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Aug 15 / King Kaufman

Nate Silver’s misstep is a reminder to think first, and second, before tweeting

Here’s another one of those reminders that in breaking-news situations, it’s wise to think twice, and then think again, before you weigh in on social media.

As street protests and a militarized police presence continued for the fifth horrific day in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver tweeted a little story about an encounter he had with the police “a couple years ago.” He described being arrested and held briefly when he declined to leave the scene of an arrest he’d stopped to watch.

The eight-tweet story concluded with Silver apologizing to the cops, having his takeout burrito returned to him, and being given a ride home.

Gawker’s Michelle Dean wrote about the story. Here’s the headline: Nate Silver, Inspired by Ferguson, Tells Idiotic Arrest Story.

Disclosure: I’ve never met Nate Silver, but we know each other virtually. We’ve exchanged emails and possibly a phone call or two over the years, mostly because we played in the same fantasy baseball league in the ’00s. I can’t say I know Nate well at all, but I’ve interacted with him some and we have quite a few friends in common. My impression is that he’s a pretty good guy.

I don’t know what he was trying to do with those tweets, but I’d be willing to bet he wasn’t trying to equate his “suffering”—an hour of inconvenience and worry, plus having to eat a cold burrito—with that of the people of Ferguson. If I had to guess I’d bet he was trying to make a point about overzealous police, or how intimidating it can be to be ordered around. Or something.

But the thing is, I’d have to guess. For a while, I was waiting for a ninth tweet, one that acknowledged that, however scary that experience was, it was nothing compared to what the people of Ferguson were going through, or that his white skin gave him the option of clearing everything up with an apology. Or something. (Update: Something like the latter is what Silver said in a longer apology he later gave to New York Magazine.)

But the feed fell silent, leaving people to wonder what the heck Silver was thinking, with many, including Gawker, assuming the worst.

Silver apologized in a trio of tweets Thursday morning, saying he’d have more to say later:

Is it always a bad idea to comment about breaking news? Of course not. Is it always a bad idea to comment about racial issues, which are at the forefront of the Ferguson story? Of course not. Is it always a bad idea to comment about a situation where people have been killed or injured? Of course not.

But these are all situations that require an extra moment of thought, and then another and another. When things are moving fast, or when sensitive subjects are involved, you have to think through the implications of what you’re going to say.

Could what you’re about to say reasonably be taken the wrong way? Could it damage your credibility in some way? And is it worth the risk? Are you adding something to the conversation or just popping off?

You can delete a tweet—which, to Silver’s credit, he did not do in this case—but you can’t make it go away completely. You can count on someone capturing a screenshot of it.

You can’t anticipate every reaction to everything you might possibly say, and we all step in it sometimes, even a guy as smart as Nate Silver. But thinking, and thinking hard, about what you say around potentially controversial subjects is always a good idea.

See also:

Social media guidelines: A reminder to think first and be civil

Twitter civility: Remember who and what you represent in social media

Aug 14 / King Kaufman

How to blog like a journalist: Good advice for opinion writing in any format

Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy urges you to Blog Like a Journalist in an excellent post at Medium. Acknowledging that “the revolutionary gleam has worn off” of blogging, Kennedy argues that it “remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.”

So why set up a solo blog?

The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.”

Kennedy spells out what he says are the essential elements of a journalistic blog post:

  • Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know

  • Link to the source of your information
  • Bring in other sources of information
  • Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting

That’s a pretty good recipe for any analytical journalistic writing, if you ask me, especially combined with something he writes further down: “Don’t try to read people’s minds”:

Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort.

Kennedy further advises to choose a beat that’s narrow, but not too narrow, compile a wide-ranging reading list and “maintain a conversation with the ‘former audience.’” That’s a reference to the phrase coined by journalist and author Dan Gillmor, “the people formerly known as the audience.” Formerly because the audience could be, and often is, blogging and otherwise creating content too.

The reading list of bloggers to pay attention to that Kennedy finishes with is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Aug 13 / King Kaufman

How sound killed high-quality movies, just like the internet killed high-quality sportswriting

This is probably going to sound a little funny but I’ve been watching the old miniseries “Hollywood,” a documentary about the silent film industry, and it struck me that the transition to sound movies has some parallels in the media racket today.

I know. Crazy. Usually if you’re going to draw an analogy to the changes in media wrought by today’s technological innovation, the century-old industry you use involves horses.

