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Barry Svrluga has been writing for the Washington Post’s sports section since 2003, with well-regarded turns as beat reporter for the local NFL and MLB franchises before becoming the paper’s national baseball writer. Now he’s the section’s newest columnist. When that was announced, I was in the middle of a semi-regular existential crisis about what sports columns should be, so I contacted Svrluga to discuss.
The ensuing email exchange has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
What do you think a sports column IS these days, in the face of blogs, voice-y reporting, and everything else?
Svrluga: That’s an interesting question, and you’d think I’d have a ready answer, but I’m not sure you know until you start doing it. In chatting with my friends and colleagues who have done this job for years, the sure way to make a column go “thud!” is to be wishy-washy. So I would expect to spend a lot of time figuring out what I think about a subject and then try to write clearly, hopefully pushing the reader to think beyond what his or her initial reaction might be.
It feels to me, as a natural waffler, like there’s an incredibly thin line between not being wishy-washy and being Shouting Hot Take Guy. How will you avoid that?
That is a chief concern. But I think the people who have been the best at this in recent years—Sally Jenkins, Tom Boswell, Dan Wetzel at Yahoo!, Michael Rosenberg at Sports Illustrated—never fall into that trap. Even if their opinion matches the hottest of hot takes, their reasoning is more measured. They also take you a step or two beyond, to something you hadn’t considered. That would be a real goal. And again, that’s based in reporting and thinking.
What worries you about the gig?
Oh, tons of stuff. Not being able to think clearly. Not being able to articulate those thoughts. Not HAVING an opinion, but feeling like you should weigh in anyway, which seems like a terrible trap. Not being able to advance ideas beyond what everyone’s thinking so that people say, “Huh, hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Are these different from the concerns that plagued you on the beat?
Yeah, I think they are different. On a beat, I think you worry about whether you know the right people and have the right relationships so that you understand what’s really going on. That’s a certain kind of reporting that I think will be similar with a column. The difference comes in how you use and present the information you’re getting.
Do you have a specific column that you hold up as your platonic ideal? I think mine is probably Sally Jenkins’ 2009 piece on the toxic management in Ashburn.
Well, that’s certainly one that would jump to mind. Think about what Sally did there: She brought you inside [redacted] Park with real insight on how it works, but related it to larger workplace themes that people could relate to, which humanizes the players/coaches/employees as not football stars, but people who need to go to work and feel good about their jobs. That’s such a great way to get across the point, and because I was there, I know that these concepts were reported out. She wasn’t guessing. She knew. That’s a great column.
Another one that jumps to mind: Dan Wetzel on Tom Brady after the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2012. In a way, it’s a simple exercise in observation: Follow Brady after the game. Don’t get into his reaction in the press conference, but watch and listen. It gives a great feel for the impact the loss had on the star player, the game’s biggest character. And it really resulted from Dan being patient with the reporting.
There are a ton of ways to write an exemplary column, because not all columns are chasing the same thing. “Fire the coach,” which can be a great column, is different from, “Feel what this athlete felt at his/her best/worst moment.”
In your opinion, is the columnist an expert, a conduit for experts, or something in between?
It depends on the columnist and the subject. Initially, I’m going to feel much more comfortable writing about baseball because that’s what I’ve covered most recently, most in-depth, and for the longest part of my career. But even with “On Baseball” pieces I did (kind of junior columns), I’d try to call or talk to people to work through the ideas. Sometimes they’d be quoted, sometimes not. But you want to make sure that you’re not guessing, that you’ve done the work that will help you back up your opinion—particularly if it’s an area in which you have less familiarity.