By Jason Maholy
The 21st century has seen technological innovations and progress on the communications front have made everyone capable of being a journalist-at-large. At the touch of a button, one can upload a video of Aaron Boone and lead to the Yankees’ hitters being branded with the rallying cry of “Savages.”
But how did we get here, how did this all happen so fast and where is it going?
The changes to the landscape of the sports media industry this century is one topic Palos Heights native Paul M. Banks looks at in his new book, “No, I Can't Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.” Banks, a graduate of Stagg and the University of Illinois, has spent most of the past 20 years writing and producing content for various media outlets, including his own, the aptly named The Bank (thesportsbank.net).
If you want to know what lessons Banks has learned, you’ll have to read the book; but one thing he knows is that a trip to the Indianapolis 500 is an otherworldly experience. He also knows there might still not be cheering in the press box, but there are a whole lot of “media outlets” that fly the colors of what is in many instances the only organization they cover.
Banks has a passion for sports and an equal if not greater passion for sports journalism. He appreciates the deeper aspects of sport – the sureness of numbers determining a definitive outcome and the genuine drama of an unscripted narrative – but also understands it is all just one big show. And he loves it.
Banks, who authored the novel “Resume” in 2004, takes a thorough look at his time in the industry, and observes the state of the media – where it is now and where it’s headed. It was during a period of reflection on his career that he realized no one had written a great book about the sports journalism industry since Jerome Holtzman’s “No Cheering in the Press Box” in 1974.
The book is a compilation of Banks’ most popular articles, classic interviews and stories, and also features a travel section, as well as some sociopolitical commentary for the thinking man.
There’s also plenty of stuff about your favorite Bears, including a conversation with Steve McMichael over cocktails at Mongo’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, Dick Butkus talking hysterically about steroids, and a tidbit about Charles “Peanut” Tillman’s misadventures in acting. Stories about McMichael and Jay Cutler lead chapters.
The work prompted CLTV “Sports Feed” host Jarrett Payton to refer to Banks as his “inspiration” on a recent episode of the show.
Banks said the book’s genesis was him compiling his “greatest hits” and essays he’s written over the years for outlets including RedEye, NBC Sports Chicago, the Washington Times and The Bank.
“And before I knew it I had a theme going,” he said. “Much of it was revising and updating, then drawing common threads about everything that has changed and is going to change in the industry.”
Banks, like other journalists who came into the field around the turn of the century, has been amidst radical changes in the new industry for his entire career. From print’s transition to the internet and the proliferation of social media on a plague-like scale to the apparent dissolution of non-bias and objectivity, he has watched it evolve and devolve.
“The idea of objectivity and fairness and non-bias is really going away,” he said, referring specifically to the sports media, but acknowledging that the loss of objectivity has spanned across all realms of journalism.
The transition to the web and the fading of print journalism into the blinding light of social media is the single greatest change in the industry, but its effects on the industry and the people in it are far more nuanced to. Sports coverage has become as much about “the show” and the drama as it is about the competitions. And outrage culture his driving content for outlets that are seeking to draw clicks to their websites.
“With Twitter you can get any 10 or 15 people who are angry about just about anything,” Banks said. “And you have a media industry that is driven by profit, and the profit motive is getting eyeballs, and we all know that conflict and the drama is what sells.”
He also decries the “hot takes” culture of sports journalism, in which members of the media give their often-times pseudo-impassioned reactions to the latest trending topics. The format is great for inspiring Twitter threads and sparking meaningless debate about usually trivial topics, but it frequently lacks a certain legitimacy.
"It’s hard to compete against that,” Banks acknowledged. “I try to play by this rule: If I’m angry or passionate about something, it’s real and genuine. I can’t hot take. I can’t feign outrage about something. I just try to write about whatever I’m passionate about and stick to that.”
Banks’ passions include telling a good story, and his tales of Jay Cutler dismissing a fan in a bar bathroom and Steve McMichael quoting Conan the Barbarian during a speech about fame, Lawrence Taylor and crack cocaine are among his favorites.
In the case of Cutler, it was Banks who gave the “Don’t Care” story viral legs. https://youtu.be/0-8Q54lFYDk
He wasn’t there at the sushi restaurant when the polarizing QB essentially telling a fan to get lost, but he took the story from urban legend to urban fact. He first told the story during a three-minute bit at Laugh Factory and has since retold it countless times, and the story serves as the opener of his book.
Banks has never met Cutler – Jay is, however, aware of the story’s circulation and has, for the record, neither confirmed nor denied it actually happened – but it is his “dream” to talk to him. He wishes to reenact the bathroom exchange, only with Banks portraying Cutler and Cutler as the fawning sycophant fan.
“It never gets old, I still laugh at it, I still enjoy it,” Banks said, adding that the story with accompanying video on The Bank draws traffic to his site. “A couple times a month, every month for the last six to seven years,” he said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Taking Care of Business
Making a career for himself in sports journalism wasn’t the plan when Banks enrolled in graduate school to study business after graduating from Illinois in 1999. He had written for the Daily Illini, covered women’s volleyball and football and a story about an elderly Illini baseball fan whose two prosthetic limbs were blue and orange, and he enjoyed it, but he didn’t foresee a career in journalism.
“I remember thinking it won’t pay, it’s not competitive and there’s no future in it, I’ll just do the conventional things and get degree in finance or human resources or just whatever, some white-collar job.”
He did earn an MBA, but “it never took.”
“It takes a certain type of person to really be into that sort of thing,” he said. “If you do something you don’t like it’s labor, it is drudgery.”
Then, seemingly out of the blue, a relative suggested he apply for a prestigious fellowship in Berlin, and he was accepted. It was there in 2006 he truly started pursuing a career in media, and made numerous connections that helped set the stage for him when he returned home. The path hasn’t always been glamorous, like when he was writing for various “rags” in Chicago.
“Some of them I got paid for, some of them I didn’t’,” he said.
Today he is pursuing his passion with fervor and has with his new book fulfilled a lifelong dream.