Caleb Hannan, who wrote the controversial Grantland story Dr. V’s Magical Putter in January 2014, has spoken about it for the first time.
His big takeaway: He should have stopped and thought about what he was doing. That sounds obvious, and it might even sound like I’m being sarcastic by calling it “his big takeaway.” But it’s actually a hell of a takeaway.
“At every point, there was something more to investigate, something more to look into,” Hannan told Lauren Klinger at Poynter.org. “There was always this next thing to do rather than think about ‘Should I stop doing this?’”
I attended an ethics seminar for college journalists at the Poynter Institute in Florida in 1988, and the one lesson I remember from that week is that most ethical problems in journalism come not from journalists being evil or mean or greedy. They happen when journalists simply don’t stop, or even slow down, to think about the ethics of their story.
Here’s the background if you’re not familiar with the Dr. V story: Hannan had set out to tell the tale of a supposedly revolutionary putter invented by a mysterious woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V. The inventor agreed to cooperate as long as the story was about the club, not her. Hannan agreed, but he learned that Vanderbilt had lied about her scientific credentials to investors, and that she was transgender, and he made her the center of his story.
Vanderbilt, who had attempted suicide in the past, begged him to stop reporting on her life, even telling him at one point that he was “about to commit a hate crime.” Eventually, before the story was published, she committed suicide. The story revealed her suicide only at the end. Speaking to Poynter, Hannan admitted his story treated Vanderbilt’s death “as an afterthought.”
I wrote two blog posts about the story a week or so after it was published. Though the story was initially praised on social media, outrage began to spread after a few days. By the time I read it and wrote the two posts, they were part of a massive online conversation around Hannan and the story that eventually came to include an editor’s letter by Bill Simmons and an examination of What Grantland Got Wrong by ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl, a trans woman.
Here are those two B/B Blog posts:
Hannan appeared on a panel last week at a journalism conference in Texas, discussing what went wrong with his story, and then spoke to Klinger of Poynter. Klinger writes:
Hannan also said he was familiar with what it meant to be transgender but had not had enough experience with transgender people to know truly how it might feel to be outed. When other journalists call him for advice about writing about transgender people, which they do now, he redirects them.
“I say ‘I know someone at GLAAD you should talk to.’ I’m being glib, but that’s basically it. If they have specific questions, I try to answer them,” he said. “But I also reiterate that screwing up has not made me an expert and that they’d be better off talking to someone who is.”
I’ve invited Hannan to come on my SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio show, “Content Is King,” to talk about the story and what he’s learned. I’ll update this paragraph if he responds.
Longtime Detroit Tigers beat writer Tom Gage will be honored as the Spink Award winner this weekend during Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
I imagine it’s great for a writer to celebrate this award—the highest in the profession—with friends, family and co-workers, but Gage won’t be able to do that. At least not the last part. As noted in this interview with him in the Columbia Journalism Review, Gage left the Detroit News this spring when the paper pulled him off the Tigers beat after 36 years. He was hired by Fox Sports Detroit to write about the team, but the station laid off all its sportswriters in May.
In the bittersweet interview, Gage reflects on the changes in the business during his long career:
We used to fly with the team, and now for the most part, you never fly with them, you’re never on the bus with them, and you don’t stay in the same hotels. It used to be that if you had an issue you wanted to discuss, you could talk it over on the plane. I played many a card game with (former Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson, and it was in those games of Hearts that I could see how quick his mind was. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get close to the team.
It used to be that you didn’t have to rush out of the press box to write everything up. But now, with the internet, it’s not like you have a 6:30pm deadline. Your deadline is all the time. You can’t linger in the clubhouse or wait until after batting practice to speak with a player a second time. There’s less time to develop your sources, your relationships with players, and to just build trust.
Gage cautions today’s baseball writers not to get caught up in statistics at the expense of storytelling. “I’m fascinated by numbers,” he says, “but they don’t appeal to the entire spectrum of baseball readers. I want to caution writers to not think that everyone is a hardcore baseball fan. You want everyone at the dinner table reading your story.”
You can hear the newspaper writer talking there: “You want everyone at the dinner table reading your story.” That’s certainly one approach—trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It also may be the road to writing the same kinds of stories a lot of other people are writing.
One of the great things about this internet that’s admittedly made life a lot more miserable for beat writers is that there’s now room to write for just one person at that table who wants to go deeper than everybody else. However wide an audience you’re aiming for, I think that being unique is the best way to grab them.
Then again, they’re not giving me the Spink Award this weekend, so don’t dismiss the advice of the guy they are giving it to.
I get a lot of emails and LinkedIn messages from young sportswriters who are clawing the side of a crowded mountain to make their name. It’s a good rule to always reply to these and, if asked, I’ll happily make the time to get on the phone and share any advice that might be helpful.
The truth is there’s no surefire way to scale to the top as a sportswriter, but there are three things every aspiring Wright Thompson, Red Smith or Lars Anderson should be doing to at least dig their nails in.
