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.

-30-

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.
-30-

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?

-30-

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.

-30-

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.

-30-

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.

-30-

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

'Scoring from Second' shows baseball is more than a game

Summer is already a distant memory. Days are shorter. Scraps of corn and soy are scattered across harvested fields. And baseball season has just ended.

For most of us, baseball really ended decades ago when we learned we were not talented enough to play at the college or professional levels. That’s tough to accept after so much time spent tossing wicked curves to our friends, ripping mammoth homers, and diving for line drives Brooks Robinson would have been envious to catch.

Sure, we knew better, but we loved the game — the smell of worn, leather gloves pressed against our faces, the sweet smell of newly mown outfield grass, and the rough feel of a wooden bat, knowing it possessed all kinds of magical possibilities.

More than 30 accomplished writers explore their own relationship with the sport in “Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball,” a book edited by Phil Deaver, a man who once shagged balls and snared line drives as a kid in Tuscola.

These writers reveal that baseball does not enchant everybody. Instead, it taunts overweight, uncoordinated kids and pressures talented kids to the brink of suicide. Baseball also helps one deal with heartache, despair and death.

No sport affects us like baseball — at least, lyrically. Football may be about war and punishment, and basketball may be about power and style. But they lack the familial intimacy of baseball, a sports that connects fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandparents. “Scoring from Second” explores the reasons for this.

For example, baseball taught Jocelyn Bartkevicus to deal with life, and it taught her stepson to deal with death. Cancer, which had already ravaged the writer’s family, poised to attack a tiny 5-year-old boy who was more interested in chasing ice creak trucks than fly balls.

“Chris played right field, where we used to put the deaf girl when I coached my sister’s softball team,” she writes. “Out there, a kid gets bored. Chris stared up at the clouds, down at blades of grass, over at his elementary school. He put his hat on sideways, then backward. He threw it up in the air.”

Jocelyn and her son relied on baseball to help endure the roughest times.

Baseball taught Susan Perabo that baseball is not only for boys. Like several other writers, Susan refused to yield to this macho attitude. Instead, she fought to play baseball years before Title IX attempted to even the playing field for young women.

Eventually, she earned a chance to play a season for Webster University in St. Louis.

“There was a little bit of sun left in the sky and we had nowhere better to be,” she writes. “The thing is — the thing I see so clearly now — was that on that cool evening there simply was nowhere better to be, nowhere better than a baseball field, shagging flies in the outfield with my teammates, my friends and I playing simply for the love of it.”

This is a book even non-baseball fans can appreciate. Sure, the book has its share of lyricism — “baseball is as beautiful and irresistible and as irreversible as a first kiss.” But this book is not an ode to baseball as much as it is an exploration into the lives of people who happened to play the game wherever they could — in sandlots, back yards and on organized teams.

In the end, these writers realize baseball is just a game, like life, where the rules may seem a little clearer but the final score is never certain.

This review was originally published in the Charleston Times-Courier.
-30-

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Let's show some restraint

I'm always embarrassed when I read stories like this:

Along with the groundswell of support from his players and opponents alike, attention paid to Torre has seemed suffocating. Newspaper photographers and TV camera people have been a persistent presence on Torre's front lawn and driveway this week.

"In the postgame Monday, Joe said there's always a vigil on his front lawn every year and he asked this year if they could respect his privacy," Jason Zillo, the Yankees' director of media relations, said.

The media are camped outside yet another person's home in order to get the 'big story.' And that is? Joe Torre, or someone else, walking to their car? The family dog relieving himself on the lawn? Perhaps, these reporters expect to get Torre to reveal secrets to the people pestering him.

