SMJ Interview- Neil Best, Newsday

What’s it like to work in the sports media circus that is New York?  Even better, what’s it like to write about those who cover sports in New York?

I was able to connect with Neil Best, sports media and business columnist for Newsday,  Best has been on this beat for a couple of years, earning his stripes with over 2o years experience at the paper in covering high school sports, St. John’s Basketball, and serving as beat writer for the NY Giants.

Best joins a distinguished list of sports media columnists in New York.  Richard Sandomir (NY Times), Phil Mushnick (NY Post), and Bob Raissman (NY Daily News) have been on the job for many an edition of thier newspapers.  But as you will read in our interview, and through his column and his Watchdog blog, this relative “new kid” on the sports media beat rarely misses a step in his opinions and judgements of those he covers.

SMJ: Where did you grow up and how was sports a part of your upbringing?  Who were your sports idols?

N.B.: I lived in Hillside, N.J., until I was 11, but spent my junior high school and high school years in East Northport, N.Y. So I’m basically a New York area guy, but it’s important for me to have spent my crucial teenage years on Long Island so I can have L.I. street cred with my readers, most of whom live there.

I’m not sure I had any sports “idols.” Tom Seaver I guess was the standard of sports greats for someone whose first sports memory was the doubleheader sweep of the Expos that put the Mets into first place for the first time in 1969.  Other than him, I guess the 1969-70 Knicks.

SMJ: What do you remember about the sports media as a youngster? Did you follow any particular sports reporter, columnist or personality?

N.B.: What I remember is that when I was 10, 11, 12, 13, I basically could and did watch every single thing that was on. That obviously is a physical impossibility now. But because so little was on, each thing that was on seemed more important because everyone was watching it.

My newspaper heroes were everyone at Newsday. I think the main columnists in my youth were Bill Nack and Joe Gergen, with Steve Jacobson later replacing Nack. The fact I know all these guys now is kind of cool.

The most fascinating TV personality, of course, was Howard Cosell. He was so different from the normal, middle-American TV types, such as Curt Gowdy or Keith Jackson.

SMJ: What got you interested in pursuing journalism as a profession, and, specifically, sports journalism?

N.B.: I always was a better than average writer, and I always was a bigger than average sports fan. That, combined with my lack of any other marketable skills, drove me to this logical conclusion.

Until about 1986 I never intended to stick with this and applied for various p.r. type jobs even as I was working as a part-timer at Newsday and even after I had put in two years with The Anchorage Times, but I eventually threw in the towel and accepted my fate.

SMJ: Where did you study and where did you first work after college? How did these early experiences benefit you and develop your craft?

N.B.: I went to Cornell and worked at The Cornell Daily Sun. Then I worked as a part-timer taking high school scores at Newsday in the fall of 1982. Then I answered an ad in Editor and Publisher for a job at The Anchorage Times.

The late, great sports editor Dick Sandler advised I take the job the Times offered, even though I never had seen the place and been interviewed only via phone. What did I have to lose? I was 22 and single.

I took it and it was a great experience for two years. I can’t isolate any early experiences that helped develop me professionally. The process still is going on!

SMJ: You covered high school sports, St. John’s Basketball, and the NY Giants. How different were those three levels of coverage in terms of access to coaches and players, dealing with probably no team media departments (High School) to elaborate ones (St. John’s & Giants)?

N.B.: I thought covering high schools was by far the purist journalistic experience, especially in New York City, where there is less of a support structure for events than there is in the suburbs.

Basically, you were completely on your own for access, story ideas, stats and trying to get home alive from late-night games in rough neighborhoods. It was both challenging and freeing.

Is freeing a word?

Anyway, covering the NFL is a piece of cake in comparison: air-conditioned press boxes, free lunch, piles of stats.

On the other hand, in high school you stand on the sidelines and hear and see everything. At Giants Stadium we were so high we might as well have been in a blimp.

SMJ: You also spent time in Alaska. Was that a culture shock for you? Talk about that experience.

N.B.: Some of my friends there nicknamed me “Woody,” probably because they never had seen a Jewish guy from New York before and figured we all look alike. (That’s Woody as in Allen.)

It was a great place to pay your dues. I caught a salmon and cooked it for my mother when she visited. (I hadn’t fished before Alaska and haven’t since.) I went camping for two weeks in the Brooks Range. (Which for a non-camper is the equivalent of starting in centerfield for the Yankees after never playing baseball before.)

I dipped my toe in the Arctic Ocean off Point Barrow. (Actually my hand. It was too cold to take off my shoe.)

I covered the most important beat in town: University of Alaska at Anchorage hockey.

SMJ: How difficult or different was the transition from being a beat reporter to a columnist?

N.B.: The most difficult thing about being a columnist is coming up with ideas. Everything else about it is easier than being a beat writer.

The toughest thing about being a beat writer in New York is the constant fear of what the competition is doing. It’s a feeling most newspaper towns don’t have anymore. It’s mostly a healthy thing, but it also leads to some of our famous New York tabloid excesses.

SMJ: Did you have any previous experience in being a sports media/business reporter? How was that transition?

N.B.: No. The transition has been smooth. Generally speaking, access is much better than for athletes. There are all sorts of friendly, helpful p.r. people ready to help get people on the phone because it is their job to drum up publicity and generate ratings.

The Giants have one of the best p.r. staffs in sports, but theirs, like all major pro sports p.r. departments, mostly is about managing existing interest, not generating interest.

One thing I like about the beat is I usually am talking to people near my age (46) rather than pretending to have something in common with jocks young enough to be my sons.

SMJ: What topics do you cover in your columns?

N.B.: The easiest way to explain it to people is that my jurisdiction is everything that does not occur on the field.

