A People with Passion series
January 30, 2012: Jonathan Eig
We are meeting at Eig’s Lakeview home on a sunny January afternoon. A tall man, heroically bald, Eig is a gracious host and a loquacious subject, and stories and opinions spill from him with a child’s energy. He seemed equally comfortable speaking with me as he did speaking with Jon Stewart when promoting his book “Get Capone” on the Daily Show in May 2010.
Here, in the 25th installment of my Chicago journalism interview series, Jonathan Eig tells me about Red Smith ledes, the influence of Watergate, and the birth of his new sports site ChicagoSide, which he hopes will become Chicago’s own Grantland.com.
Newspapers were a big influence for me. As a kid we got the New York Times and the local paper, the Rockland County Journal News, on our driveway every morning. I read those probably for the comics mostly. And then the sports, a little bit after that. Comics first, then sports. By the time I was in high school I would look at the other sections. The very first thing I learned to read in the New York Times was Russell Baker, who had a column on the op/ed page that was really funny most of the time, and then Red Smith in the sports section. Those were the two things I would read in the Times probably from the time I was 14, 15, and wasn’t a big book reader until maybe high school.
That was about the time of Watergate when I was starting to understand newspapers and to read beyond the sports section, so that was a big interest, seeing how the newspapers were battering Nixon at the time. That made me think newspapers were cool and heroic, and that reporters could be powerful and famous. All that was really cool. I remember reading All the President’s Men as soon as that came out, whatever year that was. That was definitely a big influence and made me think about journalism.
By the time I got to junior high, my school had a newspaper, so it was a no-brainer that I was going to try to write for it. I wasn’t really into much of anything else. I played a little sports, but I wasn’t big enough or good enough to be on any of the high school – I played on the tennis team, but that was the extent of my sporting abilities.
But the idea of working for the school paper was a huge thrill for me. I loved the idea of getting to interview people. With a reporter’s notebook you can go and ask to do things that you couldn’t do otherwise. And then, you know, seeing my name in the paper was a lot of fun. I never stopped doing it. I haven’t stopped yet.
Tell me about Red Smith. Because I’ve read some of his stuff – was he just a columnist or was he also doing, like, game stories?
No, he was just a columnist. He was writing opinion pieces. He would write these really brilliant, sweetly-written off-the-news kind of features. He would cover a dog show like the Westminster Kennel Club back before it was famous, or he would just write these 800 or 900 word profiles of an athlete who did something special that week as opposed to just covering their game. The Times wasn’t really famous for its columnists the way the Daily News and the New York Post were. The Times had very little sports coverage back then. But Red Smith was the star and this unbelievably elegant writer. I just found his stories to be like jewels.
When I was a little bit older, when I was doing internships in college, I would keep Red Smith’s book of columns on my desk, and I would start almost every story with an imitation of a Red Smith lede. If you go back and look at my clips from 1985 or 86, even the stories that have nothing to do with sports – I never wrote sports – I’m talking about feature stories or city council stories, anything that I thought had a glimmer of an opportunity to be a feature, I was stealing it from Red Smith. I would just look at his ledes or his sentences and I would try to write a sentence like that. I would never – well, actually, sometimes I would copy it almost directly and just change the names, and then I would play with it until it was far enough removed from what he had actually written that it couldn’t be construed as plagiarism, but it often started as flat-out plagiarism. (Laughs.)
I started out as a conventional newspaper guy. All I ever wanted to do was to write newspaper stories. After college I went to the New Orleans Times Picayune and I covered crime and politics and wrote feature stories – started out just covering city council meetings in the suburbs, and worked my way up to downtown. Covered public housing in New Orleans for a few years, and started to feel like I liked feature writing the best.
But I was still trying everything – investigative stories – just everything. I just loved being at a newspaper. I went to the Dallas Morning News from there. I wanted to get to a bigger newspaper. Ideally I would have gone to Chicago or New York but I couldn’t get jobs in any of the other cities where I wanted to live, so I settled for Dallas, and I worked for the Dallas Morning News for five years. Same thing: no sports. I never covered sports, I never covered business, but I wrote about everything that I could that interested me.
Watching sports at this point?
