Michigan State Q&A: Lessons from an ink-stained wretch and world-weary travel writer to bright J students
Every other summer Michigan State University brings a sports media class to Rome for insight into how the media works in Europe. They’ve met with New York Times and Washington Post foreign correspondents, three Italian Olympians and sports historians, among many others.
Somehow they manage to fit in a retired sportswriter who freelances for wine money as an American expat.
My spiel is often the same. How I spent 40 years as a sportswriter in the U.S. and how I transformed from sportswriter in Denver to travel writer in Rome. I throw in some war stories about traveling the Major League Baseball circuit and long bus rides through jungles.
But I also try to offer guidance. A year ago I gave a doomsday scenario of the journalism world that awaits them. I should have toned it down. I’m a jaded newspaper man saddened to see the daily paper burn in trash bins all over the U.S.
This year I was more optimistic. I said learn everything. Write everything. Operate everything. After my talk, they asked a lot better questions than I ever asked at that age. From ACCENT, the Rome Study Abroad Center near Piazza Navona, here are some of them and my paraphrased answers:
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from travel?
I screwed up this one. I told the group, “Get off the beaten path.” But that’s a cliche. The correct response is my mantra, which somehow escaped me while I was at center stage. It is:
When you travel alone, it’s never crowded.
It’s true. In 44 years of international travel, I’ve only traveled alone or with a girlfriend. One time – ONCE! – I traveled with a platonic female friend. That was a disaster, the anecdotes of which are too ugly for public display.
Forget traveling with a guy. Why? What are we going to do? “OK, let’s go see the sunset. Great sunset. Now let’s go get a beer.” What’s the point?
I’m a bit of a loner. I like being alone with my thoughts and not having them invaded by outside influences 24 hours a day. It helps as a travel writer. My impressions and experiences of a place are mine and mine alone. They aren’t altered by a discussion later in a bar or hotel.
But mostly, traveling alone gives me room to breathe. I’ve been in some really crowded places. Second-class trains in India. Bars in Bangkok. Old Cairo. Yet I still have room to think of my place in these societies, my life to that point and what I will write when I get home.
I can stop for a beer if I want or lay on a beach and snooze. I’ll hike up that hill to explore the hut on top if I feel like it. There is no debate.
The downside of traveling alone is finding yourself in impossibly romantic places where you’re the only single loser in the crowd. But for that there’s a solution. (See “girlfriend” above.)
When did you go from fan to journalist?
Contrary to public belief, sportswriters are not fans of the teams we cover. At least, good ones aren’t. We root for the story, our story and making sure our competition doesn’t get a story first. That’s it. And hopefully we can file before last call.
But it’s a good question. Every sportswriter was a fan at one point. I was born, raised and educated in Eugene, Ore., one mile from the University of Oregon campus. I come from a family of Ducks. I was born to be a Duck. I became a Duck. My parents had season basketball and football tickets and I went to every home game. I still remember the fudge nut brownies my mom’s friend made for football tailgate parties.
I went to Oregon and graduated in four years. By the time I graduated, I was already pretty jaded. I didn’t have a half-chewed cigar in the corner of my mouth, loudly plotting a copy editor’s murder. But I no longer cared who won.
The transformation hit me in college while covering the Ducks for the Oregon Daily Emerald. Our football team was less popular than the Vietnam War. It won 11 games in four years. It was impossible to be even hopeful, let alone a fan. The wildly popular basketball team was led by iconic coach Dick Harter, a man whose hypocrisies and maniacal practice methods always sat wrong with me.
The longer I worked in my 40-year career, the more grizzled I became. It didn’t matter who won. My deadline remained the same.
What’s the worst thing that happened to you traveling?
If I’m ever in a place with other travelers I like playing this parlor game:
Give me your travel tale from hell.
I’ve had a few. I had a machete pulled on me in Morocco. I got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats. I found a huge snake in my sleeping bag in Malaysia.
But the worst was getting typhoid in Northern Thailand.
I lost 20 pounds in eight days. It was seven months into a year-long solo backpacking trip around the world upon college graduation. I’d arrived in Bangkok after losing weight just from my limited budget. At the lowest point of typhoid, I was 6-foot-3 and 138 pounds. I was afraid a fisherman would put bait in my mouth and help him catch tuna.
If you didn’t know, typhoid is a disease of the digestive tract. It’s when all your bodily functions simultaneously say, “FUCK IT!” and stop working. I was trekking up near the Golden Triangle which for the last half of the 20th century was the world’s leading producer of opium.
I was also a two-day hike from the nearest road.
I remember waking up on a bamboo-thatched floor in the hut of a Lisu tribal family. I had a severe migraine, nausea, dizziness, massive thirst and a stomach that felt like it was washing the Thai army’s laundry.
Luckily, I did hire a guide for the trip. He led me back for two days until I reached the village of Chiang Rai. I tried some soup with the hopes of keeping it down. I couldn’t. I raced to the outhouse and threw my guts out. Then my dizziness hit me. I couldn’t get out. And I started feeling pains in my feet.
I looked down. In the slivers of light filing through the cracks of the bamboo hut I could see … rats. They’d crawled up out of the outhouse hole and were biting me.
We reached the major hub of Chiang Mai where they pumped me full of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics. No help. I took a painful overnight train to Bangkok where they did the same thing.
