David Haugh signed on with the Chicago Tribune in 2003 after spending 10 years as sports columnist at the South Bend Tribune. He became the Chicago Bears beat writer when joining the Tribune before becoming the Bears columnist from 2006-08. Before the 2009 season, David Haugh became the Tribune’s 17th “In the Wake of the News,” columnist.
In this exclusive interview, Haugh and I cover a lot of ground, and get “controversial” at times. Well, you may find some of these topics controversial. And if so, be sure voice your opinion in the comment threads below.
David Haugh: I grew up in a small town in northwest Indiana — North Judson, population about 1,500. I indeed played football at Ball State for four years as a free safety and graduated with barely any skills besides being able to cover the deep half. But I knew journalism was the right career path when, in the final game of my senior year, any lingering NFL dreams died when I was part of a secondary that gave up an 80-yard TD pass in the California Raisin Bowl — the last 20 yards spent chasing a Fresno State receiver much faster than me. Not how you want to end up on ESPN. So I hid in graduate school for a year, earned a Master’s at Northwestern, and started working at the South Bend Tribune. I became the columnist there for my last eight years in town and enjoyed it thoroughly.
As you point out — good research — I taught a journalism class at Saint Mary’s College where I came across a hard-working, gifted student named Shannon Ryan. I’m very proud of how she’s developed as a writer and a professional first at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then the Chicago Tribune, which is all due to effort and talent.
Banks: Thanks. California Raisin Bowl? I miss that one. As much as I miss the MicronPC.com bowl. So who are some of your journalism role models and mentors?
Haugh: I grew up reading the South Bend Tribune every day so the best writer that paper’s perhaps ever had was a columnist named Bill Moor, whose knack for telling stories was something I still admire. My boss at South Bend, Bill Bilinski, was a great manager of people and a better friend. As a kid, I loved Bernie Lincicome and Bob Verdi and remember telling my brother as a teenager I would love to have their job. I still have Art Spander’s book of columns.
Dan McGrath hired me at the Chicago Tribune on a leap of faith, handing the Bears beat in 2003 to someone who never had been a beat writer. Bill Adee might be the smartest guy I ever have worked for; I know Mike Downey was one of the most considerate guys I ever worked with. Every young writer should study how Dan Pompei does his job. Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are competitors but excellent company. People get a kick out of the fact that Jason Whitlock was a college teammate for three years, and I respect what he’s done with his career. Trust me when I tell you he was the same opinionated guy who made you think as a 21-year-old college kid as he is now. I’ve been fortunate to be around some good people.
Banks: That’s pretty cool about Whitlock, I didn’t know that. I learn something new everyday. Tell us about working in South Bend. What’s the sports media atmosphere like there? Obviously, Notre Dame is the 800 lb gorilla in the room, so how does that shape coverage?
Haugh: I loved living and working in South Bend. Notre Dame dominated coverage, certainly, especially from August until January. And when I was there through the ‘90s until 2002, it was fertile time for a columnist due to a period of dysfunction that provided compelling subject matter. Objectivity came easily because I wasn’t a Notre Dame fan per se, even though I respected the way the athletic department tried to find a balance between academics and athletics. I enjoyed (mostly) the ability to reach so many people in a market that cared so much about Notre Dame sports. It could make going to the grocery store or walking the dog a little more interesting, but the late Bill Gleason once told me I’d never penetrate a readership as much as when writing about Notre Dame football for South Bend Tribune readers.
I always tried to remember that and never take what I considered a privilege for granted. The attacks of being anti-ND, which could be vicious and plentiful, provided terrific training in developing discipline for a lot of the noise that goes with being a sports columnist in Chicago.
Banks: I can only imagine the hate mail and stuff you get. I’ve been attacked by plenty of Domers, but I’m sure it’s nothing compared to what you’ve dealt with. Notre Dame football has had quite a bit of negative PR in the three years Brian Kelly has been in charge. How do you think ND has handled all those stories that have damaged the program’s reputation?
Haugh: Each controversial story is unique and requires a specific answer. It varies. I was particularly critical of the university’s handling of the Declan Sullivan tragedy and the Lizzy Seeberg death in 2010 and stand by those words. More recently, I thought Kelly botched his flirtation with the Eagles. The Manti Te’o mess certainly won’t be used at CoSida seminars on crisis management. Generally speaking, Notre Dame does a solid job managing day-to-day activities as they pertain to media relations but has a history of clumsiness when it comes to major news stories. It seems rooted in a fear of transparency. If I were a board of trustee member, that pattern of muddled messages would concern me. As a columnist, it provides irresistible fodder.
