Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Inside Alabama's press box

As a third-year journalism student and unofficial full-time sports writer, I've been lucky enough to cover 13 of UT's last 17 football games. That has meant paying my own way to travel on four occasions.

The most recent of such occasions came Saturday when I met with five other UT journalism students on the UT campus at 7 a.m. to caravan to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to cover Tennessee's game against No. 1 Alabama.

In the midst of the Crimson Tide's 45-10 romping of the Vols, my mind wandered for a moment as I considered just how many student journalists inhabited the press box at that time.

In total, seven UT journalism majors sat dispersed throughout the press box in Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of arguably college football's most storied program. Here's a rundown of them and who they were credentialed by on Saturday:

Dallas Abel - WUTK, 90.3 The Rock
Dargan Southard - The Daily Beacon
David Cobb - Maryville Daily Times
Gage Arnold - Knoxville News Sentinel
*Riley Blevins - InsideTennessee
Steven Cook - The Daily Beacon
Troy Provost-Heron - The Daily Beacon
*not a part of caravan

The six of us who traveled down on Saturday morning did so on our own dime and our own time. We all crammed into one hotel room Saturday night, and I'd venture to say that nobody broke even for expenses on the trip because of the work they did. But it didn't matter. We had a blast going down there and our respective media outlets benefitted greatly from our desire to do so.

Although  UT's journalism school is not especially notorious like Missouri's or Arizona State's, it had seven students in the press box of the nation's No. 1 college football team for a conference matchup televised nationally on CBS.

My point is two-fold. 1. The UT journalism school should be proud of the way this group of sports journalism students is attacking the real world and taking advantage of opportunities.

2. From a personal standpoint, it's great to be around other young journalists who are also investing in their futures.

Sure, there was plenty of time for college-type banter and discussion on the trip. But the majority of our dialogue centered on the journalism industry, our thoughts on other media outlets and discussion of our current work.

Having that camaraderie amongst peers is both refreshing and invigorating, and I'd venture to say that it's essential.

We're all full-time students and we all essentially work full-time in the field. So to know you're not the only one pulling all-nighters in pursuit of a risky profession is motivating and reassuring.

The Tennessee alumni network boasts an impressive pedigree of sports media figures and I'd venture to say that trend will continue in the coming years.

Don't believe me? Well then I guess you weren't in Alabama's press box on Saturday.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Competition: The - or at least my - driving force

A competitive spirit is probably the reason behind why I'm trying to make journalism a career. Competition is what drives me. And I believe competition is or should be a huge part of journalism (until it drives outlets to cross ethical barriers). The competition is part of the reason why I love it. And it doesn't just have to be competition between outlets, either.

If you knew me growing up, you know that when competing in athletics, I was intense - even to a fault. I can proudly say I was never ejected from a baseball or basketball game, but I'm also a little embarrassed to look back at the way I behaved at times during my middle school/high school years when I played for a homeschool organization in Memphis that played any TSSAA school that would schedule us.

I've never been a big guy, and I suffer from short man syndrome, meaning I'm inclined to over-assert myself in the arena of play to atone for my physical discrepancies. Combine that with an ever-present chip on the shoulder that came with playing for "the homeschool team" or being "the homeschool kid" and it provided me with a seemingly permanent role of being the underdog.

If I had to perform a psychiatric evaluation of myself, I would probably say that contributes to why I've chosen to stick with sports-oriented journalism as a legitimate career pursuit. Aside from its blend with one of my passions (sports) and my lone academic strong-suit (writing), it's an incredibly competitive profession.

It gives me that chip on my shoulder that I so often wore on the court or the diamond in high school.

"Oh, you're majoring in journalism?" ... Yeah! I'm majoring in journalism. And I actually want to be good at it too.

 If I didn't think I had a shot at it becoming my profession, I would quit, just like I quit varsity basketball after my sophomore year of high school when I realized I was too old for JV and probably going to sit the bench for two years as exclusively a varsity player.

It wasn't worth the physical, emotional and financial investment to ride the pine for two years. What if I had gone all-in with basketball and practiced 40 hours a week, completed multiple workout regimens and still didn't crack the rotation? Would that have been a waste? The relationships would have been there with teammates and coaches, but a "winning return" would not have come with that investment.

I wasn't investing my passion at the risk of being the kid who goes in to hit a 3-pointer at the end of a blowout. (Worth noting: 5 of the top 6 varsity players from my freshman year went on to play college ball at some level).

I still look back - haunted by the two losing seasons of varsity baseball that I played instead - and wonder how fulfilling it would have been if I had indeed stuck with basketball and perhaps did crack the rotation. Maybe I could have helped my team knock off some of stout prep basketball teams in the Memphis-area and make a run at a homeschool national title (something I would equate to D2-AA high school ball in Tenn., but that's another story).

