What Is It Like To Be Paid To Cover Pro Football?
The NFL beat has never been more all-encompassing than it is today, given the multiple platforms for content and the intense competition both locally and nationally. To give readers some insight into the job, I empaneled five respected NFL writers for a roundtable discussion on the business.
- John Keim, ESPN.com NFL Nation Redskins reporter. Keim has covered the Redskins since 1994.
- Mike Klis, NFL/Broncos writer for the Denver Post. Klis has covered the Broncos since 2005.
- Jeff McLane, Eagles beat writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. McLane has covered the NFL for six years.
- Jane McManus, Jets writer for ESPNNewYork.com and an espnW columnist. McManus has covered the Jets since 2008.
- Armando Salguero, NFL columnist for the Miami Herald. Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990.
(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.)
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION OF BEING A DAILY NFL REPORTER?
Keim: That it’s all just fun and games. It’s a very fun job; I love talking football with players and coaches and executives. I have a passion for it. But it requires a lot of work. It is what we get paid to do, so you must take a serious approach, just like it’s fun for coaches to coach but it’s not a hobby to them. It’s their lives. There are times, too, when I need to get away from that job and watch or talk about something else. My family knows this well. I also don’t think people know how much you need to do before, during and after games. I don’t blame them because how would they know, but we’re not up there drinking beer and high-fiving during games. (The one stereotype that is true: the love of free food). You’re taking copious notes on each play. I do think it’s a cool job, but if you don’t work at it you won’t stand out. Oh, and another question I often get is this: “Do you get to talk to the players?” Our jobs depend on it.
Klis: That it’s more enjoyable to cover a winning team. Maybe the coaches and players are in a better mood by and large. When a team is winning, you’re writing more flattering critiques and therefore the actors involved like you more. But the workload and pressure on the beat is in direct proportion to a team’s success. Another misconception is we spend an inordinate amount of time working cop beat stories. Those stories don’t care what time it is.
McLane: For many, the biggest misconception is that I am a fan of the Eagles and that there couldn’t be anything greater in the world than to be able to talk to half-naked football players. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and it’s a privilege to be able to write about professional sports. But it’s a job, with pressures, and most of us don’t make a million dollars.
McManus: That we are either fans or haters. I’ve had players tell me they know we all root for the team in our hearts. And of course some will complain that “the media” wants to destroy the team. The media is blamed so often, we should get a game ball for all the motivation we provide. The truth is that most of us are neutral. We may have players we find easier or harder to work with, but we don’t have it out for anyone. But if a team wins or loses, it doesn’t impact me personally.
Salguero: The biggest misconception is that I can get anyone anywhere a ticket to any game—free, of course.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR JOB?
Keim: I wouldn’t define it as a traditional beat writer. I think those days are largely done, where a reporter writes a story of the day and then a notebook. My job is to not only report the news, but also analyze and provide as much insight as possible. Because of the proliferation of media, there are many ways for readers to find news and to know what happened. My job always is to take them deeper. So I need to give my opinion on a situation, something that perhaps would have been saved just for a columnist, say five or 10 years ago. It’s a balancing act, because how do you write news and then offer an opinion on the same story? But you don’t always have to; insight must shed light on a topic and does not have to come across like you’re taking a stand. My job also is to be proficient at many platforms such as radio and videos.
I am part columnist, news hound, blogger, analyst, entertainer. My job is fun, frustrating, often fast-paced, sometimes boring. —Armando Salguero
Klis: A writer/reporter. I’d rather write than report, but the beat guy must report first. Reporting takes up 70 percent of my day. I write the gamers, Sunday takeouts, NFL candy page with column, notes. I also blog and tweet.
McLane: I am, first and foremost, an information gatherer. I use my skills as a reporter to gather as much information as I can about the Eagles. And I am to use all available platforms—Twitter, the Internet, the newspaper, video, television, radio—to distribute that information. The information can be hard news, preferably breaking news, or it can be conveyed in analysis, opinion or features articles.
McManus: I write features and columns for espnW and cover football, mostly the Jets, for ESPNNewYork.com. Since I’m not the primary beat writer, I get the access and familiarity with the teams, but I don’t travel to every away game and I’m not moored to off-day coverage. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. When I am on the Jets, I usually write a news story and three or four blog items. If I’m solo, slightly more.
Salguero: Mine is a hybrid position at the Miami Herald as I am part columnist, news hound, blogger, analyst, entertainer and, of course, recipient of reader complaints, comments and kudos. My job is fun, frustrating, often fast-paced, sometimes boring. My job is an opportunity to deal with millionaires and billionaires who are endowed with grand abilities but also with gigantic flaws and foibles.
HOW DO YOU IMAGINE YOU WILL DEFINE THIS JOB FIVE YEARS FROM NOW?
Keim: I don’t know that it would change a whole lot from now as much as it will just continue to evolve, but I do think the way social media is going and with more teams enhancing game-day experiences, that the ability to go beyond what is seen will be more important. Some teams already have apps that allow fans at a game to watch replays from various angles. In five years, I’d imagine everyone will have that ability, and I think that makes fans smarter. That means writers have to keep pace and provide their unique perspective and work even harder to not tell you what happened but why. I also think the need to be multidimensional will increase with the rise in videos in particular.
Klis: Well, in social media I have always been about a year behind so it’s difficult for me to envision the future. I keep hearing that the printed paper will be dead in five years and our product will be all Internet. I hope that’s not true. But I don’t think reporting will change one bit. Reporting is about anticipation of an event or story or happening. Anticipate it, then dig. And it’s about relationships with sources.
McLane: Essentially, the same. The objective is to be considered the authority on the Eagles and to have the Inquirer as the primary destination for fans and NFL people. The mode of distributing information and stories may change, but the mission, I imagine, will remain the same. As for those possible changes, I believe we’ll find ways to narrow how readers who specifically want Eagles information receive it.
McManus: Since my position is a bit unique, I’m not sure.
Salguero: What is this: an annual evaluation? Five years from now I'll still be chasing the perfect wording for the perfect lede to the perfect column. And 10 years from now, I'll be doing the same thing. And all the while I'll be evolving as the industry evolves because not doing so would make me a dinosaur walking into a tar pit.
HOW MANY HOURS DO YOU WORK PER DAY?
Keim: My joke is that during the season you don’t really get days off, you get hours off. That’s true no matter where I’ve worked, and I think the hours are what you make of them. Sometimes the job could be done in lesser time, but do you want to stand out? If so, you work a little more. That adds up to a lot of 12- to 14-hour days during the season (occasionally more), starting in training camp (and I know other reporters on this beat work this way too. It’s not just me). Doing things like re-watching the game adds up (Tuesdays often are the longest day because of this), but it’s worthwhile. I’m not complaining about the hours. I like what I do, but I think to do it right it takes many hours. The offseason is much saner, so you get six months at high-end speed and six months at a good (albeit sometimes unpredictable) pace, though it increases around free agency and the draft.
Klis: I take an hour off here and there, go see my son’s play once every couple months or have dinner with family a couple times a week. But I start my day working and I finish my day working. How many hours is that?
McLane: 11-12 hours on average.
McManus: It depends, but I commute an hour each way to the Jets facility, and it’s generally an eight-hour day there. I may also have to work for an hour or two before I leave in order to set the table for other stories I’m working on. On game days I leave at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game and don’t usually return home until 10 p.m. Since we are a website, we don’t have to stop after a traditional newspaper deadline. There have been night playoff games where I haven’t left the press box until 3 a.m. When I’ve been the main beat writer, it’s comparable to being on call. You need to constantly check Twitter and your email for news or transactions. You have to be ready to file a story at any time. When the Jets got Brett Favre, they held a 1 a.m. conference call with Favre and then-general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and that was the start of my work day.
Salguero: I typically work 10-12 hours per day. Game days are longer. Fridays can be shorter. The worst days are travel days because no matter how long a trip takes, one is depending on the professionalism and moods of pilots, TSA agents, flight attendants, air traffic controllers and baggage handlers—not to mention the weather. Ever fly from Miami to Seattle?
HOW FORTHCOMING ARE NFL PLAYERS?
Keim: Depends on the trust you’ve built with them. If you have that, they’ll be a lot more forthcoming. But that usually occurs in not-for-attribution situations. There really are few times when players are forthcoming about a situation for the record. I also think it often depends on the questions you ask and whether you can dig deeper into a topic that you’re discussing. In group settings, players tend to be less forthcoming. There are times I’ve felt players who had a weekly radio show were even more forthcoming; they lose sight of the fact it’s an interview and feel like they’re just talking to a couple guys and sometimes more truth emerges.
Klis: I covered Major League Baseball for 13 years, and by comparison I find NFL players to be parrots of what the coaches told them during their team meetings. Or maybe it’s that NFL players are part of the Secret Strategy Society. One contradiction though: NFL players seem to want fame more than those in other sports. Maybe because they’re unrecognized in helmets, and there’s 22 guys out there sharing the play. I should not be making blanket statements, though. As a standup, class act, I’ll take football player Brandon Stokley over baseball player Kirk Gibson.
