‘In Giannis We Trust’ and Matt Finkes Analysis
One of my biggest pet peeves of sports journalism is, what I like to call, a lazy profile. Every now and again, I come across an 1,000-word piece or so about an athlete, giving me nothing more than information found on Wikipedia, complemented by uninteresting block quotes. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I know I like to see some real on-the-ground reporting, touched up with a unique and obvious style in the final product, especially in featured profiles.
A good example of the latter is Amos Barshad’s story on Giannis Antetokounmpo, also known as the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo is from Greece, he’s insanely athletic and he’s a pretty good young basketball player on the rise – that we know.
But did you know that he’s the target of abuse from his some of his own countrymen back in his native Greece, that he might ultimately be the difference in keeping the Milwaukee Bucks from moving to Seattle and that he’s still growing – literally? There is only one way you’re going to find that type of information, and it’s not via the Internet. This type of information only comes when you’re seeking to understand, the should-be purpose of any good profile.
I am still not completely sure of what to make of Grantland, the ESPN-affiliated website that published “In Giannis We Trust.” I don’t dislike it, but I know I’ve never been a loyal reader like a lot of people I know. Perhaps, I didn’t give them enough of a chance but, in the back of my mind, I think I considered them too bloggy for its writers to be considered hard-hitting reporters. Nevertheless, I think I’m beginning to warm up to them, even if just ever so slightly.
Barshad didn’t take any shortcuts on this story. As a national media type, it would have been easy to sit back and just make a few phone calls from the comfort of his own office. Instead, he went to Milwaukee, by no means a trendy place to go to for out-of-town writers, and measured up Antetokounmpo with his own eyes. As Barshad put it, a story tends to be more compelling when you actually go to the place and the interview the people, while taking in all of their surroundings.
To be fair, though, sometimes as a reporter you inevitably have no choice but to call up a guy. In the case of Matt Finkes, a former prominent Ohio State defensive lineman who now does work in television and radio in Columbus, Ohio, his job often calls upon it.
Sure, Finkes doesn’t have to paint a picture of a scene like a writer would if he’s just on a talk show, but he’s still going to want a fascinating interview for the sake of his watchers and listeners. In radio especially, oftentimes you’re not going to have that face-to-face contact, making it all the more difficult to establish a rapport with your subject.
So how do you work around that? Research; have questions prepared; warm them up with some lighthearted inquiries; and then when the time comes, hit them with some thoughtful – and maybe even unexpected – talking points. You’re limited to only one sense – sound – so you have to make sure you take all the necessary procedures to maximize the interview as best as you can. The same applies when speaking to an interviewee over the phone for a story like in the case of Barshad, who had to call at least one person for his story on Antetokounmpo because the guy lives in Greece.
And when all the reporting is done, as a writer, it’s a matter of taking it and making it your own. One of the things I do find appealing about Grantland is its openness to some non-traditional creativity; it doesn’t follow all the usual norms of journalism, which is good to an extent.
For instance, for some writers like Barshad, first person works, so long as it doesn’t become a distraction from the greater overarching narrative being told. Barshad doesn’t use it in “In Giannis We Trust” to make it literally about himself, but rather to show the things he was seeing. He also drops a few pop culture references that flow appropriately in the text.
For me, I don’t mind this approach. I know it’s maybe a tad too colloquial for some old-school journalists’ tastes, but I think it helps give you a clear understanding of the author’s mindset throughout the whole process. In my opinion, a (longform) profile isn’t so much news as it is some subtle points of opinion mixed with an understanding of the subject based largely on made observations. That’s what Barshad did and accomplished, and I think it’s essentially the same concept for a television or radio interview for a guy like Finkes.