I spend a lot of time opining about the Pistons, but for the most part I'm just digesting the same info as all of you. That's why today I'm excited to present a conversation with someone who actually has access, someone who attends practice, sits in the best seats in the house, asks questions in the locker room and follows the team on the road. Today, I'm talking with Krista Jahnke, beat reporter for the Detroit Free Press.
I'd like to start by thanking Krista for her time -- she has a hectic schedule but fortunately was able to steal some time away last week to exchange emails with me. I think you'll agree that the results are very interesting: we talked about her daily routine covering the team, her dynamic with other members of the Detroit media as well as what players around the league she thinks the Pistons should go after on the trade market.
Matt Watson: Last season was your first covering the Pistons for the Detroit Free Press. The Pistons were coming off of two consecutive NBA Finals appearances, but as someone who graduated from MSU in 2002, you already had some experience covering some pretty good college teams. Did that help prepare you for your first year covering one of the NBA's best?
Krista Jahnke: I was in school at Michigan State during the championship years, and at times, I helped out on the men's basketball beat, covering a practice or a press conference or a game here or there. But I never covered the tournament, and I was never the full-time beat writer. The only beat work I did at The State News was as the women's basketball beat writer during Joanne P. McCallie's first season. The team went 10-18. I got my first taste of traveling to road games, trying to build relationships with coaches and players and learning the ins and outs of being around one team nearly every day.
The men's NCAA championship win came during my first semester at The State News. I was a sophomore intern. I spent that night combing the streets of East Lansing for quotes and tidbits from the celebration that overtook Grand River and the surrounding streets. If anything, what I learned through that experience was the enormity of it, the way it drew people together in such a passionate, intense way. You could say that was when I had the first inkling that I wanted to try sports writing. The next fall when we applied for beats, I applied only to the sports desk.
But the real answer is, I don't think much can prepare you for covering a professional team as a beat writer. You just have to do it. The college beats are much different, in terms of access especially, but also in many other ways. The business, the fans, the money, the professionalism of the players, the relationships with the media and the amount of media are all vastly different than those in the college game. Two different beasts, I'd say.
MW: Can you walk us through your daily routine when the team is at home? How much time do you end up spending in Auburn Hills (either at the Palace or the practice facility) compared to the Free Press office? After the game ends, how long do you have to file your story?
KJ: Practice days and game days are different, so I'll cover both briefly.
On a practice day, I spend the morning reading the Web to update myself on NBA news, Pistons and otherwise. I try to get a sense of what the news of the day will be. I arrive at the practice facility around 11 a.m. and go through the provided clip packets as well as stats and box scores from the previous night. I might also spend some time transcribing quotes. Sometime between 12 and 1 p.m., Flip lets the assembled media in. We usually stand around for a bit watching the end of practice -- mostly free throws and fooling around -- and then interviews begin with Flip and one or two players. Once that's done, I head home to write the next day's story or whatever it is I'm working on (and eventually, this will be the time I blog as well. Stay tuned for that). If there's news brewing, this is the main time I'd make calls or check in with agents or front office guys. My stories are due around 7.
On game days, I arrive at the Palace about three hours before the game (depending on traffic on 75, of course). My routine is similar to what I do before practice, and I also eat dinner. The locker room opens an hour and a half before the game, and a few minutes before that I'll wander out to the court to see what's up and chat with the assistant coaches. Flip speaks with the media right on the court, and then we hit the locker room. The pre-game locker room situation is not great for us beat writers. Four of the starters - Chauncey, Tay, 'Sheed and C-Webb - do not talk before games. We often chat with Chauncey off-the-record, but he superstitiously avoids pre-game interviews. Rasheed usually wanders around singing aloud to the music pumping through his headphones. That leaves Rip, a great guy, but one who is as crafty at shaking us as he is at shaking defenders. And with bumping rap music drowning out conversation, it's just not what you'd call a landmine of great interviews. On the plus side, Lindsey Hunter and Dale Davis are always around and are always fun to talk with, whether for an interview or just to BS a little. Then I have about 45 minutes to write my pre-game notes to hit my first deadline at 7:30.
