By: M.L. Stein
BIG-TIME SPORTSWRITERS may sometimes get slammed around, the locker room by disgruntled athletes but can this compare to being pressured, yelled at, and wheedled by coaches, parents and teachers while covering high school and Little League games?
That is frequently the lot of sports reporters for small dailies and weeklies, they revealed at a recent Community Sports Coverage Seminar sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Society of Newspaper Editors at California State University, Fullerton.
It’s not that they don’t like their jobs. But life for them would be less stressful without these community pressures, they indicated, especially since they are, in many cases, one-person sports staffs, who also shoot their own pictures and cover city hall and police between athletic events.
Questions directed at the metro sportswriters and editors who mentored the conference included:
? What do you tell a coach who asks you not to print something?
? Should I write about a player who slapped another player during a game even though one of the kids is a family friend?
? Five guys on a team become aca-demically ineligible to play. Should I use their names and take heat from teachers, the principal and parents?
? How do you deal with editors who don’t think that high school sports are important?
? Small-town sportswriters are so close to the community that conflicts, personal entreaties and agonizing decisions are virtually inevitable, the conferees agreed.
Patti Sanders of the Chino Champion talked about one father who became so distressed that his daughter was left out of her story on a volleyball game that he offered her money to publish a separate story on her participation in next week’s paper.
“Of course, I told him I couldn’t do that, but I figured that it was his ego that needed feeding, not his daughter’s.”
Los Angeles Daily News deputy sports editor Eric Sondheimer advised the attendees that problems with irate coaches and other readers can be lightened considerably by fair treatment in stories.
“Coaches get upset from time to time but they get over it,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. We need them; they need us. But you have to go out of your way to treat them fairly. If a mistake is made, put in a correction. If you’re writing a controversial story, make sure you quote the person accurately. Double and triple-check your sources. That’s your safety net when there’s a complaint.”
Whether the complainant is a coach or parent, the reporter should explain his or her side of the matter, Sondheimer continued. “Tell them why you wrote a controversial story,” he said.
Dick Bruich, head football coach at Fontana High School, confirmed that coaches sometimes get “pissed off” at reporters but agreed that, “We do get over it.”
Bruich stated, however, that he is more open and comfortable with sportswriters he knows by name. He also stressed that reporters interviewing young athletes be aware of their fear and fragile egos.
“What you write can make or break a kid,” he said. “I can tear that same kid apart in practice so badly that he never wants to play again. But after practice, I give him a hug and build his ego back up. But you can really hurt his psyche or make him a star.”
Besides advising on how to deal with criticism, the speakers offered advice on how the mostly young reporters could make their stories more interesting and come up with scoops.
Develop sources by working the phones and getting out into the community, Sondheimer urged.
“You can’t expect the news to come to you. Call coaches and ask them if they have any good stories, any interesting personalities on the team.”
However, the panelist said, some coaches don’t know a good story from a tackling dummy and “you have to drag it out of them.”
Sondheimer, who also writes a sports column, further noted that, “Coaches love to talk about other players and schools if you assure them that you’ll keep their confidence.”
And, according to Sondheimer, the early-bird reporter catches the exclusive. “If a game starts at 3 o’clock, get there at 2:15,” he suggested. “There’s no better time to get material than before a game. Talk to coaches, the athletic director and players. Offer the reader insights nobody else has.”
Bill Dwyre, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, counseled the journalists not to hesitate in making judgments ? controversial or not.
“Never be shy or bashful about expressing your gut feeling in a story,” he said. “Go against the grain if you feel it’s right.”
The story can be long or short, he said, adding that he is not an adherent of USA Today’s keep-it-brief style.
“Some stories need to be 100 inches long,” he said.
Louis Brewster, sports editor of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, offered this lesson to columnists in the group: “Don’t allow your publisher or editor to dictate your thoughts. Kindly but forcefully remind them they have an editorial page and should express their thoughts there. This is your column and you have to justify your opinions when challenged.”
Also, Brewster went on, in columns or sports stories, creativity is fine but don’t go overboard with it.
“Don’t fluff Pop Warner football simply because it deals with young kids,” he said. “And don’t write for the scrapbooks their parents keep. All you have is credibility and this is a good place to lose it.”
Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster attempted to lift the morale of the reporter/photographers by assuring them that compelling pictures can be shot with a “simple camera and simple lens.”
“But look beyond the obvious,” he recommended. “Look for the shot that tells the whole story. Look for creative angles. The best pictures are not always at second base. They may even be off the field.”
“What you write can make or break a kid,” he said. “I can tear that same kid apart in practice so badly that he never wants to play again.
But after practice, I give him a hug and build
his ego back up.”