Before becoming sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News, James Gensterblum ’11 began his career taking calls from Michigan high-school football coaches to gather information for MLive’s weekly roundup in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“It’s not glamorous,” Gensterblum said. “I’m not going to pretend that it was anything more than an entry-level job.”
Gensterblum said he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his career doing this type of “grunt work” for sports desks and their papers. Throughout his career, Gensterblum worked at several newspapers and waited for the opportunity to work for the Hillsdale Daily News.
Brandon Folsom, who began his career in sports writing at MLive with Gensterblum and is currently sports editor at the Gaylord Herald Times, remembers the first time he met Gensterblum.
“James was very boisterous about Brady Hoke and Michigan Football,” Folsom said. “He was just a really loud and opinionated guy, but he knew what he was talking about.”
During his time at MLive, Folsom said he realized early on that Gensterblum was different from his other coworkers.
“He’s so smart, and he knows every high school mascot in the state,” Folsom said. “If you would quiz him, he would know. That’s how into high school sports he is.”
Prior to MLive, Gensterblum attended Hillsdale Academy and began “stringing,” or freelancing, for the Hillsdale Daily News his senior year. The first game he covered was a football game for North Adams-Jerome High School.
“I had never done an interview before, and that must have been a horrible experience for the coach because I was just stumbling all over myself,” Gensterblum said. “But I came back, and I wrote a story.”
Despite a shaky start, Gensterblum continued to cover sports for the Daily News before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2007.
After attending a meeting for the university’s newspaper, The Michigan Daily, Gensterblum said he felt discouraged because of the size of the school and the journalism program.
“There were 50 people in a room,” Gensterblum said. “It was like, I have maybe two years of sitting here before getting much of anything.”
With this realization, Gensterblum transferred to Hillsdale College as a sophomore and earned a degree in history.
Already a year behind in his core classes, Gensterblum wrote a few articles for The Collegian and later took paid stringing jobs for the Daily News.
As a history major, Gensterblum took many classes with Professor of History Dave Stewart. Stewart said he appreciated Gensterblum’s earnest interest in classes, and his enthusiasm for going beyond the routine.
“Most students simply accept whatever a department offers,” Gensterblum said. “James, however, had me create a one-credit course for him on nineteenth-century Japanese history.”
Stewart said his favorite memory with Gensterblum was when they were enthusiastically discussing the Japanese Meiji Restoration in his office, and Professor of History Mark Kalthoff had to come in and tell them to quiet down.
Professor of History Thomas Conner said he taught Gensterblum in a Russian history class.
“He made a very strong A in the class,” Conner said. “He was a very bright kid and very eager.”
Conner said he was not surprised to hear Gensterblum is a journalist.
“He obviously had excellent writing ability, or he never would have been able to make A’s in my classes or anybody else’s classes in the history department.”
After graduating from Hillsdale in Dec. 2011, Gensterblum headed to Grand Rapids to work for MLive. During his time at MLive, Gensterblum said he learned interviewing skills and working on deadline. More importantly, he networked with more than 25 other aspiring sports writers.
“That’s actually how I got out of that job,” Gensterblum said.
Folsom was then working as sports editor for the Gaylord Herald Times. After sending out hundreds of resumes, Gensterblum said he had not been offered a single interview. So Folsom told his boss to take a look at Gensterblum’s resume.
“I was slamming my fists on the desk and told him, ‘James is the best high school sportswriter in the state, it’s not even close. You will not be disappointed,’” Folsom said. “James went up there and crushed the interview.”
With Folsom’s help, Gensterblum received a job offer at the Petoskey News-Review, the sister publication to the Gaylord Herald Times, and left MLive in September 2014. There, he became a sportswriter and was part of a two-man crew.
While working at Petoskey, Gensterblum said he had the opportunity to write one of his most inspiring sports story about a soccer player who received a heart transplant.
“Eight months later, he was back on the soccer field,” Gensterblum said. “Because that’s how much he loved the game.”
Folsom said Gensterblum was a staple in Petoskey.
“No one would write as well as him,” Folsom said. “He could go anywhere and tell you about the bigger picture and why the event he went to was so important and what it meant in the grand scheme of things.”
In addition to the Gaylord Herald Times, Folsom freelanced for the Detroit Free Press. After the Central Michigan University Football Team beat Oklahoma State University, the Detroit Free Press asked Folsom to catch the team at the airport and write as many stories as he could. Folsom asked Gensterblum to help him with the stories.
“James and I were pulling players left and right to interview them,” Folsom said. “We ended up going to McDonald’s to put out all these stories. James got his first byline in the Detroit Free Press.”
After three years in Petoskey, Gensterblum received an offer to become sports editor for the Monticello Herald Journal in Monticello, Indiana.
Folsom said there was a void that couldn’t be filled once Gensterblum left Petoskey.
“So many people miss him and the work he did and the stories he told,” Folsom said. “It’s insane how much production they lost when he left.”
While in Indiana, Gensterblum said it was difficult to bring the history of teams into his stories.
“I didn’t know any of the local history,” Gensterblum said. “I spent a couple of weeks in deep dive, just going through past state champions, what the high schools I covered had done.”
A year later, Gensterblum jumped again, becoming sports editor of the Hillsdale Daily News, a place where he knew the history.
“This job opened up and I’ve always wanted to be closer to home. Family is very important to me.”
According to Gensterblum, he always had the notion he would return to the place where he got his start because he knows the community.
Folsom said people feel Gensterblum’s presence in the community wherever he goes.
“He’s telling stories that would have never been told or never been figured out because he’s so good at developing relationships with people,” Folsom said. “I learned from him about how to take a subject seriously.”
Today, Gensterblum said there isn’t a single sport in Michigan High School Sports that he hasn’t covered. From skiing to water polo to basketball, Gensterblum has done it all. His favorite sports event he covered was the 2018 Division 8 State Championship at Ford Field. Gensterblum said this was Reading High School’s breakthrough season.
“It was two teams that had never been to the state finals before,” Gensterblum said. “This Division 8 game had more people than I think all the other games besides Division 1 and 2, and it sounded like Sunday.”
Throughout his time as a sportswriter, Gensterblum said he’s covered many stories about athletes and perseverance.
“I remember writing a story about this kid with Down syndrome who was on the JV basketball team, and they brought him in and he just hit multiple threes,” Gensterblum said. “I interviewed him, and he was talking about how his grandpa was sick. He didn’t know what he was sick with, but he just knew that he was sick and wanted to do something for him.”
Gensterblum said he enjoys covering sports because the values in sports bring out the best in human nature.
“In a sporting event, you get all this range of emotions: joy, rage, fear, and bravery,” Gensterblum said. “You get to see there’s beauty and there’s excellence. It’s really a kind of beautiful microcosm for life in general.”