McLane: I’ve had the opportunity to cover all four major American sports leagues, and NFL players are the most forthcoming. Some of that has to do with the sheer size of an NFL roster. There are only a handful of star players (read: less available) on a 53-man roster, so you generally find a lot of players who are willing to talk. Non-guaranteed contracts, though, sometimes make players less willing to say something controversial.
The Dolphins fine players for speaking about injuries. The head coach rarely answers a direct question in direct fashion. It’s a culture that believes less information and sometimes misdirection grants them a competitive advantage. —Armando Salguero
McManus: There is a huge difference between on and off the record. Given the level of message-policing some NFL teams do, it isn’t in a player’s best interest to be candid on the record. It’s a shame, because that’s how you get these cookie-cutter stories about not looking beyond this Sunday and giving everyone credit and blah blah blah.
You can’t always blame the players. They have media training, which is in general a good thing because rookies need to learn how to present themselves—speaking up, making eye contact, etc. But it can have the inadvertent effect of making them wary of saying anything. (Or maybe not always inadvertent if you see actual talking points.) Then, when a player does say anything genuine, he can get called out. It’s a catch-22. In effect you get better information off the record, but it’s a bit of a joke to have all these anonymous sources in NFL reports, like we’re covering the NSA.
Salguero: NFL players are like everyone else—some are open and honest and forthcoming, and others are guarded. More and more, I find teams are instructing their players on how to be less open and honest. The Dolphins, for example, fine players for speaking about injuries. The head coach rarely answers a direct question in direct fashion. It's a culture that believes less information and sometimes misdirection grants them a competitive advantage. The Dolphins haven't had a winning season in four consecutive years. How's that cultural approach working out?
HOW MUCH PRESSURE DO YOU FEEL ON A DAILY BASIS?
Keim: A lot, for a variety of reasons. The Washington market is a competitive one, which I absolutely love. There’s strong competition from print, radio and TV reporters. It’s not just about trying to beat them for a story, either, because there are many parts to covering a team. You have to find a way to pull in a reader on a topic that someone else may have just written. You’d better do a good job or people will look elsewhere. With Twitter, you can constantly monitor your competition to see what they’re writing or reporting. It means the job is more 24-7 than ever. This job is about competing as much as anything. There’s also internal pressure, especially if you had a good week or a good day. You need to repeat that day. When you feel you’re judged every day because of the public nature of the job—by readers, editors, competitors—you can’t rest. So if you’ve done something well, you have to try and top it the next day or week so people don’t think you’re fading. Finally, the great thing about working at ESPN is the level of talent that surrounds you. I’m flattered to be in such a group, but it’s a great motivator to keep pace.
Klis: I feel it. Tracking a story, breaking a story, getting beat on a story on your specific beat—it’s the type of job where in order to be good at it, it must consume you.
McLane: Most of the pressure I feel is self-applied, but it is constant.
McManus: Every day there is pressure to get the news first. At ESPN, there is also an emphasis on getting it right, and if that means we don’t cross the finish line first, but have our facts right and are fair, that’s acceptable.
I feel pressure when I’m writing something that will be high profile on the site, like when we reported that Tim Tebow had expressed reluctance to play in the Wildcat package after Greg McElroy was used as the backup. It’s important that the story holds up to scrutiny, so you need multiple sources if you want to sleep at night. I’m not interested in drumming up controversy for a headline, and sometimes I see that. If there is actual controversy, however, those can be compelling stories to write.
Salguero: I don't feel pressure, I feel responsibility. And I meet that responsibility as best I can.
WHAT IS THE MOST SATISFYING PART OF THE JOB?
Keim: Breaking a story is always good, and with the amount of national reporters and beat reporters, any nugget you can uncover is always satisfying. It’s highly satisfying to talk to a player about what they do on the field and be able to dig deeper than someone else. When that happens, it feels great because you know readers will benefit. I love the ability to provide depth of knowledge to a story; that knowledge often comes from numerous conversations. Having writers in other cities compliment your work means a ton and the interaction on social media allows for good feedback, which is always appreciated. This is such a subjective business so when you receive compliments, they’re not taken lightly. I will say, another satisfying part is seeing one of my stories on the front of ESPN.com. Never gets old.
