The Media Column: Sports editor of Boston Globe addresses Globe-EEI relationship and state of section

Alex Reimer
July 26, 2018 - 1:50 pm

Photo by Alex Reimer

I had lots of questions for new Boston Globe sports editor Matt Pepin, ranging from the current state of the storied section to whether the broadsheet carries any sort of anti-WEEI bias. Given the frayed relationship between WEEI and the Globe, I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to address these concerns with me in a phone conversation. 

Pepin became sports editor July 10, replacing Joe Sullivan, who held the role since 2005. Previously, Pepin was in charge of the Globe’s sports digital operation, serving as sports editor for BostonGlobe.com prior to the promotion. 

In an extended Q&A, I asked Pepin about his plans for the section going forward, and any changes he intends to implement. We also covered the array of criticisms lobbed at the Globe, such as the perceived impact of John Henry’s ownership on the paper’s Red Sox coverage. The exchange has been edited for brevity:

Alex Reimer: What’s one change you want to make to the Globe sports section?

Matt Pepin: My primary push focus is to continue our push into digital storytelling and innovation. We just came up with one last week about Alex Speier and J.D. Martinez's defense, which was a couple of months in the making. I was the lead editor on it, and Alex and I had talked about it after the Sox signed Martinez, and immediately the questions about the defense were surrounding that. So he smartly arranged for Martinez to meet with some of the analytics experts to talk about it. We met with some experts and got a great package, and they explained the difference in the two styles calculating defensive metrics. It was just really popular. ... I guess ‘innovative digital storytelling’ is my campaign slogan.

How about the role of the beat writer in 2018? Do you intend to go with fewer traditional game stories, and more towards opinion?

I'm in the fortunate position of having at least two people on every beat. So we're able to provide game stories, but I'd like to think we don't do traditional game stories. Yes, in their earliest form they're traditional game stories, but they're quickly written through and get subsequent updates that really tell the story of where the team is at, and the game is the peg.

I think our headlines reflect this as well. The earliest headline on the website is going to be, 'Red Sox win or lose.' But then by the morning, it's probably going to be changed to something that's more indicative of the final version of that story, which likely dives into the strategy, implications and commentary postgame, and less about what happened, why it happened, and the implications. Today's game story for the Red Sox was about Drew Pomeranz and his mediocre start. And it actually hinted in that story they may need to be ahead of the July 31 deadline in finding a starter. Ten hours later, we're reporting the news of the (Nathan) Eovaldi trade. 

How about the role of a sports columnist in 2018? When a lot of these buyouts happen, generally the highly paid columnists are some of the first to go. And there's some thought that today, with everyone having a voice, it's kind of passé. But then I look at what (Dan) Shaughnessy did today with (Bill Belichick,) and I say, 'It takes an established columnist in the city to generate that kind of reaction.’

I just think that columnists project the voice of an institution. I don't mean the position of the institution, but I think it's an important role for us to present a lot of opinions. Columnists often worry about stepping on each other, but I say, 'I think there's room for more than one column on the same subject.' I think having that diversity of opinion is important. 

I think we've achieved that. Dan, obviously, is who he is. He loves to poke the bear, as it were. He has a lot of strong opinions. But we also have Chris Gasper, who's well thought out and has a great vocabulary, certainly. We've added Tara Sullivan, who brings a new voice, and I think it was important to have a female voice in a leading role on our website and in our pages. I also consider Chad Finn to be one of our columnists. In addition to his role as our media columnist, he has a really great following. I think he has a certain conversational tone. I always liken him with shooting the breeze with my brother-in-law on the first tee.

You mentioned Tara Sullivan –– I know she came over in the fall. You talked about the importance of having a female voice. Was that something you were looking for when you filled the position?

It was. Yes. It wasn't my hire, but it was important to us to make sure we had a female columnist.

Why?

I just think the diversity and great perspective that she brings –– it's just the right thing to do. 

What specifically has Tara done at the Globe where you were like, 'OK, that's where it was important to have a female perspective, or her perspective?’

I've never really thought of it like that, to be honest. I just know she's as much of a pro as anyone I've worked with. I went to the Olympics ... and joined her, Rachel Bowers and John Powers. She and I went to one of the U.S. hockey games, and Ryan Donato was starting to light it up. He was clearly emerging as the star of the U.S. team. Here's a guy who was playing at a local college, and he's Bruins property, and she gets in the mix after the game, and we're sitting there, and I was doing, I don't know –– some stupid web hit –– and she's on the phone, and I realize who she's talking to. She's talking to Ted Donato, Ryan's father. 

