Blogger Interviews: Henry Abbott


We’re running a segment here at The Big Picture where we’ll interview some of the biggest names in the sports blogosphere. What’s the point? Well, these guys spend countless, thankless hours writing, so a little recognition from time to time is well warranted. Think of this as the blogger’s version of a reach-around or something.

Joining us today is Henry Abbott of TrueHoop. After blogging independently, Henry’s now a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. That’s just one of the many impressive stops along his career path. Play nice in the sandbox.

1. The rundown:

Name: Henry Abbott
Age: 32
Location: Flemington, New Jersey
Occupation: Basketball Blogger
Favorite team: Portland Trail Blazers
Links to your favorite all-time posts you’ve written. (3-5)

Not all-time favorites, necessarily, but what my mushy memory can come up with on short notice:

Henry Abbott, Streetballer
Gregory Dole: My Summer with William Wesley
LRMR Marketing: A Website Marketing Copy Critique
Don’t Pee on the Rookie of the Year

Time per day spent blogging and perusing the blogosphere: As much as I can possibly get. I’m in the office online for at least nine hours a day, and during the playoffs I’m home watching games and blogging for another five or six hours after I put the kids to bed. This summer, I hope to be reintroduced to things I used to know like my wife, sleep, and downtime.

2. Your resumé is very impressive to say the least. Take us through your career path, starting with first jobs, early internships, etc. all the way up to where you are now.

Oh man — no way you really want the whole list, but what the hell? Here’s the short version, starting at about age 13: I mowed lawns, waited tables, bucked hay, and walked around selling Pepsi and licorice at the rodeo (which is good money, I might add).

In college, I checked IDs and booked racquetball courts at the health club. I was an intern at WNET — down the hall from Charlie Rose, working on a really cool long-since-dead show called “Edge.” I was a PR assistant for electrical engineers. I was a lifeguard at a mountain ranch in Oregon and the co-news director and originator of the show “Citywide” at WNYU. I spent a semester in Asia.

A little before graduating college (I won a pair of shorts for outstanding broadcast journalism) I started working mostly nights as a desk assistant for CBS Network Radio News, which was intense, fast-paced, and a hardcore learning experience. Then I lived in the jungle in Ecuador for half a year, and covered the Ecuadorian elections for CBS Radio on the side. To get on the air, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin where I was a morning reporter and talk show producer for WIBA-AM. In the afternoons, I often wrote freelance stories for the newsweekly Isthmus, where I had a great editor.

Then, in 1998 my wife and I got married, moved to New Jersey, and started freelance writing full-time. HOOP and Inside Stuff were some of our biggest clients, but we also wrote plenty of marketing copy — taglines, headlines, ad copy, and the like. Occasionally I managed to sneak a piece into magazines like Men’s Journal, the NBA Finals program, and other publications. Then I realized in late 2004 that blogging wasn’t as dorky as I had assumed, and quickly fell in love with it. We founded Gekko Blogs as an agency to publish great blogs for corporate clients…but we needed to prove we were good at it. TrueHoop was the show pony. But it quickly became way too fun to do part-time, so I started investigating ways to make it a real job.

3. Let’s get down to business here. ESPN. You. Wow! How’d True Hoop become part of the World Wide Leader? You pitch the idea to them? They approach you? How long were you in talks with ESPN before an agreement was reached?

I never thought I’d sell TrueHoop, and I wasn’t looking to. There were lots of things cooking where I could put ads on TrueHoop and make it a business that way. Selling it seemed too… dangerous. I didn’t want to risk that I would ever not like my job. But ESPN called and asked me to go to Bristol to chat. We chatted for a whole day. And then almost every day for the better part of a year after that. I couldn’t believe that they would give me the kind of freedom I wanted, but they did, which I think they deserve a lot of credit for. We got it all lawyered and everything and I signed up.

4. Any glaring differences from being an independent blogger to writing for the biggest sports website around? Do you have to now go through editors? Ever have to be careful not to link to a site that doesn’t speak well of ESPN? How’s your audience compare? Perks about writing for a major company, and ESPN in particular?

My life is much the same. I sit in the same chair, read the same blogs, and work the same hours. My email inbox has a lot more “heads up” emails from ESPN people now — tipping me off to this or that news. That’s pretty cool. After I publish posts, there are professionals who make me aware of my typos, which I now fix routinely. The audience is bigger. Too soon to tell how much bigger — it’s still new on ESPN, and this is the playoffs when numbers are going to be higher — but when it gets attention from Page 1, the people come clicking over at a rate that makes it very tough to stay on top of the comments and emails. The three big perks are:

  • Having smart people out there thinking “how can we make TrueHoop better?”
  • Being able to travel to stuff like the NBA Finals.
  • Direct deposit, which means I no longer have to browbeat clients to pay on time. I liked being self-employed and was for nearly a decade, but it’s not all peaches and cream.

5. May, 2005. You just roll out of bed one day and start True Hoop? Or was the site’s creation a bit more thought out?

I kind of explained it above, but the real story was that I met Kevin O’Keefe who runs LexBlog at Newark Airport. I was talking up the Gekko Blogs concept and seeing if it made sense for LexBlog to design and host our blogs — which they ended up doing. He’s also a basketball fan, and when he learned about my NBA experience, he pretty much insisted that I start an NBA blog. So I owe him a big ol’ tip of the hat. Good idea, Kevin.

6. Seeing how, as far as we know, you’re the first blogger to bridge the gap from independent blog to mainstream outlet, you probably have some good insight into this. In your opinion, what’s the direction of sports blogs? Is True Hoop just blazing the trail for other sites/bloggers to join up with a mainstream site like ESPN? Enlighten us.

