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Jun 30 / Michael Schottey

Sportswriters, like athletes, should use offseasons to improve

First of three parts. Part 2. Part 3

In sports, the offseason is typically time to improve one’s skills.

Whether it’s Shaquille O’Neal and his constant attempts to fix his free throw shooting or a college football receiver who travels to a speed camp to take a tenth of a second off his 40-time, the offseason offers a little extra time to hone one’s craft. One of my favorite analogies is the young NFL player who loses 10 pounds over the course of the rigorous season, but knows he’ll be able to literally grow as a person in the offseason and add pounds of muscle.

For sportswriters, why not treat summer in a similar fashion? (Sorry, MLB/World Cup guys, just bookmark this and read it later.)

Even if you’re in school full-time, the humdrum of the school day can’t always beat the excitement of self-driven study. For those of us out of school—and especially those of us with kids running around—the summer is also time to recharge the batteries and remind our families what we look like! But a few extra minutes here and there can be the difference between more of the same next season and impressing people with your growth.

Never stop learning.

Never forget that passion that got you to where you are now, and realize you’ll need even more to get to the next rung of the ladder.

In my own quest for self-improvement for this summer, I came up with some ideas that I hope you find useful. I’ll talk about one today and more in the next two days.

Read everything!

Writers write. That’s the first rule of this business. The second, though, is that writers also read.

It wasn’t a perfect test, but in my time working with Bleacher Report’s college internship, I asked interns who their favorite sportswriters were. For the most part, those who couldn’t name a single sportswriter—other than Bill Simmons or people who spend 99 percent of their time on TV—ended up washing out of the program. They loved sports, sure, but they didn’t really like writing or reading, and that showed in a variety of ways.

Head to your local library or click on over to Amazon.com. Find a book on your favorite sport that touches on a topic you don’t know much about. Maybe it’s a piece of history that happened 20 years before you were born. Maybe it’s a biography of a player you don’t really know as a person. It could be a skills book on a facet of the game that has often alluded you—in my football background, I played on the offensive line and coached offensive skill players. So when I have a chance to read about defensive Xs and Os, I never pass it up!

For NFL and college football fans, I’ve already created a list of top books you should read.

Don’t just read about the sports you write about, either! Read everything!

Have a sportswriter you like on Twitter, or an author you used to enjoy but haven’t read in some time? Pick up his or her latest book—even if it’s on a topic you barely care about. Read because you enjoy something about the way that person crafts words in 140 characters or in their short articles and blog posts. Now you get a smorgasbord of the same. Maybe you’ll never relate to the topic, but relate to the words on the page, and find something they do well that you would like to do better.

Take a look, too, at books on the craft of writing. Have some old dusty books that one of your English composition courses required but you never really actually read? I bet you’ll find them a lot more exciting now than you did back then. There’s something about reading when you want to read rather than reading when compelled to do so.

I have four books that always sit on the shelf to my left: “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White; “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English” by Patricia O’Connor; and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

That’s three. I also love “The Little Red Writing Book” by Brandon Royal, which is supposed to sit up on that shelf, but rarely finds its way back up there because I’m always using it.

I re-read at least one or two of those books every summer, and all of them over the course of a year. Each read-through gives me something new I haven’t thought about before and something I can use to make myself better.

* * *

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

Jun 27 / King Kaufman

Friday reading: Is blogging just a format, or something more?

Some Friday reading.

Can the New York Times kill its blogs without losing the soul of blogging in the process? by Mathew Ingram, GigaOm

Is the medium the message? Or more precisely, is the format the message? The New York Times is closing or merging many of its blogs, including the popular breaking news blog The Lede. Assistant Managing Editor Ian Fisher says the Times will still be doing “bloggy content,” just not in the reverse-chronological blog format.

Ingram is skeptical, arguing that blogging is not just a format, it’s also a sensibility, and the Times is in danger of losing that as it absorbs the “bloggy content” into the rest of the operation. A couple of people from the Times’ Upshot blog took exception to Ingram’s piece.

