Media Musings: All In The Pool For Newspapers

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written by R.L. Bynum

Gannett one of the newspaper chains pooling resources in North Carolina

Chains that have depleted newspapers with layoffs, buyouts and attrition are finding creative ways to pool resources.

McClatchy has done that regionally for a few years, including pooling stories from The N&O and The Charlotte Observer to run in both papers and The Herald-Sun. Lee Enterprises pools stories from the News & Record of Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Journal to run in both newspapers with the sports departments consolidated.

The pooling that serves the most newspapers in the state, though, is with Gannett, which has 12 North Carolina daily newspapers — the Asheville Citizen-Times, The Courier-Tribune of Asheboro, The Times-News of Burlington, The Fayetteville Observer, The Gaston Gazette of Gastonia, The Times-News of Hendersonville, The Free Press of Kinston, The Daily News of Jacksonville, The Dispatch of Lexington, the Sun-Journal of New Bern, The Star of Shelby and The StarNews of Wilmington. 

None of those newspapers has the circulation of Charlotte or Raleigh, but Fayetteville, Asheville, Wilmington and Gastonia all are in the top 10 in the state.

In recent years, only Fayetteville and Burlington consistently covered ACC sports, and not usually with a writer assigned to a certain school. 

Now all 12 newspapers, as part of what Gannett calls the USA Today Network, have a UNC beat writer in Adam Smith, a Duke and N.C. State beat writer in David Thompson, and a recruiting and college sports writer in Chapel Fowler. Smith is with the Burlington newspaper. Thompson, the former Asheville sports editor, and Fowler both work out of the Fayetteville newspaper. 

Smith took that role in July, Thompson shifted to that dual beat in November and Fowler was hired in February.

Dan Spears, Southeast region sports editor for Gannett

Overseeing that coverage is Dan Spears, who has the same Gannett title as McClatchy’s Matt Stephens of The Charlotte Observer: Southeast region sports editor. For Spears, that covers the 21 Gannett newspapers in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia that have sports departments.

Spears says he wants more from his reporters than a typical game story.

“What’s the next question that our readers need an answer from us? They can find a score anywhere,” Spears said. “What are the things that we are seeing with our trained sports journalism eyes that we can tell people is going on. Whether that comes out as an analysis piece about why Carolina can’t shoot straight or here are your three observations about this or here’s the question that Roy Williams wanted to answer most in his press conference, that sort of stuff. That’s the big thing that we’re encouraging people to look for because that’s what our readers want. You can go to any fan board and find that out.”

Spears says that much of the coverage of Triangle ACC schools that some of those Gannett newspapers gave readers previously was whatever they got from The Associated Press.

“We can get deeper into that and I’m really excited that we can do that digitally,” Spears said. “I think that’s gonna be important moving forward to our success, getting people to see that and knowing that it’s gonna happen on a regular basis … that they can expect it from us and not just hope for it.”

The collaboration of newspapers in the chain (which GateHouse used to own) isn’t new, but the process is smoother with Spears in a role he took on in April 2020. He was sports editor of the StarNews for nearly nine years, until becoming its assistant managing editor in May 2017.

What is relatively new is the management structure, as well as a content management system called Presto that makes content sharing much easier. Previously, there were many steps to get stories to all of the newspapers.

“We are all in the same CMS, so I can pull up our system and I can switch easily from one site to another,” Spears said. “So, when the story is created in one place, it can go anywhere. And that’s really taken off.”

“Now, every paper that’s in Gannett is inside of this system and it’s really opened up our ability to share content,” Spears said. “If we have stories about the high school association that are relevant to everybody in the state, that story can be created in Asheville and be shared with everybody else in the state. We don’t have 11 different people doing the exact same story.”

