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December 15, 2016
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to fifth installment of the 2016-2017 CoSIDA Continuing Education series, sponsored by Capital One.
My name is Clark Teuscher. I'm the Sports Information Director at North Central College and the chair of the CoSIDA Continuing Education Committee. I'll be moderating today's webinar, as we are joined by a group of experts to provide information intended to help inform how we approach all the writing projects we are tasked with from day to day.
Our presenters today are Ira Thor from New Jersey City University, Jeff Bernstein from New York University, Jenna Marina from the University of Central Florida and Mike Mahoney from the University of Pennsylvania. Each of today's presenters are former winners of CoSIDA's Fred Stabley, Senior Writing Contest, and we're thrilled that they've made themselves available to offer their expertise today.
Attendees on today's webinar are welcome to submit questions in the chat window during today's presentation, and we will address as many of them as time allows.
The webinar is being recorded and will be made available, along with a full FastScript from CoSIDA's official transcript provider, ASAP Sports, for on-demand use exclusively at CoSIDA Connect.
Our first presenter today is Ira Thor, director of sports information at New Jersey City University, a member of CoSIDA's Board of Directors and the president of D3SIDA.
IRA THOR: Thanks, Clark. And thanks everybody for joining us today on a subject I think a lot of us are passionate about.
With analytics, you can see people, how long people are staying on your site, and we know with social media and the prevalence of video, people are having shorter and shorter attention spans.
For those of us who love well-written prose and good stories, what we are all going to talk about today are tips that we hope will allow us to merge the old way of writing with a maybe more modern approach.
To me, I think with a well-written story or even a well-told video story, that can live on for years. I don't think you can do the same thing with a graphic. A graphic is a nice supplement to a story, but in my opinion it should never take place of a well-written story or a video. Because somebody is going to come back years later or even weeks later, a graphic is not going to stand the test of time in storytelling. It's more instant gratification. It's very useful but it's more instant.
With that said, with shorter attention spans, I think now more than ever, we need to be more adaptable as writers. And case in point, if the Associated Press can change its ways in the way it writes, so can we. I used to be the guy that would write a thousand-word-plus game recap all time. I came from a sports writing background, so this was really natural for me.
And it took a while to do. I thought it was important to capture every nugget and nuance of the game, and I was the guy who could write 50 words on a 0-0 soccer game when probably it wasn't warranted.
While there's still times where it's important to have a thorough story, particularly a historical or championship situation or setting, you we also need to consider changing our structure. For example, instead of having ordinary prose, I try to break up my stories into sections to make them easier to read. I still have my normal lead where I'll talk about why the game is important, especially if something historical happened or a key performer, and then I'll write usually no more than five to eight paragraphs in the main section, sometimes less than that if possible.
Many SIDs would probably still consider going even brief. For me personally that's a happy medium. I still write in the old-fashioned who, what, where, when and why format, and so if people are not going to go on any further than that, they get the information that they need.
But I also try to write -- and I've always done this, I try to write with some emotion in the piece. And when warranted, try to be colorful with my writing. I don't want it to be just some boring text that people are going to glance over and just not feel any connection to.
I also hate using the same words over and over and over again. That's why, and some of you have probably seen me post this online, I put together years ago a sports writing thesaurus. I dubbed it the "Thor-saurus." But it's in resources that will be available after this; if you are ever looking for different sports adjectives if you are looking to make your writing more colorful and I'm always taking tips to add to it.
Now to be able to write the way I want to and do it in a way where it's still useful for the audience, not just straight prose, I try to break it up into sections as I said. So after my intro, a few paragraphs, if there's key moments in a game that I feel need to be discussed, I now have different sections.
One section I do is called "how it happened," and you can look at the story I wrote on men's basketball this past weekend against TCNJ to see how I structure the stories now to make it more readable. How it happens is where I'll break down some key plays in the game.
I think every good story, if there's a quote that's relevant, a quote can help. Instead of embodying quotes in the middle of my prose in a non-feature, I now have in my game stories what I call, quotable section, where I'll include a quote from a player or a coach. But instead of typing out every single quote, which can get boring and people are not going to read them all, most of our post game interviews are on Facebook Live now. So I'll do one key quote and include the link to that video so people can watch more. So I'm combining video into my story without actually having to cut anything down.
I always have an "of notes" section. I don't like to just throw historical nuggets: This is the 20th time scoring 20 points. I don't like just throwing it into a game story. It gets lost, and quite frankly it makes it longer than it might need to be. So I have a notes section in every story, where I'll have bullets.
Instead of writing in all bullets, which I am personally not a fan of, I have a bullet section. I'll include series records, individual player highs, the last time something happened, etc.
And then finally, I always end my stories now with a quick preview of the next game. Instead of saying, you know, in the third or fourth paragraph, we are 8-1 on the year and our next game is against NYU. I have a what's-next section. At the end of the story, a one quick paragraph preview of the next story. I think it makes it a lot more readable in this format.
