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So What Do You Do, Joe Posnanski, Sports Illustrated Senior Writer?

The 'best sports columnist in America' talks about his latest gig and what's next for the newspaper business

By Noah Davis - September 30, 2009
It's been a hectic summer for Joe Posnanski. Luckily, Sports Illustrated's newest senior writer enjoys the work. A lot. In addition to his day job at SI, there's his other day job as a columnist for the Kansas City Star where he was named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors. (In August, Time Inc.'s sports magazine, where he had been a contributor for a year, hired him full-time, but he continues to write for the Star.) And then there's his well-loved blog, featuring everything from card tricks to 10,000-word explanations of baseball minutiae. Posnanski also started the Future of Newspapers, where he and an assortment of guest columnists attempt to solve the problems of the ailing newspaper industry. And finally, don't forget about his books. His latest, The Machine, debuted in mid-September at No. 17 on the NYT bestsellers list and has the writer on the other side of the interview circuit. "It's not my favorite part," he says. Interviews, after all, get in the way of writing.

Name: Joe Posnanski
Position: Senior writer, Sports Illustrated
Resume: Columnist at Kansas City Star, Cincinnati Post and The Augusta Chronicle. Started at The Charlotte Observer. Is the author of two books, The Soul of Baseball and The Machine.
Birthdate: January 8, 1967
Hometown: Cleveland. To Charlotte. To Augusta. To Cincinnati. To Kansas City.
Education: Studied accounting and then, after realizing there was math involved, moved on to English at what was then called the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Now, just Charlotte.
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "Book Review. Then Magazine. Then 'Week in Review.' Then Sports. Love the Sunday Times."
Favorite TV show: The Office
Last book read: Hell by Robert Olen Butler
Guilty pleasure: "Checking Amazon numbers. It's unhealthy."

You've been at Sports Illustrated full-time for a couple of weeks. How's it going?
It's going great. It's so weird because obviously I was working at Sports Illustrated before, and I was working at the Kansas City Star before, and basically on September 1st, it all just swapped places. I'm still working at Sports Illustrated and I'm still working at the Kansas City Star, only [the] roles [are] reversed and I'm doing more for one than the other. I don't really know exactly how my life has changed, other than I get to call myself a senior writer at Sports Illustrated now. But it's definitely been very cool, and I love the people there at Sports Illustrated.

So basically, the SI business card goes in the front?
Yeah, that's what seems to be the difference. And, you know, I'm waiting for those; they keep saying they're going to send me Sports Illustrated business cards. I guess until I get one of those, I'm not entirely sure that I work there. [Laughs]

You're doing radio interviews and a lot of different press for [your new book,] The Machine. Is that difficult to balance it all?
It's been a hectic couple of weeks, no doubt about it, but it all came together at once, you know? The book came out a week and a half after I started at Sports Illustrated, so they knew that was coming and we all tried to make a pact to make my life as easy as possible. I've written quite a bit for Sports Illustrated [since I started full-time], but I would imagine that once I get through this promotional period, I'll be writing more.

"The blog has been a very interesting thing for me because I started it with no expectations, no thoughts of what it could be, and no real sense that I was going to do it for very long. I just thought, 'Ah, I probably ought to start a blog.'"

Is there any plan about how much you're going to be writing, and whether it's going to be for the magazine or the Web?
We're all waiting for the job to kind of evolve. I definitely am very involved in the Web and very involved with the magazine. Trying to figure out scheduling and how all that's going to work is something we're still in the process of doing, but it looks like I'm going to be doing quite a bit of column writing for the magazine's front-of-book Scorecard section. I'm still going to be writing a lot for the Web site, whether it's something they pick up from my blog or something I do specifically for them. We've already planned several fairly big pieces for the magazine. It's definitely going to be across the board -- which is exactly what I want. What makes Sports Illustrated so great to me is that there are so many different outlets, so many different formats for me to write for them.

You mention there are a lot of spaces to write, but unlike ESPN, there's no TV outlet or radio outlet. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to stay a writer and not expand, like, say, a Rick Reilly has?
I never felt I was any good at any format other than writing. I always felt very uncomfortable on radio, very uncomfortable on television. For the kind of work that I do -- the kind of writing I try to do -- I think it best fits either online or in print. It just seems like there's more of an opportunity for me to really sit down and think through my thoughts and try to color some shades of gray. Radio and television are wonderful outlets for people who have talent for that, but I tend to ramble on and tend to need to have my thoughts crystallized in order to make much sense.

