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A Conversation with The Athletic's Dan Hayes

Dan was kind enough to chat with me for 30 minutes recently. We discussed how he got into journalism, why he wanted to become a baseball beat writer, the role of anonymous sourcing in sports journalism, and much more. 

The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity and, believe it or not, brevity. 

Lucas Seehafer: I want to start kind of broadly. When and how did you decide you wanted to get into sports journalism?

Dan Hayes: It’s funny. I was three units short of a full-load of classes in junior college and a buddy said, “Hey, why don’t we take journalism?” And I always liked reading the newspaper, but I’d never done anything with it. I was like, “Okay, sure”, expecting to go in and the teachers going to teach us how to do journalism. And, basically, you arrive and the professor’s like, “Welcome to the college newspaper.” You’re just on staff at that point. It was kind of shocking, but I needed the units. I was like, “Alright, cool. I’ll try this out.” I ended up in sports and made friends with the sports editor. I can’t remember if I covered baseball that first semester, but that was it. Three months later or six months later I had an internship with the newspaper in town, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which was a New York Times company. And in 1998 I was making $11 an hour as an intern for this newspaper. I was like, “This is great!” All of a sudden I was doing high school sports, getting to write like a football game a week, that kind of thing. It all just kind of took off from there. So, basically, because I needed health insurance, that’s how it all happened.

LS: Hey, fair enough, everybody needs a reason, right?! So, once you kind of got more experience in the field once you graduated, why did you settle on beat writing?

DH: I wanted to cover baseball and that was the route. I didn’t know that I was ever going to get a chance to. I mean, I stuck with the paper throughout college and I really just enjoyed it. I think the first couple of beats I did were college football. Actually, my first beat was women’s volleyball, but I knew, like, the way I reported on it that I really liked the job. It was something I wanted to pursue and so, even after I graduated and I didn’t have a job right away, I was freelancing for the San Diego Union Tribune and working full-time as a bank teller at a credit union. I just knew I liked it. It didn’t feel like work. I was going to this office job as a bank teller everyday and dreading it. Instead, when I covered games, it was just the highlight of my week, essentially. I started to take more and more assignments even when it was meaning I was working two jobs, essentially. 

You stick in the field and some people are lucky enough to get a beat right out of college. That wasn’t going to be me. I had to go to a small newspaper first in northern California and work high school beats. Then I went back to southern California for a community sports reporting job, which I did for three years before I ever got on beat. I just knew that that’s what I’d wanted, to do one thing full-time and be dedicated to it because I liked building relationships with the people that were on the team and that kind of thing and getting information from sources that you developed a report with. So, I knew that’s what I wanted. It just took awhile to get there.          

 LS: Yeah, and, I mean, your story of not having a job straight out of college, that’s something that I know is fairly common. Do you think that your experience in other fields and also in other sports has helped make you a better baseball beat writer?

DH: Oh yeah. The thing that’s great about all those other experiences is, you know you’re not doing exactly what you want to do, but you learn to do it and do it at your best level anyway. That alone, I was covering community sports events, which meant I was going to — I’m not a morning person at all, that’s one reason I like baseball — I was going to, like, marathons or half-marathons. You needed to be there to get on the media truck at 5:30 in the morning and that’s miserable for me. But, you throw yourself into the stuff and you work really hard and that’s the stuff you don’t want to cover. I feel like that really helps you just prepare for everything. 

There were times this year where I didn’t want to cover the Twins. They were boring, they only had two pitchers going every five days that I was really interested in watching at the end, and that’s not the easiest place to be, you know? With 50 games on the schedule and not wanting to watch the team you cover, but I think it teaches you to kind of persevere and be there and that definitely helps in some situations. Especially, I’ve covered I think four or five winning teams out of 15 seasons. So, there’s a lot of baseball, bad baseball, when you’re covering a beat that you don’t necessarily be there for, that, I think, the perseverance that you learn at other areas of covering helps a lot when what you are covering isn’t exactly what it cracks up to be.

LS: You had mentioned that you have kind of always wanted to be a baseball beat writer. Why baseball? Where did your love for the sport pop up?

DH: My dad and my cousins and my uncle. The five of us loved it. I was not very good at baseball. Like, I sucked at baseball. But my cousin played at a pretty high level and my dad and my uncle always talked about it. Their passion translated to me. I always saw my dad reading the newspaper growing up and I thought that was cool and I wondered why, so I started reading the paper. I didn’t  know that that was going to be my route, but it doesn’t surprise me given how I was raised. Reading the newspaper every day and being up to date. I just loved it. I loved knowing everything about the team and absorbing as much information [as I could].

LS: You’ve worked now for three very different sports media outlets: The Athletic, NBC Sports Chicago, and The North County Times. How has your role as beat writer evolved at each place?

DH: The great part about The North County Times, the Padres were very good my first season. They went to Game 163, so I got really well versed in knowing what daily was like and finding interesting angles, even when you’re writing 120 times per year. That was helpful, but by, like, 2008-09, the Padres were awful, so you’d become big picture much earlier in the season. You’d be looking at, like, Cameron Maybin had this awesome, great game. Is he the everyday centerfielder of the future for the Padres? I learned to be big picture early on, but that’s pretty much what I am now. We do daily stuff at The Athletic, for sure, I mean we definitely focus on analysis, but a lot of it is big picture. I think that’s where I’ve changed. I’ve gone from being super focused on daily to looking for the big picture items, which is really important with a team like [the Twins] because it’s a team that we know that they have a few guys that they commit to long-term and because of their self-imposed budgetary limitations, they only can select a handful of guys. So, you have to kind of always look for who’s going to be the core and that kind of stuff. I think that is probably the way I’ve changed the most. I still do [daily analysis], but I use it on my social media feed as opposed to writing about it. The way I’ve written, they way I write, has shifted significantly in that time.