- Firstly, demonstrate a true love for your craft. It’s hard to believe in a raw young sportswriter who hasn’t yet got out there, launched a blog, written for free (within reason), reached out to those they aspire to and discovered what it is that makes great writing. The best writers are mostly writing, or reading the writers they aspire to.
- Secondly, develop your personal brand. It’s not an option to ignore social media and scream “corporate sellout,” because part of your value going forward is going to be in the audience you’ve built on networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Periscope. I’m not saying you need 10k+ followers to be a great sportswriter, but what sense is there in leaving that validation on the table? Like it or not, you need to have an established personal brand.
- Thirdly, find a niche. The lead picture here is of Sam Tighe, a Bleacher Report success story who has climbed from an unpaid gig to become a soccer Lead Writer and expert video/radio analyst. Sam’s success owes to identifying his sweet spot—scouting and tactical analysis—and putting in the yards to build credibility in the space. Hard work, diligence and a willingness to build key relationships have all been a factor, but Sam’s ability to recognize his commodity early on and become an authority has greased his path more than anything else.
That’s not a catch-all, because there is a lot more to this area. But achieve these three things early on and you’re giving yourself a chance.
Will Tidey is Senior Manager, Global, at Bleacher Report.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski is one of the best beat reporters in sports media, breaking news constantly as he covers the NBA for Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports 1. In the wake of the NBA Draft last month, GQ ran a Q&A with Woj about how he does his job.
I liked Wojnarowski’s answer when GQ’s Clay Skipper asked him about tweeting out draft picks before they were announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a practice that some fans don’t like. Spoilers!
The way I look at Twitter is this: I know people argue about, you should somehow defer to a television show. The draft is a ceremony. And the decision to draft the guy has already been made. So the news is already there. Would I wait for a team to announce they signed a free agent or announce they made a trade? No. My job is to break it. If I do that, what do they need me for? I don’t care about their television show. It’s a competitor. What do I care? I hope it complicates things. I don’t care. That’s their problem. Not mine.
He also offers a great tip to any reporter who hopes to get good information from sources at crucial times, such as, for an NBA reporter, draft night, the trading deadline or free-agent season:
This job, for me, it’s a 52-week-a-year job. It’s not about cramming. To me, it’s an ongoing conversation that you have to be willing to have for 52 weeks a year. You can’t just call people when you need something. And it’s a two-way street of sharing information. The work you do over the rest of the year sets you up to hopefully have success in these very intense periods.
After the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last week in Cleveland, they celebrated, and Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated wrote about their party.
His piece is a classic of what’s known as fly-on-the-wall reporting. Here’s his lede:
CLEVELAND—The season of splash ended Wednesday at 2:18 a.m., on the loading dock at Quicken Loans Arena, 20 feet from the Warriors bus. Stephen Curry raised both arms, let out a triumphant roar, and in a fit of euphoria lost control of the Heineken in his right hand. He tried to catch the bottle, but it splattered against the cement, leaving a puddle of green shards and Dutch hops. A few of Curry’s teammates, waiting for him outside the bus, saw the final splash. They erupted in applause.
“Him dropping the beer was kind of a fun one because they’re all the same,” Jenkins tells Mark Selig in an audio interview on Selig’s Backstory blog. Jenkins is referring to championship celebrations. He goes on:
When you’ve done one of these you’ve kind of done them all and you’ve seen them all. They follow such a pattern, even what the players say and how the teams react, and the hats and the T-shirts and the champagne bottles and the smells, and you know. But to that team, to those people, it’s unique. To those people it’s something that they’ll remember forever. But you have to find a way to kind of show their joy without painting those scenes that I think for a lot of readers and fans have almost become mundane at this point.
We’ve all seen those champagne celebrations multiple times in multiple sports. Covering another, Jenkins looked for ways to make this one stand out, and he did it with that old writing standy-by: He showed rather than telling. He didn’t ask players how it felt to win the title. He showed them celebrating.
“I’m not quoting people as much as I am just capturing as many scenes as I can,” he says, “just kind of thinking of myself as a camera.”
Jenkins and Selig—a master’s student at the University of Missouri’s journalism school—also discuss Jenkins’ profile of Steve Kerr, which he wrote without having much personal access to the Warriors coach.
How’d he manage that? Listen and find out.
As part of the project of staying current on the media landscape, which we should all do, I always think it’s a good idea to have a look at Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report. This year’s came out late last month.
Meeker is a venture capitalist who issued her first report in 1995, when she was working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley.
The report consists of a 200-slide deck that I find hard to follow without context, so I usually end up reading coverage about the report, rather than the report itself. Here’s Techcrunch’s breakdown of the most important insights.
On the media front, Meeker says she’s excited about five-second mobile ads and notes that “user control of content has grown significantly,” but that the massive growth in internet and smartphone adoption has slowed. Still, adults are spending more than twice as much time per day with digital media than they were just seven years ago, 5.6 hours to 2.7.
