Chris Vannini: FWAA Co-Beat Writer of the Year

Chris Vannini of The Athletic and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com will be named co-winners of the FWAA’s Beat Writer of the Year Award on Monday. The following is a profile of Dodd. For a profile of Dodd, CLICK HERE.

Chris Vannini, The Athletic: Co-2018, FWAA Beat Writer of the Year

Age: 29

College: Michigan State

Chris Vannini

Personal: Claimed FWAA Best Writing Game Story HM (2018) and FWAA Best Writing Feature Story HM (2018). I also won Best Sports Story when working at The State News- Michigan State student newspaper (2011)…I have been married to wife Gabi and since 2012…Dogs and pro wrestling are my passions. You will see both subjects all over my social media accounts. My wife, a dog trainer on the side, has worked at various animal shelters. We always have different dogs coming in and out of the house, along with the ones we own. I am also a pro wrestling fan, watching WWF/E since I was a kid. Writing about the transition ex-football players make to become pro wrestlers was a very fun story to do, combining two of my passions.

Mentors: I have to start with the various editors at The State News. When I was hired as an intern. I had very little journalism experience. I was writing alongside high school journalism all-stars. My early stories were critiqued heavily by the editors. They helped me figure things out. I owe my career foundation to the people at The State News: Joey Nowak, Julie Baker, Kris Turner, Cash Kruth, Matt Bishop, professional adviser Omar Sofradzija and others. The standard at that paper put in place by the students ahead of me was so high, winning a Pacemaker Award every year I was there, and I hoped to keep up that standard when I became an editor as a senior. Even after graduation, Omar was always a sounding board for me. Jason Beck from MLB.com became another mentor when I worked alongside him covering the Detroit Tigers in 2011. Pete Roussel, a former college football coach, hired me at CoachingSearch.com. Although he didn’t have a writing background, he taught me how to simplify subjects in a concise matter and get to the point and make the point. All of these people helped me get where I am today.

Most Rewarding Stories: Writing about the families honored on UAB’s children’s hospital jerseys was very meaningful. Each player was paired with a current or former patient. Some of the names were of children who had passed. Talking to Tracey Thompson, whose son “Jack-Jack” was honored on the quarterback’s jersey, she explained that you miss hearing your child’s name after they die. People don’t bring it up to you, for fear of upsetting you, but the silence makes their lives feel insignificant. So the fact that UAB used his name, especially in such a prominent position with the QB, was honoring Jack-Jack in a way where people would never forget him. I hoped my story had the same effect for those families. On a less serious topic, I pushed hard to write a story on how football players become WWE wrestlers. It took months to complete because I had to work to convince WWE to let an outlet they’d never heard of speak with active wrestlers, who were vital to the story. I also had to convince editors it was worth running during the season. But several events happened during the season to make it feel timely, and it turned out to be a hit with readers. It was a niche topic with a unique angle, but it worked.

Best piece of advice: When I was a college student at Michigan State, I was grappling with the time commitment of journalism (how it takes away from having a personal life) to go along with the declining state of the industry. I was enjoying college life as one does, but when I joined The State News as a sophomore, time with friends outside the paper decreased. I e-mailed Terry Foster, a Detroit News columnist whose radio show I listened to, and I asked about that balance and sacrifice. He responded with this: “If you like journalism, don’t do it. If you love it, then come into the club. You need passion to get through the rough days.” Ten years later, I still have that e-mail printed out, and I still think about that advice every day.

What has changed most in the journalism profession? I can really only speak for the last 10 years, but even so, I’ve experienced a big change on the print side. When I started at The State News as a sophomore, our paper had two eight-page sections every day. By the time I became sports editor as a senior, we only had one section, sometimes at six pages. The quick decline of print advertising took its toll. But I was an early adopter of Twitter in 2009. It was evident then how valuable it could be as a tool. Our sports account at The State News became a must-follow when I was the editor, like when Tom Izzo flirted with the Cleveland Cavaliers job in summer 2010. We had updates throughout the day, photos from the airport, photos from rallies and other news. That wasn’t normal at the time. Professional reporters covering Michigan State sports used to rib me over my constant Twitter usage. Now they are on it just as much as I am. Every job I have gotten has come in large part because of Twitter, whether that was finding a job opening or someone else finding me. Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman discovered my work at CoachingSearch.com through Twitter, and that eventually led to Mandel bringing me to The Athletic.

Best Interview: One of the interviews I’m most proud of was with Ohio University Football Coach Frank Solich this past August. I did a ton of research before the interview, and a colleague tipped me off to something about a class. I asked him an obscure question about being in a class taught by Tom Osborne when he was a Nebraska student-athlete, and he brought up that he nearly went into the FBI. I followed up on that a few times and got more details, which became the lead of the story. After the interview, an Ohio communications staffer told me that he never talks about the FBI topic with anyone, so the fact I found my way into the topic and got him to open up about it was encouraging. I was also told before the interview that he wouldn’t talk about Nebraska and his firing there, but I was able to ask numerous questions in ways that invited him to open up about it in a comfortable way. I got the important insight the story needed. I’d consider that one of my best interviews.

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