But I didn't. I'll never know how that would have worked out. My basketball career fell to playing rec basketball in a big church league where me and a good friend teamed up to go 19-3 over a 2-year span. I averaged like 16 ppg because of how acclimated I was to playing against good competition. It was a comfortable transition back to the league I played in as a kid.

Now, I return to journalism and that skeptical critic - the one who says, "journalism, eh? Don't you know newspapers are dying?"

Yeah, I know they are, but I also knew my sophomore year of high school that scrawny, 5-foot-6 white-boy guards were a long-dead breed, even on the homeschool team.

I made a logistically sound, comfortable decision then and chose to play baseball because I could walk in and start. We had some fun, but I'll always wonder if I could have contributed to the basketball team if I had truly worked at it.

I'm not letting that scenario happen again with journalism. I know there are better prospective career choices out there that are more comfortable or easy, but I'm not settling for that. I don't what to be given some job - like I was with baseball -  and be in a mundane 9-5 work environment, constantly refreshing my Twitter feed to look for the articles I know I could be writing.

Instead, I'm all in this time.

And if I don't make it and end up doing something unrelated? Well, who knows what will happen if I don't make it. That's what drives me, and every once in a while I see a mile marker telling me I'm on the right path

I saw one of those markers recently in reporting on the controversy between the UT band and the athletic department.

I'll preface it by saying this: My competitive nature manifests itself through journalism in a variety of ways, including the competition against myself to produce clip-worthy articles and create something I can proudly tweet a link to.

Another way it comes out is in how I compete against my fellow j-school students, knowing in the back of my mind I'm separating myself from the competition for area jobs every day when I'm working on a story and they are not.

But when I most actively feel that competitive energy is when I get the chance to compete with other media. And I'm not talking about who can refresh the fastest and tweet the football depth chart changes first each week. I'm talking about legitimate stories that go beyond simple press releases and the increased uniformity spouted to the media by any entity at UT.

When I compared my article that appeared in the Beacon on Oct. 10 regarding the band issue with the one that appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel on the same day, I was pleased with the comparison. I must admit, if it was a competition and I was an unbiased judge, I would have needed some time to decide on a winner.

KNS is an incredible newspaper with fantastic employees and an established local presence, and in spite of that, it could be argued that my article had a more direct impact on our joint readership because of the way it circulated Twitter and the online message boards where UT fans lurk, thirsty for a view that I had because of a lengthy 1-on-1 with Gary Sousa.

*(It should be noted that KNS has adopted an online paywall, which restricts most stories to subscribers. The Beacon, of course, is a free student paper, which is likely why it was circulated and cited more online)*

Again, in no way am I taking a shot at KNS. I read the Sentinel everyday. I've been receiving home delivery since January and doing so has helped me develop as a writer and as a purveyor of journalism. The 20-30 minutes a day I spend reading that paper each day might be the most crucial each day to my development as a journalist, especially when I can compare my coverage to something they did.

That's why I'm pleased I was able to write a competitive story in comparison with theirs. Whether the Beacon "won" or not is up to interpretation, and in the grand scheme of things, I'm the only one who viewed it as a competition.

But because of that competitive drive, I was able to inform people on something they cared about to an extent they were not getting elsewhere, and that's a milestone that I'm proud of because of the work I put in to make it happen.

FYI: KNS stomped my follow-up reporting to the ground Monday by obtaining e-mails between Sousa and UT and quoting them in a story/posting them online. Gah. They're so good at what they do.

But I can't wait for the opportunity to compete again. - David

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Twitter Takeoff: From 0-60 in one retweet and how it affects the message // Student Attendance issue

I start with the backstory of why I'm blogging, so stick with me....also this blog entry is partly for class credit and it does not have a copy editor.

For Wednesday's Daily Beacon my cohort Troy Provost-Heron (@TPro_UTDB on Twitter) wrote a column centered primarily on the dismal attendance at UT's game against South Alabama on Saturday.

As the sports editor of the Beacon it's my job to - among many other things - read and edit all the sports copy before it prints/goes online and make stories better when I can.

Because I didn't have a story to write for Wednesday's paper, which is pretty rare, I was twiddling my thumbs a bit more than usual and decided to dig around a bit for information on ticket sales that may be relevant to include in Troy's column.

I decided to try and find the student ticket sales numbers for the UGA game. Seeing that we're a student newspaper, it's kind of our domain, and student attendance has been a hot topic with Butch Jones this season. The man is adamant about getting students into the seats at Neyland Stadium.

