Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nothing inconceivable about Davidson writer's success

Davidson had just pulled off two improbable victories. Stephen Curry scored 30 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with a minute left to lead the Wildcats to a mild upset of Gonzaga, 82-76, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Curry then helped Davidson erase a 15-point second-half deficit to stun Georgetown, 74-70, to advance into the Sweet Sixteen.

The cheering in the RBC Center in Raleigh was deafening. Students on campus were screaming and yelling. And the school's marketing director was probably popping champagne.

The college's newspaper, unfortunately, did not post anything on its website, leaving readers of the Davidsonian with a column on racism and a feature assessing student involvement on campus. (By the way, the paper gave fans an A- for fan support at basketball games but only a D+ for support at other school athletic events.) That schools do not regularly post online is -- I feel like Vizzini from the Princess Bride but I'll say it anyway -- almost inconceivable. Yet, there you have it.

The weekly paper did not have a word about a story that transcends sport. It is breaking news. In its defense, the school has only 1,700 students and does not have a journalism program. Thank goodness, Will Bryan stepped in to fill this void for Davidson basketball fans by covering games, notes and issues on his terrific blog. Will's World offers TV clips from interviews on Pardon The Interruption, CBS highlights of games, as well as commentary, gamers - and a live blog, or glog.

Will introduces readers to Davidson in a recent post, explaining that the college (not university) has both an excellent academic and athletic history (Lefty Driesell twice coached the school to the Elite Eight in the 1960s.)

More impressively, Will has been blogging since 2005. Like many bloggers, he first wrote more about his personal life. Eventually, he explored other subjects and approaches like making NFL picks. By 2006, he had started to write more regularly on the Davidson basketball program. Will clearly has learned much about new media and writing from his regular postings. I will repeat: Every young journalist needs to start blogging on a regular basis. Will proves that you do not have to work at a daily paper to write daily. Start one today. You won't regret it.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Journalists are ready for the Big Cliche

I feel like putting on my dancing shoes, baby. It's time for the Big Dance where a Cinderella always pops up. And it's also that time when cliches run rampant. Writers and editors especially love using the Big Dance, but they also enjoy many other cliches. Many of these cliches are overused well before the NCAA Tournament begins. Games are frequently called tilts, teams fight back when their backs are against the wall, victories are hard-fought, and players assert ther will.

Headline writers particularly love to use Big Dance. TV Guide plays off the Irish dance troupe, writing: "Lords of the Big Dance: NCAA March Madness 2008 Preview." And Austin Peay's editors are excited that the "Govs advance to the big dance," although the reporter refrained from using that term. ESPN writes that "Cinderellas at Big Dance share common attributes." Detroit Free-Press editors wrote that Michigan State's women were "left off 64-team Big Dance card."

The Sporting News breaks down the game between No. 6 USC and No. 11 Kansas State by stating: "The showdown of super freshmen Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo should be enough to keep everybody glued to the screen. This is probably one-and-done for someone's NCAA Tournament career and perhaps the only chance to see either Beasley or Mayo in the Big Dance." You can also check out the NCAA bracket history for the Big Dance.

Many college newspapers refrained from using this cliche. The Independent Alligator did a fine job covering the Gators, explaining that the team would not defend its men's basketball title. The GW Hatchet, meanwhile, writes that the George Washington women are preparing for the Big Dance. Who knows? Maybe they'll also be a Cinderella team. The Arizona Daily Wildcat did not yield to cliches. College newspapers covering the No. 1-seeded teams in the two tournamenta did a fine job offering stories that included context but that were not riddled with dancing references. Check out particularly solid coverage in the Daily Tarheel and Daily Bruin.

But, alas, neither writers nor editors can stop using this slam-dunk reference, one that everybody understands. Even the Wall Street Journal argues that the field for the Big Dance is mediocre. Sigh. Please, work hard to at least keep such references out of the stories themselves. Your readers -- and prose -- will thank you for your efforts.

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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
s
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.

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

The real fields of dreams

Greg Hardy lists some items to consider during spring training in his most recent column for The (Columbia) State, something that also serves as a primer for the upcoming major league baseball season. Greg, who is a friend of mine, also regularly writes irreverent columns for cbssportsline.com’s Spin. Check him out.

Greg’s column elicited more than a few smiles, reminding me of great times spent in Florida ballparks before I moved to Illinois. There really is no better line than “catchers and pitchers report to spring training.” And there is truly no better place to be than a spring training game.

Greg inspired me to offer my own spring training list, one that is alphabet challenged since it only goes from C to Y (with a few other letters left out.) Here goes.

C – Conversations with fans sitting nearby, hearing stories from old men (and women) about retired players like Harmon Killebrew, Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax.
D – Thinking of my dad who taught me respect and love through the greatest game ever. I miss hearing his stories, laughing when he told a lame joke, and just hanging out with my pop.
E – Early games where teams use four or five pitchers and insert only a few veterans, games where you can see players whose hearts and souls are focused on every pitch.
F – Four-hour games. Yes, that's right. During spring training where else would you want to be than in a place where young kids are fighting for a roster spot, the sun is shining, and your team still has a shot? As a matter of fact, I'll usually head out to a spring game a few hours early to see batting practice and to hear fungos cracking fly balls to rookies and veterans alike. With all due respect to those fields in Iowa, heaven is really spring training sites like those at Winter Haven, Tucson, and Fort Myers – places where dreams truly come true.
G – Seeing young girls with gloves shagging foul balls and keeping score. Loving the fact my daughters and I can speak about the game as my father and I had.
H – In March, we all believe our team can win – even fans in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. And it can happen. Who thought the Rockies would reach the World Series or that the Brewers would come close to postseason play? Hope is important. (Just ask the millions who have voted for Barack Obama.)
I – Innocence still lives on in places like Vero Beach and Kissimmee despite efforts to commercialize these spring training games.
K – Kids reaching over the railing with their programs, excited to even get an autograph from players numbered 88 and 92.
R – Seeing a rookie succeed despite their anxiety and fears. Last year, we watched Hunter Pence drive in the winning run in an extra-inning game in Kissimmee. He nearly won the NL's rookie of year award.
S – Sunny days where fans can kick back, casually read a program, and escape their worries.
W – Hearing wood bats cracking rather than the pings echoing in so many high school and college parks. Ban aluminum bats before someone gets killed.
Y – Yogi Berra played with exuberance, determination, and respect for the game. He won 10 World Series rings, but never gave up. If players like Yogi can't attract fans, nothing will. Or, as Yogi once said: "If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's gonna stop them."

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