5 Questions With Journalist Jon Gugala On the Sorry State Of Track and Field Media
In August 2012, The Trailer launched. It was a running website. It did pretty well. Throughout September, October, and November, the site was producing a ton of content. Considering that fall is the down season in track and field, it did really well. They posted a weekly podcast, and Jon Gugala provided the site with a ton of content; mostly in the form of profiles. (Full disclosure: I wrote two stories for The Trailer.) It was a fun, new site that provided orginal, fresh content for fans of the elite side of the sport. Then, Gugala wrote something about Ryan Hall.
Ryan Hall is one of America's best marathon runners. He is also one of the nicest people I have ever met in the sport. Hall, who had been coaching himself with the guidance of God, decided to work with Renato Canova. Gugala wrote a story on the coaching change. Gugala didn't tell me that much about the reaction to the piece, but it is safe to say that the guys at The Trailer didn't like it: it was taken down. After a few articles about the U.S. Club Cross Country Championships in early December, the site has remained silent since.
The motto of The Trailer reads: "Because opinions on track & field and road racing matter. Mostly ours." In my opinion, they should have added, "Except for Jon Gugala's."
This is my problem with the media in track and field. People are afraid to upset anyone. It's not ideal, but so what if Gugala upset Ryan Hall? After Sports Illustrated ran a cover story telling Michael Jordan to "Bag it," regarding his baseball career, Jordan didn't speak with the magazine ... for more than 15 years. Sports Illustrated made it without Jordan. Just like a running website can make it without a story about Hall. Sometimes controversy is a good thing.
From an outsider's perspective, it is very easy to find faults in something. It is easy for me to sit behind a computer screen and type what I think is wrong with the media in track and field. I wanted to get the perspective of someone who has covered the sport for longer and at a much higher level. So I asked Jon Gugala to answer a few of my questions about media and the sport of track and field. Here is what he had to say, hopefully it provides some insight and guidance to better the coverage of a sport I love:
1. Liam Boylan-Pett (LBP): Thanks for taking the time to do this. First off, can you describe a little bit about your background in writing about the sport? Who have you written for? What's your favorite story you have been a part of?
Jon Gugala (JG): I went to an art school, Columbia College Chicago, to study fiction writing. But I was running a lot, too, so when I graduated I moved to California and started freelancing until I could get a book finished. First it was for Runner's World and Running Times — I'd met editors from both magazines at the Boston Marathon over a few years. I'd do whatever they wanted, whether it was Excel training programs (hell) or compiling nationwide dog-friendly races. Like, Johnny-on-the-spot. But my real passion was in profiles. So while I was freelancing for them, sometimes doing profiles, I wrote profiles for pretty much all the rest [of the running publications], like Competitor, and a few others.
As far as favorite story, I really enjoyed my time writing for a website I started with a few other guys in the running industry called The Trailer. I got to use more voice in my writing — the blander copy I was writing for the more mainstream publications just wasn't as interesting or exciting. But my favorite product wasn't a story. It was this photo shoot we did with Nick Symmonds. We stuck him in this ugly Christmas sweater for this Christmas card we launched on Black Friday. I'd try to explain it to friends, and I'd wait for them to find it as funny as I did, and it never happened. It makes sense to me.
2. LBP: What is your take on the state of the sport? I see it as a niche sport that, while lacking a huge following, has passionate fans. If you agree, do you think there is a different way to cater to this type of fan with media coverage?
JG: I see it as a sport that's got this oil-and-water fan base. On one hand, there are the high school, college, and post-college guys and girls that have dedicated their lives at this point to it, getting faster, competing. The other part is the hobbyist, like 35 to 60, whose goal is to finish their first half marathon and drop some pounds. Participating. The industry focuses on them because it's easiest to sell them something: water belts, training programs, shoe inserts, bodyglide. We've got this sport that largely ignores the competitive side and turns it into an activity. Then it neuters all the dirty beauty out of it with a Sunday school tone and the altruism of trying to "Inspire."
God. Just f—ing run.
The industry makes it hard for that first group, the young, competitive runner, to get excited about what they do. Which is a shame. Maybe TBS should make some god-awful reality show about it.
3. LBP: What is your favorite media outlet for track and field? Why?
JG: LetsRun.com. Is this really a question? It's the freedom of speech. Absolutely. And LRC is the only medium that seems to value that. For all its faults, that's where I'd pick.
4. LBP: What is your take on the state of track and field media? What went on with the Trailer?
JG: Track and field media sucks. It's boring, and it's always trying to tell the same story, how really hard work helped this athlete overcome adversities to succeed. Yawn. Formula for running magazine: KARA GOUCHER ON COVER. There needs to be more creativity.
The Trailer shut down because a few of the guys were worried that their careers in the industry would be jeopardized by what we were doing. And, of course, it involved a Ryan Hall story.
5. LBP: What do you think needs to be done to make track and field media better? Is there anything to be done?
JG: I don't think the running media, as it stands, is willing to be reformed. At least at that top level. The running media got scooped on the Suzy Favor Hamilton story [The Smoking Gun's story about the Olympian turned call girl], the Christian Hesch story [The NY Times story about semi-elite runner taking EPO], and the U. of Toledo story [Deadspin's coverage of a coach's resignation and the back story that he may have had inappropriate relationship with girls on the team]. Why? Maybe we don't want them, unless they're dropped in our lap and we have to do something about it. But I think that sites like LRC and Flotrack are doing a better job. They're focused on the younger group. And, especially with LRC, they're not afraid to piss people off.
[Addition from Liam B-P: Just today, Let’sRun.com posted a piece by a high school coach questioning famed coach Alberto Salazar that another website didn’t post because it was “too delicate.”]
"For Love Of A Trailer" – On traveling around in a trailer and talking about running.
"Stars In The East" – On the New Jersey-New York Track Club.