Friday, January 22, 2010

A Long Time Ago, They Had Things Called "Feature Stories"

TigerBlog has written more about Pete Carril than he has about any other single person, and it was TB's belief that he knew basically all there was to know about the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach.

And then he read a piece by Nick Miller in the Sacramento News and Review on Carril, who works with the Sacramento Kings, and he found out that Carril's father was a Real Madrid fan.

The fact that Miller was able to unearth something from Carri that TB didn't know, however, is hardly what makes the story worth reading.

TigerBlog has written four really long features on Carril, beginning back in the newspaper days (after his 400th win). He also wrote one for the Lafayette alumni magazine, a story that centered about a walk TigerBlog and Carril went on outside in the near-zero degree temperatures near the hotel before a game at Dartmouth.

When Carril was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, the public relations staff there asked TB whom he would recommend to write a feature for the program, and TB recommended himself. That story began with a preamble that talked about how Princeton's bus would drive past the Hall of Fame on I-91 in Springfield, Mass., on its way to or from Dartmouth and how maybe Carril would have looked out the window and thought:
"maybe someday, but it's more likely that it never crossed his mind. Now the building that Pete Carril zipped past once a year has slowed down to open its doors to him. In doing so, it accepts as one of its own a man who never played a minute of professional basketball and never coached a national champion, a rumpled Lilliputian who would look as out of place in an Armani suit as he would in a Vera Wang gown, a man who competed against the obstacles and succeeded despite them, a man who never stopped believing that his teams could achieve anything they worked hard enough for, since, as he was most fond of saying, 'what good is being Spanish if you can't chase after windmills?' "

The fourth story major story that TB wrote about Carril was in 2006, when Carril was basically out of basketball for a season. It's another of TB's favorite stories that he's written.

With that foundation, as well as having covered Carril's teams for nearly a decade and having worked as the men's basketball contact for his final two years, TB has a pretty good background in the man. There have been any number of features about Carril written in any number of places through the years, and while many are good, they're also somewhat formulaic: "Yoda, old-fashioned basketball, Princeton offense, relating with today's pro players, blah, blah, blah."

Miller's piece is better than that. Most of the Carril features get the facts right but don't really capture his persona; Miller did both. It's definitely worth reading.

It also shows that there is still room for a well-written and (lengthy) feature story. Or at least it asks the question, and maybe TigerBlog's position that people like to read engrossing stories like this is in the minority.

Miller's story on Carril runs nearly 4,000 words, which might as well be the length of "War and Peace" by today's standards. The average blog entry runs between 250-500 words (TigerBlog averages around 1,000).

The Washington Post sent its Georgetown beat writer to Pittsburgh for the Hoyas' game against Pitt Wednesday night. The game story after the Hoya's win? About 750 words.

Yeah, but that is a game story. How about more featurish stuff?'s feature on Buddy and Rex Ryan?
Bill Simmons' story about watching LeBron James?

They're both about 1,000 words shy of Miller's Carril story.

TigerBlog is pretty sure that the trend towards "less is more" began with USA Today. Today, it's pretty much the rule.

Forget game stories, columns and features. Prevailing wisdom is that most of what people read today are those shorter blogs, or even Twitter and Facebook and the rest.

But is that really the case? Or is prevailing wisdom wrong?

For starters, it's hard to write a great feature story. The key is that you really have to know your subject, so you either have to have the benefit of working in a place for 20 years or you have to be given the opportunity to spend significant time around someone or an event or a team to properly learn what it's all about.

This takes patience and time, and it also could take money, if the outlet has to fly you and put you up.

TB is a big fan of Simmons, dating back to his days as the "Boston Sports Guy," when he has his own site and wrote every day. Jim McLaughlin, now the AD at Union College and back then a Princeton intern, first directed TigerBlog to Simmons' site.

These days, he writes really long stuff, but it's not the traditional feature or even column. It's actually what has become something of what the mainstream is now: observe on TV or from the stands and write what you think.

The days when newspapers would routinely have huge feature stories are gone. For that matter, most newspapers are essentially gone.

Still, TB though that Miller's Carril piece was tremendous. He'd talk more about it, but he's reaching 1,000 words, and very few people have actually made it this far.

Or have they?

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