Media, business, consumer advocacy. That sort of thing.

SMJ: What is it about your role as a sports media reporter do you enjoy? What do you least like about the job?

N.B.: The best thing is the freedom, both creatively and in terms of what topics I choose to cover. I also like the fact, as I mentioned above, that more so than in the past my subjects are people with whom I have stuff in common as a human.

The worst thing about my job is that I’m home too much and don’t travel anymore. I’ve gained 10 pounds sitting on my tush in the basement.

SMJ: How daunting is it to work, and cover, media news in the largest market in America?

N.B.: It’s daunting in the sense that New York is a tough town and there’s more competition on this beat here by far than in any other market and my stuff is read by all the movers and shakers in the media world, or at least I hope so.

The good part, though, is that there are an endless number of interesting stories to pursue every week of the year. All else being equal, I try to keep my stuff local, and this is a very big local.

SMJ: What do you read on a daily basis? Please include print and online material.

N.B.: Sandomir, Mushnick, Raissman, Futterman, Greenstein, Deitsch, Deadspin, The Big Lead, Awful Announcing, about 50 e-mails from p.r. people and others, reader comments on my e-mail, column and blog, various message boards, including sportsjournalists.com, mikefrancesa.com and bigblueinteractive.com, and . . . I have no idea how and when I get time to write my columns and blog items.

SMJ: Is it difficult at times being critical of an industry in which you also make a living? Is it difficult to write critical analysis of some of your New York colleagues? How cooperative are they? Are they any better or worse than the sports players/coaches you used to cover?

N.B.: It’s really weird and awkward to in some cases find myself interviewing and/or criticizing people I used to work with simply as fellow sports journalists. I don’t like it. But it is what it is.

In general people in sports media are much more accessible than athletes, but they also have much thinner skin.

I think it’s because athletes care less what journalists say and write about them; they assume we don’t know what we are talking about, never played the game, etc.

Media people are more inclined to think media critics’ opinions matter and/or that they are worth considering. Maybe so. I don’t know.

SMJ: How did Watchdog come about? What were your expectations?

N.B.: I volunteered to do the blog, with some prodding by my old football writer friend Bob Glauber. The beat writers have to do them but nobody ordered me to.

I figured it would be a fun outlet for opinions that didn’t fit in the newspaper and more importantly a place to put all the stuff that didn’t physically fit in my newspaper columns, of which there always has been a lot.

The column originally was going to be called WatchDog at the suggestion of a friend at a competing paper. But the sports editor at the time preferred SportsWatch. So when the blog started, I went back to the name I had wanted for the newspaper column.

SMJ: What about blogging was/is of interest to you? How have you utilized the blog and how has it evolved in the few months after its launch?

N.B.: I like the freedom to be all over the place, from random opinions to links to interesting stories elsewhere to original reporting.

I think I’m trying to strike a balance between traditional newspaper reporting and a blog such as Deadspin that mostly links to other places. The goal is to make the blog the best of both new and old media worlds, I guess.

SMJ: Are you amazed at the level of success the blog has attained? Why?

N.B.: I am amazed. Since I don’t get paid for it, my inflated ego is the only way I benefit from this thing. I’m happy some people out there are enjoying it. I enjoy doing it.

I certainly didn’t anticipate becoming this addicted to blog posts.

My two concerns are whether it will negatively affect my newspaper column – I’m starting to think it has – and what the heck I’m going to do when I’m off about 10 days from now and suddenly the blog goes dark and all this momentum I’ve worked so hard to build up goes kaput.

SMJ: When it comes to newspapers, do you feel there will still a be futurefor print versions of the paper?

N.B.: How far in the future are you looking? My goal is to get to age 65. I think the print version will exist in some form in the New York market. But I also think a news gathering entity known as Newsday will exist on Long Island indefinitely. We have a very strong brand name on our home turf. I hope.

SMJ: What is your opinion of the sports blogger? Is the stereotype “living in mom’s basement” accurate?

N.B.: I know it isn’t and that most of the top sports bloggers are smart and social and do not live in their mothers’ basements.

On the other hand, I spend most of my day in my wife’s basement. And Will Leitch works and lives in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. So there you have it.

SMJ: New York is the home of the first sports radio station WFAN. What type of influence, if any, do you feel they have in the sports media culture of New York?

N.B.: Massive and multi-faceted, in ways too complicated to go into here. One thing I noticed right away in the late 1980s is that it improved the relationship between writers and athletes in a way, because for the first time athletes were confronted with the reality that fans and sports talk hosts were much meaner and angrier and irrational than we ever were.

SMJ: With ESPN and the Internet being the forces they are, do you feel the local television sports report is on its last legs? Why or why not?

N.B.: Yes, definitely. I wrote a piece in January talking to some local broadcast TV sports guys in which I mentioned that I never had referred to any of them in a column before that point.

And I haven’t again since that column.

When I was a kid they were the second most important source for sports information after the newspapers. Now, I’m not sure what the point is.

SMJ: If you could look into a crystal ball ahead 25 years, how will sports be covered?

N.B.: Let’s put it this way, if I had told you 25 years ago – assuming you were alive then – that on Aug. 9, 2007, you could watch the PGA Championship live on a computer while sitting in a park because the video would be floating around in the air ready to be captured wirelessly on your computer screen, you would have had me committed.

So I have no friggin’ idea.

______________________________________________________________

Best relies quite a bit on his New York roots in shapng his opinions of the local sports media landscape.  That has gotten him quite a following with Newsday readers.  He has also received some big time attention from those in the blogsphere.  With all this publicity, let’s hope Best stays true to his roots.  If he does, more and more people will make Neil Best a “must read” when it comes to sports media columnists.   

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