“Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed.” -Red Smith (quote, written on the board at the start of the session, that Coffey keeps on the screen of his computer)
After a brief conversation, Coffey played an episode from a series released on Bravo a couple years ago called “Tabloid Wars.” The show traced some writers at the New York Daily News as they battled deadline and editorial decisions as well as the paper’s fierce competition with the New York Post (be sure to keep your eye out for a recognizable J School staff member). Featured in the show was then Daily News sports intern Ian Begley as he went out on his first deadline assignment: reporting a New York Liberty game at Madison Square Garden.
Once the episode was finished, Coffey led a surprise visitor into the room. From the screen to right before our eyes, Ian Begley walked through the door and took a seat at the front of the room.
Begley answered a number of questions. He said that, despite the trend of many papers to use AP content for their game coverage rather than pay to have their own reporter write the content, he thinks he would cover the same assignments he did when he started for the Daily News because local teams are still a big draw.
He also spoke about a difficult story he wrote on some players “shipped” from Sudan to play basketball at a private high school in Long Island and the controversy surrounding them. He was getting differing stories from the coach at that school and a fival school, so Begley had to walk the line of trying to figure out who was telling the truth and what to report (Begley said he knew he had done a good job on the article because once it ran, he was getting angry phone calls from both parties).
Much of the seminar was focused on deadline writing. While covering Michael Phelps at the Olympics in Beijing this summer, Coffey often had to write a 600-word story within three minutes of the finish of the race. He accomplished this using a technique called “switch leads.” Switch leads allow for both outcomes (someone wins, someone loses).
Coffey said that he had two leads ready on the screen of his laptop while Phelps’ races were going on: “Phelps wins” and “Phelps loses.” Hours before Phelps would even enter the pool, Coffey had basically written two entire stories, leaving out only the final outcome and a few details.
Notable stories written by Coffey that he referenced in class:
- Gregory Brandon knows all too well what lies ahead for Plaxico Burress
- Thurman Munson’s Final Hours 25 years later, Thurman Munson’s Last Words Remain a Symbol of His Life ‘Are You Guys Okay?’
- The more you can prepare ahead of time, the less pressure you leave on yourself.
- You may only use two percent of an interview that you conduct, but you need to know the other 98 to write the story well.
- “There is nothing more terrifying for me than a blank computer screen.” Coffey’s technique to help him start writing when he can’t think of a lead is to jump into the middle of the story, even if it’s something as simple as a transition paragraph. “Just write, then you can go back and edit. It’s not going to be an award winner right out of the chute — I don’t care who you are.”
- Read some of Red Smith’s columns, but make sure your ego is “feeling pretty sturdy” before you do so, because his writing is good enough to make you think you should leave the business.
- On covering your bases: having a recorder running can save you if you get a quote the speaker later disputes.
- On getting a job: as a student, get as many internships from as many various media outlets as you can. It’s one of the most important things you can do to get hired.
- On keeping a job: cover whatever is your passion. The day you’re chasing a story and it’s no longer exciting for you is probably the day you should think of switching professions.