In general, I think that anyone who is accustomed to the immediacy and conversational tone of a good blog will feel a little constrained by traditional AP format stories. I find myself thinking COME ON, TELL IT TO US STRAIGHT! The whole pretense of the impartial journalist always felt bizarre to me. No human is impartial, and it seems more honest not to pretend you are. I like transparency. So, as long as there’s a growing audience that feels at all like that, and is hungry for conversational information, there’ll be openings for bloggers in mainstream media. The whole idea of just copying the newspaper online? It was never very enlightened, because it just failed entirely to account for the reality that the web can and should be a multi-party conversation with links and mayhem. It’s like using a telephone just for listening. It works to talk both ways, so it seems weird not to.

7. There are all sorts of wonderful blogs out there. A few you’d recommend?

I love kottke.org. I know I’m not the first to say Jason Kottke is a damn fine blogger. But he is. He clearly has a very curious mind, and reads a lot, and brings a fascinatingly diverse collection of links and ideas to the table. He’s a big part of the reason I ever started to like blogging. There’s a lot of passion there, but things are also very civil and thoughtful. I try to fit into that same groove, but in a sporty way.

8. Most rewarding parts of blogging? Most frustrating?

Oh, I’m a homer for blogging. I love it. Sure, sometimes the software craps out or the Internet connection is down, but whatever. I’ll take it. I hope to do this or something like it forever.

9. What’s the ultimate goal of your site/your writing?

In my writing, I just want to get across the ideas as clearly as possible. Even though the ideas are sometimes complex, I hope that almost no one will get confused by what I am trying to say. It does not always work.

As for TrueHoop? When I was writing for magazines and covering the NBA, I was aware of a big gulf between what insiders knew about the NBA and what fans got to know about the NBA. I want to close that gap. I don’t like the caricaturization of celebrities that goes on (Ron Artest is insane! Tim Duncan is boring! Isiah Thomas is bad!) In reality, those are all so oversimplified that they are basically totally wrong. Everybody is human and complex, which I try to get across on TrueHoop every day.

10. Well before the ESPN days, True Hoop was getting good traffic. A piece of advice to some smaller sites how to get a prolific, interactive readership?

I think the biggest thing is to link. Just be a really, really, really responsible about spelling people’s names right, linking to the proper places, and giving everyone the proper credit for their work. That goes for mainstream media people, too. The only quick way to build audience is through other blogs and media linking to you, and if you’re shoddy about giving them credit, what are the chances they’ll fall in love with your site and promote the hell out of it? And, I also just try to be decent. To not rip people so harshly — I’m friends now with a lot of people I have criticized on the blog, because I have done so carefully and at least a little bit out of love. In the end, this is a social scene, and you need people to like you, so take a long-term approach and it might pay off in the long-term. It’s also just a lot of work to build a big blog audience. Let’s not overlook that. (When they moved the TrueHoop archive over to ESPN, including comments, it was 2.5 million words — and that was way less than two years’ worth).

11. Hey, the playoffs are going on and we haven’t even talked hoops. On one side you have blowouts and sweeps. On the other, well, you had the Warriors. So, how do these playoffs, as a whole, compare to other years? Best storyline so far in addition to the Warriors? Also, people like predictions. So how about a Finals pick and a Finals MVP.

Derek Fisher returning to save the Utah Jazz in Game 2 against the Warriors made for one of the best games I can remember. Fantastic. I have been watching all the West games, including this heroic Phoenix vs. San Antonio series, so I think the playoffs have been great. And whatever happens in the last few games of that series will probably be the highlight of the season. (But the East? Ugh.) I’m rooting for Phoenix, in this series and all the way to the end, but I am sticking with my original pick that San Antonio will be the champion, and, of course, Tim Duncan the Finals MVP.

(Past interviews; also found on right sidebar: Dawizofodds; Matt Ufford; The Mighty MJD; Jamie Mottram; The Big Lead; The Cavalier; Will Leitch; Dan Shanoff; Dan Steinberg; Brooks; Unsilent Majority; J.E. Skeets).

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14 Responses

  1. Yet another good interview, Zach.

  2. Are you telling me I have to cover Ecuadorian elections before I make it big time? I dunno how I’d do in the jungles.

  3. I think I’d have an easier time in the jungle than I would trying to cough up 2.5 million words.

    Nice job, guys. Duncan is boring, though.

  4. Solid and insightful interview….it always helps to hear other bloggers

  5. Excellent interview…Abbott truly is an icon of blogging.

  6. Excellent interview, per usual, Zach. Henry’s done a great job of making the transition to the WWL as seamless as possible.

  7. Really nice interview… great work.

  8. Henry Abbott to me is the god of basketball blogging. The man knows everything. You can’t imagine my honor and surprise when he commented on a post I wrote for YaySports!

    If having Unsilient Majority comment on your site is a sign of legitimacy, having Henry Abbott comment is a sign of prestige.

    Great interview guys!

  9. [Buckhantz] DAGGER! [/Buckhantz]

  10. Great Stuff. The world could use more Henry Abbott’s, whatever that means…

  11. zach, when your blog gets picked up by a major media outlet and they start paying you well, will you move back the the bay area please?

  12. excellent as always!

  13. Henry is the man…nice interview.

  14. Great interview, Zach, and way to go Henry. I’m really glad you’ve been able to make a living to what you love.

    Hey Nat, I think Sheeeeeed and the rest of the Pistons will have a thing or two to say about Henry’s misguided finals prediction.

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