Two of the three editors who report to Spears oversee N.C. newspapers: Monica Holland of the Fayetteville Observer, who oversees the Observer, the Triad newspapers and two Virginia newspapers as Central Group sports editor; and Jim Rice, the longtime sports editor of the Greenville (S.C.) News, who oversees the four western N.C. papers and three upstate South Carolina papers as Western Carolinas Group sports editor. In addition to his broader responsibilities, Spears oversees the StarNews as well as the newspapers in Jacksonville, New Bern and Kinston as East Group sports editor.

A lot of the editors’ roles involve coaching.

“It’s a lot of reporters creating what a story list looks like for the week and [Holland] going OK, why are we doing that?” Spears said. “How can we make that better? Are we talking to the right people? It’s a lot of coaching versus assignment.”

Spears grew up in Auburn, Ill., earned a communications degree from Truman State University in Kirkland, Mo., and had no North Carolina ties before becoming Wilmington’s assistant sports editor in August 2008. Previously, he was a copy editor/page designer at the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail, a sports writer/page designer at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md., and the night sports editor at The Augusta Chronicle.

“I had never been to the Carolinas ever in my life until I had my job interview for Anderson,” Spears said. “ ‘Yeah, it’s not as cold down there, I’ll give it a shot.’ And I’ve lived in this part of the world ever since.”

The days when most newspapers had one sports editor who ran the department without collaborating with sports journalists outside their newsroom are over for most publications. There are still a few of those around. But, for the most part, those are smaller newspapers or community newspapers.

“This is the byproduct of the conglomeration of journalism,” Spears said. “This is one of the ways that we’re moving forward. And, yes, it is very weird to have your hand in a lot of cookie jars. But, at the same time, I also found a lot more ability to bring people together who would have never talked to each other about their jobs and how to do their job better or how to do their job in a new way. 

“We are in the process of getting together two high school sports writers — one who’s having a lot of success right now, and another one, he’s trying to grow his audience,” Spears said. “And they’re from very different parts of the state. They would have never known the other one existed a year ago. Their two worlds would have never collided, and now we’re taking the best practices from the one and trying to get them to the other person. And that is something that our regional collaboration has created.”

He says that it becomes easier to test new kinds of reporting and new processes with this collaborative setup to figure out what works, what doesn’t and what is producing good analytics. Spears can coach a writer about what they need to do more and what they need to do less to produce a game plan for them and then share that plan with other writers.

“I think that that’s such a big part of where we’re going as an industry,” Spears said of the different approaches needed with fewer writers and fewer sports editors. “If we’re giving you a really good story every time, you’re going to want to come back and click on that. If you see a story from us every day and you know that we’ve given you a month’s worth of excellent content, the chances are you’re going to click on it again.”

The depleted staffs create challenges. Longtime Burlington sports editor Bob Sutton and New Bern sports editor Jordan Honeycutt were laid off last year. Changes have left Chris Miller as the sports writer for the Jacksonville, Kinston and New Bern newspapers and Joe Hughes as the sports writer for the Gastonia and Shelby newspapers.

The pandemic added to the challenges.

“It’s certainly not been easy by any stretch of the imagination and if it comes off that it was, that’s a lie,” Spears said. “It’s not gonna be easy. Nothing’s been easy in the middle of all this, especially in our industry. But we’re getting there. We’re fighting through it and we feel this is a way that we can come out the other side with a chance.”

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Minor league baseball back but normal play-by-play isn’t

After missing the entire 2020 season, minor-league baseball is back but everything hasn’t returned to normal for play-by-play announcers. Major League Baseball announcers are calling road games remotely from home and the vast majority of minor-league announcers are doing the same, partly because of guidelines MLB set.

Only “covered personnel” can travel with teams, according to Baseball America.

While the MLB announcers see multiple monitors, minor-league announcers will have to depend on MiLB.TV streaming broadcasts that often, depending on the level of play, don’t have many cameras. But not every Class A team — including the Down East Wood Ducks — has streaming video broadcasts.

