By Samuel T. Clover ’91
Though he’s only 26, Michael S. Schmidt ’05 has the gravelly, even-paced voice of a big-city newspaper reporter. It’s the kind of voice that when you hear it on the phone—or the TV or radio, which millions have—it makes you think he’s sitting alone in a dark room, or that wherever he is, it’s raining outside. It’s a pressing, self-assured voice that suggests somebody, somewhere, is getting away with something, and he can’t wait to uncover the story.
As a reporter for the New York Times whose most prominent beat has been the ever-unfolding athlete doping scandal, Schmidt has revealed in print that indeed, many people have been getting away with something, for a long time.
In the spring and summer of 2009, Schmidt broke the blockbuster stories that baseball stars David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa had all tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs back in 2003. Based on leaks from anonymous sources familiar with what insiders call “the list”—almost 100 names, now under court seal, of MLB players who tested positive that year—his reporting upset a lot of people, athletes and fans alike. But it also made him perhaps the most well-known, little-known sports journalist in the country.
It was an amazing coup for any reporter, let alone a relative newbie who’d started as a clerk at the Times less than four years before, just after graduating from Lafayette with an A.B. in international affairs.
“I moved to New York and I didn’t have a job, and my parents wanted to kill me,” Schmidt said in a phone interview. “I was trying to get a job working as a production assistant in television, but I couldn’t find one.”
Fortunately, a former employer helped him out. During a semester away in Boston during his junior year, Schmidt had proven his mettle in a six-month gig at the Boston Globe. He’d clerked there and had written a handful of stories.
“The Globe had sent a letter to the Times, saying that if they needed someone to answer the phone, I had hands,” Schmidt said. “So, two weeks into being in New York without a job, they hired me.”
There was only one problem: they told him he would never—ever—write for the paper.
“They don’t want clerks to think it’s a training program to become a reporter,” Schmidt said, admitting that very few clerks ever make it into print. “They want people to have more experience when they hire reporters.”
So Schmidt “put every single waking moment” into proving that he had the drive and talent to make it. He was first assigned to the foreign desk, and in between answering phones, making copies, and getting coffee, he began to publish stories. His first piece was a 300-word obit on the opera soprano Helen Phillips. Eventually, perhaps because of an internship he once had in the public relations department of the New York Liberty, he started clerking at the sports desk. There he covered everything from former tennis great Michael Chang’s theology studies to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s favorite food (Thai).
“I started writing so much that in the fall of ’06, a little more than a year after I started there, they told me to go out and be a freelancer for them with no guarantee of ever getting hired,” Schmidt said. “Because of union rules, I had to go home and work from my house because I couldn’t work in the office. So I sat in my dark apartment on the Upper East Side, and I was told that they wanted me to cover off-the-field issues and legal stuff in sports, so I basically tried to teach myself to do that.”
His big break came in summer 2007, when sports editor Tom Jolly sent him to Maryland to cover the Michael Vick dog-fighting story. Schmidt located many of the ferocious pit bulls that had been confiscated from Vick’s property in Virginia.
“They gave me a lot of responsibility on that story,” Schmidt said. “They sort of put the rookie on the mound.”
The rookie started pitching fastballs as he gradually assembled a Rolodex of contacts that eventually led to people with knowledge of “the list.” But while Schmidt continues to cover the doping drama—including the mounting allegations that Lance Armstrong partook—he’s eager to branch out.
Late last year, as part of a Times training program, he was assigned to cover the New York Police Department for six months. During that time, he published stories on homicides and house fires, suicides and subway deaths, and even got a few by-lines for relaying information about Faisal Shahzad, who confessed June 21 in Federal District Court to the Times Square car bomb attempt on May 1, 2010.
Now that he’s made it, Schmidt remains just as committed to his job as he was when he first tried to prove himself. He works both in the office and at home, and says he keeps “newspaper hours,” which are often in flux.
“Sometimes it’s early and sometimes not; sometimes it’s late and sometimes not; sometimes it’s six days a week and sometimes it’s not,” he said. “I have a fair amount of flexibility, as long I’m producing. You need to produce. You gotta produce, you gotta be accurate, you gotta be good.”