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Press Pass | Art Stapleton of The Record Talks Daniel Jones, Working the High School Beat, and more

Art Stapleton is the Giants beat writer for The Record. He took some time to chat with The Big Lead about covering high school sports early in his career, the importance of accountability, Daniel Jones, and more. 

Liam McKeone: Hi Art, thanks for taking the time today. In your own words, how would you describe your journey in sports media, from when you knew you wanted to be in the industry to where you are today?

Art Stapleton: Well, my junior year of high school, I had a great chemistry teacher. Somehow, when I applied to colleges, I applied to engineering schools. By the time I got to my senior year of high school, I decided chemistry wasn’t for me and I should find something else. I ended up going to the University of Massachusetts and I had an interest in journalism. Instead of worrying about a chemistry lab, I went down to the school newspaper and I spent, basically my life since, in a newsroom. I got very lucky in college. I covered the UMass hoops team when John Calipari was there. They made the NCAA tournament four straight years, won the league title four straight years. I was in the press conference when John Chaney threatened to strangle Calipari. That’s kind of where my sports journalism career took off.

As any sports writer will tell you, it’s not as easy as it seems. I ended up, for a better part of the next decade, covering high school sports in New Jersey. I truly believe that’s what helped me prepare to be able to cover the Giants, and cover Super Bowls and World Series games and milestone games for legendary athletes like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Eli Manning, just to name a few.

That’s kind of been my journey. A lot of high school sports, where you walk to the field and they said to me, “Okay, you’re responsible for all the information, all the reporting, that you possibly need here.” You always hear that about sports writers, that they walk into a professional press box and wait for the stats to be handed to you. You can’t do that when you cover high school sports. They don’t hand you stats, they don’t hand you quotes. You have to do it all from the ground up. That’s where I’ve learned to kind of do what I need to do to emerge as a beat writer for an NFL team.

McKeone: How did that experience of having to count your own stats and that sort of thing help you do your job today?

Stapleton: You know… My job doesn’t have to do with stats, or trends. My job is all about the people that we cover and the relationships we build. Because, as a beat writer in today’s day and age, you don’t have to get off the couch and you can still claim to cover the team. In order to do the job the way I need to do the job, I need to meet the people I cover. I need to build trust, I need to find the stories behind the stories. In essence, the way I did the job covering high schools is the same way I need to do the job covering the Giants in the NFL.

McKeone: Did covering high school really hammer home the idea that personal relationships really matter when it comes to the people you cover?

Stapleton: When you cover high school sports, you’re never going to make everyone happy.

There’s a different edge to writing high school sports, as [far as] being critical of the games but not necessarily critical of the people. You’re dealing with teenagers, and with teenagers comes criticism from parents or adults that you never really expect. It’s, “Why are you not writing about my kid?” “Why are you writing games this way?” You kind of have to realize, early on, an appreciation for the other side of the story.

When you get to this level, I think it’s very easy to forget the other side of the story. It’s very easy to say, “Well I can write about Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Saquon Barkley. They don’t care who I am, they don’t bother to know who I am, so I can write whatever I want.” And I don’t think that’s the way to do things. I think the best way to do the job nowadays is making sure that guys like Odell and Saquon know who I am, know my name, know my coverage and respect my coverage.

Because if there’s a story I’m writing, I can walk into the locker room the next day, look them straight in the eye, and defend whatever wrote… To me, nowadays, like I said, I keep coming back to social media, it’s very easy to be critical on everything when you don’t have to face a player you’re criticizing. I’ve always tried to be accountable to the point where, if I”m going to criticize something, I need to be there the next day to be accountable for what I wrote.

When I talk to athletes, especially, that’s the respect you can build with these guys you’re covering. They notice the criticism, but they notice even more who’s not there to answer to it the following day.

McKeone: As time goes on, it feels like athletes are viewing their media sessions as part of the job more than anything and give bland answers to get out of there. Do you feel like players are open to that kind of personal relationship?

Stapleton: I think that is on the writer as much as it is the athlete, to be perfectly honest. If you’re not going to make a relationship with that athlete, the athlete isn’t going to reciprocate. Not every athlete cares about what is written about him, but it’s the people around the athlete who care. I’ve always looked at the rookies when they come into the NFL as the group you need to develop a relationship with if you’re going to cover a beat in today’s day and age. Because the rookies become veterans very quickly, and if you lose the rookies early on as a writer and a reporter, you’re going to lose the locker room very quickly. To me, that speaks to the integrity of the job you try to do. I think fans are smarter nowadays to understand reporting beyond searching for clicks. That’s something we always have to be conscience of.

