Puzzle Pieces: Adventures in Student Journalism

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Puzzle Pieces: Adventures in Student Journalism
Perhaps this will be a recurring series.
But, for today, I’m taking aim at the hometown paper.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote for the paper I will be discussing today, covering men’s and women’s golf for the Fall 2007 and Spring 2008 semesters.)

The Independent Florida Alligator is a proud bastion of student-run newspaper journalism. Go to the paper’s Wikipedia page and you can read about its huge daily circulation (35,000), distinguished alumni (Carl Hiaasen and Philip Graham lead the list), and unusual status as a paper unaffiliated with the university it serves.

Its reporting and editorial content are derided as the stereotypical liberal claptrap you see in a college paper. The accuracy of that charge varies by the day.

But The Alligator is most often perused by students for its sports section. The alligatorSports crew, many of whom I have met, corresponded, and worked with, usually does an excellent job of covering the snarled sprawl that is the University of Florida’s cohort of varsity sports.

This is especially true in football, where the sports staff often is fighting not just local media, but also national reporters from ESPN, and, this year, The New York Times, which has profiled Jeff Demps and Tim Tebow in recent weeks, for scoops on beat reports and the best possible angles on profiles.

I usually read and enjoy the few pages devoted to sports every day.

Not today. Today, errors abound.

Editor Brian Steele’s article on blocked punts gives us this gawky gem

"It was UF’s fifth and sixth blocked punts of the season."

It’s the standalone third paragraph in the online version of the story, but it gets rolled into the second paragraph for print. The phrase could be fixed in a number of ways, such as making it a clause of the prior sentence, pluralizing it, or attributing both blocks to Carlos Dunlap there and not further into the body of the story. It wasn’t.

In Bobby Callovi’s article on UF’s women’s soccer team, he mentions Urban Meyer in the first paragraph and then slips this ponderous paragraph into the end of the story.

"Losing is never fun, but there were a few bright spots that came from the defeat."

The questions about whether the first phrase is empirically true frame a debate for another day. The crime here is the totally trite sentence, a clear use of journalistic filler in the place of statistics or actual insight.

Likewise, Christopher Yazbec’s piece on UF women’s basketball remarks on “the best part about losing,” but at least he had the good sense to not write, “Losing is never fun.”

Evan Drexler’s section-leading story on Tim Tebow’s Heisman campaign is just one more decibel in that echo chamber, and the comatose lede doesn’t help.

"The Gators had such a dominating night on offense that coach Urban Meyer decided to take quarterback Tim Tebow out of the game before the third quarter was complete."

There are about three hundred other ways to write that, and about two hundred of those might get readers to do something other than snore into their Starbucks latte du jour.

For example:

"The reigning Heisman Trophy winner stalked the sideline in Saturday’s second half."

"But what UF’s Tim Tebow did in the first half against Vanderbilt was more than enough to both put the game out of reach and reignite his Heisman hype machine."

That’s not the best lede ever, but it draws you in and segues to the rest of the article. It took me about three minutes to write, and it’s better than Drexler’s.

Star writer and cult hero Mike McCall contributes the class of the sports section proper (Phil Kegler’s front page story is also quite good) with a story on the Gators’ surprisingly solid secondary. But even he flubs his approach, burying one of the quotes of the season from Urban Meyer, about strong safety Ahmad Black, in the seventh paragraph.

“He’s like a cat. If you throw him, he’s always going to land in football position.”

Never mind what “football position” is, or how exactly one would throw an athlete as muscular as Black: Urban Meyer is now comparing his players to felines, and that is a slippery slope. In two weeks, Chris Rainey may be “cheetah-esque,” Brandon Spikes “leonine,” and Ron(nie) Wilson “like Garfield, if you replaced an affinity for lasagna with one for firearms that violate the Brady Bill.”

It’s a golden quote, and it loses a lot of oomph being hidden in the middle of plain text as it is. That could have been worked into the lede, used as a closing bit, or at least belabored. Instead, it’s a throwaway zinger that is made less funny by the company it keeps.

But, oh Lord, all of the section pales in majesty to Karl Hyppolite’s laudatory column on the Gators’ recent hot streak. In writing that has Bill Plaschke weeping at the splendor, Hyppolite begins:

"Faster than a speeding bullet."

Boy, that’s original. I’ve never heard that one applied to St. Tebow, erstwhile messiah, before. (Also, that’s not quite a sentence.)

"That’s how fast the Gators are storming to Atlanta."

Oh wait, never mind. We’re going on a speed jaunt, I can tell.

"Colder than a 38-degree night in Nashville. That’s how cold and cutthroat the Gators have been in their past five wins."

Or not. I guess using two forms of cold in two sentences is forgivable, especially when you change the meaning from chilly to heartless mid-thought. That shows creativity. (No other point of reference for cutthroat, though: Geena Davis could have used the shout-out.)

"Stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s where opponents have found themselves when they face the Gators’ rare combination of speed and toughness."

Wait, now are rocks fast? As fast as speeding bullets? (Or is it the hard place that’s fast? I can never tell.) At least the parallelism makes the sentence fragments work, though I can’t see how the parallelism makes up for the clichés.

"No, Vanderbilt didn’t stand a chance in Saturday night’s 42-14 loss. They rolled out of bed, put on their uniforms, and stormed the field only to realize they were playing a road game in their own stadium."

The use of “night” and “rolled out of bed” is clever, see, because the game was at 7 PM local time in Nashville, and that’s usually when football players in SEC programs leave the warmth of their covers to greet the day on Saturday. We’ve got our second use of “storm” as a verb base in the first five paragraphs of this article.

Oh, and Vandy didn’t actually play a road game in their own stadium. Perhaps, with so many Florida fans in attendance, it felt like one, but it wasn’t one, and that’s not accurate to write.

"Maybe it was the knowledge that their Commodores didn’t stand a chance. Or maybe it was the knowledge that Kevin Costner and Modern West were in town for one night only. Whatever the cause, Saturday night’s game was a road game for UF in name only."

“They” has turned into “their,” and no one knows whether that refers to Vandy’s players or fans yet. At least we’ve reiterated the road game claim more fairly.

(And apparently Kevin Costner actually does front a country band that may have been in Nashville on Saturday, but it required Google for me to confirm that. As a plugged-in sports and music guy, I shouldn’t have to Google to get the references you make, sir.)

"UF doesn’t play road games anymore. Each game seems to be a traveling show that’s a cross between a pep rally and a party as the Gators make their way to the raves that will take place later in Atlanta and Miami."

Oh, mercy. It’s like a five-game stretch in which UF has played two games on the road in cities more than 600 miles from Gainesville, one game at a neutral site with exactly half of the fans cheering for the other team, and two games in the Swamp somehow turned into Carnival.

Look, the knock on Florida in recent years when it’s come to national consideration during bowl season is the fanbase’s apathy towards traveling. That’s why Florida’s only been west of the Mississippi for a bowl twice since Steve Spurrier took over, traveling to Arizona for a national championship game on both occasions.

There are SEC schools that travel in droves. Florida is not one of them, unless there’s evidence of exodus from Gainesville that Hyppolite can see on the road. (And he does travel to road games, while I don’t).

It’s more plausible to believe the Orange and Blue’s hues have outnumbered the colors of depressed fan bases in Fayetteville and Nashville on their true road trips, and Gainesville’s proximity to Jacksonville fueled a great Gator turnout for the Florida-Georgia game.

Also, “raves” is probably not how I would describe UF tailgates.

"And you know no one parties like the folks in Atlanta and Miami."

I went to a Jay-Z concert in Miami. I’ve never been to Atlanta. But I’d wager that the denizens of New Orleans would take issue with this statement.

"After the past five games, which have looked more like matchups between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals, I’m ready to say the Gators are the best team in the country.

"No team can match UF’s combination of flash (Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps), toughness (Brandon Spikes), and swagger (the whole team)."

It’s true, the Gators have looked quite good, and perhaps good enough to be mentioned in the discussion with the behemoths of the Big 12. But the tired Globetrotters/Generals analogy? It’s like Hyppolite lives in a world where college students would appreciate that reference instead of a Seth Petruzelli/Kimbo Slice allusion.

Oh, and flash, toughness, and swagger are not quantifiable football statistics. The New England Patriots have those things, the USC Trojans have those things, and the Dillon Panthers have those things. Two of those teams have lost in part because of swagger, and the third is fictional.

Perhaps tabbing the offense’s potency and nodding to defensive tenacity, and then backing up both with stats, would be a better idea.

"They’ve made every phase of the game worth watching. I’m used to ignoring punts, but you can’t with Brandon James returning them for touchdowns or Demps racing past everyone and blocking the kick."

At the end of the day, we’re still watching punts. We lose. (Oh, and Carlos Dunlap had both of the blocks on Saturday.)

"It’s not that the Gators are blowing teams out. College football teams have been running up the score for decades. It’s the way it’s being done.

"UF is outplaying opponents in every phase of the game. What’s a team to do if you can’t stop the other guys from scoring, can’t score yourself, and can’t even get a punt away to at least make the Gators break a sweat on their way to the end zone?"

Capitalize on turnovers and blown coverages by a young secondary and win late thanks to a crucial special teams play? (Wait, this happened? This year?)

"The answer is not much. I’m at the point where I think only Texas Tech and Texas can possibly take down UF."

Good to know, considering UF will not be playing either until a potential national championship game. I suppose we’ll have to wait until after the Gators beat the consensus top team in the country in the SEC Championship to see a real challenge.

"Their offenses have the speed to match the Gators’ defensive athleticism, and they’re talented enough defensively to keep the Gators from scoring every time they have the ball."

Guess what? Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech recruit athletes on defense, too. Mere athleticism hasn’t seemed to help against the Big 12 barrages this year. If anything, the Gators can rest their laurels on great man coverage that has limited the deep ball against every team not coached by Houston Nutt.

"Thankfully, Penn State got out of everyone’s way and lost to Iowa so we could have a proper national championship game rather than the type of one-sided thrashing we’ve seen the past two seasons."

Aww. I thought you liked the “endless possibilities” of the BCS, Karl!

"And as Urban Meyer stood with his arm around his wife, Shelley, with his players reveling in the fact that they had taken over Nashville, he smiled as the band played the fight song."

Say it with me: whiplash. There was about as much connection between those two paragraphs as Barack Obama had to William Ayers. (I promise, I’ll phase out the election humor after this week.)

"It was a smile filled with confidence. A confidence of what is sure to come (a berth in the Southeastern Conference championship game) and what could be (a second national championship in three years)."

I’m not sure you can have a confidence “of” something. Maybe “about” something, and certainly “in” something. But “of” just doesn’t fit.

"January 8, 2009."

Are you crossing your fingers for a digression about the Mayan End of Days, too?

"That’s the day all of that could come true."

Rats. (Also, “all of that could come true” sounds like a slogan the Mouse House would use. Not necessarily the greatest choice for a college newspaper.)

Now, there’s one bad column in a college newspaper.

Big deal.

Hyppolite’s usually a decent writer, and he happened to have this poor effort printed. It’s also understandable that the section would suffer some from the aftereffects of driving home from Nashville and having both time connected to the Internet and time to twiddle the nuts and bolts of the sections dramatically reduced.

But there’s an epidemic of editing errors nationwide as copy desks dwindle, and lazy, mediocre writing is not going to cut it in a shrinking sports journalism market.

I have all the sympathy and respect in the world for the work ethic of the students who write for The Alligator, and, in particular, the sports section. Know that, if you’re currently on staff and reading this, you’ve gotten farther than I have there, and I salute you for that.

It’s when I see writing that I feel I can trump, though, that I wish I’d stuck around.

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