SMJ Interview- Pete McEntegart, SI.com

Sports writers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles.  I’ve been a big fan of Pete McEntegart at SI.com soon after I was introduced to his The 10 Spot column earlier this year.  McEntegart mixes sports news with his wry wit to produce some entertaining work.  McEntegart can now be found at The 10 Spot Blog on SI’s FanNation.

Thanks go out to McEntegart for taking the time to answer some questions about the road he took to get where he is today…

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

P.M.-I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a small town called Carle Place. My dad was (and is) a huge sports fan and I took to it immediately. I used to order books like “All-Pro Players of 1976” every year, to the extent that I noticed that they would barely change the bios of perennial All-Pros from year to year. That’s why I still know useless information such as that Joe DeLamielleure majored in criminal justice at Michigan State and that Curly Culp had asthma. As for sports idols, the Mets and (football) Giants were the two main teams of my youth, and my favorite players were Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez for the Mets and Phil Simms for the Giants. Though I wouldn’t say they were idols per se.

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

P.M.- Like seemingly everyone else on Long Island back then, I read Newsday. I also read the Daily News for a few years when I delivered the paper during junior high, and I read the Post every day starting in high school. (I commuted to Manhattan for high school and would read the Post while on the train and Newsday at home.) While I read pretty much every word in the sports section, though, I never particularly followed one columnist or reporter.

SMJ- What got you interested in pursuing a career in sports journalism?

P.M.- I didn’t seriously consider a career in sports journalism until my third year out of college, when I was working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs. I was in London at the time and had recently turned down an offer to be promoted to the next level (from analyst to associate). I remember sitting in the office one night and realizing that I had to start chasing some other goal in order to justify (to myself as well as others) passing up that opportunity. That night, I decided that I had always loved sports and always loved writing, so I should be a sportswriter. I know that sounds like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but it was really a Eureka moment for me.

SMJ- Where did you attend college? Were you active at the college newspaper? How?

P.M.- Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. I loved it, and mention it in print much more often than my readers would probably like. I did not write for the campus paper, which was a weekly. I didn’t write for my high school newspaper either, for that matter. I did work for the sports information department, though, primarily because it was a better job than washing dishes in the dining hall, which was my previous campus employment.

SMJ- What was your first professional job after college? What did you learn from this early experience?

P.M.- As I mentioned, my first job out of college was as an analyst in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs, for two years in New York and a year in London. From that I learned that I didn’t want to be an investment banker. Actually, it was a great firm with a ton of smart people, but I wanted a more creative career that was better aligned with my inherent interests.

SMJ- How did you get to SI?

P.M.-After Goldman, I took off a year to blow most of my cash and apply to grad school, because I had no journalism background at all. I literally did not know what a lede was and did not think I was employable, or would be prepared to perform well if I did land something. So I got a master’s from Columbia. My first journalism job was at the Journal-Messenger in Manassas, Va., where I worked for about nine months before getting a job covering LSU and high school sports at the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La. I was there for 2 ½ years before SI offered me a position as a reporter, which really means fact-checker. I had interviewed with SI coming out of Columbia, and though it didn’t work out at the time, I had stayed in touch. I started at SI in January of 2000 and moved to the Web site in the spring of 2004.

SMJ- Who came up with the idea and name of The 10 Spot? How did you view the column? How has it evolved?

P.M.-The concept of the 10 Spot was developed between me and the managing editor of SI.com, Paul Fichtenbaum. When he moved over from the magazine to take over the Web site in early 2004, he asked me to accompany him to create a daily section. The hope was that readers would check back in each morning as sort of appointment viewing. Originally, the section was called Scorecard Daily, after the Scorecard section in the front of the mag (which has since largely been swallowed by SI Players). In addition to the 10 Spot, it included a daily sign of the apocalypse, a “they said it” quote, some “go figure” numbers, and other features from Scorecard. It debuted in June, 2004. At first I put together the whole section every morning but it quickly became clear that it was too much work for one person, or at least this person. So I stuck with the 10 Spot and someone was hired to do the rest of the page.

The original model for the 10 Spot (and I’m pretty sure I came up with the name, with apologies to MTV) in my mind was Entertainment Weekly’s “Hot List.” It was intended to be 10 numbered items. Each item would have a factual set-up from the sports news and then a snarky comment or punch line. Basically, they were (and are) old-fashioned jokes, like in a late-night talk-show monologue. After a month or so I realized I was burning through material too quickly – one can only write so many punch lines about Barry Bonds having a huge head – and decided that only about 4-7 items each day would be actual jokes and the rest would be riffs on something, or “here’s a wacky story I stumbled across,” and even things like reality show recaps. That would also let a little personality show through so people would be less inclined to fire off e-mails such as, “You’re about as funny as my cancer-infested left nut,” which was an actual e-mail I received back then. We also made Friday editions into themed lists rather than items off the news so they would hold up better over the weekend.