I also think, and this gets said from time to time about the power of a headline. I think that a well-written headline is really key. If I just say, NJCU beat NYU 70-65, people may find no need to read the rest of the story. They got the score and that might be enough for them.
But in the case of the example I have here of the basketball story I wrote on Saturday: Defense delivers as NJCU rallies past TCNJ for first place in the NJ. It's a little bit more colorful, and it's I think more attention-grabbing and might get people interested in actually reading the story.
Sometimes you don't need a longer headline. Sometimes something catchy will just come to you. Several years ago I had some pretty -- what I thought were pretty catchy, one- or two-word headlines. One of them, we had a baseball player named Francisco Ramirez. He was a starting catcher, power hitter, everybody called them Cisco. He had four doubles in a game. My headline that game was: Quatro Cisco, a play on four doubles and his name, and it became probably the moment complimented headline we've had in years here and eventually became his new nicknames with his teammates. So a powerful headline is a useful thing.
A couple other things I do want to mention. While I am starting to use info graphics a lot more on social media, or I write the story just so we have information out there early before the story is done.
I think it's important to have information in a story in chart form in my opinion. I try to use charts in a lot of my stories. You can put these together very quickly. And then drop them into the story. They are suitable to take the place of an infographic inside of a story. I use charts for all tournament team lists, record lists, Top-10, somebody breaks into the Top-10, I'll list who the Top-10 scorers are in chart form rather than in prose, writing who the Top-10 are, national rankings, conference standings when it's necessary, statistical comparisons between teams. I think charts and tables do the same things as info graphics and it really does cut done on wordy prose.
Now bullet story writing is a topic that, and I'm sure some of our other presenters might touch on it, it's becoming more popular. I'm not a big fan of writing in complete bullet style. I save that for the notes section only. It's just not something I'm a fan of.
However, I will do it for certain types of stories. For example, our athlete of the week story now, I started this year doing that with a quick intro, quick lead and then doing the rest in bullet format. So I think there is a time where it could be useful to write in bullet format. Although, I do think that you can find a time and a place where you can use bullet writing and have it not take away from what you're trying to get across. Personally, I just don't feel game stories is that place, but others may have a different opinion on that.
There's a couple of examples for writing at the end of this if anybody wants to go on my site to take a look at it and you can search online.
The last thing I want to do is a cheap plug for the convention this year in Orlando on Wednesday June 14. I'm working with Wendy Mayer (ph) from Purdue. We are going to have two writing panels during our Idea Lounge writing for the web and feature writing, and they are going to be part of the 2017 CoSIDA Idea Lounge.
If you have any points you would like covered or if you think yourself or somebody you know would be a good presenter on those topics, please reach out to myself or Wendy. And other than that, I look forward to our other presenters and thanks for having me.
THE MODERATOR: Our next presenter is Jeff Bernstein. Jeff is the assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information at NYU. He is a past president of ECAC-SIDA and the chair of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Division III selection committee.
JEFF BERNSTEIN: Thank you, sir. I hope not to speak too much about some of the things that Ira just did, and as you can tell, my picture is up there, so I can look at my notes a little bit more.
What Ira said about the Associated Press was very interesting about how they can change, as well. I actually do writing for the Associated Press. I cover the New York Nicks and the Brooklyn Nets home games from time to time, and they have cut down on the amount of words that they want used.
What they also have done is actually cut down on the amount of words we use in the story and will do something called tip-ins. So the tip-in sections are just notes about the teams. So about half the stories, the actual story, and almost half of the story is just notes.
And I think they feel that people as Ira said, you break up what you look at. People, if you start a story from the top to the bottom, nowadays, people don't have that -- people are distracted. People don't have the attention spans. People are multi-tasking. They are reading and they are doing others -- I can tell you that's what happens in my office with my students. Everybody is doing more than one thing at once. So you have to grab the attention.
So brevity is important. When you're starting your story, like Ira said, you want to get their attention, but you also want to make things brief and to the point.
In stories, I think it's a good idea to use quotes. To use quotes, people want to hear what the coaches have to say. People want to hear what the students have to say, what the student athletes have to say more than they want to hear about my opinions or what I'm writing, you know, the words that I'm using.
Using quotes is also a good filler. It takes away from some of the things that you have to write about and it explains the story and gives more of an insight. I know a lot of times when I'm reading a story in the New York Post or the Daily News, I'll skip sometimes the paragraphs that don't have quotes and I'll just go to the paragraphs that have quotes. That's what people want to know about.
