How I used Jason Isbell to teach feature writing

My sports writing and reporting students at SUNY Oswego are working on their final projects, in which they are supposed to write a longer-form enterprise story on an event, topic or issue that interests them.

And to teach them a valuable lesson about feature writing, I tuned to Jason Isbell.

The lesson here is not just the vividness of Isbell’s writing, his use of details or the simplicity of his language — although he’s among the best lyricists in music today.

The lesson is what’s not in the song.

There’s no solution.

There’s no answer. Isbell’s narrator in “Last of My Kind” doesn’t try to solve the problem, or make big proclamations about the state of the world, his place in or or about how to fix the world. The song is an observation of the faded pictures in his mind.

This is a valuable tool for young writers. Too often, I’ve read stories where my students feel like they have to take a stand on the issue they are reporting. They feel like they have to take a side. Or they feel like their job is to present a solution to the issue they’re writing about. They feel compelled to offer a solution.

That’s not often true. Just because you are writing a story about an issue doesn’t mean you have to solve it. Those solutions can feel forced and make the writing feel labored. It can also lead to bad reporting habits, where a young writer only looks for evidence that supports their point of view.

Sometimes, the real power in reporting can come from simply observing a situation and writing what you observe in clean, clear, evocative language.

The Athletic and the importance of diversity in sports journalism

There was an important Twitter thread today from Gregory Lee Jr., the former President of the National Association of Black of Journalists.

Equally important was The Athletic’s response:

This is not a “Bash The Athletic” post. In the most recent APSE Race and Gender Report Card (which, inexplicably, is from 2014):

  • • 91.5 percent of the sports editors were white.
  • • 83.5 percent of the columnists were white.
  • • 85 percent of the reporters were white.
  • • 90.1 percent of the sports editors were men.
  • • 87.6 percent of the columnists were men.
  • • 87.4 percent of the reporters were men.

This is an industry-wide problem. Sports journalism needs to become more diverse if it is going to survive and thrive.


There’s a video clip I always show my students when we talk about diversity in journalism.

It has nothing to do with journalism, or the news media.

It’s about Saturday Night Live.

he value of diversity is not that it’s the right thing to do (although it is). It’s not about checking a box, or righting historical wrongs.

The value of diversity is you tell better stories. You serve your community better - your entire community. You expose your audience to different voices, to people who may not look like most of them, to new ideas and worldview. That is the heart of the open marketplace of ideas. SNL suffered from its lack of diversity not for a grand social reason, but because it was unable to do skits and make fun of Oprah Winfrey for years.

It is impossible to be involved in media at any level in 2018 and not think of diversity. From the #MeToo movement, to the growing representation of women in action movies, to the way reporters cover the white supremacist movement emboldened by the 2016 election, to the protests before NFL games, diversity is at the center of what we do.

As media producers, and indeed as media consumers at this very moment, we have enormous power and responsibility to seek out diverse opinions and diverse stories, that a key part of their jobs is to be respectful and to listen to underserved and misrepresented populations.

That’s the challenge for The Athletic and all sports media. To become more diverse.

It’s also our biggest opportunity