Friday, December 21, 2007

Covering wrestling - pinning down a technical sport

Politicians are flocking to Iowa, trying to gain an edge in the nation’s first primary for president that will take place in two weeks. Actually, Iowa holds a caucus, where voters gather in precincts to determine which politician they like best. There’s no denying what sport Iowans hold dearest. Sure, 70,000 fans may attend an Iowa football game, but where else in the country would 9,000 attend a wrestling dual meet? That’s how many watched No. 3 Iowa defeat top-ranked Iowa State, 20-13, in Ames two weeks ago.

Politicians would be well advised to spend time on the mats at local high schools to help in their own maneuverings. (Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney may know national politics, but they need to learn more about the heart of the Midwest. That starts with sports like wrestling.) Like politics, wrestling can get confusing for casual observers, which is why we need to translate as much as we can. Like politics, wrestling also usually has a clear winner at the end (unlike the Bowl Championship Series).

Still, few sports are as technically oriented as wrestling, which has its own language and relies on very specific rules and guidelines, most of which readers care little about – not even in Iowa, arguably the cradle of wrestling in the United States.

“Wrestling is a very unique sport,” says Jim Leitner, sports editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque. “Even here in Iowa, where it is very popular, there are a lot of people who have no idea what the sport is about and what some of the finer points are. So, you have to strike a balance in your story. You have to write a story that will appeal to the die-hard wrestling fans, and, at the same time, you can’t make it so technical that a casual sports fan can’t follow it. If your story hinges on a very technical storyline, you have to be sure to explain it well enough so you don’t confuse the casual fan.”

That’s why Des Moines Register sports editor Bryce Miller looks for emotion and odd details in wrestling coverage. “Only the most hard-core wrestling fans understand and want deep, deep wrestling detail with the tongue-tying language of the sport,” says Miller, who covered University of Iowa wrestling as a beat at five NCAA Championship tournaments and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “Instead of focusing on cradles and inside-trips, talk about the people stories behind the game or match. That type of story pulls in more general-interest readers. If you’re too wrestling-specific, it’s a niche audience and you slam the door to a bigger group of readers who might want to know that not only did Bill Smith win 2-1 — but the victory came on the one-year anniversary of the death of his former roommate.”

Readers want mostly basic information, such as who won a dual meet or a tournament and how specific wrestlers performed in these competitions, says JR Ogden, sports editor for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like other sports editors, Ogden says readers prefer human interest stories in sports game coverage – particularly in less publicized and more technical sports like wrestling.

“I try not to get technical because most readers don't understand one move from another,” says Ogden, “and, for the most part, the same move or hold can be called several different things.”

Lehigh University coach Greg Strobel says wrestling is very simple. “Don't get too involved with knowing the names of moves, just watch the struggle to overcome the opponent,” says Strobel, a two-time NCAA champ and coach of the 2000 Olympic team. “Wrestling is really very simple. Try to take your opponent to the mat, try to turn him over, try to control him. On the converse, don't get taken down, get away, don't be controlled.”

Some more tips for covering wrestling are offered below.

TAKING NOTES
Taking notes is essential to all game coverage. Find a system that works well for you. You might take notes on each match by putting names on two sides of the page, putting the running score down the middle of the page. Or you might just put the names of the two wrestlers a the top of the page and then record observations as the match progresses.
■ Miller keeps a running play-by-play that records points scored and the time points were scored “so I can explain key moments in many ways — chronologically or in different ways — but also keep room to the side to explain details and observations about words, facial expressions, crowd reaction and the fabric that really puts readers in the crowd.”
■ Ogden also keeps a running play by play but he covers tournaments differently. “In tournaments, I try to watch as many matches as possible that involve the teams I'm interested in,” he says, “then catch up with the others once the meet is over.”

PREPARING BEFORE MATCHES
Miller says reporters should prepare the same way for any game coverage. “My rule: Never come to the event empty-handed,” says Miller. “Always have a couple unique facts in your notebook, some unique sources ideas. If a wrestler is going for 100 victories, can you talk to mom and dad before coming to the match?”

LEAD ELEMENTS
Make sure key information is high. “Many times, writers and reporters sacrifice clarity and what-you-want-to-know detail at the tops of stories in exchange for flowering, over-indulged prose,” says Miller. “It’s always important to remind writers that on spot events, particularly in sports not commonly on television, readers depend on us to tell them what happened first and foremost.”
■ Add team names/nicknames
■ Include team scores
■ Focus on a key match, particularly if it altered momentum or secured a team victory
■ Focus on an individual’s performance, particularly if this ties to a human interest element
■ If the match is blow out, focus on how and why one team dominated. Did one team record pins in six matches or were five matches determined by two points or fewer?
■ Focus on a coach’s decision or strategy. Was a wrestler moved up a weight class or did the match begin at a mid-weight class?
■ Focus on a stats leader. Did a wrestler pin his ninth opponent or did a wrestler win his 10th decision by two points or fewer?
■ Records. Put team records in parentheses within the first few paragraphs. Try to add them after you cite the school’s name – and not the school’s nickname. Also, add conference or district records for high school competition.

LANGUAGE
■ Pin – when a part of both shoulders are held down for at least two seconds.
■ Near fall – when wrestler has control of opponent and a pin appears imminent
■ Takedown – when a wrestler takes an opponent to the mat
■ Escape – when wrestler escapes from a down position
■ Reversal – when a wrestler escapes from under an opponent and controls him in a single move.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Find stories – especially those that take place beyond the mat. “The goal of a newspaper story, especially in the 24/7 information age of online, is tell people something they couldn’t know without reading the story,” says Miller. “We talk about these key words high in stories — first, biggest, only and most. If you can use any of those words, it means your reporting has identified the uniqueness in the event. Newspapers also have the chance to take you into locker rooms, into interview areas and places quick, radio/TV sound bites do not. If readers only needed the basics, we would all run Associated Press stories. Tell them things they don’t know with perspective-driven information and reporting and unexpected sourcing.” Ogden also recommends looking for a story: “This could be a match that turns the dual one way or another, an athlete's or coach's assessment after the meet, or a big match-up on paper that turned out to be a dud or lived up to his hype.
■ Key momentum swings – either from an individual match or team standpoint. “If it’s a blowout, team-wise, we’ll focus on a great match or featurize the whole story,” says Leitner. “We take a more featurized approach to covering every sport, not just wrestling, so our readers have come to expect good human interest elements.”
■ Match-ups: See which matches feature ranked wrestlers. Check records and past performances for each athlete so you will be prepared to add these details into the game story. Details, such as the fact one wrestler has never pinned an opponent in 10 wins, will help you look for details during the match.
■ Did a wrestler make an adjustment during a match? Did a wrestler who was nearly pinned win the match? Speak with athletes and coaches afterward for more insights.
■ Determine how a coach recognizes match-ups.
■ Is this the team’s worst loss, or biggest margin of victory? As always, seek to find out the reasons for such a great victory or terrible loss. You can also cite the last time the team lost by such a margin. (Check newspaper archives and speak with athletic directors/sports information directors.)
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the meet and the opponent’s record. You can also do this for key, ranked wrestlers, offering the name and record of the next person he will face.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against its opponent.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the key wrestler by describing how he performed. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how a wrestler appeared fatigued down the stretch by describing the action.
Check the numbers for key statistical streaks for teams or individuals.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Weight classes for colleges. The NCAA uses the following weight classes in its championships – 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197, heavyweight (183-285 pounds).
■ Weight classes vary for high schools. Most high school associations offer several lighter classifications. Florida, for example, uses the following 14 weight – 103, 112, 119, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 152, 160, 171, 189, 215, 285 (heavyweight).
■ Wrestlers cannot wrestle below their weight, but they may compete above their weight classification. Rules vary for how much higher athletes can compete. In Florida, for instance, an athlete cannot compete more than one weight class above, meaning a 119-pounder can not go beyond the 125-pound class.
■ Growth allowances are usually granted for high school athletes. In Florida, that means a wrestler can gain two pounds midway through the season (That’s set for late December this year). These rules are created so wrestlers won’t go on crash diets or starve themselves.
■ Weigh-ins – Wrestlers usually verify their weight about an hour before meets. This may be two hours before matches at NCAA tournaments.
■ Sudden death – when wrestlers are tied after three regulation periods. In college, a winner is determined by the first wrestler to score a point during the one-minute overtime period.
■ Wrestlebacks – Usually, tournaments are double-elimination, which means wrestlers who lose can “wrestle back” into the later rounds until they lose their second match.
■ Scoring during matches – Near fall (2, 3 or 4 points), takedown (2 points), reversal (2 points), escape (1 point), time advantage (2 points).
■ Scoring for team scores. Points are awarded to teams whose wrestlers win by the following methods:
6 points – fall (or pin), default, forfeit, disqualification
5 points – technical fall (if near fall was already awarded to winning wrestler)
4 points – technical fall (if near fall is not recorded by winning wrestler)
3 points – for a decision
■ Tournament scoring. Scoring changes based upon how many places are awarded, according to the NCAA. If eight places are awarded in a tournament, scoring goes as follows: 16-12-10-9-7-6-4-3. For six places, scoring goes 12-10-9-7-6-4. For four places, scoring is 10-7-4-2.
■ Matches last three periods unless the match ends prematurely by a pin, technical fall or disqualification.
■ Record the names of the game officials in case anything unusual happens in the game. Also, interview them afterward in such instances.

