People With Passion: Sam Smith, Part III

People With Passion: Sam Smith, Part III

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

December 24, 2011: Sam Smith

Here, in Part III of Jack M Silverstein's three-part interview with Bulls writer Sam Smith, Sam discusses his departure from the Tribune, his arrival at Bulls.com, why his work at Bulls.com is “ the best journalism experience I’ve had ,” and why you have to appreciate your job while you have it.

PART III OF III

PART I, PART II

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I was very disappointed to leave the Tribune. I loved working at the Tribune. I love newspapers. But the Tribune had changed. Sam Zell destroyed the Tribune. He brought in all of these clowns from his radio site to run it, and they all were telling every one of us how bad we were and how we didn’t know journalism. Everyone’s seen that now – the New York Times wrote a big story about what a hard place it had become. And it was. It’s just horrible what they’ve done. I was miserable about it.

The Columbia Journalism Review did a story with me about a year or nine months ago, and I told the guy that I still love the job but I hated where I was doing it. They weren’t treating me badly per se, but they were cutting down what I could do. I love to work. I’m in journalism for the work. I was suffering during the lockout because I wasn’t able to work. That’s the goal I set and lived up to. I found something I had passion for, and if you find something you have passion for, not only can you find success, but you’ll enjoy doing it.

My parents always pushed me to just work. I had these horrible summer jobs every year. I worked in the post office and I picked up garbage at the beach, and delivered packages in midtown Manhattan, and I hated every one of them. And they said, “It doesn’t matter if you hate your job, it’s just having a job.” And I always said, “No no.” I didn’t exactly know what I was saying or thinking, but I said, “I have to do something that I like.” At the time all I liked was playing ball, so it didn’t seem like it could be a real job, because I knew I wasn’t a pro level type of talent.

So the Tribune, I was still there, but they weren’t letting me do anything anymore. It was really short-sighted. They were also cutting down on all of the national work, which is a great part of my interest. You know, you’re interested in the Bulls or the Bears, but they gotta play somebody. I was always interested in the other teams as well. I was interested in the league, the teams. When the Bulls were bad I enjoyed watching Magic Johnson come through, Dr. J., Larry Bird. I would be at the Bulls games because I wanted to see those guys.

They were making a big push about, “We’re going to be local, not national,” and they were kind of eliminating my job in some respects. If I had stayed, I’m sure I would have been fired at some point. I always thought, because I’d built up a reputation – I was known in the community, I had a book – I felt I was safe. But I really wasn’t. Now, I don’t look at myself as special. I never do, and I never think anybody is. But I felt I was important to the paper, that I was somebody that people would turn to and wanted to read. I wasn’t Mike Royko, but in that notion, that, “I’d like to see what he has to say today.” In basketball I felt that’s who I was, in Chicago. I’d been covering it the longest, I knew it the best, and the Tribune didn’t care about that anymore. It didn’t matter to them who you were or what you did. It was just a matter of filling in that column. It didn’t matter what it said.

What was the point where you had the realization that “Okay, they don’t think I’m important”?

It was just coming over time. There were times where I didn’t get the best assignments with the Bulls. We’d get a new sports editor and he had a favorite and he would put him on a better assignment. But I still got to do enough that it didn’t matter. Like, I didn’t get to go to the Dream Team, but you know, I’d covered the whole season and my book had come out that year and I was kind of tired. It was like “Alright.” I was still getting to do a lot, so it was fine.

Now I wasn’t getting to do much anymore. That was the most disconcerting. When I came in the late 70s, I saw some of the older guys getting put on night-rewrite and stuff. I could tell that it was kind of punishment. And I remember thinking to myself that if that happened to me, I was not going to put up with that. It hadn’t quite happened, but I was getting the feeling that that was similar.

So I filed for one of the buyouts figuring I had a big name in the business, I was known and respected, I’ll get another job. But it was the bottom of the journalism time. Layoffs and cutbacks, every newspaper. I had a couple of freelance things for Sporting News, NBC, and a couple of websites, but I like being a part of an organization. I like being part of something.

So you asked out.

Yeah. I put in for a buyout and it was accepted. I was privately hoping they would turn me down. I almost did it as a test. I felt that if they really felt I was vital for the paper, they would turn down my buyout and I would be in a better position to do more work and get the assignments I wanted. But they took the buyout. (Laughs.) That was a message to me that I wasn’t that important to them. And if I wasn’t that important to them then I probably should be taking the buyout. That’s what I was thinking at the time.

Emotionally, I regretted it. Realistically I didn’t. I knew it was the right thing to do. But I hated leaving the newspaper, hated leaving the Tribune. I hated not being a part of it. I do know that everybody’s replaceable very quickly, and once you’re gone, you’re forgotten quickly. But I’d always wanted to live in Arizona, because I came to hate Chicago in the winters. It was sort of like a fantasy. So I dragged my family down and moved to Phoenix.