A B/R writer who is several years my senior and a veteran of a long newspaper career responded to something I’d written about the modern sportswriting biz in an email by comparing old-school sportswriters to “blacksmiths in the era the horse was replaced by the motor car.” A novel-writing friend who’s feeling like his opportunities for making money are getting more and more scarce posted a plea for advice on Facebook and punctuated it with a warning that he would do violence to anyone using the phrase “buggy whip.”

I’ve been guilty of that one myself.

But “Hollywood” showed me an even better parallel. The series was released in 1980, when many stars, directors and crew members from the silent era were still alive. There are contemporary interviews with them sprinkled throughout. As they spoke, they reminded me of people who today lament the death of quality sportswriting, or journalism generally, which, in this view, has been destroyed by hot takes, social media, GIFs and all the rest of that web 2.0 kinda stuff.

Except for a few of us weirdos who seek out silent movies and love them, people today think of them as silly and primitive: “Jerky and flickering,” as narrator James Mason puts it in the opening moments, “a little absurd, moving at the wrong speed, with that tinkling piano.”

But at the time they were considered a fully developed art form, and many of the most important people in the business thought of the advent of sound as a disaster, the ruination of something sublime.

“I think the great disaster that befell the picture business was sound,” says the famous reporter—and silent-film screenwriter—Adela Rogers St. John. “See, we had a high art of pantomime, at its very peak.”

“When sound started, that’s when popcorn began,” says King Vidor, whose career spanned the silent and sound eras, “because they could turn away and look and talk to your girlfriend and unwrap candy bars and all that, and you wouldn’t miss anything. You could hear it at the same time. In silent pictures, you couldn’t eat popcorn and do drinks because you had to watch the screen all the time, and you had to interpret what was going on.”

Before “talkies” came in, the movies were an international language. The same flick could be shown anywhere. “I don’t think film should have married words,” says Lillian Gish, a great star of the period. “It separates the world. Film and music brings the world together again. They all understand it.”

That was a real loss, as was the audience attentiveness and engagement that Vidor talked about. D.W. Griffith said, “It is my arrogant belief that we have lost beauty.” Charlie Chaplin said, “Talkies are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen.”

These people were giants. They knew their business. They were right.

But what they missed, or ignored, was that while some of those great things about silent movies were lost, sound opened up vast opportunities that would have been impossible without it. “The Godfather” wasn’t happening in the silent era, and neither were the Marx Brothers, not to mention, say, “West Side Story.” Or “Toy Story.” But of course, not ALL was lost. Some of the Marx Brothers’ comedy would have worked in the silent era, as would some of the drama in “The Godfather.”

As I told my newspaper-veteran friend, I think those old silent-film artists are a pretty good analogy for old-school sportswriters. They created wonderful work, and found themselves threatened when technological innovation fundamentally changed their industry. Some of their old skills translated, others didn’t, and some new ones were necessary that hadn’t been needed before.

Here’s some good news: You know how all the stars of silent movies had their careers ruined when sound came in? That’s largely a myth. There were casualties—not always attributable to sound coming in—but many of them adapted quite well.

I sometimes wish that silent movies were still a thing, because I love them. But mostly I’m happy to have all of the magnificent work that’s come along since the sound era began. I think future generations will hear early-21st century lamentations over how the internet is killing high-quality writing the way we hear Adela Rogers St. John and Lillian Gish.

Aug 12 / King Kaufman

Have reports of the death of quality sportswriting been exaggerated?

The last two posts on the B/R Blog have been a little downbeat, so here’s a more optimistic takes on the future of journalism and sportswriting.

Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing asks, Is Sports on Earth’s Demise Another Nail in the Coffin of Quality Sportswriting? The good news here is that Bucholtz follows Betteridge’s Law, which states that the answer to any question asked in a headline is “no.”

Bucholtz takes off from a post by Eric Goldschein on Sportsgrid.com that argued that Sports on Earth failed because it lacked scandal and cheesecake photos. “Plenty of media entities and websites (including this one) have managed to do quite well without regularly checking in on Paulina Gretzky,” Bucholtz writes.

But there is some truth to Goldschein’s argument, Bucholtz admits, pointing to the Robert Littal essay mentioned here yesterday, in which the BlackSportsOnline founder wrote about mixing the two approaches, low- and high-brow. As Littal put it, “You ever consider all those one paragraph posts were done so I’d have an audience to post a 2000 word one and have people pay attention on a serious subject?”

