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Writer Q&A: Dan Wetzel on the art of column writing Aug. 29, 2013

In conjunction with a new writers’ division within the Associated Press Sports Editors organization, we will continue aiming to find new ways to arm sports journalists with better wisdom to do their jobs. With that comes an effort to connect with established standouts in the field, aiming to pick their brains on the specific skills and strategies they use to excel. Recently, Dan Wiederer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (and now the Chicago Tribune) caught up with Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel to discuss the art of column writing. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
 
Starting off generally with how you attack the process of reporting and writing your columns, are you able to summarize a philosophy of how you identify your angles and sharpen your focus?
The number one thing is you want to write about what people want to talk about. That’s the bottom line. As time’s gone on, I’ve become increasingly focused on dealing with the topics that people are discussing. This has become a very competitive environment for people’s time online. We’re not just competing with other sports media. We’re competing with Facebook and Twitter and video games and chat and “Words With Friends.” You name it. So it’s very hard to sell people on a story. In the past, before my time, there was a time when there could be a columnist at the newspaper and when that paper showed up on the driveway in the morning, that was essentially the only access anyone in that community had to sports information. Sure, there was also the local news and maybe a talk show. But now? It’s become so competitive to earn a slice of the audience’s time. So for me, I really focus in on learning the topic that people are going to be discussing at that time. Some of that I’ve picked up from working in talk radio. Because you can’t throw a bad topic out there and expect people to keep listening. They’ll hit a button and start listening to music.
 
One of the things that I think is widely admired about your work and something that’s present in the best of the best columnists is the obvious presence of original reporting. And we’re seeing it less and less in today’s world where there is so much more borrowed reporting and shared access. Yet you seem to not take for granted that you have windows and doors into places readers want to go. Why has using that access become so vital to you?
For me, I think it’s important that I report out every column as much as possible. We have a great NBA reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Jeff Passan, another of our columnists. We have a lot of great people and we talk a lot about reporting every column. Needless to say, there are times when you can’t always report out a column. Something breaking and there’s no access. Like Tiger Woods smashing his car into the fire hydrant. You’re not getting Tiger Woods on the phone. At that moment, nobody is. So sometimes you don’t have the choice. But for 99 percent of columns, how can you report it out? What can you give the reader that they’re not getting without your reporting eye? So you have to zero in on using your access and asking the right questions.
Overall, I’m a big, big believer in reporting out the column. Again, it’s back to the question of why is the reader giving me his 5-7 minutes? What do I have to offer him? Particularly now when it’s so easy to get the basic story and some rapid reaction. And that may be fine. It’s not that that’s not valuable. But what can you do to differentiate yourself? Because people can get that immediate stuff everywhere. Team A made a trade. This is why it’s good or bad. Or Birdman should have been suspended for Game 6 [of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals] for drilling Tyler Hansbrough. Everybody can do that. Those aren’t really hard to put together. So what can you do to differentiate?
 
OK. So that leads me right into the time you spent in Ohio covering the Steubenville High School football rape trial. And before the trial finished, the column that seemed to really strike a chord was the one where you went to a bar in town to take the pulse on a town that was clearly divided and struggling to deal with everything. What about that experience and that column left an impression?
The hardest part was that I had a lot of people in that column whose names I couldn’t use. And I’m almost religiously opposed to that kind of column. Because it could have been better if I could have used people’s names. I got why I couldn’t. I understood what everybody felt on this thing and it was a very divisive topic. And I felt the absurdity of the gossip mill was worth showing. Because a lot of what they thought and what people were hearing wasn’t actually even true. And it created greater divisions. It just showed how chaotic it all was. In that town, you couldn’t get anybody to talk on the record other than public figures who were spouting stuff that was complete crap. ‘Oh, our town remains completely unified on this.’ Well, no. No it’s not. Not when you talk to the people. They’re not unified.
It’s almost like you can get that on the record from the mayor or the city manager. But that doesn’t tell anyone what’s really going on. It was a tough spot to be in.
So I remember talking it over with my boss Johnny Ludden. And I had everybody’s names and phone numbers as verification. I just didn’t use them. It all happened. But those columns make me uncomfortable. I have tremendous suspicions of those kinds of columns and then here I go and write one. But it was a scene.
For younger writers, I remember being told when I covered news that the biggest mistake that gets made happens like this. When people go to cover a city council meeting in a small town and they’re voting on whether to buy a new dump truck and two of the city council members argue over something frivolous and suddenly it’s a big huge scene. And then the story comes out the next day and basically says, ‘The city council approved buying a new dump truck.’ Yet when that writer goes home and talks to his roommate or his family, it’s ‘You wouldn’t believe the way these two people yelled at each other.’ Yet somehow, that’s not in their story. So part of it’s like, I’m in Steubenville for a day and I’m talking to all these different people and I call back to my editors and say ‘You wouldn’t believe the scene in the bar. It was incredible. The scene in the diner was incredible. It’s total chaos and confusion and gossip and suggestion. No one knows what’s going on.’ So then you’re going to write a story that says ‘Oh, the city leaders say everything’s great’? No. I didn’t want to do that. So I took a different route.
 
