Friday, March 7, 2008

Don’t get personal, earn athletes’ respect

Here are a few more highlights from two sports panels I attended a few weeks ago during the Illinois College Press Association. As expected, the writers and editors at the Chicago Tribune offered some terrific advice on a wide range of topics.

On writing blogs
This is where writers put breaking news, notes and observations. For example, if Lou Piniella says anything during spring training, the paper’s baseball writer, Paul Sullivan, will add those comments on the blog. “We reserve the nuanced, analytical stories for print,” says Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath. … Many blogs offer fan perspectives, but this information is not always verified. Instead, many blogs offer rumors or rely on reporting done by newspapers. That’s where news organizations play a key role. “Somebody has to provide that content,” McGrath said, “But it has to be responsible content. … Everybody has an opinion. We try to have an informed opinion.” … Journalists love to get recognized for breaking stories online. Said McGrath: “We put it up there and get it out. And then we check ESPN to see if they pick it up and cite us.” … John Mullin, the Tribune’s long-time Bears beat writer, says the best bloggers are accurate and passionate about their subject.

On print content
Newspapers want more stories – and they are looking for people who can find and tell them. So work on reporting – and storytelling – skills. Take courses in creative writing and creative non-fiction. Last season, the Tribune eschewed the story everybody else sought – how home-run king Hank Aaron felt about losing his record. Instead, the paper sought out Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 career homers while playing in Japan. Said McGrath: “We try to produce content that other people can’t, or don’t, have.”

On working as a sports journalist
Tribune prep writer Dave Sirico says he loves covering preps as much as he did covering horse racing. He says the love for sports is what drives him to do his job. “If you enjoy the thrill of competition and writing about it,” he said, “you’ve picked the right career.” … McGrath said he feels blessed to be a sports journalist. Phil Hersh, who wrote game stories on his brother’s typewriter as a kid, says he doesn’t have a single regret with his career. “I know it sounds old-fashioned,” Sirico said, “but your job is your reward.” … Mullin offers this reminder: “I don’t cover sports. I cover people. That’s where the stories really are.”

On covering high school sport
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Sirico covers games about five to six days a week, most of which are published on the Tribune’s website. There’s a refreshingly innocent quality among many prep athletes – especially those who participate in sports that do not typically receive much attention like cross country, soccer, and swimming. Sirico says he loves the energy connected to high school sports. “These kids pour their whole soul into their sports before friends, family, and teachers.” Reporters also need to pour their own souls into their stories, regardless the event or topic. “You should believe your story is the most important event of the day,” Sirico said. Phil Hersh, who has covered Olympic events, the Tour de France and the World Cup, says reporters should treat every assigned story the same. “In a high school gym, you do not care what else is going on. You should treat it with the respect it deserves.”

On high school recruiting
This highly controversial topic probably deserves a more in-depth view at some later date. We should treat kids differently than we do professional athletes for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that high school athletes are still kids, no matter how much we try to publicize phenoms like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. A 17- or 18-year-old is not nearly as a mature as a 24 or 34-year-old – typically. Put aside your cynicism. Treat these kids differently. You can still call these kids to find out where they are going. Unlike boosters and coaches, sports journalist are not trying to convince them where to attend school. (Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl recently analyzed problems related to recruiting – how fans get so angry they taunt and verbally abuse opposing players and their families. Disgusting stuff.) Sirico usually checks with key recruits about once a week. “Sometimes, I think we lose site as to why they are out there in the first place.” Competition seems to become secondary during recruiting season, he said. “You still have kids out there playing their butts off. People are interested in recruiting so we have to do it, but I hope it doesn’t become the central focus of what we do.” Dan McGrath calls the emphasis on prep recruiting distasteful. “I think we’re almost at the tipping point where we don’t let them be kids anymore,” he said. “And we’re as guilty as anyone.”

On being right, not first
Hersh would rather be accurate than first. Take the time to verify information, otherwise you will look foolish. And if someone else beats you to a story, show respect and class. “It’s important to be first,” Hersh said. “But it’s way, way, way more important to be right. You’re going to get beat sometimes on any beat. If that happens, acknowledge your peers, repeat the news and go on.”

On ego
Player and coaches know more about their respective sports than we do. Remember that. Don’t criticize unless you truly know all there is to know (And, even then, be careful.) Sports journalists frequently write that coaches should be fired, players benched, and programs reprimanded. Shouldn’t we rather report the facts on these points and let the readers decide? Save the mud-slinging and second-guessing to fans and radio sports show hosts. As journalists, we should spend more time reporting so we have a more informed opinion. “The 53rd guy on the Bears roster has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about football,” says Mullin, who has covered pro football for more than two decades.

On writing columns
Columns are not places to bloviate. Rather, they are places for carefully crafted, fully investigated, and informed opinion. “A columnist who does little reporting will not be very helpful,” says McGrath.

On whining
A coach yells at you. So what? A player refuses to talk with you. Ho hum. Readers are not interested in this information. Find a way to work around these challenges. Talk with these people later, after tempers have subsided. If this does not work, talk with your sports information director or athletic director. Unless the issue affects other aspects of the team, avoid writing about it. “Fan don’t care if players don’t like you,” Mullin said.

On getting personal
You don’t think a player or coach is doing her job. Fine. Talk with teammates and opposing coaches/players. Investigate whether this is true. Then discuss the manners in which the team, or player, is not playing well. You can use specific moments in games and actions off the field. But there is never a reason – ever – to demean anybody. “I always felt [Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause was maligned by the press,” Mullin said. “People would write that he had food stains on his shirt or that he was fat. That’s just mean.” … That’s unconscionable, says Neil Milbert, the Tribune’s college basketball writer. Beat writers need to be fair – and then need to go in the locker room the next day “to take the heat.” Jay Mariotti, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been derided by his peers for refusing to go inside locker rooms after games. John Mullin says coaches and players should have the opportunity to offer their opinions to sports journalists as well. A few seasons ago, Mullin wrote a story about locker-room spies that angered then Bears coach Dave Wannstedt who yelled at him for several days – even though they had sometimes ridden bikes together during training camps. Said Mullin: “But my story wasn’t personal and he realized that.” And they continued to talk through the season.

On showing up to practices
Athletes respect writers who put in the same effort they do. Do not just appear at games or use stats from the sports information office. Get out to the fields and courts to get to know the players, earn trust, and find stories. “Show up before the season starts,” Mullin said. “Go to off-season workouts and go to practices. By November, in their minds, they’ve seen you every day since summer. That engenders respect. You’ve been there for the whole trip with them. They know who’s been there and who has not. You’re sweating along with them.”

On asking questions after a bad loss

Body language is important. Don’t appear you’re happy that a team, or player, lost. And don’t take cheap shots. (You never seemed able to handle the ball today, Rex. Why do you suppose you fumbled the ball so many times?) Instead, temper your questions with phrases like “I hate to ask,” “I hate to bring this up,” or “I need to ask you about.” Don’t act embittered when your team loses, Mullin says, acting as if the athletes betrayed you by losing.

-30-

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