I would argue that this has always been true, and isn’t new with the internet. A lot of the commentary about the difficulty of making online media business models work seems to imagine some time in the foggy, pre-digital past when sophisticated, high-quality journalism paid for itself. It never did. It was always subsidized by less serious content, and by the happy technological accident of the scarcity of distribution. Just about everybody in town read one of the local newspapers, so advertisers paid dearly to get in front of them, whatever was in between the ads.

I worked at newspapers before the internet. We could have called one of the City Council members Daisy Duck in the third paragraph of an important story and we might have gotten a couple of letters a day or two later. But a typo in a crossword puzzle clue, or “McHale’s Navy” coming on at 6 when the TV listings had said it would be “I Love Lucy,” and the switchboards would light up like the aurora borealis. If you paid attention, you knew what sold papers.

Here’s Bucholtz’s conclusion:

The restructuring of Sports on Earth is far from a death knell for the internet media world, and it’s far from an indication that we’re about to descend into a hellscape of “tits, asses and scandal.” However, it does illustrate the difficulties of competing in a crowded media landscape, and the particular difficulties of trying to do so with longform and/or highly original content. Perhaps the solution is to do so in a new way, as sites like The Cauldron and Vice are trying. Perhaps the solution is to change the way longform content is marketed and advertised. Perhaps the solution is to have longform as part of a larger media empire. We don’t really know right now. All we know is that while the old Sports on Earth is dead, the report of longform’s death and the death of quality sportswriting was an exaggeration.

Aug 11 / King Kaufman

Good career advice after a sobering week: Have a Plan A, B, C and D

As we discussed Friday, last week was a tough one in the sportswriting biz, with Sports on Earth reportedly laying off most of its staff. If your Twitter feed was anything like mine, it was filled with good sportswriters letting everyone know they were looking for work.

Sports media is a rough, ever-changing business, and the effective end of a site where so many high-level sportswriters had apparently been flourishing was a sobering reminder that even those who seem to be thriving can never get too comfortable.

I found BlackSportsOnline founder Robert Littal’s response, a post headlined Layoffs, Firings & Sites Closing; What is the Future of Sports Blogging? a compelling one.

Littal gives a history of sports blogging through the lens of his own experience. It’s very long, but a great read, all the way to the conclusion, when Littal gets around to answering the titular question. At the risk of spoiling it for you, here it is (the first ellipsis is Littal’s, the second mine):

I think there won’t be much of a future unless…….

Well, I think Triple H said it best, you better adapt or perish and have a Plan B, C and D. People believe you just write a post and everything will just fall in your lap. It is so much more to it than that …

Don’t get buried in the Evolution or drown when the next flood comes.

We are in an era of rapid change, and as my former boss Richard Gingras, now the head of news and social products at Google, has said, don’t wait for that rate of change to slow down. In fact, it’s increasing.

It’s not enough to adapt today. We’re probably going to have to adapt again tomorrow.

Aug 8 / King Kaufman

First things first in a job search: Always do good work

This is unfortunately one of those weeks when a lot of sportswriters and editors have lost their jobs. So a two-part series by Steve Buttry on his Buttry Diary blog is particularly timely—although it’s never a bad time for good advice on searching for a job.

Job-hunting tips: Spread the word, network, be patient and persistent, posted Tuesday, and Prepare for your next job hunt while you’re still working, from Wednesday, are both packed with great advice.

The latter post offers a great reminder that there are no shortcuts. You can spread the word, network and be patient and persistent all you want, but if you don’t do good work, it won’t matter a bit:

Quality work often isn’t enough, but job-hunting success always starts there. You can do good work and still not succeed in a job hunt because you didn’t do the things I discussed yesterday (or just because job-hunting is hard). But no amount of digital sophistication, networking or other techniques discussed here is likely to help if you don’t do quality work.

Buttry apologizes for what sounds like boasting, then details how throughout his career, he’s been able to take advantage of opportunities because he’d done a good job somewhere. An old boss or co-worker was willing to hire him or put in a good word for him because he’d done good work in the past, not because he was such a great guy—”I can be pushy, demanding and persistent,” he admits.

But again: “Quality work often isn’t enough.”

