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Sportswriting 101: A Discussion With Berkeley School of Journalism Graduate Jordan Conn

One of the best pieces on Cal sports in the past year came from Sports Illustrated, which wrote about Jorge Gutierrez and his incredible journey from Chihuahua, Mexico to Berkeley. In this feature, Jorge's time with fellow Mexican high school basketball players is documented, as is his relative poverty in the states before making his way to Cal. It's not hard to figure out why he's one of the toughest Golden Bears we've ever had.

Jordan Conn was responsible for that excellent piece. Conn talked with us a little bit about being an aspiring sports journalist, making it through journalism school, and what  writing about Jorge was like.

What are the things you learned to be a good journalist in journalism school?

The basics — reporting, writing, and multimedia storytelling. At Berkeley, you're working on a hyperlocal news site covering a particular community — either in San Francisco, Oakland, or Richmond — from the first day of class. They throw you into the fire and expect you to produce quality stories, and they give you a level of editing and instruction that can't be duplicated, even in an entry-level journalism job. My instructors really stretched me to be a better reporter. I've always been a confident writer, but being a good writer isn't enough. You have to make the extra phone call, chase down potential sources, make the extra effort to take the story to its fullest potential. That's how my instructors pushed me the most.

How highly would you recommend the Berkeley School of Journalism?

I'd like to break this question into two parts. The first is how highly I'd recommend any journalism school. And that's tough. This business has always been incredibly competitive and not very lucrative, and with the struggles of the industry, there are a lot of incredibly talented and hard-working people who are struggling to make it. And while journalism school can be helpful, it's never been a necessity. So you really have to consider the realities of the business before making a decision.

That said, if you go to one of the best programs — and I think there are only three or four programs worth even considering — it can help you tremendously. The experience at Berkeley was great for me for several reasons. 1) Like I said, they edit and advise you more intensely than any newspaper or magazine editor has the time to do. 2) You're spending two years working with true masters of the craft (two faculty members, Jennifer Kahn and Cynthia Gorney, were in the Best American Sportswriting 2010), and if you impress them, they'll go to bat for you with editors. 3) It gives you an opportunity to work on really ambitious, labor-intensive pieces of work, the kind of work that few professional journalists even get to do. And if you prove you've got the chops to do narrative features or investigative stories while in school, editors will give a chance to do them once you graduate.

Who was the most fascinating person you had to interview for your work and why?

Last spring I traveled to India and spent time with Mary Kom, a four-time world champion female boxer. She's 5-feet tall and barely 100 pounds, she lives in a country where women are rarely treated as equal with men, and she emerged from an insurgency-ravaged part of the country to become this world-class athlete. It was a very cool experience, spending time with her and the rest of the national team at their training camp. (That's another great thing about the J-School — they'll pay for you to go overseas to work on stories).

What would be the biggest tips you would give to aspiring sportswriters?

It's kind of strange answering this question, because I probably have a lot more in common with "aspiring" sportswriters than with really well-established sportswriters. But for those who are still looking to get a foot in the door, I would advise them to remember that what makes sports compelling are the characters. The games themselves are interesting and fun, but the best sportswriting transcends sports. So look for interesting characters. Look for athletes whose experience represents a slice of life that people would otherwise know very little about. Once you've found them, try to get them to tell you their story. Once you know their story, you can tell everybody else.

What initially interested you in being a journalist?

At first, I wanted to become a journalist because I loved to write, and journalism seemed like a more stable career-path than fiction-writing. But over time I've come to appreciate the incredible opportunity journalists have — the opportunity to enter worlds that many people can't or won't access, and then to figure out how to communicate the reality of that world to an audience.

How did the Berkeley School Of Journalism prepare you for your job at SI?

Well, first of all, it should be made clear that I am not an employee of Sports Illustrated. I interned there in the summer of 2009, and they've been really great about giving me opportunities to freelance for them since then. But I can say — without a doubt — that I would not be getting these opportunities if not for the J-School. My experience at Berkeley made me a much better reporter and gave me the opportunity to work on stories that I wouldn't have otherwise gotten to do. Those stories caught the eye of an editor or two at SI, and since then I've just been looking for any opportunity I can get to contribute.

How'd you first learn about the Jorge Gutierrez story? How long did it take you to construct it? What was the process you had to go through to write it?

I found out about the story just by talking to Jorge. I originally pitched what I thought would be a pretty short story about Jorge taking on a new role and leading Cal's rebuilding efforts, but once I started talking to him, I realized there was a lot more there. So I decided to make some phone calls to see what else I could find out. From the time I pitched it to the time it ran, about three of four weeks went by, partly because I was working on other stories and partly because I wanted more time to fish around and see what I could find. Once I sat down to write it, it took maybe a day. I had a pretty good idea of the structure I wanted once I had all the pieces in place.

What was it like dealing with Jorge? He can be very soft-spoken. Did you learn most of the story from him, or did you have to talk to everyone else who knew him to assemble the puzzle for your story to take hold?

Jorge was great. Before I interviewed him, a lot of people warned me that it might be tough because he's so quiet, but really, he was pretty open with me. I don't know if I just got lucky or if he had never been asked these questions before, but he came right out with everything. I was curious about his path from Mexico to the US, and it didn't take much prodding to get him to open up. Once he started talking about living in this extreme poverty and living as an undocumented immigrant and enduring this controversy over his age, my eyes sort of went wide — that's when I realized this could be a much bigger story that I originally thought.

He gave me just enough for me to realize that this could be a long, detailed account of everything that he went through, so I asked for his high school coach's phone number. The high school assistant — Ray Valdez — really gave me a lot of details and anecdotes that made the story work. I would say most of my information came from Ray and his brother Vince, the HS head coach, but I wouldn't have even known there was a story there if Jorge hadn't opened up about it.