Buzzfeed asked 20 established writers of color for their best advice to writers just starting out. The resulting 39 answers make for enlightening reading. For anyone.
Here are the three questions Buzzfeed asked:
What piece of advice would you, as a writer of color, give to burgeoning writers/journalists of color?
What do you know now about being a writer of color that you wish you’d known when you first started?
Is there anything you did as a writer starting out that you now regret?
Read a lot of what interests you, and don’t feel bad if what interests you isn’t the cover of the New York Times every morning. Obviously you should keep up with world events, but don’t think that being able to speak at length about every A1 Times story is necessarily important. Write more than you read. Do things/go places that make you feel scared. Don’t be afraid to be passionate and earnest; detached irony is dead. Treat interns and HR people and everyone else in your office with the same level of respect you give to your direct colleagues and boss. Be as kind as your constitution will allow to everyone both in and outside of your office. Get into the habit of talking to people and asking them questions about their life, and don’t do the thing where you zone out of conversations until it’s your turn to speak — actually listening to people and the world around you is like 35 percent of being a good writer. Don’t surround yourself only with other writers/journalists/media people; self-imposed insularity is the fastest way to smother your creativity. And don’t stress out about ingratiating yourself with The Media Scene. A lot of the parties suck.
That’s one answer. As you can see, there’s a lot more than one piece of advice in there. And there are 38 more answers after that, many of them just as rich and wide-ranging.
Not all of the advice is directed only to people of color. Some of it is—like “Don’t let yourself become their ‘token’”—but words of wisdom aimed at some people can have value for all.
A CJR Behind the News piece asserts that “Twitter and factchecking don’t mix during debates.” Televised presidential debates, that is.
Writer David Uberti, citing a University of Texas study, points out that “most journalists resort to either stenography or snark when live-tweeting presidential debates.” That’s because everything’s moving too quickly to check facts on the fly.
You often have to, say, find some data and do some math to check a fact, and these things take time. By the time you’re able to show that Candidate A was playing fast and loose with the facts, the debate will have moved on to other subjects. It might even be over.
What’s this have to do with sportswriting?
Preparation. Thinking ahead. That’s how some organizations deal with the speed problem. Sportswriters don’t often factcheck assertions on the fly, but we do cover events in real time, and the more prepared we are, the more likely we’ll have something interesting and on-point to say at the moment it needs to be said.
Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, said claims made in presidential debates usually require several hours to verify in their entirety. Some corners can be cut, he added, though doing so requires both instinct and preparation. Before debates in 2012 began, two staffers would “come up with a list of anticipated issues based on the debate topic—economy, foreign affairs, etc.—and write up potential tweets,” Kiely said. “And if these issues came up, they could then just send those tweets out.”
Instinct and preparation. What might happen at an upcoming event that would lead to a trenchant and timely tweet or live-blog update?
Buzzfeed editor in chief Ben Smith visited the Nieman Foundation at Harvard back in February and gave a talk about the state of online media.
As we discuss all the time around here, online media changes quickly, and it’s been five months, but I think we can still derive some value out of this ancient document, “12 Things BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Thinks You Should Know about Journalism.”
That piece has an hour-long video of Smith’s conversation, but if you don’t have that kind of time, it helpfully pulls out a dozen of his best points. Here are the ones that caught my eye:
One of the advantages of starting from scratch is that you can rethink beat structures. Gay rights is this huge story of the last 10 years, but it’s covered as a B-list beat at a lot of publications just because it always has been. For us, it’s very much a frontline beat and we’re able to hire the best reporters who really own that beat.
This is a huge point. An important question I think the people in any media organization should be asking themselves, constantly, is: “If we were launching today, how would we do things?” It’s a great way to keep up—or catch up—and avoid getting bogged down in legacy issues. That is, “This is how we’ve always done it.”
Each story has a potential audience and if it’s a story about Ukraine or a story about lobbying in D.C., there are maybe tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who might, in an ideal world, share and read that story. If it’s a feature about rebuilding a house in Detroit, there may be millions. If it’s a list of cute animals or something that’s about a universal human experience, there may be tens of millions. We think: What’s the possible audience for this piece and let’s try to hit that whole audience.
Similar to the points made by New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman, as discussed in a B/R Blog post last week. Who’s the audience? What do they want? We can of course substitute different types of sports stories for “Ukraine,” “lobbying in D.C.” and “rebuilding a house in Detroit.”
You can’t trick people into sharing things. They have to really like it and be proud to share it.
If you’re in the social mix, what you’re getting is an individual story that has punched through because it’s really good. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve heard of the writer before.
If you want people to share your stories, make them original, interesting and good. That’s all you have to do!
