Alan Goldenbach answers your questions

Alan Goldenbach spoke to my Sports Writing & Reporting class at George Mason University on Feb. 4. Always generous with his time, Alan couldn’t answer all the students’ questions in class, so he took them home with him and now answers online.

Feel free to comment in the trackback section below.

Alan writes:
My apologies for not getting these back to you sooner. Blame it on the snow, my 7-month-old daughter, and, well, my need to sleep a bit. There were so many questions, so I could only answer some of the more compelling ones. Without further ado:

Ryan Harty asks, “As a sports reporter you have covered many different sporting events. What was the most difficult sport to cover and why?”

A: Good question to lead off with, but not for the reason you’d think. I always get asked what my favorite sport is to cover, and I always give the same answer, “Whichever has the best story.” Once you get entrenched in the journalism business, you’ll feel the same way. It’s not the sports that attract us, but rather the stories. The most satisfying and fulfilling story I’ve ever written (and likely will ever write) was about a wrestler. Prior to meeting this wrestler, I had never watched a wrestling match. I didn’t know the rules, nor much about the sport’s community. But the wrestler’s story was so compelling that I learned everything I needed to with such ease.

So, that’s my roundabout way of getting back to your question – what’s the most difficult sport to cover? The one where the story stinks.

Andrew Duke and Thomas Maher each asked, “Why do you prefer writing about high school teams?” I’ll tie this one in with Yasin Jama’s query, “What is the atmosphere like when you’re covering high school sports as opposed to covering major professional sporting events?”

A: Another question that cuts to the core of who I am as a journalist. When I was your age, there was nothing more I wanted to do than cover a pro team. I wanted to know the story of every person on that team and in management so well that I could write authoritatively on them that my work could never be questioned. Without dating myself, this was when the Internet was still thought to be a fad or a complementary element of journalism. Since then, obviously, the means of communication have changed so dramatically, that now journalists not only need a different skill set, but they also approach their work unlike they ever previously did. It used to be that a print journalist’s workday built toward the crescendo of deadline, say around 11 p.m. or midnight. Then, beat writers would go out for a late dinner or drinks, sleep until 10 or 11 a.m., and then repeat the cycle beginning with morning and afternoon phone calls to sources.

That doesn’t happen anymore. The Internet has thrown deadlines out the window. Your deadline now is, how quickly can you get it online? Moreover, traditional media outlets – newspapers, magazines or television and radio stations – aren’t the only ones reporting news. All professional teams – and now, most major college programs – have reporters working for their own web sites, posting news they want their fan bases reading. It’s far from being objective, but more than that, it further dilutes the coverage. How many people are writing the same story about the same player from the same game? Often times, when you go cover a pro or major college team, that team’s public relations department will make certain players available. They may not be the players you want to write about, but that’s too bad. You won’t be granted access to certain players if the team doesn’t want you to. It would probably be great to go to the Wizards’ or Redskins’ practice one day to see some action that would enhance your story. Good luck trying to get access to that.

I don’t have to worry about any of this while covering high schools. If there’s a player I want to speak with, I ask. If I want to talk to the coach, he or she is always easy to find. If I want to go to a practice, I’m there. Best of all, I don’t see 50 other reporters at a game, all limited to watching the same action I am and prepared to write the same story I will. High school sports gives you a chance to be unique and distinctive, and given the overwhelming supply of information in the current media market, establishing a unique voice and content is paramount.

We’re on a roll with great questions. Ross Wilkers asks, “If a crucial mistake occurs during a high school game, how do you strike a balance between reporting the event and yet not singling out the student?”

A: High school athletes are held to a different standard than pro or major college athletes for the simple reason they are, ostensibly, playing the game at this stage in their lives because they love it – not because they are making a living off of it, or have received a full scholarship from an athletic department that tries to make money off its teams. My standard for reporting mistakes of any kind is pretty simple: if it’s a critical mistake, I’ll often write, “Jones reached on a throwing error,” or “Smith High School was intercepted four times.” If the game was decided by a mistake, then I’ll make every effort to get the player who committed the mistake to talk about it. Only under that circumstance would I use the kid’s name.

Rob Elliott throws one into my wheelhouse, asking, “What factors are important to you when decided what to write for a good feature story?”

A: Features are supposed to be your home-run stories. They’re the longest stories because the subject warrants that much space. So, there’s the first criteria for a feature – how important is the subject. Another criteria is whether you can make the subject appeal to people who wouldn’t normally read something about that topic. Gary Smith, the great feature writer at Sports Illustrated, once wrote a story about deep-sea divers. I don’t particularly enjoy swimming and I often get seasick on boats. This story, nevertheless, spanned 10 or 12 pages in SI and I could not put it down. It was so riveting, not just because of the action involved, but also because of how it simultaneously informed me about the sport. Finally, the last element to a great feature story is the most simple – the story. Does it hold your attention? Does it keep someone wanting more even after you’ve gone on and on?

Ashleigh Bohlmann touched upon something about which I’m pretty passionate: “How have you been able to give an unbiased opinion? My favorite team is the Yankees. If I had to cover a Yankees/Red Sox game I think I would have a hard time writing without involving my opinion.” She followed that up by asking, “How are you most influenced when you’re writing a sports article?”