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer argues that what the Times does isn’t actually blogging anyway.

In praise of the passive voice by Roy Peter Clark, Poynter.org

Clark is one of my favorite writing teachers, and here he gets into some advanced-class stuff by pointing out that while the active voice is usually preferable to the passive voice, there are times when the passive voice works beautifully. In other words, the passive voice shouldn’t be taboo, just used smartly:

I often teach a passage from the journalist Thomas French, who wrote the story of an aging chimp named Herman, a charismatic creature who died violently at a Tampa zoo. We learn that as an infant, Herman “was taken from his mother…then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint. He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” These verbs (my italics) are vivid enough: taken, sold, carried, installed, taught. They describe Herman as an orphan, a captive, a victim. He is passive, not the verbs.

On the other hand, Clark also wrote a piece arguing for the Oxford comma, so he’s pretty much dead to me.

Here’s another defense of the passive voice, from 2012: The Pleasures and Perils of the Passive by Constance Hale, New York Times.

How to do Twitter research on a shoestring by Kelly Fincham, Poynter.org

Also on Poynter, Fincham writes about the search for the perfect Twitter search tool, something of a “Holy Grail,” she writes, for journalism professors, and for anyone else who has tried to find needles in the haystack of the Twitter firehose. I know that’s a mixed metaphor. I like mixed metaphors.

A spoiler: Fincham recommends looking into a freemium tool called ScraperWiki.

Jun 26 / King Kaufman

What every good writer needs: A checklist by Joel Achenbach

Joel Achenbach usually writes about politics and science for the Washington Post, but this week, “feeling oracular again,” he shared his thoughts about “What a good writer needs most” on his blog.

It’s a good checklist. Achenbach writes that a good writer must revere language, be honest, have reporting skills and be able to think:

A good writer has to be able to think. But the best writers, you’ll notice, have read a lot, and thought a lot, and if you were to catch them at their work, you might actually see them staring into space. Stories that don’t quite work often have problems in conception.

That last bit of wisdom is something I’ve caught on to fairly recently: If you’re having trouble with a story, back up a step. If you can’t nail down a good lede, maybe you haven’t finished figuring out what your story is about. If you haven’t figured out what your story is about, you might need to do more research and reporting. If your reporting isn’t getting you any closer to figuring out what you want to say, your initial idea might need work.

I have a quibble with Achenbach’s conclusion, in which he writes, “But the paramount job requirement if you want to be a good writer is to have a big heart. Verbal dexterity can’t make up for a crabbed spirit.”

My counterargument would be two of my favorite writers, Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “The Devil’s Dictionary” and eventually vanished while hanging out with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, and Bay Area sportswriter and radio personality Ray Ratto, a friend of mine, who I’m sure has been invited to vanish more than once.

I tweeted this sentiment Wednesday and another friend, Laura Miller of Salon, offered this reminder:

That’s a reference to Greene’s autobiography, “A Sort of Life,” in which he describes being in a hospital ward as a boy. When a fellow patient dies, the other patients do everything they can to avoid hearing the lamentations of the family. “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,” Greene writes. “I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need.”

Maybe it’s not such a contradiction. A writer needs heart, but also that ice, a sense of detachment, the better to observe and analyze. Or, to let Ratto have the last word:

Jun 25 / King Kaufman

You know what would bite? Not reading Wright Thompson’s Luis Suarez profile

Two quick notes in the wake of Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s win over Italy Tuesday: First, the memes have been disappointing. Come on, internet.

Second, if you hadn’t already read Wright Thompson’s May 14 ESPN the Magazine piece Portrait of a Serial Winner, now would be a good time. The subhead: A Journey in Pursuit of Luis Suarez, Who—When He’s Not Biting Opponents—Is the Most Beautiful Player in the Game.

As you read, keep in mind the writing advice Thompson gave in this blog, which was to write scenes:

Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times told me when I was in college perhaps the best advice I’ve ever gotten about stories: “It’s all about the scenes.”

