In this episode of the Western Wayne News Podcast, sports reporter Dan Harney talks with Kate about his philosophy of covering high school games that goes beyond wins and losses, the challenges of trying to cover so many athletic events in the community, his winding path to becoming a journalist, and how he thinks the student athlete experience can set young people up for success later on.
Kate Jetmore: My guest today is Dan Harney. After a 48 year career in finance and collections, Dan retired and turned to writing. He has written stories and articles on a variety of subjects, but his passion is high school sports. He began covering high school basketball in 2010 for the Nettle Creek Gazette. When that newspaper combined with the Western Wayne News, he assumed the role of covering all six county schools for the paper. Welcome, Dan. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today.
Dan Harney: Thank you for having me.
Kate Jetmore: Well, based on your bio, it sounds like we could be here a couple of days talking about the beginnings of your career, but what fascinates me is how all of that led you to sports. What is it about sports? What is it that captures our attention and fascinates us when it comes to games and tournaments?
Dan Harney: I think there’s a variety of things. Primarily it’s an opportunity for kids to be involved in a situation where they can be part of a team, and in some cases that’s more important to kids than others because… I’ll give you an example. On Friday night at a football game or any night of the week at a volleyball, basketball or any other sport, you want to name, everybody that represents their school is wearing the same uniform. So they’re on an even keel. The most affluent to the least affluent are wearing the same uniform that has the name of their community on the front of it, and they need each other to be successful. And I like telling their story.
Kate Jetmore: It sounds like what you’re saying is that it opens doors in a lot of ways that it encourages people to be in the same space together?
Dan Harney: I think so, and it’s an opportunity for the communities they represent. It brings tremendous amount of community pride when they have successes. It also builds their self-esteem in many cases, and confidence that helps them later on in life.
Kate Jetmore: Tell me more about the word, stories. You said that you want to tell their stories. Tell me more about that.
Dan Harney: I’ve been a sports enthusiast all of my life, but as I read a story, and I’ve always done this, I wonder, I don’t know this person, I don’t know this boy, I don’t know this girl. In a situation like ours, the schools we cover are, for the most part, from small communities. I even consider Richmond a relatively small community in this day and age. And I like to paint a picture so that the people who follow a particular team know more about the kids that represent them on the floor, on the playing field. It gives me an opportunity to do that. I want them to know the kids that they’re rooting for and they all have interesting characteristics and personalities. It gives me a chance to paint a picture of what great kids they are.
Kate Jetmore: And when you talk about telling those stories and the importance that it has for you, does it go beyond simply interest? Does it have something to do with the community?
Dan Harney: Yes, it is. I mean, candidly, when I first started writing for the Nettle Creek Gazette, even though I was working for them, I felt like I was trying to give a contribution to the community. At that time, they didn’t have a sports writer in that area, and I felt like I could fill that void with my background and I was happy to do it. So yes, I’m interested in representing the kids in the community.
Kate Jetmore: So I want to come back to the issue of storytelling and the role that storytelling plays specifically when it comes to sports reporting. Because there’s writing and then there’s journalism, there’s writing for a newspaper, but what you are doing is very specifically in the realm of sports reporting. Do you find that you have to choose how to spin an article when you’re writing it up for the paper, or do you find yourself sticking more to the facts?
Dan Harney: I think both. I’m heavily into positive press. If I can’t say something good about a player, I don’t say anything about that player. For example, if the game comes down to the final free throw and they miss it, I don’t put their name in the paper. It’s not relative to the story. It’s one play. If they hit the free throw, of course I’m going to do that, but I want to paint a positive picture. My ultimate goal anytime I cover any sporting event, is for the people who were not there to feel like they were. I mean, I covered a game last night, I’m writing about it this morning, and I want to be able to paint a picture so that if you were at the game, you know what happened. But if you weren’t, I want you to smell the popcorn.
Kate Jetmore: And do you go into those details in your articles? Do you describe some of the more unexpected elements and senses that are at the game?
Dan Harney: Yes, whenever that’s applicable. I mean, we’re somewhat limited by space, for example, week after week, especially during seasons where there might be 40 or 50 athletic events. But I try to concentrate on ones that are, I don’t want to say most important, but maybe… I can’t be at every game at the same time. So the one I’m at, I want to make sure there’s probably going to be more detail in that particular story than if I were reporting it based on information received from someone else.
Kate Jetmore: I’m struck by your comment about positive press, and I’m wondering if you could say more about how that serves the community. What is it that makes the community stronger when the local press takes a more positive tack?
