Thursday, October 8, 2015

And Elway called it 'good'

All this worry over Peyton Manning and complaints on how the Denver Broncos - our 4-0 Denver Broncos, mind you - won on Sunday reminds me of a story.

It's about a man, a woman, an apple and a snake.

Perhaps you've heard this one?

So God had created a world full of life - the sun, moon, plants, fish, birds and animals. And he called it good.

Then God asked Manning to take - sorry, wrong story - Man to take care of his world.

He told him to watch out for the soil and make sure it gets water and nutrients so the plants could grow and flourish. He warned Man to be considerate of conservation because the plants would ultimately protect him from the atmosphere. He advised utilizing natural resources to help the world sustain itself because a good defense is always a good offense and keeps the world from getting out of whack.

God also advised Man to keep the world in perspective in times of uncertainty and new growth and allow for some imbalance while maturation and natural forces helped hold it together.

Man quickly realized what a big challenge this was and asked God for some support and love while he took care of something so precious. God answered with Woman, who loved Man and helped give him strength while taking care of the world.

But one day in this Garden of Dove Valley, a snake visited Woman and told her he had an apple that would provide her all the knowledge and statistics she would need to better help Man take care of the earth.

With good intentions, Woman took a little bite of that apple and suddenly had clarity on the world and all its problems. She saw Man exposed for the mortal being he was, and she instantly knew she needed more of that apple.

In fact, her insatiable desire for more statistical knowledge grew exponentially and she had to share it with Man. He needed to know what she knew and needed to listen to her and the sports med, er...the snake, if he were going to be successful.

And suddenly she no longer felt like supporting Man in his quest to oversee the beautiful earth. He was clearly incapable of such a task, and God had picked the wrong being. She must give him the apple so he could realize his inferiority.

But despite Man‘s faults, God had no intention of taking this task away from him. Instead, he emboldened Man with an even greater burden - taking care of the world in spite of knowledge, scorn, pain and lack of faith.

And so when God looked across his world and saw his fallible but future Hall-of-Famer taking care of his world week in and week out, he knew Man was the right choice for this burden. 

Sure he is getting older and weaker, but he has the wisdom and skill required to fulfill God's assigned task. So finally God asked Woman to be patient and supportive in spite of the blemishes. After all, it was part of his plan.

Story sound familiar?

When John Elway looks at the team he has built - full of energy, dazzle, imperfection, anger ... and at the quarterback he has entrusted it to - he calls it good.

Because it is.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tennis writers tell CofC media students to ask good questions, write a lot, write about what you love

Photo: Family Circle Cup

$700 roundtrip airfare to New York City for the U.S. Open. 
$1,500 hotel stay for the tournament. 
$500 to eat in the Big Apple for a week. 
$500 in the hole after getting paid for reporting three stories on the biggest tennis tournament in the country. 
But … getting to report on the biggest tennis tournament in the country? 

For freelance reporters/bloggers Courtney Nguyen and BenRothenberg that scenario describes about 48 weeks of their year – and neither would have it any other way.

Nguyen handles U.S. tennis coverage for and Rothenberg is a freelancer covering tennis with the New York Times, Slate and The Guardian, among others.

Both are in Charleston this week covering the Family Circle Cup April 4-12, and they stopped by two College of Charleston communication classes to talk about doing what they love – and how to do it well.

I have thoughts! I’ll start a blog!
Nguyen was a lawyer in California until a few years ago. One night – admittedly after a few libations – she decided to start a blog about the thing she loved – and it wasn’t law.

“I was sitting around and after some drinks was thinking, ‘I have thoughts. They need to be shared! So I started a blog,” Nguyen laughs.

That blog, with a very tennis-centric name, Forty Deuce Twits, gained some loyal followers over the next year and soon was asking her to manage its Tennis blog.

After Googling the guy who asked to make sure she “wasn’t being punked,” Nguyen realized she had become a legit blogger in the tennis world.

“I’m still shocked I’m employed,” Nguyen says, remembering the first tournament she attended representing her own blog. When she checked in, Nguyen recalled the guy saying to her, “So you’re the blogger? Don’t mess it up.”

Now four years later, Nguyen hasn’t messed it up and has instead made @fortydeucetwits a known force on the tennis media circuit.

She often writes features for major tournament program magazines, appears frequently on radio tennis shows and can be found on a joint podcast with fellow blogger-in-crime, Rothenberg.

Rothenberg, who studied anthropology and crime and punishment at the University of Michigan, also decided he much preferred his snarky sports blogs to anything remotely related to what he studied in college, so he started going to tennis tournaments and writing about them via @DailyForehand for a low-paying opportunity with SBNation’s tennis blog.

