Journalism Showcase

ESPN’s “Journalism Showcase” – July 8, 2016

ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson surveys Reykjavik. (Jonathan Whyley/ESPN)
ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson surveys Reykjavik. (Jonathan Whyley/ESPN)

For 29 days, the UEFA Euro 2016 has been underway, against a backdrop of changes, anxieties and uncertainties in Europe. Throughout, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer Wright Thompson has been on the road, filing 19 dispatches from eight countries across Europe (Belgium, England, France, Iceland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey).

Among the many slices of life he’s shared with readers: the national craze behind tournament darling Iceland; watching Turkey vs. Spain with fans at the war-torn Turkish border with Syria; the story of Abou Omar Brams, who lived for football and died for hate; and the most Interesting Man in Milan.

He also posted two pieces about Cristiano Ronaldo: the little-known story of the superstar’s relationship with his late father and a visit to the café where the Portugal and Real Madrid star goes to escape. Both offer rare insights into one of the world’s most famous athletes.

“Wright has an incredibly unique ability to capture a sense of ‘place’ and bring his readers on a journey with him,” says Vice President and Executive Editor Kevin Jackson, who along with James Martin (deputy editor, ESPN FC) and Rebecca Nordquist (senior editor, Features and Enterprise) have been Thompson’s editors over the course of the month.

Martin says, “Wright is that rare journalist who can drop into any city, any environment to quickly and accurately portray the culture and vibe, to the point that his writing resonates with locals who’ve lived there for years.”

Front Row asked Thompson a few questions about his month on the road.

One of your table-setter pieces talked about the Euro taking place at an uncertain time for Europe. As you’ve travelled and reported, is that something you have found people are conscious of?
People everywhere are conscious of it. The idea that something dangerous, and old, has been released into first political life, and now civic life, has created all kinds of tension.

How have you identified and picked the stories and subjects you pursued?
It’s a mix of who will say yes and how the overall schedule works. There’s a pretty elaborate spreadsheet for trips like this one, or the World Cup in Central and South America, where each story not only needs to work on its own but also work in a larger schedule. Then we watch the games. I had a great story set up about [Andrés] Iniesta in Spain that we canceled when Italy won.

And this was really a collaboration. We hired a French journalist, Arnaud Aubry, to serve as a translator and a fixer in France, and he worked the same hours as I did without much sleep. He’s a grinder.

Aside from the geography, how has reporting on the World Cup and this tournament been different?
That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that until now. The trips feel similar, and since the pace is so intense it sort of runs together. Without being able to back this up, and without even a real understanding of why I feel this way, I would say: there was more of this, just, unrestrained joy at the World Cup.

SC Featured: The Chicken Runs at Midnight

Sunday’s SC Featured segment on SportsCenter will tell the story of former Major League Baseball coach Rich Donnelly, whose dying teenage daughter Amy’s prophetic words played out on a World Series stage, forever bonding father and daughter.

The story weaves through two postseason games and culminates with a family’s stunning discovery that helps them deal with their grief. “The Chicken Runs at Midnight” will debut in the 10 a.m. edition of SportsCenter on Sunday, July 10, and will re-air in other editions of the program throughout the day.

Though the events happened more than 20 years ago, and the story has been told in several formats, producer Jeff Ausiello and reporter Tom Friend felt the time was right for a deeper version.

“I’ll be honest, it’s one of those stories that I read and it gave me goosebumps,” Ausiello said. “I think that’s always a good indication, and the more and more we started talking to people about it, we realized this is a story we’ve got to do and do it right. Tom and I just kept pushing for it.”

That included getting new interviews with Donnelly and his son, Tim, as well as Amy’s high school friend Cindy Sample, who was with Amy in the stands when Amy coined the “Chicken Runs at Midnight” phrase as her dad coached the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 1992 playoff game.

The family gave Ausiello photos, including some of Amy and Sample the night of that game, and by reviewing video of that game, he found a shot of the two in their seats behind home plate.

Ausiello also combed through hundreds of Super 8 home movies.

“The central figure in this feature is obviously Amy Donnelly,” he said. “Through these home movies, you’re able to see who this girl was, happy, full of life, and I think it made a big difference in being able to tell her story and get a true idea of who she was.

“When Rich and Tim saw it, that’s one of the first things they were blown away by – Rich said he’d never seen the movies.

“When you consider how long ago a lot of these events happened, and when you see Rich and how emotional he gets, in a way, he’s reliving it every day, and that’s his mission to continue to carry the spirit of his daughter around and to share it with as many people as he can to help other families out there.”

-By Andy Hall

Journalism on Display

  • On TheUndefeated.com, in collaboration with ESPN the Magazine, Lonnae O’Neal writes “The Difficulty of Being Simone Biles.” With the Rio Olympics nearing, Biles might be the best gymnast ever. But her hardest trick may have been tuning out issues of family and race.

  • ESPN senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg writes “The nine lives of Bartolo Colon” on ESPN.com. The Mets pitcher has survived steroids, a controversial surgery and family court. Now, at 43, he’s a larger-than-life favorite among fans and players. But why?
  • In 2008, a photo of high school pole vaulter Allison Stokke created an internet sensation. Now at age 27, as she tries to qualify for the Olympics, Stokke tells espnW’s Kate Fagan she is using that overwhelming attention to fuel her athletic drive in “Allison Stokke doesn’t want to be your sex symbol.”
  • Panelists on Sunday’s The Sports Reporters (9:30 a.m., ESPN; 10:30 a.m., ESPNEWS) will be Mike Lupica (guest host), Israel Gutierrez, Frank Isola and William C. Rhoden.

    -By Andy Hall

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