Chess Journalists of America

The following article was published in The Chess Journalist, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Consecutive No. 109, September 2003. One-time only publication rights have been obtained from the contributor. All other rights are hereby assigned to the author. Articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the CJA, its offices or members. Copyright 2003 by the Chess Journalists of America.

Writing a Newspaper Chess Column in 2003
A revision of an earlier guide

by Stephen Dann

(For the earlier article see: Writing a Newspaper Chess Column)

It's been 25 years and overdue to revisit and supplement the 1978 journalism guide that was reprinted (with a few typos) in the June, 2003, Chess Journalist. I may not be as sharp, but 25 years of experience may add many suggestions/insights that will be useful to you or anyone wishing to start or improve a column to report and/or promote the royal game.

First, read the reprint of the 1978 guide in the June TCJ. I couldn't write the first few paragraphs any better today!! Why such guidelines are not on our CJA website, I don't know! On a website they would not get more exposure, but we could get fresh input on a monthly basis, and, in time, the guide would change with the trends, the biggest of which IS the Internet, which due to advertising, still plays a secondary role to the daily newspaper. Consider this revision to be a bridge toward chess reporting to the general public via web sites. The product, however, is still mainly a regular (weekly, be we see many variations in time from daily to monthly) newspaper product no matter how it appears in electronic form.

What had happened in 25 years??? Isn't the Internet enough? Editors want columns e-mailed in precise style allowing later deadlines, but many times with less editorial freedom! Why??? Newspaper staffs are smaller, space is at a premium, and the economics of 2003 dictate that editors watch closely for any way that the newspaper can be sued.

A current example is a story on college chess where I mentioned a grandmaster who had legal troubles. My editor said the newspaper had strict guidelines on mentioning names and legal charges, and despite having done extensive research (which included copies of Associated Press stories), they would not run such unless the case was followed from start to finish under crime reporter guidelines. My editor suggested a general piece that could be deemed "chess ringers invade college ranks." As I am not a staff member, or a crime reporter, I had to rewrite, but not without anger at this over-reaction.

Guidelines of style have changed a bit in 25 years, but tightness of editorial space in both large and small, daily and weekly newspapers has become very competitive.

Guidelines of style have changed a bit in 25 years, but tightness of editorial space in both large and small, daily and weekly newspapers has become very competitive. What were once weekly hobby pages have been decimated to the point where you wonder if the age-old crossword puzzle, advice columnist, or any games (bridge and such) will soon be left in many large newspapers. As computer columns seem to be the only "new" type of column that many newspapers have added to the hobby arena, the nature of chess to change with the times may be our biggest asset.

Speaking of times, the New York Times family of newspapers treats local chess as a local discretion worth noting here. You can find Robert Byrne's column in the rear of the Sunday sports section. In the Boston Globe, you can view Harold Dondis and Patrick Wolff as well as Shelby Lyman's daily diagram on the Monday and Tuesday comics pages. My column in the Worcester Sunday Telegram continues to appear on the hobby page in the back of the Opinion section.

The chess-in-education values have surely helped to preserve columns here and there, but the political strife that seems to follow the game on all levels from naming a unified world champion to financial chaos at the USCF doesn't make for good reading and a pursuit with positive role models. Dissecting what went wrong at the USCF office, for example, is a no-win situation for a newspaper columnist just like discussing the political views of Bobby Fischer! Sometimes you must say something, like if you, as I am, are in the circulation area of Frank Niro's hometown.

What do you do when a local chess luminary has a "better" plan for USCF relocation? A better question is how you explain a tournament, club or program that you received details of and promoted that suddenly disappears, or you can't get results? How about the "inside" story of a rural chess club that had one of the largest endowments of any club in the country and it is revealed that the founder has allegedly embezzled a real fortune only to be sued by club members who were only able to recover several thousand dollars, and, shortly thereafter, decided to shut down the 30-year old operation? We passed on reporting this one to the public for a variety of reasons, despite the successful court action.

It seems like all factors of organizing a chess tournament, club or even a chess camp have become so complicated and expensive that almost no one wants to tackle the mountain of paperwork and fund raising one needs to be legal and capitalized. I've been able to get newspapers interested in local columns the past 10 years only to not find anyone to write these due to the conditions and compensation. This may change if newspapers hold their own and the "swing" toward the Internet becomes a revolving door. Note the few reliable and regular "columns" on the Internet! The standards to American (and many foreign) newspapers have gone up in recent decades--the daily has not disappeared as many predicted. Chess web sites are also far from the quality many predicted and we were led to expect.

We have the freedom to write about so much in America, that we may fall victim to writing about nothing. How about more tributes to older players before their time comes instead of lifeless obituaries??? Game archives are finally proliferating and older games are being entered. Do you remember the problem slowing this 25 years ago??? Yes, it was a bit about computers and software, but more vocal was the debate over chess notation, an issue I haven't seen discussed for years.

Cheating at chess! It's a natural for a spectacular story. To interview top players, organizers and directors to hear the "state of the art." It was difficult for me to write, even in capsule form as it involves big money events, technology of chess and communications equipment and is way ahead of even the new rulebook. Even players competing in a large tournament do not see all that is going on behind the scenes. It worries America's top organizers, not only from a business standpoint, but my interviews sensed a real helplessness that was eons greater than "sandbagging" claims of 25 years ago. You can get more from informal interviews (but you should identify yourself as a chess journalist!) if you ask the right questions and do enough of them. I use a very small percentage of these discussions, but, rarely miss an opportunity to use a good short quote, especially the candid frustrations of a top player, director or even a parent or their young offspring! Remember, chess players do tend to have a keen insight!

I've rambled a bit in this first installment, but you surely are getting some ideas. Why not share your ideas, experiences and the like with the readers of TJC?

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