What drew you to that particular bar and what made that the place where you were going to invest your time that day?
Actually, I was all over the town. Bars are generally pretty good. Everybody has their strengths as a reporter. And working a blue-collar bar just happens to be right in my wheelhouse. I’d like to say my wheelhouse would be some high-minded poetry convention or something. But it’s not. So a shot-and-a-beer bar works for me. I also visited diners, restaurants, outside the school, gas stations, the Kroger. It was just my way of reporting it thoroughly.
The bar scene was the best. And the other part was I wanted depth of reporting. So even though I talked to lots and lots of people who weren’t in the story, very few were saying anything on the record that wasn’t unbelievably bland. But what I was hearing all over town was recognizable and it showed the confusion.
It’s very dangerous to just go into one place and say, ‘Hey, this is the pulse of the town.’ Heck, talking to 40-50 people on one day and thinking you have the pulse of a town of 20,000 is absurd on its own, right? But you want to have more than one scene to be more fair. So if you can get around the town as much as possible and there are things you’re hearing all over, then you have something. And for me, it was just crystallized in that bar scene which I could hopefully impart to people. I think people got the scene and could totally see this going down as they read. That’s the goal.
 
Another column that resonated widely and was fascinating on about a dozen levels was your Tom Brady column from Super Bowl XLVI. Initially, I think the writing and the scene-setting drew people in instantly. And with that, it showed the freedom of working for a website rather than a newspaper where you had much greater freedom in length and deadline. But it’s also the Super Bowl, a game that’s covered by so much media they need like five press boxes to hold them all. So with that comes the even greater challenge of bringing people something they won’t get elsewhere. After a classic game like that, how did you decide to just wait it out and let your column come to you when everybody else seems to be in the mad scramble?
The thing with that game is I also had to write a running gamer. It’s sort of a column. And that column is actually so early. You wait for the end of the game and you file it 2 minutes after. And with great Super Bowls, it sucks. Because late in that game, the Patriots are leading. And then the Giants go ahead. And then on the final play, Brady throws that Hail Mary. And I remember looking up from writing with that ball in the air. And Rob Gronkowski almost grabs it. Needless to say, that changes the story if it’s a touchdown. Rewrite on the way.
I had already written the Giants had come back and won. And here I almost see the greatest play in Super Bowl history, the Hail Mary victory on the final play. But anyway, that initial column, you write it and you’re done. It’s that bare bones recap. And nobody remembers if that one was any good. Big benefit to me.
But because you get that in immediately, now I’ve actually got freedom.
So I file that first one and suddenly I had time. That day, for one, going into that game in my mind the most compelling figures and storylines were Brady and [Bill] Belichick. Could Brady and Belichick come back from the last terrible Super Bowl loss to the Giants? And as much as people don’t like the Patriots, they’re the good soldiers of the NFL. They’re always good. They’re always 13-3. Every year. They don’t have down years. They don’t miss the playoffs. They barely ever blow games. They just march on efficiently and they have this iron grip where nothing will rattle them. And so that year the story was either they’re finally going to win it all again or they’re going to have that losing heartbreak again. So I was pretty focused after the game in seeing what would happen with those two guys.
They open the locker room and there’s Brady just in devastation. And I just basically stood there. And then that went on. And when you’re there starting, you can’t sit there like ‘I’m going to follow Brady for the next 45 minutes because this is guaranteed to be really compelling.’ You’re just watching.
In the first minute, it could all change. You don’t know. It’s one of those things where, again, if somebody calls you that next day and asks you what you remember most about the Super Bowl, you think to yourself, ‘Oh my god. Brady was devastated.’ Well, if you have that scene, go with it. Go with it. Don’t worry about missing a quote or a press conference or something else.
Yes, going with the loser is a little dangerous. But for me, as it went, it kind of panned out. And pretty soon, I realized I didn’t need Belichick anymore. I was just going to write Brady for what happened in those 45-50 minutes or whatever it was.
Brady, at one point in his career, used to be like the hero. Because he’s this self-made guy. Sixth-rounder. Climbs up. Underdog becomes a legend.  But now people look at him like he’s Hollywood, the playboy, a pretty boy with the supermodel wife. And nobody looks at him like he’s an underdog anymore. And suddenly even in Boston there was that sort of backlash that Brady doesn’t care enough, that he’s not all in on it all the way. And that’s not the Tom Brady I’ve ever covered. But that argument was being made immediately after the game. And in some ways, my column defused that perception by showing the scene.
 
