I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Times-Picayune Saints columnist, Jeff Duncan. He works hard to keep Saints fans up-to-date and in-the-know with his regular columns in the paper and on nola.com. His Saints Mailbag segments are very popular and since we are all so familiar with his work, I figured we should get to know him just a little better.
A big thank you to Mr. Duncan for taking time out of his busy draft-time schedule to provide us with some detailed, in-depth answers.
In part one of our discussion, which can be found after the jump, Jeff and I talk about his background, his career, the Times-Picayune and the blogosphere. Part two can be found tomorrow.
CSC: Let's get this out of the way right off the bat...Beatles, Stones or Zeppelin?
JD: Wow, not the first question I was expecting out of the box. It’s a close call between the Stones and Beatles, but I’d have to go with the Fab Four. The White Album and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band are two of the greatest albums ever recorded.
CSC: As a Louisville alum you must have been watching the NCAA basketball tournament closely.
JD: Yes, as a Louisville native, hoops are in my blood. I was disappointed in the embarrassing way Louisville bowed out, but Louisville clearly would not have beaten North Carolina so it wouldn’t have mattered much. Nevertheless, I was hoping for a second Final Four appearance for Pitino at U of L. I actually think Louisville will be better next year – at least that’s what I’m hoping.
CSC: Did you know you wanted to be in journalism while in college? Where did that desire come from?
JD: Initially, no. I attended Eastern Kentucky University as a freshman because I planned to major in Wildlife Management. I wanted to be one of those Fish & Wildlife guys and thought that would be a cool way to make a living. What I didn’t know about was the curriculum: organic chemistry; comparative anatomy; botany. And that was in your freshman year. I bailed on that plan pretty quickly and transferred home to Louisville . I always enjoyed writing and loved sports so it didn’t take long for me to marry the two passions. To this day, though, I have a healthy respect for the LDWF agents when they check my fishing license.
CSC: You have bounced around a bit in your career. Tell us a little about your career background.
JD: I paid my dues, so to speak. I worked through college as a part-timer in the Courier-Journal sports department, taking prep results and compiling the agate page (the small-type page with sports results/scores). I started my reporting career in Tampa , Fla. , as a part-time reporter in the Hillsborough County bureau of the St. Petersburg Times. We had a lot of talent there. Don Banks of SI.com and John Romano, a columnist at the Times, were also in the bureau. I went from there to the Monroe ( La. ) News-Star, where I was offered a full-time position covering Louisiana Tech and Grambling State sports. Bill Campbell, who later would work at The Times-Picayune under Tim Ellerbee, hired me and taught me how to report a story. He was a great mentor. I worked my way up the ladder in Monroe from beat reporter to sports editor. I eventually left to work for sports editor Tom Squires at Florida Today. Tom was another great influence on my journalism career and I’m fortunate to have worked for him. I took a night editor position there but quickly learned that I was not fit to be an editor. I left Florida Today for Nashville , where I re-launched my writing career under Squires at a start-up called Sports Nashville. The company owned Titans Exclusive, the team magazine. I worked there for 18 months before the Times-Picayune hired me to cover LSU sports. I covered LSU for less than a year before being move to the Saints beat.
CSC: What is your favorite aspect of your job? What is your least favorite?
JD: I consider myself a journalist first and a sportswriter second. So my favorite aspects lean towards journalism rather than sports. I embrace the responsibility journalists have to inform and enlighten the public. It’s a powerful position and one that I don’t take lightly. During Hurricane Katrina, I worked with a team of journalists that helped document the disaster and its aftermath. The Times-Picayune was and has been a leader in the city’s recovery and I’m proud of our role in it. We eventually won two Pulitzer Prizes for our coverage and the celebration in the news room after the announcements was among the fondest memories of my career. What a great day. Least favorite? Dealing with the NFL and its sometimes insufferable arrogance. The league takes itself way too seriously. I understand it’s a multi-billion industry but in the end it’s only a sport. Katrina helped put that into the proper perspective.
CSC: What is your ultimate career goal? To be Peter Finney?
JD: No, there’s only one Peter Finney. He’s my idol. Pete is pure class. I’ve never met someone so universally respected and admired. He’s the best. I hope he writes for another 60 years! One day I would like to become a general sports columnist but I’m happy in my current role.
CSC: Which sports writer do you admire most professionally?
