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

Team journalists and female reporters (Research Wednesday)

Welcome to research Wednesday, a regular feature in which I look at noteworthy and interesting sports media-related research and scholarship.

Today’s Research Wednesday looks at studies from recent issues of Journalism Practice and the Journal of Sports Media.

“I Did What I Do” Versus “I Cover Football” by Michael Mirer (Journalism Practice, 2018, 12, 3)

One of the most interesting developments in sports journalism in the past decade has been the growth of team and league websites as news sources and the hiring of sports journalists by those sites. The journalists often act as “team journalists,” which to traditionally minded sports reporters sounds like an oxymoron but has increased the amount of information available to fans and readers.

Michael Mirer, a friend and future collaborator of mine, has made these issues the focus of his research agenda. His most recent article uses in-depth interviews to examine how journalists working for team sites covered on-field protests during the fall of 2014. These protests included the St. Louis Rams players who walked onto the field with the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” pose, Cleveland Browns’ players wearing shirts in support of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, and Reggie Bush and several NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts.

Mirer found two distinct attitudes among the team journalists. One he describes as “I cover football,” is the attitude the reporters for the NFL teams had — that they are sports journalists and that their job is to cover the game. One reporter said, “Those are primarily things that I leave alone because they don’t have much to do with what’s going on on the field. My job is to be a football reporter.” Another writer in this camp said, "I cover football. I write about football.” The other attitude, from several NBA team journalists, covered the protests as part of their stories. One of the writers in this camp said, “I did what I do, which is I see a storyline and I report and then I write it. Then I send it to the people who disseminate things through the website.”

The clear difference between the coverage on NFL and NBA sites is interesting and ripe for further study, as is the fact that the stories minimized the controversial aspects of the protest (which would be interesting to look at this past fall’s protests in the same light. Mirer found that the team journalists always defended their decisions as proper journalistic ones made with journalistic considerations in mind.

The redefining of journalistic values for use by in-house reporters supports the claim that boundary work is occurring. It suggests that maintaining membership in the professional community comes with status that these workers seek to protect. Using journalistic values to defend those choices serves as a means of asserting authority over sports news and claiming credibility. Yet the reframing of journalistic values and practices may have the effect of neutering journalism’s skeptical stance toward other institutions. In this way, the rise of brand content in sports could have far-reaching consequences for the press. It potentially reshapes the power dynamics between sports teams and the press in ways that could be exported to the political media.

”Looking On From the Sideline: Perceived Role Congruity of Women Sports Journalists” by Michael Murdick and Carolyn Lin (Journal of Sports Media, 2017, 12, 2)

How do readers judge female sports reporters?

Do readers believe that women can cover a traditionally men’s sport as well as a man? Do readers assume that because a woman is attractive, she is not knowledgeable about sports?

These are the big question that Murdick and Lin examine in this fascinating experimental study. They had 328 individuals read mock newspaper stories about either a college football or college volleyball team, written by either a male or female journalist (with a headshot) of either high or low physical attractiveness. The participants then answered a series of scale questions that measured their perceptions of the reporters’ trustworthiness, expertise, and physical attractiveness.

In testing several hypotheses, the researchers found: • Readers felt that females were a better fit for covering a female-appropriate sport than a predominantly male one. Likewise, male reporters were viewed as better fits for covering male-appropriate sports. • There was a significant relationship between the journalists’ physical attractiveness and reader loyalty. • There was also an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on reader loyalty — but only for male reporters covering a male-appropriate sport.

This study is among the first to assess the potential impact of gender and physical attractiveness of print sports reporters and the gender-typed sport that they cover on audience perception of their credibility. … In particular, the current study revealed that females employed in sports media who cover sports that are perceived to be male appropriate are seen as incongruent with the rugged characteristics of those sports.

One of the notable findings of the study was that women were not perceived to untrustworthy or lacking in expertise in covering football, which suggests an evolution in audience attitudes toward female sports reporters. However, that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this study looked at print sports reporters, not broadcast ones.

Our findings suggest that physical attractiveness is an important characteristic for print sports reporters in the news platforms online, despite their lack of regular face time on a big television screen. However, as print news has undergone a convergent shift and become part of sports media organizations’ multimedia platform, all newspaper websites now contain news videos. It is not uncommon to see “print” journalists performing video features that are showcased as online content.

*The great thing about research is that everyone has a different view on what they read. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Post a comment on Twitter (@bpmoritz) or on Facebook.

My biggest story, 15 years later

Courtesy Bleacher Report

(This is adapted from my original post five years ago)

Fifteen years ago today, I was breaking the biggest story of my journalism career.

It was March 3, 2003, that the St. Bonaventure University men's basketball team became embroiled in a scandal. I was covering the team for the Olean Times Herald at the time, and covered the scandal from start to finish. It was my biggest story. It won me a national writing award.

In so many ways, it was the biggest story of my life.


ST. BONAVENTURE - Several people in the Reilly Center expressed the same sentiment - Monday was a dark day for St. Bonaventure University.

The St. Bonaventure men's basketball team forfeited six Atlantic 10 wins on Monday because it had an ineligible player, junior center Jamil Terrell, on its roster. In addition, the Atlantic 10 conference declared the team ineligible for the conference tournament, which is scheduled for next week ... 

Last week, Bona declared Mr. Terrell ineligible after the NCAA ruled that he did not meet eligibility requirements for junior college transfers. Specifically, Mr. Terrell does not have an associate's degree, as required by NCAA rules. Instead, he has a certificate in welding.

-Me, The Times Herald, 3.4.03

The story really began in late February. Just before a Bona-GW game at the Reilly Center, the school issued a press release that a question had been raised about Terrell's eligibility. The fact that he had a degree in welding from his junior college had been floating around all season, but it had never been confirmed or pegged on-the-record. Now, this was very clearly the issue.

