ESPN’s Katz on his path in journalism

The history and political science major returned to UW to speak with students about his experiences and insights.

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Turn on ESPN during college basketball season and you’re bound to see Andy Katz (B.A.’90, History and Political Science). The UW-Madison College of Letters & Science alumnus breaks stories, reports on games and even interviews President Obama as he fills out his March Madness bracket. He is a senior writer for ESPN.com and serves as the backup host for the network’s critically-acclaimed Outside the Lines.

Yet Katz still makes sure to credit his co-workers at the Daily Cardinal, where he got his start in journalism as a freshman in 1986, for helping mold him. And he was happy to share his experiences and insights with students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the La Follette School of Public Affairs during a visit to campus last week as part of the Public Affairs Writer in Residence program.

L&S caught up with Katz in between classes during his four-day stay in Madison. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

You were a history and political science major. How did you get interested in reporting? 

My goal was always to be in journalism. Senior year in high school when I got cut from the basketball team, I went to the local cable station and ended up doing play-by-play with the local teams in Newton, Mass. And that got me going, at least on the broadcasting side.

When I arrived here, I went right down to the Daily Cardinal and immediately — a lot of it was fortuitous timing — was able to get high-profile beats. As I’ve said many times, I learned more about life, about journalism, downstairs in Vilas Hall, than anywhere else. And it just got my juices flowing and opened my eyes, not just to sports journalism, but also how to attack news and to think critically and to challenge and to be aggressive.

I don’t think there’s a straight path. I do think you need to be well-versed in history and politics, and obviously critical writing, to be a journalist. I’ve always had a passion for history and politics.

What has been the key to your success? 

I’ve been very resourceful and aggressive, but not in — I don’t think — an arrogant way. I think I’ve found that happy medium. And I’m constantly thinking of what’s next, but I’m still able to enjoy the moment. Now, there was a time where I wasn’t. But I’m always thinking of, how can I better myself? How can I do something that’s a little bit more challenging?

What is your advice for students who are interested in pursuing journalism careers? 

I’m a firm believer in having a beat of some sort. I don’t care what it is — it could be the education beat, it could be city council, it could be the volleyball team. I think that baseline of reporting is critical in that it gives you something to do every day and to be on top of. You are not only just writing and reporting, but there are days maybe when you are just working the sources.

If you’re covering the budget at the statehouse, you’re not going to write every day about it, but you may be talking to this aide, this rep, maybe the governor, whatever, but you’re working the hill, if you will. And I think those skills you learn on a beat are great skills for however you expand. Even if you become a long-form magazine writer, I still think those baseline skills are critical before you launch into that next phase.

Is there one skill that is particularly crucial for students to develop? 

You have to be confident and authoritative, but not arrogant, egotistical or cocky. It’s a fine line. Our business takes a beating, and rightfully so at times, because a lot of times journalists are overly aggressive and sometimes don’t even ask questions — they jam their opinions into questions, so they just make statements. How can you expect to get a good answer if you don’t ask a good question? And that art is lost.

But I also think if you treat people with respect — even someone that you have to get information from that is negative to that person — if you’re handling it with respect, there’s a good chance that you’re going to get an answer. In life and in the profession, I think if you treat people the way you want to be treated, you can still get quality interviews and quality information.