By Leigh Anne Varney, Senior Account Supervisor
I recently caught up with my friend, Henry Schulman, for his take on work and life during the pandemic. From his ever-evolving daily routine to his social media stardom, Henry’s love for journalism and sports is an inspiration to me and his fans. This is his 33rd season as a baseball writer: he started in 1988 at the Oakland Tribune, then went to the San Francisco Examiner. He left the Examiner for the Chronicle in 1998. Then, in 2000, the papers merged. So, without further adieu…here’s Henry!
Let’s get right into the elephant in the room. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your beat?
Well, it’s not that unusual for me to work from home. I do it in the winter all the time and I’ve never had a desk at Fifth & Mission. But…there’s no news! It’s all features in sports now. You can run out of ideas that are not new or hackneyed. I’m starting some “where are they now”-type stories and the editors want us to do stories on what athletes are doing now since they cannot play games.
That said, we still need to generate traffic online. I came up with doing a “fake opening day story” on what would have been opening day for baseball 2020 based on a simulated baseball game from Strat-o-matic. The well isn’t dry, but I can see where it will be.
This is actually a fertile opportunity for PR folks to pitch stories about sports, business, food and for Datebook. We’re all needing story ideas.
As a sports writer, are you inundated with pitches from PR pros like other news/business reporters?
It’s a different phenomenon when you’re a sports writer because you have to deal with the team’s media relations/PR in-house team. It’s symbiotic. You’re much more ensconced. I don’t really deal with agencies.
The interactions we have with PR pros help us work better together. They’re not going to keep bad news from us; their job is to anticipate challenges and then let the managers and team know. It’s a lot like crisis communications – they make sure teams are not caught off-guard about various situations, then they help devise a strategy for answering the questions.
Describe a day-in-the-life of a sports journalist.
I wake up every day and, like others, check social media first thing. We have to react immediately – we can’t just show up at the ballpark like we did back in the day and catch up there. I usually have to get a story up quickly – long before I get to the ballpark.
Over the last 15 years, information on who’s being traded, team changes, etc. gets funneled through national media like ESPN, Yahoo Sports and The Athletic, so national writers get to that news first. It’s hard for local team writers to be ahead of that; we rely on the team’s PR pros to then confirm the news.
The first thing I do when I arrive to the ballpark is meet Matt Chisholm, communications director for the SF Giants, to see what’s going on. If it’s a night game, I arrive around 2:30 p.m. and I usually speak with the manager and the PR team prior to the game. Around 3:15 p.m., I get one hour of access with the players in the clubhouse. There’s always a PR professional in the room with the gaggle of reporters at all times. Think about that: if the game goes until 10:30 p.m. and I need to speak with a player after the game, we have to stay until we finish. It’s an extremely hard job as PR goes. The volume of work they do arranging interviews, staying in the clubhouse and especially creating the game notes every single day is enough to kill someone.
How many stories a day for you?
It used to be one, but now it’s three to five – but they all don’t make it into the paper. Too much volume. It’s digital first and I don’t worry about the length or design. For print, the Chron’s Sporting Green editors determine the layout for the paper. We post the game story as soon as it’s over. Then we go down, get quotes and either plug them in for the next edition or rewrite altogether if we have time.
Next day: Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
What happens in the off-season? Do you sleep in? Take long walks on the beach? Vacay to sunny climes?
Sports journalists are unique in that our job changes drastically and is marked by the off-season. When it’s feature story time, it’s much more of a phone job and more like a regular business or beat reporter. During the season, I have access to my sources every day and I can get news. But in the off-season, we are way more reliant on PR teams. In winter, it’s all about player movement. Not my favorite part, honestly.
Let’s talk about social media.
Social media is a very important part of the marketing of sports coverage and letting the reader know what’s going on with the team. We are building a brand. I use Twitter and some Instagram, but Twitter is really the engine. You can see it. There are a lot of people buying the Chronicle because of the baseball stories. It’s not a lark.
I’ve got 67K Twitter followers – that figure peaked about 3-4 years ago. I do take a “comments” break from time to time to keep my sanity.
I guess you could kind of say I’m a local celebrity. Although I want people to associate me with the team, I must maintain my objectivity. And no politics, for sure. We are the face of the Hearst Corporation. We can be edgy, just not insulting. We have a great editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, who believes in impartiality so don’t show your hand politically.
I do get personal about my life on social media. A few years ago, I shared my illness: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. To this day, people still ask how I’m doing.
How else has social media affected the Sports desk?
Metrics drive everything we do. Clicks are a commodity now – it’s all about quality as in how long people are reading articles and from where. Every day, I get an email that shows how many times someone clicks on the article, how long they stayed and where they heard about it.
Surprisingly, it’s not from Twitter, but rather people searching Google for the Giants. More than 50 percent of Chronicle page views are found that way.
A few years ago, a prominent university conducted a computer science project and examined three newspapers – SF Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and Des Moines Register – to find out what stories people read as subscribers. For the Sports section, the Giants were the #1 driver of subscriptions for the SF Chronicle! Two reasons I was surprised: for one, I always assumed the 49ers were the top sports team around here. Second, the data dump didn’t take place during any of the World Series seasons. It was 2017-2018 when the Giants lost many, many games! And also, this was when the Warriors were hot!
I do have to take photos and videos still, but now also we’re doing podcasts. When I tweet about an upcoming Giants Splash podcast, I time it to the Bay Area’s morning commute. I have the ability to monitor minute by minute when people are listening. We had a huge spike, for instance when over the story re: the farm team minor league direction. That’s the Giants future, obviously.
If you have a question or comment for Henry, please tell us about it below.