It’s hard to be a good guy and a good reporter.
I’ve known more than a few good people, in journalism. But they tended not to be rise-to-the-top reporters or editors, and they often got stepped on during the career scramble. Because “good” held them back.
I’ve known some very good journalists. But I don’t think I would want to share a beer — let alone a confidence — with most of them. There’s just something about the profession, especially the reporting side. To really get ahead requires selfishness, a willingness to use/betray sources and colleagues, and a keen eye for self-promotion. Actually, some of the best journos are almost sociopathic.
Then there is Nate Ryan, who has managed the fairly rare feat of being a good guy and a good journalist and reporter.
And to think, he wanted to be a radio guy.
At the least, we straightened him out there … and now he’s the main motor sports writer for USA Today, making him arguably the most high-profile journalist to come through the San Bernardino Sun sports department in the last 30 years.
Nate came to us the same way a batch of talented kids turned up in San Bernardino in the middle 1990s — through the Northwestern internship program.
People such as Joel Boyd and Kevin Ding had preceded him, so we had high expectations of this Nate Ryan kid who showed up in the fall of 1993.
I’m guessing I found out about the radio thing on his first day at work, which was a Sunday in September. I gave Nate a ride to the Los Angeles Raiders’ game at the Coliseum vs. the Browns. I would do a column, he would write a sidebar.
It’s a 70-mile drive, from San Bernardino to the Coliseum, which makes it good for trying to get a feel for the kid who just showed up from Evanston. What do you aspire to? What do you like to do? So that’s probably when Nate told me he was thinking “radio!”
Now, all of you who do radio, don’t get too agitated here, but you know there is little love lost (and not a hell of a lot of respect) between print and radio sports people.
I’d guess radio people would consider too many print people timid because 1) they don’t ask the blunt questions that illicit pithy responses and 2) they generally aren’t keen to stick a microphone an inch from an athlete’s face and say, “So, can you explain that interception?”
Print people consider radio guys to be dopey and pushy. Likely to kill an interview with a badly phrased question (see above), willing to climb over people to get in the face of a source … and then distract all the real journalists (print guys, that is) with a half-hour of noisy prep work in the press box as they get their commentary in there before and after the quotes. (”… three, two, one …The Los Angeles Dodgers took another step toward oblivion today in a 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves, but Tommy Lasorda says it’s not over yet …”)
So, basically, I said, “Nate, you want to be one of the cockroaches of the press box? One of the bottom-feeders of sports journalism?” Or something equally delicate. And he said something like, “Well, I was thinking that, but I’m not committed to it.”
And after that, the whole staff worked on him. “This is serious journalism. Print. That’s what matters. No frills like TV, no hit-and-run quote hits like radio.”
And we brought him around, I’m pleased to say.
He immediately showed a knack for a coherent story and competent copy editing, which was pretty much a universal for the Northwestern kids, and by the time his 11 weeks were up, I was sure I would want to bring him back, once he graduated.
Turns out, we got him back even sooner than that: Somehow we scrounged up some money to pay him as a temp the following summer, 1994, a stretch of time when the World Cup was played in the U.S. He worked inside the whole time and solidified his standing with us.
And reinforced the notion that he was an uncommonly decent human being.
Some for-instances …
If somebody comes into a newsroom and starts complaining about whatever … his/her job or life … your average journo is going to pay zero attention — or at best pretend to pay attention and hope the other person will just shut the hell up.
Nate Ryan, however, would listen. He would commiserate. He would empathize. If someone were down on themselves, he even would tell them, “Hey, man, don’t beat yourself up!” And he would mean it. Behavior that is pretty much unknown in newsrooms.
Nobody disliked the guy. You couldn’t. He was ambitious, but not in a threatening way. He could keep a confidence. He was always upbeat. When he said, “How are you doing?” he really wanted to know.
And he had this boyishness to him, back then. Innocent but compelling. Women, girls loved him, though I’m not sure he appreciated how much they did, back then. I remember my mother meeting him, when he was covering an event in Long Beach, and staying in a spare room at her house. One of my siblings thought Nate — with his dark, wavy hair, square jaw and semi-heavy glasses — looked like Clark Kent. Superman’s mild-mannered alter ego. So she dubbed him “Baby Clark Kent.” And that stuck, at least in my family, for years.
