Bullets Forever (old) interviews: Dan Steinberg

My apologies for basically going AWOL the entire day today.  As a token of my appreciation, I'm going to make it up to you in grand fashion.

Doing his thing at the 2006 Olympics (via Columbia Journalism Review)

If you are a fan of Washington sports, you have to be a fan of Dan Steinberg's DC Sports Bog.  Whereas most mainstream newspapers have blogs written by beat writers, the Washington Post went the extra step this fall, adding Steinberg as their blogger extraordinare.  And there's probably nobody that fits the part better than Steinberg himself.  He's funny, responsive, and quirky enough (but not in a Gilbert Arenas way) to identify with the blogging generation.  He's even moved on to TV, but is still blogging strong, despite the recent birth of his first child (Mazel Tov!).  

About two months ago, Bullets Forever traded e-mails with Steinberg.  Then, I got bogged down (get it!) at school, blog buddy The Big Picture upstaged me (with a great interview, I might add), and Steinberg had to tend to his family.  Since that time, a whole lot has happened, so I apologize if some of the answers are untimely.  Here is the result of our conversation.

Bullets Forever: While the DC Sports Bog represents the first time many of us in the blogosphere have been exposed to your work, you've actually been a reporter for the Washington Post for quite some time.  How did you get started and break into the newspaper business?

Dan Steinberg: I did some sports writing for my high school newspaper, and then for my college newspaper. (The U. of Delaware Review. My first story was about the equestrian team. Seriously.) I always wanted to write about sports, but I got sidetracked in some non-profit work, and then I worked at a super market for about a year and a half, eventually becoming a cheese buyer. Through a friend of a friend, I got some part-time work at The Post answering phones and photo copying page proofs and taking down high school sports scores. One thing led to another, and I gradually started covering high school sports events. My first beat was high school volleyball. Watch out for Centennial in Howard County; a perennial power.

Bullets Forever: Many people would probably be surprised to know that the DC Sports Bog isn't your first experience blogging for the Washington Post.  You also blogged for the paper at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.  What was that experience like, and how did it help you prepare for your current blogging gig?

Dan Steinberg: Actually Turin wasn't my first blog either. My first Post blog was a two-day joint at the ACC tourney in Washington, when I had a bad case of the flu and was mostly delirious. My second Post blog was a one-day blog from RFK Stadium during the Nats' home opener in 2005. My third Post blog was a torrid two-day affair at the local PGA tournament in the summer of 2005, where temperatures were on the hellish side.

Then I got sent to Turin, with a press pass and instructions to do pretty much whatever I wanted. So I mostly wrote about Italian cheese and the New Zealand curling team. Plus the various exploits of WaPo columnist Mike Wise, our (mild) drinking adventures, an American chef I met, and ketchup-flavored snack foods. I didn't hate it, which, for me, is saying something. It also convinced my editor to start thinking about creating a full-time blogging position, which led to my current gig. Although it's a lot, lot different trying to build an audience on a permanent basis, as opposed to for a short-term event.

Bullets Forever:What type of feedback did you get from readers/editors about your blogging from Turin?  How much do you think people enjoyed them?

Dan Steinberg: The feedback was actually really nice. There were thousands and thousands of media people covering the Olympics, and everyone was trying to find a niche of some sort. I certainly wasn't close to the only person trying to do the lighthearted approach. But there were a lot of times that I was one of the only American journalists at the curling venue (especially when the U.S. wasn't playing), and virtually every time I went to my favorite cheese shop I was the only U.S. sports writer there. So I think, to some extent, I was giving people something that they couldn't find elsewhere. I think I was also approaching the whole event with the mindset of an ordinary dude who happened to be thrown into this Northern Italy Olympic Weirdness, and I was just writing what it felt like, not so much who was winning or losing in the biathlon.  Plus, I gave away free stuff, which people liked.

To the question of "how much did people enjoy it," I would say 7.3.