LS: I think the biggest questions people want to know from sports journalists, particularly beat writers, regards sourcing, especially now with the recent journalistic missteps of insiders such as ESPN’s Adam Schefter. So, I’ll start here: How does a beat writer go about developing sources?

DH: You just talk to people. A lot. The way that I think it works really well is just develop trust because, look, there’s certain things that someone will tell you that wouldn’t necessarily be a story, but they’ll say something to you and [it’s] how you handle that, I guess. I just want the person to know that they can trust me. That they can talk to me and I’m going to quote them accurately, I’m not going to take something out of context. Someone can express a concern about a player, just in the portion of the conversation, and if you want to tilt that. Think about, in the average conversation, what you might say to someone and how many things can be taken out of context? The way that you develop a great rapport is by having the proper context and not trying to be salacious with everything. That helps a lot, you know what I mean? It’s not like, the pitching coach says six good things about the pitcher and then says one lukewarm thing and you jump on that one lukewarm thing and turn a conversation that was wholly good about the pitcher into this little part. You can explore that part as part of the conversation, but if your conversation was largely positive — it has to be if it was valid, you don’t just run with positive because the guy was saying positive things if he’s blowing smoke — but if what he is saying is valid and you choose to run with that one crappy part, I think that definitely is something that can hurt you. 

And, basically, just do good work. I think the more people see that, they trust you and that’s where you get real information. You know what to use, what not to use, you know when things are pertinent to use, when not to. The more you do that kind of stuff, the more the people around you work with you. Your sources know that they can give you a sense of what is going on with the organization and I think that’s really helpful because not everything that you talk about is immediately needed. It’s good to bank stuff for down the road. An observation on some player is good six months later because you can go back and make it a topic when it becomes more relevant. That’s really important, is not running with everything right away because some of it is irrelevant at the time. I think that perspective is key and it really helps with trust. When people see how you operate and that you’re professional, they become more likely to trust you.

There’s certain things that, I don’t know, it’s complicated. In that way, I think that trust is so important. I feel like that’s something I’ve gotten very good at over the years. When I first started, any little scrap of information I would turn into a story right away and it was so, like, people would get scared of talking in front of you because they’re afraid of what they might say and it might end up in the newspaper article. And it can be the most minor, throwaway thing that has no significance, and all of a sudden it’s a big story. Well, a big story in The North County Times, which has 40,000 readers, but I think that that patience has helped me a ton over time because not only is it weak reporting to run something so quickly, but giving stuff time allows you to offer way more nuance and insightful reporting and that’s what the whole goal is.   

LS: And I can imagine the way social media runs these days that those concerns that you just talked about are probably even more rampant, particularly among people who are trying to make a name for themselves and get their careers going.

DH: Absolutely it is. And social media certainly leads to a lot of, you see people say a lot of things where you can’t really tell what they’re saying in their quotes because they’re very guarded. And that, I think, has a lot to do with social media.   

LS: In other fields of journalism, anonymous sourcing isn’t uncommon, but it is more rare, often saved for occasions when an individual's well-being is at risk, but it’s commonplace in sports journalism. What do you think is an appropriate role for anonymous sourcing?

DH: Well, I wish that people that were, like, in charge would just attach their name. It’s funny because you only use anonymous sourcing for a handful of people and they’re all the people that run the team, essentially. There’s nobody above them that is going to come down on them. This is the way it is with every team, with every GM, with every President of Baseball Operations. You almost wish they would attach their name because it’s not like somebody up above is going to fire them for their comments. But, I mean, that’s just how it goes. It’s a weird function of things, but, maybe, you start with someone lower level and you respect their being anonymous because they’re giving you information. You never run with just confirmation from the lower-level person, unless that person is directly impacted, like they’re the player that’s being moved. But if a lower-level person tells you something, then you need to go an take it to be confirmed by higher-level people.

I wish we didn’t have to do it, but I understand why. You just better make sure the person that you’re using to ultimately confirm the story really knows their stuff and what they’re talking about and is sort of the authority on things. You have to be very careful about what you choose to use from anonymous sources. I think if you do that, if you go in with your eyes open, it really helps the process

LS: In your mind, what makes a good beat writer?

DH: Be there. It sucks that you have to, some of the sacrifices you have to make because baseball’s played in the summer and, obviously, a lot of it is at night, a lot of it’s weekends. Being willing to make the sacrifice and consistently being there it’s so key because that’s just how you get the trust of people. Being there, showing your face, being there for the big moments, being there for the throwaway moments. Being there and [being persistent]. Establishing trust so that people know that you are who you are, essentially, and get a sense for what way you’re coming. Having a rapport helps so much when you’re asking tough questions and I think that it gets you better responses because they know you’re not just coming out of left field. Not just being the best writer, but having the most thorough information, getting the best quotes, and having that trust to get you insight that maybe other people don’t get. 

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