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Home > Reading Room > Keeping Score: Sportswriting and Journalism Education at Berkeley

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Keeping Score: Sportswriting and Journalism Education at Berkeley

By Neil Henry

With nothing but a towel around his waist and a bottle of soda in hand, New Jersey Nets forward Brian Scalabrine was a picture of happiness as he stood beaming in the middle of his team's postgame locker room at the Arena in Oakland, Calif.

The 27 year-old, 6-foot-9 redhead had just scored a career high 29 points to lead his team to victory over the Golden State Warriors when a journalism graduate student named Rebecca Turek shyly approached to ask him about his remarkable performance.

"I've got a great shooting coach, and all the practice finally paid off," Scalabrine said, as his towering teammates milled about the room getting dressed. "And my music's a big help. I listen in my headset before the game to get the right rhythm going."

"Music?" Turek asked, looking up from her notebook, intrigued. "Who do ya like?"

"Metallica," Scalabrine replied with a grin. "It really gets me going."

With that Turek smiled and nodded, realizing she had dug up a pretty good lead for the 600-word deadline news piece she would write about the game and file from the Arena's press box to her professors on campus: It was Metallica that helped beat the Warriors.

So began the practical education of a promising student in an experimental writing course I found myself co-teaching by felicitous chance this past spring at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

My teaching partner was Gregg Bell, a 34 year-old sports reporter for the Sacramento Bee and a 2000 graduate of Berkeley's master's degree program, where I work as an associate professor.

The class was devoted exclusively to the craft of reporting and writing about sports, a popular and rapidly growing sector of American print and broadcast journalism that curiously is not widely taught as a specific subject in most professional schools of journalism in the country.

The course focused entirely on the basics: How to keep a line score in baseball. How to interview athletes quickly and effectively in cramped quarters in noisy locker rooms. How to write tight, running game stories on deadline in wire-service style and to produce lively features and profiles. Everything a student needs to know, in short, to hit the ground running as a sports reporter once she's hired at a daily newspaper or television station.

For the 12 students, "Reporting and Writing about Sports" allowed rare and thrilling access to the playing fields, press box and clubhouses of local professional teams including the Warriors, Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants.

For me, the course proved as intellectually revealing as it was novel.

At a time when educators at journalism schools and working professionals around America are debating how much academic training a young person needs to become an effective journalist in an increasingly complex society — and whether that education should focus more on theory and broader background courses in the sciences and humanities — my experience this spring proved that a great deal still can be said for showing students how much fun and engaging journalism is, especially when you keep it practical.

Why the craft of sports reporting isn't offered more at professional schools is a mystery. A scattering of U.S. universities offer sports journalism courses leading to undergraduate degrees in communications and journalism, including schools such as Northwestern, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Penn State University's two-year-old Center for Sports Journalism.

But at the graduate school level, sports reporting is commonly treated as an afterthought at best by faculty overseeing core curricula. This attitude reflects in some ways the old-fashioned notion of sports as the "toy department" of the American newsroom. When sports journalism is taught at professional schools, the general focus is on background reading and seminar discussion, not actual field reporting and writing.

Over the past 20 years at Berkeley, sports has been offered as an elective course only twice, taking a backseat to specialized subjects such as political, business and international reporting. Those subjects are taught far more frequently because they reflect the expertise of instructors on our faculty and are viewed as more serious and journalistically purposeful.

But sports today is a far more weighty and significant field of journalism than most J-School curricula would seem to reflect. The gargantuan growth of the ESPN networks over the past quarter century, for example, is just one indicator of the economic and cultural might of sports in American society.

Street and Smith's SportsBusiness Journal has estimated the size of that industry in the United States at $213 billion annually. The figure includes everything from advertising and media broadcast rights, to professional athlete salaries, ticket sales, gambling and facilities construction, making it larger than the U.S. auto industry, seven times the size of the movie industry, and bigger than the annual gross domestic products of 195 nations of the world including Greece, Portugal and Denmark.

Moreover, sports offers up for training and study purposes many of the most challenging issues confronting American society, from race relations and gender equity laws to priorities of education and local governance and politics.

But getting the course on the schedule at Berkeley was still no simple trick, because no one on our faculty has practiced it much.

With an emphasis more on the exotic than the basic in recent years, our program has gained notable distinction for its international travel classes in which students have enjoyed fully funded opportunities to journalistically explore places as disparate as Cuba, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Argentina and India.

But while the gamut of courses taught by visitors and adjuncts has spanned subject titles as lofty as "Reporting on Philanthropy" and "Thucydides as War Correspondent" in recent times, some full-time faculty members grew alarmed that critical core subjects — education, court and police reporting, to name just a few — were being ignored to the detriment of our students' practical training. Clearly, young people were graduating from Berkeley's J-School understanding such things as the intricacies of Chinese politics and the manifold challenges of globalization.

But job recruiters from newspapers and networks didn't want to know much about that. They chiefly wanted to know if our students could think and write clearly, and if they were trained and versatile enough to investigate public records, file FOIA requests, and report spot news stories and other assignments quickly and accurately when told.

So it was that a faculty committee last year ordered that more courses oriented toward core subjects and practical skills, including sports reporting, be offered regularly on a rotational basis. A former national and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and writer for Newsweek magazine — with very limited experience in sports writing — I was chosen to develop the sports class and to find a co-teacher with daily expertise in the field.