Scenes are what allow you to show instead of tell. They’re the engine of a narrative arc. They make the thing go.

And:

Always be asking yourself: If this were a movie, would any part of it make me want my $8 back? Put the things in the best order.

The idea of a feature isn’t to tell readers all the info about something. It is to create a world. People should understand the subject of the feature; just telling them lots of cool facts and formative moments isn’t enough. It’s only halfway there.

As Thompson travels around Uruguay looking for clues about Suarez’s character in his past, note how the story plays almost like a movie, the mystery slowly unfolding in scenes you can vividly picture, from the dark dockside restaurant to the office of the lawyer whose “socks and tie matched.”

I wouldn’t have asked for my $8 back. You?

Jun 24 / Richard Leivenberg

When defining journalism “quality,” we can’t let the tail wag the dog

Note: This is a response to yesterday’s B/R Blog post, Does the definition of quality journalism ever change?

The question of quality journalism looms over our industry due to the rapid rise of new technology. Newspapers never had an issue with this subject when their papers were delivered by newspaper boys on bikes.

I have lived through the various stages of the technology revolution. From manual typewriters to the introduction of fax machines into the newsroom right up to the integration of computers.

Writing for B/R changed everything I knew about how to gather information for a story. Instead of talking directly with a source, I now gather information online to back up or formulate a story. As a former newspaper editor, I am sure King Kaufman would never have let an article be published without the strict verification of facts and sources.

That is one thing I admire about B/R’s evolution. As a featured columnist, I am pushed by my B/R editors to link as many sources as possible for the facts and quotes I publish. In the old days, we would have to have very specific notes regarding statements by our sources. Today, we rely on articles and facts we find on the internet to substantiate our stories.

That is, of course, why B/R came under so much criticism early on. No self-respecting journalist would rely on the “facts” gathered by someone else. You always had to be the direct contact.

King writes that high quality journalism should “be the coverage and analysis our readers are looking for, delivered in formats and on devices that they want to use.”

The difficulty with this idea is whether the dog is wagging the tail or the other way around. As journalists, we should not let the delivery system dictate the message, but that is sometimes how it feels. We definitely want readers to read what we have written and that is where the quandary lies with the need to deliver information on “formats and on devices that they want to use.”

It is a tricky balancing act, especially for the old guard. They are late to the table and can learn a lot from B/R’s standards and approach.

At the same time, we cannot diminish the quality of our journalism no matter how the information is delivered.

* * *

Richard Leivenberg is a B/R Featured Columnist.

Jun 23 / King Kaufman

Does the definition of “quality journalism” ever change?

Author, publisher and media analyst Thomas Baekdal asks a good question about that leaked New York Times innovation report from a few weeks ago that I can’t seem to stop writing about:

What if Quality Journalism Isn’t?

It’s a question not just for the Times, but for any media organization. Here’s what he means: The innovation report says that “The New York Times is winning at journalism,” but “we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” Baekdal says this is a contradiction:

This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is “only” with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader.

And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that, just maybe, part of the problem is also the journalism itself.

Emphasis in the original.

Baekdal is writing about newspapers, but I think the question fits for anyone creating content: “If their daily report is ‘smart and engaging’ [quoting the innovation report], why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers?”

The question reminds me of conversations that happened a lot in my early days at Bleacher Report as we were working to transform the site from its rough-and-tumble origins to one at which excellent content was the top priority.

At one meeting I was prattling on about the hurdles that lay between us and the kind of high-quality stories one might find in the best newspapers or the top professional sports websites. Someone said, “We have to redefine what’s meant by ‘high-quality story.’”

That didn’t mean lowering standards so that what once would have been considered mediocre would now be “high quality.” What this person meant, further conversation revealed, was that our definition of high-quality content should be the coverage and analysis our readers are looking for, delivered in formats and on devices that they want to use.

That has turned out to be a damned good definition. It’s a profoundly different one than “stories that meet journalism and aesthetic standards that have been in place for decades.”

