After seven years writing exclusively for the world's biggest cycling site, journalist Anthony Tan decided to see if he could make it as a one-man band and at the same time, keep his integrity intact—or even improve on it. Following publication of a revealing profile on Jonathan Vaughters that nearly filled up the internet, we talked to Anthony.
schmalz You just interviewed Jonathan Vaugthers and all hell broke loose—what did you do?
Tan First, let me tell you the reason why I decided to profile Jonathan Vaughters in the first instance.
It came about from my recent dealings on a story I wrote for Cyclingnews on HTC-Columbia and Mark Cavendish, stemming from comments the sprinter made during this year's Commonwealth Games in Delhi, where he said he was being grossly underpaid. As part of the story, it was only natural to get a reaction from the team's owner, Bob Stapleton, but I was met with disapproval because the team didn't like the angle of the story I was pursuing.
Now just because a team/team owner doesn't agree with your angle or story idea doesn't mean they should issue a 'no comment' or refuse to take phone calls; I actually think it makes them look timid and in most cases, they end up looking worse off because they're not prepared to confront the situation in public. After all, if all was well within the team and issues were openly discussed, they should be happy to talk, right?
Exasperated that Stapleton only seems willing to comment when it pleases him, I casted my mind back to the many occasions me and my peers have sought comment from Jon Vaughters—and how, in almost every single case, he's made himself available. I then thought a little more about this and realized his openness is also representative of his team's ethos and for the most part, makes him and his team's riders very well liked. Vaughters understands after what cycling has been through the past 10 or 12 years we have an extremely cynical public on our hands, and the only way to confront and dispel that cynicism is with a 'Don't believe me? Come on down and take a look' sort of approach.
There's also an intelligence and sensitivity to Vaughters that I find very appealing, which makes him so good at dealing with the myriad highly-strung personalities one finds at this level of any sport. But at the same time, his sensitivity is also his vulnerability. So in a nutshell, what I wanted to know is this: Just who is Jonathan Vaughters, and what is it that drives him?
schmalz I think it's true that Vaugthers is perhaps the most interesting man in cycling, but isn't much of the controversy on the CN message boards stemming from the frustration people feel about JV's non-admission admission about doping during his career? It's a vague statement, and in this media atmosphere, people seem to hate vague statements.
Tan That's definitely true, Dan—the overwhelming response of those who disagree with Vaughters want him to 'fess up.
The past week, I even had one person tell me that hiding his past but continuing to profess clean cycling is akin to a Catholic archbishop imbuing wholesome family values while keeping hidden a history of pedophilia. That's obviously an extreme view but as you and I know, cycling fans are some of the most, if not the most, rabid on the planet, so the response on the Cyclingnews forums has clearly been polarized; last time I checked, no-one's sitting on the fence. The titles of the threads alone give you an idea: one is called "JV... is 'yes' so hard to say?", the other "Vaughters hints he may have dabbled (in doping)".
The reason I went so hard on Vaughters about his past is for these reasons, and my feeling that for someone in his position with his power and influence, the public have a right to know. Because on face value, what he says and what he has done are two different things: he claims transparency, but when it comes to his past as a rider on US Postal Service, doesn't offer as such. His reasoning is that he has no problem telling the truth if he's subpoenaed with regards to the Novitzky-led investigation, but what he does not want is for his story to overwhelm that of his team, or to use his words, "to pursue catharsis at the expense of his riders' accomplishments".
Having sat on what he's said I accept his position—I even would goes as far to say I respect it—but still do not fully agree with it. Call me a cynic, but there's a part of me that thinks he's worried that his story will overwhelm not only the riders' accomplishments, but the attitude of his sponsors, who in essence keep the team going. It's worth recalling what his business mentor Steve Goldstein said in the story: "He can sometimes also take things too personally; he wants to be liked. Sometimes in business you can’t be liked."
schmalz What if JV is a devious master manipulator and is using his story to keep focus away from his riders?
Tan No, he's no devil in disguise!
A consequence of this profession is that you become a pretty good judge of character. I've interviewed JV many times over the past 10 years and in all the conversations I've had, I never detected a devious or manipulative side to him. Besides JV wanting to be liked—deep down, doesn't everybody?—another thing Steve Goldstein said was that "he’s a very principled person. And he is very caring about the people on his team."
I didn't include this in the story, but Goldstein went on to say: "He’s an only child and my father’s an only child, and they have similar traits. They’re very caring but sometimes you have to remind them that they need to... they can’t just focus on themselves, they have to focus on other people, too."
