Last week, David Aldridge became the latest big-name sports journalist to leave the newspaper business (although, as you’ll soon find out, he probably isn’t done) when he left the Philly Inquirer. We decided now would be as good a time as any to talk to Aldridge about the state of newspapers and the NBA. While his answers to those were nice, we enjoyed his overall storytelling, which is one of the reasons we liked him as a columnist. Also, anyone who compares Dick Vitale to ALF is OK in our book.
Q: So you’re departing the world of print journalism, if only temporarily. What are the two things you’ll miss most? What won’t you miss? And do you anticipate going back into print, or do you see yourself more likely to begin writing online?
1) There is nothing like the immediacy of a newspaper. The thoughts that you had in your head the day before are out there in print the next day, for anyone to judge.
2) I tell this story all the time: I used to cover tennis as a backup to John Feinstein and Sally Jenkins at The Washington Post, and I got to go to a couple of U.S. Opens. And those are brutal, 16-hour days. And invariably, you’d be covering a third-round match with someone like Stefan Edberg playing, and it would be 5-all in the fifth set at 1:15 in the morning, and you have about seven minutes to write a lead, and all the European writers, who were done for the evening, would be relaxing and smoking cigars right behind you, ordering a late dinner, and the German guys would be screaming at each other in German, and some guy next to you would be asking loudly if you’d ever seen Manuel Orantes in his prime, and now there’s six minutes before deadline, and if you didn’t absolutely love being there at the moment, with the pressure on, having to create something that makes sense to the guy or woman who opens up the paper the next morning, then this is not the business for yo u. I’ll miss that.
Inevitably, I suspect I’ll write again. The form, I don’t know. I’m not averse to anything, though, up to and including blogging, and while I think some bloggers probably live in their parents’ basement and write in their pajamas, I suspect that’s a bit of a cliche, and that many of them have their own homes and offices, and should be judged on the quality of their work.
Q: Judging from what’s happening across the landscape, nobody has the answer to this, but what, if anything, can newspapers do now to stop the bleeding? Is it just a down cycle because of what’s happening across the economy, or is this an irreversible trend? If someone handed you the keys to the Philly Inky, or the Washington Post, or any paper, what ideas might you implement to turn things around?
I think the smart papers understand that this is not a death sentence, but a transition. It is not a bad thing that more people are creating their own media reality, whether it’s with the music on their I Pods or the favorite channels lists they have, or what choices they make on the internet. Papers have to be part of that buffet, but the delivery system is going to be different, that’s all. We don’t ride in carriages driven by horses anymore because we found that getting in a car was faster. That’s all this is. Information will be distributed. It is up to papers to find a way to distribute it online in an entertaining way and in a way that they can monetize. “Circulation” will surely drop, but the total number of eyeballs on a story may not, and that’s all that matters; that and the advertising dilemma, which I am totally not qualified to discuss.
I am waiting for a major paper to take one of its biggest columnists–a Wilbon, say, or a Plaschke in sports, or a Paul Krugman, someone who isn’t syndicated–and make them available only online. It would be a gamble, to be sure, but someone has to step out there and say ‘I think the world is round, not flat. Let’s get in the boat and see if I’m right.’ I am aware that the Times tried this with Times Select and it didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea everywhere.
Q: When you got into the industry, did you anticipate yourself as spending your entire career in print, or was television a thought all along? If no, at what point did you begin to give serious thought to TV?
Being the dinosaur that I am, I recall being stunned when George Michael told me, in 1994, how much money he would pay me to come on “Redskins Report” once a week on the NBC affiliate in Washington. We were not aware that this thing called “television” paid that way. Even though there were people like Will McDonough and Ralph Wiley doing a lot of TV at the time, there was still a disconnect. I recall one of my favorite phases was “those f—ing TV people.” The ESPN thing came totally out of the blue; I was sitting at my desk at the Post when Vince Doria called and said he wanted me to come up to Bristol. I had been there before to do a piece for the paper on Dick Vitale, who seemed like an alien being to me, but a gentle one, like ALF.
I do think I realized, early, that you had to master all of the media to have a career, and that’s why I went to ESPN. You couldn’t just write; you couldn’t just be good on TV; you couldn’t just be entertaining on the radio, you had to develop all of those different voices in your head.
Q: Our first memories of your work are from the Washington Post in the 90s, when you were on staff with guys who have begun the beauty’s slow fade from print and into TV. What memories do you have from those days on staff with the likes of Adande, Kornheiser and Wilbon?
I have been incredibly fortunate to work at places with amazingly passionate and creative people, up to this moment with Turner. The Post was like this incredible graduate program in journalism. I started there at 22 and would just look around sometimes, because back then people came to the office just about every day. And I can tell you that PTI is simply what every day was like there, with a camera. Tony would come out of his office and bellow, ‘what’s the capital of Fiji?’ And Mike, who had the office across the hall, would stick his head out and scream, ‘shaddup; I’ve got Jordan on the line.’ And they would yell at each other and you’d laugh for hours. And they were the most amazingly gracious people with their time and advice. Mike talked me off more than one ledge when our boss ticked me off with one request or another, and Tony was very good, even then, at knowing people and helping you shape your career.
