Friday, September 25, 2009

Write Or Wrong

Hal Feiveson is a Woodrow Wilson School professor who teaches a freshman seminar each year that has a connection to sports, media and society. TigerBlog has spoken at the class each of the last few years, and this semester will be no different.

In advance of TB's appearance, Hal sent along an email asking to forward two stories that TB had written lately. He asked for stories that "raised special problems in writing."

TigerBlog has spent a few days thinking about this, and he has taken it to mean problems presented related to what should or shouldn't be written about, not writing about problems themselves.

Here at TigerBlog HQ, we obviously directly represent the Department of Athletics. Our first priority, of course, is to document the achievements of our athletes and coaches in as positive a way as possible.

We're lucky, luckier than many in our profession, in that Princeton teams are for the most part traditionally successful. Perhaps more than that, the department is filled with athletes and coaches who 1) avoid getting into trouble and 2) have fascinating stories to tell beyond just their athletic experiences.

Back when TB first started working here, HQ was much more of a media relations office, and almost all of what was written was designed to assist (or steer) the media when they wrote their own stories. Regular TB readers know this full well.

The game notes were tailored completely for the media, because nobody else read them. It used to be a source of satisfaction when ESPN would use some interesting nugget someone here dug up.

Post-game stories (or press releases, as they were back then) were straightforward. Here's the first paragraph of the release that TB wrote about the 2000 Princeton-Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse game, which, by the way, was the first post-game story for men's lacrosse ever on
"Trevor Tierney made 22 saves in goal and Matt Striebel scored a career high four goals as the new-look Princeton Tigers opened the men's lacrosse season with a 15-11 win over Johns Hopkins in front of 6,292 at Homewood Field in Baltimore."

Back then, the Web was an unknown. Today? It's changed everything, and perhaps nothing more than who our audience is.

The 2000 lacrosse story was written so that any number of newspapers could take a paragraph or two and include it in their next edition. It was faxed out to a distribution list and then put online almost as an afterthought.

The 2009 Princeton-Hopkins postgame story was completely different, written for a completely different audience and with a completely different purpose. If no newspaper reproduced any of it, that was fine with TB, since 95% (or more) of those interested in reading about the game were going to do so online. TB preferred they come directly to, but to do so, it was necessary to give more than just a few facts.

Here was the story from last spring:
"Bill Tierney began to talk about how hard it can be to play with a big lead. Then he paused and chuckled.

'The only thing harder,' said Princeton’s Hall-of-Fame men’s lacrosse coach, 'is to play with a huge deficit.'

Tierney saw both ends of the equation in his last two appearances in the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic games against Johns Hopkins, and he liked the 2009 version much better.

Jack McBride scored four goals and Tyler Fiorito made 11 saves to lead Princeton to a 14-8 win over Johns Hopkins in the third annual Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The game was almost a mirror image of the meeting between the teams in the same stadium 52 weeks earlier."

Whether it's well-written or not isn't the issue. The main point is that this is how TB would have written it for the newspaper back in the day.

Of course, the problem with writing like this is need to balance covering the game objectively with the responsibilities of being the athletic department's official state-run newspaper, as it were.

Stories written to be seen only by newspaper people are completely different than those written directly to the audience of fans, alums, parents, athletes, coaches, recruits and anyone else. So are game notes.

Princeton teams win on average two-thirds of their athletic contests in any given year, which means that with 600 events a year, there are about 200 times when the staff here at HQ is writing about a loss. How should we approach those stories? What about writing about the key mistake that a Princeton athlete made that led directly to the loss? What about someone who lost their head and got penalized for it? What should we write in the name of accurately portraying what happened, and what should we not write in the name of protecting our athletes and coaches?

And what about the notes themselves? If Princeton has won 15 straight and 16 straight is the school record, do we mention that? Not mention that? Are we jinxing them? What if we've beaten the other team the last 20 times we've played? Or lost to them the last 20? Are we providing motivation for the other team? Discouraging our team?

And headlines. Don't forget about them. What if we write "Princeton Optimistic For XX Game?" Is XX now getting fired up because of that? Say Princeton wins 15-1 or loses 15-1? Is a headline of "Princeton Defeats XX" or "XX defeats Princeton" good enough? Remember, we're trying to get readers to come to first and foremost.

And forget just the stories that are written. What about readers who call or email with direct questions about athletes, games, coaches? What's our responsibility? TB has been bombarded with questions about Jonathan Meyers and his decision not to play football (for the record, he has decided to concentrate on lacrosse). Does TB email each one directly? Write a story for the Webpage about a personnel transaction, which is something we traditionally don't do?

Lastly, there's TigerBlog itself (the blog, not its human form). In the last two months, this blog has talked about health care reform, the last Presidential election, the Little League World Series, Bruce Springsteen, daytime television, youth sports, MapQuest, cartoons, ESPN's TV coverage and any number of other subjects, eventually relating them all back to Princeton athletics. Where does all this fit into the basic model of what a university athletic communications office does?

The answer is it doesn't, but it seems to be what the audience likes, so we've gone in that direction. And will continue to.

TigerBlog remembers the Princeton-Harvard women's soccer game in 2004 at Lourie-Love Field. Princeton hadn't scored a goal at home against Harvard since 1992, and TB had put that in the game notes.

Before the game, TB was approached (in the men's room, no less) by the father of one of the players, who told TB that if Princeton lost the game, it would be TB's fault, because the players would certainly be deflated by reading that note.

As it turned out, Princeton was shut out into the final minute before Emily Behncke scored with 25 seconds left in regulation to tie at 1-1. Esmeralda Negron scored in overtime to win it for Princeton, and that victory was the catalyst for the Tigers' unprecedented run to the Final Four. Behncke's goal is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the history of the program.

Does that mean TB deserves the credit?

Anyway, Hal asked for two articles about problems in writing. TB will send this one, and probably the one he wrote about John McPhee in Spain, one where TB and McPhee talked for three hours in casual conversation and then had TB write much of it in his story. Oh yeah, that's another issue. Was it meant to be off-the-record?


kevin said...

When are you coming into the class? I'm a freshman in the seminar right now, only had one class but I've loved it so far.

Princeton OAC said...

TigerBlog will be there on Monday, Nov. 30. From what he's seen through the years, it is a good class. Best of luck to you.