In the Shadow of the Super Bowl is about the grieving family of Don White, a construction worker and lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan who was killed in an accident during the building of Levi’s Stadium. The Final, Fateful Days of Lawrence Phillips is about the death of the former Nebraska football star, who authorities say committed suicide in his prison cell.
Anderson had covered Phillips at Nebraska for Sports Illustrated in the 1990s, and he wrote For Lawrence Phillips, a Dead Cellmate and Another Day of Reckoning last year when Phillips, serving 32 years for felony assault with a deadly weapon and domestic assault, was accused of killing his cellmate.
I asked Anderson how he approaches a story differently when the subject of it isn’t alive and can’t speak.
You approach it with great sensitivity. And it’s been my experience that once you get people starting to talk, you really don’t have to ask too many followup questions because the stories just come out. Maybe it starts in dribs and drabs but then it just becomes a steady flow of this sort of unleashing of emotion.
Anderson, who teaches journalism at the University of Alabama, says that rewriting is a key to what he does, and he estimates he rewrote each of these pieces 15 times:
So many reporters and writers, especially young writers, just say “Oh, I’ve finished. I got to 500 words so I’m done.” Or, you know, “I’ve got my requisite three sources in the story so I’m not going to make that extra phone call.” Well, you’re just going to be average. You always need to make that extra phone call, always go that extra mile.
The second entry in our video series for Bleacher Report’s Advanced Program in Sports Media is up. B/R National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani joined me to talk about a pair of stories he wrote, The College Recruitment of Tom Brady and The College Recruitment of Russell Wilson.
In the first video, Danny Knobler told me the biggest challenge he faces was that his subject, minor league home run king Mike Hessman, has a bland personality, which makes writing a colorful story about him difficult.
Kirpalani’s subject, first with Brady and then with Russell, was plenty colorful: The story of how one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks began his journey from underdog high school kid to professional star. His challenge: Finding the people who were around Brady and Russell—parents, coaches, teammates, recruiters—to talk about those days.
He had to be patient and persistent, qualities that paid off. Here’s the video.
I’ve started a new video series for Bleacher Report’s Advanced Program in Sports Media. It’s called “How I Got the Story,” and it’s as simple as that: A writer telling me how they went about creating a story or a series of stories, from idea through reporting and writing.
First up in the series is B/R MLB Lead Writer Danny Knobler, who talks about his August 2015 piece “What’s It Like to Be Baseball’s Real Crash Davis?” That story was about Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens, who had just broken the career record for minor league home runs—as the fictional Davis had done in the movie “Bull Durham.”
A big challenge Knobler faced: Hessman isn’t a very interesting guy! That’s not a criticism. It’s just who he is. Knobler’s editors thought it would be fun if he could get Hessman to talk about “being Crash Davis.” Knobler didn’t think that was going to work:
I know Mike and I know that Mike’s not the most colorful guy in the world. He’s a very nice guy. Real good guy. Not terribly colorful. And he was unlikely to play along with exactly what they wanted.
Knobler was right. Hessman was pleasant and generous with his time, but “not much there in terms of exciting stories.”
To hear how Danny got a good story anyway, watch the video.
Not a coaching career. Angela Copeland is a career coach, and Raphaely talked about his path, from volunteering in the sports information department of Division III UC-Santa Cruz as an undergraduate through CBS Sports Interactive and Yahoo before arriving at B/R in 2011. Oh, and by the way, he was also an assistant women’s basketball coach for the Banana Slugs.
Whether he’s talking about covering sports or getting ahead in your career, Raphaely hits a similar theme: Find ways to do things nobody else is doing, thus making yourself indispensable and irreplaceable.
He describes one of the first stories Bleacher Report made its name on, the NFL draft:
Back in the day, before we came along, people really only did mock drafts at the end of the NFL season because that’s when people knew the order that teams would be drafting. We realized by looking through a lot of data that people were really interested in mock drafts much sooner than the media was creating them. So we kind of recognized this inefficiency in the marketplace. And I think that term and that idea of looking for inefficiencies in the marketplace and serving those inefficiencies is really something that Bleacher Report has prided itself on and is really part of the DNA of our company.
That same ethic can serve an individual.
“We’re looking for people that have specific skill sets and are sort of experts at that,” Raphaely says about the fierce competition for content-creation jobs. “It’s really about having a niche, being really good at it. Are you a feature writer? Are you an investigative writer? Are you a columnist? What is your niche? What’s your expertise?”
