Advice to graduates: Make your work stand out
W.C. Heinz’s “Death of a Racehorse” was the first reading assignment of my first class as a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. Greg Bowers, who is sports editor of the Columbia Missourian and teaches sports journalism, had us analyze the craft at work in the piece, which was written on deadline for the New York Sun in 1949.
The lesson: The best stories are usually found where other reporters aren’t. Get out of the press box — like Heinz did to report the scene on the track when a veterinarian put down an injured horse— and you can tell a story that is more vivid and more real.
Fast forward a year and a half. That lesson emerged again and again in interviews with contemporary reporters for my blog on the craft of sportswriting. ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor pulled a Heinz to capture American Pharoah’s Triple Crown coronation in June. And Jeff Passan left the press box to report a compelling story about Chicago Cubs fans and the home run balls they caught.
I spoke to more than 50 journalists over the summer for the final project of my Master’s degree. As I leave grad school, here are some of the takeaways:
- Capture as many scenes as possible. That was Lee Jenkins’ strategy when he covered the Golden State Warriors’ NBA championship celebration for Sports Illustrated. As the Warriors celebrated, Jenkins settled in to fly-on-the-wall mode rather than someone who asks a bunch of questions. But even when Jenkins writes more intimate profiles, he looks for (and asks about) anything that catches his eyes.
- Recreate a scene: A journalist often isn’t present for the key moment he or she wants to draw out in a feature story. But that key moment can be described through good interviewing. Try this go-to line from Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel: “Obviously I wasn’t there, but if I was, tell me what I would have seen.”
- No access? Find another way: Often, journalists don’t get the access they want to a person, but that’s no reason to squash a story. The Washington Post’s Kent Babb wrote an entire book about former NBA star Allen Iverson, whom Babb never interviewed. Instead, he talked to people who could share stories about Iverson, such as Iverson’s barber. Babb suspects he never would have uncovered certain anecdotes had he not been forced to search for tangential sources.
- Be thankful for the access you do have: I surveyed a beat writer from each SEC football program and documented the drastic changes in access from the 1980s, when Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Bob Holt used to attend every Razorbacks practice and talked to whomever he wanted afterward. Now, access is shallow and controlled throughout the world of sports. Asked to describe his relationship with sports information directors in three words, James Crepea, who covers Auburn for the Alabama Media Group, said “Strained. Concurrently miserable. At times, contentious.” (OK, that’s six words. But the point is clear.)
- Crowdsource when appropriate: Benjamin Hochman proved in a nine-part baseball series for the Denver Post that some of the best sources are those found on Twitter. Hochman (now with the St. Louis Post Dispatch), crowdsourced to find story subjects, such as people who stay in touch with their parents through baseball and text messaging. “It’s easy access to 20,000 Colorado sports fans,” Hochman said of asking his Twitter followers for help finding subjects.
- Don’t quote every source: Ben Shpigel of the New York Times said he used to feel obligated to quote every source he spoke to — in a way to prove to the source that an interview was worth his or her time. “Over the years I’ve relaxed my view on that because we’re reporters, not quoters,” Shpigel said. An interview can be valuable merely for background information or to better understand a subject.
- Heck, do away with quotes altogether: L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated told me he’s sick of using quotes. “It is a strategy of mine to limit quotes. I’ve had it with quotes,” he said when asked about a Serena Williams feature that included fewer than 100 words in quote marks. “…Too often they don’t really add much; you feel compelled to use them too often because they’re provided.” His stories are vibrant because they’re not bogged down with the platitudes that often dominate quotes.
- Or use quotes exclusively (if you’re trying to piece together an oral history): OK, sometimes quote-heavy stories work, like in Sports Illustrated’s oral history revisiting the first few years of Major League Soccer. The piece was rich with funny anecdotes and personal experiences, which made the oral history structure appropriate. Reporting and producing an oral history can be a bear, though. Here’s how SI’s Brian Strausthinks about it: “You want to imagine that these 40 people are sitting around a really big room, eating pizza and talking shit about 1996 and laughing their heads off.”
- Report but don’t belabor: Every year, Ben Brigandi covers 12-year-old kids getting their 15-minutes of fame. The Williamsport Sun-Gazette’s biggest story is the annual Little League World Series, which takes place in Williamsport. And Brigandi, the Gazette’s sports editor, developed a philosophy for how to write about the mistakes the not-quite-teens make on the field: “Report but don’t belabor,” he said. And really, that should be a motto for most coverage, from Little League to high school sports to college.
- Write with voice: Stories with voice make a reader feel engaged. But voice is an intangible that’s difficult to describe or execute. Joan Niesen of Sports Illustrated said an intimate familiarity with a subject can help breed voice. Her story about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is packed with expressive phrases that reveal something about the city of New Orleans. She was able to do this because of her familiarity with the city, where some of her relatives live. For those writers who don’t have a personal connection, it’s incumbent to learn a situation inside out to be able to write with conviction.
- File record requests: Especially in college sports, and especially at public universities, open records can be treasures. Knoxville News-Sentinel sports editor Phil Kaplan says “you’re not doing your job right if you’re covering a college and not filing these reports.” His department files them regularly, and serves as a watchdog to University of Tennessee athletics.
- Sweat the small stuff: When Glenn Stout edits stories for his SB Nation Longform section, his final and favorite step is to consider the shape and sound of each individual word. For instance, a 2013 feature on late auto racer Dick Trickle had to consist of only words the blunt, beer-drinking Trickle might say. Keeping the reader in the right place and feel of a story is what can “turn it into something that’s memorable, ” Stout said.
- Outline your stories (or don’t): Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop scribbles pre-story outlines that fill an entire notebook page with interconnecting words and bubbles. He calls it “the most important thing I do,” because it provides a structure and formula for writing. Meanwhile, New York Times reporter John Branch often starts writing and lets his stories flow from there. And Branch is a Pulitzer Prize winner. So do whatever works for you — but play around with multiple methods to find out.
- Work hard; think smart: Above all else, my conversations this summer reinforced that there are no shortcuts. The people who succeed in this business are the most devoted, invested and creative. Sports journalism is competitive, saturated and ever-evolving. It’s also significant. Six decades later, writers still talk about stories like “Death of a Racehorse.” That gives writers reason to continue taking chances and striving for virtuosity.
Mark Selig is an editor at the Columbia Missourian, a December graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and soon to be a free agent looking for his next home. Check out more of his blog posts at backstorysports.com