Best College Newspaper Stories of the Year: ‘Tyler Bernardini Has a Cold’ (The Daily Pennsylvanian)
A Mother Jones staffer recently called to ask for my input on especially memorable student press stories or reporting feats over the past year. The chat triggered my interest in sharing a small sampling of recent college newspaper stories I’ve bookmarked and particularly enjoyed. Any nominations of your own? Email me!
First up, a Sinatra-esque profile that embodies the very best of New Journalism. In February, Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer Matt Flegenheimer profiled a Penn student-athlete in a manner that directly echoed Gay Talese’s legendary look at Frank Sinatra 45 years ago.
Of course, any journo junkie worth his ink stains can recite that piece’s header/nut graf: “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” The profile offers a rare (especially for the era) unvarnished glimpse at a major celeb via a reporting and narrative writing style basically never before attempted.
In a 2007 retrospective, Esquire described the piece as “a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism — a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction. The piece conjures a deeply rich portrait of one of the era’s most guarded figures and tells a larger story about entertainment, celebrity, and America itself.”
On a smaller scale, these elements of factual faithfulness, vivid storytelling, and rich portraiture also work their way into the piece penned this past semester by Flegenheimer. Instead of a singing sensation, his focus is a basketball star.
Through the feature, Flegenheimer lets us spend roughly 36 hours with Quakers senior guard Tyler Bernardini, who is feeling under the weather prior to an uber-important game. His mom, teammates, coach, and girlfriend make appearances in the piece, offering support and lighthearted teasing.
Snippets of his back story and larger themes about parenting, peer mentoring, young love, and student-athlete stress are touched upon. But the piece’s power is its simplicity. At heart, as the header and nut graf confirm, the story can be summed up in five words: “Tyler Bernardini has a cold.”
In an email, Daily Pennsylvanian senior sports editor Cal Silcox tells me:
“I’m the kind of person who gets very tired doing the same thing every day, so with a daily paper things are bound to get repetitive and I’m always looking for ways to mix things up. … The writer [Flegenheimer, who recently graduated from Penn and is currently in the midst of a summer gig with the New York Times] is probably the best I’ve ever worked with. Not only does he get it from a reporting standpoint, but his ability for the craft of writing is spectacular. He didn’t write very much over the last year, but when he did, I pretty much gave him free reign. He came back on deadline with a story far longer than anything we had published since I worked in the sports section. He and I were in a long-format journalism class together this semester and we had just read the classic ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.’ Since this piece was kind of magazine-y, we thought we would pay homage to Talese with the title of this one. I’ll be honest, very few people got that reference, and I think a lot of our audience didn’t really appreciate the piece for what it was as an incredible piece of writing. A lot of people took it at face value and thought we were reporting on Tyler Bernardini’s sinus problems or something. Sometimes you have to meet the reader halfway, but sometimes, for my and for the reader’s sake, you have to push the envelope a little bit.”