Michael Lewis (center) along with fellow journalists Bob Liepa (sports editor of the Riverhead News-Review and Suffolk Times) and Bob Herzog (long-time Newsday sportswriter who recently retired).
In his latest installment of celebrating his 44th anniversary covering soccer, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis talks about the importance of having mentors and working on a sports desk, especially during the formative years of a young writer’s career.
Michael: According to good sources close to you and me, I heard that you actually had to go into a newspaper to write stories in those ancient days. Is that true?
Lewis: Yes it is. In fact, it might have been better than a journalism school education in some respects — with all apologies to Syracuse University, which allowed me to get my first job — it was great. I was learning on the job, doing what I loved and getting paid for it. At SU, like every other student, I had to pay, although I had quite an education writing on various subjects for the student newspaper, The Daily Orange. Not only did I cover sports, but news stories as well. I covered the University Senate, which was quite educational because it decided to cut ties with the Syracuse University Research Corp., which had help develop weapons in the Vietnam War. I wrote a multi-part series on the good and bad of SURC and voted the Senate vote. I remember I was given something like 210 words for the story because it was a tight paper the next day. The Orange editor told me to capture some of the color of the event, which bemused me. I was going to have enough problems trying to cram all the facts into the story, let alone color. Believe it or not, I managed. Hey, it gave me a preview of writing for newspapers with small holes for stories.
My first job was at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and my first year in some respects was a year from hell. I came out of SU thinking I was some hotshot writer, ready to share with the world my ability to write. with words. Well, more than half the time, I was on the desk. Don’t get me wrong. I was covering high schools, mainly the City-Catholic League, but we all had responsibilities on the desk. I lost track of how many headlines were thrown back in my face. I had several leads of my stories rewritten. At the time, I was quite embarrassed by it, but it was part of the learning curve. It made me a better writer, seeing an editor coming up with a better or punchier way to start off a story. There was some reverse motivation. I was motivated to make sure I would never have another lead reworked or rewritten again.
Michael: It sounds like you had a great bunch of teachers.
Lewis: Indeed, I did. In some respects, it was like being on a team. We would take whoever just joined the staff under our wings and teach him our “system” of doing things, whether we followed AP style or the D&C style. Most of us got it and began a productive member of the staff. Some didn’t cut it and did not survive probation or quickly found another job or another department in which to work.
Looking back, I felt I had eight to 10 teachers; not that every story I wrote or edited was a lesson. But I learned to be a journalist, learned to get the bad habits out of my system and picked up the best of every editor — copy editor, assistant sports editor or the sports editor — had to offer. With the way things are today, with fewer newspapers and shrinking staffs, I think many writers out there miss out on working the desk. I believe it sped up my progress as a writer because I had people to talk to about the craft on a day-to-day basis. Now, many writers work out of their homes — there certainly is nothing wrong with that — but they miss out on being around other writers and editors and having the ability to learn, even learn by osmosis.
Once you become a “veteran” there, you become a mentor and teacher to the younger writers. You pass it down. Reminds me of the U.S. women’s national team of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and Tiffeny Milbert, among others. They made sure the younger players fell in line.
And, I am still friendly with some of those writers and editors to this day.
Michael: There are so many things that make a writer.
Lewis: I feel being a good writer is about being a good listener. Let the person tell his or her story. Use your questions and statement to help them along. Unless it is a confrontational news story, I have found out it is easier to make people more comfortable and let them have fun telling their story. Even though it’s an interview, you don’t want to turn it into an interrogation, unless like I said, it deserves it. It was something that I picked up when I was rather young. I used to listen to my maternal grandfather, Sam, tell me stories of when he emigrated to America a century ago. Those were colorful and intriguing stories.
Michael: Just wondering: What was your first day of work like?
