Media Musings: Changes in Herald-Sun sports coverage


Media Notebook

by R.L. Bynum

Herald-Sun sports coverage has changed dramatically in the last year

The Herald-Sun sports section bears little resemblance to the editions of recent years — in both good and bad ways. Each reader’s view of coverage changes probably depends on which teams or sports they follow.

There have been shifts in News & Observer sports coverage in the past year as it has implemented The McClatchy Company’s reinvention initiative. But most of those aren’t nearly as drastic as the coverage changes at The Herald-Sun.

Since former Herald-Sun sports editor Steve Wiseman and Jonas Pope IV, the Herald-Sun’s former N.C. Central beat writer, became part of a consolidated N&O/H-S sports staff, coverage decisions have changed.

Wiseman and Pope now work out of The N&O’s office in Raleigh instead of The Herald-Sun’s office in Durham and are no longer part of the newsroom staff list that appears at the top of 2A of each day’s print edition of The Herald-Sun. It lists as sports editor Steve Ruinsky, the N&O sports editor since November 2011, who obviously also works in Raleigh.

Ruinsky leads the consolidated sports staff and decides which sports or teams get covered — at both newspapers — and how they are covered.

Digital metrics appear to drive many decisions.

“There has been quite a bit of change in the sports coverage in both Durham and Raleigh, for a variety of reasons,” Ruinsky said via email. “There is far more coverage of the Triangle men’s basketball teams in Durham, but less of many other sports since the consolidation. That holds for Raleigh, too, which for years had a dedicated women’s basketball beat writer.”

The positive coverage changes for Herald-Sun sports readers since Paxton Media Group sold the newspaper to McClatchy in December 2016 include the addition of:
* an N.C. State beat writer (Joe Giglio until December and Wiseman since then) for the first time since Al Featherston in 2005, when his job was eliminated;
* a full-time columnist (Luke DeCock) for the first time since Frank Dascenzo retired in 2008;
* a Carolina Hurricanes beat writer (Chip Alexander) for the first time since Mike Potter (who also covered the Durham Bulls and NCCU) in 2009, when his job was eliminated; and
* a dedicated recruiting beat writer (Jonathan Alexander until December and Pope since then) for the first time.

For years at The Herald-Sun, N.C. State coverage was more of an afterthought — even when it had a writer who covered the Wolfpack — compared to the extensive attention given to North Carolina and Duke. So that shift is a big plus for H-S readers who are Wolfpack fans.

A better website, more video offerings and a superior e-edition presentation, which now includes dozens of SportsXtra pages each day (explained in the third-to-last item in the notebook earlier this month), in addition to Sport Stats pages, is a big positive for digital readers.

The print pages have been more logically designed since desk work moved from Paxton’s Owensboro, Ky., to McClatchy News Desk East in Charlotte. The photo captions in front-page packages that sometimes had more words than the headline and the story combined are gone as well as pages that didn’t follow fundamental design concepts. The pages often seem templated, though, with the sports-front layout structure rarely changing and without much creativity. Design chances are hardly ever taken.

Depending on which sports or teams interest you, there are plenty of negatives.

One is the drastic shift in high school sports coverage, with games hardly ever covered. And with only one high school sports reporter for both newspapers, this has led to much less coverage of teams in The Herald-Sun’s traditional coverage area.

Other coverage cutbacks have meant only a slightly reduced version of what The N&O gave its readers before sports-staff consolidation. For Herald-Sun readers, it amounts to dramatic change.

For years, Durham readers could count on coverage of nearly every:
* Durham Bulls home game;
* UNC and Duke women’s basketball home game; and
* N.C. Central men’s and women’s basketball home game.

Those above three Herald-Sun coverage traditions were dumped after changes in August, and NCCU football fans should wonder if those games will be covered next season as they have been in the past. Will coverage of non-revenue spring sports at UNC and Duke — some that have produced national championships — also be cut? That coverage traditionally doesn’t pick up until after basketball season.

Mark Schultz, the managing editor of The Herald-Sun, says that he accepts the shifts.

“I’m OK with reality,” Schultz, the top editor in the Durham office, said via email. “The metrics show what people read. Even those stories we sometimes think are important do not always do well. Fans may have other ways to follow their teams. Or the ones who care most may have already been in the stands.”

Most fans in the stands to see their favorite team have come to expect to read insight and analysis from beat writers, who also get the perspectives of coaches and players. To use a sports analogy, that apparently isn’t going to happen if the “scoreboard” that is most important for most news websites these days — the click count — doesn’t show significant numbers.

