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ISSUE 120 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/2/2007

Star Tribune scribe speaks out

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, March 2, 2007

Although statistics show fewer Americans are doing so every year, newspapers are still read by millions of people each day. Arguably the most popular draw for most readers is none other than the sports section – studies show that as much as 40 percent of newspaper readers do so primarily for their daily sports fix. The Messenger sat down with the Minneapolis Star Tribune Timberwolves beat writer Steve Ashburner back in December and collected his thoughts on various sports- and newspaper-related topics.

Messenger: First off, a little bit about yourself – how long have you been with the Star Tribune? How did you get your current position?

Ashburner: I've been here at the Star Tribune for 20 years, and I worked for the newspaper in Milwaukee before that. This is my 13th year covering the NBA. I've covered baseball, football, college sports – lots of different things.

Messenger: What are some of the aspects of your job that you particularly enjoy?

Ashburner: I still enjoy writing … I like that at the end of the day, my name is on my work and other people know what I've done. I like that it's a non-traditional job, and that I don't have to go into an office much. I also get to do some traveling, and I enjoy being responsible for my own work. I have quite a bit of freedom in what I write – as long as I'm where I need to be every day (games and practices).

Messenger: What are some of the things you don't like much about being a newspaper writer?

Ashburner: Sometimes the travel schedule is a grind, but there are a lot of things that people don't see. If you're at a game or walking out from a practice in Phoenix, those things are fun, but it's getting there in the first place that is a pain. It's dealing with the airports, the hotels, the rental cars – that stuff can be a grind.

I also don't like that access to [NBA players] has gotten tougher and tougher over the years. You're not around them as much as you used to be 15 or 20 years ago. They fly chartered flights and stay in luxury hotels; we [media members] fly coach and stay in mid-range hotels. Our contact is limited to very specific parts of the day.

The better you know a subject, the better you know people, the better you can write about them. When your access is limited to 45 minutes before games, it's harder to know them as people and get the whole portrait.

Messenger: Looking at the Timberwolves, who are some of your stalwart guys for material? How has it been working with [former head coach] Dwane Casey as compared to other guys?

Ashburner: Most coaches are pretty good. They understand the obligation they have to promote their team and deal with the media. The locker room always changes. Some players are good, and some players are tougher to deal with. Kevin Garnett is always available after games and is very good at analyzing what's going on with the team. Some other guys, you blink and you'll miss them – they disappear so quickly [after games] and they're just not available.

Messenger: Are there ever times when you struggle with what you want to write about during the game?

Ashburner: It's definitely hard to keep up with new stuff all the time – we cover about 100 games a year including the preseason and playoffs. It's hard to always be fresh, but, when I'm stuck for an angle, I always ask myself: What would I tell my buddy about what went on that night? That's the device that I use.

Messenger: How do you deal with the double-edged sword of objectivity? Sometimes you have to be critical of the people in the organization, but the very next day you have to go to them for quotes. How do you deal with that?

Ashburner: In the newspaper industry, there is kind of a division of labor. You have beat writers, who cover the team every day, strive to maintain objectivity and remain fair. You also have columnists, who can write their opinions and what they think about how somebody is doing. Generally, the more biased material will come from the columnists, because they don't have to turn around and see these guys the next day.

Even within that framework, you still try to be analytical and do some critical looks at teams. You hope that people understand you're going to try and be fair and accurate, and that you're not going be cheap and take shots at people.

The best people in sports understand that we have a job to do. They don't expect us to be on teams' payrolls.

Messenger: Would you ever like to be more than a beat writer? Ever think about being a columnist only?

Ashburner: Oh, for sure, but those jobs are hard to come by – you pretty much need someone to die or move away. I was a columnist in Milwaukee for a while, and I would do that again, but opportunities just don't come up that often. Other than that, it's just a matter of how much you enjoy doing what you're doing. I could probably see requesting a different assignment in a few years and perhaps doing something else, but for now this suits me fine. It sure is great to have summers off!

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