We moved down there and I thought, “I’ll get one of these national jobs.” I thought for sure that I would get a national job. In fact, a couple of them had talked to me. Turner had talked to me. Sporting News had talked to me. But then the industry bottomed out in the summer of ’08 and everything went away. All the ones who had said, “Boy, if you’re available we’d love to have you,” all of a sudden said, “You know what? Get back to us in a few months. We really don’t have anything now.” Everybody had an excuse. And I was really feeling kind of down about it. Not that I’d necessarily made a mistake, because I knew things were going badly at the Tribune, but regretted that it had come to that. I think that was a common feeling with a lot of journalists, that they knew they had to leave but they had nowhere to go.

I had gotten into October and the NBA was starting up again, and I’m not a part of anything. I’m still doing a little freelance, one or two a week for 150 bucks or 200 bucks or something. It wasn’t about the money so much, It was about being a part of an ongoing story. That’s what I liked. So as a lark, I wrote a little email to Steve Schanwald with the Bulls and said, “You know what? Newspapers are cutting way back. They’re not covering basketball anymore. And I think it’s going to get worse. Why don’t you hire me to do what I did for the Tribune, and just do it for you?” He contacted me right away, and said, “I like the idea.”

I flew up to Chicago, and we were talking and I said, “I guess I’m done trading players,” because that was one of my little gimmicks. I would come up with trades and suggestions. And he said, “No, no, I really like that. We want you to do that.” They set it up more journalistically than I wanted to. It was interesting. I was confident enough in my own journalistic history and independence that I would have credibility even on the team’s site, because I would still be doing what I did. And the Bulls were confident enough in me over the years that I didn’t embarrass anybody. I didn’t write stories to hurt anybody. I think they were comfortable enough with me, where a lot of teams wouldn’t do that.

We talked about parameters, and I said I would like to cover some road games, and they said, “Yeah,” and I said, “I would like to go on the team plane, because I don’t like traveling in airports anymore.” (Laughs.) And they said, “No. We want to set you up as a journalist. We’re going to give you the same access that everybody else has. We’re going to put a disclaimer on whatever you write, and we’re going to keep you at arm’s length. You can write what you want.” And they’ve held to that. They have never edited anything I’ve written. They’ve never asked me to write anything. And they’ve never asked me to change anything.

It used to be the notion in newspapers where we would say to the teams, “We’re giving you all of this free advertising every day. Don’t mess with us.” Well, that’s over with. Now, the newspapers need the teams. You can’t boycott the team anymore. You’re out of business. And so at some point, the teams are going to all hire people like me. When they have Derrick Rose’s contract they’re going to announce it – they’re not going to let a newspaper break the story, because they knew about it. They did it two or three days before. They can scoop everything – every trade, every signing. And eventually teams will be doing that.

But they can’t break from it yet because they’re still in the habit of pretending to be straight, so I’m in the forefront of people who they’ll use to say, “Come to Bulls.com first, because that’s where you find all of the Bulls information.” I think partially because I’ve got a reputation and credibility in the community, it works. It wouldn’t work everywhere, because you can’t just hire anybody to do that. If you’re on a team site, people are assuming that you’re fronting for the team. But I think they know that that’s what I don’t do, because I’m getting toward the end of my career, I don’t have to do it. If you’re 26-years-old and hanging onto a job, maybe you have to do it.

NBA.com is the league’s site, and they’ve hired half a dozen former newspaper beat writers, all of whom were run out – their papers don’t hardly cover the NBA anymore, and now they’re writing on the NBA’s website. All these jobs three, four years ago didn’t exist. Nobody was writing substantive work on team websites or league websites. MLB does it, MLB.com. The NFL has a network. Heck, on the NFL Network they were criticizing the league, calling the commissioner names.

So much has become interrelated. You know, ESPN is in partnership with the NBA. Is that different than what I’m doing? They’re partners with the NBA. They’re part of the NBA too. They’re not any more independent than I would be. They can’t claim any more independence. They might try. But when they say something that the commissioner doesn’t like, he calls up and complains to them. He says “We’re partners.”

With the way media has changed, there is so little independence anymore. So many organizations don’t have the wherewithal or the resources to do substantive work, and don’t care to a lot. So I don’t know where journalism is going, necessarily. A lot of bad places, because this line with blogging vs. journalism that keeps getting blurred – see, I don’t accept blogging as journalism.

What’s missing?

What’s missing is somebody to be responsible to. To me, to be a journalist, you have to be responsible to somebody else. Some organization, some person, where you could be fired for being inaccurate, for being irresponsible. Writing by yourself is not journalism. That’s just personal observation. And I have no problem with that, but I don’t call it journalism. You have to have some standards. You don’t have a law degree, you don’t have to pass the bar, you don’t have to pass the CPA, but we live to standards. I live to standards. And even though I have independence on the Bulls site, if I make up stuff, I’ll be fired. Bloggers don’t get fired.