Really, the issue of him "dabbling" in drugs (and there was really only one in the 90s and that, of course, was EPO) was only brought to the fore through the story I wrote. Despite the Sunday Times having clout in the UK market and possessing top sports/cycling writers like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, it's not the place one goes to look for cycling stories, which is why the 2008 interview Kimmage did with Vaughters a few months before that year's Tour, despite the potentially explosive and incriminating material contained in it, was not picked up by many media outlets at the time.
In fact, JV told me he was a little annoyed Kimmage's "journey of rediscovery", for want of a better name, where he embedded himself within the Garmin-Chipotle team throughout the entire 2008 Tour, wasn't widely known, because it essentially returned Kimmage from cynic to convert. Said Vaughters: "Certainly, by the end of his time staying with us in the Tour de France, he was very much a believer, a supporter of our team, without a doubt. I was pretty happy with that."
I have to be honest here and say I don't read cycling forums—or forums in general, for that matter—all that much, so, no, it doesn't influence the way I approach or write stories. Perhaps if I was still a member of staff (which was the case from 2001-2007) and had more of a vested interest in Cyclingnews because my pay was indirectly dependent on me keeping cosy relationships with team managers and riders, I might take more notice of the general sentiment expressed with regards to certain issues. I like to think now, as a reasonably well known and independent cycling writer, I'm often hired based on my integrity and lack of bias, regardless of whatever forces may be at play.
With something as topical and controversial as doping, however, I do jump onto the forums because almost always they'll be a reaction and as a journalist, it would be remiss of me not to gauge public sentiment—though it needs to be said, sentiment in forums is often disproportionately skewed. Quite often, someone in the industry will alert me to a thread, which I'll check out and if it piques my interest, write a column about, such as this one on Graham Watson, where, in an 'oops' moment, he accidentally coded pictures of Greg LeMond that he was selling on his website as "fool". Now that really went viral!
schmalz I think Watson is a good case study in how not to handle a forum kerfuffle, and his reputation has probably suffered a bit for it. With so much feedback (some of it very disproportionate) from commenters and readers, do you think more interview subjects are going to be reserved in their on the record comments? (I'm thinking of a world full of George Hincapies here). Also, who do you think comes out ahead when journalists and those in the cycling industry have a cosy relationship? Do journalists tend to get manipulated by the riders and managers they are friendly with?
Tan It's most definitely true that riders are becoming far more formulaic with their responses. In fact, I wrote a column about this in Bicycling Australia magazine a few months back, saying one way press officers attempt to control the media is by controlling the responses of the team's riders—or issuing press releases and keeping the riders hidden in their team buses, instead of allowing journalists access to them straight after the race/stage when emotions are at their most raw.
Professional athletes spend a lot—some would say a ridiculous amount—of time resting, so many jump on to the most popular cycling sites every day and a good proportion check out what's said about them or their team-mates on forums, even though they may not care to admit it. "Oh, I don't give a toss what's written about me," is an all-too-familiar line nowadays. Don't, for a minute, believe it. For example, I know Mark Cavendish is constantly "schooled" in attempt to keep his colorful remarks at bay—but Cav' is so much more appealing when he thinks to himself, 'stuff what the press officer tells me to say!' and tells us what's really bugging him. Look at this interview I did with Robbie McEwen that went up on VeloNews this week. He's very charismatic and engaging because not only is he a tough-as-nails bastard he speaks his mind, and that, unfortunately, is an increasingly rare occurrence.
For my cover story on Cadel Evans in the October issue of Procycling magazine, I went to interview Evans the night before the second rest day of this year's Tour de France in Pau. There, I asked Evans exactly how much notice he takes of what's written about him. "Less and less every year," he said. "Especially during the Tour, I don’t follow much at all because, um, there’s a lot of people who write a lot of rubbish… Just frustrates me that people can write such rubbish, sometimes." I then asked him, "Of what is written about you, how much is actually accurate?" His reply: "Of myself? This year… 80, 90 percent; last year [when he was with Silence-Lotto], maybe 50 percent [was true]."
I have to say I'm disappointed with many of my colleagues who have, in recent years, taken the easy route to get that interview with Lance so they can go to his ranch or take a flight on his private jet. So what? Even ghost writing or co-writing a book on an athlete that is still racing is a compromise to a journalist's integrity, in my opinion. I've knocked back a few offers to either ghost-write or co-write a cyclist's book for this very reason. Look at what happens when someone from outside the industry writes a book, such as Dan Coyle's 'Lance Armstrong's War'—that was a fantastic read, and for a large part, a fairly unflattering perspective on the life of the world's most famous cyclist. It's okay to befriend an athlete—you sort of need to in order to understand them better—but you won't catch me having breakfast, lunch or dinner with any of them unless there's a reason behind it, and that is to write a story.