Most games start at 7:30, and in that case, I have to write a little of my game story during the game. If it's an 8 o'clock game, I have to write it ALL during the game. My first deadline is 10:40, so an 8 o'clock game ends with me filing my first story about 10 minutes after the buzzer. I write during time outs and at halftime, and if it's a close game, most of the fourth quarter, trying to follow the action at the same time. It can be tough, especially in games that go down to the wire. In that case, I often have two stories going at once, a "winning" story and a "losing" story. We in the media hate overtime games for that reason; we often selfishly root for blowouts just to ease our stress.
The post-game media session begins about 10 minutes after the game. We interview Flip first and then hit the locker room, where we wait for the guys to emerge - slowly - from the shower. Chauncey is our go-to guy because he typically appears first and takes care of us. If someone else has a great game, like Rasheed or Chris, some nights, we're just out of luck. We don't have time to wait them out.
I get whatever I can in time, and then haul back to the media room to finish my game story for the 10:40 deadline. After that, I update my notes if they need it and on rushed nights, redo the game story as well. I'm usually done by 11 or 11:15 p.m.
MW: What's your routine like when the team is on the road? Do you have any favorite cities or arenas?
KJ: The game-day routine is the same once you get to the arena. But I also attend shoot-around on the roads. Shootarounds are a great chance to talk with hard-to-pin-down guys - they have nowhere to go. The four beat writers also get to stay and watch, our only real chance to see some behind-closed-doors happenings.
The biggest difference is the travel, obviously. People often ask me about the travel; it seems exciting, I suppose. In reality, it gets old quickly. We fly commecial and book our own travel. That gets tedious. I try to travel the night before games rather than early on game-day. That's just hectic and can lead to problems if your plane is delayed. With the early-morning wake-up calls and the late nights at the arena and the hassle of the airport, travel is just a grind. It's often hard to sleep knowing your alarm will start buzzing at 5:15 a.m. Every now and then, the schedule allows for some time to go out to dinner or walk around a bit, and that's great. But I usually just want to sleep! I waste all my time in all these great cities working and napping.
But my favorite cities: New York is No. 1. I've loved New York forever. I love big cities, places where I can walk right out of my hotel and find things to do. So New York will always top my list. Madison Square Garden, too, is special to me. There's a buzz there that can't be replicated in a sparkling-new arena. I like that. I also like Chicago - for similar reasons to New York, and one of my best friends lives there. I enjoyed Seattle last season, although the arena must rank in the bottom five. It's old and dim and dank. Other than that, I like convenient cities, places where I can walk to the arena from my Marriott and where the airport is just a short cab ride away. That list includes Charlotte, Washington D.C., Minnesota, Oklahoma City (surprisingly), Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Orlando.
MW: I know there's not supposed to be any cheering on press row, but are you really able to avoid a rooting interest? I know you want to stay objective, but at the very least your job has to be a lot easier (especially in the locker room) when they win, right?
KJ: I don't root for the Pistons to win. But you're right that it's much nicer to spend time in a happy environment than a sad or angry one. That said, any "rooting" boils down to me muttering under my breath if they play like crap and silently applauding if things go well. I also genuinely like nearly everyone in the organization, and with that comes a sense that you'd rather see good things happen to them. But I don't feel that stands in the way of being professional and writing what needs to be written. I know where to draw the line. I'm not hanging out with these guys. But liking people and wanting them to succeed -- that just makes me human, I think. And this organization is stocked with great people.
MW: What's the dynamic like with the other beat reporters? I imagine you end up seeing a lot of them more so than some of your own co-workers at the Free Press, especially during road trips. Is it always competitive?