I received word from UT football SID Jason Yellin this afternoon that about 8,000 of the 12,600-ish student ticks had been sold for Saturday's game.

My first thought was 'hey that isn't too bad considering it's Tuesday.'

During my freshman year - when I was a wee tot with no press pass - I would often wait until Wednesday or Thursday to buy my ticket even though the official request period is much earlier.

Anyway, considering I've been active on Twitter with the student-seating issue and also wrote a story on it, I decided to tweet the figure I had been given. By tweeting it I was not trying to tell my handful of followers what to think.

Rather, it was a somewhat routine piece of information on the progress of an issue that is relevant to the UT student body and UT fans. Here is the tweet

I really only have about 200-250 followers that follow me because of my UT coverage, but because I've formed relationships with some of the full-timers on the UT beat, I'll occasionally get a retweet from one of them if I post something they find interesting.

That's fine with me because it usually results in me picking up a few followers. That may sound silly, but part of journalism today is building your brand and Twitter has a lot to do with that (but that's another blog post).

Anyway, the progression of my tweet went like this:
@DavidWCobb's original tweet ---> @FootballTimeMag retweets it ---> @wesrucker247 retweets it

Wes doesn't follow me, but he follows Football Time and I'm guessing that's how he saw it. So, as many Twitter users do, he added his take on the tweet to the front end and retweeted it as you'll see below:

In a matter of five minutes, my tweet went from being broadcast to my 435 followers (maybe 250 who care) to being broadcast to about 30,000 rabid UT fans, who - because of Rucker's take on the issue - might think I tweeted that to admonish UT's students for not supporting the football team.

By no means am I upset about Wes using the statistic. In fact, I'm flattered that he did because he is a Daily Beacon alum who does a fine job covering the UT beat for GoVols24/7

But because of the #Pathetic mixed with my name and the content of the tweet, it might be interpreted by some that I tweeted with the intention of berating the UT student body. That's the lay of the land with social media.

After Chattanooga Times Free Press UT beat writer Patrick Brown and ESPN national CFB writer (and Beacon alum) Travis Haney also retweeted it with similar prefixes, I think it's safe to say that the tweet reached the feeds of close to 50,000 unique Twitter users. And to most of them, it was conveyed in a negative light because of the precursor to the RT.

Like I said, I'm actually pretty flattered that these guys found me credible enough to retweet on a piece of information that pertains to their livelihood as college football reporters.

They're all three UT alums who blazed the trail I'm currently on.

It is just fascinating to me how a bit of information I obtained to POTENTIALLY add to a column wound up circulating Twitter/the message boards and angering UT fans.

I received 40+ mentions from UT fans in response to the tweet, many of them upset with the UT student body.

So here is my take on the issue: The fact is that those student tickets may be sold by Saturday. Students can purchase tickets even on the day of the game. My roommates are going to the game and they haven't bought their tickets yet.

 I tried to convey that in a couple of later tweets. Those weren't retweeted, though, so they only reached my 435 - now 441 - followers.

Even if the student ticket number stagnates around 9,000 for Saturday's game, it isn't that much worse than last year. Per the research of Evan Woodbery at the Knoxville News Sentinel, UT only sold 9,163 for a night game against No. 1 Alabama last season. Read his June story on the issue here.

According to Woodbery's story, in 2009-12 student attendance only exceeded 10,000 three times. So this is not exactly a new problem. And with 3-4 days till game time, it's probably a little early to crucify the students for not attending a game that hasn't happened yet.

The case can be made that UT students should turn out in droves for every game, especially a game like Georgia, but I think the issue goes deeper.

If/when I ever get the time I would love to go super in-depth and do an enterprise piece on this and examine the student ticket sales at state universities relative to the student population at those universities.

My suspicion is that UT is among the upper echelon - even in recent years - when it comes to percentage of the student body that attends games.

Like I said, it would take time to back up my suspicion with statistics. E-mails, phone calls, online research, interviews with UT people, and time. Unfortunately, time is something I'm a little short on as a full-time student with two part-time jobs.

Luckily, this blog is actually part of a class assignment so I'm being productive by writing it.

In hindsight, I probably should have incorporated "students aren't done buying tickets yet" into the tweet somehow. I assumed that people would realize that. (the request/claim period process thing is too complicated to explain on here, let alone in a tweet.).

Well, that's all I've got for now. Have a great hump day. I'll leave you with a photo I tweeted out last week that Butch Jones favorited on Twitter. It's not from a home game. I believe it's from the 1995 UT-Alabama game, but it's pretty amusing and relevant to the overarching issue of rowdiness at UT games.

David Cobb