INTERVIEWING
■ As most reporters will tell you, get to know the people involved before asking questions. That’s why beat coverage is essential. Of course, many stringers and reporters are asked to cover teams they’ve never met, which is certainly more challenging. Still, make the effort to introduce yourself before a match, even if that is just to tell coaches you’d like to talk with them after the meet.
■ Athletes, like everybody else, react to questions in varying ways. So do not get discouraged if someone does not talk to you right away. “It truly depends on the individual and the situation,” says Miller. “I’ve known NCAA champs who seemed unapproachable, but were just fine talking right after they were finished. I know others who needed a small amount of time to decompress. You must know the athletes/teams you cover, since there’s no one answer that applies to every situation. And, as always, deadlines might dictate how long you can wait.”
■ Strobel wishes more reporters knew some very basic information before they covered matches and asked him questions – the names and records of participants. Pretty simply, Strobel says: “Knowing who is competing impresses me. Not knowing records bothers me.”
■ Ogden prefers to wait until the overall competition has concluded. “There have been times I have talked to wrestlers after their matches in a dual – when they come up to press box to do radio – but coaches want to keep the "team" focused the other wrestlers.
■ Leitner likes to speak with coaches first so he can then get a better idea what questions to pose to the competing wrestlers. “The key is developing a good relationship with the coach,” says Leitner, “and basically training him to give you good, newsworthy information that leads to good storylines.”
■ Work hard to gain some trust, otherwise that means you may get bland, uninformed quotes. Even if you are covering a team for the first time, you can impress coaches and wrestlers by doing your homework – by reading published articles on the team, by reading press guides, and by speaking with opposing coaches and wrestlers before you head out. That way you’ll be able to ask specific, informed questions – something that often impresses those being interviewed. They’ll see that you are working as hard as they are and that you may be someone they can trust. “In my experience, I have found that wrestlers, in general, are not very quotable people,” Leitner says. “They seem very guarded. They don’t want to give away any information to opponents who might be reading the article. So, it takes a little work to gain their trust, and you have to do a better job interviewing them than you would with athletes from other sports.”
■ Ask what coaches, players were thinking during a key moment.
■ Ask wrestlers to describe their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask the to offer a narrative of the match. This will give you an insider’s view of the match, which is can be more important than getting quotes. Do not be afraid to summarize and attribute this information. Not everything has to be a direct quote.
■ Ask how the team has progressed over the last several games or weeks. But make sure you read as much as you can about their pervious meets so you can ask informed follow-up questions.
■ Introduce yourself to coaches before the meet whenever possible. You can also ask the coach his goals and how he expects the meet to go, which could lead to a nice angle for your game story.

You do not need to be an expert to cover wrestling. Like with any sport, you just need to do your homework and to work diligently along the way.

“In my opinion, you don’t have to be an ex-wrestler or a huge wrestling fan to write about it,” says Leitner. “I had no experience in wrestling until I started writing about it. But I do find it a very intriguing sport and one with a lot of great storylines. If you’re willing to learn about the sport, you can find it very fascinating. I could sit and watch 10 hours of the Iowa High School state wrestling tournament and never get bored. I don’t think I could say that about any other sport, including the more popular ones.”

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lupica's right on mark about Mitchell, steroids

For those who think Sen. George Mitchell did a poor job revealing steroid use in major league baseball, read Mike Lupica's column on this issue. As Lupica says, Mitchell is 'no rank amateur.' Mitchell helped broker peace in Northern Ireland and probably could have been on the Supreme Court.

This report is going to be one of the most important documents in professional sports for many years to come. So do not rip this report until you've read as much as you can on (or in the report.) Our job is not to defend athletes (or to be fans) , but to report, so if you plan to write a column or story on this issue, do the research and learn the facts. Then, step up and opine away.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Don't get burned by unnamed sources

As we're waiting with baited breath on what happens to Johan Santana, here's something to consider: Don't print unsubstantiated reports or repeat rumors. Last week, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit reported that LSU coach Les Miles would sign to coach Michigan, a report that was proven incorrect. Herbstreit claimed on-air that the report was based upon solid information. That may be true, but that's the problem we face when reporting anonymous information. We're wrong when this information is wrong, not the unnamed sources. At times, we are used by sources trying to advance their own agendas. Most of the time, anonymous sources suck.

Instead, verify reports and rumors as CBS Sportsline's Scott Miller did last night at the baseball meetings. Where's Santana going? Who the heck knows? But Miller does a terrific job addressing rumors circulating in Nashville, Tenn,. and in various online news sources and blogs by speaking directly to the primary sources involved with the reported trades -- namely, to the general managers. Yes, these GMs could be lying, but at least they are on the record doing this, not the sports journalist.

Check out Miller's most recent post:
As the stare-down continued, reports circulated wildly, ranging from the Red Sox increasing their offer by adding a fifth name to the proposal (not true, say sources with knowledge of the talks) to multiple reports that the Los Angeles Angels had met with the Twins.

Not true, said Angels general manager Tony Reagins, who noted that he had informally spoken with Minnesota GM Bill Smith a day earlier but had not conducted any formal meetings with the Twins.

So where do these rumors come from?

"I ask myself that question," Reagins said. "Watching ESPN, I see things being reported and you wonder where it comes from sometimes."

Regarding whether he envisions a scenario in which a trade with Minnesota could develop, Reagins said, "That would be tough to say. There are a lot of things being reported out there, obviously. But I don't see anything on the horizon."

Miller speaks directly with the Angels' GM to address the rumor instead of passing along unsubstantiated information. He also speaks with several other GMs and to some other verifiable sources. Yes, Miller offers several other trade scenarios, but based upon his earlier reporting, I'm inclined to believe him. Evaluate for yourself whose reports are most accurate. I'll bet it's the ones where reporters speak directly with sources. Being accurate is more important than being first.

Note -- remember to start going to onsports.wordpress.com, where this site is moving and where information, like this, is printed first. Thanks.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

We're moving

I am in the midst of moving the main site for OnSportz to another location, so please change your RSS feeds and bookmarks to onsports.wordpress.com. For the next month or so, I plan to post to both sites, but I will always post here first. As always, the site includes tips and suggestions for covering more than a dozen sports, commentary, book reviews and much more. And, I love to hear from sports journalists — young and experienced. Suggest topics, ask questions, or send notes to me at jgisondi@gmail.com. I hope you find this site just as easy to navigate.
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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Journalists should not determine national champions


Man, the Sheriff Center is going to be rocking today. More than 10,000 Hawaii fans are going to roll into the arena in Honolulu to listen to the Fox Bowl Championship Series Selection Show. The pep bands will play loudly, cheerleaders will rally fans, the Rainbow Dancers will frolic about, and players and coaches will pump their fists. In all likelihood, Hawaii is going to get a bid for the Sugar Bowl, where they will probably face Georgia. In reality, the Rainbows should get a chance at the national championship. But they won't. Voters (yes, us) do not believe football in the Western Athletic Conference is as rigorous as football in the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten. Experts say Hawaii did not play as tough a schedule as Louisiana State or Ohio State (who played Akron, Kent State and Youngstown State). But these same experts and sports journalists also believed West Virginia would destroy a mediocre Pitt team Saturday and that Ohio State would have defeated Illinois earlier this season.

