John Leyba/Getty Images
John Leyba/Getty Images

What Is It Like To Be Paid To Cover Pro Football?

Writing about the NFL would seem to be a dream job. Five reporters from across the country discuss doing just that, including the satisfactions and frustrations, the long hours on the clock and the pressure of breaking news

By
Richard Deitsch
· More from Richard·

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.

The panel:

  • 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. 

One big challenge—finding the unique story amid the proliferation of NFL media.
One big challenge—finding the distinctive story amid the proliferation of NFL media.

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?

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15 comments
texpete
texpete

I thought this was a nice piece.  True it didn't offer up the gossip and nastiness we all seem to crave, but it did give us a look into the business of sports reporting nowadays.  I think it was interesting how each question was answered in much the same fashion they say makes their job so difficult.  Notice most of them were careful not to say anything remotely critical of their organization or their competitors?  They did this most likely because, much like players, it is not good for your career to talk about your boss or coworkers except in confidence and in closed private circles.  Even then, it is dangerous.  Now imagine you do that and not only do 50 million people find out, but it is repeated and repeated embarrassing somebody who doesn't appreciate your candor.  This happens in workplaces all over America.  I once had a new boss who told us all he wanted us to challenge him and speak up.  The few who did learned the golden rule when commenting on your boss.  Praise in public, and be tactful when speaking to them in private. 

I feel the same frustration most fans feel when someone tweets or breaks a story using "sources close to blah blah" that is controversial or seemingly unprofessional.  Personally it strikes us as cowardice. That is an outdated and idealistic holdover in today's business climate. You face losing your job or ruining your career even if you were completely truthful and accurate. 

This is why there is a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a free press.  It is also why journalists also protect their sources even when facing court orders to disclose who they are.  The average American shouts Freedom of Speech without understanding what it means.  Freedom of speech protects you from being jailed by the government for saying something they do not want you to say about it.  It does not protect you from being fired, harrassed, suspended or even becoming a the most hated person by a fan base.  Journalists however do have that protection when reporting.  It becomes the only way we the public ever really get news or stories about important issues. 


The issue I have is that the news cycle is minutes instead of days and it is important to their career to be the first one letting the world know. Reporters used to verify the story with more than one source for credibility, but those are hard to come by at 2 am on twitter.  The result often is first reports are no completely accurate and often just plain lies.  I wonder if Laura Logan wishes she was a beat reporter?  I understand and can appreciate using unnamed sources in a story, just make sure what you say is true.

richward16
richward16

What a waste of space McLane is in this piece. Thanks for the insight, Jeff. One word, one sentence answers; the guy is clearly too important for this. 

DavidHart
DavidHart

"Breaking a big story" "Wanting to be first"....this often leads to sensational and sometimes inaccurate stories.  Example:  Mike Silver and the Brandon Browner "one year suspension for PED's."  That was an attempt to scoop everyone else on a big story which was flat out inaccurate and wrong, as were the lame attempts to justify it by saying "the Seahawks are ready to move on without Browner."  I can't imagine it would have been all that difficult to wait on the story until all the facts could emerge, but then Silver couldn't have the feather in his cap as the "reporter" breaking the story.  GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT before telling the world the news.  Very often, people base their beliefs on what they quickly read in a headline.  This did a lot of damage to Browner personally, and affected his future employment and earnings potential, and shame on someone as respected as Mike Silver for being involved in that.

nyjetsfan08
nyjetsfan08

I would have to disagree that Schefter is first. Glazer is first. Schefter is a strong second. I don't even know why ESPN keeps Mortensen. He is a dinosaur. He rarely breaks stories and most interviews on the ESPN networks and radio stations are with his younger half. Just doesn't make sense why ESPN keeps him around when they have Schefter.