Dan Harney: Well, I’m not trying to claim any credit for making the team stronger, but I think in a state of Indiana, we’ll say for example, basketball success. People say it’s just basketball and 49 other states, but Indiana, it is far different than that. And there’s an amount of truth to that. And I don’t want to get off script here, but I look at my own personal experiences and I became involved in athletics because I was encouraged to do so by one of my high school teachers. And that was when I was in the fifth grade, and I’d never been involved in anything like that.
And I know over my time in athletics, year after year after year, I was encouraged… I mean, obviously I got better over time, but I was encouraged by a lot of people and that helped my self-esteem not only on the athletic field, but in the classroom and social skills. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I probably may have a few newspaper clippings that might be 60 years old from when I was playing. Like I said, that elevated my self-esteem. So if I can do that for others, I’ve found over the years, that doesn’t make any difference what that uniform says, the kids that I talk to are articulate, intelligent, and usually they’ll respond to encouragement.
So if you tell them they’re good, encourage them for what they’ve done, they usually rise to that occasion. And the reverse is true. So I try to avoid the reverse.
Kate Jetmore: Mm-hmm. What do you think kids are missing out on when they see an opportunity to try out for a team and they’re not encouraged to try out for the team? Or they’re told they’re not good enough or they feel that they’re not good enough and no one’s telling them that they are good enough or they might be good enough? What are those kids missing out on?
Dan Harney: I think those kids are missing out on a lot. It’s not just the results. Obviously everybody wants to win, but it’s not all about winning and losing. It’s about developing skills that might qualify you to do better in life in general. The team aspect, understanding that everybody’s important in a football game. There’s 11 players and the kids get all the press or the running backs and the quarterbacks, but without the line, they wouldn’t be able to run anywhere. So everybody is an important part of that team. And I think teams kids who participated in athletics recognize that pretty quickly. Because that’s one thing I’ve noticed over the years covering football games, the kids that get the most press, like I said, are the glamor players. The running back that ran for 250 yards. The quarterback that ran for three or 400 yards or three [inaudible] and almost invariably after the game, they won’t talk about that.
They want to talk about how important their teammates were on the line. And I like that. But like I said, it’s an encouragement for kids who get involved. There’s a mistake people make is, the only people important are the ones that do all the scoring. That is simply not true. And once kids start going to practice and get involved, they quickly recognize, “Hey, I can make a contribution. Dan Harney might not put my name in the box score, but I know that when Fred scored the winning basket, I passed the ball to him. I got the rebound and gave it to him. I’m the one that intercepted the pass, put us in a position.” And they all need each other. And they’ll find out as they get into the workforce that you need other people to be successful frequently. Almost always.
Kate Jetmore: Mm-hmm. That’s an important lesson, a life lesson. You already mentioned something along these lines, and I really want to pull on this thread and that is that depending on the season, there must be dozens scores of games and matches going on simultaneously all over the county. How do you get to all of them? And if you can’t, which I’m guessing that you can’t, how do you decide which ones you’re going to attend in person and which ones you’re just going to write up using the scores later?
Dan Harney: Well, in the first place, that’s one of the most frustrating parts of this job because I can’t be everywhere at the same time. So what I try to do is pick, for example, if two of the county schools that we cover are playing each other, that would take precedent in my mind versus somebody playing an out of town team. But to answer your question directly about how I can do that, I can’t do that. But what I have done is develop a network of people, coaches, administrators, athletic directors that want to see their programs publicized and recognize that I can’t do that without their help. And they do a great job, almost exclusively, a hundred percent do a great job of getting that information to me.
And then because of my experience, and I’ve been to hundreds and thousands of games at a variety of sports, I can usually write a story from the information that I have that you may or may not be able to determine by reading it whether I was there or not.
Kate Jetmore: And I’m wondering if this network of contacts and friends that you’ve mentioned, do they know you well enough as a person, as a sports fan and as a sports writer that they need to send you that little bit of extra information? Or do they just send you the facts?
Dan Harney: For the most part, I just get the facts, but I have developed a relationship with most of them. But more importantly to me is you have to develop confidence. They have to have confidence and make sure you have no hidden agenda, that what you’re going to do is going to be positive. And they’re all interested in the same thing. We want to get the name of Richmond High School, Northeastern Hagerstown, Cambridge City, whatever it is, we want to publicize our kids. We want to bring credit to our school. But once they have confidence in you, they’re more than happy to work with you. There are very, very few exceptions to that and usually if there are exceptions, I can talk to them and explain to them what my motivation is. And they almost always say, “Oh, okay, I’ll be happy to do that.”
