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An Interview with Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports

charles robinsonThis week’s interview is with Yahoo Sports NFL writer Charles Robinson. He’s a fairly prolific tweeter, is hated (badly) by Plaxico Burress, and his blind items are terrific. In this interview, you will find two really funny comparisons for Tim Tebow and Vince Young, learn that lame Patriots fans (are there any other kind?) tried to get him fired, and be reminded of Al Michaels’ movie turns in the 1990s. Oh, and if you were one of the Tribune Company minions ripping him in Athens, he knows who you are.

Q: Think back to your journalism days at Michigan State. Was Yahoo Sports even considered a mainstream media outlet? Were you like nearly everyone else who went to college for journalism, thinking that you’d be writing for a newspaper/magazine for your entire career? What was the turning point that made you think maybe you could become a web guy?

I had no concept of Yahoo Sports in college. If you told me that’s where I would be nine years later, I would have asked, ‘What the hell happened to my plan?’

When I left Michigan State, we were among that last wave of graduates where newspapers were still clearly the most sensible goal. Journalism still had that coal town mentality when it came to newspapers – everyone worked in the mine, so you would do it, too. And you just assumed that a 40-year career would always be there.

I felt that way until Dan Wetzel opened my eyes. I was a sports enterprise reporter at the Orlando Sentinel in 2003, right about the time Dan was leaving CBSsportsline.com to become the national columnist at Yahoo Sports. Even then, I don’t think anyone considered Yahoo a sports media destination. And when it came to the big breaking news stories, newspaper reporters were just starting to get their skulls caved in by internet outlets. The sanctimonious newspaper attitudes still hadn’t worn off in most places.

But you could see the landscape shifting. So when Dan went to Yahoo, it began a yearlong dialogue between he and I about internet journalism. The boundless nature of it was definitely appealing. And Dan did a good job of selling Yahoo’s mentality, which was “If there’s a good story, go get it. Don’t worry about anything else.” That’s a hell of a pitch, particularly at a time when newspaper budgets and space were shrinking.

When Yahoo offered me their NFL columnist job, I wish I could say I had the foresight that the place was ready to blossom as a sports media entity. But in reality, I was only 26 and it was just a great opportunity for me. The bosses at Yahoo sold this really aggressive five-year plan that seemed unlikely, but it made the risk of leaving newspapers appealing. And to their credit, all of the major points of that five year plan were actually achieved in four years – things like taking the lead from ESPN.com in overall traffic, hiring some of the best reporters and writers in the business, and breaking big investigative pieces.

Really, the only downside was how of some of my newspaper bosses reacted. The executive sports editor at the Sentinel at the time, Van McKenzie, was away from the paper battling cancer. I’d like to think my departure would have been a little more positive if he had been in the office. But he wasn’t, and some of the other editors at the paper really slammed the move. A few years later, a friend told me a story about how some Tribune Company editors and reporters had spent a night at a bar at the Athens Olympics trashing me for thinking of taking the Yahoo job. I’m guessing things turned out a little differently than they expected.

Q: Much has been made about the demise of the traditional sports columnist. The NY Times seems ready to bail on columnists altogether. What seems to make Yahoo’s columnists successful is the ability to blend reporting and column writing. Do you see this becoming a trend? Were you surprised to see Fanhouse gobble up a bunch of columnists and then have the majority of them do little or no reporting?

It will always depend on the news outlet and the individuals. But in general, I do think the traditional sports columnists are a dying breed. It’s sad, because most of us grew up reading sports columnists who understood the DNA of their market. I used to live in Detroit, and there will never be a day when a national columnist can write something more poignant about Detroit sports than what Joe Falls was writing during his prime.

But things have changed. Having roots in a city and being able to wax eloquently about it just isn’t enough anymore. Especially on the internet. If you’re going to thrive, you have to be able to break news, give good analysis, and also be able to deliver a sharp column when a story calls for it. The internet audience is just too varied to offer them one skill and hope they keep coming back.

I don’t know what the mission is at Fanhouse. They do have a collection of unique voices and strong opinions. Maybe they will show that is a recipe for success. Or maybe they’ll branch into more reporting as time goes on. We’ll see. Personally, I’m glad I work with a lot of the all-terrain assassins – hybrid journalists like Wetzel, Adrian Wojnarowski, Josh Peter, Jeff Passan, etc. They all have a universal skill set that makes them special.

tebow girlfriendQ: What was your take on ESPN’s coverage of the Brett Favre saga? If you had to give it a grade on the A-F scale, what where would you rank it? And are you more into the Favre return, or the Mike Vick return? If both were playing at different times in opposite cities, and you could cover one for the weekend, which would it be?

Can I give ESPN three grades for the Favre stuff? Let me put it this way:

An “A” for effort, since nobody can saturate the living hell out of a story like ESPN.

A “C” for content, since it seemed like 90-percent of what they were reporting was the same news with a different reporter attached to it. (Seriously, how many people did ESPN have on the Favre beat – 50?)

And an “F” for results, because after devoting all that time, effort and money into the story, Fox’s Jay Glazer swooped in and beat them on it. That had to be particularly tough to take at ESPN, because I don’t think I ever saw Glazer standing on Favre’s lawn in Mississippi, or in front of the Vikings’ practice facility, or doing an interview with Favre’s wife. Just goes to show you, the right source trumps all comers.

