As sports journalism landscape shifts, reporter Howard Herman keeps his footing in local news

 

It was the type of game where umpires widen their strike zone.

The 100 fans on hand shivered under plaid blankets, infielders jogged in place to stay warm, and kids tugged at parents’ sleeves to get home for dinner. The temperature suddenly dipped into the 40’s, as it sometimes does during May baseball in the Berkshires.

The sun plunged in left field, and the mountains that line the horizon took their famous purple hue – a uniquely Western Massachusetts reminder that it’s too late to be playing ball.

One man, armed with pen and paper, ignores the hint.

He calls the game between Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts “The Route Two Rivalry.” He’s waiting for the name to catch on. And as nature and the crowd agree it’s time to wrap up, Howard Herman leans in to watch the next pitch.

“Howard came flying in behind me to flag me down,” said Doug Schaffer, a former Williams College infielder and conference player of the year. “He’s asking me to contextualize this win against MCLA, prodding me about why MCLA seems to give us so much trouble,” Schaffer says, after a 7-5 Williams win in 2019.

And as Schaffer trembled in the Massachusetts chill, he thought to himself, “This guy has to relax.”

But Herman doesn’t relax.

Howard Herman, 67, has covered sports for the Berkshire Eagle since 1988, when the paper expanded to publish daily. Over those 32 years, Herman has interviewed sports talent ranging from high school standouts to the Miami Heat’s rising star Duncan Robinson, who played collegiately at Williams. And as the sports media landscape has morphed to favor massive sports sites like The Athletic or Bleacher Report, Herman’s laser focus on the local makes him a unique source for a region’s sports news.

Dick Quinn, the 31-year sports information director at Williams College, gives him the nickname, Howard “Let Me Introduce You to Every Athlete, Coach, and Sports Personality Who Has Ever Been to, Flown Over, or Driven Through Pittsfield, Mass” Herman.

Kevin Moran, the Berkshire Eagle’s Executive Editor, remembers a day off at Fenway Park.

“I felt a tap on the shoulder. And there was Howard,” Moran said. “He had somehow spied me in Fenway all the way from the press box.”

Of course, it was Herman’s day off too, but the two-and-a-half-hour drive to cover a Red Sox game is his kind of respite.

“Sports journalism is his work,” Moran said, adding, “and it’s his relaxation.”

That’s probably why Kevin App, head men’s basketball coach at Williams College, calls him “The Hawk at The Eagle.”

Herman’s roundabout path that led him to the Berkshires includes stints at local papers in Radcliffe, K.Y, York, P.A, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But it starts in Pittsburgh, where Herman trekked as a kid to Forbes Field to watch the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Sandy Koufax on a regular basis.

“We’d take the bus to the trolleys,” he said, “and sit out in the right field bleachers.” But he didn’t dream of staring down batters or slugging home runs.

“I wanted to be Joe Castiglione,” Herman said, referring to the inveterate Red Sox radio announcer. “I used to listen to games on the radio…under my pillow and kind of always wanted to be…a professional broadcaster.”

Herman has a friendly voice. He might call you “kiddo” well into adulthood. Flashes of a Pittsburgh accent emerge at times. Particularly when he talks about his childhood. He speaks thoughtfully, wading through a deep store of memories, as if flipping through pages in a textbook to retrieve the appropriate anecdote or analogy.

“There is always one game that will jump out in my memory,” Herman said, thinking back to his time as a student covering the Temple University Owls Basketball team when it traveled to the University of Tennessee for the 1973 Volunteer Classic.

“The broadcasting booth was suspended from the roof, so you had to walk down this catwalk,” he said, adding, “and the officials, apparently were both University of Tennessee graduates.”

You can find the score of the legendary game online. Tennessee won, 11-6, after Temple Coach Don Casey ordered his team into a 12-minute stall. But Herman weaves in the details that might otherwise melt away over time. Herman remembers that the president of the University of Tennessee, Ed Boling, ordered the team to run a post-game scrimmage to appease the furious crowd.

“The good people of the Knoxville newspaper,” Herman said, “put icicles in their lettering” to highlight the game’s feel. And once Herman and Temple arrived at the Knoxville airport, a voice blared over the public-address system, “Lousy Coach Casey, please come to the courtesy phone.”

Moments like those are ammunition for Herman as he writes about sports today. A 3-pointer by a Mount Greylock High School shooting guard might spark a memory of a memorable shot by Temple University’s Joe Newman in the 1970’s.

Moran said of Herman, “His institutional knowledge is second to none.”

“He almost always has a story or two about someone he knows or has seen play,” the Williams S.I.D Quinn added.

“Howard brings a historical perspective to everything he reports,” App said.

“When I see something like that, I say, ‘Wait a second – I did something like that,’” said Herman.

His writing is evocative and reads like people talk. In an article about a former Williams College basketball player – who made the unusual jump from Division III basketball to the NBA – Herman writes that Duncan Robinson “torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for nine — count ’em — nine, 3-point baskets.”

Contenders in the media landscape are scaling up coverage to serve more markets. The Athletic – the online upstart sports juggernaut – has raised $139.5 million in funding to date, hired nearly 200 staff in the last four years and has localized coverage of professional and college teams in 48 cities in North America alone. Alex Mather, one of The Athletic’s founders, said of the sports media terrain in a New York Times interview: “It’s hot takes instead of objective analysis, it’s short-term instead of long-term, it’s serving sponsors instead of users.”

The Athletic charges a subscription fee for long-form journalism by established writers like Peter Gammons, Seth Davis and Ken Rosenthal. Its investor-backed strategy is a pivot to the past, where readers pay for deep coverage of their community and smart historical comparisons. In some ways, The Athletic has succeeded by building an army of Howard Hermans.

Jackson Parese, a Williamstown native, and former second baseman at Williams from 2013 to 2017, appreciates Herman’s thorough coverage and commitment to this model of journalism.

Parese said, “Howard represents endurance” and that “his steady, reliable columns are a reminder of the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Many might be hesitant to take the Berkshire beat, but that’s what Herman loves and probably why readers – like Parese – read him.

Parese said, “While many people outside of our small corner of the world don’t care about the [Williams College] Ephs or some 12-year olds from North Adams, the local community does care,” adding that “Howard honors that through his reporting.”

The unavoidable truth is that Herman works a tough gig. Driving all across the county – and sometimes beyond – to cover games that are oftentimes sparsely attended, and draw little attention outside Herman’s articles.

“I mean, there’s a part of me that would love to…spend a year being a baseball writer on a Major League team and traveling and worrying about deadlines and being crazy and stuff,” Herman said. “But to me…covering the high schools and…local colleges and getting the response from people is lifeblood for some of us now.”

Schaffer said his interaction with Herman after the “Route Two Rivalry” underscored the appeal of his writing.

“He left me with sense that I just took part in the most important game of my life,” Schaffer said.

His words appear to have broad impact. Like Parese, Herman believes people care about his work and the rest of the work at the Berkshire Eagle.

Moran said Howard’s writing “can also elevate a community’s sense of pride and self-respect.”

Herman’s wife, who he calls “the missus,” said “People like us until they didn’t get their name in the paper or it didn’t show up on their doorstep in the morning.”

There’s no end game for Herman. He has no covert agenda to join a larger paper, or glide into a bigger market. He’s built roots in the Berkshires and hopes to continue telling its sports stories as long as he can.

Kevin Moran adds, “He will be one of those few legends who’ll be long remembered locally for their sportswriting at the Berkshire Eagle.”

“Keep doing what I’m doing until I can’t anymore,” is his plan for now, Herman said.

“The wife and I aren’t going anywhere either.”