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Call on all staff to cover the big story

July 5, 2010

By Jessica Hinterlong

Bob Zaltsberg, editor of the Herald Times in Bloomington, Ind., and Reid Laymance, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, opened the second day of the Mid-America Press Institute workshop, “Covering Sports in a 24/7 World,” with a discussion on “Covering the Big Story.”

The two veteran writers shared their insights about discovering features before opening up the floor for comments and questions from the sports writers and students present.

“It’s never too soon to start thinking about a feature,” said Laymance. “And it doesn’t always have to be just you, the writer, brainstorming. It helps to engage the whole newsroom because sometimes they come up with better ideas than you do.”

Laymance experienced this after attempting to produce an original piece on the St. Louis Cardinals. His photo editor proposed the idea of Cardinals Culture, a photo spread featuring pictures from a game-day in St. Louis, but not at Busch Stadium. Instead these photos depicted the lives of everyday fans who took time to don the cardinal red and pull up a seat beside the television or radio.

The photos captured local firemen cheering for the Cards while awaiting the call of duty, a couple on their wedding day watching the game and a woman whose entire basement contained Cardinal memorabilia. The Post-Dispatch accompanied their print photo spread with online photo galleries and videos.

While Cardinals Culture generated positive feedback from readers, it also created an example for other newspapers to imitate, adapt and improve, which is exactly Laymance’s aim.

“Anytime you see someone else doing something you need to think, ‘is there a way this applies to me,’” said Laymance.

While Laymance encourages perusing well-known outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN for potential ideas, he mentions that small town papers can be just as useful, adding their own twist to a colorful feature.

Zaltsberg believes that spotting feature ideas from outside sources should come naturally for sports writers since they are first and foremost avid sports fans, constantly seeking to learn more about their favorite teams.

“It’s important to think like a fan,” said Zaltsberg. “And to question what a fan needs from a newspaper and website that would make the newspaper useful.”

After identifying potential resources, the Herald Times editor encouraged pointing the recorder inward and examining your own questions. These questions include: What sports teams do you follow? Where do you receive your coverage? What do you like about the coverage and what do you want to know about your favorite team?

Herald Times sports writer Hugh Kellenberger used this strategy to uncover a 110-inch story on a high school state-bound basketball team. Kellenberger was interested in behind-the-scenes athletics, exposing what outsiders don’t see. His questions generated an in-depth ‘Dream Team’ feature discussing the everyday life of these athletes, following them to practice, team dinners, pep rallies and game days.

“We let the story dictate what we did with it,” said Kellenberger. “It was a classic Indiana basketball story and we wanted to keep it simple.”

To make sure they covered all aspects, a Herald Times photographer embedded in the team, attending all events. The section included a two-page photo spread and an extensive online gallery.

Both Laymance and Zaltsberg believe photos are essential to a feature, providing the reader tangible insight into the story and recapping the main points. Once the feature is complete, it’s time to start the process all over again, searching for ideas and brainstorming with colleagues.

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