For better or worse, journalists are really never anything but journalists, even after they embark on other endeavors. That spirit, that hunger, that urgency, that sense that at any given moment you should be asking somebody something for some kind of story … that gets carved deep.
I always knew I wanted to do that. I can recall feeling that since the fifth grade. And not because of sports. Sure, I was born and bred in Pittsburgh and followed all three teams — yes, including the Penguins way before that was a thing — but the fascination was with the job, with journalism itself.
I’d go on to spend pretty much my entire life in newspapers, beginning with my freshman year at Duquesne University when I wrote my first article for the Post-Gazette — about the Central Catholic-North Catholic football rivalry — in the fall of 1985. Here’s the lede:
I was hired part-time by the PG in 1990, then full-time in 1992. Five years later, the PG added me to the Penguins’ beat, working alongside Dave Molinari, and the next seven winters were spent covering Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev and, of course, the initial retirement and unforgettable return of Mario Lemieux in 2001.
This was the lede from my exclusive coverage of Lemieux and Jay Caufield skating on frozen Neville Island the day before he hit the ice anew:
I won three national awards for hockey coverage, notably the Associated Press Sports Editors’ top-five honor for a game story describing how Jiri Slegr, Martin Straka and other Czech Penguins communicated on the ice through whistles rather than their native tongue. But no award could top the feeling of that freezing morning with Lemieux and Caufield. It felt like covering a small slice of sporting history, and doing it alone was beyond words.
The NHL beat was an unbelievable ride, to borrow hockey’s favorite adjective, but one that ended with the lockout in 2004. I asked to branch out at the PG, and the first step of that was nothing less than the Athens Olympics. And man, talk about branching out. You’re sent to the other side of the planet, you’re covering sports that are wholly new (there was an archer from Hermitage, for real), and then, the main athlete you were sent to cover becomes the main attraction. That, of course, was the first of many misfortunes for Rochester’s Lauryn Williams.
That winter, I took on an even bigger challenge by asking the editors if I could cover the Pirates. This was heading into the 2005 season, part of a 20-year losing streak, so this was anything but a glamor role. But the beat itself was a reporter’s dream, if only for the scope of the losing and the chance to uncover what was going wrong and why. It took a while. I had to develop all my own sources for the first time, call executives and agents who’d never heard of me, try to get face-to-face answers from players who’d never seen me. Some of it was as simple as painting a picture of maybe the worst baseball game ever played one afternoon in Kansas City. Most of it was akin to this one really tough loss at old Yankee Stadium. The team and the athletes freaked out over pieces like that. But I’ve always worked from the premise that I serve the readers’ interests above all, and that only solidified the position.
That held true when I reported on the Pirates’ massive failures in Latin America under Dave Littlefield. I’ve been told by Bob Nutting since then that this reporting opened his eyes — he had just become controlling owner at the time — and that his resultant review led to Littlefield’s firing. Infinitely more meaningful to me, the Pirates got their act together down there and supported a brilliant scout and better man, Rene Gayo, in building up a Latin feeder system that now has Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco taking up two-thirds of the outfield.
My visit to the Dominican in 2008, to see all the work the Pirates did, was the most satisfying journalistic experience of my career. Nutting and Gayo deserve 100 percent of the credit for what happened there, but I’ll always be proud of what set it in motion.
Alas, baseball burnout is very real in this business. I lasted for five years, about as long as most do. So after a few months of random feature work, I aimed for the next goal of writing columns. Or opinion pieces, for those unfamiliar with newspaper terminology. There was no more than a minimal opportunity to do that at the PG, so I left after 22 years at that paper to become the primary columnist at the Tribune-Review in June 2011.
That afforded not only a chance to resume covering the Penguins and Pirates, albeit from a different scope, but also the long-sought chance to dive head-first into Steelers. This latter point was huge for me. In fact, the only stipulation I had in my agreement with the Trib, apart from salary, was that I cover all of the Steelers’ games, home and road, even in London.
In my first year at the Trib, I was named one of the top four sports columnists in the country by APSE. That still floors me because of the other names on that list, people from the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. There were other local and regional awards, as well, and the one that stands out there for me was 2013’s ‘Hey, baseball, can you hear us?‘ column from the Pirates’ Blackout win at PNC Park. There was satisfaction, too, from this past playoff run for the Penguins, particularly the exclusive Lemieux/Ron Burkle interview that gave unprecedented insight into a wealth ownership thoughts. And from the standpoint of pure reader reaction, I’m not sure anything I write will touch the feedback to the column on Chuck Noll’s passing.
And on July 23, 2014, of course, I started this thing.
Maybe it was temporary insanity. Maybe it was all those nice things that others said at the launch while probably shaking their heads as soon as I’d look away. Maybe it was that I’m just a complete control freak and have handled all different dimensions of this business and always had a vision for how this operation would look if I ever found the guts/goofiness/stupidity to actually try it.
Whatever the case, it’s been a blast. A dream lived out on a daily basis. Especially now that we’re succeeding on a scale even our most optimistic projections hadn’t forecast, with 30,000-plus subscriptions sold, major corporate advertisers, a bigger travel budget than any media outlet in Pittsburgh and, above all in this endeavor, a fantastic staff of professional journalists. Our full-time staff includes editor in chief Ron Ledgard, reporters Josh Yohe, Matt Gajtka, Dustin Dopirak, Audrey Snyder, Lance Lysowski, Matt Welch and Tim Benz, photographer Matt Sunday, multimedia director Chris Orban, cartoonist Rob Ullman and social media dictator-for-life Taylor Haase.
I’ve saved the single most important contributor for last: My wife Dali, in addition to being a phenomenal mother to our children — daughter Dara, 16, and son Marko, 12 — has done pretty much everything for this site other than write columns. And that’s no exaggeration. Since we launched, she’s run the business in totality, sold sponsorships, crafted our custom commerce platform, dealt directly with our subscribers (Dara’s now old enough to help!), taught herself how to design all our info-graphics, laid out and painted our offices at Highmark Stadium … and I’m probably leaving out a dozen more.
It’s a family affair, something we talk about here a lot.
It’s that way with our staff and even our readers, too. We’ve had countless subscriber meetups across the country — plus Canada and Brazil so far internationally, with Ireland to come! — and we’re proud to make our 2016 TV commercial slogan ‘Coverage That Connects’ carry real meaning:
To those who have read my work, whether for a couple decades or just the past couple minutes, I thank you. It’s a belief in the readership that made this leap possible.
DEJAN KOVACEVIC JOURNALISM AWARDS
- National Headliner Awards (national), 2013: Sports columnist, third place
- Associated Press Sports Editors (national), 2011: Sports columnist, fourth place. 2009: Breaking News, honorable mention. Project Reporting, honorable mention. 2008: Breaking News, second place. Project Reporting, third place
- Keystone Awards (statewide), 2013: Sports columnist, first place
- Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors (statewide), 2013: Sports column, second place. 1998: Sports feature, first place
- Golden Quills of Western Pennsylvania, 2013: Columnist, first place. 2010: Coverage of Vancouver Olympics, first place. 2009: Sports story, second place. 2000: Sports feature, second place
- Matrix Awards (national), 2004: Sports feature, first place. 2003: Sports news, honorable mention