Chad Graff

On the intersection of watchdog journalism and sports writing in the digital age.

The natural advantages to covering obscure sports

I sat in an emptying bar in West Philly with my fellow sports intern at the Inquirer. For the first time since we moved hundreds of miles away, hailing from different states, to come and be a reporter here, we got to talk about we’ve done. In the three or so weeks, it feels like we’ve combined covered nearly every sport — bike racing, a triathalon, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, rowing(!), football to name a few. The odd sports are the ones that jump out. There are no beat writers for these sports. There are just general assignment sports reporters often trying to learn the sport as it goes. Admittedly, that’s what I was doing a few times this month. But there can be something great about that that helps create great writing. Often times, sports reporters write to an audience that they assume understands sports as much as they do. For some platforms, that works. For large newspapers, it often doesn’t. Explaining why players do certain things, why coaches do certain things in your story can often help move your narrative while allowing your reader to better understand what happened.

We talked about which is more important as a journalist — being a reporter or writer. Reporting was more essential we decided. It’s better to have all the necessary information accurately in a mixed jumble of words than to get it wrong in an elegant prose that ends up worthless. To a degree, that shines through when reporting somewhat obscure sports or sports that you don’t know much about. Not knowing the finer points of the sport forces you, the reporter, to ask more questions about why certain things are done which naturally leads to a more comprehensive interview and better story.

There are a lot of things learned in an internship in this industry. That’s why we travel thousands of miles often at large expenses to them. Working general assignment, covering non-mainstream sports has taught me that. There’s a lot that I think will help be improve as a reporter this summer. But none I’ve been aware of more than the added sense of urgency that comes with covering a sport you know little about.

Does digital first have a loophole?

Disclaimer: In order to receive appropriate credit from the University of New Hampshire and thus graduate early, I must keep a journalism oriented blog with a weekly post incorporating what I’ve learned/done at the Inquirer. Here is the first post of 10.

I spent some of Wednesday night in the Inquirer newsroom and attended my first budget meeting since joining. When I woke up on Thursday, though, the layout of A1 was drastically changed with a sports story across all six columns at the top of the page. Jeff McLane, the Eagles beat writer, broke the news that the president of the beloved Birds was stepping down. From my understanding, McLane got the story Wednesday evening and filed shortly after that. The decision was made, though, to keep the story off the web until early Thursday to prevent other news outlets from picking up on it, making the print news old. And here’s where I start to disagree with the digital first mantra, which I think is otherwise the go-to system in today’s journalism world.

Unless I’m missing something, here’s what a digital first newsroom would have done with the big news:

  • Immediately send out a breaking news alert through e-mail blasts and social media sites as soon as the reporter confirmed the big news.
  • Throw a small post of the key information online and link to it again through social media sites. At this time, the reporter begins work on expanding the short story into a more comprehensive piece. While the reporter is doing that, web producers can create photo galleries and come up with other ways to tell the story.
  • Once the reporter has finished the comprehensive piece, put that online and again link to it through social media sites. At this time, print designers can begin to put it on page.
  • Through social media sites, the reporter can now answer additional questions from readers.

While I think that philosophy is great for breaking news that other news outlets have (think major press releases or press conferences), I think there is a loophole for digital first newspapers which have big breaking news that they feel confident no other outlets have. If you go through the above steps with a story like the one that Jeff McLane broke, what do you gain? Either way, you broke the news. Either way, you’re going to get the web traffic. But if you go digital first with a story like this, you’re also alerting your competitors to the news once it’s online and on social media sites. At this point, your reporter still has to write the story, which is leaving plenty of time for other outlets to catch up. If you’re determined to go completely digital first, what if you still put the story online before the next morning, but waited until the comprehensive story was completed? Or what if you kept it offline late enough for other outlets not to have it for the next print edition or for the 11 p.m. news? Say throw it online at 10:45 p.m.?

Going completely digital first even in situations like this may work for some smaller papers, but at a place as large as the Inquirer, thousands of people are still getting news from the 11 o’clock news, then don’t get any news until they read the paper the next morning. If you put the story online at 8 p.m., you give the news station enough time to break the story to this audience, and competing papers/websites enough time to steal some of the web traffic that night.