A frustrating part of the job is the decreasing access reporters are given to coaches and players. Most readers don’t give a hoot, but limited access affects the information and stories they often ask for. —Jeff McLane
Klis: Breaking a big story. Nothing like it. Second best would be Saturday nights on the road, having a burger and a beer in a sports bar with Woody Paige. And then a real nice 50-inch Sunday story that sings. Maybe the Sunday story execution would be tied for second with a burger and a beer with Woody.
McLane: Writing a story that’s yet to be reported and hearing from satisfied readers. Also, covering a big game.
McManus: Breaking a story is always nice, but stepping back and writing something a little deeper is really why you do this. I remember in 2010, after espnW launched, we did one of the first stories about whether the NFL would accept a gay player. The players I approached hadn’t yet been asked about it. I could tell Larry Fitzgerald took a second to think about whether or not he should even answer. Ultimately he did, and I’m sure he’s been asked a dozen times since. I think sometimes we don’t give athletes enough respect for their interests and life off the field. There are a lot who aren’t about clubs and cars and women, but they often get tagged with that stereotype. It’s almost like an NFL fantasy life that gets projected onto them, and maybe an expectation that some players try to fill. Being able to convey something beyond that is very satisfying.
Salguero: The most satisfying part of my job is having my wife tell me she enjoyed something I wrote. Years ago, watching the pride in my parents' faces when they saw my name in print was amazing for me.
WHAT IS THE MOST FRUSTRATING PART OF THE JOB?
Keim: It never ends. Even after a long day, I feel the need to constantly check Twitter to see if a story emerges that I have to react to or cover. It’s rare when you can just turn off the phone. There are days, in season or offseason, when you put in a solid day only to have everything change because you either get a call on something or another reporter broke a story. Or it could be that it’s Easter Sunday and you’re about to unwind with your wife and a glass of wine when you get a call that the Redskins just traded for Donovan McNabb. This job requires a lot of patience by spouses and kids—plans can be altered last minute—which I’m lucky to have received. Before the proliferation of blogs, you might hear something after deadline knowing there wasn’t much you could do until the next day. Also, in the pre-blog days, you could spend more time on the phone talking to people during the day to perhaps enhance your reporting. Now there are so many moving parts to the job that it’s hard to do that as much as you’d like. Texting helps, though. I’d love to be able to take my kids to a game, and I get a little jealous when I see dads with their kids at a game.
Klis: Getting beat on stories by national media, who tweet out a scoop from nowhere near your beat.
McLane: In truth, most of what we report and write about a team is positive. But for those of us that try to cover a team, warts and all, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with its decision makers, especially if they are sensitive or equate unbiased reporting with negativity. Another frustrating part is the decreasing access reporters are given to coaches and players. We used to complain about the access we got when Andy Reid was head coach, but since Chip Kelly came aboard the Eagles have given us the bare minimum. I don’t generally complain about the job, and most readers don’t give a hoot (which I completely understand), but limited access affects the information and stories they often ask for.
McManus: Seeing players suffer devastating injuries. I worry about the long-term cognitive effects on players I’ve gotten to know.
Salguero: I do not suffer disingenuous people well. And the NFL community is full of them.
WHAT PERSON OR PUBLICATION DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR BIGGEST COMPETITOR?
Keim: The Washington Post— Mike Jones and Mark Maske. But I’ll stress that I take no one lightly. Every reporter brings something to the beat. But the Post has the resources and talent to make life difficult—and to really cover many angles to a story.
Klis: Adam Schefter, nationally. Locally, competition would be AP and a couple TV guys. Schefter breaks the most NFL nuggets on my beat. Everybody else is kind of tied for second. (Tied for second: Michael Silver, Jay Glazer, Chris Mortensen, Jim Trotter, ESPN, USA Today, Pro Football Talk, NFL Network, SI, the Houston tennis coach who didn’t see Jack Del Rio in the LAX airport but tweeted he did.)
McLane: Gonna skip this one.
McManus: You are kidding yourself if you think a single outlet is your competition. Anyone with a blog or a Twitter account is your competition. If you are just looking at what one person is writing in New York, you are missing the world.
Salguero: I do not rank my competitors. Everyone is my competitor and I respect them all.
WHAT IS THE MOST SATISFYING STORY YOU COVERED THIS YEAR AND WHY?
Keim: Covered? Not sure there have been any that are more satisfying than the other. I like any story that provides good insight so there are some stories each week that are satisfying. There were a few stories I devoted more time to: detailing the number of hits on Robert Griffin III from last year, requiring a lot of watching last year’s games, and putting them into context; and the impact of Brian Orakpo in the pass rush, from when he played in 2011 to the impact of his absence in 2012. All required more effort. The thing I like about ESPN is that I have the resources to really provide good analysis, from the Stats & Information crew to the experts available to encouraging editors.