There’s nothing wrong with defining quality in that way. It’s just not the only way. And, as Baekdal argues, it’s a way that can be limiting.

As the media changes, technology changes, consumption habits change, we all have to make sure we’re working with a definition of “high quality” that’s changing appropriately. Because rest assured: At least some competitors are, and your readers will probably find them.

Jun 20 / King Kaufman

Friday reads: Anonymous sources, shoe-leather reporting … Oxford comma

I’m thinking of making this a regular, or semi-regular, Friday feature: Gathering up some interesting pieces that I haven’t otherwise commented on in the B/R Blog and offering them up as weekend reading for you.

Politico’s reporting disaster by Dana Milbank, Washington Post

Former PaidContent editor Staci D. Kramer tweeted that Milbank’s column “should be [required] j school reading: not for the masterful takedown, but for the reporting lesson.”

Backstory: Milbank wrote a column about a Heritage Foundation gathering on Benghazi that, he wrote, “deteriorated into the ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.” Politico blogger Dylan Byers published a post headlined “Dana Milbank’s Heritage disaster” in which he wrote that, based on a video he’d seen, “Milbank grossly misrepresented the nature of that exchange.”

Milbank’s reply, the piece linked above, accuses Byers of “armchair journalism,” drawing conclusions from nine minutes of video from a 65-minute event, which, Milbank writes, doesn’t capture the nastiness toward the Islamic woman that Milbank heard, and recorded, while sitting in the audience:

It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.

Even if it’s Milbank who’s mischaracterizing the exchange, he still offers an important lesson in jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours by Jack Shafer, Reuters

AnonyWatch: When Unnamed Sources Are Flat Wrong by Margaret Sullivan, public editor, New York Times

Shafer gives the New York Times hell for two recent stories that relied on anonymous sources and were flat wrong. Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, largely agrees, writing that while she believes anonymous sources are sometimes necessary, “In my view, they are allowed too often and for reasons that don’t clear the bar of acceptability, which should be set very high.”

More from the Times, which has been getting a lot of attention in this space lately:

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 1 by Insider Staff, New York Times

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 2 by Insider Staff, New York Times

Various Times people answer this question. You might run into the paywall trying to read these.

Elitist, Superfluous, Or Popular? We Polled Americans on the Oxford Comma by Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight

Don’t get me started on this. Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised by the suggestion that those who favor the Oxford, or serial, comma tend to think their grammar is excellent. As grammar expert Merrill Perlman puts it in the piece, “Many people who think they are good at grammar are good at following what they think are the rules.”

Jun 19 / King Kaufman

A look inside the guts of the New York Times’ CMS

It’s not every day you get a chance to look at the inner workings of the New York Times. But Luke Vnenchak, the paper’s director of technology, gave us just such an opportunity this week on the Times’ Open blog.

And by inner workings, I really mean the guts of the operation. Vnenchak described, in great detail, how the Times’ content management system, called Scoop, works, why it works the way it does, and how the Times hopes to continue to develop the CMS in the future.

It’s a little dense, but as the Times’ David Carr wrote in his recent profile of Medium:

Sitting behind all the work you see on the Internet are so-called content management systems. It’s plumbing, boring, really, but sites like FiveThirtyEight and Vox.com are building something interesting because they have great, innovative tools.

Not to go all nerdy on it — well, a little — the content management system is destiny.

It’s interesting to read about how some of the issues discussed in the leaked Times innovation report are playing out in the development of Scoop. Even the venerable New York Times is trying to think of the web as a medium on par, at least, with print.

Even more interesting to me, though, is the idea that the Times wants to create a CMS that will work with any kind of platform:

Unlike many commercial systems, Scoop does not render our website or provide community tools to our readers. Rather, it is a system for managing content and publishing data so that other applications can render the content across our platforms. This separation of functions gives development teams at The Times the freedom to build solutions on top of that data independently, allowing us to move faster than if Scoop were one monolithic system.

It strikes me that that’s a pretty good way for us to think as individuals too. Master whatever tools and systems we’re working with today, but the really important skills are the ones we can use on whatever tools and systems are developed in the future.