In that same summer, 1994, that he came in as a temp … I’m thinking that his college girlfriend was our baseball intern, covering the minor-league ballclub. She also had talent, but she wasn’t convinced of it. And from what I could tell, Nate spent a chunk of nearly every day building up her self-esteem. “You’re good! You can do it! People like you!”
Nate went back to school for his final year, and a few months after he graduated, in 1995, I offered him a job as a copy editor because Brian Neale and another deskie were leaving within weeks of each other. Which said something about Nate, because in the mid-1990s we didn’t hire full-timers straight out of school. We wanted a a couple of years of professional experience. But we knew him, and he knew our system, and the staff was genuinely excited to have him back.
He was putting out the section soon enough; one of his earliest rounds as the layout guy was the day we ran the obit of Sun sports legend Claude Anderson, June 16, 1996. If he hadn’t remembered that so clearly I may never have found the date of death for Claude J., the subject of the first in this “Seasons” series.
(He recalled it because he forgot to reefer the prep athletes/coaches-of-the-year package from the four cover photos, and I wasn’t happy about the oversight. In reality, I should not have had him putting out that section not even one year into his real career.)
Oh, and his laugh. No one who has heard Nate Ryan laugh will forget it. It’s a high-pitched staccato. Not annoying, but not something you expect to hear out of an adult male. “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee!”
The other distinguishing feature of his laugh? It’s so over the top that when you hear it, you know someone has said something really funny. You don’t laugh like that when you’re doing a “courtesy chuckle.”
In early 1996, we had a part-time beat come open. Motor racing. (I can’t remember who did it before, but it might have been a stringer.) At that moment, motors wasn’t big in the L.A. market. After the closure of Riverside International Raceway (late 1980s, I think), there were no tracks of any significance in the market. No NASCAR, no Indy-car, nothing major came through.
But something was on the horizon — California Speedway, in nearby Fontana. Right in our backyard. And it was going to bring NASCAR back to the region.
Nate had never expressed any interest in motors. I’m quite sure he wasn’t a fan. I don’t think he was even a “car” guy. But it was a writing opportunity, and he wasn’t ready for a life of putting out the section and reading other people’s copy. So he volunteered. He was the only one who did and, frankly, I probably just would have assigned him to do it.
As the track went up, and the first event got closer, motors turned back into a major beat. Nate was out there, talking to the track president, staying in touch with Roger Penske, who was the driving force behind the track. And he just generally got into the whole motors scene which, actually, wasn’t all that bad a place to focus your interest, considering that it often is considered a second-tier beat by mainstream sports journalists and, therefore, shunned and more than a little underserved and underreported.
Nate, however, was good at it. And he liked it. He was our main man for the first event there, the 1997 California 500 in June, and he was the most compelling voice in the market on it. Looking back, I was fairly astonished at how fast he came up to speed on the whole circus that is NASCAR.
A year later, summer 1998, with a handful of NASCAR races on his resume, and a couple of years of motors coverage across the spectrum, Nate took a job with the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a combo guy — desk man and backup NASCAR writer.
A year or two later, the No. 1 NASCAR writer left Richmond, and Nate took over the beat, and began traveling to most of the circuit’s 30-some races. It always was a treat to see him back in Fontana because he was a walking reference on the sport, and whenever I needed a quick refresher on key issues, he was there to help.
Sometime around 2004, 2005, USA Today had an opening for its NASCAR beat. Which is a big deal for both USAT and NASCAR because the former takes the latter seriously, and the circuit pretty much considers USAT its paper of record — since the New York Times and Washington Post don’t do much with it.
He took the job, and now he’s a sort of one-man multi-platform performer for USA Today. He also does some NASCAR radio (!) in his free time. I don’t know if he is the authoritative voice on the beat, but no print guy has as much exposure as he does.
Nate has not let the money-drenched circuit and its sponsor-cozy relationships ruin him. (Nor has he gone all “big-league” on his former friends.) He did a major piece for USA Today — which ran on its news cover, in late 2006 — in which he outlined how the circuit appeared to have hit its peak and was sliding from it in terms of attendance and TV viewership. With sidebar. NASCAR suits weren’t happy and, in fact, cut back (way back) on advertising the following year. But that is what happens, sometimes, when you do serious journalism. When you don’t sell out, and your editors are willing to back you up.
I suppose it’s all turned into something of an unexpected career, for the kid from Boston by way of Chicago. He was thinking radio, then maybe desk work, maybe management, and he ends up being one of the two or three most recognized names in U.S. motors journalism.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Or a better journalist.