Last night, Pitt upset West Virgina 13-9 and Oklahoma routed Missouri 38-17. Meanwhile, Colt Brennan completed 42 of 50 passes and five touchdowns to help Hawaii overcome a 21-point deficit to defeat Washington and remain undefeated.

It's fair to say the SEC, Big Ten and Big East are also stronger in basketball. But that did not stop Webber State from beating North Carolina in 1999, Hampton from knocking off No. 2 Iowa in 2001, or Coppin State from upsetting another No. 2, South Carolina, in 1997. There are many more upsets where those came from. In college basketball, titles are determined on the courts, not by judges. Leave that format to figure skating, not to sports journalists.

The argument against the playoff system: the season itself is a playoff system. Yet, LSU lost twice - and they may be in the title game instead of a one-loss Kansas team or an undefeated Hawaii squad. The system does not work if a team can go undefeated and not get a shot at the national championship -- especially when a two-loss team gets into the title game. Again, blame sports journalists.

John Feinstein calls the BCS the single worst creation in sports. Says Feinstein:: "It is the creation of a group of selfish, money-mongering college presidents who couldn't care less about what is best for the so-called student-athletes, couldn't care less about the fans who go to the games and, most of all, couldn't care less about fairness."

I'm not going to offer the format that is needed most (although I will say an eight or 16-team format will compel more than a few fans to watch.) You'll also have intrigue watching teams on the fringe (Nos. 8-12 or Nos. 14-18) that will be working hard to get into the playoff picture. Hawaii is probably going to be a No. 10-12 this afternoon, meaning they would still be locked out of an eight-game playoff picture. There's no denying they deserve a shot at the title. But we journalists (we experts) have prevented this.

We are taught that games are won and lost on the field, not in the press box or in the newsroom. As sports journalists, we should boycott all polls, refraining from offering a vote or being on any panels that make these decisions. Voting is an inherent conflict of interest. ("Well, I would really like to go to New Orleans, so, yes, let's vote for my team as No. 3 so it can go to the Sugar Bowl.") We should not determine who gets to play for a title. Leave that to a selection committee similar to one used for the other college football divisions and for basketball, baseball and soccer. Polls are fun to follow through a season, but they should not determine championships. Nor should sports journalists anoint champions. So rip up your credentials and give back your votes, if only because it's the right thing to do.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Failure to plan can lead to screaming other 4-letter words

We haven't really addressed the planning and designing of sports sections in this blog. That's an oversight worth remedying. 'Plan' may be a four-letter word in many news rooms, but direct the other four-letter expletives at yourself if you can't produce a decent section. Each staff has unique challenges, but the biggest is a failure to plan. As the old adage goes: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

At times, we can pull off a terrific page, section, or package at the last minute. But that's the exception, not the rule. Instead, sports editors need to plan well in advance. Plan, at the very least (and I do mean 'very least'), one week in advance.

Enter meetings with a goal. Your goal could be making sure you have at least one feature story per day for the next month. Or, it could be having one in-depth story per week. After the planning meeting, immediately enter everything onto a budget -- deadlines, length, visuals, assigned reporter -- and distribute it to the staff. And post it on the wall in the sports area. (That way, everyone will know exactly when the content is due -- no excuses.) And follow up on everything. Get regular updates from reporters, cajole staffers to do follow-up reporting, make sure visuals have been assigned. Neither stories nor visuals should be submitted the day before publication. You'll need time to send back stories for revision and to plan how you'll use photos and graphics. You should also sketch the main pages before creating them on Quark or InDesign. (I'd also plan to have an extra story just in case someone does not come through, which could leave you with pages to fill but no copy.)

Finally, put together a long-range budget that can either cover a semester or a school year. This is the spine for all other budgets. Typically, the Associated Press will send out a list of major sports events at the beginning of the year. Simply cut and paste these to your long-range budget. Of course, most college departments do not need major events like the Masters or the Super Bowl. So, instead, insert your school's sports schedule for the year. You can call the long-range budget something like "SportsSked--spring08." You can use this as the basis for your monthly planning budget, which, in turn, would lead to easier weekly planning sessions. As a result, your stories will have more depth and your section will be more interesting than a series of game stories and columns. Include fun stories like how to bunt or how to run a marathon but also include hard-hitting stories on athletic budgets. These stories take time -- and planning.

Remember, photos, illustrations and other multimedia reporting should not be an afterthought. Plan these vital, and time-consuming, elements early.

I'll post some sports budgets in the coming weeks. I'll also offer some tips for designing sports pages. In the meantime, let me know if you have specific questions on either of these topics by sending a note to jgisondi@gmail.com.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How would you feel? Some tips for taking sports scores

You've worked hard all season to get into the basketball lineup, enduring months of hard training. Running sprints in the gym. Planting your feet, holding your ground, taking the charge -- a slamming of bodies. You dive into piles of elbows, knees, and fists to get loose balls during practices. And practice is every afternoon -- but (sigh) sometimes at 6 a.m. You get into the game mostly for mop-up time, when the coach realizes the team has no chance to win (or lose). Two minutes here, three minutes there. In a rare circumstance, a full quarter.

One game, you find yourself in an unusual situation -- holding the ball near the basket. A defender slams into you, deflecting the shot. But you hit one of your free-throw attempts. Your name will now be in the scoring summary, something you'll be able to brag about with friends and family. The next morning, you rush to get the newspaper before school, but there it is. Your name misshapen, butchered, destroyed. Disdoni. Instead of praise the next morning, students will joke about your newly crafted name. Then, you notice your teammates' names are also misspelled -- Jori (not Joy), Cheyanne (not Cheyenne), and Andersen (spelled with an 'o' at the end). Karly's name is spelled two different ways -- in the scoring summary and the brief game story.

As sports journalists, we get pretty hacked off when our byline is misspelled -- even though we get our name into publication frequently. Imagine the kid who gets into the paper once or twice all season, only to see it misspelled. We need to get these names right. We need to verify them every time, otherwise our credibility is ruined. Names, scores, locations, statistics -- these are so much more important than adjectives, adverbs or metaphors.

Newspapers do a great service to readers by compiling local sports roundups. But this good will is destroyed if we do not correctly record this information. Taking game results on the phone can be a difficult task, especially when clerks or editors are also editing and designing other stories and pages. But we cannot rely on excuses. The reader wants it right, or not at all. (Getting news accurately is what we do. Otherwise, we are just printing presses not news organizations.)

Many sports sections hire stringers or clerks to write briefs and to take scoring summaries. If you get this opportunity, consider the following tips:

1. Ask callers for their name and affiliation.
Unless this person regularly calls in results, you do not know if someone is fabricating the information. We rely too much on the good will of callers. I've known people to call fake holes-in-one, little league scores and race results. Few try to fabricate prep scores because they know coaches will also call in the information. Knowing who called helps for another reason, cited next.

2. Verify information with opposing coaches.
Sometimes, both coaches will phone in the results. Do not tell a coach that you already have the results; instead, ask this second coach to verify the names of players and to check the scoring summary. Coaches often relegate this task to team managers, who do not always have the correct spellings of opposing players. They rarely have the first names of players either, which causes problems when you write the brief game stories.

3. Ask for a key play. That way you have something to offer in the game brief that readers cannot find in the summaries.

4. Look for unique team stats. Did a basketball team hold another team scoreless in a quarter? Did a wrestling team record nine pins in a dual match? Did a soccer team outshoot its opponent by a large number and still lose?

5. Look for unique individual stats. Did a player record a double- or triple-double, recording more than 10 rebounds, assists and points? Did a soccer goalie record more than 10 saves? Did a wrestler pin someone in less than 30 seconds? Ask for first names as you take these stats, otherwise you may forget later in the rush of fielding other phone calls.

