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Friday, July 25, 2003

Full Disclosure: Salon.com Sportswriter King Kaufman
Today we interview one of my favorite sports columnists — online or otherwise — King Kaufman of Salon.com. King writes for sports fans with brains — somewhere between George Will and a face-painter — so I was pleased to learn that King's workload recently got ramped up to five columns a week.

I fired off some questions to the star of King Kaufman's Sports Daily and, just like his column, his answers are thoughtful and interesting...

1. Pretend you're writing a 30-word ad for "King Kaufman's Sports Daily." Go.
Reading King Kaufman's Sports Daily is like talking to the guy on the next barstool, if the guy on the next barstool were pretty smart and not drunk.

2. Salon.com's financial situation has always been a point of interest for new media journalists, because the site is not funded by a giant like Microsoft or AOL Time Warner. Has it been hard to simply concentrate on editorial knowing the balance sheet gets as much attention as the articles?
I don't think that not being funded by a giant makes Salon any more of a precarious operation than if it were. I spent years working for the San Francisco Examiner, which was owned by the Hearst Corporation at the time. That giant enough for you? The threat of layoffs and even complete shutdown was a constant there. Being independent means you might have to lay people off to stay alive. Being owned by a giant means you might have to lay people off to satisfy the giant's bottom line. Either way, those schmucks wake up the next morning unemployed.

It hasn't been hard for me personally to concentrate on editorial matters knowing the balance sheet gets as much attention as the articles because my job is to write the articles. Before that my job was to edit the articles. I can't do a lot about the balance sheet, which I probably couldn't even decipher if they showed it to me. They have smart people to handle that stuff.

I will say that your question would be an interesting one to ask of David Talbot, the founder and editor, who has had to turn himself into a businessman over the last eight years while also very much running the editorial operation. I know there have been times, a lot of them, when he's had to let others handle the editorial side while he went off with the business folks to raise money or whatever.

But for me, and I suspect for most people on the editorial side, the way the dynamic you talk about manifests itself is in good old-fashioned worrying about your job. It's no different from working for any other operation that's struggling to get into the black for the first time, or battling a tough economy or an industry slump, or all of the above. You wonder if we're going to make it. You worry about what you'll do if worse comes to worse. You keep your resume updated and hope for the best. There have been some scares at Salon, where it looked like the end may be near, and maybe there will be more in the future. But all I can really do is just keep doing my job. I sure don't want to trade it for any other job.

3. When you apply for press credentials to sporting events, do you get treated the same as members of print and television mediums?
No. There are some places where I'm on more or less an equal footing, but for the most part the major sports leagues and teams have not been willing to give Salon the kind of access that they routinely give, for example, to tiny suburban daily newspapers that rarely even use it. There are baseball teams, for instance, that simply won't credential me. Others will give me what's usually called a visitor's press pass, which gets me in the press box and on the field, but not in the clubhouse. It's frustrating. I go through phases of trying to fight through it, of just banging and banging and banging on the door in hopes that they'll open up, and then I go through phases of just kind of backing off. I'm in one of those now.

The access problem is annoying, but it isn't crushing for what I do. Essentially, I'm writing from the point of view of an informed fan. I do some reporting to get informed, but there's a lot of things I'm not. I'm not an insider like Peter Gammons, working the back channels for tidbits. I'm not going to be the guy with the scoop that Joe Shlabotnik is being traded to the Yankees tomorrow. I'm not an expert who's going to really break down the cover-two defense for you. I'm an observer, just like most fans are. The difference is that I write about my observations, as opposed to annoying my friends with them. I mean as opposed to just annoying my friends with them, because I also do that.

4. Are sports still fun for you? Can you still be a fan and a professional sportswriter?
Yes, sports are still fun. There are times when it's a job. Anything can become just a job. "Oh, crap, I have to watch this game and write about it." You know: Poor me. I can still be a fan, but I'm not exactly a foam finger in the air kind of fan, if you know what I mean. Never have been. I have fun, I root for my teams, I get a kick out of going to games in other cities, I like watching games on TV, all that. But there's always that writer side of me lurking around there somewhere, looking for angles, filing away memories. I'm almost always observing at least a little bit, even when I'm participating, if I can say that without sounding too pretentious.