Good questions matter
It was actually his quirky questions that got the attention of a New York Times reporter and ultimately led to his freelance gig with the Times and others.

Rothenberg called them “questions no one else was dumb enough to ask,” but Nguyen defended him, calling Rothenberg the “king of awesome questions.” 

"He would always get answers that get to players’ personalities, and that’s a huge asset,” she said.

One of those was to women’s tennis superstar Serena Williams back in 2011 when she tweeted some lyrics to the Britney Spears song, “Lucky.” Rothenberg used that to ask Williams if she related to the plight of the song – being lucky and a star and always crying on the inside.

Um, I just love that song. I think it's funny, I always tweet lyrics a lot, and some people are always like, "Are you okay? What's going on?" I'm like, "You clearly don't know Britney Spears,"Williams responded. 

Odd question perhaps at a tournament press conference, yet it ended up in all the news stories the next day.

And that’s a good lesson for aspiring journalists and bloggers, the two noted – add to the conversation instead of saying what everyone else is. Being a good writer is a no-brainer in the journalism and blogging worlds, but being a good writer who says something different is the key.

“Find a gap that you want to fill,” Rothenberg advised, pointing out the tennis world doesn’t need another ode to Roger Federer, but it could definitely use a feature on an up-and-coming no-name player. “Be an expert on a smaller niche and you’ll get noticed.”

And if you put in the time and sacrifice, it will pay off – eventually.

For Nguyen, her big payoff came last September when she chose to cover a tournament in China. On the way there, she learned China tennis darling Li Na was going to announce her retirement at the tournament. Nguyen worked the phone immediately to get Na’s agent to let her have an exclusive interview.

“I was like, ‘You owe me. I have been the only American reporter in her press conferences at every single tournament for years. You owe me this interview.’ And it worked,” Nguyen said, noting that was her moment to cash in for all the years she’d been “writing on the super cheap” and covering the players who weren't such big names.

As a former lawyer, Nguyen prides herself in being able to get good answers out of the players, many of whom are not always forthcoming with good quotes.

“My experience as a lawyer taught me how to interview; I know how to read a room,” Nguyen said. “I know you’ll talk if I can just get you there.”

That’s so cliché
But both Nguyen and Rothenberg acknowledged it can be tough to get anything more than clichés from players, especially the veterans who have been in front of the media countless times.

Their least favorite clichés?

“It is what it is” and  “that’s just tennis” were the hands-down winners for Nguyen and Rothenberg.

“The lower-ranked players are the best because they don’t care,” Nguyen said, and Rothenberg added that no one has ever gone “full Marshawn Lynch” by refusing to talk to the media. 

“If anyone would go full Marshawn, that would be awesome," Rothenberg said, "because that becomes its own story."
Podcast by Courtney Nguyen and Ben Rothenberg

Both writers have learned their share of lessons in a sports reporting world that neither was trained in. Rothenberg recalled covering one of his first tournaments and saying to Australian Samantha Stosur after she lost a match, “So that was bad.”

Although that blunt question did not end the interview immediately, it did derail it significantly.

“So I learned from that,” Rothenberg admitted.

Nguyen’s early lesson came via social media. While waiting for Hurricane Irene to hit New York City during the 2011 U.S. Open, Nguyen tweeted something like “Much like Victoria Azarenka, Hurricane Irene fails to deliver,” Nguyen recalled. “I got a call from my editor saying, ‘yeah, you can’t do that.’”

Nguyen also had to promise not to drop the F-bomb so often - which she abides by, though she admits "sometimes you need the big punch of the F-bomb."

Fun writing is fun to write
Being able to have some fun with writing is important, though, the two admit. And while neither is a fan of the “hot-take” sports reporting that is so popular in the media, they do advocate a little irreverence still.

After all, it was that kind of voice that set them apart from others early on. They didn’t bash for the sake of bashing but attacked when necessary, using reason and evidence…and even humor.

“We cut through the bullshit,” Rothenberg said of their early work pre-mainstream media. In fact, the duo’s podcast, No Challenges Remaining, is an attempt to get back to more of that without being under the umbrella of or the New York Times.

 “We were young and punkish and our lack of reverence was big,” Rothenberg added. “But we still do that to a certain extent.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A blog about blogging - 7 tips for a better blog

Writing a blog can be tedious and painful, but only if you are unprepared to write a focused piece on a specific topic.

The beauty of blogs is that they are meant to be short, narrow in scope and conversational. That should be easy, right?

So why isn’t it?