6. If all else fails, write the brief on the leading scorer.
That's still a good angle -- just one that is over-used, especially if your newspaper runs a full page of these briefs.

7. Verify final scores. Make sure the score by quarters or innings adds up to the final score. Problems like this happen much more than you can imagine. Try to do this before you let the caller go.

8. Calculate scoring summaries. Make sure the points cited for players in team summaries adds up to the final score. Then, verify that the free throw totals accurately reflect the team totals. Typically, scoring summaries for basketball go something like this: Miller 8 2-4 18. This means 8 field goals and 2 of 4 free throws for 18 points. But you might also see Anderson 8 2-3 20. Verify that this player made two 3-pointers, otherwise the scoring total would be incorrect.

9. Get phone numbers for callers. That way, if you have problems later, you can contact them.

10. Finally, edit your copy. We are not merely stenographers taking whatever is told to us. We need to be editors, verifying everything. Yes, sometimes a coach or manager will give us misspelled names - but we need to work diligently to try and get this, and everything else, right.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Get better photos for your sports section


A few weeks ago, I decided to develop tips for using photos in sports sections. Quickly, I realized I was not qualified. I have designed many pages over the years. But who knows how many sports shooters cursed me under their breath for reducing large, sweeping shots to the size of a postage stamp or for cropping out something they worked hard to work into the frame. Sorry, guys.

Instead, I asked a friend, Brian Poulter, who teaches photography here at Eastern Illinois University , to offer tips for sports folks who are more accustomed to thinking in words than pictures -- even though photos help tell the story and draw in readers. Brian is also an excellent photographer, something you can check out yourself at his itty bitty photo blog. His work is both journalism and art at the same time. I wish I could capture details as exquisitely as he does with a camera.

You should also check out Mark Hoffman's splendid sports photography at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That's his shot above of Packers receiver Ruvell Martin celebrating one of his two TD catches against the Minnesota Vikings last weekend.

Anyway, here are Brian's practical, insightful suggestions. (And remember, photojournalists are people, too.)

Five ways for Sports Editors/writers to get better photos on their pages
So you’re a sport editor, or you have to lay out the sports page. Here’s the secret to getting good art for you pages.

Educate your photographers
Many photographers have to cover many teams. Most don't get to talk to the coaches and players. They don't know the teams the way reporters/editors do. So take five minutes to point out the key players; then, take three more minutes to write a rough sketch of what’s needed. It is very hard for a photographer to photograph what he/she does not understand. Growing up in the Midwest, I knew nothing about the game of lacrosse. When I moved to Connecticut, my first photos showed it. However, I did stun the sports department with my hockey photos. Why was my hockey so good? I had played the sport and read hockey coverage in the sports section. If nothing else, clip a few sports stories to hand out for photo assignments.

Ask your photographers for emotion and faces, too.
Most readers will never catch a Brett Favre pass (which is good unless they like broken fingers). Faces, faces, faces! Faces tell us what is going on. Hey, I'm a photographer: I understand rejection, and so do your readers. Photographs that show the ups and down of the game appeal to almost everyone-- even non-sport fans. A photo with faces AND action is what you really want. You want a layout that works? Build your page aground an emotion-based photograph and your pages will sing.

Request (demand) non-action sports photos
It not all about action at second base. John Biever is one of Sports Illustrated’s best photographer. If you go to this link you can see some of his best work. Notice how few are sports action. That photo of a running back running through the defense line looks like all the others after a while. To quote Crash Davis in Bull Durham: “Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.” Don't run the same shots time after time. Ask and expect more from your photographers than the same old, same old.

Educate Yourself
As a sports editor and reporter you need to seek out great sports photography. It’s amazing how many photo and story ideas can come from this. A great place to see and read about sports photography is at sportsshooter.com. Next time you are talking to a member of your photo staff, slip in “I was looking at sports shooter the other day and...” and your street cred will shoot through the roof -- and you actually might understand what you are talking about.

Say “Thank You”

The stingy bean counters who are bent on destroying journalism love it when reporters use the phone (cheap) instead of actually going where the story is (money). Photographers can’t make photographs over the phone. A few years ago at the Eastern Illinois University Homecoming, it rained the entire football game, winds gusted over 50 mph. Tony Romo (yeah, that Tony Romo) did not attempt a single pass the entire game. There was no light, lots of rain, and the wind. The most important thing the sports editor did that day was thank the photograph who did not have the luxury of sitting in the warm press box. Even the photographers who do not like sports always worked really hard for that editor because once in a while he let the photographers know he appreciated their hard work. Photographers are like puppies -- they will do anything for food or praise.

Great sports photographs, despite what you think, are rarely the result of luck. Luck may be an ingredient, but it is a small ingredient. Sport editors and reporters often hold the others.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Greed has trickled down to high school sports

Greed.

There’s no other word for it.

More and more sports governing bodies want it all. They want free exposure on TV, print and online. They want to control the media. But, most of all, they want to control all revenue, wringing every penny for themselves -- even at the expense of losing essential publicity from news organizations.

The NFL would not be where it is today were not for all the free PR it has received through stories in newspapers, magazines, television and radio. That has resulted in billions of dollars for the league. Apparently, that is not enough. So the NFL created its own network, scheduling key games on this channel in order to force cable companies to add it to their menu. (Unless you have a satellite package, you will not see Green Bay take on Dallas on Thanksgiving.) Plus, the NFL limits video coverage on newspaper websites, believing this would cut into profits or would lure readers away from the NFL’s website.

The NCAA, concerned about profits from its TV contract, halted live blogging at a regional baseball game in Louisville last spring, believing the blogger would violate its TV contract (and that fans would turn away from the live broadcast to read a live blog. Ridiculous.)

Major League Baseball even attempted to stop a fantasy sports company from using player stats and names for its clients, something the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied in a ruling last month.

The greed has now trickled down to prep sports where the Illinois High School Association is attempting to limit coverage at its postseason events. The IHSA, apparently, has signed an agreement with Visual Image Photography, Inc., giving this company “exclusive and unlimited access to IHSA tournament locations and photo opportunities.” That means newspapers and TV stations cannot post photos of games on their websites, nor can they make these pictures available for sale to local readers. In order to cover these postseason games, newspapers are required to sign an agreement saying they will comply.

"It's very clear what this is about," said David L. Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association. "After a century of supporting and promoting local school sports, newspapers have helped develop a market that the IHSA now wants for itself. We believe what they're doing is unlawful."

The Illinois Press Association calls this prior restraint. We know what it’s really called: greed. The IPA filed a lawsuit on Nov. 1 seeking to temporarily restrain the IHSA from implementing this agreement. The case went before a county circuit judge last week. Judge Patrick Kelley delayed ruling on the case to give both sides a chance to resolve the issue. Kelley apparently sides with newspapers on the issues. His stance on selling photos taken at games is unclear, though.

This agreement would have a chilling effect on news media. This could prevent readers from learning about games. Newspapers typically produce picture pages and post more pictures online for fans, players and family. If this agreement goes into effect, newspapers would not be able to post any photos online. Newspapers offer a cheap service. They send reporters and photographers to cover games, paying a salary, mileage, hotels and, perhaps, meals. For fifty cents, readers can then read all about these games. Cheaper yet, readers can go online to get most of this coverage for free. Not a bad deal. Much better than the one fans would receive from high school sports associations, governing bodies that, ostensibly, represent its state’s citizens. Perhaps, these same citizens should consider cutting funds to organizations like the IHSA, using it for more academic purposes – especially if this agreement passes.

"Newspapers inform readers in many ways, not just print on paper," says Springfield State-Journal Register publisher Sue Schmitt said. "The State Journal-Register has been a pioneer in the use of online photo galleries and multimedia presentations, all to better serve our readers. Our readers want copies of these photos and presentations because they want to hold onto the memory of their sons, their daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, friends or teammates in action. The idea that access could be denied to our photographers if we refuse to seek the sanction of a quasi-governmental body to use our own work is unacceptable."