Kate Jetmore: You know what I hear popping up in our conversation that’s a common thread is trust. That they trust you to represent the schools in print. And you also referred to how the kids talk about each other when they’re giving that interview at the end of the game. “Yes, I did score a touchdown, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the other guys.” They all trust each other.
Dan Harney: That’s without question. I think probably the ultimate team sport is football. I’ve already alluded to that, because you have 11 players on the same play. All of them have to do the right thing on that play or it blows up, it doesn’t work. So they understand that the importance of that. And that’s true in almost every sport. The problem is the typical fan, all they do is look at the box score and say, “Okay, Fred scored 22 points.” And, “Yeah, okay.” And that’s wonderful. I’m not diminishing that. I’m saying there are four other kids on the floor in a basketball game and they know that they made a contribution and I want to point that out. And Whenever I can, I do. I try to include in my article, if somebody did something that typically would not be in a box score, that it’s there, whether that’s an important rebound late in the game, whether they set a screen for someone, whatever that is. I like to get as many kids into an article as I can by name.
Kate Jetmore: It sounds like you’re really aware of the impact that that has on the lives of a young person. I mean, you even referred to the fact that you still have some cuttings, some clippings from articles that mentioned you as a young athlete?
Dan Harney: Well, I didn’t keep any of the ones where I didn’t play well. I’m joking, but I do. I mean, that motivated me. I don’t want to say it motivated me to play better, but it helped my self-esteem at that time. And so I recognize how important that is to some people, and most people actually.
Kate Jetmore: Well, self-esteem is a big one when it comes to young people and when it comes to sports or any kind of performance really. Self-esteem, self-image, self-confidence, how conscious are you of that when you write? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Dan Harney: I’m always conscious of it, but I can’t deviate too far from the facts. And I’m prone to give credit to an opposing player that we don’t typically cover if they have an outstanding game. I’m not going to paint a picture that didn’t happen. So I try to be fair in my coverage for all the teams involved. But no, I’m well aware of what the contributions are to success. And like I say, sadly, it isn’t always measured the way people measure it, whether you won or whether you lost. It’s sometimes difficult to gauge improvement in a player or a team over the course of the year if they didn’t win the game. But it is perceptible when I go watch it, I can see it’s improved.
And I usually try to point that out to the coach and post gamer or the players to say, “I know you didn’t win, but I was really impressed with this or that.”
Kate Jetmore: Mm-hmm. Do you see a progression throughout, say the season? Or, you’ve been at this for a while, do you see a progression throughout the high school career of a young athlete, for example, when it comes to that maturity, when it comes to that self-image or self-confidence?
Dan Harney: Yeah. Well, yes, but I want to preface that by saying, of course everyone’s different and they have different personalities, and some are easy to talk to, comfortable in front of a microphone. Most are not, especially initially. I’ve talked to some really good players when they were in high school who went on to be college successes that I would call them even introverted. They’re not used to talking to somebody with a microphone, but they get used to it over time. I remember one particular player who was just an exceptional young lady, basketball player. She could do anything and did, but she was really shy and I would try to talk to her after the game, and I knew she didn’t want to do that.
But I told her, I said… I’m not going to mention her name, but I told her, I said, “The day will come when you play at the college level that you’ll have to do this because you’ll be required to attend press conferences.” And later on, after she was very successful at the college level, she sent me a note thanking me for doing that because she said, “You were right after my first game. I had a press conference and I was able to handle it.” And there have been others that fall in that category. But as far as… Number one, you have natural ability. You have people who work really hard to develop that. And I’m not going to say that I’ve dealt with a lot of very, very successful athletes that went on to the college or professional level.
But every once in a while you can just see it coming. And sometimes I’m surprised. I mean, there’s a shiny example right now in Richmond, Indiana by the name of Desmond Bane. I saw Desmond Bane play in high school. I thought he was a phenomenal player, but I’d be lying to you if I said I thought he was going to be an NBA star. Good for him. But usually you can just tell the kids who worked the hardest… When you have the best player on the team who’s also the hardest worker, you know got something there and that’s where he was.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah. But it also sounds like you’ve learned a lot over the years when it comes to staying open to a possibility instead of deciding, “This kid’s going to make it.” Or, “This kid’s not going to make it.”
Dan Harney: Oh for sure. And a shining example, that was a game I covered last night for the little league. First inning, the opposing team, first six batters got on base four to nothing, no outs. I’m thinking, “Wow, this team’s in trouble.” They came back and won the game seven to four. So you never know.
