From print to Tweets — sportswriter Richard Justice’s career spans more than 3 decades
John Wayne riding up in a hybrid.
That’s Richard Justice. An old school, hard-working, down-in-the-trenches sportswriter who is blogging, tweeting, and Google +ing all the while. He is an executive correspondent for MLB.com, a position he accepted in 2011 after a seven-year reign as lead sports columnist for The Houston Chronicle.
“He’s a throwback to guys who worked really hard to make sure they had everything covered – and they weren’t just people who were writing out of their basements,” said Kevin Sherrington, The Dallas Morning News sports columnist, and Justice’s longtime friend and former colleague.
But Justice, who has covered major league baseball for three decades and more, also has embraced the changing aspects of the digital media age. He must, he says, because “it’s the world we live in. You’re either gonna adapt or you’re gonna die.”
Justice has more than 31,000 followers on Twitter and has sent out more than 14,000 tweets, mostly a blend of links to his articles, re-tweets of stories by other journalists, illuminating statistics, and the occasional audience-specific one-liners. Since his time at The Houston Chronicle, Justice has also kept up what Sherrington calls “interminable blogs.” On most days, Justice wakes up and updates his Houston blog, SportsJustice. Then the rest of his workday began.
A native of Waxahachie, Texas, not far from Dallas, Justice received a journalism degree from the University of Texas in 1976 and has since worked at such newspapers as The Dallas Morning News, the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.
He has a strong build, a round face and a receded hairline. Sherrington notes that there is a twinkle in Justice’s eye and often an impish grin. Justice speaks with more than a hint of Texas in his voice. His Texas accent becomes most apparent when he gets worked up about a subject like steroid use.
Friends and colleagues describe him as engaging, and remark on his deft humor and endless supply of stories. Justice’s journalistic work receives a similar praise.
“He was for us, and still remains, one of the best sports journalists in the country,” said George Solomon, the since-retired sports editor of The Washington Post, for whom Justice worked for 14 years covering the Orioles, Redskins, and Wizards.
What defines Justice’s work is the quality and depth of reporting. That part is straightforward for Justice, who has a simple definition of his craft.
Says he, “What being a reporter means is just you gotta show up, you gotta hang around, and you gotta listen. And you gotta ask questions.”
What soldifies Justice’s work is his ability to garner trust from the people he covers.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen at cultivating sources,” Solomon said.
After covering his first Redskins training camp, Justice received a call from then head coach Joe Gibbs telling him he had gained that trust. Their ensuing late-night, lengthy chats in Gibbs’ office remain among Justice’s fondest sportswriting memories.
Justice prides himself on being someone who would never sell out a source for a story, and he says his subjects know that. He also puts in extra time. Frequently he is the last journalist in a clubhouse after games, picking up extra material (insights and quotes) and further developing his relationships long after other sportswriters have gone home.
“The managers, the GMs, they’ll all know who you are,” Justice said. “So when things happen they will either help you or at least know your name and know that you know what the hell you’re talking about.”
His love of talking to everyone, from team owners to bench players, is one reason he enjoys working for the online-based MLB.com. There, the strict deadlines imposed by newspapers – which often forbid time for post-game visits to the locker room – don’t hold him back. He explains the transition from print to online sportswriting with a simple, “Well, they just made me a great offer.”
Justice is passionate about baseball – the strategy, the history, even the most basic elements of the game. As a reporter who takes joy in doing his job well, he also appreciates that in major league baseball, unlike other professional leagues, it is understood that media is part of the day-to-day process.
During Spring Training, Justice approached Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leland, who jump-started their conversation, saying, “Yep, what do you got? What do you need me for?” So much was unspoken in Leyland’s warm, if abrupt, welcome – above all, mutual respect.
In 2004, Justice started at The Houston Chronicle, returning from Washington to Texas to be closer to home and to the ailing older generation of his family. That meant having to leave The Washington Post, a move he says certainly wasn’t made for professional reasons. It wasn’t made for lifestyle reasons either, because he still believes there is no better place to live than the Mid-Atlantic States.
Justice, his wife, and their two daughters – both of whom swim competitively – settled in Woodlands, Texas in large part because of the area’s top club and high school swimming programs. The younger daughter, Lizzie, currently swims for the University of Houston, where she received a full athletic scholarship. Justice is still a regular in the crowd for her races, even during baseball season.
Working for the Houston Chronicle also meant a switch to writing a column, which he still does for MLB.com. Many journalists scale down their reporting efforts once they become columnists, but Justice treats a column exactly as he would a beat story. He reports each one thoroughly.
Writing a column sometimes requires Justice to write about players and coaches he believes should be traded or fired. Those columns tend to be some of his most popular, but not his favorites.
“To me it’s not as satisfying as the ones you really have to work hard on,” he says. He prefers columns that require him to interview seven or eight people to fully flesh out a complex or nuanced story.
As a boy growing up in Waxahachie, Justice was passionate about sports and hometown teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, but his biggest heroes weren’t the players. He loved the guys on the field, he says, “But the guys I really loved were the guys that covered the team.”
When Justice arrived at the University of Texas in 1972 his goal was to become a radio broadcaster. At the time radio was a glamorous and popular profession – too popular it turned out. Radio classes were always full, so the computers bumped Justice into similar types of classes, typically in advertising or journalism.
Justice took a liking to journalism, joined the student newspaper, and quickly got hooked.
“It’s really magical to see your name in [the byline], and it’s sort of addictive,” said Justice, who credits U-T for doing much to shape the sports journalist that he has become.
As his career progressed, the depth and quality of his reporting preceded him. “I certainly knew him through his work before we worked together,” said Phil Rogers, a baseball writer for The Chicago Tribune.
The Washington Post sought out Justice because Solomon was impressed by his work for The Baltimore Sun. And Justice’s reputation was well known by Houston sources before his arrival at the Chronicle.
Drayton McLane, CEO of the Houston Astros until 2011, was made aware of Justice’s work from people within Major League Baseball. According to McLane, he was told that Justice “has a really unique and straightforward writing style and you’re going to enjoy him, but you better put on your seat belt. If he doesn’t like something you’ve done, he is sure gonna say it.”
And, true to this advance warning, Justice did not back away from controversy in Houston. In a column published in 2009 about the Astros’ failure to hire their top managerial choice, Manny Acta, Justice blamed McLane.
But, such criticism aside, McLane says he and Justice remain close. “Absolutely,” McLane said. “And no one has every beaten me up as badly as he did.”