McKeone: When you say “beyond searching for clicks”, what do you mean by that?

Stapleton: Look, we all want clicks. We need page views. We need people to read our coverage. Both newspapers but also online. You know yourself there are ways to get clicks that may not necessarily speak to insightful comments and content. I think you need to drive the page views based on, “What am I going to get from this coverage?” I want the headline to reflect my coverage. I don’t need the headline to trick you into reading my story, and then I give you something that’s based on something that’s not a factual or educated insight, which I think is easy to pass off as inside information these days.

If I’m sent to cover a game, and my company is paying money to put me on the road, I’ve got to be able to deliver content that goes beyond what I can write from my couch. If I’m just writing what I can get from my couch, why am I being sent to cover these games from Dallas, from Tampa, from cities across the country? If my company is making the investment to put me there, I’ve got to bring you into that locker room, I’ve got to bring you to that stadium. If I don’t, my coverage is no different than the person who’s writing [for] a website from their house and providing quality content, but they’re just not where I am. I need to make sure people know what they’re gonna get is different behind the scenes than what they see on their television.

Five Big Questions

McKeone: Daniel Jones has looked solid statically so far through camp. How far do you think he needs to go to become a viable starting QB, and what areas in particular does he need to work on?

Stapleton: I think Jones has put himself in position to be the guy they turn to when it’s time to put Eli Manning on the sideline. I don’t think anyone can truly say if he’s ready to start a game in the NFL based on what we’ve seen in practice and the preseason. What I like about him is that he seems to process things very quickly. When he makes a mistake he doesn’t take that mistake to the sideline, he doesn’t take it to the next play. He looks like he moves on pretty quickly. The one thing I think is his best quality is that he’s willing to take chances downfield.

That’s been a criticism of Manning over the last couple years, is that he too quickly takes checkdowns. Jones, as a rookie, has shown that aggressiveness, and his deep ball is very accurate, which has come as a surprise considering his arm strength was criticized.

So what I need to see from Jones in that next step is, when he does take over this job, how does he handle teams game-planning for him? That has not happened in the preseason. Teams aren’t coming after him and attacking his weaknesses that they’ve been able to pick up on film. How are the Giants going to and attack teams with Jones as quarterback with his strengths vs. just kind of running their vanilla offense, which we’ve seen this summer?

McKeone: Leading right into that, from the outside there seems to be some internal disagreement about whether or not Eli Manning will play this entire season. What are your thoughts on when the Giants will replace Eli?

Stapleton: Pat Shurmur said it on draft night. The idea that it’s Eli Manning’s job to keep Daniel Jones off the field. I truly believe that’s the tact the Giants will take going into the season. This coach needs to win football games. This general manager needs to win football games. Right now, as we head into the season, they believe Manning gives them the best chance to win. If he doesn’t win, then Jones is going to get the opportunity to prove he can win football games. I think it’s as simple as that. I think everyone in the Giants’ organization, to some extent understands that this is a referendum on Manning’s final season with the Giants. All the talk about Manning signing an extension and keeping Jones on the bench… Is that possible? Sure. But I think it’s a pipe dream.

I don’t believe the Giants will be in the playoffs this year. If they are, and Manning plays well, then they’ll confront that conversation after the season. But I don’t believe the Giants are a playoff contender right now, so the moment the Giants are out of contention and they’ve given it their best shot, I think Daniel Jones will be the quarterback moving forward.

McKeone: The focus has been on Daniel Jones for obvious reasons, but the Giants invested a lot of draft stock in defense this past draft. Has any rookie from the defensive side of the ball stood out in particular through three weeks of preseason?

Stapleton: They all have their ups and downs, but the player I think showed the most early, that he was ready to have a big role, is DeAndre Baker, the cornerback from Georgia. He’s going to get a lot of attention. He’s going to start opposite Janoris Jenkins, and I think teams will come after Baker early and often. I think the Giants got very lucky; Baker tweaked his knee in the second week of the preseason in practice, and they feared the worst. It turned out that everything was intact, all the ligaments, and he’s going to be ready for Week 1. I think Baker has the best chance of impressing early because teams are gonna come after him. If he plays well, I think he’s a kid who we’re going to be talking about, that they hit a home run trading back into the back end of the first round to take him with the 30th pick.

McKeone: Keeping on the topic of the secondary, Landon Collins left town this offseason and Jabrill Peppers was brought in via the OBJ trade. What kind of impact will Collins’ absence have on the defense, and how will Peppers help offset that?