Lewis: I remember it quite well. Two weeks prior I received a phone call from sports editor Larry Greybill offering me a job. It was for $180 a week. Heck, I would have worked for less, but please don’t tell anyone at the D&C. Now, you might laugh at the amount I was getting, but $180 went a lot more in those days than today. Heck, I managed to save $20 a week from my salary — after taxes were taken out.
So, to get back to my first day. It was June 24, 1974. I had found an apartment in Rochester for $140 a month in a young, trendy section of the city on Harvard Street, walking distance to a bunch of stories on Park Avenue and Monroe Avenue. On my first day of work, I think I got in about an hour early. I certainly did not want to be late for my first day. One by one the staff came in. Lary Bump, who was covering the Rochester Red Wings at the time, greeted me first. “Welcome aboard,” he said, shaking my hand. I said it was great to be here. He responded, “I Know what you mean.” Steve Monroe, a high school and college writer. Paul Nochelski, the slot man, the man who ran the desk, Tony Destino, the golf writer, Tom Fitzgerald, who was hired a few weeks prior to me and helped me with the lay of the land in Rochester, and Ted “Goody” Rosen. Ted was our Radar — aka Radar from MASH who was in charge of the agate page. He knew just about every high school and college coach’s phone number by rote. It was incredible. Well, Goody as he was nicknamed — after Goody Rosen, a former outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants — came over to me and started talking and talking and talking. As I quickly learned Goody did not have an off-switch, or one that could not be found quite easily. Me, being the new kid on the block did not want to rock the boat, I wanted to keep my best behavior. So, I kept on nodding and listening to whatever Goody had to say. I looked at Tom Fitzgerald, who had to go through this initiation a few weeks prior, and he cracked a small smile, telling me silently “welcome to the club.” With all the pent-up tension inside my body, I could not take it anymore. I started to laugh. I didn’t want to discourteous, but I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. As it turned out, no one on the desk could blame me. They went through it or witnessed a similar scenario before.
Anyway, the D&C sports staff had a tradition and that was finding what to get a by-lined story for the new guy on the desk. They gave me the phone number of Ivory Crockett, who at that time held the world record in the 100-yard dash. Needless to say, I was quite stunned and nervous. I wasn’t ready for this. I thought it would be slow transition before I would be tested with a story — a feature story — let alone one close to deadline. For better or worse, Crockett wasn’t available. Remember, this was in the days before cell phones or even answering machines. A few days later, I interviewed Marty Liquori, a damn good middle-distance runner who competed in the Olympics and who was in town to run the mile at the Rochester Institute of Technology track and field meet that weekend. I got to interview Crockett at the meet as he ran the 100 in 9.4 seconds, quite off his 9-flat record he set six weeks prior in Knoxville, Tenn.
Michael: What was it like working the desk?
Lewis: It was great. You built up quite a camaraderie, especially when you were in a foxhole on Tuesday and Friday nights.
Michael: What? A foxhole? Come on, you weren’t in a war.
Lewis: On Tuesday and Friday nights during the high school basketball season, it was like working in high school’s version of a foxhole with your fellow editors and writers, taking high school box scores and game summaries and trying to crank out round-ups of the various leagues for the next day’s paper. We did it for two editions of the paper — the regional and metro. Two entirely different readerships. It was quite a challenge.
Michael: Speaking of challenges, do you remember the first time you had to write on deadline as a professional?
Lewis: I will never forget it. It was during the autumn of 1974 and I covered a football game out in the boondocks. Caledonia-Mumford played Avon recorded a 43-0 victory. Those were in the days before laptop computers, before we had a device called telecopiers (which transmitted one page at a time to the newspaper copy room; depending on the device, it took four to six minutes a page). They were quite bulky and it wasn’t worth it taking it to a high school football game. So, I had to drive back to the paper to write the story on a typewriter. I remember getting back around 10:30 p.m. and we had something like an 11:30 p.m. deadline. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “Well, I guess in an hour I will know whether I will still be a journalist.”
Michael: And what happened?