I would have loved for these guys to be questioned, specifically the ESPN people, why ESPN -- and, by extension, Schefter -- does not give explicit credit to anybody else who breaks stories. I remember Glazer recanted a story that he broke and ESPN had the nerve to say "sources are reporting", when they know he, in fact, broke the story. Similar thing happened with Mike Francesa on the FAN and he was furious about it, too. If they do give credit, it is rare and it'll be either be SI/Peter King or Pro Football Talk/Mike Florio (yes, ESPN does from time-to-time give credit to radio stations and newspapers, but I'm talking about the big, national players).

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

A puff piece by the sports media, about the sports media.  What trashy "journalism."


I understand it's not all fun.  But it's a very good job, and these writers seem almost obsessed with telling us how hard they work.  Lots of people work just as hard for far less money in horrible jobs without any perks at all.

In fact, millions of Americans have "ceased to exist":  the government doesn't count them in statistics after they've lost Unemployment Compensation eligibility.  

I think the MMQB is floundering, either desperate for content or clueless. There is no other explanation for such a crass, silly piece.



tobywalker03
tobywalker03

I absolutely thoroughly enjoyed this piece. It was very, very interesting to gain a feel for the lives of the NFL beat-media. They're certainly a huge part of the entertainment that is the NFL - at least half of the satisfaction I receive from the games comes from the soap-opera-like story-lines that comes out of the work these guys do.


Great stuff!

readerJ
readerJ

Enjoyable read RD. 


I feel like I go through phases of following and unfollowing some beat writers. Those that insist on doing play by play tweets are the worst. Trying to make or force stories when there isn't really a story there is also annoying, which I feel happens way to much now in the 'twitter filled, I need to say something at least 'x' number times a day to be relevant in the sports media world.'


Some writers need to keep things in perspective too. They are not really 'breaking' most news...most are just lucky to get a heads up on something from a contact in the front office. I kind of feel sad seeing awkward twitter fights about that stuff.

richward16
richward16

Everyone else, I appreciate their insight and providing a look into a job many deem glamorous. 

tobywalker03
tobywalker03

@nyjetsfan08; You should know that in this business, being a "Dinosaur," is not a negative. Mort has been in this business for a long-time ... therefore he has cultivated and developed trusting relationships with reputable sources all across the NFL - relationships which the younger, but just as "connected," Shefty, and up-and-comer Glazer, haven't truly matched yet. 


I take issue with a lot of your points and have an extremely hard time believing that you have ANY real idea that you know what you're talking about.

tobywalker03
tobywalker03

@MidwestGolfFan Virtually everyone with a CAREER (i.e. not a "job") would likely have a host of things they enjoy about their jobs, and just as well, a lengthy list of things they enjoy, not-so-much about their job ... For an article that was written, (presumably) with this pretense in mind, as NFL fans and readers of this site, it would certainly be interesting to see what these "lists" would be like for the coveted beat-writers who worked hard to find themselves in the position they're in.


I think it is a little immature and out-of-context for you to voice your own personal political-frustrations as a response to this article ... Those types of comments belong on an article found somewhere within CNN.com, not the MMQB.

richarddeitsch
richarddeitsch moderator

@readerJ The play by play Twitter Q is a good one. Your follower base is likely fans of the team -- who want everything -- yet they are also no doubt watching on a second screen. I'm one who would always avoid play by play tweets. Better to provide what I can't see at home. 

nyjetsfan08
nyjetsfan08

@tobywalker03 @nyjetsfan08

I'm against ageism. I didn't call him a dinosaur because he is too old for this job. I called him a dinosaur because Schefter breaks stories all the time and is arguably better at it, whereas you barely hear Mort breaking any stories. What does Mort add on ESPN that Schefter doesn't already? Why I have two insiders when one hasn't added much in the last handful of years. If ESPN was littered with "Mort is reporting" sound bytes, tweets, and blog posts, and Schefter was barely breaking any stories, then Schefter should go. That's just the way it is.


sleater27
sleater27

Reading this makes me glad I don't cover an NFL team. Too much work for something so narrow and not really that important. Sounds as though these guys don't have much of a life outside football.

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