I want to talk a little about accuracy versus speed. It always comes up, I want it get things out quickly. I've got to get everything done quickly. The game ended, I've got to get things out. We can't sacrifice accuracy. I know we're talking about what people are going to write in the future and styles and what's new, but accuracy, there's no substitution for accuracy. With all the blogs that are going on now and all the texting that is being done, that's a lost art. There you're rushing. There you're getting stuff out. There you don't care about if you're putting a period in after your sentence or if you're abbreviating words or if you're using grammar, but we all work for educational intuitions.
So we have to be accurate. We have to be grammatically correct. There are a couple of tips that I can give as far as getting things done quickly, but still being accurate. For instance, a lot of your story can be written believe it or not before the game even starts. Set up your opening paragraph with where the game is being held and who is playing in the game, and then have your final paragraph already written, where your next game is, if that's what you do at the end of the stories, and then you can kind of just start filling things in.
I also like to write while the game is going on so that I can get a head start. Also, I never post the story until I've looked at it, at least two or three times. Or if you have another set of eyes available, an assistant captain, a coworker, a student, anyone, who can help you take another set of eyes on to that story. I mean, I think we all get embarrassed when we put something up and then we see we misspelled somebody's name or left out a crucial fact or something, double-worded on something.
So besides spellcheck, which isn't always accurate. Don't just rely on spellcheck. I have an example of desert and dessert. It's not going to pick up the word that you wanted to use, even though the spelling is the same. So make sure you look at your stories at least two or three times or have somebody else help you out with that.
Also try to avoid -- we all have words that sometimes we are not sure if we're using it in the proper text; if we're not using it in the proper way. Just find a way around it. Just find another set of words that you can use that you're more confident with.
Ira talked about being creative. Absolutely. Writing should be fun. Writing should be a lot of fun. And sometimes we just do the nuts and bolts, but I don't think there's anything wrong with being creative. I've seen a lot of creative writing in other people's stories. You know, find your own imprint. Use another words besides basket or home run.
The great sports announcers, the great journalists, have used their own sayings, have become part of American vernacular. Why not find something that you like? Why not find a phrase that you like and use it? Creativity is good but make sure you're tasteful. I don't know what Ira did -- Ira's example about his four-double guy. I'm a little bit concerned, people are very sensitive these days. Just make sure that you feel comfortable with what you're using and what you're saying.
And the one other thing I want to say before I pass along the baton here is don't make assumptions in your stories. USC, we all think of USC, University of Southern California, but it could be the University of South Carolina. And OSU could be Ohio State University but it could also be Oklahoma State University.
I'm a big proponent of making sure that you use the proper name of schools, organizations, unless it's absolutely worldwide. I'm not sure if any of us use the words NCAA and then spell out what NCAA stands for. Hopefully we think the same way of CoSIDA. But it's probably a good idea to explain the acronyms and just make sure -- and also, there's nothing wrong with speaking to your opponents. Hear in New York we play a lot of SUNY schools, and some of the schools like SUNY Albany, SUNY Purchase, well they may call themselves Purchase College or Albany State. Nothing wrong with speaking to the opponents before your games and get what they like to be called and then again after that you can reference them.
Hopefully that's helpful to some of you and we've got two people a lot better than me, I believe, next up in the order. Thanks everyone.
THE MODERATOR: Jeff, we do have one question that's come in, and I'll direct that to you.
What is the level of importance that you place on developing a story line within a game story? Is there a lot of importance on finding the angle to take on it, or do you just let the game story tell itself?
JEFF BERNSTEIN: That's a good question. Thanks whoever sent that.
You know, I really look at that two ways, but from my writing here obviously, I just want to present the facts. It's not really a featury-type story we're doing. For instance, we just had our men's basketball coach get his 500th win, so the story line was his 500th win. So that took precedence over the shots and the scoring, and that became -- I wanted people to know about that before I got into the nuts and bolts of the game.
I think if you've got something other than the just nuts and bolts of the game that you think is important, I'd say get it out there. Get it out there early. Get it in your lead. Get it in your second paragraph. You know, something different.
And Ira touched on it, too; something that's going to grab their attention right away. If you don't have something very interesting for them by the second or third paragraph, they are gone.
And remember, the parents, the fans, the alum who really care about our games, they are watching them and they are now maybe following them on live stats. So they don't need to go over things that they have already seen. I would say, if you could develop a story line, that probably should take precedence over the nuts and bolts.
THE MODERATOR: Our next presenter is Jenna Marina. She serves as the advancement communication specialist at Central Florida after a decade of experience in athletics communication, she's the winner of three CoSIDA national writing awards including 2014 Story of the Year.
JENNA MARINA: Thanks, Clark. So yes, you guys heard right. I no longer work in athletics. I saw the light and have a 9 to 5 job now. But that being said, I owe my whole career to my experience in athletics and everything that I learned as a writer stemmed from that.
So for me, with the transition into a job outside of athletics, I have found that knowing how to write is a valuable commodity. I'm technically the only professional writer in my office. So I have a lot of -- I have my hand in a lot of projects with different people because people are just terrified when they have to write something.