At about 36:30, Dorth mentions the Advanced Program in Sports Media, or APSM, Bleacher Report’s paid educational program in digital sportswriting. He mentions that “we travel around to all these different schools” looking for college journalism students ready to graduate and begin their careers. We also target grad students and even early-career pros.
I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the people making those visits. This year we’re hoping to get to more schools by making virtual visit via Skype, Google Hangouts or whatever’s going to be invented for the purpose next week.
Bleacher Report also has a similar program that focuses on copy editing and the many jobs that leverage that skill: The Advanced Program in Editing and Content Management.
Both programs are year-round, with rolling admissions. They’re not tied to the school calendar. They’re 12 weeks, part-time, and participants are paid a stipend. Click the links for more info.
We’ve all done it. Well, not you, but the rest of us have.
We see a play go wrong for an NFL team, and we can see who screwed up. We diagnose the blown assignment or mental lapse and assign blame to the offending player.
And really, unless we were in the huddle, we have no idea if we’re right.
Seattle sports radio personality Danny O’Neil saw Seahawks lineman Justin Britt miss a block against the Vikings last week and tweeted about it.
Yeah, Justin Britt didn't miss a block on third down so much as he ignored the defensive tackle. #Seahawks
— Danny O'Neil (@dannyoneil) December 6, 2015
He later realized he hadn’t known what he was talking about.
“I was absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably wrong,” ONeil wrote in an unusually frank bit of self-reflection on MyNorthwest.com headlined “When it comes to diagnosing an NFL play, observers have limitations.” It turns out, O’Neil wrote, that the unblocked defender wasn’t Britt’s assignment. Someone else was supposed to make that block and didn’t.
This is my 11th season of covering the Seahawks on a daily basis, and I am simply not capable nor qualified to give you a definitive explanation for why a specific play failed. Not only that, I’m suspicious of anyone else who claims expertise in that regard …
There is a whole corner of today’s NFL coverage that speaks with authority on exactly what occurred on a given play, which is undermined by one simple fact: No one outside the team’s coaches and players can say for certain either what a player is asked to do on a specific play or how he is asked to do it. It’s all guesswork. An analyst can say what they think happened, but they don’t know. Not unless a coach or player tells them, and if you’ve ever listened to an NFL coach’s press conference you probably have an idea of just how hard it is to extract information about who goofed up and why.
He makes a great point, and one any observer should keep in mind. We know what we can see. Beyond that, it very quickly gets into guesswork until we get the information we need to create informed analysis.
Adweek honored Yanarella, who became editor in 2009, for turning B/R from “a place where unpaid bloggers got an ego boost with a byline—and nothing else” to a place that “has ESPN and Sports Illustrated not only looking over their shoulders but in many cases trying to catch up with an editorial machine that’s laser-focused on social and mobile.”
From the article, by Christopher Heine:
”Journalism has been forced to keep up with sites like Bleacher Report,” says Jason Sullivan, evp and managing director at Publicis Seattle. “It has the urgency of Twitter, the ability to use localization to follow your favorite team and a constantly improving level of quality and legitimacy to keep fans tuned in during the sports world’s biggest moments.”
Not long ago, B/R was hardly on the radar of ad agencies or sports fans. Prior to Yanarella’s arrival, it was a place where unpaid bloggers got an ego boost with a byline—and nothing else; none of its contributors was paid. Yanarella recalls that his bosses “wanted to build Bleacher Report into one of the largest sports sites in the U.S. My response: with an entire volunteer-writer base?”
Yanarella, the story notes, has led the build-out of a writing staff of 300, all of whom are paid. And the content that staff creates led Adweek to also name B/R as the Hottest in Sports Media on its annual Hot List.
That’s the bragging part. Here’s the message part: Heine notes that before coming to Bleacher Report, “Yanarella carved out a ham-and-egger journalism career with print publications like the Hudson Valley News in upstate New York and Wizard magazine.”
I won’t give away Joe’s age. He’s younger than I am but old enough to have voted for or against Ronald Reagan for president. That also means he’s old enough to have been well into that journalism career before the mobile revolution, before Web 2.0 and even before the web. But he remade himself not just as a digital journalist, but as an innovative leader in an area—mobile- and social-first content—that didn’t exist for his first quarter-century in the business.
It seems to me the key to a successful media career in the foreseeable future will be the ability to remake oneself, to evolve, adapt and even lead in environments that are in flux or new. Joe Yanarella is a great example of that.
While racism and threats to the physical safety of black students are the most important issues amid the unrest at the University of Missouri, a controversy around the rights and responsibilities of the media has lingered all week.