Oh yeah, I’m a big sports fan. Occasionally I would find an excuse to write about something in the sports world that I thought was interesting just because, you know, I could. I would pitch a story on an athlete who I thought was interesting, and I’d go to the sports editor and say, “Can I write this for you?” Or I’d do it for the Sunday magazine… (fades off)
Was it still a feeling that sports just weren’t important enough? Not lofty enough? Not Watergate enough?
Yeah, that was probably it. I wanted to do hard-hitting things. I was doing a lot of social policy coverage. Poverty and homelessness. And in Dallas I covered a lot of that. I went to Bosnia and spent a couple of weeks there during the war. I wrote a series on hunger in America. But I loved writing silly features too. I was trying a little bit of everything. But I just never felt like devoting myself full-time to sports.
I moved up to Chicago without a job. My wife was moving up here to go to grad school, and I thought I had a job lined up with the Wall Street Journal. They had made overtures, but when I got here the bureau chief got fired and my job disappeared. So I freelanced for a year, and ended up writing for Chicago Magazine quite a bit. Got hired by Chicago Magazine, where again, I did mostly heavy duty hard-hitting features, investigative stuff, and an occasional sports piece. I did a piece on the media coverage surrounding Michael Jordan and how he had totally wrapped the sports reporters around his little finger. It was always fun for me to do some sports, but never something I wanted to do full-time.
Even when you’re in the midst of the story and you finish it and it’s great and you’re like, “Damn, I’m writing about sports!”…?
No, I liked being the outsider. Covering a team is really hard. They limit your access. They limit your ability to talk to the players. I felt it was better to just be able to drop in once in a while and not have to be beholden to these teams for access in that same way. I never felt the urge to do it full-time.
So I spent four years at Chicago Magazine, and then I got hired at the Wall Street Journal to do feature stories, and I did a bunch of front-page stories. I did a few sports stories there again. So it’s always been an underlying theme that I like to find sports stories. Almost every year I would find a spring training story – they would give me a free trip to spring training. I did one on how Nike was trying to challenge Rawlings for the baseball glove business. I did another one on the boom in custom-made bats, these really high-end, elite maple bats that Barry Bonds was using. I did one on how nobody keeps score at the ballpark anymore. I liked doing some sports stories, but at the Journal I was mostly a features guy. I did some business features, I did some political features, just everything. And I spent, I guess, seven years at the Journal, but it was during my time at the Journal that I had my idea to write the book about Lou Gehrig.
That’s where I made the big leap into sports. The biggest leap. I was reading Seabiscuit, actually – that’s what gave me the idea that sports books could be much more than just sports. I immediately thought of Lou Gehrig and said, “There’s a story that’s so much more than baseball.” It’s really a story about a man dying young and finding out in his prime that he’s sick. I wanted to know, you know – When did he know he was sick? How did the first symptoms appear? How was he treated? These are questions that never get answered in the sports books, or in the sports stories, and certainly not in the movie Pride of the Yankees. I became curious about it, and started doing a little reading and seeing what was out there on Gehrig and realized there was a big opening for a good book. I decided to try and write it myself.
And of course Jackie Robinson is much more than a baseball story.
Exactly. When I finished ‘Gehrig’ and it was a success and my publisher asked me if I wanted to do another one, I said “Of course.” I loved writing the book. It was really a thrill to spend that much time on one story and to be able to write something that you were passionate about. I wanted to think of another athlete who was more than the game, and Jackie Robinson was the first one that came to mind. And again, there was a lot written about Robinson, but nobody had ever focused in tightly on that first season when he changed the world. The rest of his career is interesting, and the rest of his life is fairly interesting, but I think you can really summarize the importance of Jackie Robinson by looking at that one year.
So made the jump to books. Loved it. Didn’t want to go back to the newspaper if I could help it. I wanted to keep writing books. And then I wrote the Capone book, and at that point I quit the Journal and dedicated myself to writing books full time. And I’m working on a fourth book now, and then this ChicagoSide thing just kind of crept in there somehow.
Okay, so tell me about that. When you look at the Chicago sports journalism landscape, what do you see? What’s great? And what’s missing?