Reporters need to be persistent, enterprising and thorough. This is neither. Instead, these 'journalists' are being rude, cliche and superficial. If reporters want to know whether Torre has been fired, they can do several things -- wait for the press conference or wait for a call from Torre, his agent, or the Yankees management. The work to get this story started many months (and years) ago, when the team's beat reporters arrived for spring training. The reporters who have diligently covered the team the past several seasons are going to get this story first, not the unimaginative, pesky reporters on Torre's lawn. (Besides, the municipal market has proven that Torre will return.) Show some restraint and go back to the office. I'm sure this time can be spent doing more thorough reporting than sitting outside someone's house. Sheesh.
-30-

Monday, October 15, 2007

Send in your most hated sports phrases

I am putting together a list of sports phrases, words and terms that need to be deleted in sports reporting and could use your help, especially if you are an editor, writer or teacher. So far, I have a slew of cliches (giving it their all), unnecessary phrases (The Wildcats found the end zone again), and unnecessary repetitions (a 23-0 shutout). Send me the words, phrases and terms you typically cross out, delete or that cause you to scream. You can post them below or email them to me at jgisondi@gmail.com. Thanks.

-30-

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Writing sports profiles

People are complex. So writing about their lives should not be easy. Too often, sports reporters go out, speak with a coach or player for 20-30 minutes (perhaps an hour), return to the office and write. Sometimes, the story also includes a quote or two from another player or coach. Maybe some stats are tossed in. Sports profiles take much more effort than that. They are not easy to write, but you can get better over time if you consider some of the points below. Hope they help.

Conflict – In all good stories, a main character wants something but someone or some thing, stands in the way. Unlike fiction, in these sports profiles the conflict does not always need to be resolved. Check out the story on Jake Scott, an award-winning story by Dave Hyde. Conflicts are usually resolved in stories that deal with events that took place in the past. There is nothing wrong with addressing an ongoing challenge; however, you do need to find the main conflict for most profile pieces. (Do not elevate conflicts that are not really there, nor should you create melodramatic scenes. Instead, spend some time interviewing, observing and researching until you see where the story begins. Keep in mind, some papers are just looking for a short overview profile piece. These are usually not as interesting, but readers do like some of these shorter takes on athletes, nonetheless.)

News angle – Determine the reason you are writing a story on this person. Why this person, and why now? Perhaps, this person is being profiled because of a recent athletic performance or because of a recent hiring. Perhaps, this person is connected to an anniversary of an event (like he 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal game) or an amazing season (like the 1972 Dolphins, the last undefeated NFL team.) Perhaps, someone just died, so you are writing a more involved obituary, one that runs days or weeks after the actual death. Either way, make sure a reason is clearly stated somewhere in this story.

Setting – Put the person in a place, a physical location, whenever possible. Set the scene early, putting the main character in a certain place. Sometimes, you can describe the setting before you describe the profiled person, especially when the setting takes on the role as character. That’s the case in Pamela Colloff’s terrific story on a fired women’s basketball coach, entitled “She’s Here. She’s Queer. She’s Fired” that was originally published in Texas Monthly. (This piece is one of many superb sports stories also published in the Best Sportswriting 2006). The town, whose morals and beliefs, clash with those of local girls coach, is introduced in the beginning of the story.

IN BLOOMBURG THERE ISN’T A STOP SIGN, or even a blinking yellow light, at the center of town—just a bend in a winding two-lane road that meanders through the woods toward the Arkansas state line. Every now and then a logging truck piled high with pulpwood rumbles by on its way to the paper mill, scattering twigs and pine needles onto the blacktop below. Otherwise the town is quiet. There is no Dairy Queen, or any diversions to speak of; the closest movie theater is thirty miles away, in Texarkana. Even Bloomburg’s 1A high school is too small and too poor to have its own football team. But every November, when teenagers scrawl “Go Wildcats!” in white shoe polish on the back windows of their pickups, the boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams try to make the town proud.

