind of annoying.
At the Cowboys game, there were some guys in the parking lot who brought a toilet, and they had some fake poop that they put on a picture of Jason Campbell. If you were going in a certain gate, everyone walked by it, so 20,000 people saw poop on Jason Campbell's head. So I took a picture of it and put it up. And my editor called me and was like, "You've got to take it down." Something like that just seems so silly to me. It's not running on A1 of the Washington Post.

GM: How did you get to this point in your career?

DS: I always wanted to write about sports. But even in high school, I was conflicted—do I really want to spend my whole life writing about which team got the little pointy ball over the white line? So I would go back and forth. I wrote about sports for my college newspaper for two semesters. I just got completely sick of it, so I stopped doing that for a couple of years. I had a really boring job in Washington doing research about campaign-finance reform. Then I went to work at Whole Foods because I always wanted to work at a supermarket. I sometimes regret that I didn't stick it out, because it was kind of a cool career. I got to learn about cheese—everyone's interested in cheese—but I got to a point where I wanted to do something that didn't involve lifting 75-pound wheels of parmesan.
I had a friend of a friend who was in charge of hiring sports people at the Washington Post, and I got a part-time copy-monkey job where you just photocopy pages and answer the phones. They move people from there into writing. I started doing that, and one thing led to another.

GM: How did you convince the Post to let you do this blog?

DS: I still don't totally know. I got sent to the Winter Olympics in Turin [in 2006]. I had blogged for the ACC basketball tournament when it was in D.C., and one or two other short events. I think the reason I was doing those was because I was some random young person—"You're not 50 years old, go blog this event." They liked what I had done, and they had an internet slot for someone to send to Italy. At the time I was covering college sports as a beat guy, which I did not like. There was no chance that I was going to do that for a second season. I was literally waking up in the morning and drinking vodka to try to make it through the day.
I said to my boss, "No one is doing anything like a D.C. sports blog, and we should do it before anyone else started to do it." We didn't have any sports blogs at the time. I was applying for all sorts of jobs totally unrelated to sports, because I was so miserable. In August 2006, I was told that the publisher had approved a slot for one year to try this D.C. sports-blogging thing.

GM: Can you write whatever you want? Do you have any kind of mandate?

DS: No, I don't. If you look back at the early stuff that I did, it was awful. Somehow I was thinking there's an audience for really goofy, crazy stuff and covering minor sports that no one cares about. At the time, we weren't getting traffic reports, so I had no idea how many people were reading it. I was writing about the America's Cup of Polo an hour west of Washington. I'm not saying that there are no stories there, but it's not what the D.C. sports blogger should be writing about. It probably would have helped to have someone say, "We're not going to pay your salary if you keep doing this ridiculous stuff," but no one would tell me what to do.
Gradually, I refined what I was doing. Now, a lot more than I ever did before, I consult with the editors before I go somewhere. But today, for example, I didn't tell anyone that I was going to come to Wizards practice. If I decided instead that I wanted to go to a college-basketball practice or stay at home or go to the movies, there's no one here to yell at me.

GM: A lot of sports stories are so pro forma—the athletes know what the writers are going to ask, and the writers know what the athletes are going to say. It's just so rare that you get an athlete to open up and speak honestly about a serious topic. Do you think that by asking them questions that aren't so serious, they might be more comfortable about opening up and talking more honestly?

DS: There are massive exceptions, but in general, your average game story is probably an F in terms of getting to know who the athletes are, and I would say that the stuff that I do is maybe a D-plus. It's little tiny glimpses into who they are. If it's entertainment, you might as well treat it like entertainment. That's my point of view on the whole question of "serious." In general, there are not that many days where I go home and say, "I did some great blogging today." It's still like, try to find eight things that are moderately interesting, put them up there and go home and feed your daughter dinner.
There are days when, if I were writing for the newspaper and they were saying, "Do you have anything worthy of being in the newspaper today?" I would say no. But that's not an acceptable answer. So sometimes I will write something that in retrospect just seems stupid. You try to write eight different things a day, and sometimes you just write something you took off a radio show, because you don't know what else to do.

"I think that people are grown-up enough to hear the word 'balls' used to describe someone's testicles without their brain exploding."
b>GM: In what other ways is working as a blogger different from working as a beat reporter?

DS: To me, the biggest difference is the stress. This is a million times less stressful, because whether or not anyone really cared, I was always totally freaked out that some other newspaper or radio station was going to beat me on a story. Now, if some other blog beats me, it's 30 minutes later, and I put up a link to him, and no one cares because that's how blogs work.
I probably do work long hours now, just because there's always something that I could be doing. There's always another post that I could be making, and there are a lot of nights where I'll go back and start doing stuff again at night. But every single aspect of my life is now better than when I was a beat reporter.

