August 27, 2007

Do your homework and write better stories

Posted, Aug. 8, 2007
Updated, Aug. 8, 2007

Ready to Write the Big One

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

I began my career as a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times back in 1977. It was the second year of existence for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the football team, clad in creamsickly orange, lost all 14 games in 1976, and their first twelve in 1977. I would joke with the sports writers: "Well, have you written your big lead yet? You gotta be ready, man. These guys are going to win some day."

That memory crossed my mind as I watched the cameras flash and the fireworks splash across the sky after Barry Bonds hit his famous home run. I wondered how sports writers would meet the moment.

One measure of great athletes is how well they perform in the big games. The same could be said of great journalists. The most memorable work stands at the conjunction of creative talent and amazing circumstance. How well does the reporter write on deadline when challenged by a monumental event?

Such an event was the playoff baseball game in 1951 when the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. Bobby Thomson's home run in the ninth inning became the legendary "shot heard round the world." Thomson entered the pantheon of sports legends, while pitcher Ralph Branca became a symbol of bad luck and futility.

Sitting in the press box at the Polo Grounds that day was Red Smith. He had already been covering great sporting events since the 1920s and once pleaded guilty to editor Stanley Woodward's indictment that he was "Godding up those ballplayers." To be sure, there is a bit of hero worship in Smith's classic column, titled "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff," but who could blame Smith for his enthusiasm? Here was a game with two New York teams, a pennant on the line, in the bottom of the ninth, with the world tuned in. Smith begins:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

And here is his famous kicker about the unlucky pitcher who gave up the famous home run: "Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen."

That column is reprinted in my book "America's Best Newspaper Writing" as a true classic. But here is something important to remember: Before Smith wrote his famous column, he was writing a different one, one in which the Dodgers, not the Giants, win the pennant. The Bums from Brooklyn had gone into that last inning with a two-run lead, so, with deadline looming, who could doubt that Smith had crafted the top of his column with a Brooklyn win in mind?

One of my favorite sports writing anecdotes comes out of the 1989 Tour de France, when American Greg LeMond won the world's most famous bicycle race. Sports Illustrated described how LeMond, in one last desperate sprint, took the prize by seconds from the favored French cyclist. At the finish line, French reporters threw down their notebooks in disgust. While many saw this as an act of Gaulish nationalism, journalists understood that these hacks had already written their stories — "French rider wins!" — and would now have to write another.

Writing Tool #42 encourages writers to do their homework well in advance: "Prepare yourself for the expected and unexpected."

As an example, I use this lead by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times after Justin Gatlin won the 2004 Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash:

His first track event was the 100-meter hydrants, a Brooklyn kid running down Quentin Street leaping over every fire plug in his path.

His second track event was the 100-meter spokes, the kid racing in tennis shoes against his friends riding bicycles.

A dozen years later, on a still Mediterranean night far from home, the restless boy on the block became the fastest man in the world.

Plaschke could not have written this great deadline lead without doing his homework — hours of research in anticipation of who might win the race.

Another great deadline writer, David Von Drehle of The Washington Post, describes how, under the most intense pressure, he falls back on the basics, thinks about what happened, why it matters, and how he can turn it into a story. He must do enough advance work to answer these three questions:

1. What's the point?
2. Why is this story being told?
3. What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?

Let's apply these questions to the home run hit last night by Barry Bonds, the blast that gave him the record for most home runs in a career.

1. What's the point? After a build-up of weeks and months, a controversial athlete, widely suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, broke one of the sporting world's most cherished records.

2. Why is this story being told? Because it just happened; because it involves a great but controversial athlete; because baseball is still an important part of American history and culture.

3. What does it say about the times we live in? That Americans don't like a cheater, unless he plays for their team; that we live in a competitive culture filled with shortcuts to excellence; that race still plays an important role in how we judge people and their achievements (I'm thinking of the comparisons between Bonds and Mark McGwire, and between Bonds and Hank Aaron).

Now let's see how some of America's current sports writers performed in the clutch:
  • "Don't believe everything you read. They say that about movie stars, politicians, advertisements, and now they can say it about the record books of baseball, where the all-time home run leader, as of Tuesday night — and for the foreseeable future — reads: Barry Lamar Bonds." Read story >>
By Mitch Albom, The Detroit Free Press

  • "Twenty-one years ago, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a skinny, cocky lead-off hitter from Arizona State, a second-generation major-leaguer who had grown up at the knees of the legendary Willie Mays, connected on a pitch from Craig McMurtry.
It was the first big-league home run for Barry Bonds, and there was nothing tainted about the celebration when he crossed home plate, a 21-year-old man with a future that sparkled." Read story >>

By Phil Rogers, The Chicago Tribune

  • "The Baseball Writers Association of America has a rule against cheering in the press box, an unnecessary prohibition if ever there was one, at least as far as the membership is concerned.
If they served up Ted Williams' deep-frozen noggin for the ceremonial first pitch of the World Series, these guys would yawn.

So when Barry Bonds, the most reviled player of his generation, broke Hank Aaron's all-time home record Tuesday night, it's safe to say no cheers had to be muffled along press row."
Read story >>

By Kevin Hench, Fox Sports

  • "He didn't hit them out with a syringe. Say what you will about Barry Bonds and his chemically enhanced assault on the home run record, but keep in mind the cream and the clear and whatever other performance-enhancing drugs he might have used were not some kind of magic potions. He's not at 756 home runs, and counting, just because he found the right pharmacy." Read story >>
By Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated

  • "Seven fifty-five, the most cherished number in baseball if not all of American sports, lived a good, long, noble life. Spawned from the powerful bat of an aging slugger named Hank Aaron on July 20, 1976, it grew in stature over the years, surviving the occasional challenge and ruling over the record book even as other, lesser records fell. But on a cool Tuesday night near the shores of San Francisco Bay, 755 finally perished at the hands of a relentless, controversial invader from the west named Barry Lamar Bonds. Seven fifty-five is gone. Behold, 756." Read story >>
By Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post

  • "There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Barry Bonds.

Is he the greatest home run hitter of all time? All who cherish this game will have to search their hearts and answer that question in their own way. But the number is not open to debate, dispute, praise or scorn. The major-league record is 756, and Bonds owns it." Read story >>

Henry Schulman, The San Francisco Chronicle

Not all these stories are equal, of course, but it�s good to see these writers working hard to match their prose to the occasion.

I end with the story of a famous foreign correspondent and novelist, Laurence Stallings, who was assigned in 1925 to cover a big college football game between Pennsylvania and Illinois. The star of the day was Red Grange. Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange dazzled the crowd with 363 yards of total offense, leading the Illini to a 24-2 upset victory over Penn.

The famous journalist and author was awestruck. Red Smith wrote that Stallings "clutched at his haircut" as he paced up and down the pressbox. How could anyone cover this event? "It's too big," he said, "I can't write it" — this coming from a man who had once covered World War I.

Someone should have quoted Shakespeare to him: "The readiness is all."
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