Robert Klemko

...in his own words
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I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a part of the student newspaper, but I had a [high school] teacher named Mr. Keegan. He recruited all the kids from the honors and AP English classes to write for the paper, and he asked me to write about sports. I quickly realized I really loved it and was pretty good at it.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Zach Shapiro.

About Robert Klemko
HOMETOWN: Silver Spring, Maryland
EDUCATION: University of Maryland
OCCUPATION: Sportswriter, Sports Illustrated

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I remember writing about my friend, who tried out for the varsity basketball team all four years and didn’t make until his senior year. That won like second place in some state sports feature writing competition for the Maryland Scholastic Press Association – I think that’s what it was called. After that, I decided I was going to major in journalism.

I kind of grew up on [the Maryland] campus. I went to every game, got to see us win the national championship in basketball. I remember getting [former Terps running back] LaMont Jordan’s autograph in the cafeteria. One time my mom took me to a student cafeteria on campus – I think the south campus dining hall – and I walked up to him and asked him to sign a copy of the Diamondback.

I was always a fan, always intended to go there, but my freshman year I got an opportunity to play Division I AA football at Robert Morris. I was kind of clinging to the idea that I could keep playing football, maybe somehow turn it into a professional career.

But I tore up my labrum in my shoulder in my first week there, on a kickoff return drill. I went to have surgery that December and my right lung collapsed during surgery. I just decided at that point that I probably wasn’t going to the NFL or CFL. I didn’t really like college football as much as I liked high school football, but I did really enjoy writing for the student newspaper [at Robert Morris]. We started the student newspaper at Robert Morris. Their old one had been kicked by the administration because they had a hardcore anti-Vietnam war stance. I transferred to Maryland and joined the Diamondback right away. But Maryland was great, because I loved the school and went there for free.

[Sophomore year at the University of Maryland] I wrote for the P.G. County Gazette. That was a really cool experience. I met some coaches there who I’m still friends with today. DeLawn Parrish, the state championship coach at Wise, he was awesome to watch, just the way he dealt with kids and the authority he carried. I covered high school football, a little bit of volleyball, a little bit of baseball. That’s where I really got, for the first time, professional editing.

When I was a junior, I had a teacher named Blake Morrison, who was an investigative reporter for USA Today. He recommended me for an internship in sports, so I did a summer writing-reporting one. They brought me back for another internship in 2019, which was visual editing from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Then they hired me full-time after I graduated.

In May of 2011, we brought in a bunch of new people to run the sports section. We had a lot of older folks, people who had been there from the beginning of USA Today. I wouldn't say that they were slow on the digital side, but they weren’t enthusiastic about it. I had put in some work writing on the side after my shift was over in the mornings. And so they had everybody apply for the jobs they wanted, not the one they had. They fired like half the staff, hired a whole bunch of younger people and made me the reporter along with Nicole Auerbach, who covers college basketball, Scott Gleeson, who I believe is still there, and Mike Coppinger, who came a little bit later.

It was very difficult to leave USA Today - even though I’d been a Sports Illustrated fan -because I liked the editors, I liked the people I worked for. But what was really exciting for me was to work with Peter [King] and to benefit from his ideas.

I think he was at a stage in his career where he wanted to travel less and take on more of an editor’s role. So he gave us a lot of really great ideas that he would’ve, in a previous era, executed himself.

It’s cool. The only cover that I ever wrote was a preview issue last year, with Khalil Mack on the cover with an MMQB shirt on. My mom had it blown up and I have it in my basement. It’s awesome, a dream come true. You get to it this early, and you try to figure out what the next goal is because the goal was always that. I think what I’m looking for is evolving.

I think before, like five or six years ago, a person in my position would’ve been encouraged to not share any of those [political] opinions, whether it was on Twitter or editorializing in stories. But when Peter King hired me at the MMQB – a site that was going to be built on his personality the way Bill Simmon’s site [Grantland] was built on his personality, and Nate Silver’s [FiveThirtyEight] and so on – he wanted his writers to have the freedom to speak on politics and insert their opinion into stories.

He sent back a couple stories that I had and said, ‘I want to hear more of your voice in this. I want to know what you think about this.’ I think that’s part of this individual-personality driven trend in sports media at least, where you’re not necessarily hiring Sportscenter anchors because they’re great at reading highlights, but because they’re hilarious or have a smart take, like [Scott] Van Pelt or Jemele Hill or Michael Smith.

I think just recently here, with the rise of individually branded journalism, it kind of opens the door for me to say whatever I wanted to say.

You can’t say [the “Stick to Sports” mantra is] gone, because you hear it all the time on social media. It’s interesting to me because people say they want to keep politics out of sports, and yet sports is the ultimate community economics – in terms of stadium financing and job creation and labor laws. And patriotism, for the simple fact that we’re one of the few countries that emphasizes the big patriotic displays before the game.

When people say “stick to sports” to athletes or sports commentators, it just feels disingenuous. What you’re really saying is you just disagree with what their beliefs are.

“I enjoy when there’s a crisis. I was sent to Ferguson in 2014 and I wrote about a high school football team there. I was just down in Houston for this flood and I wrote about how the Texans were dealing with it. I remember at USA Today, when there were riots after VCU beat [Kansas] in the NCAA Tournament, they sent me down there to cover that. That’s when I realized you could write a whole article on your phone.

It was a thrill because you’re in the most extreme deadline situation and there’s this constant need or yearning for updates from that kind of scene. If you can provide quick news, but also wrap it up with a good in-depth, sober story that kind of captures the whole thing, I think that’s a great challenge.

I interviewed [Denver Broncos quarterback] Trevor Siemian for a story in the magazine a couple weeks ago. And he was saying that what he really enjoys about the game – it’s not necessarily winning, but having to get 11 guys all on the same page and learning about who they are, and their backgrounds.

It’s a pretty cool job if you can go into the office, so to speak, and talk to somebody completely different every day. I can’t imagine going to an office and dealing with the same six or seven people every day. It would just get boring. I think learning new things about new people and where they come from is my favorite thing about the job.”

I think it’s going to become more of a sharing process editorially with the people who you cover. When I started, I think most of the news breaks that came out of players’ mouths came from interviews, something they said in the locker room when they were frustrated.

But now you’re seeing some of the most popular stories are written by the athletes themselves. We did a lot of that at the beginning of MMQB, and then after the first year or so, the Players Tribune kind of courted the market on that. And then obviously, guys break news with Twitter and Instagram. But you’re reading way more about what people post and say, as opposed to reading it through a second-hand source like a reporter.

So, I think a lot of outlets should start embracing this idea that the player can be his own editor, and that we can take his words and get his stamp on it and be just as, or more, effective than if we were to interview them in an open locker room situation. Because, on the other side, I think players realize that they can monetize their voices in ways that were not available five years ago.

It makes it harder to get to the actual story. When a player writes something, it can be insightful but it’s also filtered through a media relations person for the most part.

I think that with the NFL, there's ample opportunity to interview players, whether it’s after practice or games, but we have to stop interviewing players in packs. You see a group of reporters around one guy, and there are 20 other [players] who are just as interesting or important or newsworthy standing around. I’ve never understood why, as a reporter, you would interview somebody when another reporter is listening. You’re just going to get the same thing they got.

I think the most important thing I did was treat my internships like they were jobs. I would come in and insist on working on the time that I was not on the clock, in addition to my shifts. I think a lot of people, they get into a journalism internship situation and their told, ‘We’re not going to hire anyone from this. It’ll be a great experience, but we definitely don’t hire interns.’ And they believe it, and it’s a stupid thing.

In any job you make yourself indispensable, they’re going to find a way to keep you – no matter the workplace. I learned how to do HTML coding whereas a lot of people at the student newspaper weren’t putting charts up online because the transition was too difficult. I saw that as an opportunity to do something cool, that no one else could do, and I think that got me noticed in a lot of ways. And I don’t really care about HTML coding or graphics, but it was a way I felt like I could get a job. I think the big thing is, take your classes seriously but take your internships more seriously.

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