Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Plea to Sports Journalists Who Think They’re Good at Their Jobs

To local and national sports journalists, sportscasters, and sports television/radio personalities everywhere,

I started swimming when I was almost seven years old and swam all the way through college (don’t look me up – I wasn’t very good). I was one of my only friends who was a swimmer. Most of them played football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, etc. The big name sports. I grew up competing in a sport no one understood and not a lot of people cared about but that never bothered me. It’s pretty boring to watch most of the time. People can’t fathom why someone would want to put themselves through going back and forth a thousand times between two walls, staring at a black line in a cold pool. I’m not quite sure why I found so much pleasure in doing that, either.

But every four years, this often forgotten sport makes it semi-big time and I’m sure I’m not the only former swimmer who schedules her entire week around watching the coverage. NBC puts eight days of Olympic Trials in prime-time slots and gives it fair coverage during the Olympics-much more in Beijing than previous Olympics thanks to Michael Phelps. Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals made a lot more people interested, invested and care about swimming.

But you guys? You ‘covered’ it, but only because you had to. You wrote a couple commentaries and some basic sports stories, but that’s about it. A few of you wrote some great stuff [thank you!]. But for the most part, your coverage – well, it really sucked. It was horrible. It was clear then, and even more so today with Olympic Trials taking place this week, that you just don’t understand swimming. But what offends me is that you don’t care that you don’t understand swimming.

You put in a lot of effort and time to learn the intricacies of the other sports you cover on an hourly basis. The research you do to uncover interesting and relevant statistics are nothing short of fascinating. With all this information you create engaging stories that fans and non-sports fans (er, me) get excited about and then they tune in to see how it plays out. And yet, I’d say only a handful of sports reporters have taken the time to make an attempt to understand swimming so they can craft those same kinds of stories that resonate with avid fans and the average person.

I worked in my university’s sports information office for two years after graduating from college. I was responsible for covering soccer, basketball, crew, swimming and lacrosse. I had to work my ass off to understand these sports because I knew absolutely nothing them. I had no idea how I was going to write game stories that actually made sense to people who knew the sport when I didn’t. In one of my first basketball stories I wrote: “Bob Smith from XYZ College tried to make a shot but it didn’t go in, so Joe Johnson from ABC University grabbed the ball mid-air and ran down the court with it.” I was really impressed with myself for using ‘mid-air’; the coach was not at all impressed that I didn’t just call it a rebound. 

Now I know how that coach felt. Reading your stories about swimming make me cringe. I read one story where the headline said a girl had narrowly missed making the Olympic team, but as I read on I learned she had finished 23rd in the event, not even qualifying for semifinals (top 16 in most events). Only the top two people make the Olympic team, so 23rd isn’t that close. Just because her time was only three seconds off the eventual winner, that’s 300 one-hundredths* of a second. In a sport like swimming, that’s a lot of time. One one-hundredth* makes all the difference – just ask Milorad Cavic from Serbia, who lost the 100m butterfly by that margin to Phelps in 2008.

“Well, the title made you read the story, right?” “Who wants to read about a girl who apparently missed an Olympic berth by so much?” I hear you. My issue isn’t with the headline, it’s with the story itself. Why not find out if it was the girl’s career best time? Why not mention the team(s) she swims for? Why not frame it in a way that says even though she didn’t make it, finishing 23rd is an incredible accomplishment? Out of every swimmer in the country who competes in that event, she is essentially ranked 23rd. That’s pretty damn good. So instead of the 90-word blurb this sports reporter wrote, maybe spend a hot minute finding a way to make it a story, something a lot of you do really well with the bigger sports. All this would take is a little investigating and caring enough about your job as a sports (ALL sports) reporter.