The BBC has a website called the BBC Academy, which it uses to train its staff. Although it was originally aimed at an internal audience, according to an Academy blog post, “It soon became obvious that the quality of the content on the site … deserved a wider audience.”
The BBC first opened the site to U.K. readers, and then, for a fee, to international audiences. Now the BBC has taken down the pay wall and opened the Academy to everyone for free. I haven’t explored it very much yet, but it looks like an amazing resource.
As I write this, the top story on the Journalism site is a guide to looking and sounding good when broadcasting using Skype. There are also subject guides, tutorials on a vast range of skills and guides to such things as law and the BBC’s editorial values.
Click at your own risk. This site looks like a rabbit hole, or journalism nerd heaven.
The technology site “focuses on providing resources around broadcast engineering, software technology and business systems.” Here’s a profile of a BBC scientist who researches “how people interact with media, and how they use both physical and digital technology.”
The production site “provides practical advice on all aspects of working in television, radio and online broadcast.” Because you never know where your career might take you, here’s an audio piece about how to produce a comedy web series.
This Nieman Lab piece on how the New York Times approached its coverage of the World Cup is a few weeks old. I’m still catching up from vacation. But it’s worth looking at, even if everyone involved was living in a world where Brazil had never lost a competitive game by six goals.
Can you imagine a world like that?
Anyway, most of it is an interview between Nieman Lab staff writer Joseph Lichterman and Times sports editor Jason Stallman, who talks about the organization’s strategy for covering big international events. As an editor at a newspaper that’s also a massive digital operation, Stallman has some concerns that not everyone has. But I’m most interested in his view, expressed throughout the interview, that the Times had to aim at a lot of different audiences.
That, I think, is very common. “Our philosophy, or our approach, is to offer as much variety as possible,” he says. “We don’t want to go into this with a strategy to strictly capture the hardcore soccer fans or, conversely, strictly target more casual or even non-sports fans.”
More on that subject:
Just this idea that for these major sporting events, you have a lot of people who are expert in the sport who are following it closely. You also have a lot of people who are just casual fans who are tuning in. And you have a lot of people who don’t know the first thing about it, but who are swept up in it. We just feel that we need to offer as much variety as possible and force ourselves to experiment with how we tell the stories. It’s not always going to satisfy people how to do storytelling with words or still images, we have to be a lot more imaginative than that.
Lichterman asks Stallman about this interactive piece about different “Goal!” calls around the world, which Lichterman describes as targeting first-time readers:
When we’re conceiving of these story ideas we’re always keeping in mind who might this appeal to. Will it be the hardcore soccer fan or the more casual person? With the goal one for example, anyone who has been immersed in soccer for the past decade probably finds that to be almost cliché — a story about announcers screaming “Goal!” But for people coming into the World Cup for the first time, that may be new to them, or they might not know a whole lot about it, and maybe we can tell the story in a different way. The story that was written by Fernanda Santos went back into the history of that and how it has such roots in Brazil — and then the audio was quite a fun way to letting people hear different calls from around the world. We thought folks who were quite familiar with these calls they might learn something and for folks who are new to the sport they might answer some questions for them as well.
Who’s the audience? What do they want? What different stories, and different kinds of stories, are likely to be informative and entertaining to each of these audiences? These are important questions, and not just during gigantic international events.
The Associated Press announced recently that starting this month it’s going to use software to write stories about earnings reports. The good news is that the software, from a company called Automated Insights, can produce 4,400 such stories about U.S. companies per quarter, rather than the 300 the AP’s reporters can write in that time, according to AP managing editor Lou Ferrara.
The bad news? Well, that’s all speculative at this point. It’s reasonable and logical to worry that automation will either cause or be used as an excuse for job cuts. But for the moment, in the press release linked above, Ferrara says that the change will free up AP journalists to do the kind of work software can’t do:
We are going to use our brains and time in more enterprising ways during earnings season. Rather than spending a great deal of time focusing on the release of earnings and hammering out a quick story recapping each one, we are going to automate that process …
Instead, our journalists will focus on reporting and writing stories about what the numbers mean and what gets said in earnings calls on the day of the release, identifying trends and finding exclusive stories we can publish at the time of the earnings reports … This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs.
We can argue all day about whether automated writing software will cost human journalists their jobs or free them up to do more creative, interesting, useful work. I admit to my own dystopian suspicions. But far more useful to think about is what you’ll do when all the commodity journalism is created by software, by robots, rather than by people thinking like robots, which is what AP journalists do when they write things like earnings-report stories. Or game recaps.
If you’re doing something that a machine could be taught to do—even a machine more sophisticated than the ones you know exist today—you should probably be thinking about what else you might do. That machine is probably coming.
