Don Skwar, ESPN
Don Skwar, Senior News Editor, ESPN (March 9, 2011):
First, can you briefly explain you role as Senior News Editor at ESPN – what that entails?
I oversee the Event news editors – there are eight of them – whose job it is to ensure the editorial directionof the games that are on ESPN’s various networks as well as ABC. I also oversee the bureau reporters and producers, whose job it is to report on various breaking news and feature and enterprise stories that will make their way onto ESPN’s various programs.
You seem to be very involved in the development of journalists – as the President of the APSE (Associated Press Sports Editors) and with your work at the Sports Journalism Institute. What advice would you give young journalists trying to get started today?
I actually don’t have a role with SJI, although one of the people who works with me – Sandy Rosenbush – is a co-founder of SJI. I was the president of APSE back in 2001-2002. As to what advice I’d give to young journalists trying to get started today: Same as I gave in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s – make sure you’re passionate about your work, because the long hours and grunt work won’t seem like work at all; be fair and balanced in your reporting; and realize the importance of being right, not first.
What have been some of the most exciting – and most difficult – stories you’ve overseen in the seven years that you’ve been at ESPN?
The Tiger Woods controversy. Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home-run record. The BALCO/steroids issue. And by the way, I was involved in the coverage of all of these, but I wouldn’t say I oversaw them.
As advertising revenue on the web becomes harder to maintain, how are you able to leverage your content to find alternative sources of revenue? What’s worked – and what hasn’t?
I’m not involved in dotcom, so that’s hard for me to answer. I do know that ad placement is key, as is the charging for our Insider package – and we’re able to do that because of the talented insiders we have. And that only comes because we’ve outlaid money to get them. Some things never change: Money does help to beget money.
How do you differentiate yourself from the ever-increasing number of independent news sources -blogs, twitter….how do you deal with those as information rivals?
They’re very real, and very immediate. The landscape for competing media has changed drastically in the last five or so years. We need to be aware of that competition but, as I mentioned above, we also have to be sure we’re right, not necessarily first. It’s great to be first, but not if you’re wrong.
I also think that some blogs and sites don’t really care about being accurate as much as they want to get the word on the street out there and let the readers decide if it’s true or not. While that’s an interesting philosophy, I still think readers will have a greater tendency of returning to a source of news that is reliable and accurate.
What are your big objectives for 2011 at ESPN? Any specific objectives you are looking to accomplish?
I’ve got a new job heading my way in a few weeks: as the overseer of the weekend SportsCenters. The amount of talent on the various SportsCenters is overwhelming, and it’ll be humbling to work among that talent. I look forward to it, nonetheless.
From a Pittsburgh perspective, some fans have complained about the fact that ESPN’s sports coverage has become too general and nationally focused for the Pittsburgh market. Radio stations have removed local broadcasting in Pittsburgh, for example. Can you explain how you have addressed the need to create more locally-focused content portals for Pittsburgh fans and what future plans for doing so might entail?
I don’t know enough about what’s going on in the Pittsburgh market to comment intelligently on this. I do know we’ve started and have been successful with local dotcoms in five major markets – Boston, New York, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles – and there’s always a possibility we could expand into more markets in the future.
There is an increasingly large number of stories covering the personal and legal lives of sports figures. How do you determine what to publish these stories and when you have enough information to cross the line from a potential story to a story you decide to run?
It’s really a case-by-case basis, with the popularity of the person, the severity of the crime and several other factors coming into play. As to the legal side of things, we will run a story if an athlete has been charged. We won’t necessarily run it if that athlete has been accused. We also weigh how much play that story might be getting in other media outlets. So a lot of issues and circumstances have to be out there.
How do you address those who say ESPN is too closely tied into the leagues/teams it covers and sometimes appears biased or unwilling to tackle stories that are negative towards those leagues and teams?
We definitely have ties to leagues and teams. We’re rightsholders with a lot of them. But I can say unequivocally that our affiliation – large or small – with a team, a league or a player doesn’t interfere with our pursuit of any story.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Just to hit ‘em straight.