by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. Since we spend so much time talking about journalism in this space I thought I would devote more time to the nuts and bolts of the process, as well as the different types of journalism on offer. Part I of that discussion focused on the value of the general opinion column in an era when the market is flooded with opinions.
I received some really interesting feedback on that article from the older guard in the media. The most interesting observation was that we have seen the rise of the “insider” during the same time that we have seen a decrease in competent generalist opinion columns. Whether the two are related is a great topic for another day. If you have time after reading this post, go read that one too because I plan to come back to it.
Moving on to the next topic in this series, how many times have you read a profile about an athlete and thought: “This is nothing but puffery! Why did the journalist agree to write this if the player wasn’t going to give him/her anything?” In today’s era of highly media trained athletes and executives, every part of the message is tightly controlled. This can be very frustrating as a reader. A story can seem like a waste of everyone’s time since every organization already has a PR department who can write glowing profiles. If a writer is going to tackle a subject or story then as a reader one wants the good and the bad and everything in between. That’s what journalists are trained to do after all. If that’s not going to happen, then write about something else.
The reason I wanted to write about profile pieces is that whereas opinion columns wear their slants on their sleeves, in a profile the writer’s own perspective is hidden beneath the surface or in the negative space. There’s a real art to getting your subject to talk about something worthwhile, and then shaping their answers into a compelling story that is both factual and fair. You have to do this while addressing the most important issues without slamming the reader with your own preferred narrative. At the same time you are hopefully shedding new light on what may be a familiar story. Not an easy task at all.
I have been waiting for a suitable piece to really dig in to this topic and Kevin McGran‘s recent 6000 word profile of the notorious G.B. provided just the right impetus. Kevin was incredibly generous with his time and with the kinds of questions he would answer. This is very long but also really rewarding so I encourage you to read when you are not pressed for time.
An Interview with Kevin McGran
Q: My first question is a basic one for the sake of the audience’s media literacy: as a writer how does a profile differ from an opinion column or a standard piece of newspaper reporting?
KMG: I think a profile is somewhat more demanding, because answering the question “Who is?” is far more complicated than answering “What Happened?” A profile, if honest, has nuances that must be addressed. Something that happened 20 years ago matters today in a profile in a way that probably doesn’t matter for a news event or a game story. We are all the sum of our experiences. Finding the experiences that mattered to an individual is important in a profile.
Q: How much of your own opinion are you allowed to interject (directly or indirectly)?
KMG: I have held many different opinions of Gary Bettman over the years. And I’m aware of the way others perceive him. I wanted the piece to be a blend of all of those opinions, and explaining how and why they formed, and why they might be misplaced in some instances. We are all more complicated than the persona we show at work or at home or with friends.
Q: How do you prepare for a feature profile on someone as high profile as Gary Bettman? Did you sit down with your editor to plan the piece?
KMG: The piece was the brainchild of my boss, sports editor Dave Washburn. He started pushing for it a year ago. Gave me plenty of lead time. That helped. The meat of the work didn’t begin till October. But I was able to tell the folks I needed to tell that I would be calling and that I’d need their help. I didn’t spring it on Gary or his handler, Frank Brown, that I would be doing this. I told them in the playoffs and again at awards. The 1-on-1 Bettman interview happened in November. Other items (like his reception at the draft, his mis-steps in Calgary) were gathered along the way.
Q: In your opinion, do profiles have the same standards when it comes to balance as other kinds of writing?
KMG: I’d argue the standards are the same, but my level of worry is higher. I always strive to be right. I always strive to be fair. I think that’s what good journalists do. And not just journalists. Good people are like that. But my stress level is higher, because I’m dealing with a human being. Can’t get his life wrong. A sportswriter can get trade analysis wrong. But dealing with a person, his reputation, is a very different matter.
Q: The piece is over 6000 words. How long does it take from start to finish to publish something of this length? How much gets left on the cutting room floor?
KMG: I’m pretty efficient when it comes to writing. So outside of some transcriptions that went unused, what I wrote was all used. I must have had between six and eight hours of interviews, and wanted more. I transcribed on the key speakers (Bettman, Stern, Gretzky, Healy, Moyes and a few others.) Plenty of interviews didn’t get used: Bill Daly, Jim Gregory. Very little of Jeremy Jacobs. Some players.
