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Toomer's Corner trees: Who wrote it better?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Big Circus, Aug 14, 2011.

  1. Big Circus

    Big Circus Well-Known Member

    Wright Thompson and Tommy Tomlinson both wrote pieces on the Toomer's Corner tree poisoning within the past few weeks. Thompson's appears in the college football preview issue of ESPN the Mag (Andrew Luck cover) while Tomlinson's is in the latest SI (Dustin Pedroia cover). Thompson focused more on the background of the trees and Auburn's farm roots, while Tomlinson's piece focused more on Harvey Updyke. Anyone else read both of these? Which did you like more?

    I thought both were very well done and would probably give a slight edge to Thompson's piece. The subject matter was more compelling.
  2. slappy4428

    slappy4428 Active Member

    Tomlinson. He told the story in less than 7,500 words.
  3. jlee

    jlee Well-Known Member

    Thompson's piece is behind the Insider wall. Here's Tomlinson's: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1189175/1/index.htm
  4. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Great thread. I think journalism teachers should have their students do this kind of comparative analysis; it really makes a person think about what they're reading. I'd love to make this a discussion of craft, so I hope others can and do read Thompson's piece and aren't as reductive as Slappy.

    Thompson's piece

    Concept: It's a distinctly feature-writer-as-columnist style, the type of thing Sports Illustrated stays away from with rare exceptions. In that sense, the concept and the writing matched well; Thompson's use of first-person narration is sure to bother some of the ink-stained-wretch types, and I respect that, but it fit the tone he was conveying. Because he broadened the scope of the story to the South (and, without saying it, to all college towns across America), his insight on the many other Southern towns he's been to was valuable.

    Reporting: The biggest surprise of Thompson's piece, to me, was his admission that he had never been to Toomer's corner before he began reporting this story. Some might write off his entire story for this fact, and the admission certainly raised my skepticism. I'm wary of fly-by reporting. Thompson avoided it. First, I think he made a strong decision to return to Auburn after most of his reporting was already finished. Second, I thought he was intelligent in his use of first-person narration, stepping out of the way at the right times and simply telling stories. He and Tomlinson both contacted the mandatory academic and forestry sources, and their facts lined up without noticable incongruity.

    Writing: Thompson didn't pull out all his finest stops in this one. I loved the final portion of the story about how the tree is dying, but beyond that, I think he went a little light on the flourishes but was still way too wordy. There is no question that Slappy's reductive point has merit; a good editor could have, had they chosen to, cut 1,000-plus words out of this story. It wasn't necessary a story that merited its length; feature writers should consider their readers and the time invested in reading significantly long pieces. That said, there were flashes of "memorable prose," as one of my journalism school teachers called good writing, and, as previously stated, he did a good job of knowing when to assert his presence and when to back off. I'm just not putting this next to "Shadow Boxing" or "Father Bear."

    Biggest complaint: Stylistically, I felt as though the italicized biographic details in Thompson's piece were forced. In particular, it struck me as odd that he chose to break Maury's part into two pieces and put it before the part about his mother, Annette. Those sort of incongruities always bother me, but that might be the inner copy editor speaking. None of the italicized pieces, even the very first one, quite lined up, and they could have been removed from the piece as a whole. I liked the idea of focusing on this lineage, but I thought the actual story did a good enough job and some of those details could have been added without the italics that's becoming a little too common in storytelling these days.

    Tomlinson's piece

    Concept: In my opinion, Tomlinson chose the better and more difficult route. This piece was not one for personal essays or even opinions; Tomlinson was choosing to humanize someone many believe has an evil heart. I appreciated that Tomlinson did not attempt to make Harvey Updyke a good person or a bad person, just a person, a redneck Alabama fan who doesn't always separate right from wrong well. I also loved the interludes about the tree's well-being; they were well-placed and brief enough to keep you in line with the main story.

    Reporting: I didn't get the feeling Tomlinson was given a whole lot of time with the Updykes. It's tough to know whether that was his fault or a decision made by the family to only speak briefly. I would have loved more with Harvey's children, but I understand that they might be reticent. It's rare for Sports Illustrated to give 4,000 words and six pages in the magazine to a freelancer, and I'm sure Tomlinson is well aware of that and worked dilligently. Wayne Barnes was a great source for the story, and Tomlinson clearly got a lot out of Barnes. As previously stated, though, this concept was more difficult, and I think the final product could have benefited from a few more sources.

