Tom Held of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talks with Tips4Running

Tom Held of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Tips4Running.com caught up with Tom Held recently. He is a writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, and is the main contributor to a blog section of JSOnline.com called, "Off the Couch." Pretty much every outdoor activity for the Off the Couch section that he writes about, he also participates in from running to biking and cross country skiing. He has participated in some major races including the Boston Marathon and the Birkebeiner, which is the largest cross country ski marathon in the U. S.

David Tiefenthaler - I love the blog that you write for, Off the Couch, on JSOnline.com. When did this blog begin, and how long have you been writing for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel?

Tom Held - I started Off the Couch in February 2006, and have been a reporter with Journal Communications since 1985. I started as a suburban reporter at the Milwaukee Sentinel, and covered local government, crime and courts over the past 26 years.
DT - What other events or news stories do you cover for the Journal Sentinel?

TH - I’ve covered a little of everything – from Jeffrey Dahmer to the Birkebeiner. Right now, I focus on roads and transportation, local news and the outdoor sports featured in Off the Couch.

DT - Is it more difficult to be a writer for a newspaper now than fifteen years ago when there wasn’t an online version of the paper?

TH - I don’t believe it’s more difficult, but certainly different. In some ways, it has recreated the days when papers produced multiple editions and updated their stories throughout the day. I like it. When I started, I would have a great story, only to see it air on TV while we waited for the presses to roll. Now, if I get it first, so do my readers.

DT - Do you have to do more to captivate your audience by writing the blog, keeping a Twitter account, and having a Facebook account?

TH - Twitter and Facebook have created a better connection with our audience. Newspapers and reporters may have isolated themselves too much prior to the Internet and social media. Now, we have to respond to our readers much more directly and I think that’s good. Plus, Twitter and Facebook are now my sources.

DT - Newspapers are losing subscribers, but because of the JSOnline.com, I probably read the paper much more than I ever have. Does JSOnline.com get a lot of traffic, and has the company been able to earn more revenue because of online advertising?

TH - That’s the rub. With JSOnline, more people than ever are reading the content produced by the Journal Sentinel staff. It’s not even close. Page views will be in the millions vs. a maximum of roughly 500,000 papers during the height of the Milwaukee Journal. And there’s no telling how many people read a specific story in the paper. Now we have a good idea.

But, the Journal Sentinel and similar operations have yet to find the model that generates sufficient revenue from the readership. Rates for online ads are well-below those for the print product and subscription systems have been largely unsuccessful. It boggles the mind to realize that we have more customers than ever, but are failing, to some extent, as a business.

DT - Can you work from home for the newspaper?

TH - I do some work from home, but find I’m much more productive in the newsroom. It has an energy all of its own.

DT - Obviously, my favorite “Off the Couch” activity is running. What is your favorite activity to partake in, or to cover for the newspaper?

TH - Cross-country skiing is my favorite activity. As for covering – it’s the people and their successes.

DT - I see you’re from Slinger, Wisconsin, which coincidentally is where I teach. Do you ever hike, run, or ski on the trails at Pike Lake State Forest

TH - I get out to Pike Lake almost every time I visit my parents. It’s a quick run from home to the trail-head off Highway C, and then into the hills. Brings back memories of training for cross-country in high school, and some other activities from those years.

DT - What is your favorite part about covering the outdoor sports in Wisconsin ?

TH - I’ll go back to the people. I picked up mountain biking when I turned 30, when I remembered that I had been in good shape once upon a time. Telling the stories of people who made similar turn-abouts and enjoyed successes is special to me. I am particularly impressed by people who didn’t have much success or didn’t participate in sports as children, then found a hidden talent.

DT - Do you think less people take advantage of the beautiful trails and parks in Wisconsin compared to ten years ago, or have you noticed a resurgence in people taking part in outdoor activities?

TH - I think cross-country skiing has picked up significantly, along with running. Biking for sport has leveled off, particularly mountain biking, in the past decade. I have little patience for people who complain about their wasted tax dollars or criticize their area, when they do nothing to take advantage of the great quality of life available to them.

DT - One of the reasons I love the sport of running is it seems that genuinely nice people take part in this activity. Do you notice as you write about these activities that people who are more active in running or outdoor activities have a more positive outlook towards life in general?

TH - Absolutely. I think it’s indicative of the importance of good health. Allow me a slight digression. One of the memories that stands out for me is an awards ceremony for a mountain bike race. When they announced the winner in the 70+ category, the guy who finished second in the division said: “I’ll take that. We’re going canoeing this afternoon.” That’s someone taking every opportunity to enjoy life.

DT - Congratulations on the birth of your twins. How old are they now, and how are they both doing?

TH - They reached one month on July 20 and are closing in on seven pounds. Their good health is a great blessing.

DT - How are you and your wife adjusting to parenthood? Are you both very tired right now?

TH - I wrote a column about how our experiences crewing for each other – training for a marathon and an ultra – has helped us handle the demands of feeding, diaper changes etc. It’s exhausting, but we relish that rewards.

DT - During the school year, if I want to exercise I have to do it very early in the morning before everyone gets up. Is it hard to find time to exercise now?

TH - I don’t get in nearly the volume of training I’d like to. Four workouts a week is about it. So I try to maximize. Speed work, long run, tempo. I may not compete quite at the level I would like, but hope that skipping some of those filler workouts (junk miles) will keep me free of injury.

Tom Held running in a local road race

DT - Great job on your PR at the Firecracker Four. Were you training hard for this race?

TH - I have to confess the report of that PR was something of a hook for the story about the girls. It was my PR for four miles, and I had a good race, but four miles is an odd distance, so I didn’t have much to beat.

DT - What is your athletic or fitness background like? Did you take part in any sports in high school or college? Have you competed in any big races like a marathon or a longer cross country skiing race? How do you stay fit now?

TH - I played the traditional sports in high school – baseball, basketball, golf, cross-country – then devoted most of my time in college to Sheepshead. Once I got active in ’93, I just kept on going – first the Chequamegon 40 Mountain Bike race, then a marathon, then the Boston Marathon, then the Birkebeiner, and one ultramarathon.

I still run, bike and ski – usually changing my focus with the seasons. I ski in winter, run in spring (mud season) and bike and run in summer and fall. There’s some strength training mixed in, but not enough. Maybe when the girls get heavier, I’ll find some fitness in carrying them around.

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