And I firmly believe that athletics prepares you for anything. You are so used to working at a fast pace in athletics that's like nothing else and I really feel like I'm capable of handling anything that get put on my desk. For me, even when I was in athletics, I always found the most interesting stories were the ones that humanized those student athletes or the coaches.
I always enjoyed telling -- showing who they were as people more so than how many home runs they hit or how many goals they scored. So that is something that has transitioned. Whether I'm writing a story about an athlete or someone who graduated from UCF that's now operating her own bed and breakfast in Alaska, it's still using the same techniques to strike an emotional cord and have people relate to something that they are familiar with.
I by no means think that I am an expert in writing. I subscribe to the Joe Madden/Cubs philosophy of trying not to suck. So in terms of putting together the story that ended up winning national story of the year, there's really no formula or big secret. I tried to just let the student athlete shine through it because she was a really special kid and I tried not to get in the way of it.
Quick backstory of the story in case people are not familiar with it. We had a soccer player here that I just happened to notice a tattoo on her arm one day at the preseason photo shoot, and I asked her what it was. And she said it was her father's handwriting from the last birthday card he ever gave her. He died when she was 12 and it said, "Follow your dreams." So she lifted his handwriting from the card, and it's his handwriting in a tattoo form on her forearm, and I thought that was really interesting.
I knew that I would eventually want to write a story on it. I would just have to find the right time to do it. She ended up getting injured that season. So I waited until the preseason of the next year, because the story was all about following your dreams and I felt preseason was a good time when there's hope for the new season, and just kind of like I said, let her tell it.
I would say, sometimes I really struggle with writing leads and I'll start working on another part of the story. When I was in journalism school, one of my professors taught us that if you were to try to explain what you were writing to somebody else that has no idea what the story is about, whatever you start telling them from the get-go, that's likely your lead. So for me, when I would tell people why I thought the story was interesting, it always first started with the tattoo. So I knew that my lead should be about the tattoo.
And obviously you have to get to the point quickly and explain why you're talking about this person, like the guys before me mentioned. So there needs to be some sort of nut graph for why you're talking about it. But like I said, the reason why I loved that story, quite honestly, and this goes back to what I was saying about getting people to connect to something: After it was published, a lot of people in the athletic department really liked it, a lot of the administrators.
But Fish, Megan Fish, told me she received a Facebook message from somebody that she had never met, somebody that had never gone to a soccer game at UCF and happened to see her story and read it. This girl, she was a student at UCF and she also lost both of her parents earlier this year and she was struggling with the same grief that Fish had struggled with for a while. And she thanked her for telling her story and for being brave enough to do so, because she figured it wasn't an easy thing to talk about.
So for me, the fact that we were able to connect Fish, to connect someone to her that had never been to a soccer game or had any experience with athletics, to me, that will always mean something big to me that we were able to reach that person.
In terms of some other tips, these are just things that I think are important, and they are not mind-blowing or anything, but it's just stuff that I think if you do the basics, you're going to do your job well. The first being, do your research before an interview. It's something that I think we try to hold reporters accountable to, as well, or hope that they do, because there's nothing worse than showing up to an interview and clearly the person can tell you nothing about them.
I remember I was working for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and I was covering Georgia football preseason and Blair Walsh was a kicker on the team. He was an incoming freshman and I had happened to Lexus search his name and found a story about how he used to do yoga, and that I thought that was really interesting and so I asked him about it. I remember one of the other reporters from another paper asking me how I knew all about this already. There's stuff that's out there, Google is the best thing in the world. Try to find out what you can about the people you're covering.
Show, don't tell, is something I learned in journalism school. It's one thing to say that somebody is from a small town. It's another thing to say that their town had two stop lights in it and it's the town that everybody passed through to get gas. That kind of paints a more vivid picture.
Going back to quotes, like Jeff talked about, it's huge to pick quotes that are something that only that person can say and nothing else. If your quote starts with, "I graduated from UCF in 2011," that's really boring and something you could paraphrase.
Finding good timing is possibly one of the most important things. Roy Coleman's story at UCF is a perfect example of this. Megan Herboth wrote this really great story about a football player who was an Army veteran this year. He's a walk-on football player, and I knew about this story before I left athletics and I told her she should write about it and save it for whenever our Military Appreciation Game would be. And that story ended up getting everywhere. It was on the Orlando Sentinel. ESPN chaired it. Tom Rinaldi said it was a great story. So it if passes Tom's test, I figure it's great. But I don't know that that story would have gotten picked up, had it not been during a time that people wanted to know stories about veterans.
One thing that I always do is take time away from a story if I can, especially with features, even if it's just overnight or a day, it helps I think getting some clarity away from it and then going back to it. It helps with the editing process.