You said going with the loser is always going to be dangerous. So what gives you the pull to do that? The easy thing to do that night is to go to Eli Manning, the guy who just led another game-winning drive to win the Super Bowl. You very easily could have jumped on that bandwagon. But it took at least some guts to veer from that pack. Why do it?
For me, losing locker rooms are almost always more compelling than winning locker rooms. The emotions are so raw and it can just be so much more compelling. Like Mets-Red Sox in the ’86 World Series. The ball goes through Buckner’s legs. Does anyone care what the Mets are thinking? No. You know what they’re thinking, ‘We won. This is awesome.’ But now, as you look back, what would you give to have had the video or the interview with Buckner that night? For history’s sake.
It’s still fascinating. What was it like in that moment? So there are just times that the loser has more pull.
Sometimes you just take a shot. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t and you have to run around on the fly and try to manufacture something. In that case with Brady, it was more just having a human recognition of what’s compelling and then watching it snowball.
 
So there’s an old-school thought, particularly in the newspaper world for obvious reasons, that a column has to be a certain length. There’s reasoning that it’s got to be, say, 1,000 words or less to be an effective column. And the Steubenville piece we talked about is 2,100 words and the Brady piece is almost 1,800. How do you consider length and train yourself to write a piece for what it’s worth rather than becoming obsessed with space limits? Those two pieces we just talked about, needless to say, needed extra length to pack the full punch.
Wow. The biggest thing above all else is I don’t have a news hole. Number one. Bottom line. Space is not an issue. Ever.
After that, you have to have a feel. Like for me, writing trials cannot be done short. Because there is so much complexity and so many necessary items to explain. The charges, the arguments, etcetera. You don’t have to explain to people what the Super Bowl is like you do when you’re trying to summarize how the criminal justice system works in Ohio.
But as far as length, I don’t like writing too long all the time. Because there aren’t people who read you every time. And I don’t want them thinking that if they click on my stuff, they have to buckle in for 2,500 words every time. You want some of those columns to be 700. Because you can scare people away with that extra length.
As far as Brady, if the people are still reading after 500 words, they’ll probably read the whole thing. So for me, I just wrote it. And I wrote it pretty quick. It really wasn’t that late when I filed. It wasn’t like I was the last guy out of the press box. I probably wrote that in 45 minutes. And if you re-read it, it’s really not that complicated. It’s just play-by-play of the scene. So I’ve found that what you’ve got is what you’ve got. Get it out there.
Steubenville was so much harder. So much harder. I’d go back to the hotel every night to write from there. Trials don’t have press rooms or quote sheets or anything. So it’s harder. And you have all this testimony and then you need the time to clear your head. But with length, at Yahoo! it’s not a concern. Ever. That’s the biggest thing. But that doesn’t mean that you should just write, write, write as long as you want every single time.
I’m sure I could go through both of those pieces and they’d be better cutting 10 percent out. You can always cut 10 percent of the story.
 
So last year’s BCS title game, Alabama blows out Notre Dame. It’s a dog game by halftime. Katherine Webb has quickly become the story. And now you’ve got a decision again to figure out what to focus on and suddenly the game itself has become minor in significance other than the result itself. So how did you program yourself again to branch off the game itself? And all the stuff you got from A.J. McCarron, how much of that was from within the horde and how much was isolated?
Same thing as the Super Bowl. I wrote the immediate game story column as the lead thing for our site. That was easy to do. I think I filed basically in the third quarter with something about Nick Saban. So that’s done. And again, that’s in so early, it’s not now, ‘How do I update that original piece?’ It’s ‘What do I do now?’ So you have that second wave to attack. You’re starting from scratch on a second column. And it’s not unusual at certain big events to write as many as three columns or stories in a day.
At Yahoo!, we’ve always been very, very good at planning out big events. We have good people and a good formula. But if you’re writing something like that or something as the game’s going on, when the game ends and you’re done with that, it’s now what are you going to do?
With the BCS title game, Katherine Webb has obviously become this huge instant phenomenon. Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit are talking about how good looking she was. And I’m not watching the broadcast. But because of Twitter, you have a much greater ability now to know exactly what most people are talking about. Which would have never happened five years ago. So for me it’s ‘I’ve got to find Katherine Webb. I have to see what she says.’
Literally a star is born. It’s hysterical. Three weeks later she was at the Super Bowl covering the Super Bowl for one of the entertainment shows. I’m like, ‘Really? Three weeks ago, you’re a nobody.’ Talk about getting the chance to cover a Super Bowl quickly. The fastest rise of a reporter ever. I had to work a little longer to get there. But granted, I’m not Katherine Webb.
So with that premise I made the decision to go down there and see what I could find. I didn’t know where she was. And there are 80,000 people there. But it’s after the game. I know she’s all dolled up. And she’s around to be seen. And I figured A.J. was going to find her on the field. And so I get down on the field and follow him, figuring he will ultimately find me Katherine Webb. And sure enough he does. He goes up toward the stands, where she is. He hugs his mom, hugs her. I watch that. But the hard part was it was really loud. There was blaring music. So I kind of had to wait it out and circle back. And eventually it got quieter and I waved her down and we talked. She gave me some stuff about how shell-shocked she was about all that was happening.
So I get that and I have to ask A.J. what he thinks about Musburger saying what he said. And I have to ask him about every guy in America now talking about his girlfriend. It’s an unusual situation. And for that part of things, I had to get him in the locker room. But I waited for a long time. Until the near end of the locker room session and Clay Travis and I kind of went back and forth with him. It was good.
There were two of us asking the questions, which makes it harder for him to squirm out of it. But he was actually great about it, taking it with humor. And it worked well.
Look, that’s not going to be a column that I’m ever going to be really proud of. It’s not like that’s some great, hard-hitting journalism going on. But people read the hell out of it next day. Because that’s what people were talking about. So we could have either pretended that it was important that the Alabama pulling guard rotation dominated Notre Dame’s defensive line. Or we could write about the beauty queen and the star quarterback. You can’t be stupid about it.
 