Kate Jetmore: Oh my gosh, I wish I’d been there.
Dan Harney: You can read about it next week.
Kate Jetmore: I can’t wait. Well, as we said in your bio, Dan, you haven’t always worked as a sports reporter. What can you share with us today about the jobs you had before coming to writing, before you came to the paper, and how you discovered your love for writing about sports?
Dan Harney: Well, a long time ago when I worked in the credit collection business, I usually had the flexibility to do other things if I chose to. And so there were years that I was what they call, a lay coach. I didn’t teach, but I coached junior high and freshman teams at a couple of schools in this area. And so I’d been around sports for a long time, and there were a couple of years in the mid eighties that I wrote for a couple of years for the paper in Winchester, just because they needed somebody to cover this particular team. And I had not done anything in that regard before, but I’ve always liked to write. And so I had a passion for that. So I did that for a couple years and then I stopped doing it.
And a few years ago, while I was still employed in the credit and collection business, I saw that Hagerstown didn’t have anybody. I told you before that Nettle Creek Gazette didn’t have anybody covering sports. And so I thought, I came back that year to help with the basketball program in Hagerstown with the freshmen team and that was nice. But the coaching staff didn’t need my expertise on the basketball for Xs and Os. And I kept thinking, “What can I do to really promote this program and this community?” And that’s when the first day of the basketball season, I got in my car, drove to Cambridge City and introduced myself and said, “I’d like to cover Hagerstown basketball.”
They didn’t have anybody, so they weren’t gambling much. So I said, “Give your deadline and I’ll do it.” And from there, I’ve been doing it ever since. I like doing it. And like I say, it’s a chance to promote kids and it’s grown to countywide, and I’m glad it has. As long as I can keep up with it physically, as long as I’m having fun. I don’t care what kind of job you do, you have to have a passion for it to be successful. Anybody can write something, but if you don’t have a passion for it, you won’t do it very long. I still have that passion.
Kate Jetmore: Well, I can see that and I can hear it in your words, and at some point you’re going to have to pass the baton. So do you see a new generation? Do you see some people who are lining up, ready to take the baton?
Dan Harney: That probably won’t be my decision to make, but we have had some interns here and in past years who have an interest in journalism. We have one now. One of our previous interns is now writing for the newspaper at Purdue University. So yeah, there’s always going to be someone who is willing to step forward, but the media world has changed so much that I don’t know what vehicle they will choose to use. Print media is important to a lot of people, but it may not be as important to other people. I mean, what we’re doing today is an example of that. So I don’t know what form it will take, but I am hopeful that when I decide it’s time to retire, that someone will be able to identify someone who said, “I’d like to do that.”
And then I’ll have a little bit of time to spend with them to give them some suggestions. Everybody has to be their own person, and hopefully it’ll be a smooth transition. When that will be, who knows?
Kate Jetmore: Who knows, we’ll have to see. Well, Dan, as we wrap up today, I’d love to ask you to offer some advice to the people who are out there listening, whether they’re parents of young athletes or young athletes themselves, what you have to say to those people who are listening today as far as how to step into the future?
Dan Harney: Well, to parents, I would suggest that they encourage their kids. It’s easy to criticize. Anybody can do that. And I know every parent wants their child to be successful, but if your child is involved in athletics, please don’t tell them at the dinner table that the coach should be doing things differently. Let the coaches coach and the players play and give them encouragement. And if you do that, I think that’ll go a long way with a lot of people. I would offer the same advice on how they address the people who choose to officiate athletic events as well. I’m continually fascinated by the comments I hear from the crowd, usually, which are inappropriate, and they don’t know the rules in the first place, but it is just fun to criticize the officials, I guess. I would suggest you encourage your children to be involved and support them when they are.
Kate Jetmore: How about for the kids themselves? Any words for the kids out there?
Dan Harney: Don’t give up on yourself. You would be amazed at how much you can improve over time. It’s not a, “Hey, I’m going to step on the floor and be a star.” You have to work at it, and don’t be hard on yourself. Consider the contribution. Your individual stats really aren’t that important. It’s the team that you’re trying to help and be proud of that uniform that says, Richmond, Hagerstown, Cambridge City, whatever it says, be proud to wear that. You represent a lot of people that look to you, especially little kids that look at high school players as heroes. Always remember that also.
Kate Jetmore: That’s great. It clearly goes beyond the game itself for you and I really appreciate that. Dan, thanks so much for sitting down with me today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Dan Harney: Thanks for having me.