More on the subject:
Algorithm-Generated Articles Don’t Foretell the End of Journalism by Joe Pinsker, Atlantic.com
AP will use robots to write some business stories by Andrew Beaujon, Poynter.org
And three previous B/R Blog posts:
Computers are gaining on writers, and that’s a good thing, Sept. 18, 2013
My virtual friend Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk wrote an interesting post late last month in which he argued that generalist columnists are “a vanishing breed. Probably for good reason.”
I don’t entirely agree with him. I think there’s still a place for the generalist. But it’s a very small place. And Calcaterra’s argument is worth considering.
He was responding to a Deadspin piece that hilariously pointed out how Boston Globe hack “Dan Shaughnessy Has Been Writing The Same Soccer Column For 25 Years,” with often identical quotes from the various versions of Shaughnessy’s World Cup column that have appeared in the Globe since 1990.
The Deadspin takedown, Calcaterra wrote, “shows the limits and, often, the absurdity of the old newspaper model of the generalist sports columnist.” He went on: “For the most part, having one person serve as the voice and/or expert of your publication for all sports is outmoded and obsolete in this day and age and does little to serve readers.”
Fans have access to so much information now that, with a little effort, they can become the kind of experts about their favorite team or sport that in earlier times would have been possible only with full-time devotion—something few people could afford, sportswriters among those few. This access, Calcaterra wrote, removes the generalist columnist’s main reason for existing. Why would you want to read what a generalist has to say about your favorite sport when you have access to all manner of people who know so much more about it?
As a former generalist sports columnist, I experienced this myself. When I began writing a general sports column for Salon around the turn of the century, there wasn’t that much competition. Not many writers were aiming at—and reaching—a national audience with a regular sports column. It felt like we could have met for breakfast.
By the time I stopped writing that column in 2009, there were thousands upon thousands of such people. There was even a word for the collection of them, or us: the “blogosphere.” When Salon ended my column, I didn’t go looking for a similar gig. I felt like the world didn’t have any particular need for one more generalist sports column. The business had changed. Readers who had enjoyed my take on, say, the NBA playoffs, could go read, say, Bethlehem Shoals. We were both entertaining writers, but he knew a lot more about the NBA than I did.
I could probably write a better curling column, but why would an NBA fan care about that? And why wouldn’t a curling fan read a writer who knew more about that sport than I did?
But I also agree with a commenter called “APBA Guy” on Calcaterra’s post. He writes, “When Tom Boswell took over [from Shirley Povich as the Washington Post's main sports columnist] it became clear that for generalist columns to work, not only did you have to be the best writer, you also had to have writing skill beyond a certain benchmark. Povich had it, Boswell—who’s baseball and golf work could be very good—did not.
“And I think that’s the thing: the bar for generalist writing is pretty high. That’s why [Joe] Posnanski is highly regarded, and Shaughnessy is not. Pos is an excellent story teller, Shaughnessy is not. For me, it’s that simple.”
In the end, Dan Shaughnessy’s hack soccer column doesn’t prove anything beyond Shaughnessy’s hackery. Good for him for getting himself grandfathered in to a living that wouldn’t be there for him if he were starting out today. And good luck to anyone hoping to follow his path. As APBA Guy points out, if you want to make it as a generalist, all you have to be is better than everyone else.
With sports consumers seeking out content that isn’t as universally available as it is during the regular and postseasons, the down periods are prime spans to build followings for Featured Columnists.
When pro and collegiate leagues are in the beef of their schedules, the competition is heavy for the same stories. In the offseason, the task becomes producing crisp material when there is not much in the way of news happening day to day.
B/R writers are asked to maintain a consistent rate of top-shelf pieces year-round. It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one. Readers appreciate writers who can keep them informed and updated 12 months out of the year.
For a look at how the out-of-season goodness is created, four of Bleacher Report’s top college football and NFL Featured Columnists dealt out some advice for keeping streams hot in the summer:
Covers: Green Bay Packers
On the site since: September 2013
How she keeps things fresh in the offseason:
Sportswriting is an ongoing conversation, and if writers come at it like they’re sitting in an empty room talking to themselves, especially during the offseason, they’ll run out of material fast. I think it’s really important to engage with what other writers are producing and think about whether you agree, disagree, or think there’s more to the story. I’m also a huge stats lover; they always reveal a story under the surface if you can do a little digging, especially during slow times in the year.
What they’re saying about Noyer-Granacki:
Between Green Bay Packers pieces and league-wide content, Michelle has shown the willingness and knowledge to write any piece of content we need covered, and she does it exceptionally well. —NFL associate editor Justin Onslow
On the site since: December 2013
How he keeps things fresh in the offseason:
I have had great fortune to work with editors who assign and approve great traffic-oriented pieces that also offer the opportunity to be both informative and fun. My key to offseason success is tapping into topics highlighting changes and players about which readers want to read. People tend to read articles strictly from the fan standpoint, so during the offseason they want to read almost exclusively about reasons for optimism or reasons to be concerned. Coaching changes and new players or starters attract the most attention because they inspire hope, so that’s where I try to devote the majority of my attention.