Enter Gregg Bell, probably the farthest thing anyone could imagine from the Berkeley stereotype. A native of an Ohio rust belt town just outside of Pittsburgh, Gregg was a trim, straightforward 1993 West Point graduate who, after his commission as a U.S. Army officer, served in military intelligence for several years in South Korea. Upon completion of his service, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a sports journalist and enrolled in 1999 at Berkeley's grad school.

Gregg was a smart and eager student who took nearly every opportunity to weave sports features and deadline game stories into his class assignments, essentially crafting his own sports-oriented curriculum. He became a freelance sports correspondent for The New York Times during his two years in school. Over the past four years he has covered the Oakland A's for the Bee, and currently serves as the beat writer for the Oakland Raiders.

"(Sports) gives you everything you need to become a journalist," Gregg announced at our first class session in January, when nearly 20 students eager for daily reporting training showed up. "Spot news, deadline news, features, interviewing, ethical dilemmas — it's all there. If you can cover sports, you can cover anything."

Best of all, Gregg called on his extensive contacts at the local professional sports teams to obtain credentials for the students to cover events alongside the working press. Their access was extraordinary. Quickly the students found themselves covering stories all over the Bay Area, interviewing A's manager Ken Macha in his office after a tough loss, taking part in the edgy relationship between the media and Giants' slugger Barry Bonds, and sharing stories in the press box dining room hall with luminaries such as ESPN baseball announcer Jon Miller and Hall of Fame player Orlando Cepeda.

And soon the practical-skills focus of the course resulted in practical reward as the students found ready outlets for their work. Editors at the Oakland Tribune, like many American newspapers suffering from decreasing advertising income, falling circulation and editorial budget cuts, were particularly eager to publish the students' feature stories.

Student Ryan Lillis published a lovely piece about life inside a boxing club in a rundown section of Oakland where young inner-city boxers still pursue dreams of glory. Matt Vree's story about a local casino and the lives of inveterate poker players also found publication, as did Nick Miroff's keen explanatory story about the political fight over new stadium proposals for the A's in Oakland.

And student Nagomi Onda went so far as to use her training to score a full-time summer job with Japan's daily Sports Nippon to cover the Oakland A's, with special focus on the performance of Japanese pitcher Keiichi Yabu.

In the end, the experience helped me rethink a few key issues in the debate over the future of journalism education. Swirling at the heart of that debate are a number of thorny questions: How best can schools of journalism help improve the quality of information citizens receive in a democratic society at a time of dizzying technological advances? Should schools of journalism emphasize more the vocational aspects of the "craft," or the intellectual development of young minds preparing themselves for entry into a "profession?"

The debate has centered at Columbia University in particular, where the Journalism School faculty announced in March the establishment of a new master's program that will allow students the option of extending their length of study from one to two years.

Under this reform, the first year of study will still be devoted to earning the traditional Master's of Science journalism degree. If accepted in the second year program, students can also earn a Master's of Arts degree signifying additional learning "about complicated subjects they might encounter in their careers," according to the school's admissions application literature.

The change, which "marries deep subject-matter expertise to the advanced practice of journalism," will allow students more time and opportunity to explore Columbia's greater university to gain stronger grounding in law, history, politics and other subjects in the sciences and humanities "to better prepare themselves as leaders in the field."

I believe there's certainly much logic behind these changes. The more young journalists learn in school, and the wider the range of subjects they tackle, the better for all of us in a democratic society.

But if I've been convinced of anything from my experience this past semester, it is that journalism's real value still will be determined not by the length or location of reporters' schooling but by their basic ability to bear witness to human events and report fairly, accurately and well. Now as always, this challenge requires energy, bottomless curiosity, the development of sharp practical skills, and in the end, I believe, a wholesome desire on the part of some young journalists to escape the walls of academia and explore life as soon as possible.

For me, the sports course hammered home the point that you don't need to jet off to the distant reaches of the globe to find news, nor hold multiple graduate degrees testifying to broad intellectual achievement in order to understand and practice meaningful, effective and richly enjoyable journalism. Reporting itself is often the most valuable education a young journalist can get.

Indeed, for a few students the practicum of the sports experience this past spring could prove transformative.

Rebecca Turek, for one, who came to Berkeley's J-School from UC Santa Barbara with only the slightest notion of sports journalism, now has her heart set on becoming a sportswriter, a dream born early in the semester while covering professional basketball in Oakland.

With her eyes aglow with discovery, the auburn-haired, 23-year-old student rushed from the New Jersey Nets dressing room that February night back to the Arena press room to tell the world her story about Brian Scalabrine and his night of glory.

"This," she said, "is the best day ever."

Neil Henry is the author of Pearl's Secret, a racial history published in 2001 by the University of California Press. He is at work on American Carnival: Journalism in an Age of Fraud.

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News: Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press receives $75,000 Pulliam Fellowship in Editorial Writing
News: Resolutions passed at Excellence in Journalism 2017
News: Bruce W. Sanford receives Wells Memorial Key, SPJ's highest honor
News: Rebecca Baker installed as 2017-2018 SPJ President
News: SPJ delegates approve smaller board, changes to regional director positions
News: Lincoln Journal Star awarded MOEy Best in Show

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