SMJ Interview- Jerry Brewer, The Seattle Times

Jerry BrewerI try to read as much from the sports media as I can.  In fact, if you feel there is someone I should be reading on a consistent basis, please, let me know.

While reading a column a few weeks ago I was introduced to Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times.  Brewer is the cousin of Corey Brewer,  a  member of the two-time national basketball champion Florida Gators.

At 29 Brewer has already accomplished much.  His brief career has brought him to Philadelphia, Orlando, Louisville, and now Seattle. 

In reading his column I found someone who takes a fresh approach to sports writing.  It is easy to pick up on Brewer’s enthusiasm and his genuine interest in the subjects he writes.  That’s not always the case with some sports columnists out there.  As you read the interview, you will see that Brewer took similar interest in answering our questions.

Sports Media Journal (SMJ)- Can you please tell us where you were raised and how sports influenced your upbringing?

Jerry Brewer (J.B.)- I was raised in Paducah, Ky. I was born in Tennessee, but my family moved to Kentucky when I was four. My dad, Rod Hightower, probably had the biggest influence on me, as far as sports is concerned. I really didn’t like sports until I was about 8. I remember my first sports memory was observing my dad and his friends watch the University of Louisville win the 1986 national championship game. I was enamored with how sports brought people together. And over the years, sports became a way for me and my dad to learn to communicate better.

Then I started playing sports — basketball and baseball mostly — and fell in love with the games. But I always seemed to look at sports as an outsider, even as a player. It was like I was watching myself and my team play. I thought about angles and storylines in a “What if they happened?” manner. I was probably too inside my own head to be a great player. Later, I learned the reason I was having these thoughts: I was meant to be a sports writer.

SMJ- What influenced you to seek a career in sports journalism? Who did you
read/listen to/watch growing up?

J.B.-I remember the day so well. I was a sophomore in high school, and Thomas George, who was an NFL writer for The New York Times at the time, came to speak to our class. He was from Paducah. He attended Paducah Tilghman High School. He was once a member of the church I attended. He was from a neighborhood two minutes from mine. I wanted to be like him, because I thought he was so cool and his job was so cool. Before he spent that hour speaking to us, I really didn’t understand you could make a living and go to cool events writing about sports.

From that point on, I read tons of newspapers. I remember, about a mile from my house, right next to school, there was a newspaper stand that sold The Chicago Tribune. I walked to school every day it was warm enough and made sure I bought a Tribune on the way. I bought the paper for Mike Royko more than the sports section. He was getting older then — this was about 1994 — but he was still amazing. I don’t write like him, but I’ve always judged an A-level columnist on Royko’s standard.

A few Kentucky sports guys greatly influenced me early on. At that time, Chuck Culpepper was a columnist for The Lexington Herald-Leader. He was amazingly creative and fun. Pat Forde and Rick Bozich were at the Louisville Courier-Journal. I just thought they were an amazing 1-2 punch.

A few years later, I became big fans of Joe Posnanski (not a bandwagon Pos guy; I was with him before he mastered his craft), Mitch Albom and Mike Wilbon.

SMJ- Where did you go to college? Were you active in the college newspaper?

J.B.- I attended Western Kentucky University. Best four years of my life. A very underrated journalism program. I worked for the campus newspaper, The College Heights Herald, from the minute I stepped foot on campus. Being able to experiment and learn practical journalism at The Herald made my career. I would not be 29 years old with four years of experience writing a sports column without The Herald.

SMJ- What was your first sports writing job? Was it what you expected? What
did you take away from it?

J.B.- My first job out of college was at The Philadelphia Inquirer. But my first sports writing job really was a gig at The Paducah Sun, in my hometown. I was 16. My parents told me I needed to get a job and make a little money on my own. I went straight to the paper and begged them to let me do anything. They gave me a part-time gig doing agate. Then I begged them to let me write. They started letting me cover high school games on Friday nights and other local events. Later, I had an official summer internship, working between sports and news.

It was everything I expected it to be and more, honestly. I remember the passion I had and the energy I would put into even the most piddly assignments. That’s what I learned most, the hunger it takes to succeed. I hope that I always have keep that mentality of being a Paducah guy trying to make it big.

SMJ- Your bio indicates you worked in Philadelphia, Orlando, and Louisville before Seattle. These three cities seem to take their sports seriously on different levels. What was working in these cities like? What did you learn from those experiences?

J.B.- Each experience has been as different as the cities. In Philly, I had to toughen up real quick. Philadelphia is an intense sports city. The fans are no joke. And they know their teams so well. I did an internship at the Inquirer, but coming there for my first full-time job was a totally different thing. I had never been criticized by readers for giving the home team too much credit, for not being hard enough on them. It was eye-opening, but it was great, too.

Going to Orlando was as big a change as you could get. Orlando has only one pro team, the Magic. There are so many transplants that people’s interests are so varied. The cool thing about the sports section there is they use those things to their advantage. I was able to be really creative in Orlando, take more chances. The editors there were great. The late Van McKenzie was the sports editor then. He was a tremendous influence on my career, as well as Lynn Hoppes. They just pushed me. Nothing was ever good enough to rest on. And they taught me to think big.

I went back to Louisville for two reasons: An opportunity to return closer to home and a chance to write a different kind of sports column. I had been promoted to sports columnist for my final year and a half in Orlando. It was going well, but I wanted a different kind of challenge. So I came to Louisville. The biggest difference was that pro sports didn’t matter much there; it was college sports dominant. Which I knew going in. And the readers were as intense as the Philly readers. It was great to have so many eyes on my copy, scrutinizing it to no end. It was a special time. I always say that being a sports columnist for the Courier-Journal meant more to me than any job I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay there but about 20 months. My desire to write in a larger market overwhelmed my desire to be at home.