Everyone in the room was turning around and looking, because they realized who she had, and how much better her story was going to be than everybody else's. He was providing perspective on his son's play, and son's participation in the Olympics, and I was kind-of-sort-of the manager on the ground there, and didn't really tell her to do that, but she just did it on her own accord. It just dawned on me that this is someone who's as good at their job as anybody I've been associated with. You can just tell her commitment to telling the best story. 

Overall, that's what attracted us to Tara Sullivan. The fact that she brings an extra perspective to the job, of being a woman in the field of sports journalism, is a plus. But her credentials stack up with anybody.

You mentioned the Shaughnessy column and baseball bashing. With John Henry running the paper, do you ever feel uncomfortable running critical pieces like that?

No, not really. We do put in the standard disclaimer that John Henry owns both the Globe and the Red Sox. But I've never felt any pressure from him.

Never?

Nope.

How about the arrangement in general –– the strange dynamics of Henry owning the paper. What are your thoughts on the overall situation?

I hate to dodge it, but I haven't really been in the position –– I might be too new to answer that question. I've certainly dealt with Dan, asked him to write certain columns that I know would be good for the web from time-to-time, but in terms of inter-office politics or anything like that, I just haven't been exposed to it. If you want to revisit this conversation if we're still both here in a year, then I might have a different answer. But I wouldn't feel comfortable answering that yet. Sorry.

I know the Globe-EEI relationship has been a little frosty. What are your thoughts on it?

I think it's healthy to have competition. I read your column about the Herald, and I would hate to see the Herald go away. I would hate to see EEI go away. I think these are jobs in an industry that's having lots of trouble. Sports media is a difficult business –– we saw what happened at the New York Daily News this week. It's tough to take that. People always say, 'Don't you want the Athletic to fold?' I say, ‘No, absolutely not.' Those are jobs for talented journalists, and those talented journalists and other sports commentators from WEEI and 'The Sports Hub,' we all help each other raise our game. 

It's a healthy situation. ... And isn't it part of the fun to have us behind the scenes maybe ripping each other privately, but on the surface, we're competing for a very similar segment of the audience. That's a healthy thing.

Do you think there's a Globe bias against WEEI at all?

I don't. I don't know that anyone has ever read –– I certainly have never said –– 'Let's not do that story because it involves WEEI.' I think Chad (Finn) has been forthcoming with the ratings. He's written extensively about that. I know the ratings stories do well. There's a lot of interest there. 

They certainly do. People love sports talk.

It's a healthy part of the Boston landscape. So I would not say there's a bias.

I think one thing is, when something happens on our airwaves, it gets lots of coverage –– as it should. When you screw up, you screw up. But on the other side, 98.5, there doesn't seem to be as much coverage in the Globe. As an example –– and Gerry (Callahan) and Kirk (Minihane) talked about this –– Mazz said the other week that when he sees Gisele (Bundchen), he wants to 'wretch'. The contention is if it were said on our airwaves, it would get more play in the Globe. What are your thoughts on that critique?

I'm not familiar with that particular storyline. Did it happen last week?

It was a few weeks ago. But in general, do you think EEI gets harped on more than the 'The Sports Hub?’

I'm not sure. I'm just really not sure. It's not like I keep a scoreboard, or anything like that. I know we recently rewrote an Alex Cora interview that was on WEEI. Obviously, that's a bit different situation than a controversial comment, but I know that we've done that. I do remember something a little over a year ago –– we were still on Morrisey Boulevard when it happened –– there was some unhappiness on EEI's part that we failed to attribute (Tom) Brady's comments to the interview that was conducted after the game. We corrected that, and I don't know if our correction was noted as much as the initial offense. And it is our practice to credit the source of the content we rewrite. And I think the Brady interview every Monday is must-listen stuff. We assign somebody to keep track of it. If there's content worth writing up, we do it. We're very aware of things like that. Certainly that one incident, it was just an oversight, an eagerness to post it. I think that was a particularly juicy interview.

I vaguely remember this. I think it was Andrew Mahoney, right?

