A Q&A with the WSJ’s Chris Herring on covering the Knicks, diversity in journalism, and staying happy

Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal. Chris covers the Knicks and the NBA and he’s damn good at it. He separates himself by writing unique stories and finding an analytical perspective. We talk about why he stays so positive, whether journalism needs more diversity, if J-school is needed anymore, and he shares a great Jim Brown anecdote.

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

I still remember getting extremely jealous hearing my best friend Marcus tell me how cool his high-school journalism class was as a sophomore. So I wanted to see what it was all about, and signed up for it the following year. I knew by that point, after a class or two, that I wanted to do it professionally, and started writing for the high-school paper shortly after.

I worked full-time (for four years, and eventually up to 60 or 70 hours a week) at The Michigan Daily during college, and was fortunate enough to apply for and land a handful of internships and freelance gigs — with the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune and the Cleveland Plain Dealer — before landing one at The Wall Street Journal (I actually didn’t apply for the WSJ internship, but that’s a pretty long story) the summer after my senior year at Michigan. Was told I got the WSJ’s last internship they awarded that year, and that I’d be covering law, of all things. I didn’t know the first thing about law, but I didn’t care — you don’t turn down a paper like The Wall Street Journal.

That was summer 2009, and they liked me enough as an intern to extend my internship a handful of times until the paper lifted its hiring freeze in December of that year. I’ve been here ever since.

2. You’ve covered three different beats and ecosystems in law/crime, the NFL, and now wherever it is that the Knicks exist. What is the overlap between those three areas and how do you go about adjusting when you’re switching beats like that?

Looking back, I’m not sure I realized there was a natural overlap between the three; especially when I went from law/crime to the NFL.

My boss tasked me with writing different sorts of pieces, and not to fall into the herd mentality of following media scrums, just because they happened to be interviewing a specific person. Early on, though, when you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s the tendency because you don’t want to feel as if you’re missing an explosive quote or detail from someone.

Eventually, I found the common thread is putting considerable research and thought into each piece. I wanted all my law pieces to have a flair or twist to them. My best football stories were like that, too. And when I took the Knicks’ beat, I had the same goal: Find a way to write stories that really teach someone, or something that at least confirms or denies something a lot of people might already be wondering about. It’s time-consuming to do, but it’s generally worth it.

3. You’ve been pretty liberal about integrating advanced stats into your work and about thinking through stories that way. That’s not very common in mainstream NBA reporting. How open were your editors, players and front office, and readers to it? And does it reflect how the NBA itself has trended?

Really, I just started trying something new, and it became comfortable after awhile. My first real story on the Knicks’ beat, on the eve of their 2012-13 training camp, highlighted that they’d basically be the oldest team in NBA history. I laid out the potential benefits and pitfalls of that strategy, and how it might come back to hinder them toward the end of the season, and that eventually turned out to be the case.

That story was a microcosm of what I try to do. There are so many factors and numbers that help describe a team. So I look for the things that stand as outliers, and then study them really closely. They help me make predictions (I was off by one game this past season, predicting that the Knicks would win 31 times this last season), and help me determine what I want to ask players about once I get into the locker room. That, along with on-court observations I notice over time and conversations I have with players, generally dictates my writing process.

We know what’s normal. So when I can find a clear example of something that isn’t, I want to explain it, and find why that’s the case. That’s how I write, and I find that style to be fun — both for me, and the people I interview.

4. When you’re covering a star like Carmelo Anthony who casts a shadow over an entire organization, how do you build a relationship with him and put his words and actions into the right context?

For starters, I try really hard to be responsible and not necessarily to blow up any and everything he says in stories, in part because he wavers a lot in his thinking and his quotes at times. I’ve taken the time to approach him one-on-one occasionally to write about things (like recently learning to play chess, or his decision to participate in a peaceful protest in Baltimore) less tied to basketball to show that I genuinely care about getting to know him off the court.

We have a good relationship — not friends by any means, but friendly with one another and can have conversations about things outside of basketball. I’ve had dinner with him. We had a playful bet a couple years ago during the Final Four, since Michigan and Syracuse were playing. (He was a good sport by wearing blue the following day after Michigan beat the Orange.)

I don’t shy away from asking him uncomfortable questions at times, but if I had to guess, I’d figure he appreciates that I tend to ask him about strategy-based stuff, and that I’m less interested in the day-to-day stuff that often gets forgotten anyway. Because of that, I think he generally gives me thoughtful responses that often help shape the context of my stories. I’m appreciative of that, and I find him to be one of the more open stars in the NBA, which is great.

5. Did you read this or this when you got on the Knicks beat? Is trying to cover that team as suffocating as it’s been reported to be?

I read the Observer piece prior to joining this beat, yes. I’ve had my frustrations at times — more so in the first year or two on the beat — but I think I have fewer issues with the Knicks because my writing style is different and often less salacious.

I’ve written about things the organization is sensitive about, and heard back from folks concerning those issues within minutes sometimes. But I also know the vast majority of people there realize I’m largely focused on basketball as opposed to scandal, and that I’m trying to be not only fair, but relatively thoughtful with my stories. So I don’t get a ton of pushback.

6. What don’t you like about the way the NBA is reported on and what would you change?

It’s not realistic to expect stuff to get back to this point, but every time I read Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game,” I immediately get jealous of the sort of relationships reporters once had with teams and players. The access was so much different back in the day. And judging by the players’ union rhetoric — Michele Roberts essentially said ‘Get the eff out of the locker room if you don’t have an immediate question, because you’re invading the players’ privacy’ —  it seems like we may at some point have less access. If not less, then probably much different access.