Bullets Forever: So how exactly did you get this DC Sports Bog gig?  Did your editor call you at 4 AM, while you were sleeping in your home, and say "We need a guy to scan blogs and message boards and provide wacky updates in blog form. Can you be that guy?"  How did the DC Sports Bog begin?

Dan Steinberg: Pretty close. I had told my editor for a while that I was interested in writing exclusively for the Internets, because I think it suits my stylez better, plus it's more fun, plus I'm worried about newspapers being kaput before I can retire. I knew there was a chance The Post would try a full-time sports blog, but I thought it was a year or two away, so I started applying for other, non-media jobs. Then, towards the end of July, I got an ominous phone call that asked me to meet with my boss. I thought I might get fired; instead, I got a blog.

I think to some extent no one was sure exactly what we wanted out of the Bog. We now have Wizards, Redskins, Capitals, NFL, recruiting, high school sports and soccer blogs at Washingtonpost.com, so I needed to find a way to navigate between all these other blogs and provide something different. I've sort of been doing whatever I feel like, while mostly concentrating on the quirks of the D.C. sports scene, which probably isn't a great recipe for mass-market success. But seriously, I don't know what else to do. If you or your readers have any suggestions, I'm listening.

Bullets Forever: Before you started the blog, what was your impression of the blog world? How different or similar is the blog world to what you expected?

Dan Steinberg: Obviously I read Deadspin, local stuff like DCist and Mister Irrelevant, and some general interest national stuff like Big Lead and Can't Stop the Bleeding. But I'm not really a fan of any teams, and I didn't really look at team-specific blogs at all. The world was definitely bigger than I expected--especially for the Nats--and obviously it's grown even more since I started.

One thing that surprised me was, aside from places like Deadspin, a lot of homegrown blogs have pretty limited numbers of commenters, and a lot of the commenters show up at multiple blogs. Like, I'm pretty sure Unsilent Majority has commented on every sports blog in the universe. And this gives people like Unsilent a level of Internet celebrity that sort of surprised me. Also surprising: the speed with which a blog can go from new start-up to wildly popular. With Leather, for example.

Finally, I'd say the quality of writing has absolutely surprised me. Indisputably, there are dozens and dozens if not hundreds of sports bloggers who write better than reporters at national newspapers. Either that, or the newspaper format has confined its reporters into dullness and cliche. Which is not to say that there aren't brilliant newspaper and magazine writers, too; but most days, I prefer what I read in many blogs to what I read in most newspapers.

Bullets Forever: With the Bog, it seems like you wanted to cover everyone, but lately, you've been doing more Wizards stuff that other sports.  What exactly makes the Wizards so appealing?  What about them is so crazy, so interesting?

Dan Steinberg: I think about this a lot. There are several answers. First and foremost, the team is winning. I like to write about stuff a little bit on the non-traditional side of sports, the personalities and the locker room hijinks, and it's 7,000 times easier to do that with a winning team. Losing teams just aren't very much fun to be around. That's gonna be an issue if I keep my current approach, because we've had a lot of losing teams in D.C. over the years.

Also, unlike many athletes, Gilbert will talk at great length and with his usual candor and politeness even after a loss. If I go to a Washington Capitals game and the team loses, it feels like entering a morgue. Gilbert will stand around and have a thoughtful conversation for 45 minutes after a loss.

But there are other reasons. Whether or not Gilbert's schtick is getting stale for some people, I think he's among the most compelling pro athletes out there. It's hard for me to explain in a way that doesn't sound cheesy or overwrought; obviously he knows what he's doing with this personality he's created. But still, there's something so genuine about him that he's just fun to be around. That's the best way I can put it; it's fun to talk to him. I'm sure I'm not the only one that feels this way.

Also, a lot of guys on the Wiz have been very kind to me, sort of playing along with my questions -- Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Roger Mason especially come to mind. The team's PR staff has been way more than accomodating. Eddie Jordan too, although I'm not sure he even knows who I am. The practice schedule works very well for my blog; they practice right in the city, and right in the middle of the work day, when people are most likely to be on our site and trying to waste time.

