Thursday, October 23, 2008

So You Want to Work in Sports?: Andy Gray, Web Producer, SI.com

Over the next several weeks, HHR will be interviewing 20 and 30-something-year-olds in various careers in professional, amateur and collegiate sports to get a take on how they broke into their respective industries and to offer tips how ambitious sports-related job seekers might do the same.

Yesterday we interviewed SI.com Senior Producer Jimmy Traina. Today we followup with his counterpart, best known for his work with SI on Campus, SI.com Web Producer Andy Gray. Andy, who now oversees SI's free online archive The Vault, took a much different path to his current position than did Jimmy. He talks about that path, his sports preferences and being a conduit between the magazine's old and new media infrastructures (among other things).

Remembering the lack of advice and direction he he received in getting there, Andy is more than happy to talk sports and career with our readers. Feel free to drop him a line.

Name: Andy Gray
Age: 31
Position: Web Producer
Organization: Sports Illustrated
College Major: English (I also have a Masters from Columbia Journalism School)
Prior Sports-Related Experience: Wrote a couple fantasy stories for ESPN, that's about it.

Can you give us an overview of your current position (and some of your priors), and the course by which got you there?

I am currently in charge of The SI Vault, SI's complete online archive, which launched in March. It is my job to figure out ways to make our old stories and photos relevant to today's sports scene.

Prior to this, I was in charge of SI on Campus since its online inception in September, 2005. I was responsible for writing Campus Clicks and finding content for the rest of the page.

I got my official start in journalism as an Editorial Assistant at the Harvard Business Review in Boston. This was a good job because it gave me a real nuts and bolts lesson on how a magazine comes together. I also happened to be there during a fantastic scandal in which our Managing Editor had an affair with a married Jack Welch (all the info is here -- I replaced the 22-year-old editorial assistant she was sleeping with prior to Welch, though some people still think that person is me).

I stayed there for over three years, but decided that business was way too boring for me and I wanted to be in sports. Unfortunately, nobody would give me the time of day, so I went to Journalism school. This was a good experience because I'd never written for a school paper or anything and I needed to learn the basics. The program was only a year and when it ended, I had a summer internship at SI.com (this was the summer of 2005). Toward the end of the internship, my boss offered me a full-time gig and here I am.

And that's my story.

As an English major, what were your expectations upon graduation? How did you end up getting into the Editorial Assistant position at the Harvard Business Review - was it a path you were pursuing or was it what was available?

I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I thought I’d maybe follow in my sister’s footsteps and become a lawyer, so I worked as a Clerk at a firm in Atlanta. Unfortunately, that made me realize I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I ended up at a dot-com in 2000, just as the bubble was bursting. I stayed there six months and was laid off. I saw an ad for a job at HBR, applied and got it.

If my math is correct, you were in your mid-twenties - arguably old by intern standards - when you were interning at SI. How did you make ends meet?

I was a 28-year-old summer intern, living in a dorm room and doing busy work for people younger than me. That was a bit depressing, but you gotta suck it up sometimes. The internship was paid and they provided free housing, which made it easier from a financial angle.

Given the situation as you described it, going back to school "to learn the basics" when met with road blocks in trying to break into sports journalism, what did you find more valuable - the education or the piece of paper?

Definitely, definitely, definitely the piece of paper. Journalism school, to me, was a waste of time. I had some great professors and learned a lot, but I also ran into a bunch of people (students and faculty) who took themselves way too seriously. Plus, the school (Columbia) had a strong anti-sports bias and I always felt like a second-class citizen because I was more interested in sports than politics.

How has the transition been from overseeing SI on Campus to the more meticulous task of preserving history with the Vault? Have you found it more professionally rewarding and challenging?

SI on Campus was a little more irreverent, which I enjoyed. But it was a challenge because I was directly responsible for finding all the content on the page, whereas producers for other sections opened their email and the story was waiting for them. As for The Vault, it’s a little less pressure on a day-to-day basis because most of the content is already written.

Take us through an average day.

I arrive at work around 9am. I usually talk to Hot Clicks guru Jimmy Traina for 5-10 minutes about Gossip Girl, pro wrestling or sports (usually in that order). Then I put together our “This Day in History” gallery (which we call “Back in Time”). We have an edit meeting at 10:30 where I find out what we’re featuring on The Vault that day. I try and change the theme every day to correspond with what’s going on in the sports world. That usually takes me until lunch. After lunch, it’s a bunch of planning bigger projects, meetings, returning emails and phone calls, etc. I may also have to cover for another producer who’s out of the office, so that can often change my day.

