As he sits in a leather armchair at a State Street coffee shop, a bright red Bucky hoodie draped over his frame, this could be any freshman student. His eyes earnest with anticipation and excitement, a grin permanently pressed across his face, he is but one new face in a group of more than 6,200 freshmen.
But the story of Jake Steinberg is a shade different than that of the other 18-year-olds who arrive in Madison each fall. It is a story hinted at only by the thick, green band inscribed with the words “Play Like a Jet” wrapped around his wrist.
Best known by his Twitter handle @Steiny31, home to more than 5,200 followers, Steinberg has contributed to TheJetsBlog.com — an outlet predictably dedicated to the NFL’s New York Jets — since April 2010.
But only in the last nine months did he grow into one of the most prominent sources of breaking news involving the Jets. Here was the Upper East Side Manhattan native, beating out grizzled veterans of the ferocious New York media market — men twice his age — on everything from injury updates to roster shifts during the 2011 offseason.
“Nobody had actually seen him, there were a few guys I guess that had met him before,” former Jets wide receiver and current NFL free agent DaMarcus Ganaway said. “But he was just like a myth man, it was like everybody knew who Steiny was but nobody believed he was like 18 or 17 or however old he was at the time.”
So how did this self-labeled diehard fan build a following rivaling that of Jets beat reporters from the New York Daily News and ESPN just months after taking an ambitious plunge into the country’s largest media market?
By developing close, personal relationships with Jets players. Too close, many said, to be covering the team and turning him into a somewhat controversial figure.
Steinberg openly admits that he is first and foremost a Jets fan who does not envision a future as a reporter or in any other media-related role. But, from his perspective, he sheds a positive light on each player’s story in an organization that may face more microscopic criticism and scrutiny than any other NFL franchise.
“I’m that guy that can do the same thing that the media can, can get their story out there, that can help them on a personal level,” he explained.” But not try to get the headlines and make money off of them and that’s where I think I kind of fit in.”
First joining the credentialed Jets media during training camp this summer, he walks the ever-thinning tight rope between reporting and public relations. Affectionately called “Steiny” by players — indicative of just how central Twitter has been to his rise — he says he knows about 15 members currently on the Jets’ 53-man roster.
It’s a style of journalism role the founder and owner of TheJetsBlog.com, Brian Bassett, fully supports for a website he says is meant to be the “fan’s voice” for Jets news.
“I do think that players realize they’re probably going to get more favorable coverage with Jake,” said Bassett, 38, who in 2004 started the blog that now logs more than a million views a month. “But at the end of the day, its not Jake’s responsibility to give fair coverage. It’s his responsibility to be realistic, to be earnest … I’m not putting the pressure on him to take both sides of the issue.”
Often communicating with players directly through texts and direct messages on Twitter, Steinberg’s unconventional approach to reporting was not without its detractors. When a writer from the Daily News said the Jets cut undrafted rookie Damon Harrison, he reached out to the player himself and found out the report was false. After tweeting that previous reports were untrue, the reporter who broke the story privately chewed him out.
Another reporter went directly to the Jets’ public relations department, complaining that Steinberg was nothing more than a credentialed fan and should not be allowed to attend practices. The University of Wisconsin freshman is not in denial of the fact that his relationships extend beyond a “professional” level and recognizes salaried beat reporters could never call any of the players they cover “friends.”
Yet those personal friendships are precisely what Steinberg strives for.
“I think a lot of it’s because of my age and I think a lot of it’s because they’re just jealous of the relationship I had because they’re not allowed to have that,” Steinberg, who is not paid for his work, explained. “I’m allowed to take risks because I’m just a fan at the end of the day.”
Opinions differ on how much of the criticism hinges on Steinberg’s age. Working alongside reporters with decades of experience covering this team, Bassett says his youth fuels much of the criticism.
“I think that they don’t feel like he’s done enough or paid his dues or cut his teeth enough to warrant this lofty position on the sidelines or whatever,” Bassett said.
“He doesn’t look to start fights. At the end of the day it’s competitive — if they can’t see that he’s just a good person, that’s their own problem.”