For sure, I see journalists get manipulated all the time—and the worse thing is, they don't even know it. They reckon it's cool how they can tell their buddies over dinner how so and so rider claimed he hired prostitutes during the Giro one year, or shagged whatever podium girl while she wore the polka-dot jersey, or was handed a signed jersey that will fetch $1,000 on eBay. Some, I tell them they're being pulled like puppets in the hope they'll listen and understand; others are hapless cases who exasperate me because they insidiously devalue what we do.
schmalz Well, private jets are super sweet. There was always the rumor that Lance and company had a black list of journalists, but do you think they also had the opposite, a "white list", so to speak, a list of friendlies?
The notion that riders check out everything scares me a bit, as I think that some guys would take swings at us if we're ever together for the things that go in "toto". I especially fear Levi will punch me in the shins—see? I did it again! There's a fine line between developing a relationship with a rider and getting too cozy. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say we helped JV connect with sponsors for his U25 team and I can tell you that Mike Creed is a terrible kisser, but we're not a news gathering site, we're more of an opinion and dumbass satire site. These days, there seems to be a very weird game of "internet telephone" going on, where in order to seem like they are covering every story, some bike sites will rewrite the same story from another source just enough to claim it as their own story and not have to give attribution. Is this dangerous or is it just the way things are done nowadays?
Tan Well, you could say the black list, if there was one, creates a "white list" by default!
LA definitely has preference for certain journalists and for others, thinks about as much of them as a dead dingo's donger, as they say here in Australia. Once upon a time, Bjarne Riis also had his favorites and not-so-favorites—the latter supposedly in a red or black-colored book. I've been told on good authority that my name was once in the book, but I haven't had any issues with him the past few years, so he must've left the book in a hotel room and accidentally took the bible instead, only realizing his error once he boarded the heavily-tinted confines of the Saxo Bank bus.
Dan, you're certainly livin' on the edge with Toto...
No, really, I'm just scaring you! VeloNews' resident cartoonist, Patrick O'Grady, used to be quite irreverent with his caricatures of life in and out of the peloton but doesn't really do that much anymore. Satire and sarcasm seems to sit much better with the riders and managers than exposing their often highly-strung personalities and/or insecurities in a feature story, so please, keep scribbling away. That NYvelocity doesn't publish news feeds makes it clear to me you aren't a news site, and I'm glad you've chosen to steer clear of publishing news for news' sake.
Regarding your last point, I couldn't agree more. Right now, there's at least ten cycling sites who all publish very similar news, which, surprise surprise, often comes from very similar (read: THE SAME) sources. Depending on their professionalism and editorial policy, some will attribute their sources and others will not. Also, the general rule of attribution is that you choose no more than a few sentences from the original story and in online journalism, ideally a link to the article—but what I see now is cycling sites quoting whole slabs and simply rewording a par or two. Last time I checked, that's called plagiarism. Now I've just brought up an existential demon within the world wide web: due to lack of physical borders, policing this kind of thing is very time consuming, expensive, and does not always return a favorable result. Many smaller sites are running off the smell of an oily rag, so even if you sue successfully, extracting your reward is like robbing the homeless.
The 'game' therefore becomes one of "Ha ha, we beat you on the news about Rasmussen not joining Saxo by 1.5 hours!"—then "Right back attya bro', we got you by 20 minutes on Contador's hearing date!"—and so on and so on. Okay, it goes on within mainstream journalism between the papers and their associated websites in, for example, political reporting, but it seems to be taken to an almost feral level within cycling. I'm not sure what the answer is, but this sort of oneupmanship doesn't really bode well for the future of sports journalism. One answer is to hire good writers who know how to write longer, magazine-style stories or get some good columnists (Bonnie Ford at ESPN.com is a fav' of mine), but they're expensive and the web is often driven by austerity.
schmalz Dude, do you realize people are reading this? You're never going to work again! Well, that might be an exaggeration. I totally understand the web austerity thing, do you foresee a time when anyone makes money on the web with this bike stuff? I ask because I'm not sure we can keep this thing going forever...
Tan What, people read this stuff?!
