An Interview with Michael Kruse of the St. Petersburg Times

We start off our series of interviews with someone outside of the traditional baseball landscape. It's good to expand your mind sometimes, yanno. Michael Kruse is an award winning staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times who has also written for ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, the Sporting News and ESPN The Magazine. Please check out his story queues for the Times and Grantland and follow him on Twitter @michaelkruse.

We talk about the newspaper industry, media, the ever changing consumption of media, and the good and bad of sports journalism. This was my favorite interview I've done. I hope you all enjoy it.

Erik Hahmann: How'd you come to work for the St. Petersburg Times?

Michael Kruse: The St. Pete Times is a place you want to be if you do what I do. This is where Rick Bragg worked, and Anne Hull, and David Finkel, and David Barstow, and Jeffrey Gettleman, and Chris Goffard, and Tom French, and so many others who helped establish a culture and a standard that's recognized throughout journalism. When Ben Montgomery and I were working together at the Times Herald-Record in New York's Hudson Valley, we went to conferences to hear Tom, Kelley Benham and Lane DeGregory talk about the craft. Now Ben and I get to work with Kelley and Lane. How cool is that?

EH: The St. Pete Times, along with other papers across the country, has been implementing pay cuts and downsizing staff for a few years now. Do you think eventually papers will have to put up a pay-wall for their online coverage so they remain financially viable?

MK: People have lost their jobs. People with bills and homes and kids in college. People who've worked for the St. Pete Times for almost as long as I've been alive. People. And it sucks. What's frustrating beyond the obvious is that more people than ever are reading the St. Pete Times, thanks to TampaBay.com, and the paper's print circulation is in fact going UP, not down. That this doesn't translate into profits is right now a reflection of an ad market that is the pits. That's an economy problem more than it is a journalism problem.

We're living also, of course, in a moment of great, fundamental change. The media, not what most folks these days regrettably mean when they say the media, but THE MEDIA - words, sounds, images both moving and still - are disseminated in ways that are shifting, profoundly, and those shifts are happening in terms of years, not decades. Old ways are broken. New ways? They're being made, but they're not done, and they're not done because now NOTHING is ever DONE. And so it's unsettled. And this isn't a newspaper issue. This is an everything issue.

But I do know one thing that hasn't changed, has not and will not, and that is that someone somehow has to pay for stuff. SHIT IS NOT FREE.

I'd also like to note that the Times isn't only cutting. The paper just hired a new investigative editor who recently helped the Sarasota Herald-Tribune win a Pulitzer. We, the Times, can still do journalism at a higher level than anybody in Florida, and increasingly anybody in the Southeast, and we can and do still do national-caliber work. We have the staff to do that. We do it.

I like working at the St. Pete Times. Can you tell?

EH: There's been a shift in how people consume their news, with TV and the Internet surpassing newspapers as the main source. That's especially true with young people. How do you foresee people consuming their news in, say, 20 years?

MK: That's a long, LONG way away, 20 years from now. I don't even know how people will be consuming their news five years from now. But stories will never go away. Ever.

EH: How do you currently consume the news?

MK: I take two papers daily, subscribe to two dozen magazines and follow almost 1,700 people on Twitter. How do I consume the news? Ask my wife. All the time.

EH: Do you think it's important for the newspaper to still be a PAPER? I can get the same stories on TampaBay.com and enjoy them just as much. Or is there something nostalgic about physically having that paper in your hand?

MK: I do think the PAPER paper is important and not at all because of nostalgia. I have certain things I know I want to read in the morning, first in the St. Pete Times, then in the New York Times, but always - every day - there are things I end up reading because they catch my eye or they seem interesting or entertaining or important. I didn't want to read those things ... until I did. The news isn't just the news. It shouldn't be. It's not just some random collection of things that happened to happen yesterday. It, all of it, all bound together by people who are paid and qualified to do that, is as close as you're going to get to who we are, all of us, and what we're doing, and why, on this singular date in time. I get a lot from the Internet. I do not get that. And I'm not the only one who experiences in this way newspapers in their current form. The cumulative effect of that sort of serendipity is engaged citizens with flexible minds who are - please let this still be true - capable of goddamn civil discourse. People who read a newspaper every day, any newspaper, are in my mind offering up a message that is nothing less than I CARE ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON AROUND ME. Look, I know there's always too much to do, and I know there's never enough time - I KNOW - but I can't start my day quite right without reading my papers. That act lets me open my front door to go outside with at least some knowledge of what I'm getting myself into.

EH: In your opinion what should be a reporter/writer's highest goal? To educate? Inform?

MK: Or to entertain. Or to make you angry. Or to make you cry. Not necessarily always with the same story. But yes. All of those things.

EH: Which way should the relationship go: The readers demand something so you write it, or you consider something newsworthy so you write and inform?

MK: We should listen to our readers. But not too much.

EH: What's been the most rewarding story you've written or been a part of?

MK: I'll give you two if that's okay: this one and this one. Because they were hard to do.

EH: You've recently started contributing to Grantland.com. How did that come about?

MK: Bill Simmons contacted me in the spring to gauge my interest. It pretty much went from there.

EH: In regards to sports journalism, is there anything you wish you saw more of? Less of? Anything you think that gets overdone?

MK: Sometimes I find myself at the gym on a Tuesday or even a Wednesday this time of year and on the monitors above the machines the people on ESPN are talking about Sunday's NFL games, STILL, and I think to myself: Goodness gracious. There's THIS much to discuss? People are WATCHING this? They are, obviously, because ESPN is maniacal about knowing what people watch, click and like, and if people weren't watching this it wouldn't be on. And so the people on the screen continue to talk, and talk, and talk. But for me, and maybe it is really just me, I could do with less of that.

Also? Predictions. They're filler. They're nothing. Just wait and then watch if you want. Something will happen. And then guess what? Something else will happen.

Also? Top 25 polls. At best they're silly. At worst, as in the highest classification of college football, people who (1) actually are participating in the competition or (2) covering it have a quantifiable say in who wins the championship, and to me the fact that this atrocious conflict of interest is allowed to go on is bewildering.

Also? Fantasy. It's totally dehumanizing, and right now we need more reality, not less.

What's most interesting at least to me about sports - and I guess this is my way of finally getting to what I'd like to see more of - is how this happened. How did sports in the last 20 years or so go from being an entertainment option to being such a central component of our culture and day-to-day life? People spend their entire Sundays watching NFL football. One whole day of the week. You only get seven! Most people seemed to be bothered by the NFL lockout not because at the table where the wealth was being shared the richest were trying to get even richer - oopsie doops, sounds familiar, doesn't it? - but because they didn't want to consider the notion of Sundays without football on their television screens. On Sundays, I think about all those man-hours, and what isn't being done. On evenings in the middle of the week, I see that 15,000 people went to the Trop, and you know what I think? That's amazing. FIFTEEN THOUSAND PEOPLE went to a baseball game tonight.

EH: In 2008 you wrote a book, "Taking the Shot", on Davidson basketball and their deep run in the NCAA Tournament. What was the book writing experience like? Do you have plans to ever write another?

MK: I took a three-month leave from the Times to do that book and so my experience was terribly quick. Davidson is my alma mater, and Taking the Shot was a labor of love, emphasis on the labor. The way I'd describe the finished product is flawed but earnest. Plans to write another? Not any specific plans. At least not yet. Certainly, though, I hope the Davidson book ends up being the first in a series of books that get better along the way. Maybe my second book can be about how fantasy sports are killing our country. What do you think?

EH: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

MK: Read.

EH: Anything and everything?

MK: Yes.

A big thank you to Michael for taking the time to do this for us.

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