She also points out that, based on how much time people spend with various technologies, advertisers are spending way too much on print ads, and not nearly enough on mobile ads.
Dig in. It’s fascinating.
This is a few months old, but I just saw it this week: An Open Letter to Young Journalists by Tamara Keith, NPR’s White House correspondent.
The letter, posted on her personal Adventures in Radioland blog, actually started out as a personal note to a young journalist Keith corresponds with, she writes. But she thought the advice in it was “a really important thing they don’t teach in journalism school or intern orientation,” so she posted it on the blog.
The advice: “Don’t be a pain in the ass.”
Specifically, the advice is to be easy to edit. Don’t be a prima donna with your editor:
Edits can be negotiations. But they should never be battles. Resist all urges to be defensive. Treat every editor as a mentor. Sometimes this is hard to do, especially if you don’t actually have a ton of respect for the editor. But realize you can learn something even from a mediocre editor.
Of course, Keith writes, you can push back, and you should fight to resist errors being inserted into your copy or words being put into your story that you would never write. But “there is always a way to push back without being a jerk about it.”
I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the editor-writer relationship, and I think this is pretty good advice, even though I’m an accommodating, writer-friendly editor and a screaming terror of a writer, willing to go to the mattresses over every last golden comma that emits from my keyboard. I’ve had some poor editors, and I’ve had some great editors, not all of whom I’ve treated well. But I think Keith’s right: I either did or should have learned something from every one of them.
On the other hand, I’m not sure about this judgment from Keith. Writing about working with interns on a podcast she used to produce, she says:
The people who were somewhat unpleasant to edit, or fought over every word or came off like they knew it all … I’ve watched their careers derail. Not a single person who I edited who I thought “damn, I didn’t enjoy that and I’d rather not edit them again,” not one of them has had a successful career in public radio or even journalism.
I think that’s a sample size issue. I can think of a few young writers I found unpleasant to edit, uncooperative, not as good as they thought they were, who went on to successful writing careers—sometimes with me as a fond reader. I don’t think being a pain in the ass during the editing process necessarily derails a career.
But it does mean you have to be that much better than writers who aren’t one. And it makes the workday of at least two people more unpleasant than it needs to be. So my advice is to at least try Tamara Keith’s advice. Don’t be a pain in the ass for a while. See how it works.
I might even try it myself.
Butterworth is, as CJR describes him in its headline, “the man who wants to help journalists with numbers.”
As the editor of STATS.org, Butterworth has long facilitated an informal advice-giving process for journalists in need of numerical guidance. But it’s only in the last month that the official advisory board became active, after a collaboration with the British charity Sense About Science and the American Statistical Association allowed the site to expand its reach.
Here’s Butterworth writing on Stats.org’s about page:
Now, everything is becoming a data point, and everything is becoming searchable and analyzable. Instead of hypotheses seeking data, billions of data points seek hypotheses. As we once looked to the stars, we now look to databases to reveal new truths about the universe and our place within it.
Statistics is the only way to hold this new empiricism accountable; statistics is—in our information age—the new journalism. Which is, presently, a problem. If you are a statistician you are unlikely to engage in journalism in a serious way, and if you are a journalist you are unlikely to engage in statistics in a serious way.
He’s talking about covering science and healthcare there, two fields where numbers are thrown around—and manipulated—a lot. But the sentiment applies across journalism, including in sports, where numbers are everywhere, and they’re often manipulated by someone trying to make a point.
The site’s blog offers examples of numerical watchdogging that illustrate ways of getting at the question that forms the basis for all data journalism: “Is this really true?”
As Digiday’s Brian Morrissey notes, Delaney wrote many 800-word pieces during his 12 years with the Wall Street Journal. Now, though, Delaney sees the form as a problem in digital media, because digital media isn’t newspapers:
What people read online, when you look at the data, is shorter stuff that’s focused, creative and social with a really good headline. It doesn’t mean it’s unsubstantial. It just means it’s really clear about what’s interesting and focuses on that. A lot of the 800-word stories have been padded out with the B matter. It’s called B matter because it’s B grade, not A matter, which is the focal point of the story.
Here’s a funny thing: A commenter points out that the Digiday story summarizing the podcast interview is 802 words, though my count was 764. At the moment I saw the piece, the lead story on Quartz, Stop comparing Pamela Geller to the murdered staffers of Charlie Hebdo, clocked in at about 780.
The 800-word article is pretty useful. Remember this B/R Blog post from last fall, also based on a Digiday piece? It talked about how Chartbeat data found that when it comes to user engagement, the ideal length for digital stories was around 700 to 800 words. Was it a coincidence that the the classic newspaper story, created without the ability to measure reader behavior, also averaged about that length? Or did the newspaper folks in the old days intuitively understand how people read?
Do you think the 800-word article has got to go? Or is it in our bones?