Jun 18 / King Kaufman

Tony Gwynn learned something new every day: How about you?

Tyler Kepner’s tribute to Tony Gwynn in the New York Times is worth your time because it’s a great piece, full of great stories about a great player who, by all accounts including Kepner’s, was a wonderful person as well.

But since I’m talking about it you’ve probably guessed already that I think there’s something in it that us scribbling types can make use of. A clue is in the head and subhead: “In a .338 Lifetime Average, Every Day Counted: Tony Gwynn’s 2 Hitting Secrets: Work and More Work.”

It’s nice to read Kepner’s stories about how nice Gwynn was. The Vanderbilt-Buster Olney story is really something if you’ve ever been around big-league baseball players and know how self-absorbed they tend to be. But this is what made my ears prick up: “Gwynn, a San Diego Padres right fielder who retired in 2001, said proudly that he learned something new at the ballpark every day.”

An acknowledged master of his art, possibly the best pure hitter since his friend Ted Williams, and Gwynn said he learned something new at the ballpark every day. And you can’t do that by accident. If you’re going to the same place every day, you’re going to get comfortable after a while. If you want to keep learning, you have to try. You have to be looking for things to learn.

Gwynn went to the same place every day, the ballpark, for 21 years in pro ball. A baseball season is a grind over seven-and-a-half, or, if you’re lucky, eight-and-a-half months, with rare days off. But Kepner writes that Gwynn never focused on the drudgery, always searching for new frontiers. Here, Kepner writes about him talking in 1994, at the age of 34, about younger players:

“They just feel like stuff is supposed to happen to them,” he said. “They’re not going to have to work for it. And that bugs me because I know how hard I had to work to get where I got. Sometimes they sit there in amazement at why I come out here every day. But I cannot let their way of thinking into my head.”

For Gwynn, the thrill was in the pursuit of perfection in a job built around failure. He tried to leave nothing to chance. Years before laptops and iPads, Gwynn would lug video equipment around the league, meticulously combing through his at-bats, discarding the rare clunkers and studying the gems.

He didn’t have to do that. Gwynn won his last batting title at the age of 37, when he hit .372. His swing was so good I bet he could have saved himself a ton of time and all that lugging of heavy equipment around and taken the same approach as everyone else and hit maybe .330. He’d have finished fifth in the league in hitting. Still awfully good for a 37-year-old!

You can fall into the same trap in this racket, thinking that because you’ve made it—to wherever it is you’ve made it to—you’re at cruising altitude and you no longer have to scratch and claw and grind like you did when you were just starting out.

That’s a good idea if you want to watch those young grinders scratch and claw their way past you.

Jun 17 / King Kaufman

Are you managing the stock and flow of your media portfolio?

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted a link Monday to a blog post headlined “stock and flow” by bestselling author Robin Sloane.

The post is 4 years old. I’d never read it before, but I could see right away why Rosen calls it the “Eames chair of blog posts.”

Well, not right away. First I had to Google “Eames chair.”

Stock and flow, Sloane explains, is a concept he learned about as an econ major in college:

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

What does all this have to do with the subjects we talk about around here?

I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Flow was ascendant at the time Sloane wrote his post, and it still is. But his advice then, still wise, was to pay attention to the stock, the lasting things. You don’t want to get off the flow treadmill years down the line and find that you have nothing substantial to show for all that hard work. And yet:

“Don’t ignore the flow!”

If you woodshed for months or years at a time working on some big project, how is anybody supposed to know that you or it exist once it’s ready. Sloane points out that the successful artists and media people who seem to avoid the flow side of the equation—he brings up movie director Wes Anderson as an example—have others handling flow for them. PR and advertising, Sloane writes, are simply flow for hire.

For those of us who don’t have PR teams:

The real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bouncing with your flow—to maintain that open channel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the background. Sacrifice neither. It’s the hybrid strategy.

That seems every bit as true in 2014 as it was in 2010.