After me ranting about this for the last 800 words, here’s my point: Take the time to learn about sports – and I’m not just talking about swimming, but the other smaller sports – so you can, at the very least, cover them in a way that is interesting to fans and the average person. Do your job and homework. Talk to someone who understands the sport really well and learn from them. I’m not asking you to invest even a fraction of the time you spend collecting stories, stats, and interesting tidbits about LeBron James or Tim Tebow. I’m asking for 16 days every four years of quality swimming coverage where I feel like you actually care about covering it.

I know in sports the hours are relentless. It’s a 24/7 job and a lot of you "just don’t have the time to commit to learning about every sport in great detail." What sets great journalists apart from the others who want to be great is the former do what it takes to do their jobs well because it's that little extra they put in to everything they do that makes them stand out in the crowd.

My second plea is to NBC: I think I speak for most swimmers and fans when I ask you to put Rowdy Gaines on the deck and get Andrea Kramer out of the natatorium and as far away from the pool as possible. Her questions to swimmers make my skin crawl. Most of the time I can tolerate her when she covers other sports, but not in swimming. I truly believe the coaches do two things before sending these elite athletes to the blocks for the final heat: they give them last-minute advice and encouragement, and they prep them on how to deal with her questions and how not to laugh on camera. Ryan Lochte looked like it literally pained him to talk to her after Wednesday night’s race because her questions were so wretched. Get another (former?) swimmer to help out with the color commentary and send Rowdy poolside, because he is the difference between providing great coverage and mediocre coverage (at best).

*Thanks to @dkutrufis21 for pointing out that swimmers don't use milliseconds to describe time, but hundredths, tenths, etc. (Five years out of competitive swimming has left me a little rusty on terminology!) Even the critical should be open to being criticized.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Making Changes: My Takeaways from SUNYCUAD

Last week, I attended my third SUNYCUAD conference. You can’t leave this annual gathering of some of the best minds in higher education without learning something. When I [sadly] checked out Friday morning, [reluctantly] packed up my car and navigated the horrible one-ways near Syracuse University in hopes of finding Interstate 81, I felt re-energized about my work and did a bit of self-reflecting on how I do things and what I could, should and need to be doing better – a lot better.

There was so much to digest – ideas, thoughts, quotes, a little beer and some Acropolis pizza – and I thought about it all weekend (the pizza was that good). Now, I’m putting my fingers on the keyboard to see what pours out. So here it goes-what I took away from SUNYCUAD 2012.

1.  Goals before tools. This seems logical, right? Of course we have goals before we move forward on projects and accept assignments. But for many of us we have large, overarching institution goals. Most of the time we don’t look at everything we’re putting out there and thinking, “Is this really worthy of a news release or would it be more effective as a video? Who am I trying to reach? What am I trying to say? How will I know if I’m reaching them? And if I’m reaching them, am I effective in doing so?” 

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves and each other. Even when it comes to posting a Facebook update or sending out a tweet- are you doing it just to do it or is it a tool you’re using to reach your goals? And if it’s a tool you’re using, is it the right one – and why is it the right one? We need to be critical of what we’re doing and make sure we’re tracking progress and effectiveness. Planning, discussions, and communication need to take place much more often and then making the necessary changes to continue doing our work well.

2. Break down the barriers. We all get in a rut of working within our respective office or department. But if we’re going to be successful at what we do, we need to take the biggest eraser we’ve got and get those dividing lines out of there. We’ve got to think past ‘divisions’ and share what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it connects with the work of every single employee on campus. We need to change the way we approach projects and collaborate with everyone as a unit, rather than as several units under the same brand and name.

It’s time to look at our organizational charts and see the lines connecting each employee as channels between people -where views, ideas and opinions of everyone from the bottom up and top down are shared and communicated. Most importantly, everyone in the room should feel they have a seat at the table – no matter if you’re a VP or the newest employee. Listening to everyone and showing respect goes a long way – to quote presenter Alana Riley of Providence College, “it doesn’t take much to feel appreciated (or unappreciated).” 

