Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What makes a great sportswriter?

That's a question we're going to be dealing with throughout the semester because that's what many of you want to be -- dream of being -- a sportswriter.
I know what good sports writing is when I read it; don't you? I have a collection of anthologies ("The Best American Sports Writing") dating back to the first one in 1991.

My favorites? I always read Robert Lipsyte when he was writing for the New York Times. I thought what he had to say was important, though he would probably hate that description. His book, "SportsWorld: An American Dreamland," is must reading (but it is rapidly falling out of print, so buy one now used while you can). Want a taste? Check out this column from 1991.

I also like Times columnist George Vecsey for his sociological approach to sport. I liked Detroit's Joe Falls for his simplicity of style and the fact that nobody understood his city better.
And I am increasingly fond of Selena Roberts, who just left the Times for Sports Illustrated, for her language.
I like Mitch Albom when he's paying attention to his craft. The extent of his cross-platform work too often makes his column writing for the Detroit Free Press secondary. But when he wants to be the best, Albom simply is.

And I like the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins (pictured), which brings me back to the point from which I began: What makes a great sportswriter?
Jenkins not only wrote the book ("It's Not About the Bike") on Lance Armstrong, but she wrote two ("Every Second Counts"). That's enough to endear her to me. But she is also the only woman to win the APSE sports columnist award, and she's won it twice (the only columnist to repeat other than that -- yup -- Mitch Albom).

So, if you're the Washington Post and you're publishing a series about presidential political candidates called "The Front-Runners," who do you go to for great writing? Sportswriters. And who do you go to first? Sally Jenkins.
Jenkins' lead-off (it works here, right?) piece for the series on Hillary Clinton is positively riveting -- just a great piece of writing whether or not you like Hillary, politics or sports. It's simply worth reading to read.
The second piece in the series on Mitt Romney went to another Post sportswriter, Eli Saslow; the third on John Edwards to Sue Anne Pressley Montes (to my disappointment, not a sportswriter -- but they still lead, 2-1!). I thought the Post was going to be real clever and assign each lead story to a sportswriter.

But what does this say about sportswriters? For me, it's that sportswriters make great takeout writers, no matter what or who the subject. It also points out that Jenkins and Saslow don't live in a bubble. Sport World (as opposed to Lipsyte's "SportsWorld" -- you'll have to read the book to understand the difference) is part of our world, and great sportswriters understand that. Lance could have had anyone write his books. He chose Sally Jenkins. Lance is no dummy.

One last word on the Post series, which continues all week: For each candidate, the Post examines "How (S)He's Running" (political writer Dan Balz), "How (S)He Looks" (Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan) and "How (S)He Talks" (political writer Dana Milbank). As we sports folks say, this is great stuff. You don't want to miss it.

So, let's hear from you:
-- Who's YOUR favorite sportswriter? Why?
-- Would you have the guts to assign a sportswriter to do a major political profile?
-- Does Jenkins pull off the Hillary Clinton piece?

One last reference for you: Check out the Q&A with Jenkins on her story and look for these questions:
-- How did a sports columnist get the assignment?
Just curious as to whether you think your own background having a renowned sportswriter as your father [Dan Jenkins], and how he influenced your own writing/attitude towards sports, may have affected the way in which you approached this story?
-- How did your relationship with your father inform your reporting and questions to Hilary regarding her relationship with her father?
-- Do you believe [Hillary Clinton's] flip-flopping from being a life-long Cubs fan to a Yankees fan hurt her in the nomination process?


Jeremy Cothran said...

I think the critical aspect of sportswriting is the same with any aspect of journalism -- storytelling and trenchant reporting. I read both stories and they're fantastic; wonderfully written with the requisite details that beget good reporting. Sally Jenkins and Eli Saslow are two of the best writers I've ever read, so if I'm a WaPo editor I have no problem assigning them stories of this magnitude.

I'll offer a personal anecdote. This August, I was in Washington to cover the Mets three-game series against the Nationals for The Star-Ledger. On Saturday night, I received word from my editors that I needed to assist the coverage team investigating a homicide suspect who allegedly murdered three people in Newark, N.J. So instead of heading to RFK for the series finale, I banged on doors in College Park, Md., and Woodbridge, trying to cull as much information as possible about the suspect.

I think it's great that Steve is posting work outside of the sports realm. I tore through these stories. I think it's important, that all burgeoning sportswriters read every piece of great writing they can possibly absorb.

Tour of '03 (Steve Klein) said...

Jeremy is a sportswriter for the Newark Star Ledger and a former Broadside sports editor.