I don't know about the cause and effect there, though. I think I'm a writer because I approach things that way. I don't think I approach things that way because I'm a writer.

So sports can be fun, but they can also be not fun. I spend a lot of time thinking about how sports entities just really don't give a crap at all about their fans. Your local football or baseball team, whose insignia is part of your very identity, who you live and die with and love with a passion beyond anything else in your life -- if you didn't have a wallet, that team wouldn't care that you existed. And if you'd just leave your wallet and go away, I think they'd probably be happier. They wouldn't have to clean up after you or make sure you didn't break anything. The one-sidedness of that relationship, between team and fan, is just weird to me. The power dynamic is all out of whack. You devote your whole life to the Pittsburgh Steelers, say. You have a shrine to them in your house. You name your kids Franco and Mean Joe. You dress only in black and yellow and never miss a game. And if you suddenly stopped all of that, the Steelers wouldn't even know, much less care. They'd sell your season ticket to somebody else and never give you another thought. It just seems like a bad relationship to me.

I mean, I think about this stuff a lot.

But on the other hand, when the Giants were in the World Series last year: Wow!

So yes, it's still fun for me, but I should point out that my gig is pretty well suited for keeping sports fun. I write about different sports all the time, and I write from this fan-like point of view. It's a little different when you're a beat writer, and day after day you're grinding out the news about one team and its games.

5. What are three of your favorite sports memories?
Hard to pick three, but here's the first three that come to mind.

(1) Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. It didn't really work out for Buster, and Tyson's subsequent history makes the upset seem less shocking than it seemed that night, but at the time, it was just astounding. I watched it in a bar, and I remember this old guy next to me just walking circles around his bar stool going, "Ho-lee shit! Ho-lee shit!" It was just an unbelievable, inconceivable thing. Because we can see the whole arc of Tyson's career and life now, that loss to Douglas has some context, it's understandable. It's only been 13 years, but it's already hard to convey just how absolutely stunning an upset it was. That's an interesting thing about upsets: They fade with time. They just become a part of history: Of course Tunney beat Dempsey; of course the Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III. We get used to the result and the shock of it doesn't come through the years. But that Douglas-Tyson upset was the greatest upset I've ever seen. It was inspiring. It was world-rocking. I wrote a column the next day saying that if we could imagine Tyson losing, we could imagine anything, even world peace or something! I was kind of joking, but still, that's how it got you thinking.

(2) Maybe you had to be there, but: Cal beating Stanford in the Big Game in 1986, Joe Kapp's last year as coach. I was a Cal student at the time. Kapp, who was an absolute lunatic, had been fired at midseason, effective at the end of the year, after he pretty much had an emotional meltdown following a loss. (And emotional meltdowns with Kapp were kind of hard to differentiate from just everyday wackiness, but this one involved him very nearly exposing himself at a postgame press conference.) The team came in 1-9, with an eight-game losing streak, and Stanford was 7-2 and headed for a bowl. If I recall, Stanford took the opening kickoff and marched smartly downfield for a touchdown, and we all went, "Uh-oh, here we go again." And from that moment on, Cal dominated. The Cal side of the crowd, especially the student section, went bananas for three hours straight. It was the most emotional, intense crowd I've ever been a part of, and the sweetest victory any team I've ever rooted for has ever achieved. Sports Illustrated rated this game as the 10th greatest college football upset of all time a few years ago. I would have said the Big Game four years earlier, when Cal won on "The Play," but I could have gone to that game but didn't because of a mix-up, and 21 years later I'm still bitter about it.

(3) Rookie Magic Johnson jumping center and scoring 42 points in the final game of the 1980 Finals against Philadelphia with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar injured. That was really something.

6. Sports is not the focus of the general-news positioned Salon.com. In what ways is that good and bad for you, as opposed to, say, writing for ESPN.com?
I don't know. I've never written for a sports-only operation like ESPN.com. I guess it's good because I stand out in the editorial mix. I like the fact that I have my own little corner to work in. I like the fact that I'm writing about sports for an audience that's not necessarily made up only of hardcore sports fans, though hardcore sports fans are definitely part of that audience. It's a challenge, and one I enjoy, to try to make my writing interesting to them, and also to someone who doesn't really follow sports.