And lastly, one thing that I always try to do is be a human and treat the interview like a conversation. I think you're able to draw people out more that way, and if they can relate, if you can relate to them and if they are telling you about somebody who passed away from cancer and their family, that was really important to them. I've had family members that have passed away, the same issue, and I'll tell that to them and I think it helps them feel a little bit more comfortable.
THE MODERATOR: We have one question come in that I'll direct your way.
In terms of game recaps, is there a ratio that you try to strike between facts and figures and imagery and descriptive prose? Is there a particular ratio you go with or does it vary based on the story?
JENNA MARINA: I think it's kind of based on the story. Kind of like what Jeff had talked about. Obviously if there's a huge story, I think putting things into context is big and it helps people understand if somebody got -- if a coach got a 500th win, to me that's a bigger story line than how many -- what the field goal percentage was that game.
There was a story that I really wanted to tell immediately after a game but I actually had to wait because it involved an injury. We had a soccer player, she was starter for three years. Tore her ACL right before our conference tournament that we were hosting at UCF.
When they did the starting lineups, they did them international style, because of the amount of people that you're allowed on the bench, Carly had to sit on the stands. It was, like I said, she was a three-year starter and this is the first time she's ever had to sit out and she's sitting in the stands.
The first person's name in the starting lineup that was called out stepped forward and held up the No. 4, which was Carly's number, and each person on the starting lineup did the same thing and it was all their gesture to her that they were playing for her.
I wanted to tell that story so badly after the game instead of that we won and we were advancing. That was important. But I thought the emotional thing that's going to make somebody, to me, I would read that story more so than, oh, we advanced and were playing the next round. We were favored to win and everybody expected that.
Because she was injured and because of kind of the word had not been out yet that she was going to be out the rest of the season, I actually waited until the next year and did that as the preview story for the conference tournament that year. She ended up becoming Defensive Player of the Year that year, and it just kind of seemed like a better timing to tell it.
But I think, like I said, if you can put things into context, talk about records, talk about the only team in the country to be doing this one thing statistically, I think that helps tremendously.
THE MODERATOR: We have a couple more questions. We have a question for Jeff.
What is the main difference between your writing that you do for NYU and the writing you do for the Associated Press?
JEFF BERNSTEIN: Well, obviously those of us who are writing for our intuitions are, I hate to use the word, but biased. We are looking out for our athletes. Certainly if somebody has a terrible game and shoots, you know, 3-for-14, like Carmelo Anthony does very often lately, we're not going to highlight that.
When I'm writing for the Associated Press, I'm giving the facts as they are, not as I want to show them. I think that's the biggest thing of all. Obviously for both, we have to be totally accurate. But we are going to be slanted when we're writing here. We can give some opinions when we're writing for the Associated Press. There are two types of stories. There's an early story where you're just detailing the game, and then there's a second story where you put in more of your own thoughts and quotes from the players.
So the biggest difference obviously is we have to shield ours, and as Ira said earlier about a 0-0 game that he wrote a thousand words for, somehow when our baseball team loses 9-0, we still have to try to accentuate some positive or at least limit the negative. Whereas at least with the Associated Press or mainstream journalism, you don't have that same goal in mind.
Thank you, Questioner.
THE MODERATOR: A couple of questions that we'll direct to Ira before we move on. Ira, the first one up is what suggestion would you have for making stories about track and field or cross-country, swimming, sports that are kind of heavy on facts and figures and don't always comma condition with some context of how to make those a little more engaging.
IRA THOR: For me, and I don't have swimming -- I will, soon, we are actually starting. But we had track and field that used to win a lot of regional and national championships. But I was typically never there.
So what I would do so that I could try to get more color in the story and not just say so-and-so broke this record, is to actually have a conversation with our coach, and he was great about that. He would talk about key moments in a race. We had a relay team at the Penn Relays, ironically, since Mike is on the call. Broke the all-time division three record by more than a second which is amazing, by 100 meters. I could write two or three sentences on that, max.
I was able to have a conversation with our coach and got from his point of view feel like what it was like to be at this event with so many people around at such an historical moment, and I had that carry over into what I wrote and I thought that made all the difference.
JEFF BERNSTEIN: That's a good question. What about, as I said, we have -- if you have the results on the top of your story, so someone can refer to the results of the meet.
In a case of swimming or track, I would agree with the person who sent the question. It can get a little dull. But what we do is just put in a few highlights and get some quotes in. Get the quotes about how this person did or get a quote from the person who broke the record, and then just say a complete list of results can be found here so you don't have to go over everything that's already there.
So that's the best way to accentuate the top highlights and get some quotes from your athletes and coaches.
JENNA MARINA: I'd like to chime in, too, if that's okay.
I had track when UCF track was breaking all kind of records. We had the fastest people in the world on our team, and our coach was -- being somebody that had never written about track before, our coach had really high standard for how she wanted things written.
