Covering Sports

By Bob Herzog

Campus paper, campus sports.

The first thing to remember when writing sports for a college newspaper is that the emphasis should be on your university. Treat your school’s teams like a beat, the same way that a daily newspaper in a city treats its professional teams. Students reading a college newspaper are not looking for professional sports coverage. They are looking for in-depth coverage of the school teams, including the so-called “minor sports.”

There are several reasons why Stony Brook’s school paper should focus on the Stony Brook teams:

News value. Students care about their teams. Or should. If Stony Brook wins a big game, or decides to become a Division I school in men’s basketball, or builds a new arena, that’s genuine news. The campus will likely be abuzz with talk about those events. Campus newspapers should reflect the news of the campus. If the student body is apathetic, then write a story about lack of attendance at the games.

Beat value. If you’re serious about sports journalism, you’ll have to cover a beat someday, and the campus is a perfect training ground. You can cultivate sources, keep records and cover the teams the same way a Newsday reporter would cover the New York pro teams.

Availability of sources. This is related to Beat Value. You’ve got subjects right on campus. You can conduct interviews on a regular basis with players, coaches, administrators. You can also see the events in person. This kind of access gives you your best opportunity to simulate what it’s like to cover a beat on a daily paper.

The Stories: Four of a Kind

Generally, most newspaper stories fit into four categories: news, feature, enterprise, commentary. A good newspaper offers a blend of these stories on a regular basis. This should apply to a school paper-and a school paper’s sports section-as well. Especially at Stony Brook, where the paper is not a daily. This allows you the time to present a variety of sports stories for each edition. If you had a daily paper on campus, there would be some days where the news would dominate, and you wouldn’t have room for the other types of stories. But for a weekly or bi-monthly or monthly, there are no excuses. Variety is the spice of good sports sections:

News: This includes event coverage as well as stories that deal with hirings, firings, conference affiliation, stadiums and arena, finances, awards, etc.

Features: Often the most creative, descriptive and stylish writing on a newspaper, these stories include player and coach profiles, human interest angles, humor, etc.

Enterprise: This is kind of a catch-all buzz word newspaper editors use for major projects. They can be investigative, when they break new ground (drug use among athletes, illegal recruiting, etc.) or simply long takeouts (a historical piece, like the 10-year anniversary of a championship team; a trend story, like the increase in women’s sports teams since Title IX; a serious look at a subject like steroids; a series on recruiting, etc.)

Commentary: The columnist’s corner. These are the pieces that are clearly opinion or analysis. The good ones include reporting to support the opinions, not simply a statement of the writers’ beliefs. Columns can explain why a team won or lost a game, judge the impact a certain hiring or signing would have on the school, point out a perceived failure on the part of the administration, criticize the actions of athletes, coaches or fans that appear inappropriate. Again, the best ones are more than just “fire the coach” stories or “bench so-and-so in favor of so-and-so.” Columnists, like the other sportswriters, should strive to go beyond the obvious in stories.

The Writing: Style, Substance, Originality

Writing is a subjective art, so there will be no magic formula for success offered here. However, there are two elements that are universal components in all good newspaper stories, sports or otherwise: reporting and writing. Only one of those elements is not enough. If you report the facts-and even collect some exclusive material-but write it disjointedly or vaguely or present it in a boring fashion, the reader will not finish the story. If you write it cleverly, but leave out key facts, the reader will finish it, but be left uninformed.

In sports stories, much more than news stories, you’ve got the luxury of being able to write in a less structured fashion. That’s because most sports stories are not life-and-death (no matter what coaches tell you later). A breezy style can be applied to a big game, but such a tone would be inappropriate for covering a murder trial.

Sports event stories also offer built-in drama, highly-visible personalities, clear-cut winners and losers, and resolution of conflict. Simply describing the action of sports events can be exciting.

A good sports story should include the news-who won; what was the score; who were the outstanding players; what were the key plays; what did the coaches and players have to say (the winners and the losers); what were the key facts and statistics-but also go well beyond it. There is plenty of room for analysis-the how and why of wins and losses-as well as descriptions of the action and the crowd that allows for more creativity than most traditional news stories.

Sportswriters shouldn’t abuse this luxury, however. Don’t try so hard to be clever or creative that you miss the point of a story, or bury the important elements so far into the story that many readers won’t find them.

And, above all, DO NOT USE CLICHES. Or as someone once said, “Avoid clichŽs like the plague.” The point is, if you’ve heard an expression or description before, don’t use it. Try for you own phrases, your own style. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a lazy way of writing.

The Deadline: All Part of the Game

A wise sports editor once said, when asked to describe what it took to be a good sportswriter, “Do it all, do it right, do it fast.” Unlike magazine or book writing, a sportswriter faces tough deadlines and space constraints. This places a premium on clarity, brevity, speed and attention to details. You’ve got to get your facts straight, take careful notes, write quickly, write to an assigned length and make your story interesting and understandable.

Stony Brook student sportswriters don’t face such intense deadline pressure. Generally, the games are over days or even weeks before the stories are due. However, this presents a different task: How to write about these games so students who already know the outcome will be interested.

This is where reporting comes into play. Always be looking for an original angle for a story. Try to explain how and why a team won or lost. Take the readers inside the locker room, for descriptions of the athletes’ emotions or comments from the players and coaches.

But even though you are not forced to write on severe deadlines, it’s wise to learn this skill.

Bob Herzog is a sports writer at Newsday, covering major league baseball, pro football and college basketball. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1972, joined Newsday four years later and went on to become Sunday sports editor, baseball editor and special projects editor. He was a sports intern at The Washington Post.