Unlike the NFL, state sports agencies like the IHSA, are funded by the state. Football is just business for the NFL. That’s not supposed to be the case in amateur sports played by unpaid teenagers. Public schools provide 85 percent of the IHSA’s membership. Perhaps, school districts should be pressured to withdraw from the IHSA if this agreement goes into effect. These schools can create their own sports organization, one that honors open access to events for those involved.

Hmmm. Perhaps, the kids should file suit, claiming they should also get some of this money. Were it not for them, there would be no sports event. Is the IHSA taking advantage of these kids, using them to make some extra money? Is this a violation of child labor laws, where kids are forced to travel late on school nights without any direct financial compensation? Yes, this might be a ridiculous argument. But so is the IHSA’s. Nobody should own the rights to a state-supported public event. There’s no profit in it for anybody.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Be prepared to do it all in your first job

Like many smaller newspapers across the country, the Quincy Herald Whig focuses more on local sports. As it should be. More mid-sized and larger newspapers are also turning to local sports coverage. Gone are the days where readers turned to the local newspaper for national sports coverage. Now, readers can get live play by play online and can view highlights of national games on ESPN. Even larger newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, are turning to more prep coverage.

High school sports are more attractive to editors for several reasons. A senior editor at the Washington Post told me the NFL had blocked the paper’s attempt to create an online site for the Redskins. The NFL, which wants to control as much as it can, has draconian rules that limit video posting to 45 seconds per day. That’s not enough time to tell a substantial story. So the Post turned to high schools, whose coaches, players and fans are excited to get the star treatment. The Washington Post shows videos of key games, includes team rosters, and offers features on teams, players and trends. It's impressive.

The Washington Post’s sports editor told me the prep beat is as important as any other beat. If you can cover preps, he said, you can cover anything. He said he feels comfortable assigning the prep beat writers to cover college or professional events as well. If the Washington Post is pushing local prep coverage, you can bet other newspapers are doing the same.

Since many new reporters will be starting at smaller newspapers like the Quincy Herald Whig, I asked sports editor Don O’Brien to offer advice for those seeking jobs and to those who want to learn more about covering high school sports.

1. What advice do you have for young reporters trying to break in as a stringer or intern (or even to those looking to get hired in their first job after college)? What do you look for in resumes, clips or in interviews?

At a small paper like mine (circ, 26,000) , you really have to be able to do it all. If you can only report, I won't have much use for you. If you only do desk work, I won't have much use for you.

Students must take full advantage of [working at college papers like the] Daily Eastern News to hone their skills in reporting and design both. You must be efficient in Quark or InDesign. Unless you're God's gift to prose, a one-trick pony isn't going to get my attention. (And if you're that good at reporting, you're probably out of my league anyway.)

When I was at the Daily Eastern News, I also worked part-time on Friday nights at the [Charleston] Times-Courier for a few semesters. Yes, it stinks that you lose a Friday night of fun, but it helps you in the long run. You get to see how the pros work on deadline and what it takes to put a paper together. (Not to mention, I had more beer money than my buddies.)

Having that type of experience will also help you when you go job hunting. If someone clerked or strung stories for a paper in addition to what they did for their college paper, that resume will stand out a little more than the others who only have college experience.

The DEN and other college papers are great places to learn the craft. Those who take full advantage of the opportunities there will have a leg up on the others when it comes time to job/intern hunt.

2. How do you approach covering high school sports, such as football, basketball or cross country? Do you want your reporters to approach the games differently than they would if they were covering college or the NFL?

I think we cover the high schools a bit differently than we do the colleges and pros. We'll report on the games and do feature stories on high school athletes, but we're not going to do some of the things that we might normally do for the college or pros. A lot of papers like to grade teams after games or after a season. That's great for the pros and colleges, but I don't think it's appropriate for high school kids.

There's no real need to give a high school junior who plays quarterback and F grade for throwing four interceptions in a blowout loss to their rival school. Those high school players aren't receiving anything to play. It's an extracurricular activity. They shouldn't be scrutinized that way.

That's not to say you don't report that Johnny Quarterback threw those four interceptions in the loss. Facts are facts.

We cover more than 40 high schools in our area and concentrate heavily on the two high schools in town. Don't know how others deal with this, but unless there are arrests made, we tend to go with "a violation of team rules" when high school players are suspended. We try not to make a federal case out of it. These are 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old kids who are bound to make some mistakes.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

'Crash' into sports journalism: Some lessons from an Oscar-winning writer

Not to name drop, but I spent some time today with Robert Moresco, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Crash” – and who co-produced “Million Dollar Baby.” We were hanging out at the Brown Hotel, overlooking Louisville from the top floor. Bobby had some great advice on ways to improve writing, something that captivated many of those attending this session sponsored by Spalding University's MFA program. No matter what you write, you’ll probably want to consider some of his suggestions – many of which are also applicable to those interesting in covering sports.

Commit to your idea. “Don’t capitulate to others’ ideas,” Moresco said. That means thinking about new angles and story ideas for writing profile stories, for packaging sports sections, and for even using agate. Look at as many other sports sections and writing examples as possible – not to emulate these fine works but, rather, to find ways to develop them further. Be an innovator. As Bobby said: “Don’t write what they (studios) want because, by the time they get around to your script, they may be on to something else.”

“The scene you don’t want to write is the one you have to write.”
Do things that make you feel uncomfortable, whether that is interviewing someone’s mom, asking tough questions of an athlete charged with a crime, or reporting in a new media. “You have to write out of your problem,” Bobby says. “If you make everything easier, you’re ruining your story. … You know when it’s easy: (it's) when you’re going, ‘Why is this so easy?’” Take on new challenges and new approaches to writing stories and producing sports sections.


“It’s all about human behavior.” This is what draws in readers. Determine what drives the people we write about, what they want most in life. Then, pinpoint what might prevent them from obtaining this. This might mean a catcher needs to learn to improve on throws to second or that a quarterback needs to play better against blitzes – or it could mean that a player is facing some personal challenge off the field. Tell these stories. Spend time interviewing, observing and researching so you can hang your story on this real-life drama. “If nothing is in the way (for a character to succeed),” Bobby said, “then there’s no drama. Conflict is drama, drama is conflict.” Find this, especially for columns, features and profiles.

“We are all driven by the things that own us.” In other words, learn what drives athletes and coaches. Obviously, their respective sports own them to a degree. But so do the people in their lives, their experiences, and their desires. Look deeply into their actions on and off the field by speaking with friends, by attending practices, and by doing some research. In addition, see if these people are acting logically. Too often, sports journalists try to paint a player or coach as good, bad, noble or mean. (Like most journalists, I have been guilty of this as well.) But people are more complex than this. Sometimes, people act irrationally. If we do our homework, we’ll realize these actions are not always inconsistent. Instead, perhaps we just failed to see the entire picture. For example, Officer Ryan in "Crash" acts like a jerk when he fondles the female passenger early in the film. Yet, Ryan (Matt Dillon) risks his life to save this very same woman later in the movie. Can someone be both a saint and sinner? Are you always nice or mean? Nobody is, not even the worst villain or the nicest person. People are not one-dimensional, so do not write flat, one- or two-source profiles that fail to explore these lives. Make them more complex, more real, like Officer Ryan, a police officer who is supposed to protect everyone, but who cannot protect the person he loves the most (his father). So he reacts to this frustration during the traffic stop. Lesson: don’t create villains and heroes. Instead, reveal people fully for who they are.

“Did I give 98 percent instead of 100 percent?” Journalism is hard – like anything worth doing. Give the best effort you can. Sometimes, you have one day to knock out a story, other times you have a week or so. Do the best job you can within these time constraints. “Writers are courageous,” Bobby said. “We know what we have is not enough, yet we write anyway.” We are always facing deadlines, so make the most of the time you have.

Learn to act. This is how Moresco responded when a student asked for advice on how to become an actor. “I’m serious,” he said after some laughter. “Learn the craft of acting.” Take classes, work in local theater, and be committed to acting. In the same way, you do not need to go to the New York Times or Sports Illustrated to become a terrific sports journalist either. You can become a top-notch writer in Robinson, Ill.; Palatka, Fla., or Little Compton, R.I., if you are willing to listen to experienced editors, to study other writers, and to commit yourself to reporting. Learn (and practice) the basics frequently, and apply this knowledge often. Write, edit, and design sports pages as often as possible, wherever you are. Learn to be the best sports journalist you can.

