h1

Interview with Michael Arace

March 6, 2007

Michael Arace, Blue Jackets beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch, was kind enough to answer a few questions I sent to him.  Columbus may not yet have a championship hockey club, but Blue Jacket fans are never left wanting for good hockey articles thanks to the work of Arace and fellow beat writer Aaron Portzline.

Without further delay, Michael Arace’s interview with the End of the Bench.

EOB: A little background. How long have you been writing on the sport of hockey? How did you end up in Columbus?

Arace: I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and like everyone else in my neighborhood I played whatever sport was in season and followed them all. We played hockey on ponds and were all Bruins fans until the Whalers moved to Hartford, then we were WHA fans, then Gretzky fans. My first favorite player was Dave Keon, then Tom Webster, then Mark Howe. I started working in the newspaper business part-time when I began college in 1982. I clerked for the Hartford Courant for five years while I was in school. This developed into a virtually full-time gig; I was editing, writing some headlines, pushing agate, working in paste-up and producing roundups, game stories and features. I covered high school hockey as a mini-beat. I went to school by day and worked at the Courant at night until, after my second senior year, I was hired by the Courant as a full-time writer in 1987. Two years later, I was covering UConn football and doing backup work on the Celtics, Red Sox and Yankees. I covered the Celtics as a beat from 1989-1995 and backed up on the Yankees. I covered the Whalers as a beat from 1995-97, and wrote them out of town, as it happened. Interesting experience, that was. I covered UConn basketball from 1997-99. I was got a call from a Dispatch editor who asked me to interview for the Blue Jackets beat job, which I found intriguing, and I was hired in September, 1999.

EOB: You write to an audience that has largely not been exposed to professional hockey prior to 2000. Do you feel that this presents a different set of challenges than you would experience if you were a writer in say, an Original Six city?

Arace: There were a lot of hockey fans when I got here, in 1999, and it showed. There are more hockey fans here now, and it shows. When I first interviewed here, my feeling was that Columbus has its Ohio State people, the natives and the curious, but it also has hundreds of thousands of transplants who grew up in a different environment and were crying for a professional sport. The market is perfect for an NHL team. That said, there is a bigger picture, journalistically. I don’t believe in writing to the least common denominator (and the folks here don’t need that). From where I sit, the approach in Hartford, Boston, Toronto or Columbus is the same. Inform, enlighten, entertain as best as one can on a tight deadline. A scoop is a scoop, a good game story is a good game story, and everything else had better draw a reader in or it shouldn’t be in the paper. In a nutshell, scoops and good (stuff) are the daily goal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Columbus, Toronto or Moscow, scoops and good (stuff) hold up, so that’s what you strive for. That is the challenge, to produce copy people want to read, and it’s a universal challenge. Audience tailoring is an ill-advised detour.

EOB: There is a link between your employer and the team you cover, with Wolfe Enterprises having an ownership stake in each. Do you feel that this relationship affects the topics you choose or the angle you pursue?

Arace: When I was placed on the UConn basketball beat in Hartford – which is the equivalent of covering OSU football in Columbus _ the Courant’s managing editor said to me, “We don’t care if Jim Calhoun doesn’t talk to you.” What he meant was, do the job and let the chips fall where they may, and that’s the best thing someone in my position can hear. When I interviewed at the Dispatch, I expressed concern about the paper’s relationship with the team and said the job wasn’t worth taking if any pressure was to be exerted on the beat writer. I was assured that there would be no meddling from management and I can tell you the editors have lived up to that. At no time in eight years have I been told to steer away from something. At no time has my copy been killed. Aaron Portzline and I have had a free hand to cover the team as we see fit. If the perception is otherwise, I can’t help that, it’s part of the deal here because John Wolfe owns a 10-percent chunk of the team. I see Mr. Wolfe once a year at a golf tournament and his questions always are always fan-like (he wonders about the same things as the guy in section 216) and never about coverage. Once every other year, I run into him on an elevator, and he asks me about an injury, a new acquisition or a shootout goal.