Because as a general rule, we sit down and just start writing – no outline, no idea of our main point, no end in sight. In short, no forethought.

With apologies to my high school English teachers who incessantly encouraged us “to just write,” and "start from the beginning," I respectfully disagree.

As a peace offering, though, here are my seven tips for easy and better blogging:

1.     NEVER – not even for a billion dollars – write about something you have no interest in.

The point of a blog is to be a snippet of advice from experts or an opinion from an advocate. You have to care about the subject to be able to write about it well. (I agree great writers can pull off good pieces on things they don’t really care about, but then it wouldn’t come easy and I doubt it would be up to their level of writing).

2.     Pick ONE aspect of the topic to write about.

If you love cooking, you can’t write one blog on cooking. But there are thousands of great ideas around very small but interesting aspects of cooking – 12 ways to make your favorite Italian meals healthier; 5 ways to eat out on a budget; The 4 best aisles at the grocery store for a healthy diet; 8 indulgences you should never turn down; 15 beers you must try before you die (any takers on that blog research?)

If you love sports, for example, pick one sport, then pick one part of it to complain about, then think of a creative way to demonstrate your disdain.

This is truly where Buzzfeed has cornered the market. Buzzfeed never does the same story yet it is doing stories on the same issues all the time.

The reason it works? Because each time it is a narrow focus with a creative angle on it, so it doesn’t seem the same.

3.     Write a one-sentence, straightforward lead that highlights the main point you want to make by the end.

Quit thinking you need to develop some background to give readers the big picture.

The opposite is true. Tell them what your piece is about so they can decide right away if they want to keep going.

4.     Do some research.

No one knows everything. And no blog is any good without links and references to other info out there.

Find out some cool facts even you didn’t know. That’s also a great way to write a more creative blog about the thing you love.

Instead of the more typical “4 things you should do before a beach vacation” you can write the Buzzfeed-esque approach, “13 things sunscreen can be used for besides blocking UVA .”

5.     Plan.

My CEO husband loves to say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It’s so cliché and so absolutely true.

Do not – I repeat – do not do what your English teachers told you and “just start writing.”

Stream-of-consciousness text is ruining society. Since so much communication is done electronically and on social media, you have to train your brain – and your fingers – to think of the end point first.

Then start writing.

6.     Edit.

This is my biggest pet peeve with blogs (OK, my second biggest. See No. 7.)

Never write something and then publish.

Obviously editing is good for checking punctuation, grammar, and my favorite, AP style.

But the main reason is that the first time you say something, you usually don’t say it in the most concise and coherent way. (For example, this is already the third version of this sentence.)

7.     Keep paragraphs short.

For the sake of all that’s good and right in this world, make paragraphs one sentence. Two if they are both short.


I guarantee you read this faster because I followed my own rule.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

'Dear Mr. Manning' letter goes viral

I teach my students that good writing will get attention. And that a topic that resonates with people along with the right timing will ensure a lot of attention.

But I had no idea how much attention my "Open Letter to Peyton Manning" would actually get.

Thanks to all of you who read, shared, commented, debated and reached out to me.

I knew my thoughts were neither revolutionary nor remarkable. But the overwhelming response on social media and the news media proves my point - Peyton Manning deserves to be celebrated no matter how good/bad he plays in the most recent game.

*And for those who called me a soccer mom who just wanted to emphasize playing the game and not winning it, you missed the point. I'm all for winning and preparing to win - just as I believe Manning is. And while I know the Super Bowl loss will tarnish his NFL storied career, it does nothing to tarnish his legacy.

But I digress.

For those interested, here is a round-up of some of the media play:

'Dear Mr. Manning' 

A Broncos fan's letter to Manning a fantastic read

A mom's letter to Peyton Manning

Mt. Pleasant woman's 'Dear Mr. Manning' letter goes viral

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Open Letter to Peyton Manning

Dear Mr. Manning –

I am not a sports reporter, not an NFL analyst, not a former player.

I’ve never studied film, and I’ve not catalogued all the best and worst moments in football history.

I know the game of football well, though I still can’t figure out why you can challenge a first down spot but not a pass interference call.

What I have done is played some seriously rugged flag football games, donned blue and orange every Sunday from August to January for the past 43 years, sat through some unbelievably frigid games at Mile High (once while 7 months pregnant) and cheered for the Denver Broncos since before I can remember…even during the heart-crushing games.

I even named my beloved Black Lab after John Mobley (who I still believe is responsible for saving the Broncos’ victory in Super Bowl XXXII against the Packers.)

