Omaha sports columnist shares opinions, accepts criticism
By Becca Mann
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Dirk Chatelain is a recognizable name in many Nebraska households. The Omaha World-Herald sports columnist is often known for his hard-hitting questions and critical opinions.
During a 2011 press conference, Chatelain received harsh comments from then-Nebraska football coach, Bo Pelini. The comments from Pelini came after a Chatelain column that criticized quarterback Taylor Martinez’ performance on the field and questioned his standing on the team..
During a phone interview in early April, Chatelain expressed his passion for sports and the drive that encourages him to share his journalistic abilities.
Born and raised in Rising City, Nebraska, Chatelain always had a passion for writing.
Chatelain interned at the Omaha World-Herald in 2003, his sophomore year of college. After the internship, Chatelain returned to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism. In 2005, Chatelain joined the Omaha World-Herald full time as a sports reporter.
Chatelain’s early work focused on feature stories and live coverage, catering to the interests of all sports fans. While he still covers these stories, his work in the past five years has focused on Nebraska football. Chatelain voices his opinion on Husker football topics through Big Red Today, a blog of the Omaha World-Herald’s sports section.
In a state such as Nebraska, where sports fans are passionate, Chatelain has found that many are eager to critique his work. He enjoys writing about topics that are on the minds of fans, but sometimes the backlash is harsh.
“It bothers me especially when I feel like those criticizing are not really reading the piece for what it is,” Chatelain said. “They just look at the headline and have a preconceived notion of what the column is about.”
Going into an opinion piece, Chatelain knows the backlash he receives is simply part of the job. He endures the criticism because he would much rather write about issues that are on the minds of his readers, not just things that will make people happy.
Each of the pieces that Chatelain writes rely on a unique idea. Sometimes this comes from casual conversations, but other times he covers a story from a different source that he felt wasn’t written as well as it could have been.
The creation of an article from beginning to end depends on Chatelain’s responsibility and organization. Because the Omaha World-Herald is a daily newspaper, it must produce content quickly. Chatelain meets with his editor only two or three times before submitting his work.
Each meeting with his editor begins with a question about where the piece is going and its theme. Through the discussion, Chatelain gets an idea of whom he needs to talk to and what information he should gather. He conducts multiple interviews for each story; being thorough is key to Chatelain’s process.
“One of the worst things you can do is sit down in front of a computer and not feel comfortable with how you’ve reported a story,” Chatelain said.
At the Omaha World-Herald, Chatelain is granted quite a bit of freedom with his work. The interactions he has with his editors vary depending on how big the story is, but are usually very limited. Chatelain said this design is both a blessing and curse. He enjoys the creative freedoms, but understands sometimes hands-on work from editors can make a story stand out.
Compared to Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, the Omaha World-Herald is a small production. The limited staff cuts down on the number of people involved in the editing process. After Chatelain finishes a piece, he turns it into the sports editor who then passes it to a general editor for fact checking on names and dates.
For more detailed pieces, the work doesn’t end when Chatelain submits an story. In addition to the words on the page, Chatelain includes visuals to entertain readers. He works with designers on his stories to create interactive elements, which keep the reader involved. In an article featuring Nebraska’s new head football coach, Mike Riley, Chatelain worked with designers to create videos, information graphics and interactive sections for the reader.
Even though Chatelain has written countless features and columns, it’s easy for him to identify the ones that stand out.
During fall of 2013, Chatelain followed the Lindsay, Nebraska, football team – one of Nebraska’s 16 remaining six-man football teams. The story introduced sports fans to a game they maybe had never seen. Chatelain formed relationships with players and their parents to gain an understanding of the impact this program had on Lindsay.
The season that Chatelain covered was the last for the team. Of the 98 students that attended the K-12 school, only seven went out for the football team. Schools in rural Nebraska are consolidating because of a lack of funding and students, which in return hurts the athletic programs. The article also provided readers with a history of football programs in rural Nebraska and the challenges students face as programs are cut.
This feature was much different from what Chatelain was used to writing. Chatelain had the opportunity to show readers what sports are like outside of the Cornhusker football.
In Chatelain’s eyes, being the best isn’t necessarily about being able to do it all. He notes that most professionals advise young journalists to learn every trade to become successful. While he agrees that having a wide spectrum of knowledge is important, being a pro in one specific area will make a person stand out.
“It’s important that young journalists be exceptional at something (and) be able to do something better than (their) peers,” Chatelain said. “It’s not enough just to be versatile, you have to be exceptional at one element of journalism.”