You’ll get fired, but do you get nervous that less dedicated individuals maybe than yourself will sort of evolve whether they realize it or not from being journalists to being press agents?

Absolutely. That will happen, but it goes on in the newspaper business too. There are plenty of newspaper people taking bribes from agents, or to put something in the gossip columns. How do you think that stuff ends up in, you know, what used to be Kup’s column, or whatever – they’re eating free dinners and they’re getting stuff. It comes down to personal integrity. There have always been journalists who lack integrity. (Laughs.)

Some team sites will take advantage of it I’m sure, just as some newspapers act irresponsibly. You have to hope you hire the right people and hold them to certain standards. I give the Bulls a lot of credit, because most teams won’t do what they’ve done. I’ve had friends who are PR guys at other teams say to me, “My team would never do this.” I had friends try to get jobs with teams, and the teams said, “We don’t want to do it.” The Bulls get some criticism from other teams. GMs call and say, “Why are you saying that on your site?” They’re behind the times.

So the next thing is maybe then players hiring journalists to follow themselves around and cover them – could it go that small?

If they figure it out. (Laughs.) The question would be, “What’s the difference between that and a press agent?” Would Derrick Rose hire me to write stories about him… I guess that’s possible. I mean, I wouldn’t have anticipated the internet being what it is. I’m not good at predicting like that. I suppose it’s possible. I don’t know which directions we’re headed. But what’s been clear is that the standard delivery methods for journalism are disappearing. There are going to have to be others to take its place. I’m at one of the others now. There will be some others, and I don’t know what they will be. I’m just at one of them.

I still love newspapers. I wish I could be working for a newspaper now. I would much prefer to be working for a newspaper, even though my experience with the Bulls has been fabulous. It’s been the best journalism experience I’ve had. I have more freedom. Newspapers are suffocating because they’re over-edited. They take your voice out of it. They standardize everything. And now because I’m not edited anymore, I think people like it better because they get a feel for who I am. I can be funny and I can have opinions, and I couldn’t do that at the newspaper.

Still, if I had my choice, I would rather be at that institution, but that institution doesn’t exist anymore as it was. So I’m thrilled. I can’t be happier working where I am. It’s as good a journalism experience as I’ve ever had because of my ability to write so much and cover things the way I know they need to be covered. All writers resent editors. I understand the process is right to say, “We need someone to look over what you do because you might be too close to it,” but what it evolved into was the people who are editing taking control of the story. I know the story best. Nobody knows my subject better than me. They pay me to become an expert. Now they want to change it. I always had big disputes about that, philosophical disputes about the role of editing versus what I’m doing.

Now I’ve eliminated that. I have no editor, because the Bulls had this disclaimer that kind of says, “We don’t even know who he is. We don’t even know how he got here. But his stuff is here. Read it if you want.” But I’m the expert. The Tribune trained me. They hired me to be that. I became the expert for them, and then in effect they said, “We don’t care about that.” But also, “We’re going to say what we want to say about that.” All writers have that issue. It’s a historic issue with writers, you know: “How would an editor know more than a writer?” That’s why there’s always been bad feelings between editors and writers. (Laughs.)

I feel very lucky and very fortunate to be in a job that – well, first, to have a job that I can do and that I have passion for. I like the interaction with people. I like to be around the group. And I like to learn. There are always people around who can teach you something. I still learn stuff about basketball all the time, from the players or coaches or executives. To me, it’s an ongoing story. It’s always a new story, and it always starts again. Every year is a brand new book. The season opens and it’s the first page and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and something different happens all the time, and something new happens. It’s exciting.

It never gets old to me. And it’s not so much the games. I don’t really care who wins. I would like the Bulls to do well because I know a lot of people around the Bulls and their livelihoods depend upon it, but I don’t really care if they win or not. To me, it’s just story. Once this story plays out this year, there will be another story next year. That’s the part I enjoy. Seeing how people respond to situations, seeing how they perform under stress, under pressure. And then seeing the human condition when they do. How they deal with it. Who they are.

There’s always a new generation. They stay the same age, I keep getting old. By the time they move on there’s more coming, and they’re all the same age. So I still see myself as young. I don’t see myself anymore as I look, because I still see myself as dealing with these guys when I started, because they’re still the same age, even though they see me as their grandfather. It’s just a gift for me that I’m able to continue to do it. I’m very grateful to the Bulls for giving me the opportunity, because there’s not a whole lot of opportunities.

I’ve always known, but it’s theoretical until it happens to you – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, everything moves on fine. And after the funeral people are telling jokes. They might feel badly, but it ain’t gonna ruin their day. So you have to understand that too. I’m very grateful that at my age and after all these years I can still be involved and working on a regular basis.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama's inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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Enjoy this interview? Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming next wednesday, February 1: Tran Ha, RedEye editor.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:

(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

December 20, 2011: Ben Joravsky, Chicago Reader

December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer

December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality

December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist

October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times, sports columnist

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist

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