Writing is difficult. So is reporting and interviewing - much more difficult than some imagine. “The only writers who think writing is easy,” Bobby said, “are bad writers.” But if you work hard each day, you will improve. Compare your work through time – to three months ago, six months ago, a year ago. If you have worked hard, you will see some progress. You cannot write like Mitch Albom, Rick Reilly or Gary Smith overnight. But if you commit yourself to the craft, in time you might eventually surpass them.

Test characters. Moresco likes to test his fictional characters, putting them in uncomfortable situations where we learn more about their lives. We learn, for example, that Officer Graham (Don Cheadle) cares more for his career than for his brother and mother by following the choices he made. Find the moments that have tested the people you cover. Pinpoint the moments that test people on the field, if you are writing a game story. Explore the moments where a linebacker or forward were tested on the field or court. Then, put them in your game story, sidebar or column.

Love it or leave it. You must have the desire to commit your life to your work, whether that is as a screenwriter, as a nurse, or as a sports journalist. Success takes hard work. “If something else makes you happy,” Bobby says, “then go do that. Sure, that sounds easy for Mr. Hotshot director/screenwriter/producer. But not if you consider that Bobby Moresco worked as a bartender and in construction for more than 20 years before hitting it big. He kept working and writing and learning. So keep at it. There’s no substitute for persistence. Even if you do succeed early, don’t trick yourself into thinking you know it all. Said Bobby: “The moment you think you’re as good as they say you are, you’re dead.”

I’m guessing, if you read this far, you love sports journalism. You can't change everything overnight. Instead, work to improve on one (even small) thing in your next story assignment. Then, work on another, and so on. Be committed to this thing you love. Good luck.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Floor your readers with amazing stories

Columnists are reporters with an opinion. The best columnists are also keen observers, precise writers, and excellent storytellers. Frequently, we forget that readers love stories. But that is difficult to do in 13 inches or 400 words. We need to expand columns on days when a writer finds a terrific story.

Columnists frequently write opinion pieces, offer notes, or playfully address an issue, but how frequently do columnists tell stories to get their points across? Not enough. That's why reading pieces by a great writer like Bill Plaschke is a treat. Plaschke's piece -- "Floored" -- is among the best column I've read in some time.

"Floored" is an amazing story, a column that might have fallen through the cracks had Plaschke not also been a curious observer and a diligent reporter. Ultimately, the column succeeds because Plaschke is an excellent storyteller. Readers love a good mystery, something he clearly understands. Consider the opening:

The name is in giant cardinal letters, stripped across two sides of the new basketball court in this city's new basketball treasure, the signature on USC's signature arena.

It will be stepped upon by generations of Trojans basketball players.

It will be seen by millions of Galen Center fans.

Yet it is cloaked in mystery.

Jim Sterkel Court.

"Are you sure?" asks his wife, Joanne Sterkel. "His name is on what?"


Plaschke starts with a simple detail and then pulls us in with the idea of a mystery before adding an intriguing detail -- that Sterkel's wife is shocked. Hmmm. How does his wife not know something major like this? What else doesn't she know? Tell me more.

Plaschke keeps the story rolling by focusing on conflict at several points. There is the sad moment when Sterkel finds out he has cancer. Then, readers learn that the anonymous donor's son is also dying. The reader, of course, will want to read further to learn the outcome in both situations

When Sterkel first noticed a lump in his testicles, he told Anonymous, who immediately drove him to the doctor for the beginning of his long and fatal relationship with cancer.

While Sterkel was dying, Anonymous' young son also contracted cancer. Sterkel wrote Anonymous a poem, sealed it, and ordered it only to be read if Anonymous' son died.

Plaschke also writes wonderfully, varying sentences as needed. He uses short, staccato sentences to re-emphasize points in longer sentences. He then counters with longer sentences that pack a lot of information within them.

After their senior years, the roommates set upon vastly different courses of life, but never strayed too far.

There's also this nice passage that summarizes the opening scene:

Anonymous became a business tycoon, while Sterkel became a suburban salesman and church leader, yet they still met for family dinners, fishing trips and pep talks on the phone.

Sterkel was the kind of guy who didn't smoke, didn't swear, and would lead his church in services and on its basketball courts.

He was the kind of guy neighbors phoned if they needed a television fixed or pipe unclogged. Giant and bespectacled and always smiling, he was the kind of guy who hugged everyone.

He also says much in the following sentence, a 22-word line of poetry. (Notice, also, how the second shorter sentence leaps out in comparison to its lengthier neighbor.)

A most amazing story in this city of stars, a sports centerpiece decorated in average, laced in ordinary, painted in a nobody.

Or was he?

Plaschke is also a tenacious reporter. He uncovers the name of the anonymous donor but does not reveal it to readers, knowing that detail is unnecessary to the telling of the tale. Just because we know something does not mean we should publish it. Consider how your words impact others. Plaschke speaks with many sources, everybody from Jim Sterkel's wife and daughter to a former teammate to USC's athletic director to Anonymous. He digs in to learn as many details about this story as possible from these people.

After so much work, Plaschke then tells an amazing story of friendship, dedication, and selflessness. It's a lovely story, one that sticks in one's mind (and heart) for a long time -- and one worth emulating.

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Satire can result in a swing and a miss


Part of my mission is to try and educate. Part of my job is to model activity -- in this case writing a column with a strong opinion. Perhaps, I failed in that mission. At least that's how it appears if you read the comments to my previous blog (below). Nearly every single writer said they did not get the satire, which either means that readers failed to understand it, or that I failed to present it properly. Since no one is defending the post, I can only assume I struck out.

I had thought the reasons I offered in the column would clearly shine through as ridiculous. But I guess there are many ridiculous notions presented on the Internet. I had assumed everybody thought like me -- that binge drinking in college is stupid, that missing class is a losing proposition, that athletes should be held accountable, and that drinking and driving is as deadly and stupid as it gets. That's why, for example, I made the statement below. Who else but the student would be to blame?

After all, it wasn’t the player’s fault that he had inadvertently been arrested twice for driving under the influence of intoxicants.


Based upon comments, though, I found most readers do agree with me on this, thus the comments. What happened is they did not connect with me, a relationship that requires more time. The regular readers of this blog understood what I wrote; first-timers did not. Part of a columnist's success is this connection with readers. Those who know me understand that I believe in accountability and that drunk drivers should be sentenced harshly. They appreciated the posting. Many others, though, did not. That, of course, is not always the reader's fault.

I also assumed readers would see through the rather shallow argument below, where I cited alcohol stats to reveal how deadly DUII can be. I had hoped people would understand that driving while intoxicated is a deadly, stupid thing. That's why I did the research.


It’s not like Luke was one of the 16,885 people who died in alcohol-related driving fatalities in 2005. He had not slammed into anyone, thus he had not added to the 254,000 people who get injured from crashes involving alcohol. One person may be injured every two minutes, and killed another 31, but that’s not Luke’s fault. He would have arrived home safely. So why would a columnist, a person who is supposed to comfort the afflicted, attack this young man? A person with a blood alcohol level of .08 is 11 times more likely to get in an accident than someone who is sober, but that number can’t possibly include athletes with lightning-quick reflexes like Luke. Give this kid a friggin’ break.


Again, this must have been a swing and a whiff.

Finally, I believe the media's role is to vigilantly watch public institutions, not allow them to blindly do as they please.

I can’t imagine why journalists go to the trouble of writing about misappropriation of funds, illegal defense contracts, rapes that go unreported, and alcohol infractions from young men. It’s not like it will make a difference. People will only get angry.


A columnist's role is also to get people to react to an issue so some change of mind or policy or action will take place. In this case, I wrote to change perceptions about two things -- a tacit approval for drinking while intoxicated and continued attacks on journalists who are trying to reveal illegal, unethical behavior. I had thought satire would be the best manner in which to do this. Apparently, I was incorrect. I had sent a note to John Canzano last night, linking to this story, and to thank him for his excellent work. He understood my column (even seemed to appreciate it), so I felt good about posting it here.

