Last week I started a new series here at Aaron Torres Sports called, “How It All Started” where I track down prominent sportswriters, bloggers and television personalities, and do a long-form question and answer, and essentially ask: “So, how did you get started.” As I mentioned last week, as I continue to have my own success in writing, I find more young people asking me how I got started, and since I never have a good answer, I decided instead to put the question to some of the most successful people in their respective fields. In the process, it’s my hope that these interviews become a good resource for anyone looking for quality information, or an inspiring story on how to get started.
Anyway, after the success of last week’s interview with best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, I am back today and this time talking to Yahoo Sports National Columnist Dan Wetzel. Beyond just his work with Yahoo, Wetzel is also known for his book “Death to the BCS” and has been a major part of Yahoo’s increased investigative coverage over the last few years.
Dan was nice enough to answer a bunch of my questions on his background, his time at Yahoo, and some of his hardest hitting interviews… including with the Fake Dan Bebee.
So how did it all start for Dan Wetzel? Let’s ask him.Q. Ok, Dan Wetzel, appreciate the time. I guess the question I’d start with: You went to school at UMass, and I was curious, was journalism the end game? And why UMass? Was it the school right down the street, was it the journalism program? What led to the decision to start at UMass?
A. Yeah, it was the state school, affordability, had some friends going, it seemed like a good idea.
I got there, and joined the student paper as something to do, an activity. It seemed like a chance to meet some people. So I started that, and I never really thought about doing it full-time, even while I was at the paper for the first year. Then, I always worked at this construction company during the summers and on breaks to pay for school, and there was a guy there who was like, ‘You should be a sportswriter, what would be better than covering the Bruins?’
So I did sports and news, and eventually graduated from UMass.
Q. Your first job out of school wasn’t in sports though, right?
A. No, I interned at the Indianapolis News and was a police and courts reporter. It was a smaller paper that ended up dying, but I ended up covering a lot of stuff; a racially motivated murder trial, fires, a mill exploded, a whole bunch of interesting news stories for that paper.
Then I went to work at the Chicago Tribune as an intern, and it was the same thing, I was on the city desk, a lot of cops reporting, and it was mayhem. A city like Chicago, there were always crazy kinds of things happening.
Q. Do you think that covering those more serious beats helped you when you transitioned to sports? Maybe as far as getting the facts straight and reporting? Or maybe it just gave you an appreciation, like ‘Woah, I’m covering sports, this is actually fun,’ that someone who has been covering sports since college might not have. There must have been something from those early non-sports beats that did transition when you went over to sports, no?
A. I think that covering government, police and courts is always good. And there’s a ton of that in what I do now, and what I’ve always done. I don’t know any sportswriter that is dealing in some ways with that stuff, and I certainly do a lot of it. So I think that was more it, like ‘Hey, this is how I cover things.’ I don’t know how that influences things now. That was 16 or 17 years ago.
Q. I would think that it helps you dig through a long NCAA report, call logs, something like that.
A. Yeah, I’ve always treated it like straight reporting. Also, you know much legal stuff there is? I’ve covered trials in sports, labor, you’re doing everything.
Q. Hmm, I didn’t even think of it in a criminal element, but more like getting a 45-page NCAA document and having to wade through all the BS stuff, you know “The prospective student-athlete took X extra benefit,” to find what’s important.
A. Yeah, and there’s all sorts of lawsuits through the years, labor fights, open record requests. I cover sports like an industry—kind of like how you can cover the movie industry, or be a movie reviewer. I’m not going to say that’s exactly the analogy. But I’ve never just covered a lot of pure games, and that’s never why I got into it.
Q. And I could see that looking through your story archives. There was a lot unfortunately on Jerry Sandusky, stuff like that. Obviously every weekend you’re at some kind of event, but I was surprised at how many non- game related sports stories that you were writing.
A. Well, the easiest thing to cover is the game in a lot of ways. They have a scoreboard right in the middle that tells you what happened. So that’s easy.
Back to the legal stuff, I don’t know if this is a real advantage or not, but when the Jerry Sandusky stuff hit I was in Alabama- it was the day of the Alabama-LSU game- and I saw the story while I sitting in my hotel, I saw some storyline about the AD being indicted, and I went up to my room and figured I’d find the grand jury report.
So I found this document and started reading it, the presentment of facts, and I was one page in, I was like “Wow.” I remember telling Pat Forde who was going to pick me up to go the game, to come an hour and a half later. Then I sent him the story and asked, ‘Am I reading this thing right?’ and started writing right away. I knew immediately how big this thing was going to be. Not that others didn’t, but I guess I knew to go to right to the source.
