By R.L. Bynum
The Athletic’s Gluck loved covering NASCAR once he gave it a chance
It is a typical travel day for Jeff Gluck. On this particular Thursday, he takes a long flight from his Portland, Ore., home to Newark Liberty International Airport, then hops into a rental car and drives to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.
With a busy day at the track ahead, one of the most respected and popular NASCAR writers talked on the phone during the drive about how he got there.
It certainly wasn’t the path he expected.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gluck, who joined The Athletic last month, followed stick-and-ball sports but didn’t know much about NASCAR. Going to college at the University of Delaware, about an hour away from a track, didn’t spark any interest. Writing interested him, though, as a communications major who took sports writing and journalism classes.
“For a while, I thought I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster. I’m glad didn’t. I definitely don’t have the voice for that at all,” said Gluck, who shifted to a goal of being a baseball writer once he realized how much he enjoyed writing.
After a spring training internship with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2003, he took his first full-time newspaper job that summer at the Rocky Mount Telegram.
He initially resisted when his editor assigned him to cover a race in Rockingham.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t know anything about that. I’m not into NASCAR,” recalls Gluck of his response when his editor made the assignment. That summer, he was thrilled to write about the Carolina Mudcats’ Miguel Cabrera.
Gluck eventually said, “OK, fine,” when told that it would benefit him to learn about the sport. By the time he got back from that Cup race, his view of the sport had dramatically changed, and he set his sights on covering sports at tracks instead of diamonds.
“I went, and I was just like, ‘this is really cool. This is way more interesting than I thought it was,’ ” recalls Gluck, shown in the above photo last weekend interviewing Joey Logano at Pocono. “Being at a small paper at the time, you can do whatever you want, so I said, ‘can I start a NASCAR column?” And they’re like, ‘yeah, sure.’ So I had a weekly NASCAR column all of the sudden after covering that one race.
“From that point on, I was like, yeah, I want to be a NASCAR writer. I don’t know what it will take or whatever. But, for whatever reason, I got fixated on doing that,” he said.
One factor that makes covering NASCAR fun, Gluck says, is that he sees every driver at every race from week to week. A beat writer for a professional team may see a star on another team only once or twice a season or perhaps once every few seasons
“There are not that many people covering it, so you have a chance to get to know them, and they get to know you,” Gluck said. “I think it’s sort of easier to develop some sort of rapport or a relationship than it would be for an NFL writer.”
College beat reporters often complain about poor access to players, which is mostly not an issue for reporters who cover professional teams. But access has sometimes been an issue with NASCAR.
“I think it’s fairly good,” Gluck said. “They’ve stepped it up recently. Before this year, I’d say they were sort of lagging behind some of the other major sports, offered better access to their beat corps. This year, NASCAR has made a lot of changes. Most of those issues are resolved.
Gluck is one of several successful writers who worked at the Telegram, including The News & Observer/Herald-Sun’s Andrew Carter, C.L. Brown and Hugh Kellenberger of The Athletic College Basketball, freelance writer Michael Graff and FiveThirtyEight MLB reporter Travis Sawchik.
“We’re all 23-year-old kids, like, ‘I hope we can get out of Rocky Mount someday. Hope we’re not stuck here forever. But, it’s sort of funny to look back now,” said Gluck, who left the Telegram in 2005 for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Gluck covered ACC football and basketball at the Telegram and, because he paid his travel expenses, Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers.
“That was a pretty cool experience,” Gluck said. “I got to kind of do a lot of different stuff when I was there. That was the beauty of a small paper. You could do whatever you wanted.”
He’s covered NASCAR full time since joining NASCAR Scene in 2007, then with SB Nation (2010–12) and USA Today (2013–17) before going out on his own to cover racing for his website, jeffgluck.com, financed with Patreon donations.
It was a rarely seen setup where Gluck was his own boss, managing the website, setting up and paying for all his own travel and dealing with headaches when the traffic was more than his website could handle.
For the first time, he was his own editor. Well, for the most part.
“There was one guy who was always nice enough that he would always message me and say, ‘hey, I found a typo’ or ‘just to let you know, no errors that I found in today’s posting,’ “ Gluck said. “It’s nice to have a copy desk or somebody to say that’s a good story or not a good idea. All that stuff.”
He had just over 1,100 patrons when, in a two-week whirlwind last month, The Athletic contacted him and he decided to join the subscription-based sports website.
Just like when he left USA Today, he wasn’t looking to leave.
“It happened so quickly, but it came together in a way that made sense, so it wasn’t like, ‘I need more time to think about this,’ ” Gluck said.
Gluck is part of the latest wave of expanded coverage of The Athletic. Last month it announced the addition of The Athletic Motorsports and The Athletic WNBA (with beat writers at each league city in addition to two national writers) and, this month, it added The Athletic MMA.
Gluck expects to still offer staples his readers have come to expect such as “12 questions with …” (evidently, not many drivers use Android), his “Top Five” race rundowns, podcasts and “tweetup” get-togethers with readers.
