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On Blogs, Old Media and New York Characters: An Interview with Newsday's Neil Best

We usually save interviews with members of the sports media for the end of the week, but this one’s too fun to hold. We fired off an email over the weekend to the Watchdog, Neil Best. He’s a blogger-cum-columnist at one of the biggest papers (circulation-wise), in the country – Newsday. And as you’ll see here, he’s very wordy. We had to trim this bad boy to 2,500 words, so it’s Simmons-like in that way. And that’s after we spared you a fun tale about old media (that’s Best) having lunch with new media (Deadspin’s Will Leitch). Long story short: Brooklyn, subs for lunch and the midwest. Now, onto Best’s thoughts on blogs, ESPN, Mushnick and Lupica.

Q: You’re now doing a blog for Newsday, and producing incredible things like making 18 posts in a day (our personal high is somewhere near 10). Which is more fun, blogging and never leaving home, or going out and writing the traditional newspaper way?

Here is the most boring possible answer: Each has its merits; the trick is striking a balance. I would hate to only blog and never leave home. On the other hand, now that I have become a blogging addict three months in, I can’t imagine going back to exclusively writing the traditional way.

My world famous 18-post day Friday that you referenced illustrates a couple of things. The only reason I had time for that was that I happened not to have a Sunday column in the paper that week, which I normally would have written Friday, thus distracting me from blogging.

The only reason I had enough quality material for 18 posts was that on Tuesday I took a train to D.C. to watch the new “Monday Night Football” crew rehearse and Wednesday I took a train to NYC to watch the Yankees-Orioles game of Aug. 6, 1979, with Bobby Murcer. (Full disclosure: I accepted offers of sandwiches at both events; neither with mayo.)

So, clearly, there is a symbiotic relationship between the blog and the newspaper column. Obviously as a “mainstream media” columnist my blog benefits from access such as the MNF rehearsal (during which I hung out with several top ESPN executives) in a way even popular blogs – Deadspin, The Big Lead, Kissing Suzy Kolber, Awful Announcing, etc. – cannot match, or don’t want to.

The difficult thing is parceling out my time properly, and even more importantly deciding which things to put only in the blog and which should be in the paper, which I find very difficult. In an ideal world, every reader who cares about my stuff would read both the column (in the paper or on line) and the blog. Every day. But even my wife doesn’t do that. Sometimes mundane crap such as sleeping, eating, working, raising children and showering distracts her from what really matters in a relationship.

Q: What do you love about blogging? Hate anything? Is your blog edited, or do they trust you because you’re a veteran?

I love the obvious things about blogging: The creative freedom, the endless amounts of space, the ability to be sickeningly self-indulgent in a way that would not work in the newspaper.

It really isn’t as much of a burden as it might appear. One key factor is that I type faster than the average sportswriter. I was the star of my ninth-grade typing class at East Northport Junior High in 1974-75.

The thing I dislike – “hate” might be too strong – is the responsibility I feel to add content for the people who have been nice enough to read WatchDog regularly.

Like many bloggers, I do have a full-time job. It just happens that my full-time job is much more closely related to my blogging than most bloggers’ are.

Whenever I leave the house for a newspaper assignment or go to the gym or play softball or go to the movies I worry that the blog is being neglected. That’s sick.

I blogged throughout my last vacation (see next question), something I do not plan to repeat.

WatchDog is completely unedited, which is a strange concept for a newspaperman. Since the printing press was invented, writers have been blaming all of their problems on editors. What now?

Our Web guys do keep an eye on what we write and presumably someone would say something if I go off the deep end or continue obnoxiously posting pictures of Victoria Beckham.

Still, right now I could write an item advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government and there would not be anything or anyone to stop me.

(For the record, my preference is peaceful transfers of power based on free and open elections.)

