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Vol. 48, No. 2 • February 2011 • .pdf version
Times have changed, but good sportswriting remains the same
By LENOX RAWLINGS / Winston-Salem Journal
In those pristine memories of childhood, fully edited by time, the Raleigh newspaper still lands on the cement driveway with a hollow thud.
The sound traveled farther and louder in winter, when outside news of the outsized world seemed more vital because it carried the implied hollow thud of a basketball bouncing across a gym floor.
The News & Observer, likely the leading government watchdog between D.C. and Florida, opened those tall coliseum doors before cable and the web turned every major-conference game into programming inventory.
Dick Herbert, the veteran sports editor and former USBWA president, insisted that his staff emphasize the exploits of North Carolina's Big Four. They were all neighborhood schools until R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. money bought Winston-Salem a college in 1956 and moved Wake Forest out of Wake Forest, 100 miles away.
The schools were such everyday institutions, especially their basketball teams, that Herbert shortened the names to eliminate superfluous adornment: Duke, State, Wake and Carolina.
He liked things clean and straightforward, which explains why he complained gruffly when colleges ditched their narrow press guides for the 8x11 recruiting magazines. The glossy guides wouldn't fit in his coat pocket or typewriter case. (Half a century later, basketball writers grouse about online media guides that usually don't fit a standard laptop screen. Time marches on, one partial backlit page at a time.)
Herbert despised TV's intrusion on the basketball culture, particularly the delays and eventually the late starts that cut into reporting. His response became The N&O's understated rebellion, published starting times suggesting TV's undeserved power: 8:05 p.m., 9:06 p.m. and so on.
The newspaper's game stories typically were clean and straightforward, with fewer quotes and milder opinions than now, but they shared a common theme.The stories told the reader what happened in the game.
That might sound basic, a sparse prerequisite for the form. Basketball is about shooting, rebounding and defending, yet few teams excel at those elements, and a surprising number of basketball game stories flunk the fundamentals test.
The stories might suffer from an overload of 12-3 runs and run-on quotes about stepping up under adversity, or they might suffer from a dozen darts missing the target. There's no need to elaborate on the shortcomings all sportswriters experience. There's also no need to perpetuate them in perpetuity.
Games have beginnings, middles and ends. Ideally, so do game stories. The game's general flow might be worth a paragraph or an extended narrative, but it is worth something. The flow sets up the characters and the climax, which begs for details, preferably in sequence.
This is not news, of course. Despite deadlines, faulty wireless and inconsistent access, sensibly reporting the key plays in a basketball game remains quite possible.
It begins with a simple premise: Not everyone saw the game. It ends in an expectant reader's cement driveway or on a small computer screen, where it can still match the dimensions and the obsession perfectly.
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