ESPN is the epicenter of sports media in the United States, and at the forefront of their award-winning coverage is John Walsh. The media giant’s Executive Vice President and Executive Editor, Walsh helps to oversee an ever-expanding array of content, from on-air programming to the journalistic efforts of ESPN.com. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Walsh earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and held editorial positions at Newsday, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, US News and World Report, and Inside Sports before joining ESPN in 1988.
David Laurila: How would you describe ESPN’s relationship with the game of baseball?
John Walsh: I think that ESPN, for 20 years now, has been the daily voice of the game with Baseball Tonight, and doing, at various times, anywhere from three to six games a week and sometimes even more. I think that on the internet we have the greatest collection of baseball writers that has ever been assembled with Peter Gammons, Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark, Jerry Crasnick, Amy Nelson, Rob Neyer, and Keith Law. If you’re a baseball fan, you have a relationship with ESPN that is very close to the game.
DL: How similar is your position at ESPN to that of a big-league general manager?
JW: Well, my personal position has changed quite a bit over the years. When Baseball Tonight launched, and we first acquired the rights for baseball, I was down in the trenches. Now, 20 years later, I’m removed from the daily action. But I do speak on a regular basis to the people who make the decisions, and do the games, and supervise Baseball Tonight. As a matter of fact, I’m having lunch with the senior person in charge of Baseball Tonight this week-that’s Jay Levy-and I try to connect with the game, because I grew up with the game and love it. I think there are a number of very interesting story lines continually, so it’s one of the sports spheres that I pay close attention to. I am more of an influencer and an instigator then an authority figure.
DL: How important are numbers to what you do?
JW: I guess that’s one of the great and appealing things about being in television and liking baseball. Both of them are numbers games, and both pay great attention to numbers. And numbers, while they’re relevant-I think it’s kind of silly, year to year, to say that something is up two percent or three percent, or that it’s down four percent or down eight percent. Some things are too important to be taken seriously. But we are judged by the business we’re in, just as, say, a pitcher is judged by a set of numbers, and hitters are judged by a set of numbers. People who produce television, and people who acquire rights for television, are judged by the numbers-eventually the bottom line. Part of that bottom line is, are you attracting a large enough audience to make a difference, and to make the venture worthwhile?
DL: Joe Morgan, who is a big part of your broadcast team, receives a lot of criticism for being too old-fashioned in the way he views the game. Given that fans have become far more statistically savvy, does that concern you?
JW: People have become statistically savvy, but one of the most interesting aspects of our coverage of baseball is that we bring a lot of diversity to the coverage in terms of perspectives-generationally, statistically, historically, people who played the game, people who cover the game-and when you add it all up, it’s quite an impressive package. Looking at any individual and saying, ‘well, this individual emphasizes this part of the game,’ and ‘that individual emphasizes that part of the game,’ well, that’s what they do. But I think that it’s the total package, and if one announcer emphasizes something, the producers of the game-the people supervising-find a way to compensate so that you get a full feeling for the total game. That’s whether it is analyzing the athletic ability of an individual or looking at it statistically. And it’s interesting, because I don’t think there is any media outlet right now that is really covering the explosion of numbers to the degree that the people who make decisions within the game are using the numbers. It’s fascinating to me that when Mike Mussina announces that he is retiring, you see stories with different ways of judging him. You’ll see, in the middle of a story, that somebody is using the relatively new statistic of the “Three True Outcomes” of a pitcher’s resume-they’re judging Mussina on that basis. So, the new numbers are great new tools, but I think that it will take awhile, even for the most savvy number-crunchers, to step back and look at what these numbers are really going to mean relative to the traditional numbers. We haven’t gotten there yet.
DL: You earned a master’s degree in journalism 40 years ago. Is sports journalism better now than it was then, or worse?
JW: Oh, I think it’s much better. The places where it is not better are exposed more in a wide-open media environment, so we see the not-so-appealing aspects of journalism right out there in front of us, raw and exposed. But I also think that there are so many more healthy things that are going on. You have the explosion of TV journalism that we didn’t really have 40 years ago. You have play-by-play announcers who understand that the story lines that occur outside the lines are significant to bring up when you’re covering the game between the lines; you have more of an awareness of the issues. Maybe if you had asked me this 10 years ago, I don’t know what I’d have said when the whole steroid story broke, because a lot of journalists would have been beating themselves up because they missed the story. But then you go back and look at it and you see that Tom Boswell was calling America’s attention to it as early as the 1980s. I don’t look at this as judging any individual, but as a body of work where some individuals stand out for what they do and what they’ve done. I think there are bigger problems with journalism today, because we are such trend followers and we kind of latch onto whatever the latest trend is, and that’s at the expense of stepping back and looking at the whole industry of sports or baseball. But there is so much great stuff that is being practiced today. There are excesses, and there are people who maybe look the other way, but the public is becoming much more educated in understanding whatever any individual brings to the media marketplace.
DL: In 2006, NPR did a segment where ESPN’s John Sawatsky said, “I want to change the culture of the journalistic interview. We interview no better now than we did 30 years ago. In some ways we interview worse.” Can you address Sawatsky’s comment?
JW: Well, since I hired John here, I obviously have some pretty good acceptance of that. The interview has always been, for me personally, something that I’ve had an acute interest in. When I read a story about John and saw what his theory on interviewing was, we interviewed him. Little did we know that he was judging us by how well we interviewed him! Eventually we hired him, and when you know John and his theory-when you take his seminar and you follow what he does, you never look at interviews the same again. One basic theory of John’s is that the interview is not about the interviewer, it’s about the person who is being interviewed. Too many interviewers today feel the compunction to make it about them, and that is at the expense of what you might be getting from the person you’re interviewing. He has what he calls his seven cardinal sins of the interview question, like where people do things like ask three questions instead of just one. Or people will load their bias into a question, which affects the psyche and the response from the person they’re interviewing. So, now that I’ve become a disciple of John’s theory, I have to agree with him. Look at all of these interviews-are they really getting at the heart of what they should be getting at? Is that question right? In some ways, there are a lot of things in the business we’re in, the media, that really haven’t changed in 30 or 40 or 50 years, and I think it’s not a bad practice for us to look at those and see what we can do to change them. One of them is interviewing.
DL: You were the managing editor of Rolling Stone magazine in 1973 and 1974. How does that experience influence what you do at ESPN?
JW: Well, I’ve been at ESPN for 21 years, and I was at a number of organizations and media companies, and different publications and different mediums, for my first 21 years in the business. It’s almost unthinkable the number of places that I’ve been at, and I think that all of them had some influence since I always try to be in a position to be learning. That’s been a characteristic of mine ever since I was in grade school; I’ve always felt I could learn, so I take whatever I can from a situation. From Rolling Stone, it was quite a bit, because Rolling Stone was the first place I had been that wasn’t traditional media or education. It was the first place I went that was nontraditional, so you could do things that weren’t as formal; you could try things that no one else was trying; you could use language that was verboten in the traditional press; it was a wide-open space. It gave you a sense that you, as an editor or a manager, could be a creator of something-of almost anything-and it was up to you what that creation would be. Now, there were certain limitations. There is the Jesuitic Principle of ‘the best creations are made within the parameters of strict boundaries.’ The boundaries were that Rolling Stone was about music and the counterculture of the day. But within that, you were wide open. What do you want to do about it and how do you want to define it? How far do you want to push the definition of counterculture, whether it be politics, the arts, or the environment? We were doing the environment, even way back when. And how do you want to form what you’re doing? I had run a magazine at Newsday at a very young age. I had a lot of autonomy at that job, but it was a different definition because it was a traditional place. Rolling Stone was a lot of autonomy, but it was a nontraditional kind of take. It was: let’s try and do things that the traditional press can’t do and won’t do. That contrarian sense of creation was emphasized in a way that had never been emphasized before, and it became one part of the way that I think.
DL: What has changed more since you were at Rolling Stone: pop culture or the culture of sports?
JW: Oh, I think it’s the culture of sports. The economics have changed so much more dramatically, and everything that goes along with it follows the money. There are so many aspects of sports that are far different today. You have the technology that is used to play the games, the lifestyles that the athletes lead, the nature of the issues that surround the playing of the games, the immersion of the athletes into the lineage that they grew up with. How they deal with that space is so much different. Actually, the culture of fitness around the playing of the game-whatever the sport is-is year-round. In the mid-’70s there was such a thing called the offseason, and that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore.
DL: Another cultural icon, MTV, has trended away from music over the years. What do you see when you look at the progression of ESPN’s content?
JW: It’s progressed far differently. At the core of it, the reason that sports are so popular on television is because it is unresolved drama. More specifically, it is unresolved drama that will be resolved, because there will be a final score. It is played by people with extraordinary physical talents which are on display in a visual medium that accentuates how extraordinary those talents are. That doesn’t change. It does to the extent that the players, for whatever reason, get better and better-and you can debate why they got better and better-but they are better and better. And the medium gets better at presenting the pictures because you get things like high definition, but the core of it-the idea that you have this drama with an uncertain result, that will become certain at a certain point, with the extraordinary ability of the athletes-that hasn’t changed. So, if you take that as the center of ESPN, that hasn’t changed. Everything around it has changed dramatically. SportsCenter was once a 15-minute show. When I started at ESPN in 1988, SportsCenter was on three times a day for half an hour; it was on at seven o’clock at night, 11:30 at night, and two o’clock in the morning, with a half-hour re-air at eight o’clock in the morning. Right now, SportsCenter is on 12 or 13 hours a day, which is a hell of a lot different. Programming like Outside the Lines didn’t exist, Pardon the Interruption didn’t exist, ESPN360 didn’t exist. We’re constantly trying and evaluating new things. We tried SportsNight on ESPN2 when we launched it; we tried ESPN Hollywood a couple of years ago. Just last Friday night we had Homecoming with Rick Reilly and Josh Hamilton, which is a show we’re trying out this year. Probably the most appealing thing about ESPN is that it does change. Unlike any other media company in the history of United States media, there have been more changes-more new things-happening here than anywhere else.
DL: How will the new MLB Network impact ESPN?
JW: Well, it’s a little early, because it’s only two weeks old, so we don’t really know. We are taking them as a serious competitor, obviously. I think that the one thing we, as journalists, have to be very wary of is that league-owned networks will cover, out of necessity-because the owners own it-that sport from a very narrow and biased point of view. The game will go on with the cameras, and they can do all of that, but the stories that are there, whether it is Roger Clemens or whatever controversies they may be, they will be very difficult for league-owned networks. Look at the NFL network and how they have to cover the various difficult stories that have popped up over the last couple of years, like Plaxico Burress, Pacman Jones, Michael Vick, and Spygate-whatever. I think that the last thing, as journalists, that we want to see is for the consuming public to not get the full story of what is going on with the sport.
DL: To close, can you share some of your thoughts on baseball, not just as the senior vice president of ESPN, but as a lifelong fan of the game?
JW: I grew up loving the game and listening to every Philadelphia Phillies game, all 154, every year. And it’s quite different from childhood to being a skeptical and cynical journalist who still loves the sport. The changes in the game have been astonishing to me. We’re looking at our 30-year anniversary here, and the first player to make a million dollars was Nolan Ryan in 1980. Just looking at that, 1980 to 2009, how many players make a million dollars now in the major leagues? That’s one aspect of it. There are also the changes in ownership and the various commissioners. You know, I love the game, and I love watching the games, but I’m detached as an observer because I’m kind of covering the sport in my own mind on a constant basis. So I’m really looking at the trends. As a media person, the things that stand out for me are when Peter Gammons began his Sunday column in the Boston Globe, when Bill James mimeographed his Baseball Abstract as a night watchman in Kansas, when Michael Lewis published Moneyball in 2001. Those, from a fan’s viewpoint, are astonishing developments in terms of what each has meant to the game.
I think of the beautiful, flowing, literary nature of the game that began in the first half of the twentieth century with the wonderful writing from the Runyons, Lardners, and going up to the Hines and Red Smiths-they were all wonderful writers. And then, getting into the Jimmy Cannons and Dick Youngs, and graduating into the beautiful and flowing language of the Tom Boswells and the extraordinary emphasis on the economic coverage of the game from a Murray Chass. There is the wonderful beat reporting that is done on a local basis in all of the cities throughout the country. I went to school with Rick Hummel, who covers sports for the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch, and I was at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown a couple of years ago. That reminded me of how when I was in Missouri, getting my masters, there was the appeal for all of the kids taking sports writing; they were aspiring to become a beat reporter covering a game like baseball.
The game itself has lent itself to the changes in the rules, like the height of the mound, and to the stadium structure, the equipment and the training, and the controversy over the steroid era. I was watching Pete Rose live the life that he did. How admirable-and what a player he was, and how much he just loved what he did. Just how enamored he was when he had that 44-game hit streak in the late ’70s, and how he would invent characters to feed the press. And then to see what happened to his life in the late ’80s. Where I was, which was at ESPN, on August 24 of 1989, to see this incredible change in the perception of Pete Rose. It was astonishing to me to watch that. And it’s happened to other people in this sport, and other sports. And now, living back in the Northeast and watching the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, and the over-hyped coverage of it, is amazing.
The thing I miss about the game is that there aren’t as many characters, because with the money that people are making you don’t get to see who people are as much because they don’t give you access. That’s a big swing and a miss for the sport. I don’t know, you get a little closer to the game and you see the decisions that are made. Right now, we’re in the “Moneyball Era,” and if you look at-just yesterday I was talking to Jay Levy about how the Red Sox have signed Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis to contracts that amount to 10 career years, to play every day, and the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett for more money than Youkilis and Pedroia combined, to pitch every fifth day for five years. I watch the money that the Yankees spent on a new stadium to get these fantastic players, which is just unbelievable, and then you look at the Red Sox who are signing everybody that played well for a while-who played great for a while-but got injured. So there’s always something really interesting going on in the game, both on and off the field. I love it; I love it all.