The 10 Spot turned into a blog format this May. The idea actually came from my bosses, though I had proposed doing so about a year earlier. The hope from their end was that readers might check back several times a day and that some would really like the interactivity, especially since “time spent online” is such an important metric these days along with unique users, page views, etc. From my perspective, I was a little tired of being constrained to writing 10 short, numbered items every day. I originally thought that with the blog format I would essentially write mini-columns and riffs and stop writing any of the old-fashioned jokes. Over time, though, I’ve started to write the jokes again for my second post of the day, which I post at around 1 p.m. and call “Lunchtime Laughs.” But I enjoy this format more because of the immediate feedback from readers. I like the give-and-take in the comments section.

SMJ- How different is it writing for the Internet compared to print? What do you see as advantages and disadvantages of each?

P.M.- Writing for the Web site is completely different than writing for the magazine. It has much more in common with my time at newspapers, in that I am writing every day. I prefer to write every day. At the magazine, one doesn’t write as often, though there is more pressure when one does, in part because one is aware that it’s going to be read by several million people but even more because one knows that so many internal eyes are reading (and judging) the raw copy. A lot of magazine stories are pretty heavily edited, which can be frustrating. Now that the 10 Spot is a blog, in fact, I actually hit “publish” without anyone else reading it first. That’s good and bad, obviously, but in general there’s a lot more freedom at the Web from a writer’s perspective. There just isn’t the time or manpower to do the level of editing that is done at the magazine. For me personally, moving to the Web has been great because I have a much bigger platform here than I ever did at the magazine, where I was still fairly junior.

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

P.M.-The best thing about my current role is the instant feedback from readers, at least when they’re not calling me an idiot. I now have a regular band of commenters, which is nice. My natural writing voice is to play for laughs, so this is a good fit for me. The downside is that I am in a pretty rigid and structured role. What I do is very specific and specialized, and sometimes I get tired of the same old routine, day after day. Plus I don’t do much reporting or attend many events, so it can get a little isolating.

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

P.M.- I check SI.com (and the four-letter Web site) repeatedly all day, and I print out a bunch of stories so I can have things in front of me. I read Sports Business Daily every day, though just the morning and afternoon updates these days rather than the full edition that comes around lunchtime because that takes too long to read. SBD is good for small items like random team promotions that can be excellent fodder for jokes. I check fark.com a lot, because it often has links to “wacky” stories. I read The Big Lead. I enjoy Deadspin but stopped reading it when I switched to the blog format and started writing and posting during the day rather than overnight; I don’t want to see their riff on a topic before I’ve written my own. I get an e-mail every day from the AOL FanHouse blogs with some highlights. I check Ben Maller.com, which is another page of links, and often check sportsjournalists.com. I also read the New York Post every day.

Basically all my reading is to make sure I’ve seen as many current and breaking sports headlines as possible because that’s all potential raw material, since I never know where a punch line or idea is going to come from. I don’t really read many blogs per se, though they are often linked to on the other sites I read so I come across them regularly. Many of the blogs are quite entertaining but I don’t feel I have time to read them in depth during the day since I’m trying to create my own material and stay on top of the comments section.

SMJ- How do you view the role of the blogger? Are the stereotypes of “living in mom’s basement” accurate?

P.M.-It seems like the word “blogger” encompasses a lot of different types of writers, so it’s hard for me to say what the blogger’s “role” is. You have a site like Deadspin that is obviously part of a large and very successful professional network, all the way to a high school kid who really likes the Royals, say, and thus starts his own blog. The fact that anyone can start a Web page and call himself or herself a blogger is both a great strength and a weakness. But there’s certainly a lot of funny and insightful stuff out there from bloggers and others outside the mainstream media.

I don’t really understand, though, why members of the blogosphere and MSM so often seem to try to define themselves in opposition to the other. You have the bloggers who almost reflexively rip any writer for a MSM publication as the enemy, and the MSM writers who reflexively deride bloggers as rank amateurs living in their mom’s basement. I think both camps should get over themselves a little bit. Especially since the lines between the two are getting blurrier every day. Personally I think of myself as having a foot in both worlds, though what I am doing right now might not be claimed by either camp.

SMJ- How do you see future of sports media, say, 20 years from now?

P.M.-I’m not sure what’s going to happen in two years, never mind 20, but obviously the Internet has transformed media in general, particularly the role of print media. Print media is going to have to engage its readers more and more in an online platform and whatever spins off of that (podcasts, video, mobile, and whatever else comes down the pike). The technology will also make it easier and easier for non-professionals to weigh in themselves, and the best of the “amateurs” or “outsiders” will continue to be recognized and hired to fulltime “professional” gigs at the bigger media companies, like a Jamie Mottram, Aaron Gleeman or Henry Abbott. So the monopoly that the professional media used to hold as the primary source for sports information, analysis and opinion will continue to erode, but it’s not like I think professional media organizations will wither up and die. There will still be a market for good reporting, insider information and great storytelling — and hopefully for writers of cheap gags. It’s just that the delivery mechanism might be different.

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