And most proudly, I am a mom of two little boys who adore their #18 jerseys and can’t wait to find out “how Peyton Manning’s team did?” every Monday morning.

So I am undeniably biased.

And it is because of my bias – and lack of NFL analysis experience – that makes me far more qualified to talk about your legacy than any of those analysts, former players, coaches and commentators (I’m looking at you, Mike Greenberg and Cris Carter).

They operate in a world where recency dictates everything, and controversy and sensationalism make the headlines.

No, I am more qualified because I am a mom.

I actually understand – on the most basic level – what legacy truly means.

Legacy is something handed down that matters.

It is something that matters to young players and athletes and kids looking for mentors to help them find their way.

You don’t hand down Super Bowl trophies. You don’t hand down NFL MVPs or franchise records. And you don’t hand down touchdowns, statistics or win-loss records.

You hand down an example of work ethic, of courage to come back after a career-threatening injury, of humility in victory and graciousness in defeat, and of perspective on one’s own accomplishments.

That legacy matters, and that’s why yours is untarnished even - and especially - after Sunday's loss.

It matters that you’re professional in the way you talk to reporters.

It matters that you give credit to others – coaches, teammates, mentors.

It matters that you don’t give up in a bad game and keep fighting no matter the odds.

It matters that you take time to write hand-written notes to fans and sign autographs – even after crushing defeat.

It matters that you know the difference between being embarrassed by your team’s performance and just not being the best team on the field that day.

And it matters that you meticulously prepare to play the game...and encourage everyone around you to do the same.

I doubt you take stock in what those analysts say about your legacy (no doubt a trait your father has clearly bestowed upon you and your brothers), but I want you to know that this mom of two young boys who already recognize you’re different from the others, believes your legacy has never been stronger.

And I'm confident thousands of others agree with me. 

Whether you win another game, your accomplishments in football are nothing short of remarkable – alongside many other outstanding players.

But it’s your character that sets you apart from so many of your predecessors and peers.

And that’s a legacy that matters.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Storytelling, audience connections key for communicators, ESPN exec says

Norby Williamson believes the College of Charleston is a “kick-ass place,” and that’s a pretty good endorsement coming from a senior executive at ESPN.

But the executive vice president of the world’s largest sports television network reminded a room of communication majors Thursday not to worry about whether they chose the right path, the right school or the right major.

“Don’t second-guess yourself, but if the path you’re on is not the right one, take a different one,” Williamson said. “That was the lesson early on at ESPN – figure it out as you go along, put the work in and you’ll succeed. You have to have the concept of being able to evolve yourself.”

Williamson knows a few things about evolving.

Starting as a production assistant 28 years ago at ESPN when it was a fledgling cable sports network, Williamson worked his way through the ranks to his current position where he has been since 2007.

Along the way, Williamson produced “SportsCenter,” “ESPNEWS,”  “Baseball Tonight” and “NFL Gameday.” Prior to taking on management duties alongside production work in 1999, Williamson earned five awards, including Sports Emmy Awards for “SportsCenter” and “NFL Gameday.”

He also was responsible for major programming such as Monday Night Football, College Game Day, NASCAR, college basketball and football, plus on-site coverage of major sporting events like the Super Bowl, BCS national championship, Men’s and Women’s Final Four and the MLB All-Star game.

“There’s nothing impressive about me. I was in the right place at the right time, working my ass off,” said the 1985 graduate of Southern Connecticut State University, adding that students should be comforted that he made it at ESPN. “You can succeed by being tactical, taking strategic risks and working hard.”

Williamson acknowledged today’s students have a tougher environment to navigate for a job, but that isn’t always a disadvantage.

“It’s a mess out there,” he said, “which is good news for you.”

With the explosion of digital content and social media, ESPN and other networks are hungry for grads with storytelling skills, not necessarily technical expertise.

“Storytelling, writing, making a connection with the audience….that’s a lot more important,” Williamson said. “We hire smart people. We think we can teach you what you need about production, but we want creative, smart people who like things the way they are but are open to doing it different.”

In a social media-dominant world where athletes can control their own messages, and immediate still isn’t fast enough, Williamson said resonating with the audience is still the most important goal – whether it’s in a reality TV show or a 140-character tweet.

“It’s crazy. The greatest thing about social media is immediate feedback; the worst thing is immediate feedback,” Williamson said, admonishing students not to lose focus on what will connect with their audience. “A good story is always most important.”

Among his sage advice for the soon-to-be grads, Williamson reminded students to do what they are passionate about, always be decent to people and to stay curious.

“Ask yourself if you’re going anywhere,” he said. “Now is the time to take risks.”