Bloomburg never had much to brag about until six years ago, when the school district hired a young coach out of Arkansas named Merry Stephens. She was the first female coach in Bloomburg history, and also one of its toughest. When just seven girls tried out for the Lady Wildcats during her first year in Bloomburg, Stephens had them practice by playing against the boys. If they were used to making fifty layups at practice, she told them to do twice as many. It wasn’t long before the Lady Wildcats started winning. Stephens led the team to the state playoffs three times, and in 2004, when the team had grown to 25 players, the Lady Wildcats made it all the way to the final four. “Half the town went with them,” said one parent of the six-hour drive to Georgetown, just north of Austin. “We’d never had a team do so well.” The Lady Wildcats didn’t win the championship, but they were welcomed back as heroes. When the team’s bus pulled into town, people stood on their porches and cheered, and the volunteer fire department led an impromptu parade.

But even after the local Wal-Mart named Stephens Teacher of the Year and the district had chosen her as its Coach of the Year no fewer than three times, many residents felt uneasy about her. Stephens, it was rumored, was a lesbian. And in an area where ministers preach against homosexuality from the pulpit and tracts denouncing the theory of evolution sit next to cash registers in convenience stores, Stephens’ sexual orientation was not an issue that most residents of Bloomburg, or its school board, could overlook. In December, just nine months after the Lady Wildcats had gone to the finals, Stephens was abruptly put on leave. The woman she lived with, a teacher’s aide and school bus driver named Sheila Dunlap, was dismissed. The board’s actions made this otherwise placid town of 374 people erupt in controversy and became the central issue of the school board election in May. “It’s divided this town,” said history teacher Thresha Jones. “You’ve got people who feel that Merry and Sheila were done wrong. And then you’ve got people who think that what the school board did was the only right thing to do."

Setting is not always so significant, but putting a person in a place allows the reader to follow more easily, so take some notes on the places you go and ask for details from those involved if you could not be there or if the event happened months or years ago.

Character – Your main character (or protagonist) needs to be a fully developed person, a person literary critics would call dynamic, or complex – not flat and simple. Show this person through actions, physical description, dialogue, commentary by others and by revealing this person’s thoughts. Do not paint this person as all good or all bad. We are all illogical, inconsistent people. There’s nothing wrong with revealing this, if these points are relevant. Show this person. Speak to as many people as possible to learn about this person. Do not limit your perspective by only interviewing the person to be profiled. Consider the opening for another fine piece, this one by Pat Jordan entitled “The Magician” that focuses on a legendary pool player who is now down on his luck.

At midnight on a bitterly cold January 15 the lobby of the Executive West Hotel near the Louisville, Kentucky, airport was crowded with men and a few women, all waiting anxiously for the guest of honor.
A man in a yellow windbreaker came through the front door and walked toward the registration desk. A murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone stared at him, a small brown man with slitlike eyes, a wispy Fu Manchu moustache, and no front teeth. He wore a soiled T-shirt and wrinkled, baggy jeans. He moved hunched over, his eyes lowered.

People clustered around him. Men flipped open their cell phones and called their friends to say "He's here!" They introduced him to their girlfriends. The man looked embarrassed. Another man thrust his cell phone at him and said, "Please say hello to my son; he's been waiting up all night." The small man mumbled a few words in broken English. Then the hotel clerk asked him his name. He said, "Reyes." Someone called out, "Just put down 'the Magician.'"


Write with authority – Learn so much about this person that you can tell this story like an omniscient narrator, offering major events and little details related to the story’s main focus. Profile stories take more time and effort than most other sports stories. You can’t just go out and speak to a person or two and fire off a profile story – at least, not one worth reading. Do the proper reporting.

Voice – Yes, reporters can have a voice. Like a column, profile stories can include commentary and insights from the author. But do not interject yourself into the story too much. Offer subtle, illuminating points. Unlike a column, a profile story is not about you. Perhaps, the voice is the person being profiled, where you tell the story through their eyes, or from the perspective of this person’s 10-year-old sister, if that POV is relevant. Do not be afraid to take chances.