And the basketball blogging community has also been very kind to me, with cross-linking and cross-discussion and all that. I also think a lot of basketball blogs focus on the same sort of personality approach that I like, which means there's an existing community for me to try to be a part of. And so many hoops bloggers are such interesting writers, from the kooky (Wizznutzz) to the tortured (Free Darko) to the whimsical (YAYSports) to the comfortably comprehensive (True Hoop) and on and on.

All in all, I've just felt more comfortable writing about D.C. United and the Wizards than anything else.

Bullets Forever:You're universally credited with Arenas' blog nickname, Agent Zero, into the mainstream.  Before, it was just Wizznutzz, but recently, Steve Buckhantz and the guys on ESPN have been referring to Arenas as "Agent Zero." From your perspective, how exactly did the nickname diffuse from the blogosphere into the mainstream?  How were you able to convince Gilbert Arenas, and conversely your readers, that it was a good nickname?

Dan Steinberg: Well, "universally" might be a bit much. Actually, I think my role might be fabricated and/or exaggerated. You'd have to do some archive searches. I know that places like DCist, Basketball Jones, True Hoop and many others were regularly using "Agent Zero" before my blog even existed. More importantly, I'm pretty sure Deadspin was. At this point, when Deadspin is doing something, it's basically already "mainstream." (Sorry, Deadspinners, but the truth is, you're totally mainstream.)

About the only thing I'll take credit for is being the first to run the nickname by Gil, and I can't even swear that was the case. He certainly seemed never to have heard of it when I asked him, but I just can't swear to it. I'd have to ask Buck when/where he picked it up, but I'm sure it wasn't from reading my blog. Fact is, Gil got huge in the fall of this year, right when I happened to be starting my Wiz coverage. I got lucky in that I was the first to ask him about it; someone else would have done it within a short time if I hadn't. And once the nickname came up on Gil's blog (prompted, no doubt, by an NBA.com employee), it was a done deal. But to be honest, I'd say Deadspin probably did much more to popularize the nickname than I did.

Bullets Forever: What's your absolute favorite moment involving the Wizards and you this season?  What made it so incredibly memorable?

Dan Steinberg: I'm not sure what my answer would have been last week. Maybe the phenomenal swag moment, preceded by the game-winner against the Bucks. Maybe at training camp, when Gil and DeShawn were going back and forth about their tats.

But after Friday, I don't think anyone who was in the practice court would say anything besides the Gil-DeShawn three-point shooting contest. Or at least, any bloggers who were there. For me there were a couple reasons. It confirmed what I've been telling people who ask; there really is something a little bit different about this team and its attitude toward each other and toward the public (for allowing and even demanding something like that to be filmed.) Everyone filled their roles so perfectly: A.D. (one of the grownups) was keeping score; Brendan Haywood (an underrated wit) did the ringside announcement; Caron (perhaps the cleverest Wiz) was the rebounder and offered occasional quips; DeShawn (a way underrated character) goofed around in the background; and Gilbert (of course) was the star. All that was missing was Antawn Jamison doing crossword puzzles in the corner or something.

But mostly, the reason I liked it is the reason I like covering this team: they have fun. Like I said earlier, who knows whether things would be different if they were losing. Probably, at least to some extent. But they're winning, and so they're more fun to be around than any pro team I've ever witnessed (which, admittedly, is a fairly modest list). I just think people take sports too seriously; I understand careers are on the line, but at the heart of it most of these guys make a pretty good living to be in the entertainment business, playing what amounts to a childhood game. That three-point contest made it pretty clear that the fun hasn't been taken out of the game for the Wiz, and everyone who watched it was smiling if not laughing out loud, and it wasn't some private joke, they let everyone be in on it. Just great entertainment. Not to be too serious.