And I think a lot of reporters get that, but maybe the public doesn’t. I mean, I’m hardly a lawyer, but a three-year state investigation with a grand jury who has already interviewed everybody, has done their presentment of facts, and then the Attorney General from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is putting this out? That’s completely different than someone alleging Bernie Fine of something 28 years ago. That doesn’t mean both stories can’t be true and or false, but the spot on the legal ladder is totally different.
I don’t know if everyone always gets that.
Q. No, you’re so right on that. And I will admit that naïvely, I heard about Sandusky as this late-breaking story Friday night into Saturday, and you hear the word “allegations,” but in full-disclosure, it wasn’t I read your report on Yahoo that I realized this wasn’t an accusation from a scorned person. This was three year's worth of investigation; this is the highest levels of the Pennsylvania courts…
A. They had eight different guys! And I think sometimes that gets missed or ‘what is this.’ The police are going to start the investigation, it’s a total different deal. Yeah it was an allegation, but you’re not getting eight grown man to come forward on stuff like this.
Q. I agree with all that, and now let’s get onto some more pleasant subjects, and I guess we’ll move onto Yahoo. When did you start there, because from what I’ve read it sounds like you were one of the first writers at Yahoo for sports. I guess my main question is- it was the early part of the 2000’s- did you have to explain to people that it wasn’t a newspaper, not a magazine, and it was an online presence? Was the company that far along where it was self-explanatory? Because it seems like you were one of the first people to come along who was exclusively writing on the web?
A. I was the first sportswriter at Yahoo in 2003. People knew who what it was, but it wasn’t known for its content. We had news and finance and sports and did decent traffic; Yahoo.com has been the most visited page on the internet for a long, long time.
Still, people knew the fantasy sports, but nobody had ever heard of the idea that you’d have a writer actually covering sports. Because of that it was hard to get people credential you, get call backs, even let you into practices to try and do the job. That was the toughest thing.
It was a start-up in a lot of ways, but a start-up with great backing.
Q. Was there a time where you felt like you’d gotten mainstream acceptance, or was it more like, ‘Ok, today I got a credential here, but there’s no guarantee I’ll get one tomorrow there.’
A. There was a lot of years of that. I think we’re still gaining acceptance, although by now we’ve probably made it. It’s kind of hard to tell, but it took a long, long time.
Even to this day, as far as we’ve come, it’s still a process.
Q. At the same time, you are covering the Super Bowl, the Final Four, so you have come a long way.
Yeah. The NFL always got it and let us in right away. Funny thing is, they’d credential us for the Super Bowl, but then we couldn’t get into individual teams a lot. It was only a couple years ago that you could get anywhere in that league. Same thing with baseball. The NBA was always very good to us.
Also I had a good relationship with college basketball, so I could pretty much get in where I wanted there, but even then, not always. At AAU, they wouldn’t let anyone who worked on the internet. You always had to be printed.
Q. You say that college basketball was accepting of you. I know you had an extensive background with college basketball before you got to Yahoo (at a magazine called The Basketball Times). Were those two things correlated?
A. Yeah, that’s why. I knew most of the SID’s, coaches and really well. But getting into the other events was harder at times.
Q. Now that the company is more established and that you’ve established yourself as a columnist every sports fan knows, what is your schedule like? Because it does seem like you have your wheelhouse of college basketball, college football and the NFL. But I also see you at MMA events, at boxing. Do you pretty much have free reign to go wherever you want?
Pretty much… it’s awesome. You don’t ever want to forget that.
But it’s not really about what I want to do that matters. It’s what’s going to deliver the most traffic, and impact on the site. I could go to any sporting event I want, but does it make sense to go to every sporting event? It’s not really about what I think, although I certainly have a pretty good idea of what people want. I may not want to go to something, but I know that’s what needs to be done. You know what I mean?
It’s all about the site, every single day. I don’t care who you are, or where you work, it’s about the traffic.
Q. Being a national columnist, you do have to have a voice on the biggest stories. Are there any sports that you won’t touch just because you’re not versed or informed enough?
My thing is, I don’t expect the readers to agree with everything I write, or want to read everything I write. But I hope they understand that I at least tried, and didn’t just come up with some opinion on something I don’t know.
There’s got to be something more. Readers want something; they want to learn something, be entertained. They want to know why they’re wasting their six, seven, eight, 10, 12 minutes reading this. Or, they want to know why they’re even bothering to follow you for free on Twitter, even though it takes four seconds to read what you’re writing.