As you know, the chancellor of the University of Missouri and the president of the state system resigned amid growing protests over the administration’s slow and tone-deaf response to a series of racist incidents and what black students say is an unsafe and hostile atmosphere for them on campus.
Here’s a timeline of the growing tensions on campus at the Maneater, the student news outlet, and here’s a New York Times story about the two resignations. This Mic.com piece about hunger striker Jonathan Butler lays out the grievances against system president Tim Wolfe, who resigned Monday.
The media controversy arose from an incident Monday, when protesters, led by the group Concerned Student 1950—whose name references the year blacks were finally admitted to Mizzou—were celebrating the resignations on the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle on campus and vowing to continue to fight. “This is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the UM system,” Marshall Allen of Concerned Student 1950 told CNN.
Tim Tai, a Mizzou student photojournalist who was on assignment for ESPN, got into a confrontation with protesters near the tent city they’d set up as a “no media safe space,” on the quad. The incident was captured on video by Mark Schierbecker, and that video went viral.
A few of the people in the video who tried to keep Tai and Schierbecker away from protesters were Mizzou staff or faculty. Some of them later apologized and may face discipline. But to me the most interesting aspect of the incident was the argument between Tai and the protesters, which in the days since has been taken up across the internet.
The protesters argue that Tai, and all media, should respect their desire to keep the media out of their “safe space.” Tai’s argument can be summed up by his comment at 1:45 of the video: “The First Amendment protects your right to be here, and mine.” He mentions at one point that there’s a state law specifically declaring the Carnahan quad a public space.
Tai, whose photos were published by ESPN.com, was lauded by many journalists around the country for keeping his cool while defending his rights as a journalist. On the other hand, the arguments made by Tai and those who supported him were widely denounced by others, who argued that whatever the rights of journalists, they have an obligation to treat subjects, particularly subjects who are in danger or pain or both, more respectfully. “I think we underestimate how deeply broken our (media) relationship is w/minority communities,” tweeted Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery.
Tai, I should note, said on several occasions that he was uncomfortable having become part of the story, and that his squabble with protesters was not nearly as important as the larger issues.
I’m a little perturbed at being part of the story, so maybe let’s focus some more reporting on systemic racism in higher ed institutions.
— Tim Tai (@nonorganical) November 10, 2015
It’s also worth noting that the protesters changed their approach to the media on Tuesday.
— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) November 10, 2015
Kyle Stokes, a public radio reporter in Seattle who went to Mizzou, wrote a blog post headlined Why We Were There that laid out the media argument—that the media is tasked with being on site to get the true story and tell it to the public, which demands to know it.
Honestly, we saw you gathered in a public place. Although people typically do want to speak to the media when they’re gathered in this way, we know you are under no obligation to do so. But in a public place, journalists are going to do what they are paid to do: ask the question and take the picture. And we cannot ever apologize for that.
My first reaction to this confrontation Monday was to side squarely with Tai. I found the actions of the protesters disturbing. I thought their argument that they had a right to exclude anyone from the quad because they’d declared it their space was absurd.
I also thought they were being undemocratic, that having won a victory, they were using their newfound power in a bullying way. In the closing seconds of the video, a mass of protesters walking in a close group push Tai out of the scene completely. “It’s our right to walk forward, isn’t it?” one woman says. “I believe it’s my right to walk forward.” I’ve known fourth-grade bullies who were more subtle than that.
I tweeted in support of a piece that argued much the same thing.
Good piece on the disturbing behavior of some protesters today. Simply put: This is violence. https://t.co/fv1Iw6Wq1F
— King Kaufman (@king_kaufman) November 10, 2015
And then something even more disturbing to me happened. That tweet got a few dozen likes and retweets, and everyone who liked it or retweeted it whose race was apparent to me was white. And it’s not like all my followers are white.
Meanwhile, I found myself arguing on Twitter with black journalists I respect. One, who doesn’t like it when other writers embed her tweets in their stories, wrote, “Look at it from their perspective. If subjected to obscene harassment for months bc of protesting, would I want 2 b bothered?” and argued that a good reporter should respect being told no, consider the motivations, and find other ways to get the story.
A good summation of the argument against those of Tai and Stokes is made by Melissa McEwen at the Shakesville blog in a post headlined Stop. Just. Stop.
But in this country, with our reflexive reverence for a policy of “free expression,” as if speech exists in a void, we’re more worried about the supposed “intolerance” expressed by marginalized people who draw boundaries in defense of their own safety, because a minor restriction on a privileged person’s unfettered right to engage in hate speech, or assert their “right” to access to marginalized people’s spaces and lives, is considered a more burdensome encroachment on freedom than the right of people at whom hate speech is directed to live a life free of rhetorical terror.