They diagnosed typhoid. I called home knowing my mom was from an age when entire towns in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. I told her if I didn’t improve the next day, I’d head to the hospital. Send money.
The next day was the first in a week I didn’t throw up when I woke. I walked around the block a couple times. After two days I had enough strength to take a bus to Phuket where I swam and ate shark every day. But first, I picked up the $500 my mom sent.
The good news is when I started my career in suburban Seattle, I got a checkup. The clinician said my bout of typhoid built up so many immunities, they should ward off future illnesses. She was right.
I didn’t miss a day of work in 40 years.
What did you carry in your duffel bag around the world?
Unlike every other backpacker on the road, I didn’t have a backpack. I took a duffel bag a friend from high school used in his trip around the world. I looked like an oddity, carrying this oblong, dirty orange tube over one shoulder with a sleeping bag strapped to the side. But it worked.
Of course, I traveled light. I had a pair of jeans and one pair of nice slacks when I walked into Associated Press offices around the world asking, no, BEGGING, for a job overseas. Back then I didn’t know how to avoid looking like a tourist. I packed a Seattle Mariners T-shirt, an Oregon Ducks polo, a rugby shirt. I had a turtleneck and a hooded windbreaker.
I wore a pair of Nikes. (As I said, I’m from Oregon.) I think I had two pairs of socks. I don’t remember having a shaving kit. My hygiene was as questionable as my wardrobe.
How has social media affected journalism?
It has cheapened it to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable. It’s like a glamorous Hollywood babe grew into this ugly tramp. Social media has made everyone a journalist, a critic, a cynic.
The problem is it has worked.
Social media and free websites have exploded on the Internet and have made newspapers go the way of the payphone. From 2004-2020, more than 2,000 newspapers closed. It’s so sad. Newspapers were once the backbone of democracy. They were the guardians of truth, the watchdogs on the newsmakers.
Now newspapers have been shredded by corporate takeovers to the point where they don’t have enough reporters covering the news. When I left The Denver Post in 2014, my replacement on the Colorado Buffaloes football beat didn’t travel to away games. Instead, he sat in the office and tweeted pithy comments off TV.
In my day, when you got news you wrote the story and sweated out the morning delivery hoping your competition didn’t have it, too. Now with social media turning news into a 24-hour cycle on countless mediums, you get news and you spit it out often before you double check the facts.
Someone picks up a rumor, puts it on Twitter or Facebook and before you can turn on the TV the whole world knows it. A new dirty word has entered our vocabulary: viral.
Now get off my lawn.
Seriously, I can’t complain. Social media has allowed me to continue my writing via this website. It helps me promote myself, to stay in the public eye, however small I may be on their radar.
But I’ll never forget one thing The Denver Post editor told me over breakfast one day in about 2009. He said in 25 years there will be three newspapers left in the U.S.
The Denver Post will not be one of them.
Why do you say being a good writer is more about personality than actual talent?
I’ve always said good writing is about 25 percent talent, 25 percent courage and 50 percent personality. Maybe my percentages are off but I’ve seen too many talented writers bore readers because they have nothing to say. Or they have plenty to say but are afraid to say it.
Good writing comes from the heart. It comes from the gut. It comes from the senses. I never thought of myself as much of a wordsmith. I try but I read colleagues or contemporary legends in my field and cringe at my inferiority.
But I am just weird enough to have crazy thoughts and have enough courage to write them. That’s how sportswriting has helped me as a travel writer. I take a critical edge to my work. I don’t see everything through the eyes of a tour guide.
I try to delve into the soft underbelly of popular places. One of my favorite series in this blog was a three-parter on Tor Bella Monaca, Rome’s notorious neighborhood where an estimated 80 percent of the population is involved in the drug trade.
You also need personality to talk to locals, to find out what makes a place tick or what makes it not. People want to talk to engaging people. I’m basically shy. I don’t like initiating contact. But with a pad and pen I try to ask everyone what’s the best and worst thing about their country or town.
What advice would you give young journalists?
I have three:
One, learn multimedia. There are no simple “writers” anymore. You must know video. You must know audio. You must know social media. You must know the difference between algorithms and SEO, whatever they are.
I know none of these. This is why the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” have a better career arc than I do. Media companies are short handed. They need everyone to multitask.
Fortunately for most youth, they’re already mass media experts by the time they reach high school. They’re producing beautiful videos. They know how to manipulate keywords to double their audience.
Meanwhile, I think streaming is a fishing term.
Two, travel. Yeah, I know. I overuse this. But it’s true. A good writer should know a little bit about many things. Nothing expands your mind and knowledge more than travel. You don’t have to know the order of Kazakhstan’s presidents but at least have a curiosity about what Kazakhstan is like.
Plus, travel looks good on a resume. It shows you’re independent, adventurous and knowledgeable. Those are all key ingredients to being a writer.
Three, keep a journal. I have wanted to be a writer since the fifth grade. Thus, I kept a journal from ninth grade through my freshman year in college. I kept a journal on my trip around the world and keep one now for any trip longer than a week.
You’ll find your voice. You’ll develop a rhythm. Also, you’ll have a place to vent, whether it’s about a travel tale from hell or worries about money.
The best part is looking back after many years. It’s the main motivation behind this blog.