KC Star sports editor learns how to adapt to shifting online world
By Chris Heady
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Kansas City Star assistant sports editor Mark Zeligman tried just about everything before he landed in journalism.
In his first two years of college at the University of Kansas, Zeligman jumped from business to accounting to math to economics to social work to political science. And finally, after confiding in a political science teacher about not wanting to go to grad school, Zeligman was pushed to check out journalism. He hadn’t heard that suggestion before.
“Why?” Zeligman asked.
“Because you’ll get a job,” he told Zeligman.
Mark graduated from KU with a journalism degree in 1975 and has stuck with journalism since.
In a phone interview, Zeligman talked about his career.
Q: What was your first job?
A: Well, I came out (of college) in a lame year. Of course, no one was hiring. I got offered some jobs in small towns in Kansas and didn’t want to do that. So, I went back for grad school for a semester with the intent of looking around for jobs. I knew I didn’t want to get a graduate degree. And then the Evansfield Press had an opening, which KU helped find for me. Which is what KU is good at. So, after one semester in grad school I took that job. Dec. 15, I’ll always remember that. Dec. 15, 1975. That was my first day. I was a high school sports reporter.
Q: So how did you end up at the Star?
A: From there, I went back to KC for really good reason: my girlfriend lived here. I worked at the Overland Park Sun, which is a twice-a-week newspaper, as the sports editor. But really I was a one-man staff. I covered high school sports, laid out pages, edited stuff. It was a really good experience. I did everything really. I did that for two years and then there was an opening at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. The sports editor down there was from Topeka, around where I am from, and he called KU up and asked if they had any good candidates and my editing teacher suggested me. So, I went down there and interviewed and got the job as an assistant copy chief.
I was there for four years, but I always had the Kansas City Star in the back of my mind. And the Star posted an ad, somewhere I can’t remember, for an assistant sports editor. And it was just about that time when there was a management change in Phoenix and I was little leery of. The guy who hired me would no longer be here. So I came up here, interviewed and got the job in May of 1982.
Q: Why did you stay on the editing track?
A: My editing teacher at KU, John Bremner, he told me there’s more advancement on the editing side than the reporting side. Everyone wants to be a writer and very few people want to be editors. He was right. I moved up fairly quickly in the editing side and that worked out.
Q: What types of things do you have to deal with each day? What kind of decisions do you have to make?
A: I plan out the section, figure out what story goes on what page. Make the assignments for copy editors. I will slot the stories, which means I read every story that comes back to me. The key thing is just making decisions and solving problems. I get 100 questions a day. Where do you want this? Is this is too long? Where should I put this story on the page? Is the story too long? What do you think of this? What do you think of that? Just everything. It’s all problems. It’s more of a supervisory role than anything.
Q: What surprised you the most about your job?
A: There’s a surprise every day. Every time you walk in, there’s something. Which I like. Something new happens. A story breaks, there’s an unexpected extra inning. Everything’s fresh. The surprises are there daily. I’ve come to not be surprised so much about the surprises.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: Feeling a sense of a team to work together and achieve a common goal every night.
Q: What’s the worst part of your job?
A: I guess not having enough time to do things the way I want to do them. And that’s because of the smaller staff, less manpower. Everyone has to do more now. Which is fine, but it reduces the time to pay attention to other things.
Q: What’s it been like, seeing the staff shrink like that?
A: When I got here in 1982, the staff was more than double. Right now we’ve got seven full-time reporters, five full-time copy editors/designers, four supervisors, two columnists. The total is in the low 20s. Back in ’82, it was close to 50 back then. (Seeing the newsroom shrink), it can hurt moral. You have to keep the spirit high every day. And on the flip side of it, the website is growing. It’s the most popular site in the city and it’s not even close. We have the most hits on the McClatchy chain and we get awards. Mark Zeemin, he’s a VP with McClatchy, he was here today and we got an award for the Marysville coverage. We got the McClatchy President’s award, which is the top award in the chain for journalism. So even though (the newsroom shrinks), we have to keep our spirits up. You can look at the website which is growing all the time. The trick is, of course, how to make money on the Web. That changes all the time.
Q: You guys have a paywall. Do you think there’s a way to make money off the Web besides the paywall?
A: Well, yeah. There’s advertising that you see at the top and down the sides of the site. I’m sure there are other things I don’t know about. We do have partnerships with Yahoo! and apartments.com and careerbuilders.com and we get money if x amount of hits and we get x amount of money. I did see a graph today, actually, and if you a graph of arrows with print revenue and online revenue, for the first time the online revenue is going to intersect with the print revenue soon.
Q: Can you talk a little about handling a later deadline with sports? Is that frustrating sometimes?
A: It can be stressful, but I’m used to it. It used to scare me but now I’m used to it. The issue now is our chaser edition, which is the second edition that’s not guaranteed to hit the press. They want that in a half-hour after our 11:15 p.m. deadline. You throw in the game story quickly, but that means the writer only has 15 or 20 to put the new story in. It used to be we had later deadlines.
Q: What’s the most important thing an editor does?
A: Use my judgment to the best of my ability. In all different areas of the night. Which means solving problems and making decisions. Making decisions, in short.
Q: What’s the biggest piece of advice that you could give students for the journalism world?
A: Ah, the old advice question. Two things. One: Be as versatile as you can in all forms of media. Online, blogging, taking pictures, using Twitter. Just be familiar with everything so that when you do get a job offer you’ll be able to do everything. Two: Learn how to write. That’s the priority of the media. If you know to write, it stands out. You have to write in any field you’re in. You gotta know how to write. Good writers stand out more than ever before.
Q: Any other advice?
A: Well, when applying for jobs, find out who the person hiring is and call them on the phone. I get 100 emails a day and they can easily be lost. If you want to send something in, send it though the U.S. mail. Because things can get lost and they don’t carry any weight. One email looks like another email. Anybody who calls me on the phone or sends me mail, I put it at the top of the stack. Too many people send it through career builder or HR. You’d be surprised where those things wind up.