photo credit: The Star at Ford Fest 2014
by mike in boston – hatemailaccount at gmail
I have too many things to cover and will kick some of them down the road to make room. As always, feel free to raise whatever is on your mind in the comments section. If you’re a new reader to this column, you can click on the “mike in boston” tag at the bottom to read past entries.
5 Questions with … Rick Westhead (TSN)
If you’ve been reading my column for a while then you know who Rick Westhead is. He’s been on top of a lot of interesting business of sports issues and I have linked to him often. But he’s been mostly covering international politics of late. He reappeared on the sports scene recently covering the Steve Moore NHL lawsuit. This was good news. Then, he announced on his Twitter account that he was leaving the Star. This was bad news. But, before long, TSN issued a press release announcing that Westhead was joining the network as a “senior correspondent.”
Rick graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the new job. Here is my interview with him.
Q: What have you been doing the past few years for the Star?
A: I had been doing a lot of sports stories business stories and appeared on HNIC for a year to follow up on some them. But then in 2008 I wanted a change so I moved my family to India and lived there for 3 and half years, criss-crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan, interviewing Taliban recruits, and really doing some hardcore journalism. I came back to Canada in 2011 but still continued to work as a foreign correspondent with some sports mixed in.
Q: Could you describe the job you will be doing for TSN?
A: I was contacted by TSN a few months ago and and really liked what they were proposing. TSN is already the best in the business when it comes to reporters who have the ability to break stories on free agent signings and trades. They don’t need any help with that. But where I’m going to be able to help is on pieces about franchise sales, financial implications, understanding insurance issues related to concussions or eye injuries, breaking news on litigation. Lawsuits are becoming more popular with readers – whether it’s the Derek Boogard tragedy and the lawsuit that stemmed from that, or the flurry of concussion lawsuits we see now. There is a demand for smart reporting, not just on what the filings contain, but also helping people see what it all means.
Q: Did the issue of autonomy come up in your discussions with TSN? One of the things we have seen is that networks (and their employees) are sometimes subject to pressure from the sports leagues to change how sports stories are covered. The most vivid example was ESPN’s backing out of the concussion documentary.
A: Yes it did, and it’s obviously a concern of mine. But coming from the Star, which is owned by a large corporation with many of the same pressures, I have covered lots of stories – including stories about the media business. So I am used to that aspect of the job. When it comes to TSN and the CFL or the NBA or the NFL, what my new bosses are going to expect is that I continue to be fair and balanced. What that means is that if I’m writing a story about a league then the officials in the league should get a fair amount of time to respond, and know the reason why I’m writing the story. I’m not going to drop it on them 5 minutes before it is published.
Q: Do you see a change in how you go about your job when you switch from being a print journalist to one who works for a network?
A: No. Why?
Q: Well the reason I ask is that the track record of journalists who have gone from writing for newspapers to working for networks is, in my opinion, not very good. The quality of the work seems to go down.
A: Well I can tell you that I’ve got a list of dozens of stories that I will be pursuing. Part of the assignment is to break news. I’ve always taken that seriously. I’ve always loved digging for stories. At the Star there was no better feeling than knowing that I had an A1 story that would prompt outrage at the Globe – “why don’t WE have this story?” My character hasn’t changed any and I’m still going to be driven by the same issues, whether it’s team sales, or concussions, or profiles of players who otherwise wouldn’t be in the public eye.
Q: You mentioned concussions. We’ve seen lawsuits in the NFL, the NHL, and now the CFL. Do you think this is a story that will be with us for a while or are will the resolution of these lawsuits be the end of it?
A: I couldn’t say. It’s sort of like the unionization effort in the CHL – is it going to go forward? I don’t know. As long as there are former players and lawyers who are willing to pursue the issue, then I think the story will stay alive. I don’t think these are “media driven” stories. Even though the players all know the risks, we still see things like we saw in the NHL playoffs with a player returning after being taken off the ice following a brutal hit only to be declared injured the next day with a concussion. How can that happen? It highlights that there are still lots of angles to this story.
Q: What can we expect to see in the coming weeks with the Steve Moore trial?
A: It’s going to be very intensely watched especially if Gary Bettman and Bill Daly testify. And in recent court filings they say they wouldn’t object to being called to testify.
Q: How are you feeling about transitioning full-time to sports after covering international relations and global politics?
A: Mixed feelings, to be honest. I have really enjoyed the job and the privilege of being a foreign correspondent. You get to see people on either the best or the worst day of there lives. People really open up and share, and that’s true whether you’re talking to rural people living in poverty in the Philippines or discussing cutting edge agricultural technology in Japan. It’s been an amazingly interesting gig because every week I’m doing something so dramatically different than the week before. If I’m going to succeed in sports it’s going to be because I’m able to find that diversity in the stories. It’s going to be about interesting people, compelling issues … the kinds of stories that make it on to the front page of the paper. I’m hoping to deliver those to TSN.