KJ: I think, compared to some relationships I've heard of, that we have an ideal situation. We are certainly competitive. No one wants to get beat on a story. Sometimes you get a sense that a writer is up to something, and you get a little worried and start making calls. We rarely discuss what we're working on - I mean what angles we're exploring, what we're leading with in our notes. If someone thinks they have something alone, they're not going to go sharing it. And there's no holding onto material, a luxury beat writers who work alone have. If we hear a good quote or nugget of information, you better get it in the paper somewhere because if you save it for another day, there's a good chance it will have already shown up somewhere else.
But we help each other out with little things, like say if someone's recorder didn't get a quote that everyone else had. Things like that. We share rides on the road. Sometimes we go out to dinner together or grab a post-game drink. We talk about the team, what we're seeing when things go wrong. We do see each other all the time, from the practices and games to the airports and hotels. It makes it much more enjoyable if you can get along with those people. And I'd say the four of us get along very well.
MW: What about the dynamic with the guys writing for Pistons.com? I'd think, simply because of their employer, they get a lot more access than the rest of the media. How can you compete with that? Or is that something you even see a need to compete with?
KJ: Well, Keith [Langlois], who by the way is a writer I really admire, used to get more access, but he no longer gets to watch practices. And since we're on the road with the team and he's not, I'd say at this point our access is somewhat better. Except for the front office guys; he gets much more face time with Joe Dumars, that's for sure.
As far as competing with that, we're doing different things. Not to say sometimes he doesn't write stories I would have loved to have. But he is pretty much limited to accentuating the positive and while not out-and-out ignoring the negative, certainly not exploring it too far. I think the traditional media competes because if something bad is going on, we'd be obligated to report it. As a reader, I would trust that source a little bit more.
MW: Chris Sheridan recently stirred up controversy with his comments regarding Rasheed Wallace and Flip Saunders. As a national reporter who's in town one day and out the next, he can get away with that (being accosted with bottles of orange soda, notwithstanding) a little more easily than someone who has to face these guys every day. How do you toe the line between deciding what might be newsworthy and interesting to fans and what's simply gossip that will make your job more difficult if you run it?
KJ: I think you gain much more perspective from being around the team day in and day out, so the things that are actually newsworthy and should be reported become obvious. I can't wait until I have a few more years under my belt, because my perspective will be that much better. It's hard to compete with people who have been around for years and just "get it" a little more. But I'm getting there. I understand what locker room chatter is off limits and what little things could go in the paper because they're harmless (and usually funny). Like after the Indiana Pacers game, the locker room TV was turned to some program about American Idol, and they were interviewing the "She Bangs!" guy. Rasheed Wallace sees it and immediately starts singing, "She bangs, she bangs," while doing his best impersonation of that guy's flailing arms dance. Hilarious. I feel free to use little, harmless things like that.
But the bigger point is that it pays to have perspective. We know how Rasheed acts under normal circumstances, and everything that report criticized was completely normal for 'Sheed. So we don't overreact to it. But we also know when Rasheed's body language is off and his demeanor in the locker room seems sour. Then we ask him about it and report what he says, as we did a few times this season when he admitted he was having issues. That's the line to me.
MW: I know some reporters (Chris McCosky and A. Sherrod Blakely, for instance) now have their own blogs, and it's not rare for them to break stories there instead of waiting to run an article the next morning. How do you see newspapers continuing to respond to the push for real-time information? How do you think this will change the way your job is done, say, five years in the future?
KJ: If there's major news, we post stories on our Web site, too, even if I don't have a blog. Just pointing that out. But I do see newspapers moving more and more toward Web-first coverage. I want a blog, and it sounds like I'll have one soon enough. These days, you're at a disadvantage if you don't have one. For one thing, you have unlimited room to write online, something we writers crave and the major downfall of newspapers. Editors think readers want less, less, less - shorter stories, more little items, that kind of thing. So our holes for news shrink every year. It's frustrating to not get news into the paper and then see everyone else just post in a blog what they can't get to fit.
