(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Nothing Pitt running back James Conner did on Thursday night would have changed my column.
At 45 minutes past the self-imposed deadline my column was short by 32 lines, and I’m sitting in a working press box, so I can’t even scream.
Nothing had prepared me for situations like the one I faced Thursday night. In and of itself, that continues to surprise me about this columnist gig. It’s only been three months, but I am convinced that I will never feel comfortable writing columns.
That’s especially true at night.
This is a completely new feeling, because I have always felt comfortable writing off night games. That was true from the days when I dictated my stories from a pay phone at a McDonalds in Blacksville, a small West Virginia town that is home to Clay-Battelle High School, or as I remember it, my first newspaper beat.
Even then, while working (barely, as my editor at the time would say) as a part-time Dominion Post reporter, writing stories about games felt right, good even. I was 19, but the procedural process of writing on a tight deadline felt normal. I picked an angle, wrote about it, filled in some holes with a few facts and quotes, and that was that. Then, and I’m talking way back in 1997, I would need to hit a word count of 150. Over a decade later, early in my tenure as the Penguins beat reporter for the Trib, my word count was around 500. The blueprint did not change, though. I picked an angle, wrote about it, filled in some holes with a few facts and quotes, and that was that.
There was no pressure.
There was no nervousness.
That’s because there was no point to pressure or nervousness. The game would end, and when it did, I had to send a story about that game to my editors. There wasn’t an option, so there was no reason to make it a bigger deal than what it was: my job.
It was a job I took perverse pride in, too. Not everybody could do this part of the job. I could, and I was proud.
I hate reading game stories.
Still do. They do not interest me in the slightest. So, I never tried to write one. I just tried to write a story about the team I covered, and to me there was a difference. Game stories had details about who did what and when. Stories about the team I covered were just a continuation of the narrative. My intention, for better or worse, wasn’t for everybody. I sought to show the readers what’s really important to the overall narrative. Every season was a book. Each week was a chapter. Stories off practices were no different than ones off games. Every story had to move the overall narrative forward. My job when writing stories was to pinpoint only what was important enough to write about, especially when it came to writing about the games.
Now, I had a trick. I’m sure all writers of game stories have tricks. Mine was to always use the most obvious thing to my advantage.
Games are won and lost. Readers have rooting interests. I always started with a fundamental belief that my audience had a rooting interest, and its good guy would either win or lose. Having that to work with, the rest came easy. Specifically when writing about the games, I could write about what just happened to the hero and where the hero went from this very point.
It doesn’t work that way with columns. It didn’t work that way with this column.
It’s only been about three months.
Still, I’m fairly confident in making this blanket statement about columnists: We think way too much.
This is dangerous. This can make us look like fools. This is what gets us into trouble. Well, this is what I think probably gets me into trouble when writing columns off a game, especially a game played at night. I’ve already written three columns off football games that ended after I filed my column. I did not know the result.
Think about that.
Think about this: I knew before writing I would not know the result. My job had become delivering an opinion piece from a game that was happening, just not one about the actual game. The push-it deadlines go to the beat reporters. Columnist can write around a result.
This is the way of life in the part of Newspaper Land where I live. I’m cool with it because I can’t change it, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed me – perhaps for the poorer.
I don’t love my latest column.
It felt forced upon filing it, and it feels incomplete after several more reads.
With hindsight, I should have focused entirely on my belief that Pitt needs its own football stadium. I should have pointed out the obstacles instead of casually offering that building a new stadium “won’t be easy.” I should have not written at all about the football program’s on-field results and only about the lack of atmosphere at Pitt home games.
On the ride to Heinz Field on Thursday afternoon, I noticed emptiness in the parking lots. I thought about the lack of buzz leading into a prime-time college football game played by the city’s university. I walked into a stadium that I knew would be half-full and I committed to a column idea, and I wrote that Pitt students and alumni deserved better than the malaise I had observed.
Truth is, the Trib’s readers deserved better from their sports columnist. I didn’t make a point with the column. I just wrote stuff. I didn’t direct a narrative. I just acted on an observation and with a deadline in mind.
I’m acknowledging these doubts publicly because I plan to use this blog for personal pieces that provide readers a window into what goes on in my writing life. Entries won’t always be this long and probably won’t be daily, but they will attempt to move the narrative forward.
It’s a very specific narrative.
The only way I’ve ever made sense of life is to write stories about other people. I’m trying to make sense of becoming a columnist, and to do that I think it’s time to start writing my stories.
For you, the blog can be about learning how I approach the job. For me, the blog can be about learning.
For my first lesson: The blueprint cannot change. Pick an angle. Write about it. Fill in some holes with a few facts and quotes. That will be that, and that will be how it is going forward.
Thanks for reading.
Be EXCELLENT to each other,