Seriously, I prefer to be honest and open rather than pretend among us cycling scribes, there lurks the next Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote, or there's a cycling editor the quality of someone like Alan Rusbridger at Britain's The Guardian newspaper, which, by the way, also has an excellent online presence. Having said that, there are definitely some talented cycling writers out there, such as William Fotheringham, David Walsh, and the recently retired Samuel Abt from the New York Times.
Admittedly, it's a different era—especially with the advent of the Internet—so often what you get paid for a story doesn't justify spending more than a few hours, or a day at most. I basically underwrite my commitment to cycling (and the time I spend on my feature stories) by continuing to work as an advertising copywriter, which is the industry I came from before joining the cycling circus. For example, I spent the best part of a week working on that profile of Jono Vaughters even though I didn't get paid anywhere close to a week's wage, but that was my choice: I may never profile him in detail again, so I wanted to do a good, thoroughly-researched job.
I remember very early on in the peace, soon after I graduated from journalism school and began work at Cyclingnews, I lamented to a colleague of mine about how anyone actually makes a living from cycling. He said, "Sure, Anthony, you can make a million dollars if you want to—it's dead easy!" I replied, "How the f--k do you do that?" His reply: "Start off with two million."
Given how advertising is sold on the Web—cost per thousand (page) impressions or cost-per-click through—rather than the traditional way of space in a newspaper or magazine, or anywhere from 15 to 90 second blocks of time in television or radio, it basically encourages the driver to be volume above anything else. That and, for sites like Cyclingnews, VeloNews et al., timeliness. So, if you're holding off on a story because you're after that reply from a stakeholder or two to balance the response from someone else, it may cost you valuable traffic if you lose that first-to-publish advantage.
A cycling team's longevity is fraught with different problems, some of which Jono Vaughters touched on in his recent blog on Cyclingnews. Basically, I think one of the major problems is that you have teams named—and imminently tied—to sponsors, rather than teams that go by name only, such as in American football and baseball and European soccer leagues. It's a large reason why fans are far more connected with riders than the teams.
Interestingly, from what I hear, cycling magazines—and niche titles in general—are still doing okay around the world, so those in the best position seem to be publications with a physical presence as well as an online format. As for online-only outlets, I think it will always be difficult to turn a decent profit; there may not be the associated printing costs, but the manpower involved to keep sites like Cyclingnews ticking over is almost mind-boggling.
schmalz It does seem that internet cycling coverage is the road to poverty. I think that we're (hopefully) coming to an age in internet ad sales where impression count isn't the only consideration by advertisers. I think that certain sites could be desirable because they essentially distill audiences down to a certain (and hopefully desirable) demographic, our site for instance, is chock full of excitable cat fours from New York City.
What effect do you think Twitter will have on cycling journalism (or even journalism in general)? Right now, it seems to be a place for writers to find quotes, but do you see it evolving to a point where riders or teams use it as a way to bypass news site altogether? (I'm thinking of a certain single pelota based-cyclist as an example here).
Tan I agree with you that advertisers will look for niches within our niche sport. For bespoke manufacturers of bikes and accessories whose distribution channels are confined to a particular country (or even state or city), proliferation of sites targeting a certain segment of the cycling audience become attractive in their own right. Those excitable Cat. 4s on NYVC probably have more moolah than all the semi-pro Cat 1s who are still living on baked beans on toast and lentil soup. Or for more mass market-oriented advertisers, it's a good way to run a test campaign before a full-blown launch.
I think Twitter is great for athletes. I know a few ProTeam press officers who get constant migraines from some of their riders tweeting all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff, but it definitely allows the athlete to get closer to their fans and reveal a little more of their personalities, and that's good for the sport.
As for the impact on journalism, however, there seems to be a growing proportion of hacks who have become extremely lazy and quote a rider's tweet rather than call them up. I've even had a number of pro riders tell me they find it poor form seeing an increasing amount of news stories derived from a tweet. Unless the tweet is particularly sensational or controversial, I'll simply take a tweet for what it is—a passing comment or observation. Constantly substituting tweets for actual quotes is demeaning to the profession and consequently devalues what we do, in my opinion.
As you mentioned, there's also a growing segment of riders (and yes, the initials 'JP' spring to mind here) who think it's okay to ignore journalists' requests for comment and instead, hop straight on their bus after a race and simply tweet a 140 characters-or-less answer, bypassing the need for them to actually respond to a question to anyone aside from the sycophantic crew of the TV rights-holder. Or, they tell their thoughts to the team's press officer, who, when it suits him or her, wanders into the press room and replays the voice file, or sends out a press release with quotes hours later and if you work for a paper, past copy deadline. Marvelous. We might as well all stay at home.