I’m not sure where I stand at this point. One thing I’m sure of is that I’ve had to rethink some of my assumptions. The writer whose tweets I didn’t embed above has argued that tweets by people who aren’t public figures should not be considered fair game for journalists to reproduce. This is not a new or unique idea. Here’s a story by Amanda Hess of Slate from last year about a controversy around the privacy of public, which is to say unprotected, tweets.
The idea that journalists should respect the “privacy” of tweets, which are published online and have been ruled public, is similar to the idea that journalists should respect the privacy of a space carved out by a group of people, even if that space is on public ground.
I have problems with both of those ideas. But I have a better understanding of them than I had a week ago, and, as you can see in these last few paragraphs, I’m more likely to respect the requests of those who subscribe to them than I used to be.
Social media is changing notions and definitions of what is public and what is private. Those definitions are also subject to change in what people my age tend to call the real world—as if social media weren’t part of the real world. We don’t all have to agree on the definitions. But a smart, ethical reporter has to understand that those disagreements are real, and worth considering.
Here’s a lot more good reading on some of the angles around this subject:
DEAR READER: On a historic day for MU, protest against media wasn’t most important, by Tom Warhover, Columbia Missourian
There’s a good reason protesters at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around: Students wanted to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media, by Terrell Jermaine Starr, Washington Post
The Mizzou Football Team May Be Just the Beginning: Don’t be surprised if more black athletes exert their political power for civil rights, by Jamelle Bouie, Slate
Mizzou Players Turned a Social Movement into a Business Decision—and Won, by Greg Couch, Bleacher Report
How a Journalist Covering the Mizzou Protests Became a Political Pawn: Conservatives have latched onto Tim Tai as a means of discrediting the protesters, by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
Photo of the Columns at University of Missouri by Adam Procter/GNU Free Documentation License.
In the wake of ESPN shutting down Grantland last week, there was an enlightening exchange this week between Clay Travis of Fox Sports and Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio about the state of sports media.
Travis, who was a lawyer before becoming a sportswriter, blogger and radio host, writes in his piece, On Grantland and Sports Media, that most of the analysis of Grantland’s demise has missed an important point: “the site was losing money.” He points out that the reported $6 million in annual revenue Grantland produced was less than sports-talk radio stations WJOX in Birmingham or 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, which, Travis writes, are both profitable.
When two single sports talk stations in mid-size markets produce more revenue and profit than a site like Grantland, located on the front page of ESPN.com, there are larger issues at play than Bill Simmons and editorial differences and lost jobs for the writers. Put simply, Grantland failed because it lost money and ESPN decided that the benefit Grantland brought to its brand wasn’t worth the cost it extracted.
Travis then launches on a sort of history of disruption in sports media, finally offering 10 “thoughts” for people hoping to make a living in the industry. The first of them is “Writers have to understand the business of writing.” He compares sportswriters to the scouts in the movie “Moneyball”:
Just like those baseball scouts for the Oakland A’s, most sportswriters are operating with an antiquated notion of what their job is, and they have no concept how to use the tools around them to make them better at their job.
At one point in the piece, Travis had mentioned Bleacher Report and SB Nation, calling them technology companies that treat writers like commodities and don’t pay them much. Finocchio, one of four friends who founded B/R, wrote him an email arguing that Bleacher Report is “very much a content company, not a product company, not a technology company.” Travis asked for and got permission to publish Finocchio’s note.
Finocchio goes on to talk about his view of the sports media landscape, focusing on how changes on the distribution end—from Google News driving traffic to Facebook doing so, for example—have affected content strategy.
Distribution disruption has now settled, and we’re swinging toward a period where the publishers with the most valuable content/brands are going to separate themselves from the pack. Cable is crumbling and distribution is getting more and more fragmented with no clear end in sight. Many traditional TV brands (like their newspaper brethren) ten years ago, are going to die, and they’re being replaced by the digital native brands that create the most valuable content. The talent (whether writers, video, audio, mixed media, other) are going to kick ass if they can actually deliver the goods. But lots of people are good. You have to be great (at something, anything).
Both pieces are long, and both are worth reading. They’re written by two men who have been successful in the rapidly changing media landscape. In both of their stories, the losers are the people who didn’t understand what was happening around them.
Two interesting journalism stories have popped up in these final stages of the baseball postseason.