And here I am in Seattle. It’s been eight months now. Seattle is a very laid-back sports market. The fans could stand to be more fiery and emotional. But I’m digging how cerebral the readers are. Some really, really intelligent people read the paper out here. I love the challenge of matching wits.

SMJ- What do you like about working in Seattle?

J.B.- Everything but the rain, my friend! Like I said, the intelligence of the readership is astounding. Every sport that I really care about is here: NFL, MLB, NBA and major college athletics. There are enough characters here to keep me interested: Mike Holmgren, Shaun Alexander, Matt Hasselbeck, Tyrone Willingham, Ray Allen, Ichiro, Lorenzo Romar, etc.

I also think I’m more in sync with this newspaper’s philosophies than any newspaper I’ve worked for. That’s special, having that natural chemistry.

And the city is terrific, even with the rain. It’s the most visually interesting city in the United States. Built on seven hills. Mountains in the background. Water. I’m always amazed at the views while I’m driving.

SMJ- How different is it writing a column as opposed to being a beat writer? Which is more challenging?

J.B.- I don’t know if the question is, “Which is more challenging?” They’re both challenging. The amount of energy and attention to detail you must have as a beat writer is incredible. The offseason is more difficult to cover than the regular season. You’re always grinding on a beat, man.

For me, writing a column has been the toughest job I’ve ever had. It’s a lot more difficult to have 3-4 opinions a week than you think. As a beat writer, you want to write well, but the information is most important. As a columnist, your writing has to be sharp every tme you write. In some ways, you’re a star attraction. You always must be “on.”

I’ll tell you this: I have way more sleepless nights after bad columns than I did after bad stories.

Others might tell you differently. The typical columnist doesn’t start at 25. You usually work a lot longer as a beat writer, get a little older, develop more knowledge. I’ve been more like a prep kid going straight to the NBA with this. It’s been an adjustment for me, but I’m glad the Sentinel gave me the opportunity at such a young age. I think I’m starting to hit my stride.

SMJ- What is your goal when you cover an event as a columnist? Is it your intention to find angles to a story that may not be evident in the course of the game? How do find these angles?

J.B.- Posnanski talked to me once about being a five-tool columnist. The five tools are: Compassion, humor, the hammer (being tough enough to rip people), reporting and writing the big event. When I cover an event, my goal is to find a unique angle while also depicting the game’s relevance accurately.

Here’s the thing: There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of media covering these events. Why go unless you have something different to say? If you’re going to cough up the same old themes, your paper should just take copy from a wire service.

How do you find these angles? You just open your eyes and allow yourself to. We’re all different people with different interests and different insights. If you have the confidence to trust yourself, then it becomes quite easy to see the sports world differently.

SMJ-As a columnist do you feel the need at times to use your platform to examine issues off the field? As an example, the Don Imus/Rutgers Women’s Basketball controversy.

J.B.- Absolutely. We have such a readership and such influence. We’d be negligent if we didn’t tackle some of the tougher off-the-field issues. Sports are so much more than just games. We can really affect society positively if we write our columns the proper way.

SMJ- What has been the highlight of your career to date?

J.B.- Seeing my cousin, Corey Brewer, win back-to-back national basketball championships with Florida while having the challenge of covering it as a journalist. I couldn’t be the same ol’ dispassionate observer. That would be false, and the readers would pick up on it easily. So I explained the relationship and didn’t pretend that I wasn’t invested in the game. It was different, but fun. And very educational. It really taught me that it’s OK to use your heart when writing.

SMJ- Do you have a favorite column? If so, what was it?

J.B.- When I was in Louisville, I went calorie for calorie with a jockey for a week. I followed The Jockey Diet and wrote about it. My stomach has never growled so much. It was torture to report, but fun to write. And well read, too.

SMJ- What are your favorite sports to cover?

J.B.- Being from Kentucky, I’m a huge basketball guy. I love covering it. I also love covering the Olympic sports because the stories are more about the people than the results. I really enjoyed horse racing, surprisingly, when I worked in Louisville. And, of course, football and baseball, but I cover so many of those games. Football, I think, is the hardest to cover. There are so few games, and they take on a life of their own. There are so many details you want to get into each column, but you can’t.

SMJ- What are your thoughts on how the new media is making an impact on journalism? How do you use this new media?

J.B.- I sit right on the new school/old school fence when it comes to new media’s impact on journalism. I’m a big Internet guy, so I like perusing online, looking at the new and different things people are doing. Technology is great. At the same time, I think the Internet can allow just anybody to call himself a journalist these days. We need to be careful with that. And readers need to be smarter. Just because somebody is writing like an enraged fan and letting you do the same on a message board doesn’t mean that it passes for legit media.

SMJ- What are your professional goals going forward?

J.B.- In a word: mastery. I really want to figure out the craft of writing a sports column and write a great one for a long time. Then I figure I’ll write books and teach on the side for a living. I have no aspirations of being an editor or anything like that. I’m a writer. I’ll be typing until I fall out at my computer. They better bury me with my laptop, too.

_______________________________________________________________

In reading Brewer it is evident that he has a bright future.   Baseball scouts point to top prospects as having “five tool skills”.  Even though he may not admit it, Brewer has the make-up to be one of Posnanski’s “five tool columnists”.

(Photo Courtesy The Seattle Times)

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