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Sep 25 / King Kaufman

A man, his puppy, a night of drinking—and a writing lesson

I love it when media consultant Al Tomkins does his close reads of TV commercials for storytelling tips on I don’t know why they always seem to be about Budweiser ads, but I like them all the same.

This time, Tompkins is looking at Bud’s minute-long viral video “Friends Are Waiting,” which has more than 13.5 million views on YouTube. It’s an anti-drunk-driving spot, with the relationship between a young man and his dog at the center of it.

Tompkins shows how the video quickly unfolds the story of the man and puppy falling in love—”In just nine seconds, the story builds the relationship,” he writes—which sets up the context for the dog, now grown, anxiously waiting for his “friend,” who has gone out drinking with friends and stayed out all night.

“We can learn so much about news writing from watching, listening to and reading great stories of all kinds,” Tompkins writes.

Short stories like commercials are especially useful models to study because they are short, like most news stories. This spot never wastes my time, builds emotions and connections quickly, makes a clear solid point and leads to a resolution. We don’t know the dog’s name or the man’s name because we didn’t need to. The production is subtle and never competes with the message. The natural sound punctuates the story. Seemingly small things like lighting are not small.

In a news story, or a sports story, you’re probably going to need the names of the leading “characters.” But the lesson is to focus on the details that are essential, and keep your story moving forward, while offering telling details. In this case, for example, the dog both playfully running away with his leash but also gently comforting the man when he’s sick gives shape to their relationship. The dog perking up at headlights shining through the window, then sadly lowering his head again when they pass shows how anxious he is as he waits.

With the possible exception of an artful shot of the dog playing with a chew toy in a beam of light, there’s nothing in the video that couldn’t have been conveyed in text. And I bet you could make me see that chew toy moment if you really worked at it.

Sep 24 / King Kaufman

A test for writers: When should you write without pay?

Paywall Parkour: How to Rip Off Your Friends is the first post on the new Dealbreakers blog at Scratch Magazine, a site “about the relationship between writing, money, and life”—and one that has nothing to do with the defunct hip-hop magazine of the same name.

Dealbreakers, an editor’s note reads, “address a personal, behavioral ‘bottom line,’ or what you won’t do (or what you absolutely insist on doing) when it comes to the business of writing and publishing.”

In the first entry, veteran journalist Porter Anderson argues that writers should not pull stories from behind paywalls and share them, because that hurts all writers and it hurts coverage. Paywalls are good, Anderson writes. If readers are paying the freight, Anderson argues, readers are more likely to get “honest, untainted” reporting than if the sensibilities of advertisers must be catered to.

But all that’s not the most interesting thing for me in this interesting post. What I found interesting was a tangent consisting of Anderson’s cogent advice to writers who might be considering writing for free.

The decision to work free for such a medium, which can afford to pay its contributors, is up to each writer, of course. But many of us cringe when we see writers churning out work as free laborers. It undercuts the rest of us who want to hold out for the rightful place of all writers as fully compensated producers. And the Huffington Post example also offers, to my mind, the clearest test of what to do: if a medium has revenue, then it should pay.

I should note that he could just as easily have used Bleacher Report as an example, as B/R, like Huffington Post, has some unpaid writers.

Anderson continues that writing for the site of a friend or a nonprofit or some other situation where funds are clearly not available is a different story, and that he believes fledgling for-profit sites should pay at least a token amount as a show of faith that they’ll pay better when they’re able: “I’m much more likely to work with such an outfit than the Huffington Post, which is, to my mind, simply shirking its corporate duty to a workforce that can be come-hithered by ‘exposure.’”

Here’s where the really good advice comes in. Anderson proposes that writers should ask an important question to help them decide when to write without pay:

Yes, ‘exposure’ may be a worthy substitute for payment in some instances. But this requires a test: How much can you gain by working free? While I’d still rather see you paid for your article, you may decide the trade-off is fair. But writers should never lose sight of the fact that their business goal is to be paid. If there’s a reason for you to work free for one medium or another, be sure you’re asking yourself, ‘Exposure to whom? Who will see my free work here and, I hope, decide I’m worth paying for it? Is there actually a funded medium waiting?’