Here are a few more points to consider
Make sure the person profiled is acting, or doing, something that propels the overall story. Action means dialogue as well, but it does not mean someone talking about someone else. Quotes can from key people are certainly necessary, but they do not propel the story.
The person should be going somewhere, either on the field or off. The person may be working to go the state track and field meet, earning spot on an NFL team or going to the Olympics. Off the field, the person may be going off to war, going to therapy, or going to places in order to be a preacher. In the meantime, this person may be also going to a low-paying job and living in a weekly rental to get by, or going to a doctor to fix some ailment. But, overall, the person has a goal and place where they want to be.
Be fair. But that does not mean you have to be neutral in these profiles. Look at all sides to any related issues. If a coach has been vilified in the press or on a web site’s fan forum, address those points, even if they were unfair. You can reveal that these comments were unfair through solid reporting. You also need to address aspects of this person’s life that do not reflect favorable upon him. If a person is a known alcoholic, ask this person how she overcomes that handicap each day. If this is not well known, ask if the coach would be willing to share her thoughts on this topic. We do not want skewer people for their faults, so we need to be empathetic in dealing with them. We do, however, want to make sure and address events and moments that serve only to embarrass someone. But there are some aspects of a person’s life that need to be included because they are known or significant. Make sure you have a good reason for using them (and have an honest conversation with this person about your reasons as well.)
Get as much access as possible. Let this person know you would like to hang out at practice, attend meetings and speak with other people in their lives. This way, this person will not get worried when he sees you so often. You might also get some suggestions for new story angles.
Hang out. Watch practices, attend meetings, follow the person across campus, go to lunch with him. Observe and take some notes, even if you can only do so mentally (after all, you should not always be talking notes while other are eating. They’ll feel less comfortable. Write down your observations after lunch.
Use a tape recorder. Nobody can record every detail from a lengthy conversation, so buy a digital recorder and let it roll. Make sure you let people know you will be using this. If they feel uncomfortable, tell the you just want to make sure you want to get the facts right, which is the truth.
Be tenacious, patient and curious. These traits will send you in more directions than you have time, and many paths will lead to amazing stories, news and information.
Piece together scenes. Listen for stories from others, verify them and then tell them in a more concise, compelling manner. Put the reader in the moment based upon the detail offered by your sources.

Here’s an example of a scene pieced together by Kurt Streeter for his wonderful piece on a 10-year-old girl that was part of a 5-part series in the Los Angeles Times.

Do girls box? she asked, turning to her father one evening. Is it OK for girls to box?

Well, yeah, mija, they do, he answered. Sure, it's OK for girls to box.

They were sitting on the bed in his cramped apartment, faces lit by a flickering TV, eating pizza, watching a pro boxing match. Seniesa loved to watch fights with him, loved the way boxers settled their differences, using fists to express what was inside. She was just a kid, a girl enthralled with a man's sport, but she wanted to express herself like that.

Dad? Can I box? Can I learn how to box?

Joe Estrada was shocked, he would remember afterward, but he didn't want to let his daughter down, not with what they had been through. Yeah, he said, eyes still on the TV. Sure, mija, you can do that, if you really want to. I'll take you to a gym in a couple of days. I promise.

He didn't mean it. Boxing wasn't for girls. Not for his girl, a pretty one with thin bones, a delicate nose and rosy lips. He had lived by his fists, both on the streets and in prison. All he wanted was to protect her. For weeks, he did nothing to make his promise real.

But she grew adamant. She read a book about Muhammad Ali, got a poster of him and tacked it to her wall. She admired his confidence, the way he would not back down, just like her father, she would proudly say, and the way Ali had grown up, just as she had — an outsider looking in. She wanted to become a champion boxer, bold and strong, just like Ali.

Besides, if her father trained her, he would be with her, no matter what. Both needed that, desperately. They needed it to save each other.

The more he put off boxing, the more she pressed.

Finally, guilt got him. One Monday afternoon, he drove her to a gym on a busy street in East L.A. When he parked, she sprinted from the van to the entrance. They walked inside, unsure what was next.

