Here's the new home for my musings -- on the Colts, the Pacers, IU sports, Purdue sports and all kinds of stuff. I also had a little something to say about my former employer, The Athletic.
A month later, and I’m still pissed.
Wait, I thought this was about your new Substack column…
It is. But first, I’ve got to vent a little bit. This has been on my mind a while. So bear with me.
I’m pissed I got whacked by The Athletic in early June. Not that it was a great job or anything – it wasn’t; more on that later – but hell, it beat the crap out of unemployment.
Let’s just say, finding a job in a shriveling business at the age of 63 isn’t optimal. I’m happy that I’m going to be a contributor for Indianapolis Monthly magazine and I’m going to dive head-first into making this Substack column a huge success, but if I’m being honest, I was kind of hoping to ride The Athletic into retirement a couple of years down the line. (I also thought I’d retire at WTHR. Wrong again. Never should have left the Indianapolis Star. Never ever ever ever. Ever).
It's been a weird month as I’ve tried to figure out What’s Next. At times, I’ve enjoyed the down time, living on the severance, playing a lot of golf and trying to act like it all wasn’t eating me up inside. The uncertainty hung over me like the Sword of Damocles. At some point, I knew I had to do something, had to contribute to the family.
If I’m being honest, I was somewhat afraid to sit back down in front of the computer and start writing again. My confidence was shot. It doesn’t matter how many times they tell you it was a business decision and it had nothing to do with the quality of your work; you take it personally. You know about the Impostor Syndrome? It’s the enduring fear that someday, you’ll be revealed as a phony. That’s how I felt. It took them 41 years, but they finally figured me out. It’s a terrible feeling, and it can take your mind places it would rather not visit.
Back in the day, I derived great joy from sitting down at the computer and immersing myself in a column or a story; time would pass and I wouldn’t even notice. It was all about the words and it was a pure joy. I was in my element. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, what with being a starting goaltender for an NHL team being slightly beyond my ability level.
At The Athletic, that started to slip away. I had some lousy editors (and some great ones, too). I was constantly questioning myself: Is this the right story idea? Did I write it well enough to produce the kinds of metrics that were absolutely central to the way we were judged? (Although my metrics were pretty strong when I got dumped; they told me the issue was the small market where I work and the move to more national approach to sports). I never felt wanted there; I felt barely tolerated.
I wasn’t happy.
I wasn’t happy that they put me on probation just a few months after a quadruple bypass in 2020. (And during the pandemic, no less). I guess my numbers weren’t what they wanted, but hell, I was recovering from a life-changing medical event. You would think that might have some impact on their thinking, but no. I had to produce 395 subscriptions in three months – or else. That’s absurd, unfair and outrageous, especially given my health situation. Well, I survived, producing more than 400 subs by working myself half to death, a great idea after open-heart surgery. But that soured me on the place forever. I felt it in my bones:
They don’t give a fuck about me as a human being.
I wasn’t happy that I had four editors in four years, all of them wanting something different. Write long form pieces. OK, fine. No, write strong opinion columns. OK, fine. No, write about roster construction (what?). The goalposts kept moving, and they’re still moving with the New York Times’ acquisition of The Athletic.
And the metrics…everything was metrics. (Add “old man yelling at cloud” gif) I understand that’s the current way of the world in a media business that is almost universally struggling, but the numbers were in our faces – and on our minds – 24/7.
The Athletic makes a really big deal about the importance of mental health, and that’s great, but I think I’m speaking for a majority of current Athletic writers, the primacy of metrics (subs, unique views and the rest) had a deleterious impact on our collective mental health as a staff. There was nothing more dispiriting than working your ass off on a story, only to look at the metrics and see one subscription and 2,000 unique views. It was soul-sucking, honestly.
I knew I was screwed when I put together a really strong piece on the 25th anniversary of the Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf draft. I talked to Peyton, to Leaf, to Bill Polian, to Leaf’s agent Leigh Steinberg. It was supposed to run the day of the draft. But my immediate editor, who always had something more important to do, failed to inform the NFL folks that this piece was coming. (I should mention that I knocked it out one day after spending time in the hospital after yet another cardiac event). It should have been a consideration for featured A1 placement; instead, we ran an F1 story on A1 that draft day (makes sense), my piece was buried and it didn’t do shit for metrics. At that point, I felt I was spinning my wheels.
