Reporting strategies

When you start reporting a story, you basically have two choices. You can dive right in and start doing interviews (with or without a script) and maybe some Googling, and then just start writing what comes to mind. 

Do you think this is what I recommend? Good, I’m glad you’re getting to know me. This works for hard-news stories or ones where you know the people and the subject really well, but when you’re exploring a topic, it’s very easy to get focused on something that turns out to be completely meaningless or inaccurate or really not very relevant. That’s when you find yourself trying to write at midnight before something’s due with your head firmly lodged in your large intestine. Not comfortable.

The much better strategy is to have a work plan for your story. This should consist of three parts, the formality of which is entirely up to you. The first part is your research; the second some basic idea of what your story is about. To digress slightly, as early as possible, you should have a clear and concise answer to the question “What is this story about?” and your work plan is the place to note that. It’s also a good idea to discuss that with me as early as possible. In any case, the third part of your work plan is your to do list.

To illustrate how this works, here is a recap of a story I’m currently working on for Running Times. First, here is how I got the story. Erin is a former colleague from the Chronicle who is now a senior editor at RT:

  • January 28
  • 3:16pm

    Erin Strout


    Hey Welch – I wanted to check on whether you had time for an assignment with a pretty quick turnaround? It’s for the Racing department and generally it’s about how marathons are starting to define themselves/differentiate themselves based on their invited elite fields. Many more details for you if you think you have time. It’d be due in about 2 – ish weeks but I can stretch a little if needed .

  • 3:24pm

    Welch Suggs


    Definitely interested. Talk this afternoon or maybe Thursday?

  • 3:25pm

    Erin Strout


    Yes! On a plane all day today but Thursday is great.

  • 3:26pm

    Welch Suggs


    ok. you know my first 2qs–how long and how much?

  • 3:29pm

    Erin Strout


    Heh — our pay is pitiful (on my way to meetings this week in which we hope to begin remedying that because it’s awful!). Let me check on pay but generally it’s about $300 and 800ish words. I know. I’m embarrassed every time I have to say this to a new contributor! (Ducking…covering…) I can help you with sources & contact information to cut down on wild goose chases. My advice, should you be able & willing to take it (I really hope you are — I need more talented freelancers!) is to make sure you’re not spending too much time on it and leaning on me to help where it makes sense.

  • 3:46pm

    Welch Suggs


    that’s about what i figured. if this evolves into something more regular then we can discuss $$, but this sounds fine. What I’ll need is a little more on how you want to frame this, but sounds like fun. thanks for thinking of me!

  • 3:48pm

    Erin Strout


    Absolutely – thanks so much, Welch – really excited to work together again! I’ll send you more details either later today or tomorrow.

We have set up the Grady Sports News Bureau here for students who want to work on projects with professional news outlets (let me know if you’re interested), so I recruited a former student to be a research assistant on this story and get paid for it. She pulled together a clips file using Lexis-Nexis and some contact information for runners’ agents, which will be key for my interview list. I then thought about it a lot–mostly on runs or in the shower–and sketched out the basics of what the story is about: the relationship between races and runners. It also organizes potential sources:


Initial mindmap















If you’re curious, this is how it came together:

This is called a mind map. I did it using a free program called Scapple, but a blank sheet of paper works just about as well. Next I came with my work plan:

The story ultimately is about matchmaking: how runners choose races, and how races choose runners. What are the factors that go into a runner’s choice to race Chicago instead of New York, or London instead of Boston? Is it purely a matter of appearance money? The quality of the field? What role does course speed play? 

On the flip side, is it a head-to-head competition between races to attract the fastest or most prestigious fields? What are race directors’ other goals in assembling fields? Somewhat more broadly, what is the value proposition especially for American races in attracting elite fields that won’t register with the general public? If Chicago attracts 3 of the top 5 marathoners, does that do any more for the race than getting 3 of the top 10?
Also, how does the matrix for matching the top 5-10 athletes in the world differ from the matrix for matching Americans, both elite and up-and-comers? And how do the truly emerging runners, the 2:25 guys and the 2:50 women, pick their shots? Is it purely about trying to win prize money and qualify for the Olympic Trials, or what other factors come into play?
I don’t know if this is worth getting into, but building on the second graf, I’m wondering if it’s worth getting into the question of whether appearance fees and elite prize purses is worth it, and for how many marathons. The World Marathon Majors don’t seem to have made a tremendous impact on the public consciousness, at least in this country, while there’s been this massive surge in marathon finishers and races overall even since the WMM got off the ground. Has the growth of, say, the Rock n Roll marathons been a disruptive force for the elite races? I don’t think so and am not sure this is a story RT would even pursue, but I’m looking for a news peg. Maybe this is just an evergreen.
My one other thought is thinking that Chicago, Boston and New York have cornered the market for world-class marathoners in the US. What would it take for another race to get into the top tier of competition for media attention and top runners? Houston, LA? And is that a value proposition that makes sense for any city, any corporate sponsor? Different story for Americans, obviously, but they also command fewer resources in terms of appearance fees and prize purses. 


