Lessons learned from Michael Wilbon

Lessons learned from Michael Wilbon

Michael Wilbon, shown above speaking to students in 2011, addressed students in Medill’s graduate sports media program earlier this month.

By Brent Schwartz

Michael Wilbon (BSJ80), one of Medill’s finest graduates, spoke to sports journalism graduate students in Medill’s downtown newsroom Saturday morning. The free-flowing conversation, touched on how the media world evolved over the years and how to shift through it as future journalists.

Here are my takeaways:

Covering sports means you are also a sports fan

Basic reporting principles stress the importance of remaining unbiased when covering news or sports. But with shows such as ESPN’s First Take, and with personalities like Skip Bayless and Bill Simmons who have long-revealed their alliances, it’s obvious the landscape has changed. The show that started it all? Pardon the Interruption, which features Wilbon and co-host Tony Kornheiser.

Wilbon explained that PTI was designed as a show that focused on his and Kornheiser’s personalities, and that was when his rooting interests were not onlyrevealed, but encouraged. The show paved the way for some of today’s entertaining shows, but it also somewhat changed the environment of how sports are covered.

“If you were never a fan of sports, I don’t trust you,” said Wilbon. “If you want to cover sports, you are attached to it at some level.

“You need to be able to connect to your readers,” he added. All readers are fans of the game, just as journalists are, even if they are not willing to admit it.

There are still many cases where it is imperative to remain impartial and report accurately, like in beat reporting. However, in sports media today, there are instances where passionate biases provide interesting and thoughtful coverage.

Writing remains the most important skill

The days of print newspapers being the only platform to deliver news are long gone. There is the internet, and all that comes with it, including social media platforms, video streaming sites and other ways to provide content.

While it may be tempting to undermine the importance of writing, those skills remain a staple of what is needed to be a good reporter. Wilbon described his transition from writing columns for the Washington Post, to appearing on television, and credited his writing and storytelling skills for helping with the change.

“Writing is the most transferrable skill,” Wilbon said. “Things haven’t changed that much.”

Wilbon provided a basketball analogy, saying LeBron James learned the same drop-step move that Moses Malone was taught, despite their different eras. He says like the drop-step, learning the fundamentals of writing and storytelling is still important, and it must be practiced and practiced.

“It’s all about the reps,” he said.

Ex-athletes are on television more than ever, but there is still a place for journalists

For every John Smoltz, there is a Joe Buck. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly. One, in this case Smoltz, is an ex-player, who is labeled the analyst. The other, Buck, is the play-by-play man. Both play a different role in broadcasting, and there are opportunities for both.

Wilbon praised Smoltz as must-hear commentary, saying his coverage of the World Series as an analyst was among the best he has ever heard. He said no journalist could compete with Smoltz’s perspective.

But Wilbon explained that is not the job journalists should be pursuing. and there is always a place for journalists, both on-air and behind-the-scenes positions in production.

“Don’t compare yourself to them,” he said. “You always need journalists to bring those stories out of them.”

To keep it simple: athletes are not taking away jobs from journalists. Their roles are completely different. There are still opportunities.

Brent Schwartz is from the Boston area, but he’s spent most of his life in Germany and North Carolina. He hopes to one day host a sports radio or television show, where he can openly admit Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time.