The Cincinnati Enquirer in March published a three-part series on Pete Rose, immediately after Major League Baseball’s new commissioner Rob Manfred announced he would reexamine the lifetime ban on Rose for betting on baseball. Kiplinger Fellow James Pilcher wrote two of those stories, including an exclusive interview with the man who investigated Rose for betting in the 1980s. He outlines for the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism how he got the story, as well as how his training at Ohio State helped push this story to new heights.
By James Pilcher – The Cincinnati Enquirer
Say what you will about Pete Rose, but the man and his ongoing battles with baseball’s top officials are ALWAYS news in Cincinnati.
After all, the so-called Hit King — who actually does have the most hits of any major league player in history — was born and grew up on the west side of the city. He played most of his storied career for the Cincinnati Reds, winning two World Series with the “Big Red Machine.”
Later he came back to town to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record here at home, only to receive a lifetime ban later for betting on baseball.
So when Major League Baseball’s new commissioner Rob Manfred said he would reconsider Rose’s ban and even possibly meet with Rose to discuss it, we knew we had to own the story.
That’s especially true since Manfred said that he would look at the original documents,
including the Dowd Report, to help inform his decision. More on that report in a bit.
But how? What could we say that would bring relevance to a young, online audience who were still in diapers when Rose was kicked out of the game, or who only knew the player as a martyred figure who wasn’t around anymore?
I was fortunate enough to be a Kiplinger Fellow at Ohio State University in the spring of 2014, and some of the lessons learned there helped a lot. Later I will outline how I applied those lessons to this story.
First, however, we had to get our heads around the story itself and what it would say. My editor came to me and said: “We need to prosecute and examine what is in the Dowd Report just like Manfred intends to do.”
Now, I wasn’t in diapers, but was just out of college when John Dowd first investigated claims that Rose bet on baseball at the behest of then-commissioner Bart Giamatti. In fact, I was interviewing for a job at the Cincinnati Post as a part-time sportswriter the very day Rose was banned. You can imagine my reaction to that mad scramble in the newsroom.
My first step in reporting this story was to get the Dowd Report, the massive document that outlined proof that Rose bet on baseball, submitted by Dowd in 1989.
Turns out I didn’t need to look far. I contacted several retired Enquirer sportswriters, and they all said we had a copy in our own library . . . in a disorganized mess in a plastic mail bin.
But what a gold mine. That find immediately sparked an idea based on my Kip Camp experience: Pictures work as teasers.
So I took a picture of the bucket of paper and posted it, saying “Coming soon” and “Guess what it is?” That generated buzz among my friends, made even more exciting when the paper announced the series later in the week.
As for the story, it was just shoe-leather document work and finding all the old sources from 24 years ago.
What we were able to do was put what happened then into present-day context, and remove what I called the “mists of fog and nostalgia” that surround Rose for many of our younger readers. Many commented that they didn’t know half of the stuff that we published, including the fact that Rose may have avoided the ban early on; how he may have been involved in a cocaine deal as a way to pay off his gambling debts; and just how insidious his involvement with gambling had become. (One person said he owed organized crime figures more than $500,000.)
We also came up with a social strategy ahead of time, making sure baseball writers around the country knew it was coming and alerting them when it was published. That led to a lot more exposure through their networks.
And we used our special long-form online presentation, showcasing great historical pictures interspersed with key documents available for download in appropriate points in the story — including Rose’s actual betting slips.
This came after a mini-marketing campaign ahead of the series, which also included one of our reporters visiting Rose in Las Vegas and shooting a video.
We also let all of our sister Gannett papers and USA TODAY know what we had on our hands, and they republished our work.
The results were even better than we could have hoped for. My Twitter and Facebook accounts blew up. (I think I gained more than 100 new followers that weekend.) The stories themselves received more than 47,000 and nearly 8,700 unique visitors each, including an average of about 2.5 minutes spent by each reader on each story. My first story got shared on Facebook 178 times, while the second story was shard 38 times.
My biggest takeaway: Whenever you can break news on a major subject like this, you are ahead of the game. But if you can frame it and think about it from a younger, online reader’s point of view, that can help, too.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with trumpeting your success or teasing readers ahead of time. When you deliver the goods, it only enhances your reputation.