Bullets Forever: What are some of your favorite sports blogs out there in every sport (I'm not just talking NBA)?  What do you think makes them so good and interesting to you?

Dan Steinberg: For work stuff, I'm most likely to look at places like Gilbertology, Hogs Haven, Capitol Punishment, District of Baseball, Washington Hockey Daily (which isn't really a blog, but let's me check out all the Caps blogs at once), and so on; places where I can make sure that i'm not missing anything local and/or get a sense of what fans are thinking. But the strange thing is, I have no natural allegiance to any sports team, and if I get fired tomorrow I'm not sure which blogs I would look at. Obviously Deadspin, because Will is Papa Blog. I would look at DCist. I would look at True Hoop, ESPN affiliation or not, because Henry is making blog history. I would look at Mister Irrelevant and Saved by the Blog, because I want to stay in good graces with the Mottrams for when they take over the world. In the world of the Nats, I would definitely look at things like Distinguished Senators and Ball-Wonk and Nationals Enquirer, because, like me, they sometimes invent things, except they're funnier than I am. I find YAY! Sports' photoshops sort of irresistible. I don't really like college football, but EDSBS and The Wizard of Odds are unbelievable. I don't know, I'm doing this off the top of my head, which is dangerous. My favorite sports blog of all time remains The Wizznutzz, because you can't read anything like that anywhere else in the world.

Also, my buddy Darryl Slater at the Daily Press does one of my favorite MSM blogs, and I wish his paper would do more to promote it.

Bullets Forever: What do you think are the key elements for a successful sports blog?  What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a sports blog?

Dan Steinberg: I don't really know. When I was struggling a bit early on, a Post co-worker (Derek Willis) advised me to pretend like I was just writing for my wife and a few friends. He said the voice would be truer that way, and that it would force me to write about what I was really interested in, and then at that point people either like it or they don't. I think that's the best blogging advice I've ever gotten. I also think blogs should know what they are; have a niche, even if that niche is with the voice rather than the content. My blog is all over the place, so that's strange advice for me to give, and it's something I've actually struggled with. I'm not sure exactly what the Bog is, or what it should be, and I think it would be stronger if I knew.

And the other obvious advice is, refer to other bloggers constantly, link to other bloggers constantly, and beg for return links constantly. It's like when you're at a middle school dance and everyone is clustered around in an awkward circle. You might feel slightly silly being part of that awkward circle, but you'll feel a whole lot sillier if you're outside the awkward circle just staring at everyone else.

Bullets Forever: How do you think independent blogs and newspapers will interact in 5 years?  In 10 years?  What do you see as the future of the sports blogosphere and of newspapers?

Dan Steinberg: I'm not sure how they will interact, but they definitely WILL interact, in some way. Every week, it seems another paper launches an authentic feeling blog, and more and more of them are linking out to independent blogs. Look at the Washington Times' new Nats site...the blogroll is very prominent, and features nothing but independent blogs. (Give us a link, Moonies!)  And to be self-serving, Jamie Mottram from FanHouse and I are going to be doing a weekly blog-focused segment on the Washington Post's new sports talk show that's debuting on Comcast SportsNet next month. The MSM will pay attention to good writing and good information, no matter who the author is.

My only concern is what will happen when teams start credentialing more and more independent bloggers. That's already happening locally with the Caps, the Wizards, and the Nats. But what happens if 30 bloggers decide they want in the press box? Does that limit the access of the beat reporters, who aren't fans and who are doing a high-pressure, high-stakes job? Does an independent site with a small readership deserve the same privileges as a paper with a readership in the millions? I'm not sure, but I think this will cause a fair bit of tension. But other than that, I think we all help each other, especially to the extent that we all read each other and refer to each other.

Major thanks to Dan Steinberg for taking the time to answer these questions.  I think I speak for everyone at Bullets Forever when I say that we hope you keep doing your thing at the DC Sports Bog.

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