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SI, Those Pesky Redskins Fans and Writers Double-Dipping: An interview with Nunyo Demasio

In our ongoing quest to interview some of the brightest minds in sports media, today we present to you a Q&A with former newspaper scribe and SI writer Nunyo Demasio, who currently is in the midst of penning a book on an NFL coach. Demasio’s had a swift arc to his career – stops at the New York Daily News, Seattle Times and Washington Post, followed by Sports Illustrated. He’s impressed by Bill Simmons, more impressed by Bob Costas’ bank account, and ducks when Bill Cowher speaks.

Q: Finish the metaphor: covering the Redskins was like ______. Why? And please talk about the message board lunatics.

Ha. It was like being an agnostic amidst a cult. Heading into the job, I really didn’t appreciate the passion – or fanaticism – of Redskins fans. You imagine DC as one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the nation – a cosmopolitan city full of sophisticated, intelligent folks. And that’s all true. But when it came to the Redskins, there was a small-town feel. On one hand, that’s neat that one franchise binds the region’s disparate groups. The downside for a beatwriter was if the team was struggling, many forces conspired to try shaping your coverage.

Since you insist, the message board loonies: The main Redskins fan site created a thread dedicated to tracking “inaccuracies” in my articles. Sure I made a few mistakes in the course of churning out daily stories. But the critiques were a red herring because of my supposedly negative tone. One guy had an avatar that said: “I wouldn’t pee on Nunyo Demasio if he was on fire.” Karma’s a bitch. Last year, the guy, Ben Domenech, was hired as a conservative blogger by the Washington Post. And it didn’t take long for him to be outed as a serial plagiarist, spurring him to quit five days after being hired. (One of Domenech’s original thoughts was calling Coretta Scott King a communist.) Then there was the guy who oversaw the website, a failed journalist who felt inclined to dole out journalism tips. That was like Bush providing pointers on the English language. Finally, after I left for SI, according to an article in an alternative weekly, Karl Swanson, the team’s top flack seemed to be anonymously skewering me on the message board, and trying to undermine my reporting. Surreal. Now I hear the message-board lunatics went after my ex partner.

Oh, and I won’t even go into the assistant coach who told me management accused him of being my main source when my calls appeared on his team-owned phone bill. But it was a ride covering that team. I actually enjoyed the challenge and the high stakes. Lots of really good people in the organization, I must add.

Q: You’ve worked all over the place in newspapers, and at Sports Illustrated. Biggest difference between working at a paper and magazine? Besides salary, of course.

When I joined SI in Oct. 2005, it was embracing the digital age like never before. The anchor, of course, was and is the iconic magazine. However, staffers were reminded that they worked for SI, the brand. There was more of an emphasis on using other so-called platforms, particularly the web for breaking news. Just before I left in February, I think they signed a video partnership with NBC Sports. So for SI, it’s brave, new world in which ESPN is the hegemony. Lifers told me that in the olden days – say 10 years ago — you might spend a couple months on an assignment. And it was frowned upon to expend energy on other mediums.

There’s obviously been a 180-degree change to pursue eyeballs wherever. Plus, SI’s metabolism is more similar to that of newspapers.
Web sites like yours have noted the once-unthinkable departures by SI writers as chinks in its armor. But the magazine reloaded well with recent hires. If I’m starting a staff and seeking two of the nation’s best young writers, what editor wouldn’t include Damon Hack or Lee Jenkins – poached from the NYT — on his/her short list.

Perhaps SI’s biggest move, though, was mercifully dismissing that quasi-stripper. Haha. I should say reportedly – if you can use “reportedly” based on a blog’s info.

Maybe the main difference from newspapers was SI’s cachet. Sure, with ESPN and the proliferation of new media, not everyone automatically genuflects at SI. However, it still carries tremendous weight. I was at the Washington Post for more than three years, and the paper’s well-earned reputation opened doors that would be normally closed. At SI, the access was a notch higher. And even with the increasing emphasis of the web, many athletes provided real access depending on whether a story would appear in the magazine. So for athletes from the MySpace generation, the print appeal still overrides the big, bad web.

Another obvious difference is long-form writing. But many newspapers — from the Seattle Times to the Washington Post — are terrific in that department.

Q: Did you set up an office to write a book, or can you bang it out at your cpu? Is the temptation to consistently check email/blogs too much?