JD: It’s too difficult to pick just one. There are so many we don’t have the time nor space to list them. I admire anyone that shows courage in the face of adversity, who fearlessly chronicles the truth and empowers the public. We have a number of great writers on our staff at the Times-Pic and I respect them all. A buddy of mine from back in my Louisville days, Pat Forde, is a personal favorite. Pat has a wonderful writing style but is also a dogged reporter. His columns for ESPN.com are among the most popular items on the site because he both entertains and informs.
CSC: Do you do any creative writing on the side? Poetry?
JD: Alas, not an ounce. That’s why I’m in journalism.
CSC: You've written a book, which I actually own, called Tales from the Saints Sideline. Are we going to see more books from you?
JD: I’d like to think so. I hope to eventually update Tales from the Saints Sidelines for a second edition. It’s in need of a couple of new chapters in the wake of Katrina. Those were fascinating times and important ones in the history of the franchise. I feel a responsibility to document what happened and to set the record straight on the whole Saints/Katrina/San Antonio controversy. If the Saints ever win a Super Bowl, I’m definitely going to pitch that story to a New York publisher. That’s a big “if.”
CSC: In your acknowledgements for the book you thank many other local New Orleans sports reporters. Are you guys all really good friends? Who doesn't get invited to the weekly poker game?
JD: Yes, I’m friends with almost all of the local reporters in the city, both print and broadcast. It’s a pretty small clique. There’s a real camaraderie among reporters. We respect each other and understand each other’s jobs. The people of New Orleans are fortunate. They are blessed with a talented group of dedicated, enterprising journalists. There are also really witty folks, including Jim Henderson, Adam Norris, Les East and Fletcher Mackel. They keep the job lively and fun. I enjoy seeing them on the job and socialize with many of them away from it. They are some of the most interesting, entertaining people I know.
CSC: What's it like being the intermediary between the Saints organization the fans that love it so much? You control what information they have and shape opinions. Do you feel any pressure? Is it tough dealing with angry fans? Any crazy stories?
JD: It’s a big responsibility but I don’t feel any pressure to do my job. When I was a reporter I had a responsibility to inform our readers and to tell, as best I possibly could, the complete story. Ideally, all sides had a voice and the readers could form their opinions with the available facts. Now that I am a columnist, I write almost exclusively opinions on the Saints. A column is a different beast entirely. I am basically being asked to weigh in on any newsworthy subject involving the Saints. That might be state negotiations, a trade, a big win, a heartbreaking loss, the decision to move training camp back home, a hiring or a firing. Anything is fair game. I never have a problem dealing with angry fans. For the most part, their anger is misplaced toward the media, when they are actually upset about something the Saints did. I understand that and don’t take it personally. Ninety-nine percent of the time they just want to vent.
CSC: It's no secret that the newspaper business is in trouble. I've got to give credit to the Times-Pic because you seem to have adapted pretty well with the Saints Fan Zone. It's updated regularly including features like the mailbag, mock drafts and training camp videos so kudos on that. Is it safe to assume that the blog-type format at nola.com is a direct attempt to stay in the game?
JD: I wouldn’t argue with that viewpoint. The news business is an evolving landscape and the Times-Picayune is changing along with its environment. Regardless of the medium, the hallmark of what we do is timely, accurate reporting. That is and always will be the engine that drives the train. People want news. And Nola.com is by far the best online source of local news in the market. That’s because of the Times-Picayune’s news coverage. Everything else – columns, blogs, videos, chats, forums, etc. -- is just lagniappe in my opinion. While it’s trendy to trash newspapers and their projected demise, I’m optimistic about their future. As long as newspapers continue to produce quality journalism there will be a place for them in American society. I shudder to think what New Orleans would have done during and after Katrina without the Times-Picayune. Newspapers are in trouble primarily because of bad business deals and the skyrocketing cost of newsprint not because they aren’t doing good work.
CSC: Has the Times-Pic seen a decrease in readership? Can the nola.com Saints blog be considered a successful alternative?
JD: The Times-Picayune suffered significant losses in circulation because of Katrina and those losses have been exacerbated by the current economic recession. But we are in better shape than many of our brethren nationally. Because of the storm and the dearth of post-Katrina leadership, we have become almost indispensable. I find our relevance greater than ever so I think we’re somewhat of an anomaly compared to other newspapers. Nola.com is one of the most widely-read and successful newspaper Websites in the country. And the Saints coverage ranks among the most popular content on the site. I think readership will continue to grow as we expand and enhance our coverage in the future. Are there challenges? Yes. But there are a lot of people smarter than me addressing those challenges.