“We have to do the stories no one else can so that we can stay in business and report the news that matters most — fast, accurate and, when possible, in time for people to affect the outcome, if they choose,” Schultz said.

Many regular-season Bulls games were covered last season. But during the team’s drive to the International League title and Triple-A national championship, there were home playoff games that went uncovered.

Until 2004, The Herald-Sun had a dedicated non-revenue college sports beat writer, Jim Furlong, who covered women’s basketball extensively for more than 15 years. In recent years until part of last season, the Herald-Sun’s UNC beat writer and Duke beat writer also covered home women’s basketball games, and both usually covered UNC-Duke women’s games. That began to change last season.

“While the reduction in coverage is unfortunate, we are sensitive to the decisions media outlets are forced to make due to elements such as budget and staffing,” Lindy Brown, Duke’s senior associate sports information director who handles women’s basketball, said via email. “It is also a primary reason why Duke has invested considerable resources into its own outlets in video, digital media and social media areas.”

The N&O’s beat writers in recent years only covered women’s games in very rare cases, and now the beat writers for the consolidated staff don’t cover women’s games at all. It’s another slight change for The N&O, which used stringers to cover women’s games in recent seasons.

“Obviously we’re disappointed in the decision that was made to cut out the Herald-Sun’s coverage of women’s basketball locally here in the Triangle,” Mark Kimmel, an assistant director of athletic communications at UNC who works with women’s basketball, said via email. “The quality of play and the history of the programs in this area are as good as any in the sport, and because of that we feel the local papers should routinely staff these games.”

This season, only UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell’s 1,000th victory was covered, and not by a member of the sports staff. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the milestone was Herald-Sun news-side real-time reporter Joe Johnson, the former high school sports reporter for Durham.

“The Herald-Sun reporter covered the Hatchell story because he had an interest in the subject and volunteered to cover it,” Ruinsky said. “A sports reporter would have covered in any case, but I was happy to have the help.”

In December, and after Pope switched from covering N.C. Central to the recruiting beat, Eagles game coverage has disappeared.

“I have not received complaints about sports we are no longer covering or covering as much,” Schultz said. “I have received a couple of calls about games not getting in the next day because of print deadlines.”

The tradition of The Herald-Sun covering Eagles basketball started well before they won the 1989 NCAA Division II title. The NCCU program has a high profile for a MEAC school, and a popular and charismatic coach in LeVelle Moton.

It doesn’t matter. The metrics apparently show that N.C. Central stories don’t get a lot of clicks.  

“Part of the shift has to do with the need to make sure we have an audience for our work,” Ruinsky said. “With limited resources, we need to focus as much as possible on areas of coverage of interest to the most readers. This is sometimes a painful process.  We just don’t have the people to cover everything, and in the digital marketplace we need to make our sure our stories find readers.”  

There was a 584-word story on Moton’s team in mid-October. Since then, the coverage has amounted to two January stories — one on how NCCU is depending on two freshmen heavily this season and another talking about how MLK Day is a key milepost for the season  — then stories this month on Moton getting his jersey retired and former Boston College player Ty Graves transferring to NCCU.

Pope, who has covered several ACC games, wrote all those NCCU stories. He’s attended a few NCCU games but has only written the aforementioned stories since the decision has been made to cut out game coverage. Five stories on NCCU men’s basketball is probably similar to what The N&O published in recent seasons.

Pope, of course, is just covering what he’s told to cover.

Kyle Serba, NCCU’s senior associate athletics director for strategic communications, has fond memories of many Herald-Sun beat writers over the years, singling out Elson Armstrong, Potter and Pope. Former beat writer Brooke Pryor now covers Oklahoma football for The Oklahoman.

“They have been able to tell NCCU stories of team championship success, as well as individual triumphs both on and off the playing field,” Serba said via email. “That’s why I was both surprised and saddened to learn that NCCU Athletics, for the first time in my 23 years at the university, would no longer have a dedicated beat writer from The Herald-Sun.

“I certainly understand the changing landscape of the media and how sports are being covered,” Serba said. “However, many of the compelling NCCU feature stories that Herald-Sun beat writers have penned would not have been possible without their regular presence on campus and consistent engagement with our student-athletes, coaches and athletics administrators.”

Although sports coverage decisions are made from Raleigh, the A-section print-edition decisions for The Herald-Sun are made in Durham. The print placement of two stories was quite contrasting, pretty much reflecting the two newspapers’ traditional views of the two programs.