Banks: I definitely agree. On all fronts. Here’s a quote from an interview I did with Rafer Weigel. I’d like to get your reaction to it:
“Unfortunately, it seems sports teams here have a sense of entitlement when it comes to monitoring reporting. If you report something they don’t like they take exception to it and I’ve seen some of them confront reporters or columnists on it. While that’s not entirely new, I think in the past teams expected it more and now teams try and monitor what’s being said about them more than ever before. Which is odd because sports has never been more popular.”
Haugh: I’ve never been that bothered when a team’s PR person questions something I write or say. I will hear them out, explain myself and try to keep it professional, as it should be. It can make for an uncomfortable conversation or an unpleasant interaction but, really, after that it’s over. Their job is to monitor what we do. I’d prefer an open, direct dialogue to the silent, passive-aggressive behavior that often is the response to what is perceived as a negative column or TV/radio comment.
I tend to put it in the same category as reader reaction via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc…I have been called at home by coaches and executives about something in the paper and respect their right to disagree. As long as it’s professional — and it almost always has been in my experience — it’s warranted. Maybe teams are trying to gain more control of access or being more sensitive to reporting. To overreact to them doing so only distracts a media member from what should be the focus of his or her job. At least that’s the way I try to approach it.
Banks: Solid advice. So Reggie Rose came out and told the Tribune this week the real reason why Derrick Rose didn’t play this season. However, there’s one major question I feel went unanswered: why wait until now to tell us this? Why didn’t the Rose camp tell us this during the season?
Haugh: I think that revealed how different the agendas were during the season. The Bulls were led to believe, falsely, that playing in the 2012-13 season mattered to Derrick. And Derrick, in what was a misjudgment, chose to let his camp perpetuate that fraudulent idea instead of doing the right thing by being straightforward with Bulls management. If Bulls management knew what Reggie Rose revealed, officials did an excellent job of acting. The Bulls erred in not forcing Derrick or his “team” into being more forthcoming earlier and setting a deadline for his return.
To continue to lead people on into the playoffs, after reasonable people knew better, made fools out of anybody gullible enough to buy into that possibility — but mostly made fools of D-Rose for uttering such nonsense when it lacked a logical foundation.
Banks: I hope that clears things up for people, because that’s how I see it. Of course, I know a lot of people still don’t get it. Why do you think Jay Cutler hasn’t been able to win over hearts and minds here as much as other Bears quarterbacks? Do you think it’s just all about wins and losses, or do you think his personality has a lot to do with it?
Haugh: He has one playoff win. It starts with that.
If you’re going to win one playoff game in four years after the Bears gave up so much to acquire you, you had better be likable. Jay Cutler struggles in the likability department. That’s not exactly breaking news. If it were only media members drawing this conclusion, it would mean little. But you don’t have to be a super sleuth in Chicago media to find former teammates and coaches of Cutler’s who never understood the quarterback because of his inability to mesh. Most people don’t find being considerate such a chore. For whatever reason, Cutler does whether it is with teammates, coaches, reporters or whoever. Perhaps getting married and being a dad will provide perspective Cutler lacked previously; perhaps not. Winning would make his moodiness much easier for Chicago to handle.
Banks: Finally, where do you see sports media headed in the future?
Haugh: The need to write well and clearly will never become dated. The need to tell compelling stories and humanize stars and subs always will exist. Preferred access will increase due to skyrocketing TV revenues creating a demand to be different and deliver something unique. Print products eventually will be offered less frequently than they are today. Smart phones and hand-held devices will become the preferred method of disseminating information and opinion — if they haven’t already. A bigger premium will be placed on the media professionals on-site to provide context or scenery readers or viewers cannot get from their favorite blogger or high-def TV coverage. Therein lies the challenge; present information or opinion in a way that makes your space or segment different and compelling enough to read or watch. Technology will dramatically change the way we tell stories. But fans still will want us to tell them in a way that sets that particular coverage apart.
Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An analyst for 95.7 The Fan, he also writes on Chicago sports media for Chicago Now. President Obama follows him on Twitter (@paulmbanks)
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