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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Lessons from Sports Journalism Institute

By Tom Warhover
June 8, 2012 | 7:34 p.m. CDT
From left, Maya Jones of Xavier University of Louisiana, Olivia Lewis and Mariah Baylor, both of Hampton University, participate in a sports check during the Sports Journalism Institute bootcamp at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Dear Reader,

This week, 11 talented students learned to fear the “sports check.”

At any moment in their 15-hour days, these members of the Sports Journalism Institute could be hit with a quiz about anything happening in the world of sports and beyond. It’s a big world.

Quick: What’s the only team in the majors to never have had a no-hitter? How many minutes did Chris Bosh play for the Miami Heat on Thursday night? What creek in Columbia was found to have elevated levels of E. coli in it this week? (Answers: San Diego Padres, 28 minutes and Flat Branch)

I would have flunked.

Leon Carter, vice president and executive editor at ESPNNewYork.com, was chief instigator of this particular torture. He has a voice fit for a drill sergeant, at a pitch several octaves below that of the normal human being. He’s the kind of guy who is heard across the newsroom when he whispers. He wants these students from universities across the country to be constantly observant about the world around them. He wants them to be as passionate as he is about the craft of sports writing.

Some of the most compelling storytelling plays out in sports.

Sports render intangible, immediate forms those larger archetypes of the human experience — failures and successes, obstacles to overcome, tragedies — that occur in everyone’s life, but usually in much messier, less easy to understand terms. Here is where fear and anger and joy are allowed, sometimes encouraged.

The sports writer conveys information and captures the human experience in ways large and small.

"In many ways, (David) Freese's night against the Astros was reflective of the trip,” Derrick Goold wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Cardinals’ win Thursday night. “In a 3-hour, 45-minute game there was plenty of time to fit three strikeouts, two homers, six RBIs and some redemption.”

That one word, redemption, describes the struggles of one hitter and hints at the whole team’s hopes to flee from the doldrums of May and early June.

The members of the Sports Journalism Institute – all minorities or women, all who earned a place at the table through a competitive selection process – were constantly challenged by an array of writers and editors, including Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell and ESPN Sports Center executive editor John Walsh.

It was Walsh (former sports editor of the Columbia Missourian) who gave the students one of the key lessons of the week: Storytelling will win the day.

Journalism companies exist in multiple platforms. They have to be able to produce video and still photos, box scores and written articles, in a half dozen platforms. The “new iPad” of today will be replaced with The Next Big Thing of tomorrow.

How to keep up? Concentrate on telling great stories. People will read/view/listen to them, no matter how the technology changes.

On Friday morning, ColumbiaMissourian.com flashed big news in the sporting world: I’ll Have Another, the colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, pulled out of the Belmont Stakes.

A tendon, described as “kind of tender” by the trainer, ended the quest for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

By noon I had the article. Somewhere out there I’ll eventually find a story, one with a compelling drama unfolding before me.

Consider the beginning of this piece by the Missourian’s Ben Frederickson:

“Beer bottles from the cash bar snapped open as country music drifted from the banquet hall's ceiling speakers. There was laughter and cursing, dancing and drinking. And under it all was the low rumble of smooth metal coasting over slick wood.

“The 2011 Missouri State Shuffleboard Championship had entered its third and final day, and the weekend’s biggest event was about to start. Mark Gray and Jim Payne were ready for their much-anticipated rematch.

“Money was on the line. So was the title of best shuffleboard player in the state.

“Gray thought he deserved both.”

I could care less about shuffleboard, but I’d challenge you not to be interested in what comes next.

Some other Sports Journalism Institute lessons of the week:

Great conversations make great interviews: Getting past the clichés, which is perhaps the most difficult task of a sports journalist, requires a conversation, not a press conference. Read a set of prepared questions, you’ll get a bunch of pat answers. 

Listen more than you talk: Take that conversation where you want it to go, but listen for nuance, listen for golden gems that take you down an unexpected path, listen for the things you don’t understand. You’re not there to listen to yourself, and if you’re doing all the talking, your subject can’t.

You have to fail to succeed: Your first story won’t be as good as your 100th story. Or shouldn’t be. Play with ideas and words and voice, knowing you’ll fail. No one succeeds without failure.

These were great lessons for everyone when the institute members mixed it up with the Missourian staff at daily news meetings.

As I write, it occurs to me that they aren’t bad lessons for life, either.

Tom Warhover is the executive editor of the Missourian. Contact him by email at warhovert@missouri.edu or by phone at 882-5734.