I had a radio show very, very briefly when I first started in Kansas City at the paper. We did a show for about six weeks at the most. I really, really didn't like it. I wasn't digging ditches; it wasn't that hard to do, but I never felt like I was coming across very well. What really bothered me is I thought it really was affecting the way I wrote. When I'm writing, I tend to try to have a very clear mind, you know? I don't like a lot of voices running around in my head. When you do talk radio, at least for me, I was hearing a lot of different callers and voices. It really made it more difficult for me to write. For me, it always was better to stay in the writing, to stay in something that maybe I have some talent for, and try to avoid everything else.

Are the interviews getting tedious? Or is it different when you're promoting your own work?
Well, it's not my favorite part by any means -- and I don't think it's anybody's -- but in this case, the book is something that I love. When you write something, you want as many people as possible to read it. You hope it'll be a lot of fun for a lot of people, so you do these [interviews]. It's not like doing a show in any way for me. It's me talking about this book. Sure, there's a lot of tediousness to it, but for the most part -- and I think this is a little bit different for this book than it was for my first book -- people seem pretty engaged on the subject. The people that I'm talking to, they pick something out from this book, whether it's "Are the '75 Reds team the best team ever?" -- and usually they don't think so and they want to argue for another team -- or they want to talk about Pete Rose or they want to talk about Joe Morgan. It really seems like it's engaged people, so it's actually fun.

It's funny; I love talking, I just don't like doing talk radio. It seems for whatever reason they're two different things for me. I do love having conversations with people, and like I said, people have been very engaged on this book, so that's been a whole lot of fun. But yeah, when you do 14, 15 radio interviews in a row, you do get a little tired of your own voice.

"'Newspaper' as a word could very well become as outdated as 'album' is when we talk about music. It doesn't have to be paper to be a newspaper in my mind."

Have you been surprised by the positive response to the book?
Yeah, I've been stunned honestly by the response. I think a lot of that is due to the excerpt that ran in Sports Illustrated. That just was a whole new market for me. It's been great; it's been tremendous.

I did a lot of press for my first book, but it was different. That book was very, very personal for me. I wrote about Buck O'Neil, and Buck had died just a few months before the book came out, so it was just a difficult time in some ways. I'd always expected when I wrote the book that Buck would be a part of the promotion. It would bring him to a new level, and of course it didn't happen that way.

Switching topics a bit, talk about the Future of Newspapers blog.
I love newspapers, and even as I've gone on to work at Sports Illustrated, I still write for the Star because of the great people there and because I would like to be part of the fight. I don't like when people get all pompous about journalism and when they start talking about how without [newspapers] there's no democracy or anything like that. That sort of thing really bugs me. But, that said, I think newspapers have been such a part of communities for so long, and I don't really see anything else that can do that or is willing to do that. I was hoping that we could create a conversation of what the newspaper can look like in the future.

'Newspaper' as a word could very well become as outdated as 'album' is when we talk about music. It doesn't have to be paper to be a newspaper in my mind. When I think of newspaper, I think of something that gives you local news, local sports, the weather, all of these things that matter to us in our daily lives. It's something that can give it to you in a one-stop shopping sort of way. I believe that people want that. I don't think that the demand for that has gone down at all. I know that newspaper people in general like to beat themselves up about not keeping up with the times, and there's no doubt some of that is true, but the big problem has been on the advertising side and on the circulation side of newspapers. The technology has changed, and because of that, the business model of newspapers is broken.

Just from the sports perspective, people in Kansas City don't want to read any less about the Kansas City Royals, the Kansas City Chiefs, their local high schools, and Kansas-Missouri or Kansas State. They want to read more. They want more now than ever before. The demand is so high, why can't we make this work? I think that we can, and I think we will. It's just going to take a few breakthroughs in technology to figure out how to do it.

I grew up around Boston, so it was exciting when ESPN launched ESPN Boston. It's a great hub where I can go for news and columns about Boston sports. Do you think it's possible for a national media organization to successfully replicate what local papers do?
Sure. There's a demand, so whoever is going to figure out how to make it work as a business model is the one that's going to be successful. The issue that I have with ESPN is not that they can't do it. I think ESPN Boston could very well become the go-to site. ESPN has smart people working there, they really understand sports, they're very smart, and all that.