Q: You had a nice little scoop during the All-Star break about ESPN and MLB squabbling. Obviously without giving up sources, care to walk us through how you broke it? We picked up your initial post and referenced it; within an hour, an ESPN.com flack emailed us and told us how wrong your story was. You were, of course, correct all along.

This was a weird situation, one about which I am 90 percent proud but 10 percent not because it was an example of the dangers of blogging vs. traditional reporting and writing.

It was, indeed, “a nice little scoop,” but one that did not appear in the paper, only on the blog. Why is that? Well, I was on vacation at the time and thus not writing for the paper but still blogging.

So when I heard about the MLB-ESPN spat I put together a quick blog item about it, making it clear it was a work in progress and something I never would have posted in such unfinished form in the paper.

Later that day I did an additional item with a comment from ESPN, which confirmed the basics of the original post. It was essentially accurate, as the world learned in the ensuing days.

But ESPN called that night and took issue with my wording where I said it reported the All-Star rosters in the wake of “Internet reports,” making it sound as if they were repeating rumors.

In fact they simply were repeating the news that had been reported by TBS and AP, basically getting it from the source, and thus in my opinion were within their journalistic rights. (MLB disagreed.)

So I left the Harry Potter film marathon I was attending with my 9-year-old at the local library and had my wife update the blog with a fairer, more accurate wording.

I got some of the particulars slightly wrong, too. I initially thought “Baseball Tonight” still would be produced on-site in San Francisco, which it wasn’t.

So, overall, it was a good story to have and I operated responsibly under the circumstances. But it also was a lesson in having the patience to fill out a story based on traditional newspaper training rather than rushing something for the sake of being the first in the world to report it.

As for where I originally heard about this, I won’t say. But I will say I once heard an observation from someone in the ESPN p.r. department that the place leaks like a submarine with screen windows.

Q: Since the New York media is so fun to dissect, we’re going to throw two names at you, and we want to hear your best stories about these people. Lupica. Mushnick. Go.

Nice try.

Excuse me, but didn’t the last person who criticized Mr. Lupica in one of these interviews get fired? And remember, Jason Whitlock is single, which drastically cuts down on expenses.

Seriously . . . I know people who are not fond of Mike, but he always has been nice enough to me.

He used to work for Newsday and when he’d be writing a column at an event for which I was a sidebar guy, I’d try to coordinate subjects with him but he’d just tell me not to worry about what he’s writing.

Fair enough. I’ve never seen anyone who could bang out a coherent column faster than him on deadline. I’m sure his novels are well written, but I’ve never read one. I’m more of a non-fiction guy.

When I was on the Giants beat I might have made a crack or two about his relatively low attendance at sports events. But that is a beat writer mindset. Now I am in no position to say anything on that topic.

I don’t go to many sports events on this job, and when I do I hardly ever set foot in the locker room. Which is a great thing, frankly.

I never have spoken to Mushnick. The only time I’ve been in his presence was on a tour of the Rutgers football stadium when it was under construction in the early ’90s.

Phil has made and championed some great points about sports and media over the years and I respect him for that. Sometimes I wish I could generate his kind of anger and passion.

I have to be me, though, and mostly I think the goal is a balance between having fun with the beat and picking your spots in getting furious about the day-to-day outrages of the sports world.

One thing I love about the sports media beat in New York is that all four columnists who work it go in radically different directions, which is good for readers.

The eight or 10 beat writers covering the Giants had to stick to a narrow range of coverage, whether in The New York Times or the New York Post.

Of course, unlike a beat such as the Giants, where some of my closest friends in the business were the people I competed with, traveled with and kibitzed with, we do not see much of each other on the sports media trail. I have become friendly with Richard Sandomir of The Times and Andrew Marchand of the Post before he left for ESPN radio, and sometimes I see Richard Deitsch of SI. Like a retired athlete, I miss the camaraderie.

Q: Care to take a guess what the first major newspaper will be that goes exclusively online? Is it a move you’d endorse?

I assume the first to go will be a college paper. That’s probably happened already.

