People want what they like.
They want to read about their favorite teams. They want to know about causes they are familiar with. They want to learn about their neighbors, their colleagues, their families.
They want to read about themselves.
Part of a writer’s job is to inspire people to read their work, by presenting topics their audience is familiar with, in interesting, engaging and informative ways. But the good ones – the really good ones – can cause their audiences to read everything they write, no matter the topic, partly out of fear that they might be missing something.
The simple by-line is enough to engage readers.
By David Jones.
David Jones, a sports columnist for Pennlive.com and The Patriot News, is a talented wordsmith who has carved out a very nice 40-plus-year career by engaging Harrisburg-area readers and sports enthusiasts in topics that are near and dear to their hearts, and his. Time has proven that a college basketball fanatic from Ohio residing in Penn State Nittany Lion football country can produce some great copy.
Maybe some of it has to do with the conflict.
“I don’t know. I hope that’s true,” said Jones, to the notion that his by-line has the power to pull readers in. “I want to read about a whole bunch of different things. I want to read about different people and different places. It’s a big country and people are different everywhere.
“I write stuff I would want to read,” added Jones. “I write about stuff our readership wants to read. I want to serve our readership. They’ll cheer about anything ‘Penn State’. I can’t write about college basketball here. They (Penn State fans) will read about college basketball if they’re winning. I write for myself, like this is worth reading. If I think, maybe they’ll think.”
As a sports columnist, Jones writes ‘whatever I want, wherever I want. I’m unlimited’. But one of his main duties is to write about Penn State football, in-season and out, mostly because the Nittany Lions represent Pennlive’s and the Patriot-News’ most important beat, or as he called ‘our bread and butter’.
These days, Jones does most of his writing from his Downingtown home, unless a subject demands his presence.
“I don’t pay attention,” said Jones. “I wouldn’t know how to teach it. You read different pieces from different type of writers. But I think you need to read about different subjects. If your mind is lively, you won’t need a process. Some people say I take too long to get to the point. But I know I’m going to get to the point. Thank God, I never went to journalism school.
“If I knew how to do it, I’d do it quicker,” Jones added. “I think asking ‘why?’ is the best thing we can do. If you do a little digging, you can come up with a better column. But you have to take the time to find out why. Then you need to do the reporting. I like to learn things. But sometimes your reality isn’t a player’s reality or a coach’s reality.”
Sometimes reveling in the role of antagonist, Jones is extremely confident, but not an ego-maniac. Very bright and introspective, and with a memory that resembles an elephant’s, Jones weaves all the right words with insight and inside information to inform, educate and entertain his readers.
Jones has matured over the years, and perhaps even mellowed a bit, but he still retains his younger physical appearance. A perfectionist and his own worst critic, it’s ‘David Jones’, not ‘Dave’ and certainly never ‘Davey’.
In 2018, Jones was inducted into the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
“I think everything I write sucks when I get done with it. But it’s finished,” said Jones, 63. “The next day when I read it, I think that it doesn’t suck as much. I hope I’ve grown up a little bit. I hope I’ve become a little more empathetic. I don’t want to emulate anyone. Guys like Bob Ryan (Boston Globe), John Feinstein (Washington Post) and Dick Weiss (Philadelphia Daily News, New York Daily News) have had an influence on me, and I want to emulate their work. But I don’t want to emulate their styles.
“It’s not serious, it’s sports,” Jones continued. “Now, sports can enter into issues that are serious. Everyone has their own reality for a reason. If you’re not interested in other people’s lives, you’re not going to be a balanced writer. Nothing about what we do is difficult. It’s the greatest job in the world.”
Jones came to Harrisburg in 1989 from Columbus. Ohio, with a background in industrial design, high school sports, reporting on ‘cops and courts’, and writing experience in the field of entertainment. Former Patriot-News’ sports editor Nick Horvath saw something in Jones’ writing, and it didn’t take long for Horvath to pair Jones with legendary Patriot-News’ sportswriter Ronnie Christ on the Penn State beat.
The irony of a former Ohio State Buckeye covering Penn State Nittany Lion sports is something that even Jones couldn’t have envisioned.
“I sent out a lot of resumes, and Nick answered,” said Jones. “At that time, I was a guy who hadn’t written sports in four years. But Nick knew good writing, because he could write himself. We had to leave our family and friends in Columbus, but I got a shot at covering college basketball, which is what I wanted.
“But you have to earn your ‘chops’. You can’t just expect to come in and do the fun stuff,” continued Jones. “In (19)91, Nick paired me with Ronnie and Penn State football, and I’ve been doing it ever since. In (20)02, Ronnie retired and I became kind of the official Penn State columnist, and Bob Flounders became me. Bob, Joe (photographer, Hermitt) and I have been together since ’02.”
Jones grew up in Columbus in the 1970s, with a curious mind and reading Sports Illustrated. He graduated from Upper Arlington High School, before enrolling in Ohio State’s industrial design program in 1979, at the age of 22.
Although he earned his degree in industrial design, there came a time during his college days that Jones realized he wouldn’t be utilizing it as a career.
“I haven’t rooted for Ohio State football since 1984,” said Jones. “But that doesn’t mean you still can’t be a fan of the game. I love the sports themselves. I find myself rooting for the underdogs. I try to act like a fan would, because I am a fan. That’s where the ideas come from.
“Pennlive has always treated me really well,” added Jones. “It’s why I love working for them. When Nick hired me, he was really good about sending me all over the place to cover college basketball, which I really love. It’s been a great place to work because of that. We’ve always acted like we’re a big-time newspaper.”
Covering a beat like Penn State football and churning out daily columns can be a grind that takes its toll on writers. Given the way Jones the writer pursues excellence, one can’t help but wonder how many words are left inside of him.
“I’m ready to travel,” said Jones. “I’m going to hit maximum retirement age in a few years. I don’t want to be 70 and still doing this stuff. My wife (Anna) and I have been married for 33 years and she thinks I’m going to lose my mind when I retire, but I don’t.
“I love journalists,” concluded Jones. “I love being around people who are journalists. I love being in press boxes.”
In his realm of reality, David Jones’ decision to become a writer may not have been entirely his own.