Thanks very much to Rick for his answers. You can follow him here.
I think this is a great hire for TSN and a huge benefit to the audience. The ratio of “insiders” to real journalists at both TSN and Sportsnet is all wrong. Both networks are addicted to the dreaded panel show and it lowers the discourse both on TV and radio. I recently watched some clips from TSN’s Off The Record. I learned nothing, I didn’t hear a good exchange of ideas and opinions, but there certainly was a lot yelling to make up for the lack of content.
I would much rather listen to smart people talk to me (or each other) about an important topic than hear a bunch of loud talkers try to get a hot take in on the topic of the day. This is why PTS in its heyday was so great. I understand you can’t fill the whole day with quality content, but the proliferation of insiders means that you need to give them more and more air time to justify their salaries. Is there any other reason Dreger and Mackenzie appear on the radio several times a day?
Insider overload is also why you see a lot of TSN and Sportsnet guys billed as “multi-platform” contributors. The problem is that it’s very hard to do many things well. Take Michael Grange for example — excellent basketball writer, not very good at being a radio co-host. Unfortunately in the age of convergence, networks are snapping up anyone who can create original content and stretching them as far as they can.
I wish Rick the best of luck in his new role. Hopefully he is able to maintain his excellent journalistic standards in a new medium.
Rogers cuts reach the Fan 590
Sportsnet made some cuts to its sales staff, as well as some other people whose names we don’t know. The person whose name we do know is David Alter. He lost his job as well this week. These cuts are part of a larger round of layoffs at Rogers, geared towards making the company “a more nimble, agile organization.” Rogers laid off hundreds of staff including many VPs and managers.
Alter is best known, to some people, as the guy who replaced Howard Berger. The decision get rid of Alter is curious. He was by many accounts doing a very good job covering the team on a day to day basis when the Leafs were in Toronto. He did not travel with the team when it went on the road – Chris Johnston apparently does that — but was still a full-time employee. In light of the other Rogers cuts the most plausible explanation is that Sportsnet will try to rely on its existing part-time employees to cover Alter’s role. Of course, I could be wrong about this and they will announce a new local Leafs beat reporter soon.
The reason this is curious is that they just committed 5.2 billion to covering the NHL and absorbed almost all of the talent from HNIC as well as some from TSN. I presume these were not cheap acquisitions since most of those guys would have worked their way up the salary ladder over the years. Further, Rogers has its own cadre of high priced insiders. So, when you look at Sportsnet’s roster there is a lot of expensive redundancy in their hockey coverage. Why get rid of a guy who is presumably much less expensive, and provides a distinct value to your coverage?
The question with which I am left is whether the role of beat reporter is important anymore. [note – I reached out to Howard Berger to discuss this point but he declined to reply]
I grew up listening to Howard Berger in the 90s. He was the go-to guy for things like line combinations at practice, injuries, quotes from players, and so on. I trusted him implicitly since he was a guy who was with the team 24/7 during the season. I liked his appearances on the radio to give quick updates and analysis. But when Sportsnet reduced his role by not sending him on the road anymore, Howard drifted into making himself the story. This made him the object of much ire and ridicule on hockey blogs. He was eventually fired (or not renewed) in 2011.
As mentioned, Howard being there every day gave him credibility in my book. He was usually very measured, at least back in the day, and didn’t engage in much of the hysterical psychoanalysis we see from the insiders. I presume the players notice who is there on a day to day basis, and who never comes to the locker room while still pontificating about the culture of the room. I presume that affects what they are willing to say and to whom. So, I see a valuable role in having a guy like Alter as part of your hockey coverage. But maybe that’s overstating things. What do you think?
The main story this past week has been whether AA has room to take on additional salary in 2014. He has been asked this by reporters and has given cryptic evasive replies. The horribly embarrassing story from earlier this season about players deferring salary to give AA cash to sign players fueled the suspicion that Rogers’ new CEO has imposed a budget freeze on the Jays. The fact that the Jays are closer to a division title than they have been in a very long time and still have not improved a flawed roster has cemented that suspicion. The team continues to show signs of recovery. But the cold hard fact is that they are trotting out multiple AAA players on a nightly basis, and have been doing so for weeks now.
The media coverage of the Jays’ lack of funds has been mixed. Scott MacArthur – Jays beat reporter for TSN – has been leading the charge in calling for action from AA/Beeston. I highly recommend listening to the latest episode of his baseball podcast. In it, the claim is made that AA’s fantasy baseball approach to managing the 40 man roster where players are yo-yoed back and forth to AAA Buffalo, DFA’d, re-acquired, etc., is pissing off the players. This is also making its way to agents. If true, this is not good. There are several reasons players stay away from Toronto already — the turf being a very visible one — and the team doesn’t need more ill-will from players.