But the problem with any big entity doing it is they're going to come in and they're going to do what makes money, and that's the goal. Newspapers have been that way, as well. If you're going to do ESPN Boston, there's a lot of money to be made in covering the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, and the Celtics. That's going to be important, and maybe you're going to throw a little Boston College in there, some Boston University or something, but you're not going to go to the high schools.

"As much as media has mushroomed over the last 34 years, no team, including the Yankees, is getting the kind of coverage today that the Cincinnati Reds got in 1975. The reason is because I think we're all pushing for the hits."

The thing that newspapers to me were always able to do is -- because they were undoubtedly making so much money -- they were also able to do all kinds of things for the greater good of the community. It was part of the package, you know? People went into the business in order to tell stories and cover the news. There probably wasn't ever a whole lot of money to be made in writing about school board meetings or that sort of thing, but newspapers covered it because it was part of this greater mission. I don't want to pick on ESPN because I think they're great, but I don't know if ESPN's mission would be, "Hey, our job is to cover Boston and give you every single thing you want about Boston, even stuff that you might not think you want." Or will they be driven by what I think too much of us are driven now by, which is just ratings? Will they only give you the big stories and the things that are going to get big hits? Then we lose some of this other stuff.

You said something interesting about how newspapers gave people something that they might not know they wanted. I agree, and I wonder if the general public is going to realize they want this type of reporting before it disappears.
I think people will realize. I just finished this book about the '75 Reds. I went back and there were four newspapers covering that team, and great, great writers covering that team. I was loaded down with different voices and different thoughts about that great team, and insider information that you would just never get today. As much as media has mushroomed over the last 34 years, no team, including the Yankees, is getting the kind of coverage today that the Cincinnati Reds got in 1975. The reason is because I think we're all pushing for the hits. There are more [Chad] Ochocinco and Terrell Owens stories than ever before, and if somebody goes back in 50 years, they're going to know everything they need to know about those big stories, but some of the little things -- some of the lesser known players, some of the lesser known sports -- are just really getting hammered because when you cut, that's where you cut.

I do think that we'll be missing something. And I don't know the answer to it either. I think the answer is to make enough money that you can cover those things, but I'm not sure that we're going to get back to that.

How do you manage it all? Until very recently you were writing the book, you had the two blogs, you had Sports Illustrated, and the Star and Twitter. Are you just constantly writing?
It's not like I'm locked to my computer 24 hours, but I think a lot about stuff as things come up. The other day, during the semifinal of the U.S. Open, I saw [Roger] Federer hit that shot between his legs. I wasn't scheduled to write. It was a day off. I was with my family, and we were watching that. We went out to dinner. I put the girls to bed, and I really wanted to write that story. For whatever reason -- and I think it's the same thing that's been driving me forever -- I sat down and wrote a 2,000-word thing about Roger Federer hitting a shot through his legs.

On some level, it's not like you're writing 15,000 words a week for Sports Illustrated. I'm sure you could do that, but at some point it might get tedious. You're doing a lot of different types of writing.
Absolutely. The blog has been a very interesting thing for me because I started it with no expectations, no thoughts of what it could be, and no real sense that I was going to do it for very long. I just thought, "Ah, I probably ought to start a blog." I was trying to sell the Buck O'Neil book at the time, and I thought, "Well, this is a good way to get it going." I started really liking it. There was plenty going on in my life, but I found that this writing for me was really relaxing, and it was something I enjoyed. There was no pressure; there was no tension. I didn't care if anybody read it. I wasn't getting paid for it; I didn't want to get paid for it. It was just something to do, I guess in the same way that somebody else might like to play golf or something. For me, it was just like a couple of hours a day, or an hour a day or a half an hour a day where I would just write whatever the heck happened to be on my mind.

In the grand scheme of things, it all seems to kind of fit together. People who are sick of reading me probably go, "This guy wrote another 2,000 words?" but for me, it's not the same at all. The blog work that I do is really just stuff that I just love writing. The newspaper work I love in a very different way, and the magazine stuff I love in a very different way.

So we're not going to see you out on the golf course any time soon?
I don't golf. It's funny, because I don't have hobbies. I spend time with my family, but that's about it. I always want to start playing tennis again, I just never really do. The last time I played golf, I played Augusta National. I always tell people that I'll play again when I find a better course. Maybe if I can get on Pebble Beach, that'll be the next time I'll play.

If you're going to go out you might as well go out at the top I guess, right?
Exactly. Maybe St. Andrews.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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