If the answer is yes, target your every word carefully to that funded medium. Make every freebie truly an attention getter. Don’t let your head be turned by the flattery of being ‘invited’ to write free. And set a time limit for yourself: how long can this go on?

That’s good stuff. As Anderson notes, it should be obvious stuff for any writer. But the obvious isn’t always so obvious.

Sep 23 / King Kaufman

Football Writers Week: B/R presents secrets of the top soccer scribes

It’s Football Writers Week at Bleacher Report, meaning the World Football team is presenting pieces all week about the world of football writing and writers.

It started Monday with Duncan Castles’ piece on covering the transfer window and the launch of the #classicmatchplot contest. The latter will continue all week, with Guillem Balague deciding on Friday who did the best job of describing a classic match in 140 characters—including that hashtag.

Today, Kristian Sturt, known on Twitter as @FootieWriter, spills the secrets of a freelancer’s success while Ollie Holt writes about interviewing the biggest names in the game and Karl Matchett serves up a slideshow of 50 football writers to follow on Twitter.

Later in the week, we’ll have Balague on researching Leonel Messi’s book, Jonathan Wilson on how covering tactics became cool, B/R writers Balague, Stan Collymore, Sam Tighe, Janusz Michallik, Ryan Bailey and James McNicholas, on video, with their most important tip for football writers, and a big B/R Football Writers Survey.

It looks like a fascinating week for anyone interested in soccer, writing or both.

Sep 19 / King Kaufman

Quick housekeeping note

This blog will be on a short vacation through Monday. The next post will appear on Tuesday. For Bleacher Report writers, next week’s Writer HQ Newsletter will go out on Tuesday rather than Monday.

Sep 18 / King Kaufman

Sportswriter Jay Busbee’s dream of a form-letter response to angry commenters

Sportswriter Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports has written a tongue-in-cheek form letter in response to commenters on his pieces, and anyone who’s ever had an online audience can relate.

The letter, published on his site and headlined “A Letter For the Angry Fan Who Just Wants a Little Attention,” has something for people who liked what he wrote, and something for, as Busbee writes, “as is the more likely scenario, you didn’t like what I wrote.” Since there are more of the latter, he spends more time on those replies, and that’s where the fun is:

4. Journalism can be “biased” in the sense that I get paid to offer my opinion on certain stories. If you disagree with my opinion, that’s your right, of course. But offering my opinion doesn’t make me a bad journalist, just like offering yours doesn’t make you a bad reader …

7. There’s (not theirs) a decent chance your (not you’re) writing is a writhing, poorly spelled, ungrammatical mess. If that’s the case, I’d love to take your points seriously, but I’m laughing too hard at you.

When I worked in a newspaper circulation department, taking calls from people whose morning paper was missing or in a puddle—sometimes people astonishingly angry over a 25-cent item!—my co-workers and I would fantasize about what we would say to callers on our last day at the job. Things like, “Sir, do you realize you’re screaming your lungs out over a 25-cent newspaper?” To be fair, that 25 cents would be worth about 60 cents today.

I’ve similarly fantasized about how I would answer apoplectic and abusive commenters and emailers if I were less professional, or maybe just less inhibited. I’ve never—OK, rarely—given in to these impulses. If you haven’t either, you might find Busbee’s form letter cathartic. You might even want to write one of your own. And never send it.

Sep 17 / King Kaufman

Stafan Fatsis on how access is playing out in the NFL’s troubles

This Slate piece by Stefan Fatsis is about how the NFL’s recent actions have caused the league to lose “its most loyal reporters,” but it also has some insights into the meaning of access, a subject we’ve discussed a lot in this space.

“Roger Goodell and the NFL thought they had the press under control,” the story’s display text reads. “Not anymore.”