One of the things I thought were helpful, too, especially in the case of UCF, we were going up against programs that had traditionally been great schools for track and field, and our runners were going up against people in some cases like Florida Relays, they were going up against Olympians or NCAA champions. I would write somewhat, too, about the opponents; they just beat the reigning NCAA Champion in the 100 meters. I think that it kind of adds some color to your story, as well.
THE MODERATOR: One more question for Ira before you move on.
Have you noticed a lot of SIDs are submitting their game recaps to their local newspapers? And are you aware of any kind of consensus on what those newspapers will be looking for from their sports information offices, whether they are still looking for a more traditional prose style, or if they would be accepting of something submitted with some bullet points?
IRA THOR: I think it's a conversation all of us need to have on our own campuses with our media that follows us. We have locally the Jersey Journal, which is one of the larger dailies in the state that still does a fairly good job of covering college sports. From conversations I've had with them, I know that No. 1, they are not rewriting what I write. They are basically copying and pasting, which I'm fine with.
But I also know that by and large, they are only going to take the first three to four paragraphs, at most, unless it was like a championship game, that they were out there covering. So I write knowing that not only am I getting the most important information out there for my fans and my families in the first couple paragraphs; that it's probably going to be lifted in the way I write it by the local paper. So to make sure that I am, No. 1, like Jeff said, factual, I proofread and make sure there's no mistakes. But also that I'm not write at all from an opinion point of view, unless it's a feature.
THE MODERATOR: Our final presenter today is Mike Mahoney, Director of Athletic Communications At the University of Pennsylvania. He's a member of CoSIDA's Academic All-American committee and president of PhillySIDA. Mike?
MIKE MAHONEY: Thanks, just got back from lunch. I knew Ira and Jeff were going before me, so I knew I had some time to get going here.
Wanted to put in my views. Here at the University of Pennsylvania, we spend a lot of time discussing kind of how the landscape is changing about the writing process. I grew up, my first job at Dartmouth College was with a woman, Kathy Slattery, who was actually on the committee for the Fred Stabley Writing Contest. She considered writing a very important part of this job, and so I learned a lot of my skills from her.
From my perspective, I still view the writing process as a huge part of it. One of the things do I every year and I actually just this morning gave them out to the rest of my staff. I buy them the best American Sportswriting Series every year as my Christmas present to them. I think sometimes to become a good writer, you need to read good writing, and that's my little way of getting that message to them and getting them to do that over the holidays.
I think one of the things I talk about if you look at my bullet points, you know, I had a bit of a light-bulb moment, much like Ira did. I had an intern a few years back who would write ten paragraphs about a 1-0 field hockey game and my field hockey coach came in and complained to me, honestly, and said that these were too long, and she couldn't get through them and how were recruits going to get through them and parents and stuff. So it kind of forced us to take a little different look at what we were doing at Penn with our stories.
That said, again, as I say up here, the challenge of telling the story of an amazing game. So if you see the national event coverage story that won from the Stabley contest was a four-overtime game. We blocked a field goal that Dartmouth would have won with at the end of regulation just to get to overtime, and when it was over, you know, you're kind of -- when you get back and you've gone through the notes and everything, you're like, man, how do you tell this story.
And so I love that challenge. And I think sometimes there is that time. There are going to be other times when our football team maybe wins 28-14. There's not really a story line, so how do you tell that story, one against the other.
In terms of changing with the times, everyone these days is reading, their on iPads. They are reading stuff on their phones. For me, even I read stuff on phones. And so how do you make your writing tailored to iPads, to iPhones, that it doesn't seem like people feel like they are reading forever. So there's that challenge that we talk about a little bit.
And then there's, you know, again, a game recap. I will walk through that in a second kind of what I do with my stuff. But there is the long form time. We have a Hall of Fame induction that's going to be coming up in May. We are going to be inducting 15 people.
One of the things we are in the process of doing right now is getting long form stories done about each of our inductees. That is to me a long form story for a Hall of Fame inductee is worth it because the audience that's going to read that is used to reading the long form. They are used to, you know, it's going to be something that takes them back to a time when maybe they were on campus with this athlete or it takes them back to seeing this athlete play.
And I think there's still space for that on our websites and social media and stuff like that. But when it comes to game stuff, I'll tell you right now, looking at the potential audience, a lot of the times the game stories are being read by the parents of the athletes. They might be getting read by recruits, because the coaches are pushing the story out to them and their parents, and maybe some alums. But primarily it's going to be recent alums who still haven't -- maybe are invested in the program because of the people who are on that team were teammates of theirs.