You still do Campus Clicks. What is the balance of sources for the material - how much is it stuff that you find through your daily browsing/reading compared to reader submissions?

I do Hot Clicks and Campus Clicks still, but not on a daily basis. I have a few blogs I always visit (Big Lead, HHR, Busted Coverage, Awful Announcing, Mr. Irrelevant, Barstool Sports) and those help in finding items. Another great site is Ballhype, which collects a bunch of different blog stories. I also love to find weird, random items so I’ll visit Yahoo’s Odd News section as well as Fark. I don’t receive a ton of readers submissions, but I try and include them when I can.

Is there anything specific you look for when determining content?

My thought is that if I find something interesting, chances are the reader will as well. I try and avoid stories that have been beat to death a hundred times over. Last year, I can’t tell you how many videos I saw of various people doing the Souljah-Boy. I mean, it was funny for a while and then way overexposed. I also am a big TV fan, so any time someone compares, say, a team to characters on The Brady Bunch or something like that, I will put it in. Lastly, I’m a proud native of Americas’ greatest sports city, Boston, so I try and sneak in a Boston sports item if I can.

Campus Clicks and Hot Clicks are favorites among sports bloggers given their large readership and subsequent traffic referrals. Have you had any indication on how SI on Campus is received by SI journalists, editors and players and programs alike?

I think some old school SI journalists don’t love Cheerleader of the Week or even Hot Clicks, but I don’t like a 2,500-word story on a 1929 Army-Navy football game, so to each their own. I do think athletes enjoy reading it. At SI on Campus, we do a feature called Campus Cribs where we take pictures of some athlete’s dorm room or apartment, which I know athletes love. But to be honest, some things don’t work. I tried doing college lax and hockey power rankings and I think 12 people read it, total. The value of the web is that you can try different things and see what works and what doesn’t.

How big of a task is it managing the Vault, given the magazine's rich history and vast archives? You describe it as your "job to figure out ways to make our old stories and photos relevant to today's sports scene." Can you give us examples?

Managing the Vault can be a little daunting, but at the same time, I’m getting paid to look through old sports stories, so I can’t complain. To me, the biggest challenge is making the stories interesting to a younger generation of readers. When you think about it, most people who want to read about Joe Namath’s tenure with the Jets are over 50-years-old. Those people, however, are not the most web-savvy folks and many ignore the web altogether (except email and CNN.com). So there’s a bit of a disconnect. One way to make these stories relevant is to have prominent sports figures and media personalities give me their favorite SI stories. So people may not care what Andy Gray’s favorite SI stories are, but they do care about Bob Costas or Chuck Klosterman’s favorites. The Back in Time galleries are good too because I put links to old stories near the item. For instance, Mike Tyson may have won the WBC Heavyweight Title 20 years ago today, and I’ll also link to a story detailing his troubled marriage with Robin Givens. Nobody would think to read about that, but put it in front of them and they’ll read it.

Why was the decision made to convert these archives online now - for free no less?

This was a strategic decision and a damn good one if you ask me. Think about it – would you really pay a monthly fee to read old Sports Illustrated stories? Would anyone pay that? Probably not, but put them on for free and people will check them out.

One thing you need to understand is that SI.com is one of the few mainstream sports sites without a TV station affiliated with it. Yahoo is another, but they get so much traffic from their fantasy games that it’s not much different. SI needs to distinguish itself somehow, and what distinguishes us is our history. We’ve been around since 1954, longer than anyone else, so we need to play that up. The Vault lets us achieve that goal.

How much autonomy are you given with each of your roles - with On Campus and with The Vault? What, if anything, is specifically off-limits?

My bosses are great with autonomy. I pretty much give them an idea and they give me the green light to go ahead with it. The only this that is “off-limits” is posting an item with nudity or in poor taste in the Clicks. But that’s kind of common sense.

What attracted you to want to work in sports journalism? Were/are you a rabid fan? Favorite teams?

My whole attitude towards a career is that if I’m spending half my life in an office, I better enjoy what I’m doing. And what guy doesn’t love sports? As a proud native of Framingham, Mass., sports are a part of life growing up.