EOB: The heat on Jackets GM Doug MacLean seems to have been turned down considerably since the hiring of coach Ken Hitchcock and the team has been considerably more competitive with the new coach in place. Is the improved play of the team responsible for MacLean seeming to be off the hot seat, or is nobody in management discussing that particular situation at this time.

Arace: As beat writers, Aaron and I on a daily basis talk to people within the lockerroom, the coach’s offices, the front office, the circle of ownership, as well as other sources throughout the league, including a host of other hockey writers. We don’t talk to everyone in every camp every day, but it is our job to keep up. What we present is what we can nail down. That is part and parcel of this job, to print what we can confirm, and to write stories that are grounded in truth as best as we can determine. This much, everyone knows: The Blue Jackets are in the midst of their sixth consecutive losing season, attendance is down, local television ratings are poor and there is consternation among the fans. Everyone knows Hitchcock’s record. Everyone knows MacLean’s record. When we find out anything, we will rush to print.

EOB: We see plenty of articles on the more prominent players such as Rick Nash, Sergei Fedorov, and Adam Foote. Are there plans in the future to feature the less ‘popular’ players and coaches? I know many Blue Jacket fans would also like to hear from the Dan Fritsche’s, Aaron Johnson’s, Gord Murphy’s, and Alexander Svitov’s on the team.

Arace: Scoops and good stuff – when either is there, we try to seize upon it. We have to write a story, or two, or three, every day for six months, and then blanket the off-season. There are days when it feels like nothing new can be unearthed, and then we look for new angles. We try hard to make it new. That said, if we’re not casting a wide enough net, then we need to address the problem. Consider your point well-taken.

EOB: In your experience, how do other players/teams (especially other Central Division teams) view the Blue Jackets? Do they take the Jackets seriously, do they like playing against us? Also, what teams and cities do you enjoy (or not enjoy) visiting?

Arace: In a way, I think other Central Division cities view the Blue Jackets the way the Jackets’ fans view their team, as a potential giant as yet untapped. Players like Columbus. The arena setup is perfect. There’s a major-city population in the area. The fans are solid. This place will go crazy when its first playoff series is secured. Hockey fans know there is nothing like an NHL playoff series, especially a first-round series when anything can happen, especially under the conditions that Columbus presents. There are more than a million great sports fans here and they’re all ready for the bandwagon. The bandwagon just has to be assembled. But it’s all potential right now, vast potential. For goodness sakes, when will it be tapped? I can understand the frustration. As far as cities I enjoy visiting, I love Chicago, New York, Montreal and many others. I even like Buffalo. A city is what you make of it.

EOB: There has been a lot of debate and discussion recently among hockey bloggers regarding press access. Some teams seem to welcome the presence of reputable bloggers (the Washington Capitals are most notable), while others either ignore bloggers or have not been approached. There was a good discussion online at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month on this topic, and the Thrashers held a Bloggers Night on January 26th, inviting Atlanta area bloggers to attend a game and write about the Thrashers. I don’t think that bloggers will (or should) supplant the newspaper medium, but I feel that in the hands of a skilled writer a blog could become a good partner to a local newspaper. Eric McErlain ( Off Wing Opinion and NBC Sports) put together a set of guidelines for granting access to bloggers and other online media representatives which I think is a good starting point for developing a working relationship. My questions for you on this topic: What have been your experiences (if any) regarding hockey blogs? Do you feel that the better hockey blog sites out there (if you’re aware of them) provide a valuable service to the fan that maybe they can’t receive from a newspaper (a fan’s perspective as opposed to a more centered/impartial view)? Do you see these pockets of recognition (from a team) expanding to more NHL cities?

Arace: That’s quite a preamble to a question. As for an answer, I can only say that the times are a changin’, and that’s no scoop. Newspaper circulation has been in decline for 25 years. Advertising is down across the board, even in monopolized markets such as Columbus. Jobs on the editorial side of newspapering are being cut everywhere, including at the Dispatch, which is going through a buyout process as I write this. The biggest issue the industry has been grappling is how to take advantage of the internet, how to ply our product electronically, how to make a profit from it. We haven’t figured that out yet. All of this is in rapid evolution, right at this moment.