So I can tell that you with basketball, I work with men's basketball here. I actually take the opposite approach of Ira. I do a quick sentence sense that says, hey, Penn won this game, improved to 5-4, blah, blah, blah, who, what, when, where, why. Then I go right into numbers of notes. I do quick bullet points. Basically this guy was leading scorer, his eighth game in double figures this, and that. So I do the numbers early and after that I do a how it happened. Sometimes it's two or three paragraphs depending on what the game was like, if it's a close game. It will be maybe five or six but I try not to go much beyond that. And then I end with next up, Penn is at, plays Drexel on December 28 or something like that.
In terms of previews and stuff like that, I wrote down here what's important about the game. Sometimes a game has implications in a championship season. You know, you're playing for a title. How do you import that stuff into your story; what is important that people need to know.
And this kind of touches on something that Jeff talked about, one of the things that Kathy Slattery used to drill into my head at Dartmouth is, assume the reader knows nothing. And much like Jeff talked about with USC and OSU, if you feel like you need to explain something, you should take the time to explain it. But try to do it succinctly.
I think those are the biggest things. Reading your writing, proofing it, sometimes I say stuff out loud to myself. If it reads confusing, and I will read it out loud and if it still sounds confusing to my ear, I will try to find a way to properly write it and that can help when you're trying to be succinct and making a long story short.
Then when you're writing these things, we talked about all the grammatical stuff. You need to remember that you're writing for that program. A lot of times our coaches are now sending these stories out. They are sending them to recruits; they are sending them to alums; they are doing their weekly e-mail blasts to their donors. So these are things that are being viewed, so you want to make sure that you're representing not just yourself, but you're also representing the program and the department in a proper way.
I have one final point that's not on here. I think this is especially a good time of year, I know a lot of schools, we just started exams here at Penn today so we have about a week off from games and stuff. This is also a good summer project. Take the time to learn what is being read on your website. See if you can get into analytics. Find out, you know, what people are reading. Are they reading your previews; are they reading your recaps. You can even delve into how long they are on these pages.
I think that can always help guide you when you're thinking about what you want to write about. One of the things, we haven't gone this drastic yet, but one of the things that has happened at Penn is we've actually gotten rid of some of our video stuff, some of our video content, because we were getting ten views on it and our video person is I'm not going to spend 2 1/2 hours on a highlight package that's only being viewed by ten people. Think about that and about your reading, as well. You may be able to cut out some of the content you're producing because there's just not the return on the investment.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mike. We do have one more question for you before we move on. We've gone a little overtime today, we have had a lot of great questions and we want to make sure we have a chance to address them.
Specific to basketball writing for those SIDs who are new to game recaps for basketball, what are some of the points that you would ask them to look for in the play-by-play to make sure that they are getting all the high points of the game?
MIKE MAHONEY: Sure. I'll tell you that to me, leading scorers, leading rebounders, if a guy has, maybe doesn't score a lot of points but has four or five assists, has no turnovers, I think with numbers, with team, you want to look at shooting percentages. Maybe rebound margin with its opponent. You know, maybe what kind of runs your team went on. Whether you led from start to finish, whether you trailed from start to finish. I think things like that.
And one of the things I can tell you that I do with my -- I have a second-year head coach, and I'm in good shape with this stuff, but one of the things that I keep track of is like player highs and team highs and lows throughout his -- I will continue this as long as he's here, for his stint as our head coach. We may have, you know, hit 12 three-pointers in a game, that's the most we've hit in the Steve Donahue coaching era, stuff like that. I think that's good stuff that you can always use, as well.
And if an opponent has a low, if they only have six assists and no team has ever had that through against a Donahue-coached team, I might put that in there as well. I don't use opponent highs, but I'll use opponent lows in something like that. I would definitely suggest if you wanted to take a look at kind of what we do, Pennathletics.com, you should feel free to go there and see some of the stuff we've done. Sometimes there's a lot of notes and sometimes there's only a couple of them depending on the result.
IRA THOR: With basketball, if you know your team ranks among the national leaders in something and you hold an opponent to like a massive low, I think that's important to note.
An example, our men's basketball team is in the top two or three nationally in scoring defense and also in turnovers caused, etc. Our game against the College of New Jersey on Saturday was for first place in the league. TCNJ came into the game averaging 82 points a game and we held them to 52 points. That's pretty darned notable and obviously the points off turnovers is notable, as well.
If you know that your team is especially successful in a certain area, I try to work that into the stories as much as possible, if it clearly was part of the factor of the game.
THE MODERATOR: We have a couple more questions.
A lot of SIDs are moving to using video for season previews and recaps. Do you think it's important that they have a written component to that, as well?
IRA THOR: I think it's a case-by-case basis. I don't do them here for the fall sports, just because we don't have enough time between the time the kids are on campus and the time we have to get stuff out. I've done it for the spring sports and we've had a pretty good feedback, people seem to like it.