On opening night, Patrick Kinas was prepared to call the Durham Bulls’ first pitch of the season from Chapel Hill. But he got a text informing him that the start of the game in Memphis would be delayed by rain.

In previous seasons, Post 50 camera operators were stationed in each Durham Bulls Athletic Park dugout. This season, robotic cameras have been set up in each dugout instead.

In addition to Kinas, others returning to play-by-play jobs include the Carolina Mudcats’ Greg Young and the Charlotte Knights’ Matt Swierad.

Young will call all home Carolina games on-site but expects to call road games (except the ones in Kinston) remotely.

Andrew Chapman has replaced Matt Dean as the Fayetteville Woodpeckers’ play-by-play announcer. He broadcast Biloxi Shuckers games in 2019 and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes games in 2018.

Luke Hallett, an Indiana University graduate, is the new lead broadcaster for the Winston-Salem Dash, working with Andrew Murphy, a 2020 University of Kentucky graduate. Hallett is the voice of High Point University women’s basketball and also works UNCG games. Murphy spent two seasons broadcasting Lexington Legends games.

Matt Davis, a University of Alabama sports broadcasting graduate, is the new play-by-play voice of the Down East Wood Ducks. He replaces Matt Present, who will now call games for the Triple-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

State newspapers earn APSE honors

A series on obscure ACC records submitted in Category D through The Herald-Sun earned first place in the projects category in the 2020 Associated Press Sports Editors awards competition. The team involved in that work was Jonas Pope IV, Parth Upadhyaya (now with the Centre Daily Times), Patrick Obley and Chapel Fowler (now with the Fayetteville Observer.)

APSE divides member outlets into four equal categories with the largest in Category A and the smallest in Category D.

The Charlotte Observer in Category B and the News & Record of Greensboro in Category D both earned top-10 Sunday section honors.

The N&O’s Andrew Carter won first place in Category A for breaking news for a story on Ace Speedway defying the governor’s order. In a Category B Charlotte Observer entry, Carter earned fifth place in the explanatory story category on how COVID-19 devastated college athletics departments and seventh place for a story on the cancellation of the 2020 ACC men’s basketball tournament

Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer won second place for columns (four submitted) in Category B and sixth place for an explanatory story on the human cost of disbanding a college program

Ethan Joyce of the Winston-Salem Journal earned a second-place Category C award for short feature for a story on Appalachian State defensive tackle Jordon Earle. Joyce also won 11th place for an explanatory story on how offensive line experience helped four of them get FBS head-coaching jobs.

UNC alum and former N&O writer Barry Svrluga won third place in the explanatory category in Category A, along with Dave Sheinin for a Washington Post story looking at cheating in Major League Baseball

In Category B, Charlotte Observer NASCAR writer Alex Andrejev won third place for beat writing (five stories submitted) and ninth place for short feature for a story on NASCAR legend Red Farmer’s COVID-19 battle.

Former N&O intern Emily Leiker won fourth place in a Division D Herald-Sun entry for an explanatory story on East Carolina cutting its swimming and diving program.

N&O columnist Luke DeCock won fifth place for Category A for short feature for a story on the Wilmington gym where Michael Jordan’s career began.

Jeff Mills, who Lee Enterprises laid off last year, earned fifth place in the explanatory category for his News & Record story on how the U.S. Figure Skating Championships coped with scandal.

In Category C of that category, UNC alum Michael Lananna earned second place in the explanatory story category for a story in The State of Columbia, S.C., about what happened when COVID-19 hit the Erskine College football program. 

Pope won sixth place in a Category D Herald-Sun entry in the explanatory category for a story on how two days with a Marine changed N.C. State’s football season.

In category A, former N&O writer Steve Politi of New Jersey Advance Media won seventh place for columns.

Holland earned an eighth-place game story award in Category D for a story on Fayetteville Christian’s win in the state NCISAA Sandhills tournament final.

