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Introspective interviewing, diligent documentation fundamental in crafting engaging sports features

ESPN’s Wright Thompson was chatting with some golf writers in a bar near St. Andrew’s, host course for the 2010 British Open, when he heard an unusual story.

Apparently, golfers took boats to play on a course at Daufuskie Island, an islet along the South Carolina coast that is nearly abandoned except for a few employees and some Gullah, direct descendents of African-American slaves. More than a hundred people a day were once drawn to the majestic course, where Spanish moss hangs thick on trees, big waves crash onto fairways, and raptors soar overhead. Three scenic holes run along the Atlantic Ocean.

But bad times had come to Daufuskie Island. Somehow, a course that once lured a former president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and golf’s elite had gone into bankruptcy proceedings. But the course’s pro and groundskeeper had found a way to keep the course from falling into disrepair. So, golfers continued to skim across Calibogue Sound on tourist boats to play 18 holes on the remote island, set midway between Savannah and Hilton Head midst swamps and woodlands.

Intrigued, Thompson called the course’s golf professional two days later.

Soon after that, he traveled to Daufuskie Island to investigate the story behind the golf course – a bizarre one, he learned, that involved voodoo curses, a financial meltdown, and a struggle to stave off the inevitable crushing power of nature.

Thompson revealed this story in a recently published piece on ESPN.com, “Staying the Course,” that serves as a testament to scrupulous research, meticulous observations, and exhaustive interviewing.

This story reveals how reporters ought to perform, particularly when it comes to asking questions. Interviewing, in some ways, is an art. On the other hand, asking questions should be as natural as saying hello to someone or as routine as soliciting information about a party from a friend. We ask because we are curious – and, sometimes so we can later tell these stories to friends, family and colleagues.

Interviewing is sort of like public speaking – which it really is, although on a much smaller scale – where comfort is the key. The more one speaks publicly, the more fear fades away into proficiency. That same ease is also true of interviewing, where experience breeds success.

The best interviewers are those who are curious and who desire to know as much as possible, even about basic elements, such as what a person was wearing (acid-washed jeans, skinny jeans, or apple-bottom jeans?), the setting where a story took place (a soft breeze, strong enough to tousle someone’s long hair and cold enough to evoke goose pimples?) and the specific details connected to a story (did the protagonist eat linguine, penne or angel hair pasta? Was the sauce marinara, pesto or arrabbiatta?

“I want to know everything,” Thompson said last week. “I want to go back and report the interiority of scenes. I want to know what something smelled like. I ask about everything.”

Details breath life into features and profiles like “Staying the Course.” Approaches to interviews for these types of stories varies a great deal from game stories, something we’ll talk about in a future column. For now, let’s focus on some ways to elicit information for sports features by looking at Thompson’s story.

Feature and profiles emulate short stories in that they should all have developed characters, a clear setting, a primary conflict, and a plot. In “Staying the Course,” golf pro Patrick Ford and golf course superintendent Nick Bright struggle to preserve two golf courses until someone saves the Daufuskie Island resort from bankruptcy even though they do not have money to buy new equipment, must creatively fend off pests like mole crickets by mixing honey and poison, and, eventually, do not have power to the main building. For 18 months, these two tireless men work to stave off nature, insects and weather so the course does not fall into disrepair before someone can purchase it.

In features, you’ll need to ask for information not offered in documents, learn what motivates people, gather stories that help explain or clarify, learn people’s interior thoughts, and drill deeper into the primary conflicts.

There are several conflicts, but the biggest one involves the reason these two men don’t depart for a job at another golf course? That personal or interior conflict drives this story. Thompson, of course, asks each of the men this very question. Along the way, we learn snippets about the people.

Now they have only a skeleton crew to run the mowers, and less than $1,000 a month to keep the place alive after gas and payroll. Life is basically hand-to-mouth, and everything is harder than the one before. “Now, it’s just like, shoot me,’” Nick says. “You sit here and wonder, ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’”

“I would sometimes say, ‘Look, this seems like this to me. Tell me more,’” Thompson said. “I’d ask, ‘It seems like you hate this guy. Is that true? Or I’d ask them whether something I noticed was right or wrong. I’d look for patterns in behaviors and I’d ask about subtext in relationships.”

Sportswriters learn when they ask questions, hang out, take detailed notes, and then ask more questions. Is someone happy with a decision he made? Then, ask. And ask follow-up questions until you get specific reasons, elicit emotional responses, or collect a story that explains it all. Ideally, get all three elements.

For sports features, you might ask:

  • What is a person’s biggest challenge?
  • How does someone feel about a decision he made?
  • What concerns someone the most?
  • What do someone’s parents think about her career/accomplishment?
  • What did someone used to think about … ? You can insert a person, place, issue or approach to sports.
  • What makes somebody the angriest, or saddest?
  • How does one keep going when facing such dire circumstances?
  • Tell me about your youth.
  • What do you think about when…?
  • Describe a time when you learned a great deal about yourself.

Thompson asked variations of these questions, and more. “The journey is the fun part, learning a new place, getting a sense of it, understanding their lives and their problems,” he said.

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