On the other side, just as most baseball writers are talking about how AA has to shed money to take on money, Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair pipes up with a story about how much flexibility the team has in 2015 with all the contracts coming off the books. [I would link to his story but Sportsnet insists on having traffic killing auto-play adverts.]
In his zeal to tamp down the worry about the 2014 payroll, Blair fails to mention how the team will replace the major league talent that will leave at the end of this year. He also fails to discuss the fact that the division is weak this year and that the bar to clear will likely be higher in 2015. It seems that he is laying the ground for a Jays youth movement in the off-season. So if you believed Beeston’s statements about how the Jays were not just “going for it” in 2013 but were planning to be a big spender for years to come, this is bad news.
This was the first Blair article I read since he went multi-platform. For those of you who read Blair on a regular basis, how have you found his transition since he officially left the Globe? Also, among Sportsnet’s roster of ex-newspaper journalists, who do you think has managed that transition while maintaining the same quality? Cox? Brunt? Grange? Blair?
The other bit of Jays related news came out of Sportsnet’s video homage to PTS. The promotional video was produced by Bob’s company and his colleague Stephen Brunt. You can read viewer feedback here and here.
In it they revisit the infamous racism accusation by Cito Gaston against Bob and others.There was an obvious lack of balance, since no one spoke on Cito’s behalf, but since this was a promotional piece, journalistic fairness wasn’t part of the mandate. What was odd is that they chose to include an audio clip of Jerry Howarth asking Cito if he thought his critics were motivated by racism, with Cito answering “what else could it be?” I wonder how Jerry feels about that clip. It sets him up as Cito’s accomplice. I don’t know if that’s the case, since he didn’t appear during the racism segments. Jerry works for the same company as Bob and Brunt — I wonder why he wasn’t included? Was he asked to? Was he edited out? If anyone knows, please share it with the rest of us.
I have absolutely no evidence that Bob is racist. I have listened to his show for a long time and have never detected any difference in how he speaks to non-white guests. I don’t believe it even 1%.
What I do believe is that Bob has very thin skin for someone of his stature. He also has a very large ego. This combination leads me to believe that he would use his show to advance a personal dislike of Cito. We have seen Bob do this with people like Bettman and Riccardi. I don’t begrudge him for using his show in that way, but I have no doubt that many of his criticisms are both personally and professionally motivated. Again, that’s OK, but it does mean that listeners need to be a little wary when Bob heaps out praise and blame. There is sometimes more going on behind the scenes.
Tony Dungy said he wouldn’t want the distraction of having openly gay Michael Sam on his team. Dungy was a mentor to noted dog-killer Michael Vick when he returned to the NFL. Naturally people wanted to know if there was some explanation for this inconsistency in Dungy’s views about distractions, and if Dungy’s opposition to homosexuality had anything to do with it. Dungy walked back most of the anti-gay implicature of his earlier statement. The distraction argument has been thoroughly debunked by history. Does anyone remember all the protests and extra media during the Raps-Nets playoff series due to Jason Collins’ presence? Me neither.
Glendale Arizona is back in the news with an accusation of illegal conduct in the vote that led to the subsidy given to the purchasers of the Coyotes. David Shoalts has been seen drawing up plans for an extension on his house.
The Sterling lawsuit is dragging on and the tone seems to have changed a little. Quotes are now coming out about how bad it would be if he is allowed to keep the team. Up until now all we have heard is that the case was a slam dunk. It will be interesting to see how this turns out, since the NBA has so far managed to stay out of it. If the courts allow him to maintain control then the NBA owners will have to kick him out and then face legal action as a result.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Bruce Arthur has a nice profile of openly gay kayaker Connor Taras.
- Matt Cauz tried to take on what he considered “faux outrage” over the Dungy comments. I get that contrarianism moves the needle, but this was not the issue to get worked up about. See next item.
- Stephen A Smith of ESPN took the other side of the domestic violence issue, arguing that we need to spend some time talking about how women should take responsibility for their role in “provoking” assaults. Given ESPN’s track record, I’m not expecting much disciplinary action.
- A WEEI (Boston) morning show personality called NFL sideline reporter Erin Andrews a “gutless bitch” on the air. He is still with the station. And we wonder why there are so few women in sports media.
- Canada’s version of Skip Bayless said something dumb on Twitter.
- Simmons hosted TSN Drive with Jonas Siegel (of all people). It was surprisingly entertaining.
- TSN 1050’s new Program Director has been on the job for 3 weeks or so. For some reason TSN refuses to issue a press release about this fact, nor any info about Rob Gray’s new job with the network. This adds weight to the criticism that the radio station is merely a vehicle to pump their TV talent.
- Not sure how others feel about this, but, Sid without Tim is OK. Tim without Sid is not.
As always, thanks for reading and commenting.
Until next time …
mike (in boston)