Someone who writes the way I do would benefit from having more than five or six minutes to talk to someone, but I can’t imagine a scenario where that happens; at least not while covering a high-profile team like the Knicks.

7. Is there enough diversity in sports journalism? And how does that effect the way that athletes — especially in the NFL and NBA — are covered when the reporter demographics skew from the athlete demographics?

No. There should be way more women and people of color covering pro sports teams. But more generally, there should be way more women and people of color in newsrooms, period. I felt that way at my college paper, The Michigan Daily (and served on a diversity committee, though it didn’t really change much), and I feel that way now at the Journal.

There aren’t nearly enough women covering the NBA; especially if you look past the ones who serve as sideline reporters. It feels like there are more people of color who write about the NBA than in other sports, and perhaps that’s because it’s overwhelmingly black compared to the other leagues.

I don’t know how much it impacts the way the league itself is covered. What I’m more curious about, sometimes, is how, if at all, it impacts the way players communicate with reporters. I’ll never forget interviewing Jim Brown and seeing him do a double-take when I told him what outlet I was representing, and that I wanted to ask him a few questions for my story. He later told me he was proud to see a young, black man in my position, because it was something he rarely, if ever, saw — especially when he actually played the sport.

It’s obviously not nearly that rare now, but I do think being in my 20s and black has helped me relate with some of the players. One time in the locker room, Iman Shumpert was looking at each of the reporters, playfully ribbing us one-by-one for the way we were dressed. He got to me, and decided to make fun of my sweater. Carmelo stepped in before Shump could really say anything, telling him, “Nah, Chris is cool — he’s with us.”

To this day, I have no clue exactly what Melo meant by that. That I write favorably about the team? (I think plenty of people would say I’m fairly cynical of the Knicks at times, but most would probably agree that I’m relatively down the middle) Maybe he was telling Shump that he sees me as giving them a fair shake, and am not out to get them? Or maybe he was saying, “Don’t go in on Chris — he’s the one black, 20-something on the beat, and because of that, he can actually relate with us in a way.” I have no idea. But that’s stuck with me, because it highlighted that there is a little bit of an “Us vs. Them” mentality at times, however small it might be.

8. Like me, you didn’t major in journalism in college. Is J-school kind of a relic for preparing journalists? I know you wrote a whole post about this but should there be a different way of identifying and preparing journalists?

Everyone is different. For people like me, who realize very early on they want to do this, it’s very possible to go to school and get involved with newspapers or blogs, and collect writing clips over time. If you have the drive and the talent, and you can accomplish that before graduation, you may not need journalism school — particularly in a grad program — to find a job in this field.

But tons of people don’t know exactly what they want to do when they finish undergrad, or don’t realize that they’d be interested in journalism until they’ve just about graduated. So journalism school might be perfect for them. (There are also those who write during college, but don’t land the sorts of internships/gigs they want over that span.) Journalism school, in my personal opinion, is great for networking, or for someone who might need a little additional help with finding a gig once they graduate.

There are a handful of ways to get into the business, though. I didn’t go to J-school, and don’t think I needed to. But it makes sense for other people who figure out what they want to do later, or who feel they’ll benefit more from the networking aspect.

9. Who are writers you read and who people should read who you think aren’t getting enough due? (And don’t work at the Wall Street Journal — because that’s not fair)

Folks who I don’t think get enough credit? There must be a handful of people on Twitter who think I’m crazy, because I Favorite every story they write so I can go back and read it later. Rob Mahoney at Sports Illustrated might quietly be my favorite. Remember what I said before about needing more than five or six minutes to ask all the questions I have for someone? Rob’s stories read as if he’s had weeks with some of these players because of how in-depth they are.

Kyle Wagner at 538 has some really fun ideas (the one he had a week or two ago about players that get passed to the least was really fun). Candace Buckner at the Indy Star and KC Johnson at the Chicago Tribune are two of the best beat writers in the league. And while I wouldn’t put him in the “aren’t getting enough due” category, I’m constantly amazed at how Zach Lowe at ESPN puts us to shame with how well, and deeply, he writes about the entire league.

That’s obviously limiting it to just the NBA, because that’s what I spend the most time reading until the season comes to a close.

10.  There’s a lot of complaining about the burdens and nuisances of the job — reporters bitch too often on Twitter about flight hiccups and other issues — but you’re one of the more positive-thinking guys out there. What do you enjoy about reporting and covering the NBA and how difficult is it to maintain that?

I say it all the time on Twitter, but covering the NBA — and writing about a marquee team, for a big paper where a lot of people can see my work — was literally a dream of mine in high school.

As a kid, my mom was puzzled by how much time I spent trying to memorize players’ baseball statistics. She encouraged me to find a way to put that sort of passion into something that paid well, and suggested more than once that I study law in hopes of becoming a sports agent.

The job is difficult in some ways, and that’s not really a complaint at all. But sometimes it is crazy to think about how many hours, weeks or months go into researching and reporting a really challenging feature or story, just to have someone spend three or four minutes on it. I imagine it’s sort of how someone feels after spending hours on a meal, then watching someone devour it in mere minutes.

Still, the feeling I get from seeing reader emails and tweets — either that they feel they’ve learned something, or had their eyes opened to something — is awesome each time. And feeling like you’ve broken down a reporting wall (I’ve mentioned on podcasts before how hard I had to work, and how far I had to travel, to have a four-minute conversation with La La Anthony to discuss Melo’s chess-playing habits) is also the best.

So for all the frustrations, and all the holidays I have to spend away from family, I’m very grateful. I somehow made it into this industry at age 22, and have what I honestly consider to be the coolest job in the world. Day-to-day issues and problems will come up in any profession, but there are so many more positives than there are negatives when it comes to this one.

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