But if you’re not giving something, they’re not going to read it, or not read the next one. So you have to be on topic, and deliver something. If I don’t have an opinion, I don’t give it.
Q. Switching gears, Yahoo has taken on a very strong investigative arm in addition to what you guys were already doing with the sports coverage. For those who have never done investigative journalism, it seems like everything obviously starts with a tip. But how do you differentiate between a tip that has some legs to it, and something that’s just floated out by a scorned assistant coach, fan, booster, whatever?
A. First off, not everything starts off with a tip, I’ll start with that. A lot of it does. You generally need an aggrieved party, but not necessarily.
Really, what you tell them is ‘You’ve got to prove it.’ (As a reporter) I’ve got to be blunt, and say 'I’m going to believe you, but I need proof. Where’s the documentation? Where’s this guy? Who else knows about it?' You’ve got to be really fair with it, and go as deep with it. You’ve got to report all around it.
I think sometimes people think it happens overnight, that some random guys calls you on the phone and whispers into it, and next thing you know we’ve got a story. These things are long, involved processes. We’ve had people come in and work with us that are stunned at the process, stunned at how long it takes.
Now we’ve got a really good track record, and we tell people, ‘We can get your story to print’ so people will go through it. But then they’ll say ‘I didn’t think it was going to involve this much.’ That’s the only way, you know.
Q. And that was my follow-up point. You just mentioned that Yahoo does have a level of credibility now because of all the work you’ve done over the years. And it does feel like there is a level of acceptance, even from the fans whose school is under the spotlight. I've even heard people say ‘Well, if the report came from Yahoo, it’s legit,’ which you don’t get with some other outlets. Being on the other side, is that a fair assessment? That while people might not like you being around their program, if they see that Yahoo masthead, they know there’s probably something to it?
A. First off, thank you. And yeah, I have sensed that. Like I said, we try to do a really professional job. It’s not rushed. Things like that.
I think the other thing is that we really try not to nickel-and-dime the situation. There are a lot of great investigations at Yahoo not just with college sports. Jeff Passan did a great one on the Miami stadium finances. But with the NCAA and college, we try not to focus on the players. The goal is to show that the NCAA itself doesn’t care about its own rules, and that the well-paid coaches and administrators look the other way, or openly violate it. We’re not out there to just try and catch kids doing these things.
I think that some people get that. I think most people realize that there isn’t any vendetta to get their school. But of course you still get those e-mails. At this point, does anyone really think we’re after one place? There are no sacred cows. Hopefully people see that. It’s not something that we take likely.
Q. Last few questions. The podcast, was that something you wanted to do something? Something your bosses wanted you to do?
Yeah I wanted to do it, had been wanting to do it for a few years. I have fun with it, and I think it’s a medium that works for me. It seems like it’s working, people are enjoying it. I was just into the idea.
Q. Last question: I know you’re very active on Twitter. Besides the Fake Dan Beebe, is there anybody you’re following that people should know about?
A. Fake Dan Beebe is awesome! We turned it into an interview, a cartoon character.
Q. Believe me, I downloaded that podcast expecting to hear a normal voice, and I got whatever that was…
A. Yeah, the computer voice.
And that’s why I like these podcasts. You can pretty much do anything… including having an interview with a cartoon character based off a fake Twitter account of a former commissioner.
(As for other accounts) The guy who does the Bret Bielema account (@BeingBielema) is great, but he isn’t necessarily “Kid friendly.” I also like The Iron Sheik… but you can never re-tweet him. I don’t think he’s ever put out one tweet without something offensive, or a swear in there.
Q. Any plans for an interview with the Fake Bo Pelini?
Yeah he’s great, always talking about his cats and stuff.
Q. That’s all I’ve really got. Any other stuff you want to get across, big picture stuff I missed? Anything people should know about you, the industry, the process?
A. If you’re a young person, just keep writing and keep reporting. It’s an experience game, and that’s it.
You’re only going to learn so much in a classroom. Like in England, you only need to go to school one year for a journalism degree, and then you go get a job. I think it’s a better system, you don’t need to be in a classroom for four years.
But you have to learn how to report, learn how to write. You have to give people something more than an opinion, because there are 10 million opinions, and no one’s is more valid than anyone else, unless you have a base of knowledge. And a base of knowledge comes from reporting.(Be sure to follow Dan on Twitter @DanWetzel. And for my of these interviews, podcasts and more, be sure to follow myself as well @Aaron_Torres.
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