Monday, August 25, 2008

Inside the Athletes Studio: An Interview with the Post Gazette's Bob Smizik


I'm pleased to announce the return of Inside the Athletes Studio, my vehicle to poke my head into different parts of the Pittsburgh sports landscape. It's been 14 long months since the last...uh...episode? I'm not James Lipton...I got stuff to do.

I hit up Passion RB Torina Henley, Don from Mondesi's House and Andy Chomos, the guy who organized the Pirates walkout. That covered athletics, the blog landscape at the time and how fans were reacting to decisions by the local teams. One major area that's lacking, though, is the mainstream media. It has a huge impact on how we as fans consume our sports. Sometimes we hate, other times we laud, but we can't deny their influence.

So my next subject comes from this very community. I tossed a note to the Post Gazette's own Bob Smizik to see if he'd spit some truth with a blog. He agreed, and we had a pretty candid conversation about some topics that were burning through my skull. Unless you're a newer reader to PSaMP, you'll know that I've never been a big fan of Smizik. The Booing Hossa/knucklehead fans article concerned me enough to write a response to it. I told him all of this before we got into the actual interview, so I was happy that my stance as a Smizik-critic didn't drive him away. I wanted to ask him about a few of his recent articles, the previously mentioned one included, as well as get his take on the state of Pittsburgh sports.

I was going to break this into two separate parts, but I figured to give it to you in its entirety and in Mr. Smizik's own words. Enjoy.

What's it like to be in the newspaper game? Was it something you thought about as a kid growing up in the city? Too many sportsbloggers, myself included, are critical of newspaper writers despite having no real understanding of what truly goes into each article. Take us through your start at the PG, what a typical day consists of, how the industry has changed during your time at the Press and the PG, and how you see it evolving in the coming years.

I still find it pretty exciting to be working in what you call "the newspaper game." There's a different challenge almost daily. As a columnist I have the need to keep track of pretty much everything that's going on in sports, locally and nationally. Additionally, I cover radio and TV so that gives me even more to keep track of. There's a lot of reading that needs to be done, a lot of getting around and finding out what's going on. It's difficult to keep up on everything.

I loved sports as a kid, played them a lot to the detriment of my academics. I was a decent athlete. I played football in high school but loved basketball more. I got involved in sports writing in college. I never would have done it -- what a life changing event that would have been -- if a friend hadn't just about forced me sign up at The Pitt News, the student newspaper at Pitt. It was love at first sight and I was successful at the Pitt News, where I was sports editor and then associate editor, which is the No. 2 job at the paper. I was majoring in education at the time and never switched over to English. I worked three summers at United Press International, a now defunct wire service. It was great experience that taught me the nuts and bolts of journalism. Still, I was severely lacking in confidence and never even applied for a newspaper job when I graduated. I went into teaching and taught for four years. While doing that I worked for Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, which, according to its mast head, was published "every so often.'' It was great fun and we went after the Pittsburgh sports establishment. I remember taking shots at the Steelers and Pirates. My work came to the attention of some people and four years into my teaching career I was offered a job at The Pittsburgh Press by Roy McHugh, who was the columnist/sports editor. It was a tough decision because I loved teaching but I figured I'd give it a shot. I always thought I could go back to teaching. Turns out, teaching jobs became difficult to find. I could not have gone back if I wanted, but I didn't want to.

I covered high school sports for two years, the Penguins for one and the Pirates for six years. I followed that up with five years on the Pitt football and basketball beats. The Pirates and Pitt were great years. Good teams, good people, lots of fun. I became a columnist in 1983 and have been doing that ever since.

My days are radically different. I usually write from home and some days I never leave the house. If I have a think piece, I'll start working around 9 a.m. and usually have it done by around 4. I'm a slow worker and do a lot of rewriting. Other days I might cover an event. If it's the Pirates, it means being at the ball park by 3 p.m. If it's Pitt basketball or the Penguins, it means leaving the house around 5 p.m. Steelers Sunday are a 10 a.m. departure. At events, I write from the stadium.

The newspaper industry is suffering. Young readers are deserting newspapers for the Internet. The newspaper industry has not found a way to reverse this and I'm not sure it can.

Regarding the future of newspapers and the Internet...what is your take on blogs? Did you cringe when I said I was a blogger looking for an interview? Not too many people would be gracious enough to let a sportsblogger, let alone a critical sportsblogger, pick their brain. I think newspapers are starting to accept this different way of getting sports to the masses...Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post blogs for the paper. Joe Posnanski of the KC Star has his own blog, and it is about to be cross-published at Sports Illustrated. Your boy Dejan is now blogging for the PG. Now, I won't try to connect these bigger guys with independent bloggers like myself who occasionally use dick jokes and toilet humor, but despite catching tons of flak from mainstream writers, the big boys seem to be recognizing and evolving.

