Thanks to my journalistic influences, I still love going to work every day
It wasn’t until I read his obituary, decades after I’d moved from Pittsburgh and years after he retired, that I knew former Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette sports columnist Phil Musick lived in the small town, Harmar Township, where I grew up.
When Musick died at 71 on Jan. 5, 2010, I was saddened. He was one of the major influences on my journalistic career. I never had the pleasure to meet him, but I’d read his work for as long as I could remember until I moved away from Pittsburgh for good.
Musick is one of three journalists who played major roles — good or bad — in influencing the journalist I’ve become today. There are many others who have helped me, pushed me along and share their expertise and wisdom, but Musick, the former Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray and ex-Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith are the three who I feel most influenced the professional journalist I’ve become.
There have been dozens of others who have been a huge help, but those three influenced me in a fundamental way. Musick, though, more than any other influenced my decision to go into sports, to write in the manner I do and see sports in the way I view them.
My first paid job as a sports writer was with The Valley News Dispatch, at the time a six-day-a-week newspaper in Tarentum, Pa. I’d go to cover local high school football and basketball games, and on the way back to the office to write my account, I’d think of Musick and try to imagine how he’d have written the story.
Many times when I knew I was going to cover a game, I’d read Musick’s column a couple of times. I tried to pay attention to the way he drew the readers into his story, how he described what he saw, how he used what the coaches and athletes said to advance his piece and how he always left me feeling I knew a person he’d written about better.
Murray is the greatest sports writer in history, in my opinion, and the first time I worked alongside him, I was in awe. It was like a rookie slugger getting to sit next to Babe Ruth.
Smith is among the greatest writers, period, I’ve ever read. He had a magical way of evoking emotion in you as you read, and taking you deep inside of his subject. There was never a better day when I’d get Sports Illustrated in the mail on Thursday and find that Smith had written a profile in it.
I’ve managed to keep a full-time job as a sports writer for more than 30 years, and I like to think it’s because of what I learned in part from those three. I wasn’t remotely as good as any of them, and in no way am I comparing myself to them, but they were the ones who showed what was possible. They pushed me down a path that has led me to a wonderful career that I cherish deeply.
I now frequently am asked for advice from younger journalists seeking to break into what has become an extraordinarily difficult business. My advice is always the same: Read. Read books. Read newspapers. Read the internet.
But please, please, please, if you never take any advice I’ve ever given, take this: Read.
A lot of times, I tell aspiring sports writers to watch an event and then write a story, giving themselves an artificial deadline in which it had to be completed. Then, I tell them to look at someone they think is an expert in the field and whose writing they admire and to compare stories.
It’s always a helpful task.
It’s always a joy to read a well-written, well-reported story. I am a big fan of author Robert Caro, and I make a point to read everything he writes. His series on President Lyndon Johnson is fabulous, as was his book, “The Power Broker,” about Robert Moses in New York. But if you want to understand his process, I recommend a recent book he wrote that I’d picked up at the airport for a flight recently: “Working.” He talks about how he reported the Moses book and how he put it together and it’s fantastic.
I’m thankful that there are so many talented journalists left who work so hard and, in some cases, literally risk their lives, to cover the news and tell the stories on their beats.
I’ll be forever grateful to Phil Musick, Jim Murray and Gary Smith for the help they provided me.