I see a lot of game coverage, more than we need, because most people don’t want to read about the game the next day anymore. What I don’t see is the great feature writing that used to be what drew me to the sports section. I used to always go for the sports section first when I reached for the newspaper, not because I wanted to know who won the game last night but because I wanted to read Verdi and Lincicome, and I wanted to read the great features that would be in the middle of the page that would take up half the space with a big beautiful picture and a story of somebody you never really knew about or thought about or just something that surprised you every day.
The sports section was the most human of all the sections in the paper, I thought. It didn’t get bogged down in – you know, I could live without ever reading another story about Israel and its relations with the PLO because it never changes. I skip entirely all political primary stories, because in the long run, they don’t matter. But I love reading the sports section even though it doesn’t really matter either, because it’s just so full of life, and it’s funny. It’s a joy to read a great sports section.
But I feel like the sports sections have kind of lost their way. A lot of people aren’t even reading the paper anymore at all, so if you’re reading on the web, it’s a very different way of consuming sports news, and I don’t think the newspapers have adapted to that at all.
I was sitting in a bar with my friend Sol [Lieberman], Duke of Perth right down here on Clark, and we were just moaning about how bad it’s become. Here we are, two guys who love sports, who love journalism, and are just not satisfied with what’s being offered. This was about a year ago. Sol’s a more web-savvy guy than I am, and he’s run some websites for magazines and develops some websites, and we just started talking. I said, “How hard would it be where you build a website where you just had one great piece of sportswriting every day? It could be a column, it could be an investigative piece. Just one great story every day. And then you could link to all the other things you need – the scores, last night’s game, the standings. If the Trib or the Sun-Times has a really good story, just link to it. Give it a shoutout. But really build a site that people look forward to reading every morning because it’s not the same old stale stuff, because it’s really well-written and shares the passion that you have for sports. You could do it virtually at no cost, there would be a ton of writers who wanted to get in on it because it would be fun, and I just think it’s a shame we don’t have something like that in the city.” And Sol said, “Well, I think we should just do it.” And I was like, “Yeah right.”
So then we kept drinking, and a couple weeks later he tells me he thinks he wants to quit his job to do this thing. And I said, “Well, don’t quit your job!” (Laughs.) “Because I’m not giving up the books to do this, but I’d be willing to explore it.” And we just kept exploring it, and the more we explored it the better it looked.
We did a survey. We did an unscientific poll of maybe 100 Chicago sports fans on Survey Monkey. And we asked where they were getting their sports news, and how they liked it. What we found was that even people who were really loyal to ESPN or to the Tribune, they never said they felt passionate about that place where they were going to get their sports news, especially with the local papers. ESPN, there were some people who were passionate about Bill Simmons and there were some people who were passionate about Rick Reilly, but we saw no passion for the local stuff. We talked it up among friends, and started talking to writers who really got fired up about the idea and wanted to write for us.
At a certain point, it just began to feel like, “We really have to do this. It’s too great an opportunity not to try it, and the worst we can do is fail.” And lots of websites fail, and this thing might. It’s hard to really stand out when there are forty zillion websites competing for your attention and people aren’t reading much anymore. But the more we thought about it and the more we planned it, and we met with a business consultant who gave us some pointers on how to do it smartly from a business standpoint, the more it seemed there really is this gaping hole. We never talked to anybody who said, “Why would I want that? I’ve already got this.” Most people we talked to said, “That would be awesome if you could really do it.”
And the other thing we think that is important – the internet has had a way of really dividing people. You read on your phone on the El, you read at your desk at work, and you don’t talk it over the way you used to. Just in general, people spend less time talking to each other and more time texting each other. We’d like this thing to be something that gives people something to talk about, so people will say “Did you see ChicagoSide today?” And then every couple times a month, we’d like them to come out and meet us at a bar and hear one of our writers talk or hear one of our writers interview a jock, or come play a 3-on-3 basketball tournament with us that we sponsor, so there becomes an interactive thing. People feel really removed from the newspaper, and from ESPN, because they’re these big behemoths. We want to be something that the fans can share a beer with too if they like what we’re doing.