I learned a great deal from writing this column, something I can use to help teach others. One lesson: we can all swing and miss once in a while.

The other lesson: Decorum is gone when one can post comments anonymously. Forget about decorum and forget about disclosure. Instead, many people prefer to call names, wish for the worst, and offer other mean-spirited suggestions without citing their names. It's easy to attack when nobody knows your name. I appreciated the comments where someone offered more reasoned, careful explanations, pointing out where I had failed. That's something I can learn from. But I guess this vitriol is something sports columnists face every day. This is yet another reason why I appreciate and respect those that carry on each day despite such attacks. That's another reason I respect John Canzano.
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Let's protect players from selfish columnists

John Canzano is a selfish journalist, a man who is more concerned about good copy than in doing what is right.

He’d rather publicly embarrass a young kid in order to get a great column than let the University of Oregon deal with the situation. Canzano also rips into this poor player’s mother for running to his defense. Is that how a columnist is supposed to act, betraying a school he is charged to cover and, subsequently, causing intense scrutiny for a family?

After all, it wasn’t the player’s fault that he had inadvertently been arrested twice for driving under the influence of intoxicants. It happens. It’s college. Kids drink. They drive. They miss classes with hangovers. Remember? Good times.

Plus, universities know how to deal with this. A month ago, Oregon suspended a receiver indefinitely for what it called a ‘violation of team rules.’ The university has also suspended two basketball players over the past two seasons. Even the mascot, a duck, could not escape punishment after a fight with a Houston Cougars mascot. Oregon is not afraid to do what’s right.

Canzano should have known the university would have suspended Luke Bellotti had this been a major violation. That he is the coach’s son is irrelevant. Sure, the team may have altered the truth (with fingers crossed) when it said Luke missed fall football for a ‘digestive illness,' which probably was not entirely incorrect. How else would you expect this young man to feel with a second DUII case pending? Agida city, baby.

Let’s re-set the situation here:

Luke Bellotti, a part-time kicker for Oregon’s football team, pleaded guilty earlier this month to driving under the influence of intoxicants. Luke, whose dad is Ducks’ head coach Mike Bellotti, had been arrested in February. This was Luke’s second conviction, something the team kept quiet, knowing it is better to protect these young kids from an evil media contingent. (You can now see what happens when journalists learn about a slight lapse in judgment. Kids will be kids, you know. Let them learn – privately – from their mistakes.)

It’s not like Luke was one of the 16,885 people who died in alcohol-related driving fatalities in 2005. He had not slammed into anyone, thus he had not added to the 254,000 people who get injured from crashes involving alcohol. One person may be injured every two minutes, and killed another 31, but that’s not Luke’s fault. He would have arrived home safely. So why would a columnist, a person who is supposed to comfort the afflicted, attack this young man? A person with a blood alcohol level of .08 is 11 times more likely to get in an accident than someone who is sober, but that number can’t possibly include athletes with lightning-quick reflexes like Luke. Give this kid a friggin’ break.

So Luke’s mom rushes to her son’s defense by chastising Canzano, tapping him on the shoulder during a game last Saturday and mustering just enough strength to explain how his column had hurt her family. Apparently, she had been so intimidated by Mr. Canzano that she needed to take a drink or two before entering the press box. And you can imagine how hard that must have been after her son’s embarrassing misadventures. She managed to blurt out: "You've dragged our family through so much hurt and pain...” That’s the kind of courage one expects from a devoted mother.

So what does this columnist do? Oh, he couldn’t resist. Canzano decided to be the story, smugly recounting this private exchange and characterizing her comments as a hissy fit, which, of course, tarnished one of the biggest victories Oregon has had in decades. Now all the attention is on John, Luke, and his mom. (Did I mention she was so shaken that she even brought her children into the press box where Canzano was supposed to write about the Ducks’ win over Southern Cal?) Instead, he wrote the following post on a blog that has circulated across the country, from the New York Times to Deadspin.

She leaned in, grabbed by my suit lapel, and lit into me with a string of expletives, asking me if I have children, and telling me, "This is going to come back on you tenfold." And she threatened to slap me, which I thought was not such a nice example to set in front of the kiddies.
I told her that it played especially poorly to me that she would approach me in the press box, with a strong smell of alcohol on her breath, hissing and spitting mad, talking to me about alcohol abuse.

Canzano is clearly a callous man. You can tell this by reading another story where he ‘outs’ a family that has trouble making ends meet. Dad just can't cut it.

“His name is Jason Taylor. He’s 29. He has three perfect children – a boy and two girls, ages 5 to 11. Six months ago, he was laid off from his job manufacturing airplane parts. After that, he was forced to sell his house to avoid a foreclosure.”

We also find out the kids have to pick out ants from cereal, are forced to ride along late at night while Jason delivers newspapers, and that the family was on food stamps. This dad even hides in the closet to cry. Talk about public embarrassment. But Canzano did not give a damn. It was good copy, not social commentary on spoiled, selfish Blazers fans.

I can’t imagine why journalists go to the trouble of writing about misappropriation of funds, illegal defense contracts, rapes that go unreported, and alcohol infractions from young men. It’s not like it will make a difference. People will only get angry. Commentors on Canzano’s blog, like RushDuck, are trying to correct him: “This is National Enquirer material here! The great head football coach conspiracy of trying to keep private matters private.” Duck99pdx wonders: “If nobody got killed when Luke Bellotti was drinking and driving, I don't see what the big deal is. No harm, no foul.” We all know it’s columnists who really cause problems, not the people they write about, something that is clear to Bbroich: “Are you nuts? It's attitudes like yours that gets countless people killed every year. You need to grow up.”

We all need to act more maturely. Let’s let government do its job without any interference from columnists, reporters, or citizen advocates. Let’s let universities decide how to deal with unruly kids who rape or attack one another. Let’s let athletic departments decide what’s best for their players. I’m sure none of these institutions would ever abuse this power. Wouldn’t you agree? Let journalists investigate more important matters like Paris Hilton’s driving adventures and whether Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have split (or reconciled?) That’s what we need for a more informed citizenry, not some story about an alcohol-related arrest or a cover-up at a state university. Where’s the fun in that?

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Broadcaster offers ways to improve radio (and print) coverage

Listeners hate it when announcers fail to offer the score during radio broadcasts. They also hate when announcers predict plays, act like homers, and forget to offer the time left in a game. That's what veteran broadcaster Warren Kozireski told college students at a national college journalism conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

That was clear to me this afternoon as I listened to a Bears-Lions game. The Bears announcers told me the game was a shut out (but not who was being shut out) and that the Lions were trying to get three points before the end of the half. Five minutes passed before I heard a score - and a full minute after Jason Hanson kicked a field goal to put the Lions ahead 13-0. I thought I would have to sit in a car at the Arthur Pumpkin Patch while my daughters trampled fields filled with gourds. Fortunately, that catastrophe was averted when the Bears announcers finally ceded that the Lions were winning.

As a print journalist, I have rarely given sports broadcasters their due. Through the years, though, I have gained more respect for radio broadcasting. After Saturday, I admire the work of hard-working radio broadcasters even more. Kozireski revealed the challenges to broadcasting a sporting event. He outlined several areas where sports broadcasters can improve. As I listened, I realized these tips are just as relevant for print reporters. Check out his main suggestions below:

Offer time and score frequently. "That is the number one complaint," said Kozireski, who is also the general manager for a radio station in Brockport, N.Y. "The time and score's always there on TV. Then you go over to radio and what happens? You hope somebody slips in the score once in a while." The key is to have a system, some way that reminds announcers to add these key elements. There is no single way to do this. In baseball and softball, for example, some announcers offer the score after every batter, while others offer it after the second out in the inning. Some offer it every three minutes, using an egg timer. "I still witness them in booths all the time," Kozireski said. Announcers also need to reveal who is leading and the exact time left in a game. For example, announcers should not just say that 5:18 is left in a game; rather they should also give the reference point to those just checking in (saying the 5:18 is left in the second quarter or first half, for example.)

