ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Michael Rosen, The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley

By Melanie Freiria & Caroline ScullyCMM correspondents

Last fall, Michael Rosen reported on James Grisom, a student-athlete with an insane work ethic and a surprising musical background who went from walk-on to full-scholarship football player at the University of California, Berkeley.

As Rosen, a UC Berkeley senior, writes in The Daily Californian, “It’s hard for Grisom to find time for his music these days. He accepts the compromise, because if there’s anything in his life he cares about as much as music, it’s football. ‘I feel like I came out of the womb playing football,’ he says. ‘It’s always felt like something that’s meant to be.'”

Rosen, by comparison, cares greatly about journalism. The former Daily Cal sports editor and senior staff writer has covered every prominent sport at UC Berkeley during his time at the school including baseball, men’s basketball, women’s softball, men’s soccer and, of course, football.

His profile of Grisom, a very special player in the latter sport, is enriched with video of Grisom at the piano and separate audio recordings of some of his musical compositions.

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The piece — headlined “Where Soul Meets Body” — has been named the fourth-place winner of the 2014 ACP Multimedia Sports Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Rosen shares how he stumbled onto the Grisom story and reflects on the student-athlete’s awe-inspiring daily routine. He also offers advice to student journalists interested in connecting with and getting the most information out of sources during interviews.

Tell us a bit about your journalism experiences while at UC Berkeley.

I was the editor-in-chief of my high school paper, and I joined my college paper, the Daily Cal, the first week of school [freshman year]. I was intent on joining the Daily Cal pretty much right when I got here. I joined the sports section and was hired as a men’s soccer beat reporter and then from there I covered softball. The editors liked my writing a lot so they made me the football writer my sophomore year, which was pretty cool. … I was one of the youngest writers to cover football for the Daily Cal in a long time. It was pretty sweet. I covered football and then I was assistant sports editor the semester after that and then I became sports editor. I was also an editor of the Weekender that we launched last year on campus. After I was done with all the Daily Cal stuff, I was like, “All right, now I want to do something else.” So I kept writing about basketball and football for the Daily Cal, but also started working at The San Francisco Chronicle. I started writing about the arts. I profiled an actress and covered a documentary, stuff a little bit more outside my comfort zone.

What is your favorite sport to report on?

That is a good question — probably basketball because the games are short. I don’t have to be at the stadium for five hours. Plus, I just like the game and our coach was always a good interview.

What compelled you to tackle “Where Soul Meets Body”?

It’s actually an interesting story. One of my buddies who was [Daily Cal] sports editor while I was assistant editor was friends with this girl who worked in the news department and was actually friends with James. She worked with him and tipped my friend off to James’s story of how he was a music composer and how he won the scholarship. He asked me to follow up on it and it kind of just came together from there.

What surprised you most about Grisom?

He is a super-friendly guy. … Usually subjects are super-cooperative, but it’s not like they will actually listen to you or ask you questions. But James was asking me questions the moment we sat down and maintained really good eye contact. He was really just interesting. He seemed like a really elite dude, just on an interpersonal level.

Another thing [that struck me] was how unfazed he was by how hard he had to work when he didn’t have a scholarship. I just couldn’t believe he was getting two hours of sleep a night, waking up at 5 a.m. and working two jobs. Like, is that even allowed? I just kind of felt like a piece of shit after hearing everything he did. … And it was crazy because he wasn’t complaining about it. He just looked at it as a fact of life. He comes from such a different background, his different life experiences were pretty inspiring.

What do you like to do to get on another level with who you are interviewing?

You know if you are going into an interview, you probably want a list of questions, like written questions you have planned out. The best way to connect with someone though is try to memorize those questions going in, so you aren’t looking down at something the entire time. If you do that [look down throughout an interview], it becomes much more formal. It looks like you are an interviewer and [the person you’re interviewing is] a subject. But instead, if you get an hour and a half with someone and you aren’t looking at the paper the entire time and you are sitting in a place where you are one-on-one, they will soon forget it is an interview. You are just able to have a conversation. Instead of taking on the tone of a reporter, take on the tone of just someone they are buddies with.

A little trick I like to follow at the beginning of every interview — which I was taught by my friend Jordan Collins — is that the first question you should always ask someone is “What is your first memory?” For a profile subject especially, that gets them in a reflective mood. It gets them in the mood to talk about themselves.

Do you want to pursue journalism as a career after graduation?

That’s the plan. I’ve applied to a few places and we will see what happens. I think I have some leads and I’m hoping something turns up. It’s what I love to do. … I just like writing about people and I like features. I love sports. It’s my favorite hobby, but writing about it is definitely not my number-one goal. My number-one goal is to get paid to write as a living. … If I could pick one place to work, I really like The New Yorker. Just a place where I can write 12 stories a year and get paid for it. That’s really the ideal for me. Any place that would let me work on long-reported stories, all the time. That’s the dream job, to be a writer at-large.

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