“The biggest thing changing is that I’m going to try to do some more in-depth stories and feature stories, enterprise-type stuff than I was doing with not having to worry about the back-end stuff,” Gluck said. “I can actually have more time to devote to sinking my teeth into longer-type stories and having different opportunities to do that type of stuff, that’s probably the biggest thing. But, for the most part, I’ll be doing the same stuff that people, hopefully, liked in terms of why they are following me.”
He didn’t cover every race in past seasons and won’t be doing that this season, either. He won’t travel to Brooklyn, Mich., for this week’s race but will be in Sonoma, Calif., for the June 23 race.
“They give you a lot of freedom at The Athletic,” Gluck said. “I feel like at USA Today, it was getting more of the direction of really trying to go after clicks and traffic and things like that with their model. Especially with the last year or two I was there, it was really going in that direction more.”
With no advertising on The Athletic, he can just write good stories and not worry about clicks.
“You don’t have to do anything that’s about clicks or anything like that,” he said. “And that’s what I was doing in my own site, too. But it’s such a different mentality when you’re just like, ‘what’s the best story that’s not going to waste people’s time?’ They’re going to think this is valuable. They’re going to feel like they enjoy reading this rather than we have to trick you into reading this to get clicks.”
As Joe Person found with his transition from The Charlotte Observer to The Athletic, the expectations are different.
“Their emphasis is like, if it’s something that everybody can get somewhere else, it’s not something that you really need to be doing,” Gluck said. “We need to be doing stories that are insightful or outside of the box because, otherwise, why would somebody subscribe? If it’s what they can get for free, then they don’t have a reason to subscribe.”
Most newspaper beat writers have to write while a race/game is going on so that they can send a story as soon as it ends. That was already happening when he left USA Today in 2017.
“It was how quickly can we get this posted. We gotta go, we’ve got to get this right away, even if it’s three graphs that say nothing and you write through it just to have something up,” Gluck said.
It wasn’t the push for clicks that led him to leave USA Today, though. After his wife unsuccessfully applied for similar jobs around the country, Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland hired her as a child-life specialist. That meant that they would relocate there from Charlotte, but his USA Today editors pushed back.
“They felt strongly that, in order to cover NASCAR, that I had to be in Charlotte,” Gluck said. “I felt like most of the job for NASCAR, 95% of it, really, is being at the racetrack. It’s not like when I lived in Charlotte, I’d go to the race shops and be like, ‘What’s up guys? What are you doing today? What are you up to?’ So, I had to figure something else out to do.”
Controlling your exit from the newspaper industry in this volatile time for the business is usually a good idea. That seems to be the case here. When he left, he was one of two full-time motorsports writers, in addition to a stringer. The newspaper no longer has a full-time NASCAR writer and the Gannett-owned publication instead uses stories from its newspapers (The Arizona Republic, for example, when the race is in Phoenix.)
“Who knows, if I stayed at USA Today, I may not have had a job a year and a half later,” Gluck said.
USA Today is far from the only newspaper making such decisions. Few papers have full-time NASCAR writers, even The Charlotte Observer, in the heart of NASCAR country. Brendan Marks covers NASCAR for the Observer, but also is a general-assignment reporter, and only covers select races.
“When I started covering NASCAR, the whole media center was just filled from papers from all over the South,” Gluck said. “It’s just like all of those have stopped covering it.”
The full-time NASCAR newspaper beat writer job has all but disappeared. It used to be Jim Utter in Charlotte (for 17 years until 2015; he’s now NASCAR editor for motorsports.com), Mike Mulhern in Winston-Salem (until 2008), Dustin Long in Greensboro (until 1999; he’s now an editor/writer for NBC Sports) and Monte Dutton in Gastonia.
For years, the venerable beat writer at The N&O was Gerald Martin (who died in 1999.) The last beat writer there until 2003 was Rupen Fofaria, who was also a general-assignment reporter. The non-wire NASCAR coverage for The N&O since then has come from Utter and Marks.
Most newspapers just decided that sports such as golf and auto racing, which are expensive to cover, are hard to justify on shrinking budgets.
“I think it’s an easy cut. It’s something to where there’s not too much of a local angle and everybody’s trying to prioritize the local coverage and the local sports teams,” said Gluck, who then theorized the thinking of newspaper decision-makers. “Well, we have to cut something. If they’re not traveling 36 weeks out of the year, we could be using those resources for the local pro team or local college or high school.’ It’s right there on the wire service … unless there’s a driver from that town or that city and there’s a huge local following.”
It’s a tough time in general for the sport with television ratings and attendance down for races in recent years.
“I think there’s blame to be passed around for everybody,” Gluck said. “NASCAR has made some decisions that have driven a lot of people away, especially a lot of the core fans. They’ve really alienated them and that hurt. You can see it in the grandstands, in the TV ratings.”
The dearth of NASCAR reporting makes The Athletic’s expansion into motorsports even more important for fans who aren’t always getting the newspaper coverage they enjoyed for years.
It says something about that demand, and the respect for Gluck’s reporting and writing ability, that — in a day when many are reluctant to pay for content — the reporting on his website was free to anybody, yet patrons still paid $5 to $10 (and as much as $100) a month to ensure that he could continue to report on NASCAR.
“It was kind of up to them,” Gluck said of his patrons. “You got the same content basically, it was just how much people wanted to support it. It was kind of all over the map.
“They were keeping it free for everybody else, essentially, which is kind of funny because moving over The Athletic, you get all these people on my timeline now, who obviously never supported, they’re like, ‘oh well, you went from free stuff to behind the paywall. I’m sad that you did that,’ ” Gluck said. “It was maybe free for you but there was like 1,100 people paying for me to get to races and to make a living so that I could do it for free.”
Many of his former patrons have been racing to subscribe to The Athletic in the last couple of weeks.
Saturday print editions at The Herald-Sun to end
Starting July 6, if you want to read news from The Herald-Sun on a Saturday, digital — including The Herald-Sun app — will be your only option.
The last Saturday print edition of the newspaper will be June 29, and thereafter the expanded edition that comes out Fridays will be the “Friday/Saturday edition.” The move is also being made at another McClatchy Company newspaper, the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald. [editor’s note: the story’s author was a Herald-Sun copy editor from 1998-2005]
Jeanne Segal, McClatchy’s director of PR and communications, said via email that the chain successfully tested the concept at its Myrtle Beach newspaper, The Sun News.
Segal said that Saturday was the most “modest” circulation day. The plan is to expand the edition that comes out Friday, including a new themed section called Uplift, which will feature “good news for the weekend.”
“… we are preserving all of the content of the Saturday edition but inviting readers to go digital one day a week,” she said.
Segal said that the comics that have been appearing Saturdays will be in Sunday editions and that additional comics and puzzles not currently published in The Herald-Sun will run Fridays.
“We are making this change to invest in our digital offerings for a large and quickly growing audience,” Sara Glines, N&O/H-S president and publisher said in a note in Wednesday’s Herald-Sun. “In fact, our digital audience is now bigger than our print readership on Saturdays. That is why we are shifting more and more of our resources online.”
Rodrigue leaving Charlotte Observer
Jourdan Rodrigue, who replaced Jonathan Jones (now a national NFL writer for Sports Illustrated) on the Carolina Panthers beat in October 2016, is leaving The Charlotte Observer. It was announced internally last week, according to source. The job opening was posted Monday.
She started as the No. 2 person behind Person, then took on the lead role when he left for The Athletic in August 2018. Marcel Louis-Jacques filled that opening. But Wednesday it became official that he also is leaving the newspaper, so the Observer has two Panthers openings to fill.
Some personal news, I‘ll be joining ESPN‘s NFL Nation staff as its new Buffalo Bills reporter starting July 1.
The Carolinas have been my home for the past two years & I‘ll always cherish my time here. I got to work alongside some of the most talented people in the industry…
— Marcel Louis-Jacques (@Marcel_LJ) June 5, 2019
This year Rodrigue won an Associated Press Sports Editors award for beat writing. Louis-Jacques, who came to the Observer after covering Clemson for Orange and White in Greenville, S.C., won an APSE award for breaking news.
Still no sports editors for Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte
It’s been more than three months since Steve Ruinsky, who was the N&O/H-S sports editor, Mike Persinger, who was The Charlotte Observer’s sports editor, and Harry Pickett, who was Charlotte’s deputy sports editor, all took McClatchy’s early-retirement buyouts.
McClatchy is searching for a senior sports editor and a sports editor. One will work out of Charlotte and the other will work out of Raleigh. The senior sports editor spot will be the first one to be filled, but neither has been filled yet.
“We’ve had several candidates in, and we’re working to get this resolved ASAP,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O/H-S, said via email.
Fayetteville Observer sports editor retires
After nine years as sports editor at The Fayetteville Observer and 41 years at the newspaper, Thomas Pope is retiring.
He guided a sports section that, thanks in part to better deadlines than at some newspapers, provided the sort of print section that some people have come to expect over the years.
His motorsports coverage has earned national honors.
Guiding the section will be Monica Holland, who was promoted to lifestyles and sports editor after previously being the Sunday Life and Sandspur editor. She is the former assistant sports editor at the Observer.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
On ACCsports.com, Brian Geisinger looked at some of the more intriguing NBA prospects who will be on ACC basketball rosters next season.
Sopan Deb wrote in The New York Times about how TNT’s “Inside the NBA” made former UNC star Kenny Smith a TV star.
In The Athletic, Mark Kaboly wrote about how former UNC star Ryan Switzer nearly quit football after he was traded twice in four months. It was some words from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin that helped him realize that wouldn’t be a good decision.
On WRALSportsFan.com, Lauren Brownlow wrote an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the Carolina Hurricanes’ social media accounts.
The Panthers made a big offseason move signing Gerald McCoy. The Observer’s Rodrigue wrote about McCoy’s recruitment by Panthers players who did their homework, including a trip to a vegan restaurant.
While UNC, Duke and ECU all advanced to Super Regionals, Campbell fell short of advancing even after winning their opening Regional game against N.C. State. Rodd Baxley of the Fayetteville Observer wrote about the conclusion to a memorable season for the Camels.