Building the ‘Steiny’ brand
In a day and age where every fan who opines about their favorite team on a personal blog is a self-crowned journalist, Steinberg is a case study of how writers can successfully brand themselves through social media.
He readily admits his meteoric rise to breaking news on an NFL team at the tender age of 18 would not have been possible before the recent — and explosive — growth of Twitter. Part of the mysticism players first associated with him was a product of having not seen him in the flesh, instead tracking and communicating with him solely through Twitter.
Crafting his reputation through Twitter is a testament to how a single tool has smashed the once-unbreakable wall between players and fans. Such change was never more apparent than in April, when Steinberg introduced himself to Greg McElroy, the starting quarterback for the 2009 national champion Alabama Crimson Tide who is now a backup quarterback for the Jets. But no introduction was necessary, as McElroy already recognized him from his Twitter avatar.
Similarly, Ganaway — the player with whom Steinberg says he grew closer to than any other — first heard from Steinberg when the then high school senior offered encouragement before a workout with the Jets last fall.
Over six weeks passed between when New York backup tight end Hayden Smith first heard from Steinberg through Twitter and when he met the man himself in person. A converted professional rugby player, Smith said the 18-year-old’s support of players has allowed him to build connections on the sidelines.
“I actually felt like I knew the guy quite well before I’d actually met him,” Smith said. “He’s very good with that online persona, he makes you very comfortable, who he is through [Twitter] before you meet him.”
These stories show why he is the ideal representation of how the ladder of seniority has crumbled through the rapid expansion of new media outlets in the online age.
“I definitely think that through the use of mediums like Twitter, you can now build your brand for free,” said Howard Shatsky, an NFL agent of 25 years who represented three Jets players who took part in the Jets’ 2012 training camp. “And frankly, without Twitter, I don’t really think anybody would know who Jake was.”
His tweets combine opinion and news, a compelling mixture of roster changes and criticisms of Jets front office decisions. They gain the attention of more than just a handful of opinionated fans, people he embraces with an endless stream of responses.
But Steinberg’s social media influence may be best quantified by the fact that someone created a parody Twitter account of him (@Steiny32). Most suspect a disgruntled Jets reporter runs it, a sign of the online influence he wields with fans.
Though he began primarily as a blogger, this spring Steinberg says his reporting increasingly moved away from blog posts and into strings of informational tweets.
“It’s absolute proof to the meritocracy of this new media landscape,” Bassett said. “He got it because he earned it, it happened because he was a grinder on it, because he was connecting with players.”
The future beckons
Still mired in the typical concerns of a college freshman — pledging a fraternity, adjusting to life away from home — Steinberg has ample time to plan a future career.
It nonetheless presents a fascinating question. At 18, he has the insider sources and connections to agents and other members of players’ inner circles reminiscent of a veteran NFL reporter. His role with the Jets is so multi-faceted — blogger, P.R. agent, personal assistant — there appears no single designated path for him.
He plans to major in journalism at UW and says before spending this summer dedicating his time to the organization, he envisioned himself in a front office role, possibly as a general manager. But there’s a familiar caveat to that idea.
“I feel like it would be so hard to cut these guys and shatter their dreams after getting to know them more,” he said. “I think it changes daily … maybe I see myself now more in a agent-type role, a personal manager type role, or something along those lines.”
With his player-friendly coverage and proven ability to quickly earn the respect of players, Shatsky says he is best suited for a sports p.r. job. Bassett is more than confident the skills that guided him thus far will be of use in whatever career path he chooses.
For this wide-eyed freshman, there are still moments when it seems a touch surreal, when he considers how he ended up as the right-hand man for NFL players before even moving into a college dormitory.
“I was with a bunch of other guys the other day watching the Jets game,” Steinberg said. “In the middle of the game, one of the player’s managers called me up just to gauge how my thoughts on his client played the game. They were just all sitting there, they were like, ‘What is going on?’”
Those words also serve as a fitting descriptor for Steinberg’s unlikely ride. After all, he is but one face in a crowd of 6,200.