CSC: Can we expect more changes toward a blog-type platform from nola.com? Perhaps with more emphasis on community?
JD: I don’t think so. The bread-and-butter of nola.com’s content will always be news and opinion. I think I can humbly and honestly say we are the Net’s most informed outlet for both concerning the Saints. No one knows the Saints better than our beat reporters, Mike Triplett and Brian Allee-Walsh. They do a tremendous job covering the team on a daily basis and are on the pulse of the team. I would put the Times-Picayune’s “beat team” up against any other news outlet in the country. Their news reports on the Saints will continue to be the most important and accurate information about the team available on the Internet.
CSC: Do you read the comments on your stories? Do you get a ton of emails from readers?
JD: I don’t read the comments as much as I probably should. I recently participated in a little experiment where I responded and interacted with readers in the comments section after a couple of my stories. Interestingly, the interaction seemed to improve the quality of the comments. As far as emails go, it all depends on the time of year and the subject matter. Some columns elicit more reaction than others. I usually get at least one email a day but rarely more than a handful. Those numbers double and triple during the season. Of course, when I solicit emails for the Saints Insider Mailbag I often am inundated by requests.
CSC: Do you consider yourself a blogger?
JD: No. I consider myself a journalist. The blog I write is strictly a format to channel news and opinion to our readers. I try to hold my blog to the same standards readers have come to expect from columns and stories. I don’t feel comfortable cutting corners.
CSC: Do you think there is a feeling of contempt for bloggers and the blogosphere among professional journalists?
JD: Contempt is a strong word. I have mixed emotions about the proliferation of blogs and their role in today's world. On one hand, I welcome the open discussion and varied opinions on newsworthy topics. I'm a staunch advocate of the First Amendment and believe wholeheartedly that the more people become engaged in public discourse the better it is for society. I’ve seen some excellent blogs in the Internet so I do not discount them entirely. But there is a clear distinction between a fan’s blog and a journalist’s report and I can not emphasize that point strongly enough. Journalists are trained professionals. They have sources and base their opinions on their interaction with these sources. The Times-Picayune employs trained reporters and editors who report, study and research their beats on a daily basis. They adhere to written standards and policies. Before publication every story is edited for grammatical and factual errors, usually by more than one set of eyes. In general, blogs are produced by fans, and therefore their objectivity is inherently flawed. That might sound harsh, arrogant or defensive, but that’s honestly how I feel.
CSC: I think if the Times-Pic is serious about assimilating into the blogosphere then at some point they would have to acknowledge and interact with other high-quality blogs. It's part of the whole scene. Actually, I consider your willingness to sit down with us pleasantly surprising and a step in the right direction. What is the Times-Picayunes stance on blogs? Is it changing?
JD: I think the Times-Picayune will continue to expand its reach on the Internet and as it does, I’m certain it’s interaction with all other news outlets, including blogs, will grow. The Times-Pic’s goal is to be “the” clearinghouse for news, opinion and information about all things New Orleans . We don’t really have a stance on blogs. Our job is to report news and inform our readers, hopefully in an entertaining way. If there’s something newsworthy for our readers in a blog then we’ll definitely recognize it.
CSC: I know you don't really read blogs but have you ever checked out Canal Street Chronicles at least a bit?
JD: I have read an item or two from the blog but only when someone calls my attention to it, usually through an email link. Otherwise it’s not in my regular reading rotation. When I’m on the Internet I’m searching primarily for news and information about the Saints more than opinions or blogs. I’m more inclined to check out a blog if the blogger has produced some diligent or creative research on the team rather than just an opinion piece. I’m always on the look out for new information.
CSC: Is there any chance that blogs like Canal Street Chronicles will gain legitimacy? Do you think the Saints will ever formally recognize us?
JD: That’s a difficult question. Perhaps, but, unfortunately for the blogosphere, I think those days are a long ways off. It’s difficult to legitimize blogs because they are primarily produced by fans who practice it as a hobby and do not have the standards, policies or practices of major news agencies. I think the best chance blogs will have is to pool their resources, form some kind of national blog network like the Associated Press and then develop and maintain a set of principles and standards that will stand up over time.
Be sure to check back here tomorrow morning for part two of our interview with Jeff Duncan. We discuss the Saints and learn a little more about Jeff's New Orleans favorites.