I live a couple blocks from Central Park, so with nice weather, that’s where I’ve been doing much of my work. I just plop on a bench and use my air card to get on line. I’m actually doing this Q&A from the park on this balmy Thursday afternoon. I’ve been such a fixture that the pedicabbies now greet me. And the other day, a total stranger asked me where my computer was.
Being a single guy, one nice byproduct of this setting is the ability to occasionally check out eye candy strolling by. I’ll sometimes do a goofy wave, eliciting total ignorance or a who-the-hell-are-you look. But eventually, I’ll get a smile (9 of 10 times, it’s a tourist). The quirky interplay helps break up the monotony of transcribing.

Once it gets cold, my gym has a lounge that’s good for work. And since I’m nocturnal, the 24-hour Starbucks a couple blocks away is enticing. Plus, I’ve done some reconnaissance on the New York Public Library. When it’s time to purely write, I’ll hunker down in my apartment/cave for days at a time. I’m sure writers vary in their approach.

As for the temptation of emails/blogs, I haven’t been able to resist. I almost never go a day without reading my favorite blogs: Rex Parker’s blog for the New York Times crossword addicts – a fun, informative site with an often snarky tone; Romenesko’s, the indispensable source for journalism news; and Journal-isms by Richard Prince, who does yeoman’s work tracking news on minority journalists. For the NFL, it’s Pro Footballtalk.com, the most influential NFL blog anywhere — to the chagrin of many in the MSM. Tangent: Last year, I actually went to West Virginia to visit the founder, Mike Florio, for a short SI piece. It didn’t run at the time because we were waiting for a hook. Or maybe my story stunk. Anyway, I consider the site the Drudge Report of the NFL. Florio is an interesting guy — an employment lawyer who hasn’t been on a plane since 1997. It says something about the state of sports media that Florio can have such an impact — for better or worse. I mean last year, media-phobic Nick Saban declined an invitation from President Bush – before his approval rating was almost nil – yet had a sitdown with Florio. Bizarre.

Q: For everyone who dreams of landing a gig at SI … can you recall what your average week might have been like?

For NFL writers, much of the season is spent bouncing from place to place. You fly into an NFL city Tuesday or Wednesday after setting up interviews. The weekends, particularly Sundays, can be stressful because you get your marching orders after a game. And even when you have a contingency or two, sometimes Plan B and C don’t pan out. For example, the athlete you intended to feature gets injured. Regardless, you often end up doing an all-nighter trying to craft a quality story that will hold up several days after ESPN has shaped the national conversation. It can be tough: You often have to look forward within the context of the game. Plus, you’re expected to get insight that the other hardworking journalists couldn’t. I’m curious to see if SI will ever throw out that game-driven model except for the playoffs, when the games have special meaning.

Q: What about some of these writers double-dipping – newspaper column and a radio show, or column and an online column, or column and a TV show … any thoughts on that?

There’s been some soul searching on this issue among the ink-stained masses. Not everyone can be a Tony Kornheiser and/or Mike Wilbon. With their talents, why on earth SHOULD they be limited to newspaper columns? Kornheiser is basically a five-tool journalist. He’s a brilliant humorist with maybe the best radio show in the country. Wilbon is Wilbon, a supreme talent, who would write a cogent, informative column on a 15-minute deadline, then appear the next day on PTI. And he attended every Skins game while I was on the beat. Unfortunately, however, most of us aren’t as gifted. Thus, it’s a valid debate: since the product typically suffers, is it worth selling our journalistic souls? Some writers who used to do terrific print stuff suddenly produce mediocre work after getting a radio/TV gig. And they don’t necessarily become TV stars.

I have a long, long, way to go before reaching my potential as a writer. And I’m not good enough to get there expending much energy on anything but writing. Still, I don’t think the issue is simple. It’s essential for newspapers and magazines to be on multiple platforms. There’s a tricky balancing act. Unless you’re a TV/radio star, I think the foundation should remain the written word, especially the reporting. One guy who does it well is Mike Wise: excellent columns and features; and occasionally he’s on ESPN. Another guy is David Aldridge of the Philadelphia Inquirer and TNT. When Aldridge was an ESPN star, I forgot how good of a writer he is.

Q: The NFL is clearly trying to dictate how outlets cover their teams. This has changed dramatically over the past 20 years – partially due to the internet. Do you see things changing even more in the next 10 years?