Then there was the Jay Mariotti story/debacle. You guys remember Mariotti, the uber-polarizing former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and Around the Horn panelist? Jay got run out of ESPN, and mainstream sports journalism in general, after he was popped for a domestic violence charge. He went from a major national voice to being completely off the journalistic grid. I felt there was an interesting “What became of Jay?” story and after some initial hesitation, Jay, who lives in LA, agreed to meet me in Chicago. I had awesome material, great quotes from Jay, great quotes (pro-Jay and virulently anti-Jay) from former colleagues.
My immediate editor liked the idea, but once it got to the next level of editing, stuff started happening. Too many cooks in the kitchen, and all that. Too nice. Too critical. Too dangerous.
Too something. They decided, and I quote, “The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.”
I’ve been doing this a very long time and the only time I’ve ever had a story spiked was when I worked at Sports Illustrated in the mid-1980’s. I know the Mariotti piece was good. I know it was very good. The editors will certainly disagree – we are in a subjective business, after all -- but I honestly believe they chickened out. The Athletic had just been purchased by The New York Times and our new owners were under the gun with a number of lawsuits. I think they were afraid of more litigation, or something.
They played it safe.
The story never ran.
(And by the way, you can read Jay, who still isn’t taking any prisoners, at https://open.substack.com/pub/jaymariotti?r=kir1u&utm_medium=ios)
I’ve always taken the high road, or at least attempted to do so, but I’m not going to bullshit you and tell you everything was honky-dory and my memories of working there were universally happy.
And poor Indy. Totally forgotten by The Athletic. If you subscribed for coverage of local teams, well, joke’s on you. It has a bait-and-switch feel. When I started out, we covered college hoops, the Pacers, the Colts and had me as a columnist. Now we have one guy. He covers the Colts. Does a fine job on the Colts, but if you’re a hardcore Indy sports fan, why subscribe unless you’re interested in their national offerings? You don’t matter to them. Too small of a market. Doesn’t move the needle. Imagine, no college hoops coverage in Central Indiana. Like not covering hockey in Toronto.
Maybe I can fill some of that vacuum.
Well, anyway…. I wish my old colleagues, Zak Keefer and James Boyd, all the best. Lot of great writers and editors there; some of the work they produce is truly outstanding. I hope The Athletic gets profitable because we need more outlets for quality sports journalism. I have lots of friends there and hope they enjoy their experience far more than I did.
OK, I’ve got that off my chest.
Now we move on….
Ah yes, Substack.
I’m excited again. Dammit, I’m excited in a way I haven’t been in quite some time. I’m ready to bury myself back in this computer again. I’m ready to share my voice with Indianapolis again. I still believe I have something to say, and I will say it, Bob Without Boundaries, unedited (gulp) and unfiltered (double gulp).
What can you expect?
First, I’ll be writing more frequently than I did at The Athletic. Columns, some long-form pieces, blogs, chats, all kinds of stuff --- at least as soon as I figure how this technology works (thank God for my daughter, Dana, who is my current social media director). At my previous place of employment, they only asked for 8-10 pieces per month. Here, I want to give you far more than that for your hard-earned money.
This will more closely approximate what I used to do at the Indy Star, more game coverage, more opinions, more blogs, a more personal and casual style of writing.
This is going to evolve. Hell, I’m not married to the name of the column or much of anything else. The way I see it, this is going to be highly interactive and I ask you for your thoughts, not only on the stories I write, but how we’re going about this whole Substack adventure. It’s no secret that I’m a complete Luddite when it comes to social media and all that stuff; I will learn and get better at it, but I’m not too proud to say that I need your help growing this thing. Share it. Promote it. Comment on it. Make this one of your stops.
There’s going to be a lot to talk about, not the least of which is the Jonathan Taylor/running backs contract issues, the Pacers’ active summer, Shaq Leonard’s hoped-for return and, of course, the evolution of Anthony Richardson.
We’re growing this thing from the ground-up, and if I didn’t concede that it scares me half to death, I’m also wildly excited about the prospect of making this a go-to spot for Indy-centric sports fans.
I know you have options, but I hope you will add me to your reading list. I’m ready to roll. Join me. Subscribe by the month or subscribe for the year.
Can’t fire myself.
Nope, I can’t.