Archive for November, 2007

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

November 28, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How would you feel? Some tips for taking sports scores

November 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get better photos for your sports section

November 16, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say “Thank You”

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

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

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Greed has trickled down to high school sports

November 14, 2007

Greed.

There’s no other word for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be prepared to do it all in your first job

November 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 7, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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