3. Content is more than [written] words. Content is all shapes and sizes and is what is out there accomplishing our goals. Video, social media, photos, etc. are telling people our story and what it’s like to be a part of our community, our world. 

I’m not just a ‘writer’-I am a creator, sculptor, & artist with words, ideas, and images-and by doing all that, I am a storyteller. Georgy Cohen of Crosstown Digital Communications said, “Content is a process, not a project.” Effective content captures its audience with its tone and the story it tells and connects with them emotionally – it’s not just your average college-sounding jargon. One example Georgy gave involved admissions tour guides, how they often memorize a script to ‘welcome’ prospective students and their parents and maybe rethinking this.

Tour Guide I:
“And to our left you see [insert name of building], which was built in 1932 and is home to our engineering school and newly-renovated science labs.” 
Tour Guide II:
“This building on the left is [insert name of building], where I’ve taken a couple of science classes. This past semester I got to take part in a project studying [something science-y] and use x, y, and z in my research since we have new science labs loaded with all-new equipment. My friend even got to…” 

Don’t you want to hear about what the friend got to do? It’s because you’re engaged (I know, not the greatest example, but…). And you know what? So are the people on the tour.

Georgy also pointed out the value of adding story elements to all content, but what most intrigued me was adding it to news releases. If you’re talking about a new program being offered, immerse yourself in a couple of classes and tell the story through that perspective rather than rattling off requirements. Why is the program important? Why does it matter?I learned I need to think beyond the words I’m writing. I need to change my perspective on what I’m trying to say, and do so in a creative way that reaches people and connects them with my institution.

4. Your campus community exists in real life and online. But are you treating it this way? Are you thinking about your Facebook presence and use of Twitter as social communities? It’s called ‘social’ media for a reason – it’s a two-way street, not a one-way avenue for your news releases. Presenter Alaina Wiens from UM-Flint says to jump into conversations and show your audience you care about what they have to say, and I couldn't agree more. If someone in your office is ‘doing’ social media because ‘it’s their job,’ they’re doing it wrong. Put it in the hands of people who care and understand people join these pages because they want to be and feel like they are a part of the community. Our interactions and engagement with them in these mediums will only validate they are an important and a necessary part of the institution (because they are why we’re here!) and the relationship, connections and community grow

5. Do less better. Budgets get smaller every year, yet the world around us demands we do more every day. Higher education is no exception to this reality. There’s so much to be taken on- new content, new websites, new social media outlets springing up daily, going mobile… the list goes on. And we still have the same number of employees. So it’s important to establish goals, plan, figure out what we need to do to get there and who’s doing it. We don’t need to be on every social media site, but we need to be doing social media well on the ones we are on. Admissions doesn’t need 1,000 publications to reach enrollment goals, they need publications that are thoughtful, have a purpose and someone who looks at effectiveness vs. cost and is willing to be firm on making those sometimes tough decisions.  It all comes down to staying organized, motivated and being smart about what we do. Don’t be a ‘yes’ person and take on more than you can chew. It’s much more fun to enjoy what you’re doing than trying to cram everything in so you can’t even handle it.

Because of SUNYCUAD, I’ve developed amazing friendships and learned from people who will continue to inspire me in my work every day. You know why? Because they don’t look at higher education as a business. They don’t accept the way things have been done as the way they *should* be done and are looking at ways to do things differently and do them well with the resources they have available. They don't make excuses for why they can't do something, they find ways to make it work - or at least try. They are in love with and invested in the work they are doing to make fundamental changes to a higher education model that often doesn’t meet the needs of the complex and ever-changing world. They believe in stepping outside the box, trying new things, and sharing what they’ve learned in order to help me and us do the same.   

If you walked out of SUNYCUAD, or recently got the itch to shake things up a bit and make some real changes in what you do and how you approach it, I’m right there with you. So let’s tear down the silos, look at each other as friends and colleagues rather than competitors, and do it. Together.