You mentioned the business side of it, and I know you guys are structuring this as a co-op –
It was actually our business manager who said, “What about offering them some incentive to write?” Even if it’s just a very small pot of gold at the end of the rainbow so that you can say, “If we make money at the end of the year, we’re going to share it with our writers.” And I thought that was a great idea, because it shows the writers that we’re in this together, and it gives them an incentive to promote us and make this thing a success.
What we came up with was we would take a slice, right now we’re talking 20% of the company, and we’ll divide it among any writer who does five stories a year. Or if you do one unbelievably great investigative piece that took you a month, we’ll count that as five stories. So everybody who performs at a certain level will get a piece of that 20% that we’re setting aside to writers. And you know, if we sell out to ESPN someday, they might get a nice little check. But if we make 20,000 dollars at the end of the year, they’ll get a very small check, but I think it’s a nice feeling to open an envelope at the end of the year and say, “Hey look, ChicagoSide made money the first year and they cut me in on it.”
Let me ask you something, because you’re older than me and probably done more research than I have on this. I go to the library fairly regularly to read old sportswriting, like early 20th century, because I love the language and I love the storytelling. And something like The Four Horsemen, the famous Grantland Rice story, which maybe has the most famous sportswriting lede of all-time, that’s just a game story. If you read the rest of that, that was somebody opening the newspaper and going, “What happened in the Notre Dame game yesterday?” And it was like, “Oh, the four horsemen rode again!” Where was the point where there became this separation between game stories and features, and is there a way to bring them back together?
I think there is. When I was working at newspapers, the game story was a chance to really show off your writing. In a way, those beat writers were trying to prove that they should be promoted to full-time feature writers who just got to suck their thumbs all day and then every Sunday crank out a big 2000 word piece. But that’s what the beat writers were doing. They were showing off their chops. And because the newspapers had unlimited space, they would turn these guys loose and game stories would be beautiful.
That started to go away when the space started to shrink, and then when the internet came in and you had to write your story instantly. You had to update it as the game was going on. I used to cover games before the internet, and you’d still have to start writing before the game was over, but you’d write your bottom of the story, and then you’d write your top when the game was over and you’d plug in a couple quotes in the locker room. It’s tough. You gotta be fast.
But what’s happened is that people who are reading game stories are mostly reading them on their phone, or they’re just following it on their phone and they’re seeing the live updates so the game story has lost importance. The Trib and the Sun-Times, when they write a game story, certainly for baseball, they’re giving it now eight or ten inches. There’s no room for the writer to show off his stuff if he has any. They’ve been crunched to the point where they don’t have a lot of space to really write well.
That’s why I think you’ll see your best stuff now on the web. ESPN, and even Yahoo. Sports Illustrated – they’re doing better writing on the web in part because they don’t have the space constraints. They can go long. And they can do a feature and a sidebar and a column all on the same game, which is what newspapers used to do. One of the things we’ve talked about doing at ChicagoSide – let’s say we’re playing the Heat in the playoffs again this year, we’d like to run the Miami paper’s coverage on ChicagoSide, which is something the newspapers used to do, but they don’t have space anymore.
I remember that – they would have the guest columnist from the other city –
Yeah, which I loved. But they just don’t have space anymore, because they’re not selling enough ads and they’re shrinking up and that’s making them irrelevant and that’s why they’re dying. Because they’re not offering you anything anymore.
So no matter where you’re writing, what is it that you love about covering sports?
I love that there’s winners and losers. I love that the guys are really putting themselves out there and taking chances and failing in public. That’s the kind of heroism that most of us never have to think about. Writers to some extent, you know, when you put your book out there and you know it’s going to be reviewed in the New York Times, and you can definitely fail in public in a big way, but these guys are doing it every day. Derrick Rose yesterday losing that game with two missed free throws down the stretch, and then a bad shot – and this is from the greatest athlete we have in the city right now. That’s great drama. And TV captures it really well these days with such great close-ups and so many different camera angles. These cameras that can hover over the players’ heads. It’s hard to compete with that. But a great writer who captures that drama and that emotion? I’ll take that any day.
We’re taking a break in this series, but stay tuned at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next, though date unsettled: a look at Chicago’s digital content editors.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)