Lewis: Well, I am still a journalist.
Lewis: On my 45-minute trip back to the newspaper, I had time to piece together in my mind on what I wanted to write. Here are the first few graphs of the story:
AVON — This might sound unusual, but Caledonia-Mumford’s Mike Tucci prefers defense to offense.
“I definitely like the defense better,” Tucci said last night after running for 209 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Red Raiders to a 43-0 romp over a befuddled Avon team.
“On defense, you’re not getting hit, you’re coming at them. And they’re not coming at you.”
The Braves probably wished the 6-foot, 200-lb senior, who doubles as a half back and defensive end, had stuck to defense.
Tucci ran the ball seven times and had touchdown runs of 27, 58, 18 and 70 yards. Tucci broke off tackles near the line of scrimmage on each of his runs.
Michael: Not bad for a 22-year-old on a typewriter.
Lewis: Well, certainly not a Pulitzer Prize quality. I would definitely change a couple of things, tighten some things up today. Considering it was written on deadline via a typewriter (little room or time to change things), it turned out fine. Moreover, it gave me confidence to tackle my next deadline story. Before you know it, it becomes part of your skin, writing on deadline. If not, you’re in the wrong profession.
Michael: Given that you have written for four decades, you must have been involved with several tight deadlines.
Lewis: Too many, but it comes with the territory. I remember covering a Calder Cup final — that’s the American Hockey League’s version of the Stanley Cup, between the Rochester Americans and Maine Mariners in Portland, Maine in 1984. The game went something like two or three overtimes. I got a running story in for the Metro edition and managed to write a quick option lead to get into the later editions. Again, it was no award winner, but it told the story.
In recent years, I have had to battle tighter deadlines.
At the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament in Nashville in March 2012, the USA was eliminated on an 11th-hour goal by El Salvador. U.S. coach Caleb Porter took his time — more than the usual 10 minutes — to come out and meet the press. While I was waiting, I scribbled the first several paragraphs of my story into my notebook. After the press conference, I had something like 19 minutes to get a 500-word story in on time. I made it, but barely.
At the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals in Arlington, Texas in July 2013, a 3-1 U.S. win over Honduras, USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann was ejected from the game. Not only could I not stay for the mixed zone, I had to leave Klinsmann’s press conference early. I had all but 14 minutes to write that 400-word story and got in it on time.
With wireless now being in press conference areas, I bring my computer down with me.
When Costa Rica defeated the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier at Red Bull Arena last September, I had little time to waste on deadline for Newsday. During head coach Bruce Arena’s press conference, I focused on what he said and got the pertinent quotes. I remained in the press conference room during the Costa Rican presser while I inserted Arena’s quotes into my story. When I noticed I had about 15 minutes until deadline, I went outside to the mixed zone where the players were. I stuck my voice recorded into a swarm of reporters around U.S. captain Michael Bradley. With no time to spare, I found some room on the floor, deciphered the quotes and plugged them into the story. I got the story in on time, dirty pants or not.
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
It comes with the territory. I have learned to keep your editors appraised of the situation, so they know what’s happening.
I remember that night in Arlington so well. In the second game of the doubleheader, Panama eliminated Mexico, which was going through all sorts of crises then. I got a nice gift in the mixed zone afterwards. The Yankees were playing the Texas Rangers across the street and reliever Mariano Rivera was there to congratulate his countrymen. Myself and another writer had something like a 54-second interview with him while his handlers and security were pulling him away from us. So, we asked to-the-point questions. I got a 400-word story out of that quick interview.
With the addition of the internet, deadlines can be flexible for online work, but you certainly don’t want to take forever with a story because another one could be looming around the corner.
One word to the wise when I am on deadline: unless there is a fire in the press box or press room, or something else earth-shattering, do not ever, ever, ever interrupt me talking about the game, making plans or just about anything else. I have a task and one task only — get the story in. I would like to think many other writers share those sentiments.