But I guess if I have to take a stab at the first major paper to do it, I’d go for one in a relatively affluent, relatively young, relatively high-tech oriented area.

How about the San Jose Mercury-News? I think the New York market will be the very last holdout. (The Times did shrink Monday by 11⁄2 inches, so I guess if the trend continues it eventually will disappear.)

It’s not a move I’d endorse right now for Newsday, both because it wouldn’t make economic sense yet and because I’m an old fart who still likes the feel of a newspaper in his hand.

Of course, transmitting information via print is insanely inefficient, but I assume the printed version will carry on at least until most current fortysomethings are no longer with us. Maybe it will be a niche product for old people, but there are a lot of highly profitable niche products for old people.

I do think Newsday will continue as a newsgathering entity far beyond my retirement. It has a powerful brand name on Long Island and there always will be a place for professional journalism.

The printed version? Hmm. It’ll be around for a bit longer. Let San Jose take the plunge first, and we’ll see how it goes.

Q: NFL prediction time: which number will be greater – Michael Strahan’s sacks or Chad Pennington’s interceptions? Why?

I’ll go with Chad’s interceptions.

I do think Strahan will play this season, though. At least I hope so. I made a friendly wager in 2002 with a fellow beat writer that Strahan would be in the league in 2009; most people, including Strahan, believed I was insane.

Also, I enjoy watching Strahan play and enjoy reading coverage of what he says – now that I no longer am one of the beat writers standing in front of his locker getting yelled at.

I think Strahan has a couple of good years left and once he gets over the public relations beat-down the Giants have given him I believe he’ll be back. I do not think his sack total will be all that high, though.

Sacks are harder and harder to come by these days with quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly, and Osi Umenyiora is younger, faster and a sack machine himself at the other end.

So Strahan might end up concentrating even more than he has in the past on run stopping.

Pennington knows how to avoid mistakes and might have a low interception total, but not low enough to finish behind Strahan’s sack total.

Q: Stephon Marbury is just the neatest guy. He talks a good game, he’s got a TV show, the cheap sneaks, he fancies Italy … what’s with this guy?

I’ve known Strahan since 1995, but Stephon since the late ’80s, when he was a kid who’d show up at his brother’s Lincoln High games in Brooklyn. Well, I didn’t actually know him, but I did watch him sink long shots from all over the court at halftime. I did know his father and some other family members.

Look, it’s a tough family from a tough part of town. Steph is a product of all sorts of powerful forces that have made for one very complicated cat. His infamous interview with Bruce Beck on Ch. 4 in New York a few weeks back was weird and scary and fascinating. It’s on YouTube if you haven’t seen it.

I think this guy still can play and even lead a solid playoff team with the right supporting cast and the right coach to keep his head screwed on more or less straight. If anyone call pull that off it is Isiah.

Q: Let’s say you have a son. And he tells you he wants to attend journalism school. Seeing the direction in which the media world is headed, do you advocate j-school or something else?

What’s with the sexist question? I have two daughters. Why would I give them advice any different from a son? Would I advocate journalism school? I guess the honest answer is no.

There are two separate issues here.

First: Nothing against J-schools and their alumni, but I never really understood the need for them. My journalism schools were The Rag at Northport High School, The Cornell Daily Sun, working part time at Newsday in the fall of 1982, then two years at The Anchorage Times.

What would I have learned in school that I didn’t learn on the job? So if one of my daughters wanted to be a journalist, I’d probably say
J-school is unnecessary.

Second: The trickier part is whether to advocate journalism in general. I’d hate to say no, because it’s been my professional life and it’s been a good one. It beats cleaning the bathrooms at Penn Station. And of course if she had a passion for it, I would tell her to go for it.

But as a practical matter, sure, I would perhaps try to steer her in a more stable, more lucrative direction. Covering teams (or TV networks) can be fun and rewarding. Owning one might be even more so.

 

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