Q: Gary seems very guarded, and at times antagonistic, with the media. What approach do you take to get him to open up and give you something new? When contacting him for the piece, is there a negotiation beforehand about what will and won’t be covered?
KMG: Gary is not antagonistic. He seems that way. That’s in the Nitpicker section of the piece. He doesn’t come off well. And when I asked him about that, he opened up incredibly. The interview was the most lively on that subject. I told him and the NHL PR people it would be published on his work anniversary, and it would be all-encompassing and very long, unlike anything they might have read (certainly from me, and generally from newspapers).
The Toronto Star does not believe in sand-bagging people. If you remember the Rob Ford stuff, the reporters covering the former/late mayor emailed him, his lawyers and his handlers with every morsel of information we planned on using, often days before publication. Long gone are the days that a reporter will have a bomb of a story and call the subject five minutes before deadline to get the “could not be reached for comment” line.
I used that approach, not that I had anything he hadn’t heard before. So there was no “negotiation” of the questions I asked, though I did provide in general where I’d be going. He knew lockouts, Arizona would be part of the story, along with expansion, and his negotiating style. We went on and off the record many times in the half-hour I had with him. He was a pro at that, saying ‘Let’s go off the record here,’ then expanding on a topic and finishing with ‘And now we’re back on the record.’ Very, very helpful. There was one area where he declined to speak on the record that is not in the story. That shall remain off the record.
I have one regret. I forgot to ask him directly on that day about concussions, but I got him later on it. The answer would have been better that day, rather than the scrum situation later.
Q: When you approach secondary subjects (Gretzky, Thun, Moyes) for quotes do you reveal what kind of piece you are writing?
KMG: I told them all what I told Gary. An expansive piece touching as many topics and issues that Gary touched in his career.
Q: In the piece you note “no one from the NHL Players’ Association, despite multiple requests, wanted to speak to the Star regarding this story.” Did that refusal change how you structured the piece?
KMG: I don’t think it did. That said, if say, Donald Fehr had said something sensational, it might have been the top instead of Healy. But I really didn’t want to just revisit lockouts and CBA talks. Those were boring stories to write when they were happening. From Fehr, I wanted to have insight into Bettman as a negotiator. Could have seen if it lined up with Bettman’s idea of how he negotiates.
Q: Do you think they would have still refused if the piece was not a profile but rather something about, say, the NHL not being at the Olympics?
KMG: I think NHLPA refusal to participate was inevitable, if regrettable.
Q: You quoted an anonymous source as follows:
“To underestimate him is death. You’re doomed. Don’t ever underestimate him. He’s ruthless. But you have to be in that job.”
How do you see the ethics of using anonymous quotes in this kind of piece? Why did you ultimately decide to include it? Were there other anonymous quotes you decided not to use?
KMG: Yeah, that anonymous source and Healy kind of said the same thing. I was on the fence with that quote. I ultimately went with it because it’s descriptive. There were two anonymous sources in the piece. And their anonymity had everything to do with not upsetting the applecart. They’re actually complimenting him, and they’re reluctant to be quoted. I thought that alone was telling.
Q: Moyes’ quotes are mostly about how badly Bettman screwed things up for him, to the tune of $300 million dollars. After quoting him you say “Moyes […] says it’s all water under the bridge now.” I was surprised to read that. Did he actually express that sentiment or is that your own interpretation?
KMG: Moyes was fantastic. And yes, it is all water under the bridge. He lost $300 million. And was angry about it. He told me he made it all back in some other business. Must be a good life.
Q: You devoted an entire section of the piece to his tendency for nitpicking when pressed on issues like concussions or relocation, writing: “It doesn’t play well on TV, but he’s not wrong.” This reads like a stance the piece is taking defending Bettman’s slipperiness with words. Is it?