But blogs have also changed the tone of our relationship with readers. In the paper, we write in what I'd call an authoritative yet distant voice. In a blog, you write as yourself and you're free to speculate, analyze and opinionize without many limits. That changes the kind of information people begin to expect. Not only do they want more - more updates, more little nuggets - put they want it with personality and insight that you don't see in a traditional piece in the paper.
In five years -- and this is a lame cop-out of an answer -- I'd say we'll move further down that road. That maybe we do nearly 50-50 work between the Web and the print format. Maybe that includes things like pod-casts and streaming video of interviews and more chats, all those different components that are already out there. And of course, blogs.
MW: Everyone is pretty much assuming the Pistons are going to make another trade this year. If you could move into Joe Dumars' office for a day, who would be the top three players around the league you'd make some calls about?
KJ: I still think it's probable, but don't be shocked if nothing happens. They've pretty much got one big man to work with now in Nazr Mohammed, and with four years left, he's a little tougher to move. Plus, I'd think there's some concern that if Chris Webber decides to move on as an unrestricted free agent (although I expect he'll want to stay) then they're left with no center if they let Mohammed go. It's a tricky matter, and I for one don't believe the Pistons NEED to make a trade to contend this year. I'm just glad I don't make these decisions, because as you'll see, this is not my strong suit, dreaming up trades.
That said, I have heard Juan Dixon is on the market in Portland. He's a bit small for a shooting guard and he couldn't help backup Chauncey much, but he certainly can score off the bench and that's one thing the Pistons need. The Pistons could have him for Will Blalock and Ronald "Flip" Murray. They'd get to hang onto Mohammed that way. Would the Blazers want to do that? I'm not sure. They'd get a young prospect in Will and a player who seems like he has just not found his fit yet in Flip. That might not be enough.
I still like the idea of Morris Peterson, probably because I'm a Sparty but also because he's a classy guy who is fine playing off the bench. But it sounds like the Raptors want Antonio McDyess, so that's not going to happen. I'd still explore that, if I were Joe. Maybe as it gets closer to the trade deadline, Toronto's demands will change, although Bryan Colangelo is no slouch and the Raptors will be extra careful because they're a division leader at the moment.
As for a third, it's hard to find something that works for all parties. From what I've heard, the Marko Jaric/Nazr Mohammed deal is dead, and Jaric is happily playing under new head coach Randy Wittman. Bonzi Wells is now healthy and playing in the eight-man rotation in Houston. That pushed SG Kirk Snyder to the bench, as well as backup point guard John Lucas. I think both of those guys have some upside but maybe not enough to pull off a trade. Snyder has good size, and he's athletic. Lucas is undersized at 5-foot-11, but he's a good shooter. Both are young. The numbers work if the Pistons got both guys for Flip and Will. But we're not talking guys who dramtically change what the Pistons can do in any way.
MW: I have to ask about Amir Johnson. For a guy who never gets on the court and entered the league without any amount of hype, he's been gaining a lot of new fans lately, especially following comments from the front office saying he's basically untouchable. We just read Chris Silva's piece on him, but I'm interested in your take: When will he crack the rotation? And from what you see on the practice floor, can you think of any comparable players around the league that are actually playing?
KJ: I think Amir has a chance to start seeing playing time next year. He is still a project, and by that I mean, he's not going to crack the starting lineup anytime soon. His jumper needs work, and he gets pushed around inside on defense. Adding some bulk would help. But he does have a great sense for blocking shots, he loves to play, he's explosive, he's got nice touch around the rim, he can get up and he's quick. That's a lot to like, not to mention that he's 6-foot-11 and maybe still growing. I'd compare him to... a poor man's Amare Stoudemire.
Again, I'd really like to thank Krista for her time and candor. Also, I'd like to tip my hat to Dave from BlazersEdge, who's recent interview with Oregonian beat reporter Jason Quick inspired some of my questions.