Obviously I still have some questions here about where this is going, and I don’t have a to-do list yet. But I wanted to get her reactions before I went any farther:

Hey Welch –
Thanks so much for working on this. I like where you’re going with it. I think you should think of this one as more evergreen than news-driven. You can get to the prize purse/appearance fee angle when you talk to the agents and I also think somebody like Brett Gotcher is excellent because he clearly picked Rotterdam to break 2:10. For him, the money isn’t the issue (it doesn’t seem like) — he needs a breakthrough to compete at a higher level (so it gets into that question of picking your poison — why Rotterdam this year or Houston the past few years for Brett as opposed to Boston, etc.). 
And for the common folk, like me, I could see a small box that does something like this:
Spring Marathons:
You want to PR: Go to ??
You want an experience: Go to Boston
You want to a shot at placing in your age group: Go to ??
You want beautiful scenery: Go to Big Sur

Then the same for the fall marathon.

Brett Gotcher:

Do I owe you other contact information? Give a shout if you’re looking for more!
Thanks again,

So from here I’ll build up a call list (from that mind map) and a set of questions. I will likely make about 20 calls for this story, looking for four things:

  • Answers to the big questions: How do race directors view the market for elite runners and how do runners view the market for races?
  • Some good anecdotes from runners themselves, both male and female and across the spectrum of elite to good local racers, that I can use to illustrate the story
  • An idea of the differences in perspectives from world-class runners, top Americans and locals?
  • News-you-can-use for the infobox Erin proposes in her email.

Call list:
Race directors
  • NYC
    • Mary Wittenberg (212) 860-4455,
    • Dave Monti @d9monti
  • Boston
    • Dave McGillivray 617-236-1652
    • Media Contact: Marc Davis
    • Boston Athletic Association
    • 40 Trinity Place, 4th Floor
    • Boston MA 02116
    • phone: 617-778-1633
    • fax: 617-236-4505
  • Chicago
    • Carey Pinkowski
    • LAuren Wood, Teamworks Media 858.337.1360
  • London
    • Hugh Brasher
    • Director of Media Relations: Nicola Okey
  • Berlin
    • Mark Milde
    • Thomas Steffens, SCC Events,
  • Tokyo
    • Tad Hayano, Tokyo Marathon Foundation Race Director

  • Brendan Reilly, Boulder Wave (Edna Kiplagat) +1-303-554-0597
  • Hansons: Keith:, Kevin:
  • Ray Flynn (Hall, Renee Baille),
  • Luis Posso (Marilson dos Santos), Luis Felipe Posso, IAAF Register Athlete Representative
  • Cell: +1 813 760 4509
  • Dan Lilot (Ritz, KGoucher)
    • Daniel Lilot
    • Mobile: +1-415-3738724
    • eMail:
  • Gerard van der Veen (Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Mutai, Dennis Kimetto)
    • +31(0)6 22746333
  • Karen Locke (Wesley Korir)
    • Contact: Karen Locke
    • email: EliteNet@AOLcom
    • Twitter: @klocke1
  • Tom Ratcliffe (Kimbia Athletics)
    • Kimbia Athletics

      (978) 371-1285

  • Merhawi Keflezhigi (Meb)
  • Ryan Hall
  • Kara Goucher
  • Brett Gotcher
  • Janet Bawcom
  • Drew Haro
  • Dathan Ritzenhein
  • Shalane Flanagan
  • Ian Burrell
  • Deena Kastor
  • Wesley Korir
  • Shalene Flanagan
  • Renee Metivier Baillie (Ray Flynn)
  • Meb
Interview transcripts will go in the work plan file as well, or since I use Evernote, probably as separate files tagged “Running Times.” Then when it comes down to write this I have everything in one place.

Setting up work plans may seem like drudgery, but as ever, the better-organized you are on the front end, the easier your story is to write on the back end. Happy planning!




About welchsuggs

I am an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and associate director of the Grady Sports Media Initiative., @welchsuggs

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