KMG: I think I’m trying to explain why he does that. He quibbles with premises, and then he answers the question with the premise he prefers. That’s the lawyer in him. He never told Quebec: “Build a rink and you can get the Nordiques back.” But that’s how politicians sold taxpayers on funding a new rink. So now taxpayers are mad at Bettman, and journalists ask questions on behalf of readers who feel betrayed. Bettman is very smart. Read the letter about concussions. He lays out the medical reasons not to tie repeated hits to the head from hockey to brain damage, which is a quite unpopular stance. At the end, he gives himself an out, saying something like: If science changes, my opinion will change.
By the way, you could argue he’s not ‘slippery’ with words. He’s precise. The lazily-asked question is slippery.
Q: At the NHL All Star Game Gary is quoted as saying:
“I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I only know what I’m told, including out of the most recent consensus statement on the International Conference on Sports Concussions in Berlin that was held. You can read those reports. I only repeat in response to a question of what those reports say.”
We all understand that he is very concerned about the league’s civil liability. That said, denying the causal link between concussions and CTE will be part of Gary’s legacy as NHL commissioner. Do you have a sense of whether this is something that bothers him?
KMG: No. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin. He asks the smartest people he can about the positions he needs to take on every issue. Once he reaches his conclusion, he’s good with it. And he can always change his position. But as I alluded to earlier, I wish I had gotten more out of him on concussions in my one-on-one. I might have a different answer for you.
Q: The harshest words about Bettman in the piece are from Dr. Charles Tator, a doctor and a scientist who has been trying to tell Bettman about a different consensus:
“We lived through a terrible time of brain damage during Gary Bettman’s reign. He could have done a lot more to establish himself as someone who wants to save the game, rather than increase the profits. He should spend more effort toward player safety, and less effort on enrichment of the owners.”
Did you put this quote to Gary and ask for comment?
KMG: No. That Tator interview came after the Bettman interview. Not ideal. But when dealing with schedules, you take them where you can get them.
Q: More generally, when putting the piece together how do you decide which unflattering quotes to include and which ones to leave out. The tone of the piece would be different without the Tator quote.
KMG: I don’t judge the quotes by flattering or unflattering. Concussions are a big part of the discussion around the NHL and Bettman. The quotes that come along the way from the important people involved in the issue make the story.
Q: Gretzky said the following:
“I think sometimes people criticize him because he is not Canadian and he’s the commissioner of the NHL. But he truly cares about Canada and wants Canadian teams to be successful.”
One perspective that is not represented in the article is the seeming difference in how Bettman supported struggling US teams versus how he handled the departures from Winnipeg and Quebec City. That, along with the Hamilton fiasco, is a large part of why Canadians doubt the sincerity of his interest in Canadian hockey. Is this point of view something that was cut from the final product or did you decide not to include it for other reasons?
KMG: At their core, the departures from Winnipeg and Quebec City were no different than the departures of Minnesota, Hartford and Atlanta: Willing/unwilling owners. Money. Modern rinks. Maybe I could have looked into it more, but it seemed like a tired narrative. Winnipeg came back. What’s more interesting to me, and left unexplored, is his commitment to Phoenix over all the above-mentioned. Considered doing more here, and chose against it. That topic is a big rabbit hole and the story would have been in danger of simply going over the same arguments without revealing anything new about Bettman as a human being. The latter is the point of the profile.
Q: Here’s another interesting Bettman quote:
“The public me is a caricature that people that don’t know me paint.”
One of the effects of the piece is to soften the layperson’s perception of Bettman as a Mr Burns-esque villain. Was that part of the intention while constructing the piece? For example, it ends with a discussion of how a 65 year old with 5 grandkids spends his time.
KMG: My intention was never to “soften” the perception of Bettman. It was to layer it, deepen it, to get to know more about this man. Softening might be the effect, as you say, at least for someone with an open mind. The more you learn about a human being, the harder it is to “hate” him because he took away your favourite team, or didn’t let your favourite players go to the Olympics.
Q: More generally, as a profile writer do you think about how the overall tone of the piece will be perceived by the audience? How much time do you spend adjusting tone in this kind of writing?
KMG: I guess my hope was that people understood there was more to Gary Bettman than they might have thought. I think there’s even more there than he allowed me to see. Tone was incredibly important. Lead with concussions? Finish with concussions? In the first draft, the closing segment was the opening segment.