Things are only going to get worse for the real media. The NFL knows it’s king, and can get away with pushing the traditional boundaries. The NFL bought its own network and website — shrewd business moves. But now there are restrictions on newspapers for using video clips. Plus, there’s the hullabaloo about photographers being forced to wear vests of league sponsors. The NFL’s control is getting out of hand. The ominous message is that the real media is not needed. The Redskins were at the forefront of this, giving exclusive interviews on the team website. It was already difficult enough to cover that team, but in this new landscape, the august WP and other papers have real challenges ahead.

Q: You’ve got the urge to start up a blog. Any blog. What would you blog about?

‘m not a hard-core sports guy. So If I started a blog, it would be a potpourri appealing to my idiosyncrasies. No real theme. Just a dab of sports mixed with politics, media critiques, a crime blotter and NYT crossword discussion for folks who don’t bother trying to solve the puzzle beyond Wednesday. And only one person would read it: me.

Q: What book project could be enticing enough to get you to leave Sports Illustrated?

Well, actually the situation wasn’t that simple. Technically, I didn’t have much choice. Late 2006, Time Warner was about to make an unprecedented purge of its workforce: 5 percent from People, Time, SI, etc. Recent hires were particularly in the crosshairs. Regardless, I had already been trying to land a book project – a goal I’d put on hold for years. So the timing turned out well. I received the equivalent of six months pay, which provided my first break after a decade of beatwriting. Plus, I recharged my batteries while losing more than 15 pounds gained from years of pressroom grub.

I’d gotten to know the writer Kurt Andersen, who had been nudging me to pursue my goal. This was different from mom believing in me. Andersen co-founded Spy magazine, wrote for film and TV and essentially produced a couple bestsellers in his spare time. He wanted me to come up with some book ideas so he would introduce me to publishing folks. His first suggestion was a memoir, largely because of my mom’s wild tale landing in America from Ghana. Anyway, I targeted two NFL coaches for books. In February, I asked Tony Dungy if he’d be interested in a book. I also asked an NFL coach who had just retired. It turned out that Dungy already was planning a book with someone he worked with in the Bucs organization. Meanwhile, when I left SI, a couple former Daily News colleagues were nice enough to recommend me to their ESPN bosses. I inquired about a possible gig. Gary Hoenig who runs ESPN Magazine and John Walsh, the ESPN honcho, were gracious enough to meet me. But timing was a consideration because I was waiting on the other coach’s decision about a definitive biography. The ESPN guys were classy, though, and actually gave me advice on trying to land the book. A few months later, in July, I finally reached a handshake agreement with the coach. The reason I haven’t said his name is that nothing’s official yet. We’re still working out the details, and he’s been known to reverse himself. But it looks like it’ll be at least a one-year project.

Of course, with my luck, Dungy’s memoir became the country’s top bestseller. But I’m thrilled for him. Until the Super Bowl, excluding an ESPN Mag cover story, he’d been woefully under-chronicled for a top coach. And his intellect was ignored amid the trite Belichick vs. Manning storylines. No wonder some book publishers underestimated Dungy’s appeal. He told me the other day that initially a couple of publishers predicted that his memoir would sell no more than 100k copies. Well, it’s sold only half a million in less than six months.
I’d be thrilled at simply getting my name on a book that’ll pay the bills for the next couple years. I know. I should get in line. My book idea(s) may very well bomb, but occasionally you have to just take the damn dive.

I even recently suggested to Steve Smith that he does an autobiography or memoir in the next few years. He has an amazing backstory and his celebrity should enable him to tell it.

Word association:time.
Bill Cowher – He really DOES spit when he talks. I’ve only interviewed him a couple times. He seems like a good guy. Future Skins coach?
Cheater – That’s a gimme this week: Bill Belichick. But in general, Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong. Allegedly.
Bob Costas – I didn’t realize how rich this guy was until recently. My best friend, a Wall Street type, just bought a place in this new luxury building on Central Park West. My pal said that Costas, who coughed up $10mm, is highlighted among the celebrity residents, including Denzel Washington and Jeff Gordon.
Bill Simmons – Talented and polarizing. The first time I read him was in the late 1990s, when I was a Sonics beatwriter. After I read his stuff on an obscure Boston-centric blog, I said to myself: ‘How does this guy not have a mainstream platform?’
Avian Bird Flu – Haha. That’s out of left field. If you insist: I hope it doesn’t gestate in Cowher’s spittle.

 

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