A: A well-known national sports columnist told me a couple of months ago, “Objectivity is dead,” adding that in the current media environment, people don’t care much about that any more. I replied by asking this columnist if the White House reporter for Time magazine would attend the State of the Union address by wearing an “I Love Obama” T-shirt.

The single most important thing for every journalist – whether you cover sports, politics, or anything with a partisan divide – is that you don’t – and cannot – care about who wins or who loses. You are in the business to report a story, not have a rooting interest. When you do, you compromise your reporting. When you compromise your reporting, you lose the faith of your audience. When you lose the faith of your audience, you see a drop in circulation or ratings. When that happens, you lose your job.

I know I may sound very simplistic, and it sounds tough to cleanse yourself of a lifetime of emotions invested into a particular team or player. Once you start reporting, though, you will begin to see and get to know certain things about the teams and players that you would rather not know. They all aren’t the nice, packaged products we see on television. They are human and have flaws – for better or worse – just like us. It’s then when I realized, at least, that while they may have athletic abilities worthy of my respect and admiration, they aren’t worth my heart-felt emotions.

As for being influenced by an element when writing a sports article, let me ask you a question – how are you most influenced when writing any article? I would hope the answer is the truth and nothing else.

Colin Fitzgerald wants to know if I or my editor “decides on the title for [my] articles.”

A: Writers do not write headlines. Those are written by copy editors, the people who read an article last before it is laid out on a page or posted online. He also wants to know how often I need to reference the AP Style guide. The short answer is: a lot less than I used to. I’ll use an example I’ve used several times before. When you started driving, did you know every rule in the VDOT Handbook? Probably not. How about now? After a few years of driving, you get to know a lot of the rules simply by repetition. It’s the same thing with the AP Stylebook. If you write enough stories – and make enough mistakes – you’ll absorb a lot of the rules subconsciously.

Sarah El-Hage wants to know the crux of being a reporter, asking, “Do you generally have to look for stories or are they assigned to you? If you have to look for them, where do you start?”

A: Reporters are generally expected to generate their own stories. They are the ones in the field, seeing the action as it unfolds, knowing additional information that isn’t appearing in their stories, and being aware of what is on the horizon. That is the heart of what being a beat writer is all about. That doesn’t mean this is the only way to develop stories. I, for one, love writing trend or issue-oriented stories. These may or may not come from my beat, but they could come from other stories that are happening (which I may or may not have written) to which I’ve paid attention and realized there is a story that bears reporting.

There’s one common thread to finding stories both on your beat and elsewhere – you have to be aware of everything. You never know where a story might pop up.

Kimmy Moss wanted to know, “How do you write an interesting story when the sports game that you are covering is not very exciting?”

A: Excitement is in the eyes of the beholder, to hijack a cliché. It is the reporter’s job to find something newsworthy and entertaining. If there are enough people tuning in or coming out to watch a game, then there is definitely interest in the game. It is your job as a reporter to find something. It takes asking good questions, being prepared prior to the game, and being willing to write about something that may not catch a spectator’s or viewer’s eye immediately. You’re supposed to be more perceptive than the audience.

Sarah Kate Traynham, perhaps in a self-serving effort (I kid, I kid) asked, “How do you make the stories of athletes connect or relate to non-athletes?”

A: One of the reasons I think we love sports is because we are fascinated by the abilities of athletes that we cannot fathom. We want to know how someone can jump as high as Michael Jordan or hit a golf ball as precisely as Tiger Woods. As familiar as Jordan or Woods are with their abilities, they are unable to make us understand them because those are inherent to them. To them, it’s just natural. To us, it’s unnatural. The goal, then, is to find something we share with them. It’s tough, especially considering how guarded both are of their personalities. I think that’s why we were so intrigued by Woods’ affairs; it was a quality to which we could relate. All we knew prior about Woods was his incredibly unique talents. Now, we finally know something about him that is very ordinary, something he shares with many.

We’ll end with Brian McClure’s question, which can be broadened to just about any subject: “Do you find high school athletes hard to talk to?”

A: I’m going to dismiss the point of this question as being something about the age gap I have with my subjects. I don’t remember too many 30- or 40-something White House reporters saying they couldn’t talk to President Reagan when he was in his 70s. If you were hinting at high school athletes not being well-spoken, well, then that can relate to any story where your subjects aren’t chatterboxes. It’s important to remember when interviewing how you would feel if you were in the same position. Would you get nervous? Probably. How would you feel relaxed? I know a light-hearted comment would lighten things up. Feel free to discuss something that has nothing to do with the story, if you know it will make your subject more comfortable. Finally, what is the one thing everyone likes to talk about? Themselves. Just because you ask a question doesn’t mean it has to appear in your notebook, much less your story. Just get a source talking about something with which he or she is comfortable, and soon enough, they’ll be talking about things that they were once hesitant.

5 Responses to “Alan Goldenbach answers your questions”

  1.   Ross Wilkers Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Alan. I covered high school sports in Fauquier County and I was told to do the same. I did not know if The Post had a different outlook compared to a small-town newspaper.

  2.   Kimmy Moss Says:

    Alan, thanks for the advice. I’ll be sure to keep in mind that as journalists, we must be MORE perceptive to what’s going on in a game than any other spectator.

  3.   Ashleigh Bohlmann Says:

    Alan, thank you so much for responding and coming to talk to our class. I learned a great amount from you, especially concerning not letting emotions get in the way of reporting. Although it will be hard at first, I know I can learn to overcome this! Thank you!

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