Read both posts, even if you’re not job-hunting at the moment. As Buttry notes in the second one, the best way to get your next gig is to be laying the groundwork for a successful search at your current one. The best thing about that: It’ll likely make you better at your current job, because the first order of business is “Do good work.”

Aug 7 / King Kaufman

Daily News writer admits he may have gotten too close to Ike Davis, Lucas Duda story

New York Daily News baseball writer Andy Martino wrote an interesting blog post this week about getting too close to his subject. The headline is a bit long, so I’ll give it its own paragraph:

Really trying to understand why I was so wrong about NY Mets’ Lucas Duda. What are the challenges of separating reporting from personal feelings?

Martino writes about the position battle at first base for the Mets over the last few years between Ike Davis and Lucas Duda. Davis, he writes, is a charming, thoughtful, funny guy. Everyone says so, including Duda, who is more reserved and not comfortable with the media.

Martino writes that he’d thought over the last few years that the Mets should have settled on Davis over Duda, who he thought, based on personal interactions, lacked the confidence necessary to succeed in the big leagues. As it turns out, it looks like Martino was wrong. The Mets gave up on the struggling Davis, shipping him to Pittsburgh, and Duda has settled in to have a fine year as the Mets’ regular first baseman. Martino writes:

We arrive now at the sticky area of reporting. I’ll turn it inward, without presuming to speak for colleagues and competitors. On a subconscious level, did I convince myself that Davis was a better choice because he was a better quote, a friendlier guy, one for whom I came to feel genuine affection as a person? …

There are many levels of ethics, in this sensitive business of writing about real people. On an obvious level, we should not produce agenda-driven work, where we write positively or negatively about people based on what they can do for us, quid-pro-quo. Duh.

But there is a more subtle crime that can be difficult to avoid: Accidentally interpreting the information we gather through the lens of what we want to happen. Davis was interesting to talk to, sympathetic and likeable; did that up-close knowledge render me incapable of drawing an objective conclusion, and presenting it to readers? And to overstate Duda’s problems, which he seems to have since overcome?

Well, yeah. Reporting is still the best way do the job, but it must include an additional step: Pause, step back, be aware of what you are feeling. And question it, more than I did while working this particular story.

It’s a remarkable bit of candor for a professional writer, and a solid lesson for the rest of us.

Aug 6 / King Kaufman

Roy Peter Clark’s plea to save the game story from the robots

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark offered a rebuttal Tuesday to those—including this blogger—who have cheered the robot takeover of game stories. That is, those of us who like the idea that algorithm-generated text can do the grunt work of describing what happened on the field in what order, leaving human writers with time to write stories that are more original, less formulaic.

The usual argument against machine writing is that bosses will use it as an excuse to lay off writers and pocket the resulting profits. This is of course a possibility but I don’t think anyone will succeed by doing that. I should note that as I write this, Sports on Earth has just laid off most of its writing and editing staff, according to multiple reports. There’s no reason to believe SoE will be replacing them with algorithms—or that it’s likely to become a big success now.

But Clark is arguing a different point. He wants to keep human gamers for the sake of the reader. “Killing the game story would be a shame,” reads the headline on his Poynter.org post:

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post. His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

Here is Goff’s story.

Clark cites Red Smith’s famous lede describing Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, a lede that began, “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it.” He then credits Goff for leading his story in a similarly unconventional manner.

I would argue that Smith was not writing a game story. He was a columnist, not a beat writer, and, while his famous story had some game details, it was not a classic gamer. Similarly, Goff could afford to start his story, as Clark notes, “with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game” because he knew that any reader who cared about those details would already have learned them by the time the story was published.

So we may be talking semantics here. Goff’s piece is a game story, in the sense that it was the piece in the Washington Post that day that described the game, but it was as much a column, a collection of observations and opinion mixed in with quotes and description, as Red Smith’s piece from 1951. Clark acknowledges this:

The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing. What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective.

So Clark is arguing here not for the preservation of the standard Associated Press gamer—lede, context, important secondary detail, reverse chronological “running,” and the whole thing written through after a few minutes with quotes interspersed. He wants to save the more literate, literary, nuanced writing like Goff’s World Cup story, Smith’s Thomson column and many unforgettable pieces in between and since.