Asking me what I think of blogs is like asking me what I think of, say, baseball players. Are you talking about Alex Rodriquez or are you talking about some guy playing in a pickup game at the neighborhood field? That's the range of blogs.

I don't have as much time to read blogs as I'd like. I understand there is useful information and good opinions out there. But where do you start? If I have a choice, am I going to read Jason Stark and Buster Olney on espn.com or am I going to read buccoblog? Clearly, Stark and Olney are the preferred choices for baseball. That's not to say there isn't value in buccoblog, but you can't read everything.

I think blogs, like the mainstream media, have to create their own credibility. I make a point of reading Dejan's blog because I know I might find useful -- accurate -- information there. I can't say the same for a lot of blogs.

People in the mainstream media are recognizing the power of the Internet, as opposed to blogs. The Internet is all powerful. It's a great way to reach people, but not just through blogs. The Post-Gazette web site has a lot of blogs, but, although I don't have the figures, I'm sure the printed edition that appears on the Internet gets a ton more hits than do the blogs.

The way blogs are proliferating, they are only going to reduce the individual power each.

Fair enough. I guess what I'm getting at here is...There's a stigma that goes along with running an independent sportsblog. We're lazy nerds living in our mother's basement, recycling stories that legit writers have spent considerable time researching. The truth is, most are unpaid fans who found a place to vent in their free time, and we hold down regular jobs on the side! Many mainstream writers, since they have rules, editors and the like, resent that someone could quickly throw up an unfiltered story, because they feel it taints the information waters. There's good independent blogs and ones that spew hate and baseless rumors. Unfortunately, we too often get wrongly grouped with the latter. Even if you don't read them, you at least have to be aware of this divide.

I don't know if you were aware of the conversation a few months back on HBO's Costas Now, where noted author Buzz Bissinger portrayed the quintessential humanization of this thought, as he loudly chastised all blogs because of one he didn't like. This wouldn't be a good blog interview if I didn't get your thoughts on if independent sportsblogs should be allowed to write whatever they want, regardless of content. If a blog finds humor in a picture of a drunk athlete, is that worthy of being published? Are we just wasting our time?

Getting a bit defensive?

I don't believe I said a negative word about bloggers. I did say I will go with the mainstream media over blogs in most cases. I'll stand by that. If there was the suggestion that I lump all blogs together that is not the case and I apologize.

I saw the Costas show with Bissinger and I was shocked at Bissinger's attack mode. There was no call for that and I certainly don't share his views.

I am 100 percent behind freedom of expression. Absolutely, blogs can write whatever they want. But when one goes to extremes, it hurts all; just as one mainstream media outlet can hurt the rest with irresponsible reporting.

Allow me to get a bit personal here. I have been so ridiculously misrepresented on the Internet, be it a blog or a chat room, that, yes, I am suspicious. For example, it was widely posted when the Post-Gazette had a small piece of the Pirates -- with no voting rights -- that we were not allowed to write critically of the team. That was total nonsense, particularly since we were writing critically of the team at the time. No one has ever told me what to write about anything -- even when we were in danger of losing franchises.

Currently, I am viewed by many as sympathetic to Pirates ownership. I have columns, plenty of them, to prove otherwise. But the perception is out there.

No, not defensive, just inquisitive. There are few times when a person in my position gets to ask a person in your position about that topic. I don't mean to say you personally attack blogs, but many in your community have. There's a lot of barbs thrown between the two sides, some more disguised than others, and I only wanted your opinion.

But moving forward, I gotta ask you about a couple of your recent columns. I'll start with the article about Rocco DeMaro and the Alvarez signing. What's the deal with scoops? So a guy breaks a story, be it legit or facetious, and it seems like you had a personal beef. Just because a guy doesn't show up to the stadiums and foster relationships within the organization, is it right to assume he doesn't have sources? I run a blog, live in New York City, and I have sources in certain areas. They might not be the best, which is why I don't run around breaking news. However, you called DeMaro out for apparently "guessing," when the article itself was a guess that DeMaro was making up the story! So his sources were wrong about Scheppers...it isn't the first time sources have failed someone. I'm no DeMaro apologist, to make that clear.

Do mainstream writers go around bragging that they broke x amount of stories in the past year? Is there a quota? Dejan's scooped a lot of stories, blogs have even scooped stories. Why was the DeMaro/Alvarez thing important enough to garner its own article? How do you go about justifying that to an editor when other sports stories worthy of a mention are happening at all times?