Fatsis writes about the league’s strategy, similar to that of other big sports leagues, of hiring top writers like Judy Battista and Michael Silver away from prestigious media outfits for its branded media outlets, in this case or the NFL Network. That serves “to reduce the amount of critical daily reporting and commentary.” But, Fatsis writes, even those reporters who don’t work for the NFL can get paid, in a way, in access:

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman describes two conflicting strains of American journalism: access reporting and accountability reporting. The former involves getting inside information from powerful institutions, the latter telling inside stories about them …

Meanwhile, it looks like some NFL beat reporters were used and abused by the hands that typically feed them news about free agent signings and coaches on the hot seat. The problem with access journalism comes when reporters serve as mere pass-throughs for information, especially when that information is a lot weightier than the Chargers planning to sign Doug Legursky. In July, [Peter] King reported that “the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen” the video of [Ray] Rice punching out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer inside a New Jersey casino hotel elevator. But then the NFL denied having seen the video, and King explained that he hadn’t done due diligence, posting a statement saying his source had told him that he had only “assumed” the NFL had seen the video.

Fatsis points out that the NFL’s strategy could turn out to be a double-edged sword. By not giving these “insiders” the straight dope, the NFL has left them embarrassed by revelations from outsiders, such as TMZ, which obtained and released the Ray Rice elevator video.

“Now, the writers who once bowed before the commissioner’s throne are mad as hell,” Fatsis writes, “and they’re not going to take it anymore. Well, maybe.”

But for our purposes, it’s always good to be reminded that access can be a double-edged sword for reporters too. It always pays to remember why access is being granted. The most important quote in Fatsis’ piece comes from Pulitzer Prize–winning financial reporter Jesse Eisinger, who told the New York Times that he always reminds himself why sources are talking to him: “It’s not because I’m good looking or a nice person,” he said. “They’re all talking to push an agenda.”

Sep 16 / King Kaufman

Why you shouldn’t let yourself talk yourself out of writing something

A piece on headlined “The power of your writing: Why you should write even if you think nobody is reading” seems to be aimed more at creative writers and personal essayists than journalists, but I think it has some good advice for any writer, and it’s a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post in this space by Michael Schottey.

Writer Winnie Lim addresses some of the top reasons people have for not sitting down and writing and debunks them as myths:

In recent years, I have been advocating to anyone I come across that they should write. Not only should they write, they should publish their writing online for the purpose of sharing it openly with as many people as possible.

“Nobody would read what I write,” was the most typical reaction I would get, followed by various forms of, “My writing is so bad”. Some people don’t feel as self-conscious about the quality of writing, instead they are plagued by other reasons: “I am never inspired enough to write”, or “I have no time to write”.

The good news is that I get these reactions even from the gifted writers I know. The writing paralysis afflicts everybody, not only normals like you and me.

Sportswriters are often writing on assignment, on deadline, reacting to or anticipating scheduled events. Nobody needs to be talked into overcoming their reluctance to write because “nobody would read what I write” when an editor is figuratively leaning on their shoulder waiting to read what they wrote.

But what about that next thing? What about the longer piece you’ve been wanting to write? What about the novel, the screenplay, the personal blog, or even the sports blog with an angle you think is going to be a hit but no existing site is willing to give it a home?

I think Lim’s advice even works on the individual story level. If you’ve been stopping yourself from starting on something, especially if it’s been for one of the reasons Lim cites above, check out what she has to say.

Sep 15 / Michael Schottey

Just write: No good will ever come from a story that you never started

Michael Schottey, NFL National Lead Writer, was awarded the 1st place 2014 Dick Connor Writing Award for News Writing by the Pro Football Writers of America, along with 3rd place in the Game Stories category. The 1st place award was for his column headlined “Reported NFL influence over ESPN latest blow to integrity on concussions.”

The following is the story of how that column came about. 