Do you train kids here? Joe asked.

The manager looked down at Seniesa, leaning against her father's side. How old is she? he asked.

Eight, Joe said. Almost 9.

She's too small, the manager said. We'll train her, when she's 13.

She walked from the gym with her head down. Joe tried to console her, but actually he couldn't have been happier. Good, he thought, that's the end of this boxing thing. Then, inside his van, he looked at her and saw her staring out the window.

What's wrong, mama? he asked.

She couldn't speak. Tears filled her eyes.

It hit him then how much this meant, how badly she just wanted the chance to step inside a ring and put gloves on and let go.

A few days later, deciding to try once more, he took her to a gym near her home where a group of boy boxers trained.


Emphasize story. Have a beginning, middle and end. Save inverted pyramid for breaking news stories. You can write a story narratively, from beginning to end, you can offer a series of stories that lead to the end, or you can insert asides and commentary in the middle of a longer narrative story. There are many ways to tell a story. Read other great stories for ideas.

Writing a profile story is something that can be done over time while you work a beat through a season. You do not have to reserve a chunk of time to write these stories, but you do need to spend time reporting and developing the story. Do not judge yourself against the stories, like those cited here or those in the Best Sportswriting series. But yo should aspire to get to that level someday, if you want to be among the best. Lear as much as you can from these terrific pieces and always try to be better than you were on your last story. Good luck.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Writing follow-up stories

I’m always looking for fine examples of college writing. And I found one in our own publication, a game-day follow by Matt Daniels. Matt, who worked as a sports intern at Springfield's State-Journal Register, has continued to improve each semester. This story is as good as any you’ll find in a professional daily. (Yes, I may be biased but this is an excellent story worth emulating. I’ll break it down below.)

As I’ve mentioned before, writing a sports feature is like writing a short story – except we do not make up any of the facts. Story, not news, drives these features. That means you need to grab readers quickly in a lead that tells a compelling story or introduces an interesting character. Matt does that here, introducing a player who has far exceeded expectations in a football game. We get to see the player recuperating after a rugged afternoon on the gridrion. We also get a brief physical description.

Sweat trickled down Ademola Adeniji's face 30 minutes after Saturday's football game against Eastern Kentucky.

The air conditioning in the conference room he sat in at the O'Brien Stadium football offices worked fine.

But the 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back still showed the effects of the best game of his Eastern Illinois football career.

The story also has a nut graph, a sentence or two that serves as both a thesis statement and a reminder, telling readers the reason a reporter is writing this particular story. Here, the nut graph says:

The Springfield native rushed for a career-high 186 yards on 25 carries during the Panthers' 28-21 loss to the Colonels.

He broke tackles, used his speed to outrun defenders and used his hands, which Eastern Illinois head coach Bob Spoo said were not the best earlier this season, to catch three passes for 58 yards.


Next, we have a lead quote, a comment from another main character who summarizes what was just addressed. Notice that the quote is from the opposing coach, something that impresses readers and editors for several reasons. These comments offer a new point of view, one your readers may not be familiar with through your regular beat coverage. As a reporter, you should be looking for new, fresh insights. You will not usually get that from the 10th or 20th interview with your hometown players or coaches. Editors will be impressed that you made the effort to collect additional sources, something way too many beginning (and some veteran) sports writers fail to do.

"Oh, I tell you what, he really surprised me," said Eastern Kentucky head coach Danny Hope. "There were two or three times in the game where we had guys hit him in the backfield or hit on the line of scrimmage and he powered his way through."

The story also offers context for this player’s big game that includes some background information. New writers, especially, lead with background information. That should come a little later. Matt also includes a quote from the profiled player himself in this section -- in the eighth paragraph, not in the second one – which allows the comments to have more weight.

He did this on a day with temperatures in the high-80s, unusual for an early October afternoon in Illinois, and without other healthy running backs to give him a break.