Yeah. Were we thrilled that we got raked over the coals for it? No. But I think we try to do right by making the appropriate correction, and a point of emphasis that the source of that story was properly attributed. 

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Nothing wrong with Shaughnessy grandstanding in Belichick presser:
Dale Arnold was critical of Shaughnessy for repeatedly badgering Belichick about Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl benching on Wednesday. “When you get to the fifth question, and he keeps repeating over and over again, are you at the point then where you’re just doing this for you, or are you still trying to get information?,” Dale asked on ‘Dale & Keefe.’

Dale is right: Shaughnessy was putting on a performance. But that’s fine. Benching Butler in the Super Bowl might be one of the most controversial coaching decisions in NFL history. Shaughnessy’s extended line of questioning showed, once and for all, Belichick has no intention of giving the public an answer. The exchange wouldn’t have been as indelible without the theatrics. 

Greg Bedard on whether Boston Sports Journal has grown enough in Year 1:
BSJ launched one year ago this week. The subscription website, which is modeled after Dejan Kovacevic’s site in Pittsburgh, pledges in its mission statement to avoid clickbait, “contrived opinions” and politics. “We’re not going to be outlandish just to gain attention,” its mission statement reads. “We want this to be an oasis from the outside world.”

BSJ currently boasts a modest subscriber count of 8,585 members with 100 lifetime subscriptions and 500 free military packages. Membership for one year costs $34.99, while the monthly pass is worth $4.99. 

In a phone call with me, Bedard said he always intended to grow gradually. “I didn’t have any grand aspirations when we started this,” he explained. “It was, ‘I’m out of work, I don’t see a job come training camp. The numbers are shrinking for everybody. So what am I going to do?’ I said, ‘I want to keep writing, and what’s the best way to do this?' I saw DK’s model in Pittsburgh, and said, ‘I think this can work here.’ I just didn’t want to get into a situation where I said, ‘We’re going to head-to-head against the Globe, and Herald and all of these people, and then after six months I can’t pay anybody. So there’s a reason why we started small. Things are fine. It was a good first year. Looking for more in year two. Looking to get into different areas.”

Bedard says he counts on subscriptions to pay his seven-writer staff and advertising to supplement travel and other costs. In Year 2, he will also have to compete with the Athletic, which recently launched its own vertical in Boston. 

“I haven’t noticed any change since they’ve come in. I just view it as two distinctly different brands,” Bedard said. “That’s a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist model, with Dan Gilbert and a lot of New York money. This is a local Boston-based business, Boston-based people. We don’t care about other markets. I haven’t noticed anything. … They think their model is writing something ‘unique’ –– even though I don't know how many unique stories there are out there –– a few times per week, while we comprehensively cover the teams. I just haven’t noticed much difference since they’ve arrived.”

Jemele Hill teases leaving ESPN –– or does she?
Speaking last weekend in New York City, Hill talked about her increasing desire to opine about racial, gender and social issues. “As much as I’d like to tell you about Golden State’s latest game or tell you about why Jacksonville can win the Super Bowl, some days I just didn’t give a shit because of everything else that was happening in this country,” Hill said at the OZY Fest (it’s a cleverly titled event put on by the digital marketing and media company, OZY). 

The writeup of Hill’s speech on OZY’s website says the polarizing anchor “plans to leave ESPN.” It also includes comments she made about how her suspension from ESPN propelled her to think about the next chapter of her career. (It has) made me think about it sooner and (to) plot out what the next 10–15 years of my life would be,” she told the crowd.

Hill has been in a much less prominent role at ESPN since leaving “SC6” in February, penning columns for The Undefeated and appearing on various afternoon studio shows. Given Hill's diminished status, it wouldn't be surprising to see her go elsewhere. 

When I asked ESPN about Hill’s remarks, a spokesman pointed me to her tweet about the matter on Monday: “Headline might be a little sexier than what I actually said,” she wrote. “Plotting the next 10-to-15 years of my career is kind of the way you have to think in this business. Thee are other things I want to do besides sports, but plenty I want to do/will do at ESPN.”

Assuming Hill hasn't taken a paycut at the WorldWide Leader, the smart money says she'll take two more years to plot her future. Coincidently, that's when her contract reportedly expires. 

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The Media Column: Is the Boston Herald on its deathbed?

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