I’ll be curious to see what recently turned digital first papers like the Times-Picayune that only have a print edition a few times a week do when they have a story like this, and a print edition the next day. Do they hold the story to keep the paper relevant, or do they stick to their guns of digital first and go through the above steps? Are digital first newsrooms afraid that they won’t get the credit they deserve for breaking a story like this if they go through the above steps? Or will the social media and email blasts be enough for readers to remember who got the story first? I’m genuinely curious about this, so if you have a thought, please free to let me know.

But if I was an editor I think I’d stick to something like Digital First Except When You Can Break The News In Print, Then In That Case Hold It Off The Web Until The Following Morning? We can call it DFEWYCBTNIPTITCHIOTWUTFM for short.

What I worked on this week (date it ran in print):

Monday, June 4: Philly International Bike Race with first multimedia appearance

Monday, June 4: Area riders jump out strong, fall back at bike race

Tuesday, June 5: Dodgers’ Bobby Abreu returns to Philly for the first time

Wednesday, June 6: Young Dodgers can learn a lot from veteran teams like Phillies

Thursday, June 7: Ten Philly area baseball players selected in draft

Friday, June 8: Story on the Eagles’ new president (following Jeff’s breaking news above)

Saturday, June 9: NBA Hall of Famer Earl Monroe returns to Philly to raise diabetes awareness

Sunday, June 10: High school pitcher wins state championship in most casual way possible

My letter to UNH judges on why The New Hampshire deserves “Publication of the Year”

Relations between The New Hampshire, the University of New Hampshire’s school newspaper, and some administrators at the university are sub-par at best. Today, those administrators, who will remain nameless, are accepting nominations for student organization awards. In my opinion, TNH deserves a number of awards. We put in the most time and we serve the community more than any other org. But I understand why that won’t (and probably shouldn’t) happen. So instead, I chose to focus our award nominations on the “Publication of the Year” award. Honestly, it’s an award that is directed at the student newspaper. But since relations with officials and TNH were hinged a few years ago, the award, which was won nearly every year by TNH, hasn’t been given out despite receiving nominations. Below is the case I made and sent to the judges this year as to why TNH deserves the award.

 

Dear judges,

As journalists we’re trained not to bury the lead. So I’ll come out and say it.

You disagree with a number of actions that my publication has made in the last year.

You think things should have been done differently. You didn’t like editorials we wrote. At the same time, we disagreed with some moves you made. Hence, said editorials.

What I’m asking you, though, is to put aside personal bias and make a fair decision for Student Publication of the Year.

Without question, The New Hampshire has been better than any other UNH publication. Frankly, it’s not even close. In October, TNH was awarded an Associated Collegiate National Pacemaker Award – the Pulitzer Prize of college journalism – for general excellence. To translate, TNH was named one of the top college publications in the nation. For it not to be named the top publication at its own university would be a mistake.

At a similar national conference in the spring, TNH won a best of show award. But it’s not just quality that separates TNH from other UNH publications. This year, we’ve printed 34 issues – roughly 700 pages. In the same time, the other four university publications have printed four issues combined. (I acknowledge that one of the publications is the yearbook, which publishes once a year. Regardless, the numbers are staggering.) By the time the semester ends, we’ll have added another 16 issues – another 320 pages.

In 2009, TNH won publication of the year. In fact, it won the larger “student organization of the year” award as well. In the year that followed, TNH was placed on probation for missing a meeting, then “double probation” for missing the follow-up meeting. We satisfied all the requirements placed on us during probation by last spring – a few weeks before the timeframe for this award began.

Since 2009, TNH put an emphasis on covering more controversial news and producing watchdog journalism. We have made an additional effort to weigh in on controversial stories with editorials on the opinion page. Some of you may have agreed with. Others may not have. That shouldn’t matter, though, in judging for this award.

Several members of the MUB feel that we have not covered Greek life properly. They say we only cover negative news, and were especially upset when we told a member of Greek life that we would not run his/her story on Greek awards because he/she was a part of Greek life. I respectfully disagree. We have, in my opinion, maintained balance in our stories, and have provided the news, be it Greek news or beyond, to the campus and surrounding communities. In addition, we offer free advertising to fellow student orgs. It’s a move that gets us nothing, but gives a helping hand to other organizations.

Since TNH won Publication of the Year in the spring of 2009, the award hasn’t been given out. Organizations have been nominated, but for some reason no award has been given. We recognize that you don’t agree with all of our moves. But if the award is given “for an outstanding student organization media/publication initiative,” than, regardless of personal feelings, the choice is simple. When a few members of the staff, including myself, took a SAFC-funded trip to the Associated Collegiate Press conference in March, one Seattle Times journalist said this: “If administrators are happy with what the student newspaper is doing, than the student newspaper is doing something wrong.” You don’t need to like us to recognize the outstanding work that we have done.