    Writing: Tomlinson's writing is tight. The piece clocks in at 4,000 words, but there's very little wasted space. It felt exceptionally well-edited, unlike the Thompson piece. But Tommy Tomlinson, who I've read enough from to know is a very talented writer, is not Wright Thompson. The flashes of memorable prose in Thompson's piece were mostly missing from Tomlinson. Writing the end-of-the-magazine piece in Sports Illustrated is a heavy cross to bear, and Tomlinson did a good job for the most part. But he's not Price or Smith or Wertheim or Dohrmann; there were very few "wow" moments. That said, this was hardly a workmanlike effort. The writing was strong, and if you're not Price or Smith or Wertheim or Dohrmann, writing tight is always a good idea. I also thought the lede -- up to the line, "Why would somebody do that?" -- was a brilliant decision.

    Biggest complaint: I didn't think the ending fit the piece. I thought the final portion of the story was well written and could have been included in another part of the story, but I would have preferred to end with Updyke. As I said, I loved the lede, but to begin and end with the trees and have most of the other 3,500 words focus on Updyke was odd to me. I would have loved to finish it with an image of him and his ridiculousness.

    So, if I had to choose...

    I think I'd say I preferred Tomlinson's piece. It was very close. Thompson's offered dynamic, modern stylings, but it also was carrying too much water weight. Tomlinson's was more focused; better edited; better conceived and more unique; and significantly shorter.
  5. Azrael

    Azrael Well-Known Member

    Thompson already wrote specifically about Updyke. In May. It was discussed here:

  6. JackReacher

    JackReacher Well-Known Member

    How many times did Thompson use the word "granddaddy" or "grandpappy"? Before I read it, I'll set the over/under at 13.5.

    So Southern!!! So authentic!!!
  7. Big Circus

    Big Circus Well-Known Member

    Great stuff, Versatile. And thanks for the Tomlinson link, jlee. Couldn't find it when I posted this.

    I will say that I read Thompson's piece first, so that might have colored my perception. I thought both were excellent pieces. And while Thompson's piece was typically first-person heavy (all it needed was a bourbon reference to check off all the boxes in Wright Thompson Bingo), it worked really well to me. I especially liked the graf(s) about trying to force tradition.

    And to answer the obvious question, I was at my in-laws' house and they get The Mag. It was the first time I've read it outside a waiting room in quite some time.
  8. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Well-Known Member

    So, SI and ESPN the Mag both killed trees to write about a tree killer.
  9. Big Circus

    Big Circus Well-Known Member

    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 15, 2014
  10. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    Here's Thompson's piece in full; I don't think it's under the Insider curtain: http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/6862768/cfb-latest-update-poisoned-oaks-auburn-toomer-corner-espn-magazine
  11. shockey

    shockey Active Member

    i don't recall reading tomlinson before. his piece is excellent. i'll dive into thompson's asap, though i have no doubt it's good... just different....

    upon review, i concur with anyone who complains it's too long. for someone who doesn't have a horse in the race, like me, and little patience for loooong pieces on a subject of little interest, like me, it's a tough read. for SEC fans -- especially alabama and auburn , um, enthusiasts, it must be a tremendous, gripping read.

    so, i favor tomlinson's. but we're splitting hairs. both succeed beautifully at what they're trying to accomplish. tomlinson was writing more of a newsy piece for those of us who haven't followed it closely and/or know nothing of 'toomer's cormer.' seems to me wright's piece assumes readers know the nuts-and-bolts and are familiar with the legend of 'toomer's corner' and is striving more to tell us tales of what the 'corner' has meant to auburn fans and why this strikes home for them.

    as to the, 'well, they're only trees, what's the big deal?' argument, those 'trees' are a living, breathing thing to auburn fans. and alabama fans know this. that was the motivation.

    i don't find it much different, from an emotional standpoint, than if a fan poisoned the beloved tiger that represents a college rival. there was a reason 'toomer's corner' was attacked. and it was only evil and meant to be hurtful. just one more ugly, horrifying episode that leaves me shaking my head and wondering 'WTF?'

    it should be embarrassing to all right-thinking and feeling sports fans.
  12. slappy4428

    slappy4428 Active Member

    Read Thompson at dinner. Typical stuff -- I, I, I, I, me, me, me, me...
    Tomlinson said the same thing, shorter and it wasn't all about him...
    Nice ending on Thompson. Should have been two pages sooner than it was.
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