Travorus Bess was limited with a leg injury (two carries for two yards), while Ron Jordan ran once for no gain before he tweaked his right ankle again. Norris Smith didn't dress because of a lingering knee injury and fullback Chip Keys is out for the year with an ankle injury.

"In a sense, it's a running back's dream," Adeniji said of being the only healthy running back. "But certain amount of carries, certain amount of plays, so you can stay fresh to make plays - you need at least two, three running backs."

But it was all for naught because it was the Panthers' first Ohio Valley Conference loss at O'Brien Stadium since 2004.

"Each week in the OVC, you've got to play game in and game out," Adeniji said. "I mean, individual accomplishment is great, but you need to come out with the 'W.'"


This story also includes key moments from the game. Follow-up stories can be written like mini-profiles in the sense that you are profiling a player’s performance in a previous athletic event, not their entire life. So the key moments will be those on the field. Notice also, in this section, how the writer offers careful analysis and clear descriptions. You should also take note that yard lines and yardage are included in the brief play by play. (Avoid filing stories with an overabundance of play by play; however, key moments can help illustrate your analysis and man points.)

Adeniji's first three carries of the game did not indicate he would have a breakout game. He rushed for 3 yards on his first three rushes, but made it up for it on his fourth rush.

His 17-yard run up the middle on the Panthers third offensive possession moved the offense from their own 5-yard line to the 22.

Adeniji struck next with less than three minutes in the second quarter and the Panthers trailing 9-7.

Adeniji took a handoff from quarterback Bodie Reeder at Eastern Illinois' own 27. He appeared to be tackled by EKU defensive lineman Andre Soucy at the line of scrimmage, but broke the tackle.

With EKU playing man coverage on the wide receivers on the outside and Colonel free safety Zach Denton the lone defender dropped deep, Adeniji had plenty of room to run.

He used his speed and cut back to the middle, past EKU's linebackers, after breaking Soucy's tackle.

With only Denton to beat, Adeniji ran past him near midfield en route to a career-long 73-yard touchdown run.
"He's a warrior," Reeder said. "He exemplifies what our entire offense needs to be. We all need to fight from the very first snap. He did that and he didn't give up the entire day."


Finally, this story offers some observations (about the formation), a key play (backwards pass), and some analysis ("The warm weather started to affect Adeniji in the fourth quarter").

The Panthers employed a formation they hadn't used all season in order to spell Adeniji.

Reeder lined up in the shotgun formation with five wide receivers, three to his left and two to his right.

The formation, which Reeder said was installed during practice last week to give Adeniji a break, did not have much success.

The first time the Panthers used it, Reeder threw a backward pass to wide receiver John Gadson and EKU recovered the pass on the Panthers 11.

Eastern Illinois used it eight times and gained a total of four yards. Reeder, not known for his speed, ran two quarterback draws out of the formation and gained a total of one yard on the two draws.

One of the draws, a pre-determined play call, came with the Panthers on EKU's 4 on third-and-goal with EKU ahead 21-14. Reeder was stopped at the 3, and kicker Tyler Wilke missed a 20-yard field goal to end the Panthers drive.

"Maybe I chose the wrong running lane or something like that, but just got to give credit to their defense," Reeder said. "They played well especially when we got down close to the end zone."

The warm weather started to affect Adeniji in the fourth quarter, he said.

It was evident with the Panthers on EKU's 2 with less than two minutes remaining and EKU leading 28-14. On first-and-goal, Adeniji's draw up the middle went for no gain. His next rushing attempt went up the middle again, but he was tackled a yard short of the end zone.

"My wind was fine, but it was my legs," Adeniji said. "You try to conserve your energy as best you can each play, but as you can see with the defense, the more you're out there, the more the heat is spreading on you. I want to run 100 percent, if I possibly can, every play."

Spoo said Adeniji's performance the last two games (49 carries for 278 yards) showed Adeniji's true ability.

