This must be the time of year for journalism student interview assignments. I get them in bunches, a list of questions to answer for this paper or that. This year I seem to be getting more for an assignment called “Dream Job,” and it’s humbling to think about young people who would pick this job of mine over any other, even in an industry that doesn’t appear to have the most promising future.
Anyway, I doubt anybody much will care about these questions or answers, but I put them here, on the off chance that a few will.
Q: What about writing a sports column is different than other journalistic writing?
A: It differs from being a reporter in that you get to offer your opinion, and, by and large, get to set your own schedule of topics to write about. It doesn’t differ in that you still are working within the confines of good journalism, attributing where appropriate, using named sources and allowing people a chance to respond to things said about them. I think the biggest difference in being a sports columnist as opposed to writing a column in other sections in the paper is that you’re given some freedom to, for want of a better word, play. Play with styles, with ideas, with approach, with language. I get a lot of leeway writers working with more serious topics probably can’t have.
Q. Is this your dream job? What made you want to become a sports columnist?
A: Actually it is. Not only this job, but having this job at this paper. To be honest, I was happy to get one of the major college beats at this paper, and never really aspired to something higher until I saw that it was a real possibility for me. I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve always liked sports. I played sports when I was young, but didn’t really get involved in student journalism. When I finally did go to work at a sports department, I knew it was something I loved.
Q: Do you feel that you have to be critical of sports teams, players, etc. in order to do your job well? Or is it different for each event or story?
A: There are some columnists out there for whom every column is a rant. In fact, that style is becoming more popular, but I don’t feel like that’s the way to go. You have to be fair. You have to be honest about your thoughts. But you also need to be willing to call someone out when you think it’s necessary. It is different for every situation, different every day. One of the big challenges for me is that I don’t see things in black and white. I can draw a clear distinction between being critical of a coach and calling for him to be run out of town. But sometimes in this business, balance and fairness are mistaken for being wishy-washy. You can’t worry about that, but you have to think very hard about what you’re saying, try not to go over the top and do your best to remain consistent.
Q: Do you believe that you influence public opinion or have that ability?
A: When I took the job, our sports editor Harry Bryan said of the passionate response that I’d soon encounter from readers, “You have the power to make somebody’s morning or ruin their day right there at the breakfast table. Something you write may have someone mad all day. You need to understand that, when you start to hear some of this feedback.” I don’t know if that’s influence. I don’t feel like I have the ability to alter major decisions, what to do about a downtown arena, whether the city should court an NBA team, etc. I can make my case, but I’m not clear on how much influence that really has, and I’d be surprised if it were very much.
Q. I read an article on Slate.com by Stephen Rodrick, who stated “television is killing the newspaper sports column.” Do you think this is true? With many writers broadcasting on the radio and, do you think the printed sports column is losing quality?
A: Insofar as newspapers appear to be dying, I suppose the newspaper sports column is dying. But the second part of your question is the more interesting. I do think that the number of sports opinions on TV, radio and internet has changed the way the sports column is written. More of them now are trying to mimic the loud, confrontational tone you see on TV. Everybody wants to be “Pardon the Interruption,” without realizing how gifted the guys who do that show are, both as columnists and broadcasters. One other aspect hurting the printed sports column is the dwindling news hole in newspapers. My column was 675 words when I took this job two years ago; now it is 550 words. I think many columnists out there are as good as any we’ve ever had in the business, but they’re having to say what they want to say in far fewer words.
Q. How is your work made more difficult by multimedia technology and the internet? Do you find that people in your field are required to do a lot more multitasking? Do you think this technology is good or bad for newspapers?
A: I think the technology is what it is. It’ll be good for newspapers in the proportion that they are able to adapt to it. I will say that when you’re asked to file a couple of blog entries daily, and podcasts, and video clips, it does hurt the quality of your column. There’s no question. But to say multimedia technology makes the job more difficult probably isn’t accurate. Most of us are excited about the possibilities that exist for new kinds of journalism, but finding those new opportunities poses a challenge that hasn’t yet fully been answered.
Q. How important is it to add style and flair to your writing? How do you engage readers?
A: Style and flair are important, but those should grow out of the strength of your reporting, not be a substitute for good reporting. The best way to engage readers is with good stories, most of the time about people, while including human elements they can relate to and insights that are not cliched, or at least provide a different slant to common knowledge. You have to be careful with style. You have to be prepared that if you try to write a humorous or otherwise creative column, half the people are probably going to hate it and half will love it. I try not to listen to either half.
She’s not a sportswriter, but the poet Maya Angelou says of all criticism: “I don’t pick it up and I don’t lay it down.” If you pick it up when people tell you you’re great, you also have to pick it up when they say you’re awful. So you just let it sit.
Q. What advice would you give aspiring sports columnists? What courses in college should a student like me take to prepare for this career?
A: I don’t think there’s much way to become a good sports columnist without first becoming a good reporter. Whether in news or sports, the foundation is laid by working as a reporter, learning to investigate, developing sources, cultivating a crisp and clean writing style, and learning how to look for angles in stories. The most important part of becoming a good writer is reading widely. And the sportswriters I like the best are those who are probably best versed and most widely read in areas other than sports.
Q: What is the best part about what you do?
A: The freedom to write what you want, to not be bound by a traditional workday, and to get really good seats. Some of your doctor and lawyer friends envy you for your work. You envy them for their money.
Q: What have been some of your favorite moments in your career?
A: One of them just happened. I was standing next to Boo Weekley on the 17th green at Valhalla when the U.S. won the Ryder Cup. One of my favorite moments every year is walking on the Churchill Downs track with the Kentucky Derby horses as they head to the paddock before the race. This year, I walked alongside Eight Belles. I’ll always remember traveling with Rick Pitino from Indianapolis to New York to go to the ABCD Camp early in his career here. Getting to cover the Final Four and NCAA men’s basketball championship game every year is a highlight, and was especially so when U of L made the Final Four. Those are a few.
Q: What have been some of your favorite stories this year?
A: I think the best thing I wrote this year was a remembrance of UK equiment manager Bill Keightley. Then-UK sports information director Scott Stricklin was gracious enough to unseal Keightley’s office and equipment room and let me look around. I think he sensed it could be a nice memorial. I know we looked at each other and were a little freaked out when we saw that the two bobbleheads on his shelf were the starting pitchers in the game he was heading to when he died. I went in late afternoon and had to hurry with the writing — I wrote it in a Long John Silvers’ restaurant, I think, on Versailles Road. I also liked the piece I did on U of L cross country runner Wesley Korir being detained in Kenya after Christmas. I can probably find a longer list of ones I didn’t like than those I did!