John Feinstein: A College Newspaper Success Story

By Timothy Crowell
Reporter and author John Feinstein signing his books at the 2017 Bookmarks Festival. Photo courtesy of Patricia Crowell

On Sept. 9, Winston-Salem’s 13th annual Bookmarks Festival hosted an event with famed sports reporter and author John Feinstein. The Bookmarks book store hosts this free yearly event in Downtown Winston-Salem and invites authors from many genres to give speeches, be on panel discussions and participate in book signings.

What was initially advertised as a simple question-and-answer session to promote Feinstein’s new young adult book quickly became an informative and amusing “trip down memory lane” in Feinstein’s own words. Feinstein, a graduate of Duke University, shared intimate stories from his long career in sports writing that included encounters with legendary figures in sports like Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano – all of whom he counted among his good friends.

Feinstein is best known for his sports column in The Washington Post, his commentary on various radio and television shows and his many nonfiction books. Readers might also recognize him from his young adult mystery books, which are fictionalized accounts of his experiences from many years in the sports industry. Although he writes in various genres, he said the transition from nonfiction to fiction is “not hard” because he writes about things he experiences in his work for both genres.
Between the tales of comradery with sports’ greatest figures, Feinstein also discussed politics, racial tension and recent controversies in sports like college player payment, the “one-and-done” rule in the NBA, concussions in football and Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Feinstein never once shied away from a controversial topic and seemed to enjoy the tough questions from the audience that his opinions elicited.

Feinstein began his career by writing for his college newspaper, The Chronicle, and he encouraged the young people in the audience to read and write. During his time at The Chronicle, Dean Smith first noticed him because Smith read the college newspapers from the opposing schools. He and Smith became friends despite their deep ties to each other’s rival school, and they held many lively conversations about sports, politics and their personal lives until Smith’s death in 2015. Feinstein’s success at The Chronicle led to an extremely successful writing career and friendships with many other legendary sports figures.

When asked to give advice to current college newspaper reporters and other young aspiring writers, Feinstein suggested for writers to diversify their interests by saying, “Write about as many different things as possible. Don’t pigeonhole yourself too early.” He also gave advice on how to take the inevitable criticism that accompanies a career in writing by saying that he tried to engage with his critics to start a conversation, but he stopped when the critics (especially those on Twitter) resorted to “name calling.”

Although Feinstein’s often hilarious tales about sharing pizza and beer with the greatest coaches and players in sports history were immensely entertaining, the most special moments of the event were the heartwarming stories about his personal relationships with the coaches, players and other reporters. The most memorable stories from the events included Smith’s work in desegregation, Valvano’s cancer foundation and Krzyzewski’s dedication of a winning play to Feinstein’s recently deceased father. Through these stories, Feinstein humanized these legendary figures and revealed their true nature.

As the event ended, it was clear why Feinstein has had such success in his writing career; the stories he told and the advice he gave were simultaneously amusing and heartwarming. Even though he is sometimes considered a controversial figure, he had the audience captivated. A reviewer of Feinstein’s recent book put it best when he wrote, “Feinstein’s best, as it turns out, isn’t sports; it’s human nature.”

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