Q: Has your own opinion on Gary changed after writing this?
KMG: Not after writing this. But my opinion has been shifting since 2009, when I covered the Coyotes bankruptcy hearings. That’s when I got to know him — just a little bit — in a different setting. I wrote my first Bettman profile, by the way, in 1994, during the first lockout. The one everyone forgets.
Q: Have you received feedback from Gary since this came out? How about from his detractors?
KMG: His detractors have told me I gave him too much credit. I haven’t received any word from anyone in the NHL offices. I wouldn’t expect it either. I doubt he would ever tell me if he liked it, or didn’t like it. I do hope he respects it.
Q: If The Star were to give you a blank cheque to do another 6000 word sport profile, who would you choose to write about?
KMG: I’m afraid to answer that question because I’m sure my boss will read this and say, ‘That’s a good idea, let’s do it.’ And then I’ll have to do it again. And the Bettman profile was a lot of work.
Once again I want to thank Kevin for being so frank in his answers. I never know when I ask questions how people will take them, and it is incredibly rewarding when people embrace the spirit of the inquiry. If you are reading this then you are either in media or passionate about it, and his replies really get at the challenges of good writing. You can follow Kevin McGran on Twitter and read him at The Star. If you have thoughts about his Bettman article or his responses to my questions, please post them below.
The Star did something really neat in conjunction with this piece, which was to have Bruce Arthur write an opinion column in response. Here’s a sample of how that went:
“Bettman has built a league where fun is either awkward or discouraged, where personality is stamped down, where the game itself just isn’t as interesting as it could be, or should be. It’s so often small thinking, me-first thinking, change-the-rules-on-long-tail-contracts thinking.”
Having writers teamed up in this way is one of the best ideas to come out of a newspaper in a while. One of the sad things all writers face these days is pouring yourself into a piece and then watching it get swept out into the vast sea of content available online. Any system that allows a good story to stay afloat a little longer is great. I’d like to see The Star (and others) use this model more often. In a different world one could imagine papers teaming up — perish the thought — to offer commentary on big stories.
Here are a few things coming out of this interview upon which to reflect:
- I found it interesting that the piece doesn’t include any personal testimonials about Gary as a person. He claims that his public persona isn’t who he really is, but that is not backed up by anyone else.
- One of the most humanizing parts of the article is the mention that his father died young and that David Stern occupied that role in his life.
- Kevin’s point about slipperiness being a flaw of the question rather than the answer is a good one. Reporters who lob Bettman a question with any wiggle room haven’t done their homework. If you give him a way to avoid answering the question he will take it 100% of the time.
- I found the Tator quote bothersome for reasons I can’t quite explain. I think it’s because it paints a false dichotomy between caring about player safety and caring about profits. A good commissioner can care about both, and it would be great for the NHL to adopt that stance going forward. For an excellent 24 minute interview with Tator, see this piece by Michael Grange.
- It’s disappointing that two years after the NFL stopped trying to deny the link between head injuries and CTE that the NHL is still erring on the side of denial. More than the lockouts, I really do think this is something the NHL will come to regret even if Gary never does.
- Since the rumours surfaced last summer of unrest within the NHLPA, Fehr has been tightlipped. I wonder what is behind their strategy of silence. One has to think that they have been planning their next move since the NHL nixed going to the Olympics. As we march closer to the next CBA, a 4th work stoppage seems inevitable.
- On that topic, how will Sportsnet handle an interruption of NHL games? They have a lot of clout as the NHL’s media partner, and would have plenty to lose if there is a lockout. If anyone knows whether their 12 year rights deal includes provisions or penalties in case of a work stoppage, please let me know.
Odds & Ends
If you have ideas for interesting columns in this vein, pease be in touch. I’m on the lookout for more behind the scenes stories about media.
Patrick O’Sullivan took this shot at Alex Burrows. Fair or Foul? I’d say foul: attacking a person’s charity work seems below the belt.
Gregg Zaun seems to be angling for a Canadian comeback in a recent blog post touting his status as an “unbiased” voice for baseball fans. His new website, where you can buy bobbleheads of Zaun and Jamie Campbell, is still working out the kinks.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)