Former N&O stringer Madeline Coleman won ninth place in a Division D Herald-Sun entry for short features for a story on Henry Coleman and social reform at Duke.

In Category C, Conor O’Neill, who Lee Enterprises laid off last year, won 12th place for beat writing for his work on the Wake Forest beat with the Winston-Salem Journal

DeCock, N&O team win National Headliner Awards
The N&O earned two sports-related honors from the 87th National Headliner Awards.

DeCock won first place for sports column by an individual, beating out Tim Cowlishaw and Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News. He, along with Pope and Andrew Carter won first place for sports feature writing by an individual or team.

Briefly
— One of seven Region 8 Edward R. Murrow Awards WUNC earned in the large market radio category was for sports reporting for a story by Liz Schlemmer and Dave DeWitt on seasons cut short. Also winning for large market television was WNCN for a Blue Devil Superheroes story that was highlighted in an earlier sports media column on Chris Clark.
— Capitol Broadcasting Company has produced a podcast series on the story behind Russell Wilson and his departure from N.C. State. Co-hosted by afternoon drive-time WCMC (99.9 the Fan) hosts Joe Giglio and Joe Ovies, the first four of the six episodes of “Never Failed: The Russell Wilson Story” podcast have been released. The final two episodes will be released Monday and Wednesday. Giglio, of course, was the N.C. State beat writer for The N&O when Wilson was at State.
Preston Bradsher, a Greenville resident and head content editor for the website She Plays, has started a podcast focused on women’s sports called “She Plays Weekly,” which debuted on April 1. She offered opinions on professional women’s sports and has guests on each episode.
— Former Fayetteville Observer sports writer Thad Mumau has written a novel called “The Baseball Player.” He previously has written non-fiction books on Dean Smith, N.C. State football, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and on his baseball memories.
— Rising UNC senior Jeremiah Holloway, the managing editor of Black Ink and a senior sports writer with The Daily Tar Heel, will intern this summer in The N&O’s sports department.
— The broadcast of UNC’s victory over Michigan in the NCAA field hockey championship was the first school-produced broadcast of a national championship game for an ESPN linear network.
— The Athletic is no longer in merger talks with Axios, The Wall Street Journal reports, but is pursuing another deal, with The New York Times a top contender. In December, Axios purchased Charlotte Agenda, which is now called Axios Charlotte.
— The Charlotte market ranked No. 12 in the country in ratings for the first round of the NFL draft. No North Carolina market was in the top 10 in ratings for the Kentucky Derby.

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North Carolina-related sports stories of note

In The N&O, DeCock explained how the NCAA and local officials have managed to overcome all of the challenges and have put on the entire NCAA men’s and women’s soccer tournaments in North Carolina.

Ahead of “Roy Williams Day” at the PGA tournament in Charlotte last week, former News & Record sports writer Helen Ross talked to the coach for a story on pgatour.com. It’s full of terrific golf stories … like the time he turned down a round of golf with Arnold Palmer.

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, David Teel went behind the scenes with new ACC commissioner Jim Phillips.

In The N&O, Carter wrote about the late artist who created the Mudcats’ logo years ago and was paid $500 for creating a logo that has earned plenty of money over the years.

In Axios Charlotte, Michael Graff wrote about the woman behind the Carolina Panthers’ social media accounts and her miracle child.

In the Charlotte Observer, Rick Bonnell writes that Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges knows humility and explains that this is how he discovered his own truth.

A year after the release of “The Last Dance,” Dan Wiederer, a former Fayetteville Observer writer, wrote in-depth in The Chicago Tribune about the documentary.

On ncsu.edu, former Herald-Sun and News & Record sports writer Tim Peeler wrote about N.C. State swimmer Sirena Rowe, who won an NCAA relay title and has an eye on gold in Tokyo.

In Women’s Running, Erin Strout talked to former UNC runner Shalane Flanagan, who has been adjusting to parenting while coaching Olympic hopefuls during the pandemic.