A few days after that game, I was in Philly, covering the Bonnies' game at Temple. I wound up sitting next to Linda Bruno, then the A-10 Commissioner, who filled me in on the conference's planned hearing that Monday.

On Monday, then-Bona coach Jan van Breda Kolff took his spot on the weekly Atlantic 10 conference call. Mike Harrington, the college hoops reporter at the Buffalo News, was on him from the start. "Did you enlist the help of the University president to declare Jamil Terrell eligible?" he asked pointedly, repeatedly, in a classic performance.* I had already been digging into the story. That call sent me into overdrive.

(Mike later told me that he had been kicked off the call by an overzealous operator who was concerned that he, Mike, was badgering the coach. Ray Cella, the A-10's legendary PR chief, got Mike back on the call within minutes. Mike and I talk about this story on the latest episode of The Other 51)

Later that afternoon, after the sanctions, I tracked down Terrell's junior-college coach, Gerald Cox. He told me that he had sent a letter to St. Bonaventure, and every school recruiting Terrell, that the player's degree was not the equivalent of an associate's degree. "They knew what they had," Cox told me.

I was the only reporter who had quotes from Cox in his story. I'm still damn proud of that.

After doing a lot of reporting, I stopped by my apartment for a quick break. I put on the Empire Sports Network, which was doing a standup outside of the RC. The reporter mentioned at the end of her report that the players were meeting at that moment.

I flashed on a scene a few years ago, when Indiana fired Bobby Knight and the players admitted they considered boycotting a game. "They're voting on whether to play their last two games," I thought.

I went to campus, found nothing. I went to the office, and while putting together the story about Terrell's recruiting and the sanctions, and conducting one of the last interviews with then-school president Robert Wickenheiser (who admitted to being at the center of the scandal), I made calls and found out that, apparently, players were leaving campus for spring break.

The next morning, I had to work a pagination shift for our afternoon paper. I quickly did my page and then got the RC for the scheduled practice. The team was supposed to practice before busing to UMass for a game. I got to the gym, and John Wawrow of the AP was there. He had heard the same rumors. We spent a bizarre day at the gym, trying to figure out who was here, who was gone, what was going on, having players refuse to talk to us, walk through the stands to avoid us, before finally admitting what had happened. Players had left campus. They were refusing to play the team's final two games.

ST. BONAVENTURE — The silence spoke volumes.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team was scheduled to start practice in preparation for its Wednesday night road game against Massachusetts. But except for a rack of untouched basketballs, the gym was empty — silent except for the hum of the lights.

The Bonnies never took the floor for practice. They never boarded the team bus for Amherst, Mass.

They ended their season a week early. In a stunning and unprecedented move, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s players decided not to play the final two games of the regular season. The school backed the move, announcing Tuesday afternoon that the team would not play its scheduled games this week against Massachusetts and Dayton. Those games go in the books as forfeit losses.

A once-promising season for the Bonnies ended not on the basketball court but in a conference room in Hopkins Hall with a press briefing.

- Me, The Times Herald, 3.5.03


What strikes me the most, 15 years later, is how different the actual journalism was.

There was no social media. Twitter and Facebook literally did not exist yet. Newspapers were online, of course, but it was very different. This was still a time when the online edition was a complement, a bonus, an extra. It was repurposed content from the print edition.

Looking back at how I covered the scandal, everything was built around the next day's story. They were long, in-depth stories that I'm damn proud of. But the atomic unit of my work was that story. At some point during the day, I sat down with all my notes and crafted a story.

If this story happened now, I wouldn't do that. This story would come together incrementally. There'd be no waiting for the next afternoon's paper. I'd be writing constantly, updating the story with each new morsel of information, keeping things alive on Twitter. When I talked to Gerald Cox, that quote I included above wouldn't have been saved for Tuesday afternoon's paper. It would have been on Twitter seconds after he said it, or at worst seconds after I hung up the phone. The player boycott? That would have been all over social media that night and day. The story in 2003 was crazy and confusing because no one knew what was happening. This story in 2018 would be crazy and confusing because there would be so much noise, between players Tweeting, blogs opining, Tweeters snarking, etc.  In 2003, journalism was story-driven. In 2018, journalism is increasingly process-driven.

That's not to say one is better than the other. It's not to say that the way we did it in 2003 was right and pure, and that today's news is wrong and tainted. It's the way of the world. Things change. Technologies evolve. Paradigms shift. I know there's a part of me that's very glad that Twitter didn't exist in 2003, because it would have made that challenging story even harder to cover. I also know that in many ways, the new technologies would have made my coverage of that story better and more useful to my readers.


I've toyed with the idea of writing a book about the scandal. My wife's told me I should do it for years. Two other books have been written. I played with the idea, corresponded with an agent about it. But it never happened. Part of the reason is that I could never think of The Big Idea of the book. What's the big hook, the big story, the thing that makes someone who doesn't know St. Bonaventure from Bonasera the undertaker want to read the book? I'm not sure. Plus, having helped three professors write books, I've seen the insane amount of work that goes into a truly great non-fiction book. I haven't had that in me. Yet.

In a lot of ways, this story 15 years ago defined who I was as a journalist. It's among the first things I mention when I discuss my career. It's the one story almost everyone knows about, at least in passing. I'm proud of breaking this story, of the work I did.

That my journalism career peaked at 25 is sad in some ways. But that story is what helped me get my next job in Binghamton, which led me to meeting and eventually marrying my wife, which led to our daughter being born.

It was the biggest story of my career. And it helped me start writing the story of my life.