Figuring It Out
I'm still trying to find my way as a "reporter". Except I'm not a reporter. But I am.
I've been wrestling with that a lot lately, and when I wrestle with something like this, the only way to work it out in my head is to write about it. So this will be some open-booking where I let you into my head a little bit. That's why I'm making it a free article. Nobody needs to pay to see inside my head.
(By the way, for those who have asked, "free" just means the paywall won't go up. If you're not a subscriber, you'll still see the "you have read X articles this month" thing. It just won't add one and trigger the paywall if you're out of free reads.)
Let's start here. I've gotten this comment a lot over the past few weeks:
You are a lucky man! Enjoy it!— Andy Kochel (@andykochel) December 2, 2020
First off, don't I know it. In more ways than one. I'm lucky to be a fan with a website who is trusted enough to get a credential AND a fan who is lucky enough to be in the building for my #5 Illini in a top-five matchup when no crowds are allowed. I often worry that places will reject my credential application on these grounds ("he's just a fan trying to get into the game by applying for a press pass"), so I'm quite obsessive about my faux professionalism when seated among the media. I've been given the opportunity to observe and report from inside the building, so fandom barely enters my brain (besides, you know, getting agitated when there's Baylor guys cheering at the other end of press row).
So every time someone tells me that, my reaction is part "don't I know it" but also part "it's not what you think". I'm excited to be there, but it's not the experience you might be picturing. It's a working environment. As I've written about before, there are multiple announcements warning that anyone cheering in the pressbox will be removed. There are some schools where it feels like a fan environment (I just tweeted about the Nebraska media member yelling "got him!" when Nebraska sacked Brandon Peters three weeks ago), but for the most part, it doesn't feel like you're at a game.
I used to do something I called "emergency mode". Your press pass gives you access to most of the stadium, and when I was in a situation where I know I might not be able to hold it in (Michigan State basketball 2019, Nebraska football 2015), I'd switch to "emergency mode" and go find an empty section of the stands so I could yell. But that's behind me now (at least I'm hoping it is). This year, obviously, I can't go anywhere besides the pressbox or press row due to Covid restrictions. But post-pandemic, I don't plan to do it again. Doesn't feel like an appropriate use of a credential.
This is what I mean by things I'm trying to figure out. For the most part, across college sports, a Robert is not allowed in the pressbox. There's a very firm "fan" line. I say "we" when I write, and I'm not employed by a media organization, and that puts me in the fan category. Illinois could change their policy tomorrow and I'd be out.
If you don't believe me, look all around college athletics. That Michigan blog you read occasionally or the really great Texas A&M site - most all of them are not credentialed. I'm a "blogger", but I'm not trying to be that. I'm a fanalyst, and I walk the tightrope between fan and beat reporter. I believe those walking that tightrope produce the best content, which is why I do it, but I'm also fully aware that I'm one gust of wind from being knocked out forever.
I saw today that Kyle Porter is leaving the Oklahoma State blog he started (Pistol's Firing). Porter started that site while he had a day job and built it into a sportswriting career (sounds familiar), and for many years he's been both the CBS Sports golf writer as well as the publisher of Pistol's Firing. This is a real-deal reporter getting a credential to cover the Masters... and Oklahoma State booted him from the pressbox at OSU football games.
That's the anvil my chair is under. There's never been any threat of that, and the DIA staff has been great about allowing me access, but across college sports, that's how it works. I asked for a press pass in 2009, was turned down, and it took me until 2013 until I received my first season credential. I like to think that the four-year vetting process (and seven-year run since) has earned me credibility that might prevent a situation like what Porter went through at OSU, but there's no guarantees.
That's what makes me the rule followingest rule follower in history. That's why I've more or less developed my own meditation practice which allows me to suppress my fan feelings while watching a game. You've heard of transcendental meditation? I'll call it... compartmental meditation. I need to take these feelings and I need to put them in a box or else I'm going to yell "got him!".
As a result of this, two things make me furious:
1. Other blogs skirting the rules any putting my press pass at risk. I could write 11 articles on this. It's the question to never ask me at a party. At some point, one of them is going to do something that causes a new policy to be put in place and that policy might sweep me out. Sometimes it feels like I'm living on a riverbank below the dam and it's just a matter of time. But hey, you know - keep hitting the weak spot in the dam with hammers just for laughs.
2. The suggestion that I'd offer rosy opinions to keep my press pass. I'll alter my tone, no question. You have to. If a radio reporter brought the fan rants from his radio show into press conference questions, that reporter would be out regardless of what media organization he worked for. There must be decorum. So as the fan in the room, I have to be extra vigilant with my tone. I don't have to alter my questions, though.
If you ever meet me in person - I'm serious about this - do not ask me about one of these two things if you don't want 10 minutes of ranting where I don't take a breath. I'm a the loyal/protective type to begin with, and with my credential, I'm perhaps doubly protective. You don't walk halfway across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope and then just relax.
OK I got a little off track there (surprise!). My point: the press box/press row thing isn't what you think it is. It's not very much "fun" to watch a game while practicing my newly-termed "compartmental meditation". I'm actually relieved sometimes when Tyler is covering a basketball game and I'm watching on TV so I can just let the fan out a little bit. It's much more relaxing.
Don't get me wrong, here. The fact that I could cover the Illinois-Baylor game is an absolute honor. When I took that photo above of the Nebraska pressbox (I looked around and realized I was the last one left), I had that giddy "hard work pays off" feeling. In that moment, I couldn't believe my life. 24 years doing one job, the last 11 building something from hobby to job on the side. And now here I am watching Illinois beat Nebraska from the Nebraska pressbox, writing what I felt was a really good postgame article. I don't know if this is good (for now) or bad (for then), but I didn't get that feeling very much the previous 24 years.
So it's an honor to do this. It's just going to take some time for me to sort everything out. I'll just make a list of the things I'm currently trying to figure out.
- Time management. The "customer service" side of things takes me a lot more time than I thought and I need to carve out a set time maybe twice a week to make sure I've responded to everything (I know I've missed a few recently).
- Audio content vs. written content. Didn't do a podcast this week because I felt like I had been putting too much there and no enough here.
- Press conferences. This one I HAVE to figure out. I think the last story I wrote that included quotes from someone was the Dele Harding/Jake Hansen article last November. And so I use my questions in press conferences (with players and coaches) to learn more about an issue and then write about it (like the Brandon Peters/Covid testing thing on Tuesday) than I do to write "Hobbs playing his best ball as a senior" articles with quotes from Nate Hobbs on how he's playing his best ball (I tried to choose something generic there - that's not a shot at anyone). As a result, I skip some press conferences because there's not much I think I can learn in a Zoom presser setting. But the Peters thing came out of nowhere during one of those, so maybe I should be asking a question on all of them and waiting for more Peters quotes to happen.
- Leading. Mannnn, just typing this I'm realizing I'm failing here. There's a full team here, and they're all helping me achieve my dream, and I'm not doing nearly enough checking in with everyone. If it wasn't Covid I'd probably pause right now and go schedule a leadership retreat or something. Complete with trust-falls.
- Admin. I haven't done a single expense report since we re-launched 2.5 months ago. Each week I claim I'm going to do it and each week I have this "the articles are more important than getting that done this week".
- Rest. I feel fine right now, but I know the candle is burning pretty quickly. I got back from Indianapolis around noon yesterday (wrote until 3:00 am, slept until 9:45) and spent three hours not doing website stuff before doing some website stuff. That was a nice three hours of "see, there's other things to do with your day than think about the Illini" (and then I spent 3 more hours doing website stuff).
On that last one, I made a pretty good decision with the Northwestern game, I think. My son and his new bride will be in town from Idaho (he's driving to STL to get some things and driving them back to Idaho), so I'm not going to the Northwestern game (if there would even be a press box seat available to me). Tyler is covering the Missouri game, so I can just take next Saturday and see my son and daughter-in-law. That will likely provide enough brain revitalization for months.
Speaking of my brain, I just had one of those "why am I telling you this?" moments, so it's time to wrap it up. I guess I just wanted you to know my approach here. I work for you now, and I wanted to give you, I don't know, my timesheet.
Or maybe this is more of a yearly review. Here's the deal, boss. I'm struggling with external things that put my credential at risk (either actual risk or just perceived risk), and I need to find some footing there. Time management sucks right now, but I'm chalking that up to being new at this and figuring out the systems. I feel really good about the content we've been producing, especially getting an "I never tested positive on the Big Ten test" quote from Brandon Peters and chasing it down.
Things to work on? Admin stuff. Scheduling rest. Leadership.
And not losing my mind when a Baylor fan is clapping on press row and sneaking over to film him so I can get some "I hate it when I see a visiting fan sit in my section" sympathy.