Pardon me, but you do sound like an apologist for DeMaro. You're making the same excuses that his apologists are.

For starters, why did I write about this when there are other stories "more worthy of mention?'' I'm the sports radio-TV guy at the Post-Gazette and in that role, with obvious exceptions, I decide what I write. I thought this was a more-than worthy issue for my radio-TV beat. I felt he was being dishonest in his reporting and I had what amounted to a duty to report it.

If a guy has a scoop, it's not news to me. If a guy claims a scoop that's not his, then it's news.

I don't know DeMaro. But I have gone on his Saturday show at least twice when no one knew who he was and I wrote highly favorably about him when he first came on the air. So there is no personal grudge.

Can I prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was guessing? No. But if I had told you on [last] Monday that Greg Maddux was going to be traded from San Diego to LA, which he was on Tues., would I have a scoop or would I, since there had been heavy speculation about the trade, be guessing?

I probably could have written the story better but that's behind me. I find it impossible -- yes, impossible -- that he could have a source at that level. This could have played out four ways: 1. He had a source within the Pirates camp; 2. He had a source within the Boras camp; 3. He had a source within the Alvarez family; 4. He had a source unfamiliar with the negotiations who told him it was going to happen and, who, therefore was guessing. My bet is on scenario No. 4.

If the Pirates did not know for certain until 11:58 p.m. whether Alvarez was going to sign, how did DeMaro know at 10 p.m.? Or was it at 3 p.m., which he mentioned on his show.

I have criticized DeMaro for not showing up at the ball park and I stand by that criticism. The most effective way to cover a team, a person, a beat or what ever is to be around the subject. Why he refuses to do that is beyond me. It's not like he lives in Chicago. He lives in Pittsburgh. He's not a blogger. He's part of the mainstream media. Show up once and while and eyeball a few people. You might learn something.

So, yes, I think it is legitimate to believe that a person cannot develop the kind of sources to crack this kind story by sitting in his office.

Like you, I'm not concerned about who breaks what story. I am concerned with what I consider dishonest journalism.

We will have to agree to disagree on my DeMaro allegiance. I started my blog as a sports fan, and I try to keep that mentality in my writing. This allows me to observe media members, be they print, television or radio, how the typical Pittsburgher would. Some of my dear memories include tailgating with the masses and sitting in the bleachers. I'm not defending DeMaro, and I think his shtick doesn't lend itself well to investigatory journalism. However, most fans, whether at the stadium or in their own homes, really aren't concerned with who broke what. We respect and understand the responsibility of investigatory journalism, but we weren't keeping a tally of who had the correct story first. I think the blogosphere took that same stance when reading about media members arguing over scoops.

I won't try to tell you what to publish and what not to publish, only that the article received lukewarm reviews. There's one other article I'd like to ask you about before getting into the upcoming sports seasons.

The Booing Hossa/Knuckleheads article. It was your only article within the history of my site that I felt the need to respond to. A few blogs felt blindsided by it, and wondered what kind of emotion we are to show towards Hossa. Personally, I don't boo Jagr, and I don't plan on booing Hossa. But a lot of fans feel betrayed. Marian deliberately stated that Detroit gave him the best opportunity to win a Cup next season, just months after he praised Pittsburgh's youth and talent when he arrived from Atlanta. I'd be more concerned if the fans were indifferent to the whole situation.

You don't need to explain your motives behind the story, but I gotta ask, what kind of response did you get from that article? Several blogs, in addition to my response, were discouraged by the piece. Did you get tons of hate mail, or was their an outpouring of support? Were the blogs who criticized you in the minority on this one? Am I a knucklehead?

I really don't get it when people use the word "betrayed'' in regards to sports teams. That's taking stuff way too seriously. Sports are supposed to be fun.

Why can't Hossa be accepted as a player who make a significant contribution to the Penguins and moved on? Sure, he said some things. All players say those things. Barry Bonds said he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. Was Hossa somewhat deceitful in negotiations? Probably. That's the nature of negotiations. Players do it, teams do it and, yes, the Penguins do it.

And what's wrong with saying he has a better chance to win a Cup in Detroit? Duh! He does.

I received a ton of negative e-mail, much of it hateful and mean-spirited. I have a thick skin but to see some of the comments makes me wonder and makes me discouraged. People need to get a life.

Why can't fans just cheer their home team? Why isn't offering support enough? Why does the level of sportsmanship have to be dragged to the gutter?