7. Care to plug any popular past articles you think would help turn on new readers?
My current column is always at http://www.salon.com/sports. My archives are at http://dir.salon.com/topics/king_kaufman/index.html. I'd rather send people there than point them to some "greatest hits." If you look at two or three pieces from the past week and you think I'm a boring hack, I don't think the Greatest Piece I've Ever Written is going to change your mind, even if I knew what that piece was.

8. Besides the final score, is there anything home teams care more about than the final tally of beer sales?
Besides the final score, I think there's nothing the home team cares about more than the bottom line. And in some cases, they care more about the bottom line than about the final score. Caring about the bottom line isn't a bad thing, obviously. It's what makes our world go. The problem is that with most home teams, it goes even further: They care more about short-term profits than anything else. They'll mortgage the future and sell out the fans — I'm talking here about extorting taxpayers to build stadiums and arenas with threats that they'll leave town, among other things — for that purpose.

9. Why do you think some Kansas fans bitched about Roy Williams leaving for UNC, but didn't protest much when Bill Self ditched Illinois for Kansas?
I don't know. Didn't they? Maybe Illinois people need a self-esteem boost. Maybe it seems understandable to them that a basketball coach would leave Illinois to go to Kansas, but Kansas people can't imagine a basketball coach leaving to go anywhere, even North Carolina, even though that's the guy's alma mater. It could be because Williams was there longer, and it could be because he made that silly speech three years ago that he was staying then because he couldn't leave his players. Now he can suddenly leave his players? Maybe if he'd been a little more honest three years ago ("The offer wasn't good enough to get me to leave a place I like"), it wouldn't have stung as much when he did leave. But really I can't say this strongly enough: I don't know.

Oh, wait. I just re-read the question. I misread it, didn't I? I think Kansas fans didn't complain when Self ditched Illinois because it benefitted them. Basic human nature. I like my answer to the question I thought you asked (Why didn't ILLINOIS fans protest as much when Self left?), so I'm leaving it.

10. What are your favorite online sports sites?
I love baseball-reference.com. I could spend hours there. The related sites for other sports, basketballreference.com and profootballreference.com, are OK but not nearly as complete. I like Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer. Retrosheet.org is pretty amazing. I love looking up box scores for games I went to as a kid. I find Sports Business News to be interesting and useful. ESPN.com and SI.com are both very good for the news and lots of good commentary, though as Web sites they are both annoyingly busy, ponderous and slow. I love Gregg Easterbrook's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" football column on ESPN's Page 2. Those two sites, plus Yahoo! Sports and USA Today are good for current stats, though I wish just one of them could be as clean and fast as baseball-reference.com. The various league sites are all pretty bad, both in terms of content and usability, though they do have their uses for research purposes, and I like being able to listen to the radio feed of different baseball games on mlb.com.

11. LeBron James' all-white suit. Is he already a bust just for wearing that?
No way. The world needs more men in white suits. Mark Twain, the Good Humor Man, Col. Sanders. Men in white suits are good. A friend's father wore a white suit to her wedding. He's from Argentina. I asked around how old I'd have to be before I could pull off a white suit like that. My friends all agreed: Whatever the answer is, you ain't there yet.

PAUL'S RECAP: Thanks to King for taking so much time to answer my questions with such thoroughness. His columns are of the same quality, and he genuinely is one of the stars of online sportswriting. Go check out King Kaufman's Sports Daily, and you will not be disappointed.

Category: Interviews | Permalink | Post a Comment (1)

Comments: Full Disclosure: Salon.com Sportswriter King Kaufman

Great interview! I've read King's stuff on Salon.com for a while, and the article that sticks out the most in my mind has nothing to do with sports. After 9/11, he wrote a piece about why he was still uncomfortable flying the American flag. Great piece of writing.

Long live the King.

Posted by bhw at July 25, 2003 10:30 PM
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