As part of race protocol at the biggest events, the winner (and for stage races, the overall leader) must attend the post-race press conference and I doubt that will change—but what I have noticed since the advent of Twitter—coincidence or otherwise—is that before a race, a significant proportion of riders stay in their team buses till the very last minute, making it increasingly difficult for journalists to write stories outside the actual race result. The best stories often have nothing to do with who won or how they did it, especially if it's a sprint stage and some bloke called Cavendish has already won four stages previously.
schmalz I really enjoy rider's diaries during Grand Tours, they start out at the beginning very gung ho, and at about week two they realize that they have nothing to say about the race as they are just doing stage after stage with little to talk about except the team bus or the food service. Eventually they just abandon the diaries entirely. I think there's only a handful of riders who can really write compellingly about their sport, which is fine, they get paid to ride not write. Which riders do you think do a good job writing about the sport?
Tan Reading rider diaries can produce similar effects to overdosing on Valium.
Much of the time, I actually find myself at odds when interviewing pro cyclists. It's not that I'm a self-professed intellectual giant and they're dumber than a plank of wood; it's just that many of them are uneducated and because of the all-consuming nature of their profession, often remain so till they retire. Still, therein lies the challenge of the sports writer: working a story to make it not just newsworthy, but compelling enough to both inform and entertain.
I may have mentioned this before, but it's precisely the reason why I don't think one-on-one on-camera interviews work particularly well as a standalone piece of journalism; many times, the subject can't express himself well enough or articulate their thoughts to do justice to their often mind-boggling achievements. Pro women cyclists, many of whom are university-educated and continue to hold down regular jobs while they race, tend to be much better. Unfortunately for them, aside from the Olympics and world championships, the interest just isn't there. Come race-time, just let the cameras roll, I say, and allow the audience enjoy the show, or bring in informed commentators who don't treat the audience like juvenile delinquents who have never seen a bike race before.
Michael Barry's diary at VeloNews is pretty good, as is Ted King's. During this year's Tour, Greg LeMond's musings were a hoot on Cyclingnews, often delivering none-too-subtle hints about certain people, including some guy called Juan Pelota. Chris Horner, who can talk all four legs off a chair in one sitting, had his Tour diary ghost-written for OregonLive.com and it turned out pretty good—although I preferred 'Horny' when he wasn't on RadioShack and told us exactly what he really thought. But quite frankly, I'm more interested in what my peers have to say than the riders.
schmalz I agree about Barry and King, they're the rare riders who have the ability to relate the life of a pro cyclist to the rest of us in a humorous and compelling way. I miss Chris Horner also, he seems to be an empty husk compared to what he used to be. Well, I think we've done enough damage to your career here, in closing anything you'd like to add? Anyone you haven't ticked off yet?
Tan Well, I better not read over what I've said... otherwise I might change my mind! Then again, I probably wouldn't.
It's funny... A fortnight ago at the Cycling Australia awards, I took out the gong for best media story of 2010 for the profile I wrote in Procycling on Cadel Evans' disastrous Tour de France and his year in the rainbow jersey. The finalists I was up against were from a TV station that has broadcasted the Tour in Australia for something like 15 years and a popular journalist from a mainstream metropolitan newspaper. Needless to say, I didn't expect to win—I actually didn't think it was particularly good—and a little stunned, the first thing that rolled off my tongue was: "Well, I guess this makes up for reporting six consecutive years of losses to the tax department!"
I don't think any journalist really gets into the job for money, and those that do are deluded—unless they're blond and leggy and gorgeous and they have aspirations to host 'America's Next Top Model'. (Then again, that's about as close to journalism as a hot dog is to health food.) I guess my point is this: if you can find a way to do what you do without compromising values that are important to you, then stick to it; the journey will be more than worthwhile.
If, through what I've said, I've rubbed anybody up the wrong way, I make no apologies. I didn't get into this to be popular or promote populist opinion—my job is to provide a true window into a world that continues to delight, surprise, and a little too frequently, disappoint. I welcome those who disagree with what I write: that's what forums and the like are for; I simply have the privilege of being able to get stuff off my chest and get paid a few bucks for it.
Despite what I've said earlier, I'm very much looking forward to where the future of sports journalism takes us and particularly the impact of the Web, and which cycling sites today will be around tomorrow (by that I mean 5-10 years from now) and what they'll look like. I do hope Toto keeps popping up from time to time.
Photo Credits: Mark Gunter, Simon Hayes