  • The story on Hatchell’s 1,000th victory ran in the next day’s Herald-Sun as the main 1A story while The N&O buried the story inside its sports section — not the next day, but the day after that. A brief ran the next day.
  • Similarly, the story on Moton’s jersey retirement was the main 1A story in the next day’s Herald-Sun, but was buried on page 10B (with the puzzles and the weather graphic) of The N&O — not the next day but the day after that.

“Putting the Hatchell and Moton stories on 1A in Durham were good decisions, which were based I’m sure on what the editor responsible for 1A that day judged was the best they had for the Durham cover,” Ruinsky said. “I don’t recall what the print editor in Raleigh was considering for the cover on those days, so it’s hard to say what either story was competing with. I do believe we could have played the Hatchell story much better in the Raleigh sports section. I remember there was a miscommunication that we discussed afterward.”

Ruinsky said that he wasn’t sure why the Moton story didn’t run in The N&O the same day it ran in The Herald-Sun.

Schultz said that the 1A placements were based on the magnitude of the stories.

“When I see a story on a local sports milestone is available, I grab it,” Schultz said. “I put those stories on 1A and on the homepage.”

In contrast to the absence of newspaper game coverage, the three Triangle TV stations and Spectrum News Raleigh all routinely send crews to NCCU home games as well as UNC and Duke (and N.C. State) women’s games.

Game coverage is partly a personnel-allocation decision. But it doesn’t explain why AP stories on NCCU’s games are hard to find on the website unless you use a search box (a sign that a story may have got there by automation is when the “N.C.” is left in the dateline as it was for this NCCU wire story). That explanation, no doubt, also relates to metrics. The TV stations routinely run on their websites either an AP story or a staff-written short story that are easy to find on NCCU games.

NCCU box scores don’t make either print edition, either. At least some women’s ACC box scores have made some print editions.

During this basketball season, both newspapers run ACC standings (men and women) and AAC men’s standings, but MEAC standings (only men’s standings, not women’s standings) weren’t added until Jan. 23. Before that, about the only time you saw a result in the print edition was when the NCCU score was part of the national scores list. Now, you see the score in the MEAC standings two days later. There are two CIAA teams in Raleigh that also don’t get covered — St. Augustine’s and Shaw — and the newspapers didn’t add CIAA standings (only for the men) until Feb. 6.

The Herald-Sun used to write game stories on NCCU’s women’s games. But there has been no coverage this season. If the score makes the print edition, it’s only because it was included in a national scores list. There probably are interesting stories to tell. First-year coach Trisha Stafford-Odom was an outstanding recruiter as an assistant coach at Duke and UNC, but has suffered through a rough first season with the Eagles.

Down the road, the News & Record of Greensboro has N.C. A&T, another HBCU school, as part of Jeff Mills’ beat that includes UNC Greensboro. He may not cover every Aggies men’s home game, but writes about most of them. When rivals A&T and NCCU met last month, Mills covered the game and, of course, nobody from the N&O/H-S staff covered it.

There still is a legacy page on The Herald-Sun website devoted to NCCU sports because of the newspaper’s tradition of extensively covering Eagles athletics. Stories just aren’t added nearly as frequently since early December. The N&O’s website only has college sports pages devoted to Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and East Carolina.

North Carolina-related stories of note

DeCock told the story in The N&O and The Herald-Sun of former Cary, Wake Forest and Carolina Railhawks star Zack Schilawski, who surprised some by ending his soccer career in favor of a law career.

From the hometown newspaper of UNC’s Kenny Williams, Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes about the junior guard’s doubts in the early stages of his career well before college, and particularly during a frustrating freshman season in Chapel Hill. There were tears after not getting into the game at Duke. But Barber writes that the doubts are gone this season.

Barry Jacobs, in one of his weekly N&O/Herald-Sun columns, looked into the coaching landscape in the ACC, from Kevin Keatts perhaps building a solid foundation at N.C. State to Tony Bennett’s historic consistency at Virginia to Jim Boeheim perhaps hanging on too long at Syracuse.

Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated found that Justin Williams, in his second tour of duty with the Carolina Hurricanes, has returned as the “team grandpa” as he tries to rejuvenate the franchise.

Ron Morris wrote in The N&O and The Herald-Sun about the Cap 7 Conference dynasty of the Southeast Raleigh girls basketball team, which is undefeated and seeking its elusive first league title under Coach Nicole Myers.

Former NFL wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi of Charlotte shares his story of having his hand amputated after an ATV accident with The Players Tribune.