First, and more fun, when the New York Mets beat the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series last week, the New York Times created an early-20th century sports page and populated it with Dan Barry’s delightful game story, written in the language of 1908. That’s the last year the Cubs won the World Series, as you may have heard.
Poynter.org’s James Warren wrote about the story behind the story, interviewing Barry about the work that went into writing the epic gamer, which stretched to 2,200 words. Impressive length for a deadline piece, even if it weren’t written in the language of a century ago. Times sports editor Jason Stallman suggested the more formal byline D. Francis Barry, which, Barry says, “evoked the whole New York Times thing.”
I liked a little tidbit Barry passed along in passing. Talking about sportswriters can still write interesting game stories today, he says, “if you stipulate that you know the Patriots beat the Jets yesterday, you can tell them that here’s what it was like on the ground and in the locker room. And you can still go to Ralph Branca’s locker like [New York Post columnist] Murray Kempton did, rather than to Bobby Thomson’s.”
I’ve read Red Smith’s classic column from that day, but I’ve never read, or heard of, Kempton’s piece, which is a great example of a reporter getting out of the pack. And I couldn’t find it online. I’d love to read it. Have you ever seen it?
More seriously, Fox wrestled with a serious journalistic question during the broadcast of Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post writes, the network had to figure out what to do with the information that Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Edinson Volquez’s father had died earlier in the day. That information was circulating on social media, but it wasn’t clear whether Volquez knew.
“If they delivered [the news] to viewers,” Kilgore writes, Fox producers “believed there existed a nontrivial chance they would also inform a man on live television of his father’s death.” Fox color analyst Harold Reynolds pointed out that the clubhouse TVs would be carrying the Fox broadcast, Kilgore writes, so Volquez would likely hear about it if Fox reported the news.
Kilgore quotes Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal liberally as he recounts the conversation and thought process behind the decision not to report the story—even though it was all over Twitter—until Volquez left the game and the Royals let Fox know he’d been informed of his father’s death.
Rosenthal says his instinct is always to go with the story, but in this case he and Fox asked an important question, which Andrew Seaman, Ethics Committee Chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, spells out in Kilgore’s piece: “What is the importance of this information to the public?” Seaman points out that “the world necessarily doesn’t stop turning because [fans] didn’t find out that this person passed away.”
“It’s a good journalistic conversation,” Rosenthal tells Kilgore. “It was hard. It was really hard. I felt good about it the whole time. I am sure we did the right thing. It was the humane thing to do. It’s not like reporting on a trade. This is a person’s life.”
There’s an interesting state-of-the-media conflict going on in Jackson, Miss.
In response to the Jackson State football program closing practices and not making players and assistant coaches available to the media for three weeks,
the Clarion-Ledger, a Gannett newspaper in Jackson, announced that it would “cease day-to-day beat coverage of Jackson State athletics until the situation can be resolved.”
In a statement published by the newspaper as an update to the story linked above, the university defended the right of coaches to decide to close practice, and said it had closed off media access to players and assistant coaches so the team could focus on adjusting to a coaching change. Head coach Harold Jackson was fired Oct. 6 and replaced by interim coach Derrick McCall, the only person in the program who has spoken to the media in recent weeks.
It’s unusual for this kind of conflict to blow up into a public announcement of the kind the Clarion-Ledger made. Disagreements over access are usually hashed out behind the scenes.
It’s also unusual for a football program that’s not a major power and the subject of intense media interest to restrict access. Jackson State is an FCS school—that stands for Football Championship Subdivision, and used to be known as Division I-AA—with a 1-5 record. They’ve drawn 24,457 fans to their two home games so far. Teams like that rarely try to dictate terms to the media. They’re usually happy with any coverage they get.
On the other hand, this column by Billy Watkins of the Clarion-Ledger illustrates why the newspaper takes access so seriously. Watkins laments the old days of unrestricted access to players and coaches, and writes that the people who lose out in the current atmosphere of limited availability are the fans of the team.
Watkins argues that Jackson State cutting off access completely makes a beat writer’s hard job all but impossible. He says he agrees with his paper’s decision to pull coverage, even though he wasn’t part of that decision.
Someone’s going to blink here, probably pretty soon, and it’ll probably be the university. A football program trying to put people in the stands wouldn’t seem to benefit much from alienating one of the biggest media outlets in town. But in the meantime, it’s an interesting test of where we are.
“Just how much is a paper’s coverage worth to a team,” asks Andrew Bucholtz on Awful Announcing, “and how much is covering the local team worth to a paper? We may soon find out.”