It was an amazing place to work. Feinstein had just written Season on the Brink and was the biggest guy in college basketball. Christine Brennan was on the Redskins and then the Olympics, and was becoming huge. Sally Jenkins did college football and basketball and was finding her voice. Adande was one of the interns after me; I think he came after Mark Maske, who was the ultimate prodigy; we both went to DeMatha and he was the bonus baby, 19 and writing these terrific leads.
Richard Justice was doing the Orioles and about to do the Redskins; he’s simply the best beat writer in the history of beat writing. He would own a beat six months into it, just own it, destroy the competition. He was incredible. I backed him up on the Redskins in 1993 and I would just sit out at Redskin Park and watch him work. Unbelievable. He could talk to everybody–coaches, GMs, players, black guys, white guys, they all opened up to him.
And then you’d get on the elevator to go to the cafeteria for lunch, and Ben Bradlee would get on. Incredible.
Bradlee talked me out of going to the National in ’89. Frank Deford had called, and Deford was, well, Deford, and he was really impressive, and I went up there and met with him and they made a very generous offer to a 24-year-old kid. So I told my boss and he said not to make any decision for a few days, and I didn’t. So I went out to Palm Springs for the NBA meetings (they don’t have those anymore), and I was in my hotel room at 7 a.m. when the phone rang, and the voice at the other end said to hold on, Ben Bradlee was on the line.
Now, I’m a political junkie, and a history major, so Ben Bradlee was not just my nominal boss at the Post, he was royalty. So he gets on the phone and says ‘whaddya want write for that bu–sh– paper for?They’ll be out of business in a year.’ And I said ‘yes, Mr. Bradlee,’ and turned them down.
Q: Why the heck doesn’t Philly love Donovan McNabb? Is it because Eagles fans are insufferable louts, or because McNabb hasn’t won a Super Bowl?
Donovan has a lot of supporters in Philly; I think the haters are just louder than the lovers. And I do think there is an element among some of the fans that has a problem with McNabb because he’s a black guy who makes $100 million. I don’t think it’s everybody that’s critical of Donovan, but some of that is there.
But one of the best things about working in Philly is that I was able to see that that stereotype about Philly fans being loudmouthed louts who boo Santa Claus is junk, absolute junk. They are as intelligent as anybody and they are more passionate than just about everybody. They just want to win. It’s the only major city that hasn’t won anything in the last two-plus decades, and they’re tired of excuses and mediocrity, and I don’t blame them.
Q: Just how much of an impact will Greg Oden have on the NBA? And will Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge one day be as good or better than Olajuwon and Sampson?
Oden will be great because he won’t have to be a dominant player from minute one. They’ve got enough talent up there that he can ease himself into the league more slowly and adjust normally. All he has to do the first two years is rebound and play defense, and he’ll help them immensely. I don’t know that Olajuwon and Sampson are the comparison you’re looking for, since the Rockets didn’t win anything while they were together. Maybe Robinson and Duncan? The answer would be they’ll be very lucky if they reach that level.
Q: Gilbert Arenas has become a prolific blogger, and Chris Bosh has used the internet to connect with the fans – do you anticipate more NBA players doing this? What about more athletes in general? It’s happening in baseball somewhat with Curt Schilling blogging, but much less so in the NFL. Is this crucial to the athlete’s Q rating?
I’m amazed that more players aren’t doing it already. But you see more guys doing on with Yardbarker and sites like that. Baron Davis has a really good site, does movie reviews. McNabb is there, too. I think it’s inevitable as more guys become more comfortable with the medium. I remember seeing guys taking laptops with them on the road when I was covering the Bullets and thinking it was the most amazing thing. Gilbert’s is great because Gilbert actually says something. Nobody’s going to read it if there’s nothing there. A lot of guys have website with no page views because it’s all PR garbage about their non-existent foundation. Somebody like Chad Johnson should be blogging every day. Or Shani Davis. They’d get tons of hits. Baseball should be all over this; a smart guy like Jimmy Rollins could reach a whole different demographic if he blogged regularly, and baseball is tailor made for it, because the season is so long and tedious; a daily blog from a smart guy with opinions about the game and the world would read like a novel.
Who is the most underrated NBA player heading into this postseason? The most overrated? Underrated…Caron Butler. Most overrated? Andrea Bargnani isn’t showing very much at the moment.
Best place in Philly to get a cheesesteak? Pat’s.
Who is your favorite NBA read? Dave D’Alessandro is the best NBA guy out there, in the Star-Ledger. He’s terrific. Writes funny, doesn’t miss anything, understands that there’s a big world out there outside of Richard Jeffererson’s ankle.
Which happens first: The Eagles win a Super Bowl or the 76ers win an NBA title? Eagles. They’re closer than people realize.
Has Carmelo Anthong’s DUI been under-reported, or is it not that big of a deal? I think it’s been reported about the level it should be.
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