Klis: The Elvis Dumervil Fax Fiasco. It was a 19-day story. It took a year off my life, but the stress of it all was what made it so satisfying at the end. People seemed riveted by the details regarding the minute-by-minute chronology of how it all fell apart. And more than any other story I covered, I had top sources on all sides.
McLane: I was pleased with a recent story I wrote about how the Eagles scouted and drafted Nick Foles and a few stories I wrote about the Riley Cooper incident/fallout. But the most satisfying story has been a year-long one: covering Chip Kelly’s first year as the Eagles head coach.
McManus: I looked into what happened with the anti-sexual harassment program that Woody Johnson volunteered to fund after the Ines Sainz incident. I followed up with Sainz and the league about how the NFL’s harassment policies have evolved, and now include sexual orientation. That information was pertinent after the Richie Incognito story broke. Since I went through the firestorm at the Jets in 2010 when it happened, it was interesting for me to find out how much they spent and who provided the training.
Salguero: I am not fully satisfied with any story so far this season. I can say the workplace harassment story that was a national issue for nearly two weeks has been the least satisfying because, although I won with several "breaking news nuggets" on the issue, we simply don't know enough and are offering facts piecemeal. We don't have a complete picture. There have been erroneous reports. The entire saga has been driven by agenda from various sides. It has been, as Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said, a nightmare.
IF YOU REPORT SOMETHING FIRST ON TWITTER, DO YOU CONSIDER THAT BREAKING A STORY?
Keim: I think there’s probably a difference between tweeting it first and really breaking a story. There have been times where, for example, a player has texted a group of reporters to say he’s been cut. If I get that text while driving and can’t tweet right away, does it mean I was beat on the story? Or on the flip side that I beat the others? But when you force other reporters to confirm something you’ve tweeted then, yeah, it’s breaking a story.
Klis: Well, all the national guys get credit for breaking stories on Twitter. Our newspaper says we can’t break stories on Twitter, but in the NFL media market, to not break a story on Twitter usually means not breaking a story.
McManus: We don’t break stories on Twitter without going through the news desk.
Salguero: I do not consider a tweet a breaking story, but I acknowledge that information posted on Twitter establishes the first to tweet the information as the one "breaking" that information.
OTHER THAN YOUR OWN PAPER/WEBSITE, WHAT IS THE FIRST NFL CONTENT SOURCE YOU LOOK AT EACH DAY?
Keim: The first thing I look at is Twitter because it’s one-stop shopping for a beat writer. It’s the very first thing I do when I wake up. I’m always aware of what the other reporters on my beat have posted. After that it’s a matter of clicking on interesting stories, whether on SI.com or USA Today.
Klis: Pro Football Talk.
McLane: It varies day-to-day depending upon what links are first on my Twitter timeline. Twitter is my primary source for NFL content. I generally have the NFL Network on whenever I'm around a TV.
McManus: I get The New York Times delivered, so I leaf through that while waiting to get the kids on the bus. Not just for sports though.
WHAT TEAM WOULD YOU WISH TO COVER OTHER THAN THE ONE YOU DO, AND WHY?
Keim: That’s a tough one. I’d like to cover a team that didn’t change coaches every few years and had a couple years of sustained success, just to see what that was like and to keep from writing the same stories each December. Most Decembers here are spent pondering a coach’s fate or the direction of the franchise. And yet, having said all that, the one franchise I’d look at would be … the Browns. There’s a curveball. But my entire family is in Northeast Ohio and that’s where I grew up, and I love covering teams with passionate fan bases (like the Redskins). But I’m quite happy with the Washington market. Really, what you want is to cover a team where the fans care. Redskins fans care. Even when they’re bad, they remain a high-profile team.
Klis: San Diego, Green Bay or Jacksonville. San Diego because of the city, and I’ve always liked the people who cover and work for the Chargers. Green Bay because I think there’s a reverence about that team that would help me put one foot in front of the other when the season gets to be a grind. Jacksonville because of all those 11 a.m. mountain time starts. I’d even like going to London once a year.
McLane: The Cowboys, because they are the most followed team in the NFL and who wouldn’t want to cover Jerry Jones?
McManus: I want to cover the first NFL team in London. The mix of football and culture would be such a fertile ground for storytelling.
Salguero: The 1972 Dolphins. You don't really need an explanation why do you?