As for favorite teams, it goes Celtics, Celtics and Celtics. Basketball is my favorite sport and I grew up during the Bird-McHale-Parish days. I also love football and think Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history, times 20. I actually tried to write a Sportsman of the Year essay last year on all the charity and good deeds he does that go without public notice. My bosses shot it down. I guess in this day and age, you have to be a self-promoter to get any credit (see Parcells, Bill; Billick, Brian; Edwards, Herm). Whoa, sorry for the tangent.

You've covered college sports. There are some real partisans who either prefer the pro game or the college game. What's your preference? What's your take on the differences between the fan bases?

I would take pro sports over college sports any day of the week. I know this is a hot-button issue, but when you grow up in New England, there isn’t a lot to choose from. And I’m not a BC guy, which is just about the only major football school we have. College hoops are great – I actually used to have class with Marcus Camby at UMass – but I just think the NBA game is much better.

Plus, when you think about it, you’re generally born into your pro sports affiliations based on either where you grew up or what team your parents followed. You have no choice. But then you turn 18 and can suddenly apply to – and become a fan of – any school you choose. That being said, I went to UMass during the Calipari glory days, so I guess I am a bit of a hypocrite.

What's the harshest criticism you've received from either subjects you've covered or readers? Most positive?

Oh man, people really hate me at some places. I’ve always had a thing against Notre Dame and I’ve been called out by students there for being biased against them. Some of the other descriptions are not appropriate for a family-friendly website like HHR.

As for positive, my parents met someone in Switzerland who read Campus Clicks and knew who I was. So I’m big with the Swiss. That’s exciting.

"Big fans."

How long do you see yourself continuing with SI.com? What are your ultimate career goals?

My ultimate career goal is to run the Boston Celtics and marry Jordana Brewster. I don’t see either of those things happening. So I think I’ll stay at SI.com and see what happens. I would like to return to New England at some point, but who knows.

"Call me."

What's the most rewarding part of your current job?

The biggest reward is being the authoritative voice in sports debates. For example, I’ll be at a bar and there will be a discussion of the best pitcher in baseball. When it reaches a deadlock, people will turn to me and be like, “This dude works at Sports Illustrated. Let’s see what he says.” It makes me feel important.

Biggest perks?

Working at Sports Illustrated is the biggest perk. I know it sounds stupid, but to get paid debate the top QB under the age of 25 or who will win next year’s World Series is just awesome. Again, I GET PAID to discuss this stuff.

Biggest hassles or obstacles?

The first is that journalism doesn’t pay a lot, so you need to live on a tight budget. Second, there is a bit of a sports overload. For instance, I rarely watch NFL pregame shows on Sunday or read previews of games (unless I need to for work). Sports burnout can be a problem.

Anything you would have changed during college to better prepare you? Relevant courses or internships you'd recommend?

I don’t know if I’d change much because I think you need to go down a few wrong career roads before you find the correct one. I don’t even know if working at a school paper is a good move because papers are becoming extinct. I would learn how to write HTML and learn Photoshop. Those are crucial skills.

What advice would you offer those looking to follow in your footsteps?

First and foremost, it’s never too late to start. I was 26, working an administrative desk job and had no idea what I was doing with my life and five years later, I’m being interview by HHR!!

"Flattery will get you everywhere."

But if you’re really serious about being a sports writer, then start a blog. Forget working for your local paper and everything else. Just start a blog, write every day and if you’re good, it’ll get noticed. I have found several blogs I enjoyed, told my bosses and now those people are writing for us. It’s the easiest way to get noticed and get the most exposure.

It just so happens that HHR's the chief, formerly of Westborough, MA, works in Boston, but his company's main office is in Farmingham. the chief posed these questions to his fellow Masshole:


Being from Framingham, do you find yourself inflating the impact of Lou Merloni on the baseball field or on NESN?

Also, since you are from the 'Ham, if you have never seen this, you really should.


Lou Merloni was actually a substitute teacher of mine in high school. At the time, I think he was a low level minor leaguer trying to make some extra cash at his old stomping grounds, but it was kind of exciting in retrospect. I think I asked him for a bathroom pass and never came back to class. And he’s turned into a damn good baseball analyst on NESN, so that’s where I will inflate my opinion of him.

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