"You've got to warp him up or he can break tackles and stay on his feet," he said. "He did that again. Just a hell of an effort on his part."

Monday, October 8, 2007

Agate offers context to stories

The sports editor for the Providence Journal says his newspaper has reduced agate by 20 percent.

The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle no longer runs boxscores for NBA, NHL, college football and college basketball -- and only linescores are used for major league baseball games.

The Arizona Republic no longer publishes expanded NHL and NBA standings each day. The Newark Star-Ledger dropped NBA and NHL agate the last month of the 2006 season with very few complaints, even though the Devils and Nets play nearby.

"We may be using a little bit more as several youth sports organizations have sent results into us," writes Robert Gagliardi, sports editor of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in a recent AP Managing Editors survey. "Instead of eating up 20-plus inches of copy we have put their results in agate format to be more consistent across the board. Our paper is a daily, but we still have a small-town mentality so we get junior high and elementary school results and standings. Nearly all of that goes into agate. As far as or high school and other local agate, that has stayed about the same over the last five years."

"We're probably running more local sports agate," Palm Beach Post executive sports editor Nick Moschella writes in the same survey. "We're running more endurance sports agate and the number of high schools we cover at the Palm Beach Post has grown significantly in recent years."

Agate is essential to breaking down any sports event -- and it is especially useful in these days of tighter space and shorter stories. Agate, which is much smaller than average type, allows the reader to learn a great deal about an event in a smaller space. Yet, it is frequently cut by college sports editors who do not want to edit their reporters' copy. The thinking: the story is more important than agate. Agate is complementary information that allows the reader to more fully understand the game. Agate allows readers to more fully engage a game story. Agate allows a sports reporter to offer analysis, describe key moments, offer significant quotes and -- hopefully -- to entertain the reader rather than to recite scoring plays, race times, and team stats.

This is particularly helpful for sports such as cross country, track and field and swimming where more than 100 athletes may compete in as many as 16 to 20 categories. Without agate, sports reporters are forced to write out results within the game story, taking away valuable space better spent focusing on why and how these athletes finished as they did. Consider the following passages from a cross country story:

LaRocque placed 27th overall and David Holm came in next at 41st place with a time of 25:53.44.

Derek Ericson (51st), Harrison Bueno (61st) and Mario Castrejon (72nd) were the last three Panthers to score in the event.

O'Grady said the women did a nice job of keeping their pack together and running as a team.

O'Grady and Amy LeJeune finished 29th and 30th overall with times of 19:04.11 and 19:05.49, respectively.

Napoleoni and Katie O'Brien came in next in the 42nd and 45th spot overall.

We do not need to mention how every single runner finished. Instead, cite your school's results in agate. You can do this by either bolding your runner's results or by breaking them (as shown below). I'd recommend running the top 10 overall finishers for minor meets, but adding up to 20 for larger meets. These other times will put your local results into better perspective. You can then offer the complete results online either as PDF or as a link to the official stats. But do offer some stats in print as well.

Don't forget to add the name of the event, the distance, date and location in a small header above the agate, especially if the results are posted on a separate agate page. If this is the case, make sure you add a refer line to your story, letting readers know where to find this information. Otherwise, put agate at the end of the story. Here is one example:

SIU SALUKI INVITATIONAL
Saturday's results
Women's Distance - 5K
Carbondale, Ill.

WOMEN'S TEAM SCORES
1. Southern Illinois – 50; 2. Southern Indiana - 56; 3. Saint Louis - 110;
4. Eastern Illinois - 118; 5. Creighton - 125; 6. UMKC - 142; 7. Southeast Missouri - 167; 8. Evansville - 194; 9. Arkansas State - 224

WOMEN'S TOP 5
1. Sara Hiller - UMKC (17:48.66); 2. Allie Shafer - USI (17:56.24); 3. Jessica Scott - UMKC (18:01.10; 4. Missy Burgin - USI (18:12.18); 5. Katy Simutis - USI (18:20.38)

EASTERN ILLINOIS FINISHERS
11. Nicole Flounders - 18:34.23; 18. Erin O'Grady - 18:48.95; 23. Amy LeJeune - 19:17.16; 27. Jill Blondell - 19:21.81; 45. Katie O'Brien - 19:59.75; 48. Megan Balas - 20:01.86; 73. Rebecca Smith - 20:52.91


Cross country agate usually does not take up much space, nor does agate for volleyball, soccer, wrestling, rugby or tennis, among others. Even agate for baseball, basketball and football is manageable. Check out your local newspapers for examples.

