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What can writers learn from golf?

By Jim Stasiowski

Boredom alert: Much of this column is about two activities that some people (mostly intellectual snobs) have little or no interest in: golf and television.

Jim Stasiowski

If you’re a journalist, however, I already have enticed you into reading more because you’re curious about how I am going to pull off an unlikely connection between writing for newspapers and watching golf broadcasts.

What you learn early about golf, as a player or a spectator, is that there is a story in every shot, every hole, every round, every competition.

Think for a moment what a story is: Someone (or some group) is trying to accomplish something, and to do so, he, she or they must overcome difficulties, which is the very definition of golf.

I know people who never play golf, but when it is on TV, they’ll watch because of the constant compelling drama. Even if you don’t know Jordan Spieth from the River Jordan, you can witness a vast range of emotions in a golf broadcast, not unlike in some sappy love story on another channel, as players reach for excellence and succeed spectacularly, fail dismally or fall somewhere in between.

I love golf, love playing, watching, talking about it or even thinking about it. And on a recent Sunday afternoon, as my wife, Sharon, and I were watching a hotly contested professional tournament on television, the broadcast abruptly switched from the live action to an electronic chart listing where a dozen (or so) competitors ranked in some apparently meaningful statistic.

Picture this: An attractive woman steps up to an electronic screen and touches it to show me, a golf fan, some names and numbers.

Why, why, why would the broadcast’s director, who should know that every shot is a story, yank me away from the reason I tune in and instead show me lifeless statistics?

Because he can. Because the broadcast team used fancy communications and computation gizmos to compile the stats, and because the network has invested in these gimmicky touch-screens, if the director doesn’t use them at least once in the tournament, some executive upstairs will scream, “So why did we invest in that fancy touch-screen and in all the computers and smart-stuff required to create the statistics if we’re never going to use them?”

The lesson to all of us should be that although statistics can be illuminating and graphics can aid understanding, they should never take the place of telling a story (or, in the case of a TV broadcast of a golf tournament, aiming a camera at players and letting them tell their own stories).

“But Jim,” you’re saying, “we’re newspapers, and that’s TV. We’d never fall for the superficiality and flash that networks rely on.”

But we would. We have. I have proof: USA Today.

In the late 1970s, early ’80s, newspapers freaked out because TV news was stealing our faithful readers, so Gannett invented USA Today, which so blatantly imitated a local news broadcast, readers every few minutes would involuntarily read an ad so as to duplicate the commercial interruptions of the “News At 11” experience.

(Incapable of subtlety, Gannett even made USA Today’s street-sales boxes look like TV sets.)

Before long, throngs of newspapers were blatantly imitating USA Today, with cartoonish (and only occasionally relevant) graphics, stories short enough to finish in the time a reader takes to swallow five or fewer spoonfuls of Cheerios, punny headlines and straining-for-clever six-word teasing lead sentences that call to mind the silly bantering between the shallow anchorman and the weather-forecasting starlet.

Our TV role-playing didn’t work; it simply made readers who value depth – in other words, our core readers – lose faith in us.

The problem newspapers face today is that as staffs shrink and the availability of click-for-everything data expands, we risk relying too much on easy research and too little on writers who know how to use their judgment, curiosity and storytelling skills to explain the world.

I’m not anti-statistics; I am, however, anti-ostentation, anti-showing-off. When I do seminars, I don’t use PowerPoint or other electronic gizmos that would illustrate my points. I eschew such frills because when I’ve sat through PowerPoint-aided seminars, I have noticed that people in the audience stare at the screen rather than watch the seminar presenters in action.

I want people to watch me, read my expressions and gestures, focus on my words and experiences, just as the best golfers in the world deserve all the attention as they present their stories of glory and failure.

Journalists need statistics, yes, but to add to, not replace or distract from, our stories. The unstoppable growth of glitzy computing and presentation tools tempts us to dilute our storytelling, but we have to resist TV’s mindless addiction to them.

THE FINAL WORD: Avoid the dumbing-down word “timeline.”

Its use implies we cannot trust our readers to understand the vivid, specific words “chronology” (a start-to-finish list of events that have happened) and “schedule” (events that are about to happen).

Jim Stasiowski

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