What they’re saying about Brietzke:
[Luke] is a sharp writer with strong knowledge on the SEC beat. —NCAA football associate editor Eric Bowman
On the site since: June 2013, with an earlier stint June 2009-February 2011
How he keeps things fresh in the offseason:
Remember that the offseason is your time to shine. While it might take a little more work to uncover relevant information (I tend to trust local beat writers for this), the offseason gives us an opportunity to appeal to a broad reader base and to stand out by adding our own unique spin. Major media outlets may be more focused on sports that are “in season,” but fans of your sport are still going to crave content.
What they’re saying about Knox:
Kris is a jack-of-all-trades NFL writer who never fails to hit a deadline. He’s reliable to a fault, and knows the NFL well enough to cover anything we ask of him. —NFL associate editor Justin Onslow
Covers: Texas Longhorns
On the site since: May 2012
How he keeps things fresh in the offseason:
My goal with each article is to write something that I would want to read. To me, that means learning something new every time I put one together. Otherwise, I’m just wasting my time as well as the reader’s.
What they’re saying about Shelton:
Zach is always willing to lend a helping hand and never misses deadlines. He has solid ideas. —NCAA football associate editor Eric Bowman
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Casey Crowe is Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnist Coordinator.
Learn a new skill on your own
Maybe you’ve given it a chance and the classroom just isn’t for you, and that’s OK too.
Still, the idea that where you are now is “good enough” is antithetical to the human experience. It’s also a very bad attitude for professionally minded people in such a competitive industry. If you’re stagnated in your skills, guess how many people are passing you on the proverbial track?
It’s a lot.
Journalism has been, and figures to remain, in a state of wild flux, even revolution. Those among us who may have learned “everything” they needed to know once upon a time can easily find ourselves woefully under-equipped in a world of social media, visual media, data journalism—and whatever’s coming next.
Those who are younger, who have generally learned at the feet of previous generations, may be steeped in an older style of journalism that has become anachronistic. Journalism schools scamper to keep up with trends, but the speed of change in our digital landscape will always outpace large institutions.
If either of those descriptions sounds like you, what are you going to do to change that?
Everyone wants to teach you how to use social media. Don’t listen to them—at least not at the expense of changing who you are. Tips, tricks and best practices are changing all the time. It’s better to immerse yourself in the medium and remember that the community drives the fundamentals of social media, not the “experts.”
What about photo- or video-editing? Ever have a great idea for the perfect photo to showcase your work and you just can’t find it? What about an X’s and O’s style column or step-by-step description that is just begging for visual aids? Why leave that work to someone else? No one else is going to do it for you!
Whether it’s in big steps or small, individual or guided, take the time this summer—and every summer, or whenever you can make the time—to improve yourself. You’ll reap the rewards down the road.
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Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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Note: The Bleacher Report Blog will be on hiatus until Monday, July 14.
Continuing our conversation about how you should use the summer months—or whatever your sport’s offseason might be—to make yourself a better sportswriter, here’s a second idea:
Take an online course
More and more, the internet is opening avenues to professional development that go above and beyond (or completely replace) the traditional classroom method of paying thousands of dollars to pick up a few credits of continuing education. Maybe you’ve got those thousands just lying around, but making yourself better at what you do for little to no investment seems like a quality step to take.
First, let’s not completely rule out the “old ways.” It’s always worth looking into what sort of courses and programs the educational institutions around you have to offer. Being a master—literally—in your field is something to be proud of, and if it’s feasible through grants, scholarships, etc. to do so at an affordable cost to you, I’m not going to be the one to talk you out of it. Online courses make this avenue easier today than ever before.
Outside of that, however, there are still plenty of ways to continually learn.
That’s the point, right? Make yourself a life-long student. Don’t think of this as going back to high school or college and sitting groggily through classes that drone on and you’ll never really use. No, this is the next step: A class or program designed for you and meant specifically to make you better at what you’re already doing well. A student who hated the classroom before might very well find his or herself completely energized by further education.
I have made great use of Poynter’s News University. The organization fosters best practices in journalism and has numerous courses or seminars that fit your role in this industry, regardless of what that role is. Some courses are free. Others are free based on a grant from other organizations. Still others are available for various rates.
There are also plenty of no-to-moderate cost options for further education including Udemy, which offers courses in things like Photoshop, website editing, social media, etc.; and Coursera, which facilitates not-for-credit study alongside major universities—for free.
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Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.