October 2, 2014

Joe Vardon just started covering the most important man in Ohio. No, not the governor —  that was his old gig.

On Sept. 17, Vardon officially began reporting on LeBron James for the Northeast Ohio Media Group, leaving his previous job covering Ohio Gov. John Kasich for The Columbus Dispatch.

On Wednesday, he closed the sale of his old house in the suburbs of Columbus. On Friday, he plans to finalize the purchase of a new home outside of Cleveland. Sunday, the Cavaliers play their first pre-season game. And on Tuesday, James — and Vardon — are flying to Brazil for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason matchup against the Miami Heat.

Fortunately Vardon is used to life on the road, having driven up and down the state repeatedly during the last few years to cover politics. In fact, long hours and travel is one of many similarities between covering Ohio’s governor and reporting on its king.

What else is the same? For one thing, both the governor and James are high-profile subjects that are only available at key moments, Vardon said via phone on his way to a Cavaliers scrimmage. To cover these figures effectively, a reporter needs to become familiar with the web of connections surrounding them. For Kasich, that meant getting to know his administration, cabinet and political operation. In James’ case, it means familiarizing himself with his teammates, his coaches and officials in the front office. He also has to stay up-to-date on James’ burgeoning television career, his charitable foundation and marketing firm.

“Whether it’s a high-profile political figure or a high-profile athlete, you have the figure themselves, and you have to cover them and ask them questions and know where they are,” Vardon said. “But to do the job right, you have to understand the people around them, because to know the subject is to understand the people close to him.”

This isn’t Vardon’s first hitch covering James. Vardon attended James’ first NBA game in Madison Square Garden while working for the Wooster (Ohio) Daily Record and Dix Communications Newspapers. He reported on James through the 2006 playoffs and in August took a job with The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade covering everything from county government to University of Michigan football. After reporting on the 2010 gubernatorial election as special projects editor at The Blade, the Dispatch hired him away to cover Kasich.

Vardon says covering politics and working as an investigative journalist has made him a better sports reporter. During his stints at The Blade and the Dispatch, he sharpened his FOIA skills, got better at asking tough questions and improved his writing. The idea of meeting prominent figures — he once shook Joe Biden’s hand and fist-bumped Jay-Z — is less intimidating now than it was when he covered James in his 20s, Vardon said.

“You just get to a point where that kind of thing doesn’t get to you anymore,” Vardon said. “When you’re 25, which I was, it’s one thing. But when you’re 34 and covering people who move in these circles, it becomes part of the job.”

But for all the similarities between the two beats, there are some big differences, Vardon said. For one thing, there is more demand for information about James worldwide, which means more competition for his attention. For another, Kasich is bound by office and public records laws to be transparent. Not so with an employee of a privately owned NBA franchise. And the nuances of governing are perhaps less applicable to the basketball court as they are to the political beat.

So why was Vardon willing to move houses, change jobs and spend much of the interminable NBA season away from home? Vardon sees James’ quest to win a championship for his hometown as a special assignment, he said.

“It’s just one of the most unique jobs in the country,” he said. “There aren’t many like it.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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