Jim Owczarski is the Packers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In the past, he’s covered a variety of events for OnMilwaukee, earned a spot in the Best American Sportswriting publication, and worked the prep school beat for the Aurora Beacon-News in Chicago. He took the time to chat with The Big Lead about how his untraditional background helped him become the writer he is today, Matt LeFleur’s impact in Green Bay, and more.
Liam McKeone: Hey, Jim, appreciate you taking the time today. In your own words, describe how you got started in the industry and how you came to be the beat guy for the Packers at the Journal Sentinel.
Jim Owczarski: 80s baby from Chicago, so I grew up wanting to play NBA basketball, right? Sox fan from the South Side as well. Had a love of writing early on, so really in high school is when I determined I wanted to be a sports writer. Tribune, Sun-Times. Then my local paper, the Daily South Town, had traveling beat writers and all that stuff, so I consumed it. Went to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. That was interesting because they weren’t your traditional journalism program, like a Syracuse. They’re a private, liberal arts college and while it presented some challenges post-graduation, because you didn’t have that sort of built-in network of alumni and all that stuff, there was a focus on writing. Fiction, non-fiction, creative writing. I had to do all that kind of stuff. I was there from 1998-2002, before the recession, before the industry changed. So I was doing narrative storytelling before that really became a thing. And, you know, being sort of the underdog in the market, not having the connections, I had to really hustle for freelance work, to make connections, to network. So I’m learning the craft of writing, I’m hustling to figure out how to get a job and meet people, right?
I graduate in ‘02, and I’m a little stubborn and refused to leave Chicago. The Naperville Sun went daily in 2003, and why would a three-day-a-week paper go daily in 2003? Because that happened, John Roberts, who is now an editor at ESPN.com, hired me as their sports clerk. That was one of those, you’re paid for 30 hours a week but you’re obviously gonna work way more if you want. John basically said, “Hey, do your requirements, but if you want to go cover the Cubs or Sox, if you want to cover pro golf, then go do it. Except, give me something different.” Because at the time, the Sun was one of the suburban papers that was owned by the Sun-Times. So he was like, “If you’re just gonna go there and do what the beat guys do, that’s a waste of all of our time because I can just pull that.” So here I was, this 22-year-old, given the world, if you will, but you have to make it your own world. You have to hustle, you have to fight for the interesting, unique stuff. As you can tell, it’s 2019, that was way ahead of the curve in how to report and write and look for stories.
That was the beginning. I moved to the Aurora Beacon-News as a full-time writer. That was also part of the same company, so it was like a transfer. Same type of deal– cover preps, and in your free time look for those unique stories in other areas. I want to give a shoutout to my editors there: Todd M. Adams, currently the APSE president, and Chris Sosa. They allowed me to do those things and pushed me as a writer. Then, laid off in 2012. Obviously I made it through some of the recession, but not all of it. The day before Wrapports was announced as the new buyers of the Sun-Times, I was part of that wave of guys getting laid off. That could have been terrible, but I saw the writing on the wall and saw it coming. So it sucked, but it actually led me to a promotion. I was hired by OnMilwaukee.com in the spring of 2012.
McKeone: Were you as stubborn about leaving Chicago this time around?
Owczarski: We were stubborn. My wife is in radio, her name is Michelle Rutkowski. She programs three radio station for the Milwaukee Radio Alliance, also a North Central College alumna. We wanted to stay in Chicago or close to home, we were willing to fight that battle in the No. 3 media market in the country. Opportunities presented themselves for her in Milwaukee so her career has grown here. We got married, we weren’t married when I got laid off, so as a couple… We always knew in radio and journalism that we may have to live apart, how do we do that type of deal? So again, OnMilwaukee, it was very fortunate in timing. I get laid off in Chicago and an outlet in the city where my wife works took a chance on me. Let me give those guys a shoutout, that was Andy Tarnoff and Jeff Sherman. Obviously they had an opening so the stars aligned.
Basically, OnMilwaukee took a chance on me. Here I was, this guy who was a preps writer with sub-pro experience, and they said, “Here you go. Bring interesting, compelling sports content, but it’s gotta be different from what the others are doing.” And I did everything there. Brewers, Bucks, Packers, Milwaukee Admirals, indoor soccer, there was a U.S. Women’s Open so I did some pro golf. Anything and everything under the sun. That was tremendous. Worked a bunch. Worked really hard. I was here when Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted, and I was the first one to really do a, “Who is this kid, where did he come from, what an incredible story” type-feature. Steve Wojciechowski was hired as Marquette’s head coach, and I did the first kind of blowup profile on Steve. That was noticed by, and this is how it was told to me, a Marquette alum at ESPN saw the story, forwarded the story to a friend of his, who at the time was the sports editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer, Matthew Tabeek.
Unbeknownst to me, Matt was looking for a Bengals writer, looking for a guy to bring something different to the beat, saw my stuff, called me out of the blue, and got me to leave Milwaukee. So I went to the Cincinnati Enquirer in April of 2015 to cover the Bengals, helped out with their All-Star game coverage in July of that year too. Did the Bengals for three-and-a-half years. Michael Cohen left the Journal Sentinel to go to The Athletic at the start of last year, which opened up a Packers beat job. I’ve had roots in Milwaukee for about a decade through my wife. They said, “Hey Jim, would you want to come home?” And of course! My wife is there, I live there in the offseason, so that was a no-brainer. I’m very fortunate. My sports editor at the Enquirer, Jason Hoffman, former sports editor at the Journal Sentinel Mike Davis, all collegial, it was great. Transferred over right at Week 1 last year, and here I am, on the Packers beat!
McKeone: You definitely have a more unique path than most beat guys. How did coming from more of a traditional writing background, rather than a journalistic one, help you in your career?
Owczarski: It’s definitely… It’s a different way to look at storytelling, you know? If you’re studying, and my professors are going to kill me for not remembering the authors, when you’re sort of trained in either the fiction or non-fiction world, or the creative writing with poetry and different kinds of poetry, of course, you view writing and storytelling just differently than standard journalism. There’s no other way to say it. It’s not just nut graphs and basic ledes. That was taught to me, but it was along with this other way and as the industry changed– initially, with the boom of the internet where we were told, “No one reads anything, write shorter write shorter,” to the reverse of it, which was “Tell good stories, people will read it,” but it’s gotta be different. I wish I could be more specific than to say it’s just that part of the brain was exercised more often and it had to be.
And again, you’re going to a university where the teachers know you by name because there’s only 20 of you and you’re really pushed in that way. So I guess, as I’ve gone along… I’ve been fortunate, too, because every outlet I’ve been, every editor I’ve had has given me that freedom to continue to exercise it. So it’d be different, I guess, if I was put in a place where, “No, you must write to this word count, it must be nuts and bolts.” Every place I’ve been has allowed me to work that creative part of the mind… Just having to be creative all the time in the college environment and obviously having bosses in the professional one that let me foster that. And they let me take risks! I would say, the Tim Krumrie profile I did that earned a Best American Sportswriting publication, the John Ross profile I did just before I left Cincinnati, sort of sand out to me as different ways to write that stuff. I know we mentioned the Giannis story years ago, and that was a little different. It’s just a different way to think about storytelling.