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.”