So while sports editors are justifiably reducing national box scores and results, agate is not dead yet in print. Cut a few graphs from that gamer to fit it in. Readers will appreciate it.
-30-

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Some pointers for gamers

Game stories can be difficult at first, especially when they have to be filed on deadline late at night. But you'll need to keep practicing if you are going to get better. Taking scores from coaches for nightly prep roundups is one of the best ways you can improve. You might have to write 10-20 leads in a single night, which will force you to find ways to briefly offer the key plays, key stat, or the significance of the game. To learn more, critique stories from the Associated Press, where experienced writers file solid gamers against all kinds of pressing deadlines. But also analyze game stories that offer an angle that is not connected to a key stat. These stories may focus on a key play, an unusual circumstance, or some other key angle in the lead before citing the result of the game.

Editors want tight, bright stories that include quotes from key players and that touch on key facts and emotions without omitting major factors. Says Jim Ruppert, sports editor for the Springfield (Ill.) State-Journal: "Game coverage is a necessary evil, and I'm not big on the 'featurized' game story. Cover the game or write a feature, but it's tough to do both at the same time."

Art Kabelowsky, prep editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, says he likes very little play by play in game stories. Do not just write a running commentary of plays, but do take note of key plays so you can briefly describe them to illustrate some analysis. "The game story should tell you a little about the status of each team and the thoughts and emotions of the coaches and key players who made tonight’s events happen," Kabelowsky says. "Anecdotes and good quotes are better than play by play."

Here are some elements you'll need to mix in for solid game stories.
1. Leads -- Focus on a key moment, unusual circumstance or stat that helps convey the most important part of this game.
2. Context -- Tell the reader what this game means. Has a team broken an eight-game losing streak, qualified for sectionals or lost its fourth straight five-set volleyball match?
3. Score - Make sure you put the score as early as possible. That could be in the second or third graph, if you are focusing on a key moment, or that could be the first graph, if you are filing a straightforward results story on deadline.
4. Analysis -- Watch the game carefully so you can break down the game into smaller parts. For example, you might notice that a basketball team played better with a smaller lineup, going on runs of 12-2 and 10-0 when the starting center was on the bench. Or you might notice that a soccer team dominated the middle of the field for most of the game, which will allow you to focus on the play of the center midfielders and backs, describing their efforts during 1-2 key moments.
5. Offer examples -- Show, don't just tell the reader how a team played. Always seek to offer a brief example. That means you need to take detailed notes throughout the game, because you'll never know when the notes will be needed. Notes also enable you to assess the game with some better perspective, allowing you to find some trend you may have overlooked.
6. Offer key stats only when they help support a main idea -- Do not just cite how many points several players scored or how many hits a softball player had. Cite the stats as they pertain to a focus in your story. Do not just write a story from the box score.
7. Focus on plays later in the game first -- Game stories are not written narratively, from beginning to end. You would focus on the final quarter of most football games, not the opening quarter -- unless something extraordinary happened in the opening minutes.
8. Include comments from both teams -- Do not just interview the home team. Those stories lack a wide perspective. Always try to get coaches and players from both sides.
9. Include quotes that offer thoughts and emotions from the game's key people -- And place these comments next to your description of the key plays.
10. Tell the reader what happens next -- Has the team advanced to the next level of a state playoff? Who does the team play next during the regular season?
-30-