I think we can all agree with that. The question is probably more like: How much game coverage do we need humans to do? For one of the biggest sporting events in the world over a four-year period, sure, let’s have a fabulous writer like Goff write about the game, though he doesn’t necessarily need to bother with too many “details of the game” if they don’t fit what he wants to say.

But do we need that for a Tuesday night NBA game in Milwaukee, a Real Salt Lake-Portland Timbers tilt, a late-season Cubs-Phillies rainout makeup? I’d rather have writers with Goff’s talent doing more than recapping who scored at what minute.

What do you think?

Aug 5 / King Kaufman

How the New York Times didn’t fall for a report from others’ “sources”

In this week’s version of the newsletter I sent out to all Bleacher Report writers every Monday, I mentioned that three consecutive posts on this blog last week dealt with verification, attribution and plagiarism issues.

B/R Featured Columnist Ray Glier, a veteran Atlanta journalist, responded with a story from his days working for the New York Times. With Glier’s permission, I’m going to reproduce that reply, because it’s a good one—the other side of what I kept saying last week: If only they had used proper attribution and verification techniques!

Glier has also written for USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. Here’s what he wrote me:

Here is one I learned from a veteran editor at The New York Times.

On Oct. 1, 2006, the Los Angeles Times published a story that said Houston Astros pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were named in a federal affidavit as steroid users.

The L.A. Times never saw the affidavit without the redacted names. It used sources.

Eighteen months later, the paper was embarrassed because when the affidavit was released, Clemens and Pettitte were not mentioned. There was a retraction—of course—plus a scolding from a judge and Clemens’ attorney.

Here is the teaching point.

Bob Goetz was an editor in Sports at The New York Times when I did some work for The Times out of Atlanta. I had to do some follow-up on Clemens and Pettitte.

Goetz said the New York Times would NOT refer to the Los Angeles Times story and the oft-use phrase “according to a story in …”

“What if the L.A. Times is wrong and we repeat what they claim in our own story,” Goetz said. “We have reported an inaccuracy.”

This is why you hope people smarter than you edit your stories.

The L.A. Times was wrong. It is why original reporting is so important. Evidently, the Times never saw the affidavit. Be careful.

These are the most dreaded words in our business. At least I think so. They come from an L.A. Times spokesperson: “We regret our report was inaccurate and (we) will run a correction.”

Understand, the L.A. Times had veteran journalists who were talented and careful and wise. Still, people can make mistakes.

I want to break news. It is what we do. Just be careful about “off the record,” and “sources.”

If the New York Times, or any other paper, had written “According to a story in the L.A. Times …” they would have owed the players a retraction. Plenty of papers used the story.

Aug 4 / King Kaufman

Ira Glass shares his method for turning interviews into stories

I like this Lifehacker “How I Work” interview with Ira Glass, host and impresario of the great radio show “This American Life.”

In the top half, Glass talks about gear he uses and the setup of his workplace. It starts to get interesting for me when writer Andy Orin asks, “What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?”

I’ve got nothing. Reading other people’s answers to this question on your website today made me realize I live my life like an ape. I eat the same breakfast and lunch everyday, both at my desk. I employ no time-saving tricks at all.

Though come to think of it, I guess my biggest life hack—and this is the very first time I’ve attempted to use the phrase “life hack” in a sentence—is that my wife and I decided to live just a few blocks from where I work.

On the one hand, I always hope questions like that will clue me in to some secret that will transform my existence and free up hours in my day. On the other, that never happens. The only “time-saving shortcut/life hack” I ever hear anyone talking about is some variation of “Well, I hired an assistant …” So I find it comforting when some productive person admits they’ve got nothing on this front.

I live like an ape too, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

Anyway, after some more gadget talk, Orin asks, “What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?” Glass then goes into a long explanation of his working method, which should prove useful to anyone doing original reporting.

I don’t think I’m better than everyone else at anything, but I am very quick at organizing a big mass of interview tape into a structure. I learned my technique from a great print editor named Paul Tough, who was at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, and worked with our show a lot in the early years. It’s so basic I worry it doesn’t bear going into here, but just in case it’s handy to another writer or editor, here we go:

We’re not going to go. I’m ending the quote there because I don’t want to dilute what Glass says. It’s a complex but understandable method for synthesizing information and putting it into a structure he can work with to tell a story.

It won’t always work, especially if your deadline is expressed in terms of minutes rather than days. But I bet it’s a good framework even in abbreviated form. Check it out.