Know the team rosters. Make sure you know the names and numbers of key players. Saying that a pass has been completed to No. 48 (even if you add the name after a brief glimpse at the roster) reveals you did not do your homework. "The moment 48 catches the ball, you need to know the name," Kozireski said. You should study the key players first. In football, that means the quarterback, running backs, and receivers. In hockey or basketball, that may mean studying the leading scorers. These are the players who will touch the ball, or puck, most frequently. Always make sure the numbers are correct by asking team managers and assistant coaches to verify them.

Don't predict. That means saying what has happened, not what is going to happen (even if it appears obvious.) Don't say that a quarterback is going to pass or that a running back is going to get a first down as he runs. Instead, say that a quarterback is in the pocket and that a running back got a first down. Says Kozireski: "Your job is to report."

Don't be a homer. Some broadcasters still argue that outwardly rooting for the home team is a good thing. One student in Saturday's session claimed 90 percent of his listeners rooted for the college team. But not all fans are rooting for the home town, and many want a more evenly balanced report, regardless. That's why I watch White Sox games with the sound off because I cannot stand Hawk Harrelson's blatant one-sided view of the game: "C'mon Big Daddy!" "He gone!" (I wish he were.) If a player from the home team makes a mistake, announcers must describe the play correctly, even if they believe some viewers will get upset. "In one game, I said a player muffed a punt," Kozireski said. "His mom called to complain. I asked, 'How would you like me to describe it?'" It went through his arms and bounced away. But she is clearly biased." Being a homer can also hinder one's career. Networks are not interested in biased announcers on national broadcasts where there are no home teams. Be more like Gus Johnson, who is excited about key plays, regardless which basketball team makes them.

Read books on sports broadcasting. Read Josh Lewin's Getting In The Game, Marv Albert's Yesss, and Dan Patrick's The Big Show -- all of which offer tips, suggestions, and insights into the profession.

Drink lots of water. Not Red Bull, Gatorade, or vitamin water. Milk is the worst thing because it coats the throat. "By the third period of a hockey game, your throat is rough," Kozireski said. "If the games goes into overtime, you can be in trouble." For sore throats on game day, drink hot tea with lemon.

If you are an analyst, shut up! Give the play-by-play announcer time to do his job. The game is not about you. Also, analysts need to do their homework so they know as much as possible about the teams and players. Plus, analysts should not follow the ball. That's the play-by-play announcer's job. Instead, look at other parts of the field or rink. And do not be a Monday morning quarterback, saying what a player or coach should have done; instead, offer your suggestions before plays.

Here are a few other brief suggestions:

■ Don't pigeonhole yourself to a single sport.
■ Avoid jargon, translating a sport's terminology.
■ Sit down and talk with coaches to learn the game better.
■ Dress the part. Keep those worn jeans and torn t-shirts in the dresser. Dress professionally to be treated as such.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Online skills are essential



No matter where you're working or taking classes, I hope you're working on some online skills as well. There continues to be great debate whether print publications are doomed. A former writer for the New York Times argues that print publications will fade away like parchment, typewriters and, perhaps, CDs. Digital is the future, this writer claims. Even books and magazines will die off in time, Adam Penenberg writes, eventually turning into artifacts that are either sold on eBay or tossed into land fills.

I'm not so sure that newspapers will suffer such a swift burial, but print publications are definitely hurting so much that online readership will be counted in the next Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) reports, which should be announced in the next few weeks. The Audit Bureau, which is the primary circulation audit group in the United States, will not just publish paid print circulation in its biannual reports. Instead, the ABC will combine print and online numbers, probably in order to soften a steady drop in print circulation. No surprise: More and more readers are headed online. But, many are headed to newspapers' online editions. Newspapers remain the most credible news sources.

Sports readers are probably even more active than the average reader, constantly looking for scores, results, and commentary about their favorite teams. Fans will even follow games online through blogs. Sports readers also love to react to one another, something that is clear when you check comments below stories. Tonight, nearly 400 readers posted comments on a brief NFL story at Deadspin. That number of responses would make any newspaper editor envious.

So what does this mean for sports journalism, where online sites like CBSsportsline, ESPN, and Deadspin already publish scores, commentary and news independent of a print publication? That means more opportunities for writers who have learned how to write for this new audience, for readers who expect quick takes, concise writing, strong opinions, and interactive content. That means you better learn how to link to related content, how to add video and audio, and how to file quickly. Clearly, those with strong journalism skills (reporting, interviewing, observing) will do much better than most bloggers, although there will always be room for witty, engaging writers like Bill Simmons and Will Leitch.

Don't abandon your print publications just yet, though. There is much to be learned from this experience -- and print publications remain the most significant sources of news. (Even Leitch, the founder and key editor for Deadspin, said writing his regular column for the New York Times gives him an extra thrill.) Just don't limit yourself to writing for print editions. Collect some audio, find related stories so you can link to them off your online stories, and write glogs (live game blogs) for live events on days when you do not print. And, of course, read as much as you can, whether that is picking up the Best Sportswriting series, reading excellent sports journalists, or checking out sports blogs and websites.

You can start slowly, perhaps by writing a weekly sports blog for your school's online publication, something that is especially helpful for weekly newspapers where sports news can age rapidly. You might even want to start your own sports blog on a local sports team if you do not write for a school publication. Keep evaluating your own work, and ask others to offer criticism. Learn the basics, hone your skills and take some chances. And, most of all, have some fun along the way. After all, this is sports we're writing about.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

ESPN has bias for ratings, not East Coast

Last night someone told me, "I'm sick of the Yankees and Red Sox. They're always on TV." He then pulled out the East Coast bias card, saying the Midwest and West Coast do not get their proper respect.

We talked primarily about baseball, this being playoffs season and he being a disgruntled Cubs fan. He said all he sees are Yankees and Red Sox games. I said that's because ESPN is more worried about ratings than judiciously spreading its Sunday Night Baseball Games among all 30 teams. "That's not fair," he said. But that's just smart business for a company trying to make money. Newspapers make these decisions all the time, which is why regional newspapers cover their local teams more than national teams. That sells papers.

Don't mistake entertainment for journalism. Like other networks, ESPN wants to make money. Networks spend a great deal of money to get broadcast rights, so they want to earn that money back. That's why you did not see the small-market Devil Rays and Royals play. Ratings would be abysmal, something advertisers would not like.

There's not doubt there is a certain degree of East Coast bias in some coverage, in part because a higher percentage of people live there and in part because of the time difference. East Coast viewers are not as willing to stay up late to watch 10 p.m. baseball, football, and basketball games. But, clearly, teams like Southern Cal (in football) and the Los Angeles Dodgers get respect when they succeed (although not as much, perhaps, as if they played East.)

But let's look at one small aspect of this bias argument. I decided to check ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball schedule from this past season to see if these claims are true. Not surprisingly, the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were among the teams who appeared the most. But they trailed the Cardinals, who appeared six times. The Tigers and Braves, though, matched the five appearances by the Yankees and Mets. The Red Sox appeared just as frequently as the Cubs (four times), followed by the Angels and Phillies at three apiece. The Dodgers, Twins, Indians and Rangers each appeared twice, while the Padres, Giants and Astros appeared once.

West Coast teams like the Mariners and A's never appeared, but nor did the Orioles, Devil Rays or Nationals. The Rockies and Diamondbacks were also shut out from Sunday Night Baseball, but so were the Pirates, White Sox, Reds, and Marlins. In most instances, this is because the teams played poorly. But you can also see that many of these teams play in smaller markets, something that affects Major League Baseball teams that do not have the resources to compete with big-market teams. Major League Baseball does not share revenue, unlike the National Football League, where the tiny market Packers can compete much easier with the Giants, Bears and Cowboys.

I'm not sure whether ESPN, or any other sports media, has a bias toward a coast. You can bet Duke-North Carolina basketball games will always be shown nationally, as will Southern Cal-UCLA in football, and the Yankees-Red Sox in baseball. These teams have national profiles and storied histories, meaning viewers are more inclined to watch them play. That's not journalism; that's just smart business.

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