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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
If seven-year-old Ken Davidoff was to see himself now, he’d be experiencing the heady feeling of satisfaction. As a baseball columnist for the New York Post, Ken can definitively say he realized his childhood dreams of becoming a baseball journalist and covering the New York Yankees.
What’s distinctive isn’t the career journey; in fact, Ken’s career path is rather traditional and linear in its progression. What’s truly remarkable remains unspoken for the length of the conversation: Ken’s conviction, persistence, and dogged determination to pursue his true calling.
“When I was seven years old I decided I wanted to be a sports writer,” Ken recalls. “More specifically I wanted to write about baseball, and even more specifically I wanted to write about the New York Yankees.”
As he reflects on his formative years nurturing this passion, Ken unintentionally shares some advice to LSA students: even when pursuing a vision of your future, it’s best to be flexible and leave some wiggle room for course-corrections.
“I certainly opened up my mind from age seven to age 18,” Ken reflects. “It was a dream for baseball and the Yankees but it was a goal to be a sports writer in general, so I wasn’t being that narrow about my pursuits.”
Although Ken’s taken a conventional approach to his career, it wasn’t without risks. Michigan’s College of LSA has never had a formal journalism program. On the brink of graduating from high school, Ken had to make a critical decision: choose from any number of schools that had rigorous journalism training or choose Michigan, an institution he valued for its prestige and the greatness of its liberal arts education.
“The only risk I really took [in my career] was going to Michigan because it was the only school I applied to that didn’t really have a focus on journalism,” Ken said. “Other schools I got into definitely had more of a journalism track, but I decided that the overall experience at Michigan seemed too alluring and the brand seemed too strong to not go there.”
Ken started at LSA in 1989, strategically choosing to major in Communications and English, two majors that, when combined, are Michigan’s closest equivalent to a journalism program. When asked if the decision to attend Michigan paid off, Ken offers a surprising answer.
“I didn’t learn journalism in the classroom. [But] I remember this introductory psych course and how fascinating it was; my English classes and professors were amazing; and I took a few classes in film analysis as a personal interest of mine—I still remember them to this day.”
He then turned to learning opportunities that existed outside of the classroom, fortuitously discovering the Michigan Daily. As a student staff writer, he covered a variety of sporting events like the 1993 Men’s Basketball Final Four, which featured Michigan’s legendary ‘Fab Five’, an experience he remembers to be “truly remarkable” for a college student.
“I could not have had better training than writing for the Michigan Daily. It really filled that void,” Ken states. “Having the opportunity to cover big time sports was a huge entryway, and—no doubt—is the reason where I am today. At my first job, none of [the staff] had experience like mine and I was only months out of college.”
Ken doesn’t only attribute his early career success to his extracurriculars. Some of that credit goes to “a really great education”—he wholeheartedly accepts the proposition that a liberal arts degree provides a well-rounded education.
“The more well-rounded your knowledge is, the better chance at succeeding in engaging with people. Having that foundational knowledge [in various subjects] lets you share common ground with people you are interviewing and creates more intelligent writing. The broader the base of knowledge, the better it will serve you as a journalist.”
To the mountaintop
After graduating from LSA in 1993, Ken eventually worked his way up to the dream job: national baseball writer for the New York Post.
For many students, the possibility of pursuing their dream job or passion project often becomes a casualty to sentiments like “Don’t follow your passion” or “Do what jobs are available to you.” While there’s definitely merit behind these ideas, there's also other important considerations: having an overarching vision, being reactive to opportunities as they present themselves, building rapport with those who will support you when it matters, and being very good at what you want to do.
“I had a vision of my future but I had no grand plan,” Ken remembers. “It's a balance; you want to have dreams and goals but you don’t want them to fully guide you so you miss the step right in front of you.”
Throughout his life, Ken never doubted the viability of a career in journalism. Instead, as a self described “literal” person, he committed himself to every story he wrote and every team he was a part of.
“I’ve changed jobs three times,” Ken said. “I got those jobs partly because of my work, but a significant part was because I had advocates at those organizations who knew the kind of worker I was and the kind of teammate I was. I know I have a reputation as a good teammate and that goes a long way beyond the quality of your work.”
Despite this, Ken still asserts that a certain level of proficiency is needed to be a successful journalist; it isn’t enough to simply enjoy what you do, you have to be highly skilled at it. Although Ken may love writing and reporting, he has also spent several years cultivating those skills and refining his craft.
“You need to be good at it,” Ken stresses. “Any journalist starts with people skills because you have to get people to trust you. You have to earn people’s trust so they will relay information to you and know that you will protect them, and that’s where it starts. Then you talk about the ability to write succinctly and efficiently, the ability to see what’s going on and draw conclusions from it, and the ability to package that not only in the writing, but in the presentation to make it accessible to readers.”
Success in a digitalized world
Ken entered journalism in August of 1993 when print still dominated but when the industry was at the cusp of launching into the digital space. Over the next few decades, rapidly changing technology would permanently impact how media outlets share news and interact with their audiences. Print newspapers would be forced to adapt, refocusing resources to prioritize their online footprint.
“Any newspaper in 2020 that doesn’t have a strong plan for digital is dead, it just can’t be done,” Ken said. “I joined the Post in 2012 and that was one of my primary questions [to them].”
Ken recalls his early years writing for print and how he had to learn how to adapt his writing to online publishing, a place where short-form content reigns supreme.
“Sometimes there’s a breaking story and we need to get it up immediately so I know I’m writing for the website,” Ken said. “When I first started, everything had a word count. But now, if there’s something that’s 300 words it doesn’t matter, [you] just get it out and you don’t have to worry about filling that space.”
The journalism industry has undergone an evolution over the past few decades, and is still changing at an unprecedented rate. But this trend is also evident in sports journalism; as an insider, Ken is uniquely positioned to identify for LSA students some of the tension and nuanced changes taking place.
“There’s a fascinating tug-of-war within sports journalism that has only intensified since I’ve started,” Ken says. “Essentially, are you a sports fan who likes to write and wasn’t good enough to play at the professional level? Or are you a journalist who just happens to be covering sports?”
And therein lies the crux: in an online landscape inundated by opinion editorial, it’s certainly refreshing to be the latter, a journalist covering sports. Both the quality of writing and readership is rewarded when informative reporting remains the standard and ideal.
As journalism itself changes, so do emerging young journalists. The field has expanded due to the emergence of blogs and popular sites that constantly churn out volumes of content.
“With the explosion of digital journalism, there are far more ways to enter the field,” Ken says. “If you think of it like a pyramid, the top is a lot more narrow than it used to be… but I think the abundance of entry level jobs makes it easier to get in the door than it was 25 or more years ago.”
As they say in the sport, it’s a whole new ball game. And for LSA students, there’s countless opportunities to step up to the plate.