Stapleton: How does Jabrill Peppers live up to the idea that he’s gotta be the guy who was traded for OBJ and he’s replacing Landon Collins? It’s just not gonna happen. That doesn’t mean Jabrill Peppers can’t be a good player for the Giants, it’s just that expectations are through the roof. I think the Giants will have to do things differently on the back end. I think Peppers will be very active, he’ll make some plays, he’ll probably be criticized for some plays early on.

But the big difference here, I believe, is bringing in Antoine Bethea, a 34-year-old veteran in this league, and he replaces Curtis Riley, who had a horrible season with the Giants last year. There’s no other way to look at it. A ton of missed tackles and he did not play well next to Collins. You never felt like that was the safety tandem that the Giants could rely on. I think Bethea and Peppers will be an upgrade, collectively, than Collins and Riley was, and I think that’s what they’re counting on in the back end.

McKeone: The thinnest position group for the Giants right now is wide receiver. What has been your sense as far as who can step up and produce in Golden Tate’s absence?

Stapleton: I think Sterling Shepard is a given. Any fantasy football owner knows Evan Engram is on the verge of a breakout year at tight end. If he can stay healthy… he’s not a wide receiver, but he certainly has wide receiver skills. I do think they’ll lean heavily on Barkley in the passing game. But it’s going to be a mixing and matching of the other wide receivers with Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, and Russell Shepard to fill that void with Tate out for the first month.

You know, they signed Tate to fill a specific role, and they’re gonna miss him, they really are. He had a good preseason. If he was not suspended, he would have been one of the most talked about players at Giants camp because of how good he was. He developed good chemistry with Manning, he was making plays, seemed pretty reliable. Everything they brought in to fill that void, and now they’ll have to wait until October to see him.

Five Little Things

McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL?

Stapleton: Let’s see…. Minnesota and Atlanta for the Super Bowl was awesome. As far as a regular-season game, there’s nothing like Jerry World [AT&T Stadium]

McKeone: Go-to spot to eat in New York City?

Stapleton: I’ll give you two restaurants that are special to me and my wife. Isle of Capri is a great Italian restaurant, and I got engaged at One If By Land, Two If By Sea down in the Village.

McKeone: All-time favorite player to interview?

Stapleton: This has a little bit of a backstory… I’ve known Victor Cruz since he was 15 years old, I covered him in high school. He ended up following me at UMass, and I covered his entire NFL career. If there’s one player I’ve had the strongest relationship with, and I saw him through the ups and downs of stardom and feeling like his career was over after his knee injury, I’d say it’s Cruz. With an honorable mention to former Giants Justin Tuck, Prince Amukamara, and Odell Beckham, from when he was a rookie, was always a very good person to speak with.

McKeone: What’s something you know now that you wished you knew back when you were starting out in sports media?

Stapleton: It’s a hard question to answer because the industry has changed so much since 1995, when I graduated from college. But, I will say, be as aggressive as you can early on and don’t take no for an answer in terms of story ideas, job opportunities, and just flat-out going after what you want in this business.

Because when one door doesn’t open for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean the next one won’t be open. At my current job, I have a letter back from when I was growing up in NJ after college, I have a letter from The Record saying there was no job, for someone with my qualifications coming out of college, was available. I kept that letter, probably partly as motivation, but also knowing that that’s probably where everyone in this business starts at one point. I wouldn’t be as discouraged as I was back then, knowing how quickly opportunities can come up down the line.

When I was covering high schools at The Record, I applied for the Jets Beat when it was open, and didn’t get it. I applied for the Mets beat when it was open and didn’t get it. I could have gotten discouraged after that as well, and I didn’t, I just enjoyed what I was covering at the time, and that was high schools. I put everything I had into covering high schools, and I believe that because I covered high schools the way I did, I’m able to cover the Giants in the NFL the way I do now.

McKeone: What’s something about this job you feel like other people don’t know?

Stapleton: That it’s a 24-hour-a-day job. That the phone never gets turned off. That the tweet alerts are constantly coming. That the phone calls and text messages to potential sources and players and coaches and agents. 99 percent of them don’t turn into anything report-worthy. It’s just a matter of keeping those avenues open. And I think, from the fan’s perspective, we were all fans at some point. You don’t get into sports journalism without having been a fan at some point. I truly appreciate what a fan goes through with the financial commitment, the emotional commitment, and I don’t know if everyone in our business nowadays can appreciate that.