So I think we’ve made it clear that as a columnist, you have some obvious versatility. Katherine Webb is 180 degrees from the Steubenville rape trial. So what would be your advice to other columnists about how to develop versatility and find a way to be able to attack the light stuff and the heavy stuff with equal skill?
Again, I think it just comes back to asking yourself this, ‘What can I write that people will be interesting in reading and that I can bring something different to?’ I think if you’re not terrified that they’re not going to read you, you lose an edge. None of this stuff is rooted in some grand philosophy other than I have to find some readers. It’s my job to get readers.
So when that trial was coming up I’m sitting there saying, ‘This is going to be bigger than the Big East basketball tournament.’ And again, I’m pretty intense. So I’m always asking, ‘What are people going to read about it? How am I going to get anyone?’ It’s born out of terror more than a philosophy. So yeah. Versatility? You should be able to cover anything. It’s not that hard of a skill. You have to ask questions and get details and make observations. I’m not a mechanic trying to fix airplanes. That would seem a lot more complicated to me. You’re a reporter. So it shouldn’t be all that different covering a trial or talking to the Alabama beauty queen. It’s not that big of a secret.
 
But it does, I think, take some sort of rewiring to be able to recognize the tone of the column and the sharpest angle of the topic. No?
Here’s what I would tell most reporters. Stop Tweeting. Stop Tweeting and start paying attention to the game and all that’s going on. All everyone does in the press box now is sit up there and Tweet play-by-play. Stop Tweeting. Nobody wants all that. There are people who Tweet play-by-play of the Super Bowl. There are 150 million people watching the game. Who is not watching that game and instead following you and your Twitter account and needs to know right away that Frank Gore just ran 4 yards off tackle? So that would be my first advice and my biggest criticism today.
Most sports journalists do a tremendous job. They really do. I’m not down on anyone. I don’t have it figured out. But the one thing I do see is stop wasting your time on Twitter. Spend more time thinking about what people want to read. And yeah your Twitter feed gives you some of that instant feedback. But Tweeting during the game takes away your focus. Who cares? Does Twitter pay you? I’ve never gotten a penny from them. If anyone has, let me know. They don’t pay me anything.
For me, I have that constant urge to find something interesting to write about. And sometimes it means you have to step back and realize you’re not above interviewing Katherine Webb. You know what? Someone is going to interview her. And somewhere people are going to take the topic everyone is talking about and write something about it to give people. So why the heck am I going to let that happen without trying to see what I can do with it?
And it doesn’t matter what that story is. It could be the most serious story in the world like a rape trial or the stupidest story in the world. Like some guy’s girlfriend, who just picked up 80,000 Twitter followers because she looked good on the national championship broadcast and got Brent Musburger fired up.
 

Officers

Mike Sherman

Mike Sherman

President
The Oklahoman

Mary Byrne

Mary Byrne

First Vice President
USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Deas

Tommy Deas

Second Vice President
The Tuscaloosa News

John Bednarowski, sports editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal, was elected to a two-year term as APSE's third vice president in 2014.

John Bednarowski

Third Vice President
Marietta Daily Journal

Jack Berninger

Jack Berninger

Executive Director
Richmond Times-Dispatch
(retired)

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