Mike brought up a really good point. You have to, I think you have to look at what your views are and look at your analytics, because if you're not getting the bang for the buck, it might not be worth doing. But if you try it, and I'm a big fan of trying to experiment with stuff and see what sticks; if you do try it and you see it's something clearly your audience is a fan of, I would not only continue to do it but see how you could expand upon it.
To go back to the question, I do think it's important to have -- and that's why with the Fred Stabley Writing Contest, I'm a big fan of the story with a video category. I think you can combine the two well. ESPN does it great where they will have a video of some of their analysts talking about something and then have six to eight paragraphs discussing it. If you take a look at some of the work ESPN.com has, you can see a great way to combine those two elements I think.
THE MODERATOR: We have one other question I'll send your way.
If you have a team that's really struggling and a lot of the results are not good, teams are getting beat up by considerable margins on a regular basis, what tips do you have to help SIDs keep those stories from becoming redundant?
IRA THOR: I'm the perfect person to ask on this list because my basketball team last year, my women's team, was 1-23. I was here during an 111-game losing streak during our women's soccer team. So I know a lot about writing about not winning.
Brevity. Brevity. I write brief. I will highlight a couple of our key players. I will note something that stood out for the other team. I personally always do in my stories, whether we win or lose, mention the leading scorers for the other team because again, everybody's campus is different. In my opinion, I don't think you're telling the story if you're not at least mentioning the leading scorer from another team.
In the case where we are getting blown out, I will keep it brief and I will just mention what we did well, if anything. Cross-country, we're pretty bad in cross-country. We're really slow -- I will mention our leading runner, how many times they have been our leader in a race. I'll put the times in chart form and go home.
THE MODERATOR: We have one more question. First I'll send this to Jeff, and then if anybody else wants to jump in, feel free to do that.
Moving away from game recaps and previews, with everything that you have to do throughout the day, how do you find inspiration to write the features or create blog entries? How do you still manage to be creative and manage all the other duties you have throughout the day?
JEFF BERNSTEIN: I like to assign a lot of those to my staff, students who are up-and-coming and want to do things like that. It is, it's very difficult. It's very difficult to find time. We're not heavy on features at all. We use features when there is a break: Your soccer team going on a charity mission or the teams going overseas, things like that, all in its time.
I think the feature writing is definitely something that has been lost for the most part in most offices because of the daily responsibilities that we all have. There's really not -- you just have to do it. Or again, I honestly will send a lot of those kind of things, those things that take more time that I have. I will assign those to students or an assistant, but I will look over it and then add my own touch to it before we do anything with it.
That's really a big part of our jobs is we have to be able to delegate and help improve other people's skills and get them ready for hopefully a career here if they are interested in it, or even if they are not, to be great contributors to our offices, and those are the kind of things where you can do it because you're not usually on a time constraint.
We sometimes get a little nervous, we're on a time constraint, I'm going to do it myself. But when you have ideas for feature stories, those are the kind of things you hopefully have other people work on and then you get involved as necessary.
MIKE MAHONEY: If I can jump in, too, this probably isn't the best answer for you, but I will tell you that we farm it out. We have a person on campus who was, I want to say maybe a 2003 grad here at Penn and wrote for the student paper when he was an under grad. Remains near campus. Writes for the alumni magazine. So I actually hire him and pay him to write a lot of these features that we're talking about right now for the Hall of Fame and everything.
Probably not the answer that the person was looking for but that's another option. I know a lot of schools at the major college level are starting to hire retiring newspaper people to do that type of thing. We've kind of gone that route as much as possible.
But finding someone who maybe has some background in your athletic department who is interested in doing that stuff is always -- I think it's always worth a shot if you feel like they can handle something like that.
THE MODERATOR: And we have one final question. First I'll direct this to Jenna.
For those coming into sports information from a different background where maybe they are not as train in the writing that we are so frequently asked to do, what are some of the best resources to help people come up to speed, specifically, as it pertains to feature writing?
JENNA MARINA: So that's a really good question. I think it was mentioned before on this call about the best sports writing series, the books that come out every year. I read that when I was in journalism school, and I do think that having examples of what it is kind of to write a great story and reading is huge in being able to tell your own stories.
In terms of different techniques and stuff, I always just tried to find something that I thought, like I said, was relatable or interesting about someone that if they weren't necessarily a sports fan, that they would still like to read about it. Because I would classify myself as a casual sports fan. I cannot rattle off statistics at the drop of a hat and I cannot tell you how many consecutive games Cal Ripken, Jr. played; I have no idea.
But I always liked knowing the stories behind the people. I personally let the quotes tell the story. I will go through my interview, I transcribe everything, I will go through my interview and I will pick out the quotes that I think kind of best tell the story and work my words around that, and just arrange it in a way that I think clearly tells what's going on. I let the quotes do the work for me.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We continue to appreciate Capital One's sponsorship of this year's Continuing Education Series.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports