Game On: Sports Writing 101 — Wayne Coffey

January 13th, 2009 by Collin Orcutt

Session 1

“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:

Coffey’s tips:

  • 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.

Begley’s tips:

  • 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.

5 Responses to “Game On: Sports Writing 101 — Wayne Coffey”

  1. Jack Styczynski Says:

    Nice recap, Collin. Looks like a productive session. I found it especially interesting to see Wayne’s “switch lead” technique for the Phelps story after so recently reading Jay Mariotti’s trashing the practice on the exact same assignment…

    What do you think?

  2. collin.orcutt Says:

    I think Mariotti raises some good points, but the main difference between his case and Coffey’s switch lead technique is that the Sun-Times had Mariotti pre-packaging a story where the Daily News merely had Coffey on an eight-minute file deadline — obviously plenty of time to throw in any of these necessary details.

    I kid a little, but writing under pressure is part of the deal. Maybe Mariotti would have reached his breaking point at the Olympics anyway, but I think the real issue was the pre-occurence submission. It makes a ton of sense to me that Mariotti didn’t have a stomach for that. I can’t say I blame him.

  3. Jack Styczynski Says:

    Yeah, I can definitely see both sides of it. That’s why I asked your opinion.

    You might be interested to know that every year, Sports Illustrated writes two different NCAA basketball championship game stories. (Although a weekly, SI closes its issues on Monday night, so a Monday night championship game basically turns the mag into a daily as far as the deadline is concerned.) The difference is, the bulk of each team’s “winning” story is written by two different people prior to the game, and then the final details are added quickly afterward by the writer who had the ultimate winner. The writer who had the losing team ends up with no story and no byline.

    I was talking to Grant Wahl about this a few years ago, and he told me he was known to everyone as “the jinx” because he was assigned to the losing team several years in a row. Fortunately, his jinx was broken with the back-to-back Florida championship teams. I’m pretty sure he had Kansas last season too.

    It’s one thing for one person to write two stories knowing that one will make publication, but how would you like to have a 50/50 chance of bupkes?

    At least you still get the paycheck.

  4. collin.orcutt Says:

    Wow. That’s nuts. I wonder what the reason is to have two separate writers. Would the load be too much for one writer? Do they assign two writers based on who has more experience with the team?

    I think I might have to do a story on the losing writer this year–would make for an interesting angle. Could lede with the details of the game, then go quote the sullen star, head hung, and ask him how it feels. It would be funny to choose a sports cliche quote about coming so close or whatever… What do you think?

  5. Jack Styczynski Says:

    You’d have to ask Grant, but I think they do it because each writer really immerses himself with his assigned team between the semifinal win and the championship game, getting as much detail as possible.

    A story about the losing writer sounds like a great idea though.

    Looking forward to your next class recap.

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