Sunday, February 8, 2009

Alan Goldenbach answers back

Here are the Washington Post's Alan Goldenbach's answers to many of your questions. I think we all owe Alan a big thank you for this:

Grant Paulson

1. I noticed that your article from today's paper was co-written with Jeff Nelson. How does that work? Can you explain the roles of both writers in an article with two writers in the byline?

Shared byline stories can happen two different ways. The story to which you referred was a notebook - three or four separate notes, each set off by a sub-head, but put together into one article because they share a common thread: they were all about basketball in a particular geographic area. I wrote a couple of those notes; Jeff wrote a couple. You see this a lot in notebooks. The other way bylines are shared is when two or more reporters work together on a story, each doing some of the reporting to get all the information. Usually only one of the reporters actually writes the whole story, though he'll take what are called "feeds" from other reporters assisting him. For example, say I was working with another reporter, and I was the lead reporter on the story. He would do some reporting and then send me a few paragraphs summarizing the reporting he did that could either go directly into the story, or would be reworded by me to fit into the way I was organizing the story. As you can see, shared bylines can get very messy if the reporters are not communicating their ideas well to one another.

2. In what ways do you have to write differently when you're covering high school sports?

I think I covered this question a bit in class today. You cannot hold high school athletes to the same standards as college or pro athletes. It's why I will never mention a kid by name who makes an error, misses a shot or drops a pass. Rather, I'll just write, "DeMatha dropped a pass that would have been a touchdown in the third quarter"

3. Maureen Nasser told us that Washington Post writers conduct themselves more professionally than other writers at sporting events. Why do you think that is?

That's awfully nice of Maureen to say that, but really, it wouldn't matter if I was working at the Washington Post or the Podunk Post; I conduct myself the exact same way when I'm covering an event. My standard is pretty simple; I am aware that the best readers are naturally skeptical. They are looking for reasons to say, "Hey, that Goldenbach guy doesn't know what he's talking about," or "Hey, Alan is so biased toward the Orioles." I realize that EVERYTHING I say, do, or even wear can be scrutinized. Every reaction I make is also subject to criticism. That's why I make every effort to show zero emotion or present myself in any way that could be construed as having a vested interest in the outcome. In fact, if I'm covering a game, I'll make sure I'm not wearing the colors of one of the teams playing. Some colleagues have told me that that's going a bit (or lot) overboard, but I don't care. It removes any chance someone could have to question my ethics. I could go on and on about ethics, and would be happy to discuss that with you in greater depth if you'd like.

Chris Brooks

1. Of all the high school you cover, which team has made for the best stories this season and why?

People always love to ask me, "What's your favorite sport to cover?" I always give them the same response: "Whichever one has the best stories." I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I'd rather write a great story than watch a great game. Get this: Until about five years ago, I'd never watched a wrestling match in my life, and I thought the sport was a total freak show. Since then, I met Trevon Jenifer, who was the subject of a life-changing feature story for me, and I also wrote a feature last year about a blind high school wrestler, which allowed me to explore the world of blind athletes, a fascinating experience for me. What did I learn? I guarantee you I've never met a football or basketball player with anything close to the story of either of those two wrestlers.

Mike Foss

1. The last time you can to class, a piece of advice you extended was that a good writer should be attached to his or her story, but not to their subject. Could you elaborate on this?

One of most important distinctions I make in my reporting is between the story and the subject. I love my stories, but I am ambivalent about the stories’ subjects. I think a reporter’s best work comes when he immerses himself in the story and wants to unearth so much information that he could tell it as if it happened to him. In the course of your reporting, though, you don’t want to become attached to the people involved in that story. You might have an incredible story about someone who has such an incredible talent or ability or has exhibited such incredible kindness or generosity. It doesn’t mean the person is without flaws, or could subsequently have an incident that goes counter to what you reported. You want to keep yourself from throwing yourself entirely behind someone, only to find out there was some skeleton that compromises that person’s character or profile. It doesn’t diminish the story, though, so long as you isolate that episode from your story. This is what America – or, at least, I – learned from O.J. Simpson. He might have created a squeaky clean public image, but he apparently didn’t hold to that in his private life.

2. There are many elements in Trevon Jenifer's story that are inspiring, but what is the one thing that struck you about Jenifer that you think people may overlook?

In both my story about him in the Post, and the book I wrote about him, I tried to highlight the things most people overlooked about Trevon Jenifer because people made most of their judgments about him simply at face value. They looked at a boy with no legs or a black kid in a predominantly white neighborhood and became fascinated at how he assimilated himself. What I found even more compelling was following him through a day at school – seeing how he hurried to open a door, rather than let someone do it for him, or how he refused to let anyone carry his bookbag for him. This showed me how he wanted to be just like everyone else, even though he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Ultimately, he’s someone with extraordinary abilities who wants to be seen as ordinary.

Fox Parker

1. When the economy bounces back, do you think sports hirings will, or has this economic downturn changed the understanding of what is needed for covering sports?

I think public demand will ultimately determine the type and quantity of sports coverage. Given how much value our society places on entertainment, I don’t ever see America’s thirst for sports diminishing. What’s different, though, is the manner in which sports are covered. We are in the midst of changing the way we communicate and receive information, and the providers of this information are trying to feel their way out, as well as trying to determine which method their customers want this information.

2. What's the most important thing to consider when developing a relationship with an athlete, coach or front office personnel?

Sources are looking for one thing from you – what you can do for them. Otherwise, there is no benefit for them to talk to you. I know this isn’t a glowing commentary on the human race, but you have to assume that people have no interest in helping you for the good of your story. That said, you have to show that you will handle whatever information they give you with the utmost confidence. That doesn’t mean you treat every conversation like you’re Bob Woodward in a parking garage with Deep Throat. Rather, you just have to show your sources that you will not be accurate, fair and honest. You don’t want to hide anything. I remember one particular story that had a pretty sharp edge to it, where some people could have come out looking pretty bad. When they didn’t, one of the sources called to tell me she loved the story, and thought it was wonderful. I asked her, “Was it fair?” She said it was. I told her, “I don’t care if you loved or hated every word, but rather that you thought every word was fair.”

3. What is different in the approach of a high school story compared to a college or pro story?

No matter how much we hear that high school athletes all think they’re going to be the next Michael Jordan or Joe Montana, you have to assume that they are simply playing for these four years, and after they get a cap and gown, will never play organized sports again. I know that’s awfully idealistic, but the fact is, high school athletes, by and large, are not getting athletic scholarships, and they certainly aren’t getting paychecks for playing. I would also make a clear distinction between major college athletes (i.e., Division I football and basketball players) and the rest of college athletes. The former are part of a billion-dollar moneymaking machine. They understand that, by accepting the school’s scholarship offer, they are there to help the school make money. It is a business arrangement for which they must be held accountable. The volleyball player at a Division II school is not held to the same standard.

Colby Prout

1. Do you find more enjoyment in writing a game story and interviewing the players, or a more human interest type story?

I stopped getting exciting about being at a high-profile sporting event a few years ago. I looked around the press box, saw dozens of other reporters there, thought about the thousands, if not millions, of others watching the game on television, and thought to myself – what am I going to be able to tell people that they don’t already know? That’s the drawback of a game story – the games are what attract readers/spectators, but that means that’s also what they see. I want to tell readers what they didn’t or couldn’t see at the game.

2. How much interviewing and research do you generally do for a story before the angle is really revealed to you? Do you go in with one idea to help direct your questions and come out with another altogether?

A reporter should never enter a story with a pre-conceived idea of what the story will say; that’s why you report. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come in with some ideas of what you’ve heard before, but make sure you ask some questions to either prove or disprove what you’ve heard. You should also pay attention and let what you see, hear or read about a subject dictate the path of your reporting. A lot of it is instinct; when you see or hear something interesting, follow it. Ask.

Colin Fitzgerald

1. How do you decide what teams or stories deserve coverage?

Editors make most of the decisions about which teams, games or stories are covered, but often do so in concert with reporters, who are “out in the field” and can tell them what’s happening that might not be appearing in stories, but are newsworthy nonetheless. Ultimately, we try to figure which stories have the most wide-ranging appeal. We are, after all, in the mass media business. We need to find stories that will have the largest consumption. If you can figure out a formula for this, I’d love to be your agent. Editors and writers debate daily about which stories merit coverage, and no matter what they decide, at least one reader isn’t going to be happy.

2. How many editors read your articles before they are published?

With newspapers slashing staff in recent years, the number of editors has dipped dramatically. I think that’s an awful consequence because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a glaring factual mistake on deadline simply because I didn’t have enough time to re-read my story closely enough to catch that mistake. Copy editors, though, are trained to go over every story with a fine-tooth comb, and question every fact, word, and comma to make sure it’s correct. They’re the ones who’ve saved my butt countless time and I can never be appreciative enough. With stories on deadline, like game stories, usually two or three editors will read the story. For larger feature or enterprise stories that are written well in advance, probably a half-dozen editors will give it a look. For a story like, say, the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Walter Reed from a couple years ago, I’d guess at least a dozen editors read those stories. The bigger the story, the more you don’t want to make a mistake.

Eric Vitoff

1. What kind of experiences have you had with the GMU athletic department?

I have had exactly zero interaction with the George Mason athletic department. I’ve never covered a game, nor have I written any stories about Mason athletics, so I’m sorry I can’t give you some first-hand experience. I can tell you some of my colleagues have had wonderful things to say about Jim Larranaga, adding that he is accessible, which, aside from honesty, is the single-most important characteristic you want in a source.

2. What kind of involvement do you think the Obama administration will have with American sports going forward?

I really don’t know what kind of involvement the Obama administration will have with athletics. I know the President has shown himself to be a big sports fan, and has keenly recognized that sports can be a very powerful tool for accomplishing things with the American public. I’m sure, however, he also knows there are many issues of more immediate concern than sports. That said, President Bush had a prominent background in sports (he was president of a Major League Baseball team), and he chose not to take an active role in the operations of sports.

3. As someone who covers high school sports, what was your opinion of the "Friday Night Lights" series?

I’ve never watched the television show “Friday Night Lights,” but I can say that the book was a transcendental piece of writing in American popular culture. It highlighted America’s fixation on sports, fame and youth and how they were all intertwined.

Evan Benton

1. How would you describe your collaboration with Trevon Jenifer in the book, "From the Ground Up"?

Trevon and I began writing the book with a very simple understanding – he couldn’t write the book without me, and I couldn’t sell the book without him. I began writing the book about a year after I met him, but continued to report the book while I writing. I would write sections or chapters and then let him read over them to see if I accurately portrayed his thoughts, or I would make sure certain facts or feelings were true before writing them. It was a very easy and free relationship because we both understood our roles.

Andrew Schaffer

1. Do you feel the journalism profession declining or simply moving from the print world to the online world?

Consider what constitutes journalism – the reporting and commenting of news. As long as news is happening, there’s going to be a journalism profession. What form it takes, well, that’s the billion-dollar question. Twenty years ago, who thought this thing called the Internet would dominate our lives the way it has? What might be the vehicle for information 20 years from now? That’s why I emphasize to everyone – journalists and non-journalists alike – that no matter what form journalism next takes, we all still need to be able to discern good, reliable information from the contrary.

Joe Grimberg

1. What made you decide on your career path?

I grew up reading newspapers. It was just something my parents did, and I followed their lead everyday. During my teenage years, I became interested in how news was reported because I was always curious about how people got their information before everyone else. From there, I decided to examine different ways to report news – I joined by college newspaper, and tried freelancing in order to satisfy my curiosity about print media. I also interned at a television station to see if broadcast interested me more. I think you can tell which field won.

Diana Friedman

1. In your article from Friday, Jan. 30, you had to cover a tragic story. Was that your first of that nature?

I think I mentioned this in class, but it bears repeating. This sounds callous and harsh, but death provides some terrific material for a journalist. It allows you to see people’s most primitive emotions, and they are often startling. This follows the old sportswriting adage that the best story isn’t in the winning team’s lockerroom, but the losing team’s. I think you can find insincerities in happiness, but not in sadness, and perhaps that’s what attracts me to stories of this ilk.

2. Have you worked in any medium other than newspapers? If yes, what has been your favorite any why? If no, what attracted you to newspapers and has kept you there?

I spent a summer in college interning for a television station in New York to see if there were other media in which I wanted to work. I find print to be the most genuine and possessing the greatest depth (Of course, there are exceptions, like 60 Minutes or Real Sports, the two television shows that I simply cannot miss, and there are plenty of print publications that are irresponsible or inaccurate). Consider how news in digested in print (or written, for the digital age) versus broadcast. In print, you can take your time, digest each sentence, or even re-read something if you missed it, or go back earlier in a story if you need a reminder. In broadcast (forget Tivo, for a moment), you don’t have that luxury. I think that forces print journalists to be supremely confident in their work. I look over every sentence of a story and, if I don’t believe it to be 100 percent true, then I don’t write it. I delete it.

Brendan Murphy

1. The Washington Post is very competitive, but what kind of field experience is required of an entry sports journalist position? What would you recommend to us students interested in working for the Post in the future?

High competition isn’t limited to The Post; it’s everywhere in journalism, not just because there are many more people chasing a select few jobs at established media outlets, but also because it’s the nature of the business. You are competing with others for information, so you’re naturally going to compete with them for better jobs. For anyone with an ambition to work for The Post, or anywhere with a strong reputation, make sure you can do the basics very, very well – be able to get information, no matter how difficult the circumstances are; be able to convey the importance of a story in a creative way, be able to conduct yourself in a professional manner; and, most importantly, be able to do this pretty quickly. After all, deadline is approaching.

2. Did you get assigned the Trevon Jenifer story or did you choose to write it? What did that story do for you as a journalist?

The Trevon Jenifer story I found when a source called me and said that I “had to meet this kid.” The story had a greater impact on me professionally more than any other because it essentially led me down the path I’ve taken; I now appreciate stories that tell more about us, than just tell us about what just happened. I also appreciate stories that allow me access to people in all facets of their lives, not just the facets that a public relations staff would like me to see.

3. Professor Klein's class focuses heavily on the rules of AP style. How did you master the rules and what advice would you give to us trying to do the same?

When you started driving, did you know every rule in the VDOT Handbook? Probably not. How about now? After a few years of driving, you get to know a lot of the rules simply by repetition. It’s the same thing with the AP Stylebook. If you write enough stories – and make enough mistakes – you’ll absorb a lot of the rules subconsciously.

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