GM: There are a lot of things you report in your blog that beat writers either wouldn't want to or wouldn't bother with—a lot of the locker-room stuff, for example. Are there things you won't report?

DS: There's definitely been some racial stuff, where players talk to each other in a good-hearted way. I just don't think that's fair. I repeat a lot of conversations between players that aren't necessarily being had for the benefit of the media. I feel that as long as it's an open locker room, and the media is allowed in, it's okay to do that, but something like that—I just think that would be terrible, to put guys out there.
A couple of years ago, when Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas were getting into all those fights, I said something to Brendan about it after a game. His answer was something like, "I'm still heavyweight champion of the Washington Wizards." I asked him if it was cool if I used that, and he said, "Yeah, I don't care." So I used it. Their public line was, "We're sorry we did that. It's not going to happen again." And here he was bragging about winning three of the fights. So the team was pissed about it. They were saying, "We help you get all your goofy stuff, and now you're going to get something like that." But Brendan said he didn't care. I think since a lot of what I do is more informal, it's not wrong for me to ask, "Is it O.K. if I use that?"

"But if there is a complaint I would have about the athletes that I've covered, it'd be the way they talk about women sometimes."
GM: Have you ever gotten a negative response from players?

DS: I still haven't talked to him about this, but I know that Gilbert was not happy that I posted those pictures that someone sent me of his swimming pool. He's building a massive swimming pool, and some kid who is friends with one of the guys on the crew working on it sent me some pictures. It got onto Yahoo's home page, so it got millions of hits. Gilbert wrote a blog about how terrible it was [to post the pictures]. In retrospect, it was great traffic, but I still don't know if that was wrong or right.

GM: I wonder if blogs are still trying to establish what is OK and what isn't. Beat writing has been around for so many years that there's an accepted canon of ethics that I'm not sure exists for blogs quite yet.

DS: I think that's true. I don't hold myself to the rules of a beat writer. The problem with not always working with an editor is that sometimes you make a decision that doesn't seem controversial at the time, and then a couple hours later you're like, "I probably should have asked someone about that." But in general, I don't throw out the rules of journalism. I still don't post random rumors that are on message boards—like, Kellen Winslow's testicles are swollen to the size of grapefruits. Something like that would make me more uncomfortable than posting a conversation between two players in a locker room.

GM: Do you have a sense of what other sportswriters at the Post think about your work? Obviously there are some columnists that have taken the Bissinger view of blogging.

DS: Wilbon and Kornheiser both have. I've written some things that have made Tony mad, and he'll call and complain and yell at me. And Wilbon said in the newsroom that he would "beat me down and go South Side on my ass." He was joking, but both of those guys have been the most vocal. But I think that they all know that I used to be a journalist, or that I used to write real stories.

GM: Are athletes jerks?

DS: I would guess that they probably are jerks in the same proportion that regular people are. The reputation, if you ask an average sportswriter, is that baseball players are the worst of the bunch. And I never ever write about the baseball team, because they're terrible, and because they're not interesting to me. To me it's always been the athletes who see themselves as entertainers and not just people who dribble balls who have the biggest egos. Those are the guys whom I like to write about, who think themselves worthy of being on the gossip pages, A-list people in this town. NBA guys are No. 1 on that list, and NFL guys are probably No. 2, and I write about the Wizards and the Redskins more than anyone else.
I do find that athletes are kind of misogynistic. I mean, I don't know these guys. I only know them in weird artificial situations. But if there is a complaint I would have about the athletes that I've covered, it'd be the way they talk about women sometimes.

GM: Which athlete that you've covered is the most interesting? Is it Clinton Portis?

DS: I definitely wouldn't say Portis. Portis is very contrived. It's entertaining, but it's contrived to be entertaining. I would say Gilbert. I don't know how much of it is contrived. I go back and forth on it all the time. How much is him being a genuinely weird person? He talks very knowingly about how he's doing stuff to raise his marketability and to keep people entertained. You hear him say stuff like that and you think it's all an act, but he just does the weirdest stuff. Like that whole flipping a coin thing to decide whether or not to stay with the Wizards—I still don't really understand if he actually did it or not. He told people that he did it, and then he said that he didn't do it. Either way, why did he say that? Maybe the answer is that he flipped a coin that had heads on both sides.

GM: What have been the most satisfying stories you've done for the blog?

DS: People ask me that, and I can never remember. Off the top of my head, the best experience I had at the Beijing Olympics was after the Icelandic men's handball team won the semifinals in an upset to go to the finals, clinching only the fourth medal in Icelandic history. And we were running around underneath the building, and we met the first lady of Iceland, and she snuck me out onto the floor by telling security guards that I was the president of Iceland. I was doing what I had done in Italy—kooky stuff, trying to do things you wouldn't see on NBC. It was just fun.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.







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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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