As for Favre vs. Vick, Vick is more interesting because of all the dynamics in play. At this point, Favre is just a fading wishy washy icon who is clinging to professional football. Vick’s story is a sociologist’s wet dream. Regardless of what he does on the football, he has arguably become a vast social commentary on race, economics, honesty, fame – you could just go on and on with him.

Q: The blind items you’ve posted on twitter have seemed to generate some interest. How do your bosses feel about blind items? Have you run into front office-types or agents who have known their player was the subject of a blind item? What is the reaction you’ve gotten from fans about them?

The reason those blind items don’t run on Yahoo is because nobody would know where to put them. What do you do with a one-paragraph nugget about an NFL player who smothered his body in Ben-Gay to cover up the smell of drinking all night? And like all things on the internet, if you can’t figure out where to put it, it gets banished to the island of misfit toys – otherwise known as twitter.

But readers do love them, because they are pure ‘news of the weird’. Like the rookie who kept bouncing checks because he never had a bank account and didn’t understand checks weren’t real money. The first time I heard that story, I laughed so hard I cried. But how do you report it without absolutely humiliating the guy? And how could you justify it?

So I put them out there and omit details to protect the innocent. I have yet to run into an agent or executive who was pissed about one of the items, but I tend to know which stories I can share without triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Q: Do you think that Tony Kornheiser’s voyage to the MNF booth will have an impact – positively or negatively – about sportswriters landing a high profile game-analyst gig in the future? Or will that field remain mostly the domain of a play-by-play guy with a former athlete or two? While we’re on announcers, who are some of your favorites in football?

I don’t think Kornheiser’s performance really matters, because most network executives know sportswriters make terrible game analysts. When was the last time you sat in a press box and thought one of the other hacks would be a great TV analyst? Most of the time we’re telling each other to shut up so we can figure out the down and distance. That field belongs to the people who played the game or were trained to be on-air analysts. And that’s how it should be.

As for who I like, pound-for-pound Ron Jaworski is the best in the business. He gives me something great every time out. I like Cris Collinsworth because he isn’t afraid to be critical. Another guy I like – and it’s still early with him – is Jon Gruden. There are times when he gets excited and it sounds like Jack Torrance from The Shining is in the booth. One more thing: I would have said Al Michaels, but he lost me in the 1990s when he did those god-awful turns in BASEketball and Jerry MaGuire. I hope he fired his agent for that crap.

vince_young_drunkQ: Have you seen anyone fall as far and fast as Vince Young has? Are we looking at a Ryan Leaf-type flameout here?

You might have to go into another genre to compare Vince’s plummet. I think he’s in the Vanilla Ice/Milli Vanilli/Bernie Madoff bracket. Or maybe the chick who sang that song on Britian’s Got Talent and then ended up being institutionalized. What was her name? Susan Boyle?

In all seriousness, it’s framing up to be one of the most mind-boggling collapses we’ve seen in a long time. That three-year run – his last two years at Texas and his rookie season in the NFL – had a lot of smart football people believing he was going to change the pro game. Now he’s the poster-child executives point to when they worry about a guy’s mental toughness. The guy still has a wealth of talent. Maybe he’ll turn himself around. But I don’t know that you could find many veterans in the Tennessee locker room who could ever believe in him again as a leader.

QUICK HITTERS:

Q: Your favorite athlete in Michigan State history. I think it’s written somewhere on my diploma that I’m supposed to say Magic Johnson. To hell with that. Give me Plaxico Burress. When I was covering him for the student paper, he once told Jemele Hill, “I don’t mind reporters, but I hate that motherfucker Charles Robinson.” Despite my sincerest efforts, he hasn’t spoken to me since – almost 10 years. There is something admirable about a guy who says ‘screw you’ and sticks to it.

Q: If you had to project the rookie year of Mark Sanchez, would you guess closer to the 1st year of Flacco, Leinart, or Matt Ryan? As long as the measuring stick isn’t co-eds in hot tubs, he’ll be better than Leinart. He’s not Matt Ryan. What Ryan did was extremely special for a variety of reasons. I’m thinking Sanchez will be Flacco-lite. Solid rookie numbers thanks to the defense and other pieces around him, but he’ll miss the playoffs.

Q: Based on email responses, which set of NFL fans are the most annoying? New England Patriots fans, but only because a group of them once tried to get me fired for writing about a practice they thought I hadn’t attended. Unfortunately for them, video captured me talking to Corey Dillon. (Side note: This was the only time I was actually glad I talked to Corey Dillon.) Anyway, I have been forwarding my hatemail from Patriots fans to Gregg Doyel ever since.

Q: If you’re the judge in the Plaxico case, what would you have done in terms of punishment? A three month jail term, a hefty fine, and 500 hours community service. New York statute or not, two years in the hoosegow for accidentally shooting yourself is harsh. If it had been Stephon Marbury, they would have thrown a ticker tape parade.

Q: Obligatory Tim Tebow question: He gets drafted in _ round and his most comparable NFL comparison is _. Third round. A more athletic Jay Riemersma, once he moves to tight end. (Someone call Gregg Doyel and tell him I’m forwarding my University of Florida hatemail, too.)

 

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