Last year, the big news at Bleacher Report was the hiring of Matt Bowen and Mike Freeman as Lead Writers. Knowing both guys, I couldn’t have been more excited and was even more happy to fly out for an “NFL Summit” with the two of them, Lead Writer Ty Schalter, NFL Editor Collin McCollough, Editor-In-Chief Joe Yanerella and B/R founder and General Manager Dave Finnochio. Best yet, it was in the new video offices in New York City, so we were getting the chance to see those as they took shape. 

On Aug. 23, as I was preparing to fly home to Florida from that summit, news broke from James Andrew Miller of The New York Times that the NFL had pressured ESPN to remove itself from its role in a joint documentary with PBS’s “Frontline” based on the book “League of Denial,” which had been written by two ESPN staffers. 

If true—and Miller is a ridiculously reputable source on what goes on in Bristol—it would be a huge blow to the NFL’s integrity on the concussion matter and proof positive of what many have suspected for some time: that the NFL is more interested in sweeping the concussion issue under the rug than actually dealing with it. 

My initial reaction was to blanket everyone I knew to try to get statements on the issue. I emailed, texted and called people at ESPN, NFL offices and at the NFL Players Union. I searched through all my contacts and cross-referenced them with any connection to the story, including ESPN employees who happened to be in the NFL concussion lawsuit. 

I set up a number of columns on Tweetdeck so I would see any information on the subject as soon as it hit the internet. 

Then, I shot my immediate editor, Wes O’Donnell, a G-chat at 9 a.m. on the dot (I still have the conversation saved) asking if I could write on the issue. At this point, I had nothing but my own opinion and the original report, but I trusted I could get more, so I started writing. 

Understand that I was supposed to be checking out of my hotel and heading to LaGuardia. I had already called the front desk at about 8:50 to check out and have them call me a taxi. 

I didn’t have to write this story—it wasn’t assigned and could have easily been covered by someone else at B/R. Yet, I wanted to write this story. It was important to me, and I knew it was an important topic. 

The first response back to me was a text from NFLPA executive George Atallah agreeing to call me. The next, almost immediately, was a response via email by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. By the time I had finished reading that email, I had received a message from former NFL player Lomas Brown. 

You can read what those men had to say in the column, linked above. 

In all, I think I sent about 15 texts, emails or phone messages that morning and only received a handful back. Some on the record and others off. 

As each person responded to me, I plugged it into the skeleton of the story I had built. I used the columns from Tweetdeck to add more context to the piece as others were getting comments from sources I hadn’t talked to as well as others, including an official denial from ESPN. 

At 10:17, I emailed the published link to O’Donnell and was out of the hotel by 10:30, praying that traffic would be OK on my way out of the city. With NYC’s typical and terrible Sprint cellphone reception, I G-chatted O’Donnell on the way to the airport about the editing and content standards of the piece. 

In the airport, I was boarding the plane when the column was cleared and ready to go. 

I didn’t have to write. There was no need to subject myself to that stress, or to chance missing my flight, which would have meant incurring huge change fees or getting home later to the wife and children who weren’t exactly loving that I hadn’t been home. 

In the end though, I couldn’t be more happy that I wrote. 

Writers write, period. That’s who I am and that’s what I do. 

This isn’t about just the award, though I am extremely grateful to the PFWA and their judges for recognizing the hard work and craft that went into the piece. No, I’ve been proud of this piece since it published and have reaped benefits in terms of how seriously people take me and my writing—including some of those sources who may not have given me the time of day beforehand. 

I wish I followed this “writers write” maxim more often. As can be the case, life happens. I have many hats to wear both personally and professionally, and I don’t always juggle those roles as well as I should. I try not to procrastinate, but I do. I try not to go through “writers block,” but I do. 

Write, just write. 

Don’t talk about writing. Just write. Don’t complain about writing. Just write. Don’t stress over writing. Just write. Don’t spend the entire day tweeting and Facebooking on a topic. Just write. 