Now, to change gears, what are blogs? They are, by definition, on-line journals. And they’re everywhere, and can’t be ignored. Anyone can put in their two cents on any subject, even I, who am not inclined to toss opinions around. My job is to talk to people, gather information, weigh the information, interpret it, and present it as best I can. I write what I’ve got and shoot for scoops and good (stuff). From the age of 18, I’ve been trained to do this. From the age of 22, I’ve made a living at it, and now I’m 42. There are thousands like me all over the country working at newspapers, if they can hold their jobs. There are millions who are blogging and all we can do is welcome them, and the competition they might bring. Understand though, it is a competition. If people buy whatever a blogger is selling, good for the blogger.

As for your other questions about blogging: Yes, I’m aware of the hockey blogs, and there are some very sharp people involved in some of them. The good bloggers out there can add to the discourse, and that’s never bad. The best thing about baseball is that it can be dissected into small pieces, and argued over. Isn’t that one of the great things about all sports?

As for your question about fan perspective: What I do for the most part is supply information so the fans can give their perspective in whatever forum they choose, be it a bar, a basement or a blog. If my newspaper wants my perspective, and it rarely asks, I supply it _ with some reticence. If my newspaper wants me to supply regular opinions, it will change my job description.

Now, for your last question, about teams expanding recognition to bloggers, I think that’s inevitable, and I have no problem with it. In fact, the growing trend is for teams to hire their own bloggers, who then break team news as it is fed to them. In other words, teams are learning to use bloggers to scoop the newspapers. I have no problem with that, either. But it brings us back to that question about influence, the one about whether Wolfe Enterprises has an impact on what I write. I can tell you there is no influence, and if there was, I’d find another job because I believe in some time-tested, journalistic standards. I ask you: What are bloggers’ standards? I think that, eventually, readers will learn which bloggers to trust, and I would submit that they’ll look to those bloggers who know how to gather information, weigh it, interpret it and present it. In other words, people will yearn for more objective presentations. Opinions are great, but everyone has an opinion. But where are the scoops, and where’s the good stuff?

In sum, I see blogging evolving in a full circle. Some bloggers will be disseminators of good intelligence, others will be polished purveyors of enlightenment and opinion. Which is to say, you’ll have beat writers and columnists in cyberspace, and everything else will be conversation. Granted, conversation is terrific. But it ain’t news.

EOB: Lastly, it was noticed (with a little surprise) outside of Columbus that there were stories printed with regularity throughout the off-season and it’s being noticed here in Columbus that hockey is routinely a front-page story in the Sports section (even with Troy Smith and Greg Oden in town). Is there a sense among the Dispatch sports team that hockey is solidifying itself as a sport that Columbus can support?

Arace: Folks can question how good we are, or how bad we are, or what we have, or what we lack. That’s all part of the business. The newspaper belongs to anyone who reads it. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s in the birdcage at the end of the day. It’s the world for less than a buck and then it’s free fishwrap. All I can say about Jackets coverage, in and out of season, is it’s about as thorough as we can make it and our reputation is pretty good. Look at our paper on any day, and then surf the other US markets that have NHL teams. I can tell you, there are a lot of hockey writers who’d like to be working here.

Now, is hockey solidifying itself as a sport that Columbus can support? The answer is, Columbus has always supported hockey _ but that support is being undercut by the team’s losses. The coverage won’t change. What has to happen now is the Jackets have to win to regain the fans they’ve lost. The market is strong, the appetite for the team is there, but tickets are costly and time has been wasted here. This is a gem here waiting to be properly polished. The fans know. The fans always know. This is a big-league town now and the Jackets have to start acting like they belong in the big leagues. That means scaring Original Six teams, winning games and making the playoffs.

<End of Interview>

Special thanks go out to Michael Arace for his interview participation in this forum.  I appreciate it, and I hope the readers do as well.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.  Come back soon.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Kudos to the interviewer–great interview, and an interesting foray into the mind of a sports columnist. Your questions were thoughtful, and Mr. Arace was generous with his thoughts and opinions. Congrats.


  2. That was a great post. Thanks, Drew and Michael.



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: