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Paul Kuharsky

When ESPN failed to renew his contract, this longtime NFL writer/reporter was unsure what to do next. So he created his own brand—and ran with it.

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“I’m sad, but also excited for the next chapter of my life.”

See that quote? The one directly above these words? Well, I’ve heard it uttered and seen it written a solid 200 times over the past year. It always comes after massive journalism layoffs; written by shellshocked reporters and editors kicked to the curb by outlets hemorrhaging money and readership.

Although the language projects optimism, it always bums me out. It’s one thing to be 22 … 23 … 24 and on the job market. You’re young, you’re cheap, you’re eager. But what if you’re a laid-off journalist in your 40s, 50s, 60s? You have kids in college, a mortgage, car payments? You were making $100k, $150k. Now, suddenly, pfft. What do you do?

Five months ago, when ESPN cut loose hundreds of staffers, the ol’ “I’m sad, but also excited for the next chapter of my life” overloaded my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It was crushing and heartbreaking, and I wondered how some of my friends in the business would survive.

Then, from the ashes, rose Paul Kuharsky.

Paul and I date back to our days at The (Nashville) Tennessean, and I’ve long known him to be one of America’s best football scribes. He also happens to be incredibly resilient. So after ESPN failed to renew his contract, Paul turned innovative, devoting himself to his own eponymous website. There, for various subscription rates, one can receive Paul’s as-good-as-it-gets Titans and league coverage. It’s called: Reinvention.

Today, Paul talks about making a career transition; about the death of newspaper, the evil of Gannett, the love of Pacman Jones and dislike of a particular Bruce Springsteen song. One can visit his website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Paul Kuharshy, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Paul, I’m gonna start with the shittiest one. You covered the Tennessee Titans for ESPN.com for nine years—then in April you were laid off. I’m interested in how you received the news and how you digested it. Were you at all expecting it? Were you (are you) bitter? Resigned? Accepting? I guess, in short, what did it feel like and how did you take it?

PAUL KUHARSKY: I’m mostly over it. There was a stretch where a lot of us thought it was coming, but then I kind of thought I’d made it. Dumb by me. I don’t know that the distinction is that important, but I wasn’t laid off, my contract wasn’t renewed. So that date was three months out and they were required to exercise the final year of the deal by that deadline or to notify me they wouldn’t. I didn’t take it well, initially. It would have been good for me to start running again right then, I’d be way healthier and skinner now and it would have been good for venting. The people who were instrumental in me getting to ESPN nine years earlier are all now in different areas and I reached out to each shortly after that to thank them and tell them I hoped that I had done right by them with my role in the start of ESPN’s NFL Nation as an eight- and then a 32-person NFL coverage team. I hope I did.

J.P.: Is beat writing (the way we once thought of it) dead and buried? You’re a kid at Vanderbilt or Syracuse or Delaware, your goal is to “cover” a team for a newspaper or website. Is that still a worthwhile and realistic pursuit?

P.K.: Or Columbia! Gut reaction is no. Given a minute I’d say yes, but only as a short-term stepping-stone. I think there is still a need for a nuts-and-bolts person covering any team of note. That would be ideal – an outside party doing its best as a modern version of the first draft of a franchise’s ongoing history. I think a kid coming out today could do a couple years of that on a college and then on a pro team and it would really help form him as a reporter. My belief is in part because all the spinning off of news has to have news to spin off of. So that is a key cog in the whole machinery still. And all those kids have to have at least some of that to build off if they want people to care what they think about those developments and if they want us to trust they can tell us what they mean. Also, there is an important layer of news/information below the big stuff that the national reporters get that those high-ranking reporters are not interested in that is still important to fans. Not the quarterback news, but the backup quarterback news. Still, if I’m a kid at one of those fine schools, I’d be scared to death of the business while aspiring to a role like yours at The Athletic or mine, in a new venture, where analysis and opinion are paramount.

Paul (right) with Mike Mularkey.
Paul (right) with Mike Mularkey.

J.P.: You and I are both purveyors of our own websites—only yours charges people for direct coverage of the Titans and the NFL. I have a bunch of questions on this, but I’ll start with the basic: When did this idea come to you? When did you decide, yes, I’m going to do it? And what’s the risk-reward ratio?

P.K.: Well it was one of many ideas that came to me as I anticipated the void in my life post-ESPN. I am super-fortunate as I have a full-time radio job, co-hosting The Midday 180 in Nashville on 104.5 The Zone with Jonathan Hutton and Chad Withrow. But I’m a reporter and writer first, and my radio presence wouldn’t be as good without doing that too. I’ve got great relationships with the team and an institutional knowledge of the franchise since it relocated to Nashville. So many readers said, “Please tell me you’re still going to be out there asking the tough questions.” And I felt like there would be a void without me doing that and that I still wanted to find a way to serve that audience with observations and analysis, which I enjoy writing. I spoke with a lot of smart people who said they thought I was a Nashville brand that would sell. (When something was written in the local weekly about me being a brand, my friend Sara Walsh, also formerly of ESPN, said she couldn’t wait until I put out jeans.)  I looked hard at Patreon, which is kind of a Kickstarter for content creators. That’s where I started to think about tiers and what I could provide. Ultimately, I came to think that site is better for a person starting out than for someone who already has an audience. And Patreon takes 10 percent. So smart friends and friends of friends encouraged me to try it. My radio job and my wife’s job meant we had some time to build. I’m hardly first – DKPittsburghSports.com is really good, you know first-hand that the Athletic is taking off, Greg Bedard has a large-scale site in Boston Sports Journal. I’m smaller and more personality driven. So many people in Nashville hate the paper and hate ESPN, I thought at least a small club knows the quality it wants can no longer come for free, I can be bottled water for Titans fans. The risk is not enough people are willing to pay. But I sold out the crazy top tier, a Starting 22, in two days. And memberships have sold consistently. Six weeks in I couldn’t have predicted better, I’m already in line to make about what I would have with the one real outside offer I had. The free Periscopes/Facebook Lives are packed and the private ones seem to be a lure. The reward is a guy who never had any ambition to have his own company launches a successful site, connects with his readers in a new way and can have a great stage of his career while writing what he wants and fielding zero calls from a print boss.

J.P.: So, soup to nuts, how does one start a pay site? I’m being very literal. You hire a designer? You figure out a pay level? What? And then what? And then what?

P.K.: I had long discussions with my radio station, which didn’t want me to have to stop writing and was really great about working together to reach the point where I got a green light. I commissioned logos from Thomas Cox, a listener who’s really talented. I hired a great web guy, Brent Peacher, who’s done mostly music-related sites and seems to really have enjoyed a venture into sports, even if I can and email him far too much. He totally connected with me on what I sketched out, and I love the look and the feel he designed. I had the forms filed to create an LLC. I opened a business account. I miraculous found a travel sponsor – thanks MDI Construction. I learned a lot about PayPal. I lucked into a great agreement on photos out of home games. We started too late to be able to have a three-day preview or something short at the beginning. So I wrote for three weeks on a version 1.0 site that didn’t charge hoping to get people hooked while he developed things and I finalized the plans. Then we flipped the switch and crossed our fingers. Right now I am having meetings with people who can help me sell and manage the unobtrusive advertising the site will include.

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J.P.: You’ve been covering the NFL and the Titans for a long time. And here’s something I don’t get, and I mean no disrespect: How do you still give a shit? I mean, the names change, the uniforms might add elements every so often … but the storylines and narratives generally stick. Over and over again. Rookie free agent’s fight. Veteran holding on. Good-looking young quarterback. Fresh start veteran. Coach on the hot seat. Following the GM thru draft prep. The kicker’s insecurity. The local kid from Nashville. How are you not over it?

P.K.: Oh, I am over it. I don’t give a shit about a lot of that. That’s kind of the beauty of this, in my 21st year tracking this team. (And there were two stretches when I wasn’t tracking the Titans day-to-day: One where I did enterprise at The Tennessean and one where I covered the whole AFC South for ESPN.) But that’s another thing I am selling. You like my work and trust me, I’m going to write about what I care about. That’s what a member gets. And the rookie free-agent’s fight, the local kid from Nashville, you can get that somewhere else. I’m not saying I can completely avoid the predictable, but I’ll sure as hell try. And you know this Jeff, if you’ve got a good eye, you always spot something that gets your interest and takes you somewhere that is somehow different. Recently I asked a bunch of guys, Who in the league is most like you?” And those answers were interesting to me, and I don’t recall ever doing that as a survey article or post before. Again, I seek to serve a small, devoted club that has a big interest in the angles I come up with, the things I think are important and the opinions I have on this team, the league and whatever else I may see fit to write about. Hell, they are interested in how some of this stuff works, which seems dull and uninteresting to you and I but is well-read when I delve into it – like a piece about how to absorb a national guy’s thoughts on the team from his short training camp visit or another one delving into why readers have trouble believing reporters don’t root.

J.P.: In a recent Nashville Scene profile you said, “The thing that held me back to any degree over the last nine years was ESPN. I mean, you know there’s just certain things understandably that they didn’t want you to do or to say. I wasn’t allowed to be a media critic at ESPN, so I couldn’t tell you that I thought The Tennessean was terrible.” I am always very reluctant to bash peers in the media—especially peers in print, where everyone is drowning. So what is your beef with The Tennessean and its Titans coverage? And how much do you chalk up to a paper not hiring good writer-reporters, and how much do you chalk up just to a dying industry with limited funds?

P.K.: Well, we need to reset that. I was answering a question about whether working for 104.5 The Zone, which is the Titans’ flagship, could hold me back from sharing my true thoughts. I said no, that never has been a factor. But here is an area (critiquing the media) where ESPN, understandably, didn’t want us to go. I had great freedom as ESPN in most other areas. Also, I am not buying that you are so gracious to the print business. You authored “The Tennessean goes to hell” on June 30, 2011 and on Dec. 20, 2016 you said to the paper, “I am ashamed of you. Truly ashamed.” So we could easily spin that question and ask what’s your beef with The Tennessean, right? Mine is that, after the supremely-gifted beat writer Jim Wyatt left to go write for the team, it made no effort to hire a replacement with the slimmest chance at providing what my friend Jim had for a long, long time. It had one of the best beat writers in the country, who hardly got beat on anything even as the landscape moved more and more to national guys being fed everything, and the paper was not compelled, at all, to try to continue that. The Tennessean wants to have a star on the beat who has a billboard of his face on the side of the building. So it tries to create one but does so with someone with nothing close to a resume that warrants the fanfare. The people running the paper have no idea what a beat person should be doing. None. It’s a shame because the city deserves better. But over in their building they throw self-congratulatory cupcake parties. They actually think they are killing it! And he wins APSE awards because he can write a little and his sports editor is an APSE guy who spends all his capital to help his guy win, and to them that is the same as winning on the beat. Wrong target.

With Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk at Jerry Jones' Hall of Fame party.
With Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk at Jerry Jones’ Hall of Fame party.

J.P.: Along those lines, you and I both worked for The Tennessean back when it was still a strong product. I left the company and the city. You’re an up-close observer to its decline. What is that like for you? When did you first think, “Shit, this ship is sinking?” Does it bring any pain, watching this happen? Is there any remote hope of salvation?

P.K.: No hope as long as it’s Gannett, and it’ll always be Gannett, don’t you think? I certainly have a fondness for the place in our era. I spent 12 good years there and it really let me discover myself as a writer and reporter and make incredible friends. The downfall started as the editors got worse or the good ones got shoved into jobs with lesser influence. They have tough jobs because Gannett headquarters just wants them to be able to check all sorts of boxes that have nothing to do with creating quality content. The sort of smart people who were once newspaper editors aren’t going into the business anymore, and we all know why. It’s thankless. It pays poorly. You get to be called fake news constantly. You don’t have nearly as many smart and clever reporters under you because those people are also now finding different careers. I still have a few close friends there and I love them and I feel terribly for them. But never mind those of us who left for new jobs — they chose to let John Glennon go, they nudged David Climer toward retirement. And they’ve kept and hired people who are far less worthy than those guys, who I count as good friends. There are two people in sports worth reading now: Joe Rexrode, a quality columnist, and Adam Vingan on the Predators.

J.P.: Your site has pay levels. Meaning for $6 a month one gets basic coverage and for $100 a month one gets to attend four yearly gatherings, one gets to play golf (or something) with you, one gets your cell number to fire off texts and such. Which strikes me as both brilliant and weird. Well, potentially weird in the “Hey, Paul, what are you doing? Nothing! Great. I’m standing outside your house licking your dog.” What are you actually offering for the big bucks? How’s it going? And do you at all worry about folks crossing a line?

P.K.: Well, I’ve gotten to know this group a bit already and any concerns I may have had have certainly been put to rest so far. No one is licking my dog, Finley, but perhaps it’s because he recently had an encounter with a skunk. I wanted to come up with something different and new. I don’t have access to Bruce Springsteen, but access to someone with access to him would be valuable to me. If you’re a giant fan of the team I have access to, what would be valuable to you? Behind-the-scenes stories sportswriters tell at parties always get incredible reactions, way beyond what we expect. So let’s create occasions where you and some of your friends get those. Let’s give you a somewhat direct line to answers of your team-related questions. Four times a year I’ll arrange big gatherings where I buy the first round and hopefully bring a guest. Phones away. Circle of trust. Not giving away anything a team exec may have told me in confidence, of course. But if you want my real feelings about a past or present player or to see if there was anything to a big rumor or whatever, I’ll offer what I can face-to-face that I can’t say on the radio or write. Same thing over golf or something comparable in your small group. Maybe I’ll actually break 90 by the end of that. It’s going great. I’ve had to refund a couple people who managed to sign up after it sold out. Nearly every day someone asks me about expanding it or creating a practice squad or something. So there is demand. Really the one error so far is my inability to find a level between the subscription which gets you all the content for the price of a good coffee or beer and the big guns who get the content plus the high-level interaction with me.

J.P.: I feel like every journalist has a money story from his/her career. The John Rocker-esque crazy saga that never gets old. What’s yours?

P.K.: Hardest question on your list. I don’t think mine is up to the standard of most, but I’ll give it a shot. In the summer of 2006, The Tennessean sent me to Atlanta and Morgantown, W.Va. to learn everything I could about Pacman Jones. We started with the premise that if you are where you come from, we could understand him better from a close look at those places.  I spent time in the tough neighborhood where he grew up, and his high school, and the community center where he player hoops. I went to the pool hall at West Virginia where people detailed watching him smash in a person’s face with a cue and to bars he went to during college and just a couple weeks before I was there. I visited with his coaches and the team chaplain and SID. Good, on the ground, thorough reporting that went into a 100-inch piece. Biggest thing I’ve ever written. So during training camp I’d drop little nuggets when I interacted with him. Hey, I was at this place and I talked to your guy Sam, or whatever. Most guys really take note when you bring them stuff like that and it seemed to be having the normal effect. He seemed impressed I went to some of the dangerous places in Atlanta. I was trying to set up a scenario where, even if he wouldn’t talk about it all, he would confirm some of the key details. But when it came time to run through that list, on the day I approached him at his locker, he MFed me up and down and threatened me, making sure the whole locker room heard it. And when the story ran, I think he was most upset or embarrassed that I had learned he was in special ed for a stretch in high school, not for learning reasons but for behavioral ones. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, asked me why I wasn’t worried he’d come to my place. I said by the time he figured out where it was and started to drive, someone else would piss him off and he’d change directions. I don’t care what he’s doing now, he is a bad guy.

J.P.: Um, according to your bio you earned $200 for your work as an extra in the wedding and reception scenes of The Deer Hunter. Do tell …

P.K.: My father was the priest at St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland from 1963-76. We left in the spring of 1976, and his successor was the priest who served at Steven and Angela’s wedding in the movie. I went back, stayed with family friends and was in the congregation and at the party with fellow parishioners. Meryl Streep tried to teach me how to whistle using two fingers so I would hear myself if I wasn’t able to see myself.  (Oh-for-two, really. I was sure I saw myself a couple times when I watched it, but can’t find myself now.) Everyone encouraged me to dance at the reception to be sure to be seen, but I was a shy idiot. My autograph book includes all these compliments and then, alongside Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken and Michael Cimino and Streep, the crusty church caretaker signed it, “To the worst boy in the country.” My oldest brother took me to the movie when it came out, and we didn’t leave after that early stuff. Bad work by him letting me see war prisoners in cages in a river and Russian roulette scenes. What a great movie, though.

Paul

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL KUHARSKY:

• Five least-agreeable athletes you’ve ever covered: Pacman Jones, Randy Moss, Arian Foster, Marvin Harrison, Jason Layman.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ken Burrough, George Bernard Shaw, Howard Stern, Robert’s Western World, Mike Organ, Jemele Hill, Electric Light Orchestra, Marvell Wynn, Hurricane Sandy, the Vulcan Death Grip, the word “flapjacks.”: Howard Stern, Robert’s Western World, Ken Burrough, “flapjacks,” the Vulcan death grip, Mike Organ, Marvell Wynne, Jemele Hill, ELO Hurricane Sandy, George Bernard Shaw.

• One question you would ask Layzie Bone were he here right now?: Who is Assasin No. 2? (I’d be proud of that if it didn’t take a Google search. Actually it would have been, Who are you?)

• Seven greatest athletes you’ve ever witnessed: In no particular order, and presuming you don’t mean live: Carl Lewis, Jevon Kearse (he was live), Bo Jackson, Secretariat, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, LeBron James.

• What’s the dumbest statistic in pro sports?: I’m not a big fan of time of possession in football. I understand you don’t want the other team to have the ball too much as it can mean too much work for your defense. But one-play, 80-yard drives feature an 80-yard touchdown play. That’s exactly what you want and they don’t take long at all.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Ron Guidry? What’s the outcome?: I could run away from him for a while, I suppose. He knocks me out in the sixth as I tire. I am a verbal combatant, not a physical one. Any athletic man who wants to beat me, will, even if he’s 67. Though I question his motivation here, as he and Dave Righetti rank as my all-time favorite pitchers.

• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Biren Ealy?: Titans’ fans love long-shot wide receivers. So there was actually lots of tamping down unreasonable expectations.

• You’re a big Springsteen fan. What’s his worst song? Why?: I’ll spare you the obligatory “Mary Queen of Arkansas.” It’s “Kingdom of Days” from Working on a Dream, his worst album. I don’t know what he’s going for here. I like the way he sounds in nearly everything and I hate the way he sounds in this. Like a wanna be old-time crooner or something.

• How’d you meet your wife?: She and her best friend had two pitchers of beer and a veggie plate on their table Jonathan’s Grille in Hillsboro Village in Nashville. My gang was nowhere near as healthy and struck up a conversation based on that contrast. It was Two for Tuesday and Yankees-Padres Game 3 of the 1998 World Series. I had a ticket for Game 5 in San Diego. The Yankees swept.

• Biggest mistake of your writing career?: Never learning to type.

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