Fans take this stuff much more seriously than the players. Maybe they should take a cue from the players. It's only a game.

Are you a knucklehead? If you boo Hossa, yes.

I see you mentioned that Detroit does have a good chance of bringing home the Cup. Vegas has the Wings and Pens as the two best bets going into the season, respectively. Are you excited about the upcoming season? Anything on the team or throughout the league that might cripple Pittsburgh's hope of returning to the Finals? Like Shero said, not many GMs get to lose a Hossa and then come back and sign a Malkin and Fleury long term. I might just be a homer, but I fully expect another Cup run. What are your predictions for the season?

I have barely thought about the Penguins upcoming season. I'm more concerned at the moment of the more pending start of NFL and college football seasons.

It was great the Penguins did the long-term deals with their core players but that doesn't change the fact the absence of Hossa makes them a lesser team than they were at the end of the season.

I think they are a definite Cup contender and will be for some time. I see them advancing at least two rounds in the playoffs.

Well Steelers-wise, do you think the schedule will pose a problem? It seems like that's been a common concern. The AFC North seems pretty weak aside from Pittsburgh, but the team is really going to have to step up outside of the division. And can we get your thoughts on the new extension for James Farrior? The front-office has been pretty good with cutting ties with aging vets at the right time...do you think Farrior can contribute in some capacity through 2012?

And Pitt...what can I say about LeSean McCoy? He's a thrill to watch first-hand. The long shot Heisman talk might be a bit of a stretch, but no one can deny his talent. Is he a flash-in-the-pan, or can he carry Pitt back to a level of respectability?

The Steelers schedule is difficult, the toughest in the NFL, I believe, but the rest of the division also plays a similar one. I think a 9-7 record could win it and I've heard some people say 8-8 might do it. I think the Steelers can win this division but I would not expect them to go far in the playoffs. A positive is Roethlisberger, one of the better QBs in the league. The defense is aging and played poorly in the latter stages of last season. It will have to improve.

I was surprised they came to an agreement with Farrior. He's still has some good years remaining but they had other priorities, higher ones, but they might have been turned down in attempting to extend those players. Farrior's contract is for five years but no one expects him to play the length of it. He'll play two, at the most three more years. The contract is stretched to lessen the effect of the signing bonus on the salary cap.

McCoy appears to be an excellent back for Pitt, one who someday will play in the NFL. I doubt he's a one-year wonder, although Dorsett did take a step back in his sophomore year. I expect Pitt to win 8 or 9 games this year and contend for the Big East title.

Alright, just a few quick questions to round this up.

What's the greatest game (any team) you've ever been to?

Villanova-Georgetown 1985 NCAA championship game.

Was there a particular local athlete(s) that you found especially compelling above everyone else?

Sam Clancy, Pitt; Roberto Clemente, Pirates.

Would you ever consider starting a blog?


Pirates, Steelers or Penguins...just as a blind guess...who brings home the next championship?



Thanks again to Mr. Smizik for the back and forth with PSaMP.

Other interviews:

- Inside the Athletes Studio: An Interview with Torina Henley
- Inside the Athletes Studio: An Interview with Don from Mondesi's House
- Inside the Athletes Studio: An Interview with Andy Chomos of Fans for Change



Justin Robert Young said...

Great stuff Tec. The P-G seems to *get* the internet more than most papers. That's not MUCH but it is something.

Dave said...

OK, I was wrong, and I must say that this was much more enlightening than anything Madden might have had to say.

As an aside: I went to elementary school at John Minadeo in Greenfield, where Bob Smizik's brother was principal (this was in the early-mid 90s). I got to know Mr. Smizik (the principal) very well; in fact I spent so much time in his office explaining myself that I can still picture it quite clearly today.

Anyway, Bob Smizik came in for Career Day one year. Except for the airline pilot and the plastic surgeon, Smizik's appearance ranks among my most memorable (just ahead of someone who was like a 5th stringer for the Steelers. This was before the practice squad).

Well, I don't know where I was going with this. Move along, nothing to see here...

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Awesome interview, exchange of ideas, dialogue ... call it what you or Smizik will: Well done.

Pat said...

probably the thing that interested me most on the internet today. well done tec

Anonymous said...

This pisses the shit out of me...

ricks1683 said...

Good interview...i liked the fact that the hard/sensitive questions were asked...but it still doesn't make me like Smizik any more than i did before...

However, he can be admired for not backing down or giving in. A wise man once said "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."
-Winston Churchill (via the Pensblog guys)

So i guess i can respecthim...but he's still a DB that needs to get his head out of his ass...