Interview: Jeff McDonald

As part of a class project at the start of the semester, I was assigned the task of contacting and interviewing a reporter from my hometown about their career and writing process.

Austin, Texas is a good hour and a half from San Antonio, but I decided to stretch the whole “home” thing and chanced an email to Jeff McDonald, who covers the San Antonio Spurs for the San Antonio Express News.

I follow McDonald’s writing (and his tweets!) closely throughout the NBA season, and was thrilled when he agreed to help me out with the project. His answers to the following questions were so good, I figured I’d share them on the ol’ blog. Enjoy!

How did you prepare for the job of reporting?

It seems overly romantic to say but it’s probably true: In a way, I’ve been preparing for this job my whole life. I was raised on reading, particularly newspapers. Our family subscribed to two when I was a kid (the San Antonio Express-News and the now-defunct San Antonio Light). I’ve always loved language and news, and I think I absorbed some of the skills needed to do this job at an early age. It was like osmosis.

Obviously, it doesn’t stop there. You have to keep working and keep writing – a lot – to hone the craft. I worked on my high school newspaper, and my college newspaper, and worked as a stringer covering high school sporting events. The only way to get better at anything is through repetition. So report, report, report and write, write, write. The stuff I wrote 10 years ago sucked. The stuff I wrote 5 years ago sucked. The process of honing the craft never really stops.

What position did you start in?

My first professional job out of college was as a high school sports reporter at the Standard-Times in San Angelo, Texas. It was a smallish (population 100,000 or so) West Texas town that was crazy about its local sports and seemed to confuse its high school football teams with the Dallas Cowboys. It was the perfect starting point.

What have been some of your favorite pieces to write?

I am a sportswriter, technically, but I enjoy writing stories about people moreso than sports. Over the summer, I went to Indiana to do a story on Gregg Popovich’s hometown, how he grew up, people that knew him when. Though much ink has been spilled in recent years about the Spurs coach – now the longest tenured coach in U.S. professional sports – I hadn’t read a lot about his early days in Indiana. I felt like I learned something I didn’t know, and got to pass that on to our readers. Those are always my favorite stories to do.

What was the toughest piece you wrote?

Occasionally, in this business you come in contact with death. I once had to write a story about a high school baseball pitcher taking the mound in a playoff game a few days after his mother died. It can be tough writing about grief. People process it differently. Some people want to talk it out – even with a stranger like a newspaper reporter. Others want to keep it bottled up, and at some point you feel indecent trying to pry that grief out of them. It’s theirs to do with what they please. Other pieces are tougher for other reasons – you’re trying to get information (about a trade, or an injury, or a locker room issue) that you aren’t supposed to have. That’s just part of the job.

How do you handle deadline pressure?

I drink a lot (kidding). Deadline pressure can be the toughest part of the job, for sure, especially for someone who covers games at night like I do. There are times when I’ve come out of the locker room after a game from post-game interviews, sat down at my laptop in the press room, stared at a blank screen and realize I’ve got 20 minutes to write 25 inches. How do I handle the pressure? The best advice I can give is to be prepared. By the time I’m sitting down and starting at that blank screen, usually I already have a good idea of what I want to say, how I want to say it, and how I want the story structured. And then it just sort of pours out. I don’t know if other people work this way, but it’s how my process works. It’s like a high-wire act without a net.

As a beat reporter, what is your relationship with the team?

This can vary from reporter to report and team to team. My relationship with the Spurs is nice and professional. Throughout the course of a season, we spent a lot of time together. There are some players you naturally gravitate toward during downtime before games or after practices, to shoot the breeze with about movies, or football or politics or music. I get along fine with Popovich, probably better than most media members since I’m around all the time. It’s probably different for me, than say, reporters who cover the New York Knicks, because the Express-News is the only media outlet covering the Spurs on a daily basis, home and away. I have the benefit of a lot more one-on-one time with these guys.

Do you have any advice about working with an editor?

If you find a good one, cherish him or her. A good editor can be of service every step of the way, from coming up with story ideas to providing reporting advice to polishing up the finished product. The best editors have a way of asking the right questions, to get you to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it and what other voices you may need to tell the story. There’s a fine line a good editor has to walk, between dispensing ideas and advice and being too micro-managing. I’ve worked with some on both ends of the spectrum. The micro-managers can make you want to pull your hair out. But, your editor is your editor, and you often don’t have any choice but to make the relationship work.

Any advice to avoid problems on the job?

Most newspaper people I know (myself included) are grouchy. So I’d say, try not to be so grouchy. This is a job that, in many ways, invites problems. There’s probably always going to be someone somewhere upset with something you wrote. You have to be confident in what you do, and be sensitive to which criticism is fair and constructive and worth learning from, and which is coming from complete crackpots. I ignore criticism from crackpots. It’s the only healthy thing to do.

How do you see changes in the field (Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour news cycle, etc.) impacting your writing?

Big time. You spend less time working on your actual work, and more time monitoring social media and other Internet sites that might be breaking news related to your beat. Used to be, you’d go to a game, conduct interviews after and write a story on the game. Now, you’ve also got to chime in on Twitter, and post updates to the blog, and shoot postgame video, and maybe participate in a podcast. And on and on and on. It can, and often does, make the beat a complete grind.

Another way technology has changed the job is that it has changed the definition of “newsworthy.” With so many more outlets reporting on the NBA and the Spurs – some of them legitimate, some of them not so much – the Internet can often be filled with white noise that consumers have no hope of sifting through in order to find the truth. As a society we are more informed than we’ve ever been, and yet we’ve really never been less informed, because information is coming to us unfiltered. An example: One writer at a semi-legitimate NBA website writes he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Spurs were to attempt to trade for Player X. That gets translated to other sites picking up the story as “the Spurs are trying to trade for Player X.” A few days later, other people are writing think pieces about how the Spurs would look with Player X in the lineup. I’m getting questions about Player X daily from readers, and eventually my bosses are wondering why we haven’t written anything about the Spurs’ hot pursuit of Player X. When in reality, the Spurs’ front office has not held a single discussion about trading for Player X at all. It can be maddening, and you can waste a lot of time chasing bogus rumors if you aren’t careful.

There is no doubt technology has increased our audience. Two decades ago, the only people who could have read what I write about the San Antonio Spurs lived in the greater San Antonio area. Now, I get emails and comments from people all over the world – China, the Phillipines, South America. That wouldn’t have been possible in another era. But there is a downside to the social media explosion as well. It makes truth harder to come by.

What advice would you give to college graduates pursuing a reporting career?

Go in with eyes wide open. Newspapers are dying. There is no denying that. The reporting career of the future is going to be fully online, and – sadly, for an old wordsmith like me – probably isn’t going to involve the written word as much as it used to. The Internet demands video and audio and slideshows and the like. Clicks and pageviews have become king, even at the expense of effective communication. To me, there’s too much junk food and not enough meat. I would hope, in the future, there would still be a place for good, solid old-school journalism on the Internet.

There’s probably not going to be a lot of money in it. At least not for a while. Newspapers haven’t really found a way to monetize their online operations yet.

If I’m being honest, I would also advise a college graduate hell-bent on pursuing a reporting career to also have a Plan B. Now more than ever, it just might not work out and you’ll need some other palatable way to make a living. I’ve seen so many good, young talented writers come up and go nowhere, just because the business is out of jobs. I’ve tried to get some of these folks hired at our own paper, with no luck. We’re just not hiring.

There have been times over the past few years, especially as I’ve had kids and grown a family, that I wish someone had given me advice about having a Plan B when I was in college. Funny thing is, the 20-year-old me wouldn’t have listened, either.

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