Q&A with Paul Sullivan
Recently, I conducted a Q&A session with the Chicago Tribune‘s Paul Sullivan, or “Sully” as he is commonly referred. With nearly two decades of beat reporting for the Cubs and White Sox under his belt, Sully has excellent advice and insight for anyone interested in sports journalism. A recent job change has transformed Sully from the ‘Cubs guy’ into the ‘baseball guy’ for the Tribune, still he was able to shed some positive, and even not so positive, light on beat reporting.
Side note/Shout out to my classmate LaVar: Another Cubbie W! Go Cubs Go!
Now that you have had some time experiencing your new job, can you explain the benefits of beat reporting?
Sullivan: Virtually being there every day. You are more clued in on what’s going on. I still follow the team closely and everything, but I don’t travel anymore. Now it’s what I read instead of learning it myself, which is always preferred. You are able to make your own opinions and hear it from the horses mouth instead of getting other people’s reports.
Some people really like you, but some people don’t mind expressing that they don’t agree with you, especially bloggers. How important is it to have a relationship with other bloggers?
Sullivan: Some [bloggers] trash me. It’s part of the business. You have to have thick skin to be a writer. You’re going to be dishing out criticism, so you better be able to take it. I usually fight with bloggers to tell you the truth. They take my information and boil it down and use the quotes as their own. I found that to be kind of deceitful and really kind of obscene. They are making money off of my reporting. They can sell ads and make a lot of money, and their only information is from the writers that are there. They are kind of like leeches.
Do you feel blogs bring down the quality of sports writing?
Sullivan: There are just so many now. I don’t know if it gives [sports writing] a bad reputation. It’s hard to quantify because so many fans are blogging. I guess I can see that bringing down the best of the bloggers, but it’s at a point now that it’s not going to go away. We’ve learned to live with it.
You have covered a lot of Chicago sports, what’s it like covering baseball in comparison with other sports?
Sullivan: I think it’s the hardest sport to cover. You’re on deadline for six months out of the season. When the clock is running down and the game isn’t over and you have to have your copy in, it’s a scary feeling. It’s a different feeling. It’s hard to describe. You have to be totally focused on your story. You have to shut out all of the noise, read it over, make sure you didn’t spell it wrong. Also with baseball, you have to put a lot of stats into your story, and you can’t get it wrong.
What was it like covering the Cubs, specifically?
Sullivan: I covered them for so many years; 14 seasons maybe. I’ve covered some great seasons.
Well, the Cubs aren’t known for their excellent record, what’s that like?
Sullivan: They’ve been bad for a lot of yeras. When they are good, Chicago is just in a great mood. But when they are bad, you switch into a different mode. People like to read about Cubs’ disasters, even Cubs fans. They don’t like you to sugarcoat it. That’s what people expect from you. You’re not a cheerleader. You must be critical of bad teams. It’s like what I say to the managers, if your team is good, I’m the guy you’ll like covering your team. If your team is bad, I’m the guy you’ll hate covering your team. Fortunately I’ve grown up here. I’ve seen it all. That helps make me what I was as a beat reporter. I don’t know if I could have covered the Mets; I wouldn’t be into it.
Covering a team for so long, do you lose sense of being a fan?
Sullivan: Absolutely. Once you’re a writer, your whole view of sports will change. It’s just the team you’re covering. You can’t be as much of a fan. You have to be objective for your readers. I’ve become more of a fan of the individual players. If I cover a Cubs player that I like, and we have a good relationship, I’ll root for him wherever he plays. If I hate him, I’ll hate him wherever he goes. As for the Cubs, if they get to the World Series, I’ll want them to win. It would be such a great story. Hopefully, I’ll still be alive.
What are a few examples of challenges when writing about the Cubs?
Sullivan: When the Ricketts family and Tribune joined, it was a challenge to convince people you were writing objectively and not influence by the people that own your paycheck. But I think I handled that well. Once, the Cubs tried to get rid of me because of what I wrote. And it is also challenging to deal with so many outside distractions. All the radio stations want to talk, fans, stuff like this, before you had to write letters. Now it’s so easy to pop out an email.
How has the business changed since you began?
Sullivan: For baseball the biggest change came after the Internet. You used to go to the park before the game at about 10 a.m. for interviews, watch the game, and do your stories after. Now you have to get there as soon as the locker room opens, interview managers and players, write a story, interview more people, write more stories, upload videos, tweet during the game, there’s just no time to breathe if you’re a beat writer now. And you used to be able to get scoops on your own teams, but now it seem like agents only talk to writers for MLB. They kind of shut out beat writers, which is a shame. Also, Twitter has changed everything. I tweet a lot. They expect you to tweet out information as it happens instead of waiting to put it in some kind of context. For example, when Zambrano just quit and said he was retiring, we all grabbed our phones like a gun out of a holster. You want to be first and get credit for it. It has become instant news, instant access of information, and instant delivery. You must be quick on your feet. And know how to use a damn iPhone.
Well our time is winding down, so I just have one question that I must ask, Cubs or Sox?
Sullivan: Cubs. Although I grew up a Sox fan. I’m a turned Cubs fan. I don’t hate the Sox, but Cubs.