I encourage you to do the same that you ask of us – be fair and balanced. In the last year, we have been consistently producing outstanding publications and scooping local professionals to several stories. National journalists have recognized that. It’s my hope that our university will do the same.

Sincerely,

Chad Graff

Executive Editor

The New Hampshire

The process and importance of journalism internships

I won’t bury the lead – this time.

I’m thrilled to have accepted an offer working as an intern in the sports department of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the application process and eventual decision-making process of summer journalism internships was draining. Thrilling and exhausting. And it’s left me with some thoughts on the importance of said internships.

My decision was essentially this: Take the offer from the Inquirer, thus building my resume, adding more impressive clips with more opportunities, learning from a more experienced staff, and reaching a larger audience. The drawback? After relocating and living on my own for the summer, I’ll almost surely lose money. Couple that with what I could have made working as a reporter and copy editor with the New Hampshire Union Leader and we’re talking the difference of more than $5,000. My other option, then, was to turn down the Inquirer and return to the Union Leader where I’ve worked the last four years. I’d surely add bylines and learn some new things, but the biggest attraction was the short term revenue

I chose the former.

I’ve been lucky enough to build enough of a savings through the Union Leader to make my summer plans viable. But it got me thinking: What about those who haven’t been as lucky and would have to turn down many of the big summer internships which require relocating?

In today’s industry, accepting internships at large media outlets is vital for those who want to work full-time at large media outlets. (Nothing against those eyeing community journalism, but the route to a full-time job there is often drastically different.)

Judging from the last few years, those who land the handful of internships at large media outlets usually end up working for a large media outlet within a few years (and sometimes months).

Why?

Two reasons. One, they’re good. Editors at these large media outlets often receive more than 200 application packets, each including a resume, cover letter and around 10 clips. Simply put, these editors can choose whomever they want. Two, they’re training the best of the crop to be even better. It’s a competitive advantage that those who land the internship get. They’re already the best college journalists in the country otherwise they wouldn’t have been accepted. Now they are spending 40 hours a week working with and learning from America’s most talented journalists. It’s a recipe for success.

That, in part, is why I felt I couldn’t turn down the Inquirer even if it meant a loss in revenue over the summer. I pitched it to my parents as an investment. “I’m investing my money in my career,” I told them. “Whatever money I spend this semester living in Philadelphia will be made up for in a bigger salary within a few years.” That’s my plan anyway. I said it was the same idea as my pre-med brother taking summer classes to improve his undergrad resume for medical school. Except, of course, I won’t be taking the MCATs.

I cited examples of other college journalists who landed great full-time jobs after completing internships. But the most compelling argument to them was the most direct one.

The two sports interns at the Inquirer last year, Tim Rohan and Matt Breen, have accepted summer internships at the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively.

Internships at large news outlets, like the Inquirer, can set you up for a successful career in this industry. (That’s not to take away the hard work of interns like Rohan and Breen, but more to emphasize the platform it offers talented journalists like them, which they can then use to land positions at aforementioned news outlets.)

But the hundreds that don’t land one of these internships are left to wonder where they went wrong, when, truthfully, it was just a numbers game: more people feel they deserve a big internship than the number of big internships available.

I maintain this industry is one part talent and two parts luck. Unfortunately for many talented young journalists, an editor somewhere decided that a few pieces of paper describing themselves wasn’t good enough.

I’m the last one who should complain about the system – and I’m not trying to. I’ve been extremely lucky to work with such talented people at the Union Leader and equally lucky to land the Inquirer internship.

But the discussion of journalism internships is one that only begins with the points I’ve brought up. The fact remains that those who graduate with a degree in journalism are miles behind those who have completed internships. I’ve seen that firsthand working as an editor at the school newspaper. Even by reading one article from new writers, it’s easy to tell which ones have completed internships, and which haven’t.

Former Boston Globe reporter (and current UNH journalism professor) Tom Haines once told me that he was a big believer in being a big fish in a small pond. The benefit is greater than many realize, he said.

I believe his theory has merit. But right now I’m looking forward to being a minnow in Philadelphia’s ocean.

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