I don’t know what your best story will be or whether it will earn you an award. I do know this: Your worst work will always be the work you didn’t put in. 

Just write. 

Sep 12 / King Kaufman

New SPJ Code of Ethics emphasizes journalism over journalists

The Society of Professional Journalists released a a new Code of Ethics last week. Revised would be a better word, but there are some significant alterations that are worth noting.

The SPJ is acknowledging the changes that are roiling the media industry, mainly by changing its focus from “journalists” to “journalism.” That is, “giving nod to the idea that journalism is an endeavor that transcends that of the professional workers and encompasses many people and many forms, the idea of speaking to the act of journalism over the actors,” according to the press release announcing the changes.

There’s also a new acknowledgement of the concept of transparency. Without changing its view that journalism should avoid conflicts of interest, the SPJ notes that “when these conflicts can’t be avoided, it is imperative that journalists make every effort to be transparent about their actions.”

Among the other most important changes, according to the release:

  • The code inserts language that tells journalists that a legal right to publish is not the same as a moral obligation to do so. It attempts to separate the legal v. ethical arguments that arise often in ethical debates.
  • The code encourages the verification of information from all sources. This was inserted to address the growing trend to repeat information without independent verification, even when that initial source is another news outlet.
  • The code has always encouraged journalists to resist outside pressures to alter or direct news coverage. This code includes the need to resist internal pressures as well, which speaks to corporation boards and executives trying to exert pressure from the highest levels.
  • It speaks to the components of speed or medium over accuracy, and notes that the neither of those two reasons excuses the lack of the effort in getting the information correct.
  • It is important to gather information throughout the life of the story and to update and correct it, a growing concern due to online storytelling and social media use.

Here’s a critique by journalism expert Steve Buttry, who says he’s pleased, but also disappointed, by the changes.

Note: A minor typo in the press release, repeated here, has been corrected in both places.

Sep 11 / King Kaufman

This blog post about a CJR piece about clickbait headlines doesn’t have one

I’m not sure why this piece by Michael Driscoll frames the debate as internet vs. newspapers, but it’s a smart reaction to Facebook’s new policy on “clickbait” headlines.

The headline: “Keep calm and write a headline worth reading.”

Facebook announced recently that it would step up its efforts “to weed out stories that people frequently tell us are spammy and that they don’t want to see.” Part of that is reducing “click-baiting headlines.” From Facebook’s company blog:

“Click-baiting” is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Posts like these tend to get a lot of clicks, which means that these posts get shown to more people, and get shown higher up in News Feed.

The example Facebook used was a post from Celeb Style Weekly that read, “You’ll NEVER believe which two stars got into a fight on the red carpet last night!! CLICK to find out which starlet they were fighting over!!”

Saved you a click: Celeb Style Weekly is a mock page created for the blog post.

“Hyperbolic come-ons of this sort run counter to principles more traditional (some might say outdated) news outlets take pride in following,” Driscoll writes. He continues:

Among them: Keep the exaggeration in check and the blowout language in your back pocket, because someday you may need those explosive adjectives when a truly big story lands. Using “destroys” to describe what a comedian did to a politician’s position looks odd when the word also characterizes the devastation wrought by deadly floods.

Driscoll also notes that if a potential reader’s motivation to click on your story can be killed with one or two words, the specialty of Twitter feeds like @SavedYouAClick, “It’s the story that’s the problem.”

Comedian Louis CK makes a similar point in his comedy special “Hilarious,” which I won’t embed here because too much in the routine is inappropriate. He talks about people using extreme words like “amazing” and “hilarious” to describe things that aren’t.

“We go right to the top shelf with our words now,” he says. “‘Dude, it was amazing. It was amazing.’ Really? You were amazed? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? Really? Amazing? What are you gonna do with the rest of your life now? What if something really happens to you? [Here he describes Jesus returning and impregnating the speaker with the 'new lord.'] What are you gonna call that? You used ‘amazing’ on a basket of chicken wings!”