Media Musings: Charlotte Observer writer David Scott retires

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written by R.L. Bynum

Scott chronicled many big events, made many friends during his long newspaper career

In a turbulent industry with newspaper chains often laying off veteran journalists with little regard for their dedicated years of service, David Scott’s story is one to celebrate.

A sports writer respected by the people he covers and loved by his colleagues and bosses, Scott retired on his terms Oct. 31 after more than 42 years in the business.

From the start of his career as a sports writer for a year and a half at the Hickory Record to his years as an editor in both news and sports for the Charlotte Observer, Scott has been versatile. 

A former Guilford College soccer player, he even coached Lenoir-Rhyne’s soccer team for one year while in Hickory. With no wins and two ties, he picked the right profession. 

Scott spent 41 years at the Observer, the first few and the last 20 as a sports writer. His beats have included high schools, Johnson C. Smith, Charlotte, Davidson, Appalachian State, Wake Forest, South Carolina, the Carolina Panthers, NASCAR, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Hornets.

“I was pretty versatile, which I guess is one of my strengths as a writer and reporter. I could kind of parachute into different beats or different events, and not embarrass myself, be able to write about it with as much authority as I could,” said Scott, who was born in Washington, D.C., but moved to Chapel Hill while he was in junior high school and graduated from Chapel Hill High School.

“I guess I never wanted to let too much grass grow under my feet on any one beat because I was kind of ready to look for something new,” he said. “And there always seemed to be something. I was really lucky to be able to jump around and skip around to different beats and events.”

That allowed him to cover a range of big events that few can match. 

Scott, 65, was at the Rose Bowl for the United States’ Women’s World Cup soccer victory in 1999 and the Big House when Appalachian State upset Michigan in 2007. He covered multiple Super Bowls, Masters, Final Fours, ACC tournaments and NASCAR races, as well as the 2011 NCAA men’s soccer final between UNC and Charlotte.

“The readership needs to have a voice in the local media and I hope I was able to provide that,” Scott said. “I was really lucky to be able to cover some events that were really important and I had a lot of fun doing it.” 

Hoping for better hours since he was starting a family, he became assistant sports editor of the Observer in 1984. In 1994, he became its bureau chief in Rock Hill and then in York County. In 1995, he became director of newsroom administration before returning to sports writing full time in 2000 because that was his first love.

When he publicly announced his retirement on Oct. 30, the praise of Scott on social media was effusive:

— From Mike Persinger, a former Observer sports editor: “Just know that @davidscott14 is an all-time great journalist and a better human being. Charlotte has been lucky to have him.”

— From Matt Stephens, McClatchy’s southeast senior sports editor and Scott’s last boss: “He’s one of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever come across in this industry. We’ll miss him.”

— From Bret Strelow, a former newspaper sports writer now director of strategic communications for Appalachian State Athletics: “David, you were first class in both how you did your job and how you treated people. Always enjoyed seeing you on press row or in a press box.”

— From Scott Cooper, the senior vice president of public relations for Speedway Motorsports: “One of the kindest and most professional reporters I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”  

Observer readers may not have met him but know that they’ll miss his work.

“Unbelievable,” Scott said after having the Persinger and Stephens tweets read to him. “I mean, those are my two bosses over the last 20 years or so. It’s a great feeling. If that’s what people want to say about me as I walk out the door, I couldn’t ask for more.”

He saw many changes in the industry
The Observer staff gathered at Stephens’ house a couple of weeks beforehand. Scott is seated on the left. 

The Observer shares resources and staff with The News & Observer, but the photo also shows how sports staffs have shrunk. Scott says the Observer newsroom is less than a fifth of the 200 people it once included. He says that the sports staff was upwards of 20 people at one time.

“It changed completely, just in terms of the nature of the news, how we gather the news, the nature of the newsroom, the number of people we have in the newsroom,” Scott said. “Obviously, now it’s a 24/7 affair. Back when I started — and for a lot of people much younger than me when they started — you were just worried if you had a story that you wanted to get in the next day’s paper. 

“Now you have to get it up there immediately to get it online. So, that’s probably the biggest thing and then the other thing is how everything is contracted so much,” he said. “It’s just a completely different news environment now. In sports, especially, you’ve got to get it out there immediately, and you have to get it out with far fewer people and resources.”

He hates to see the general state of the industry but is optimistic.

“The heyday was great and I remember it fondly. I’ve been around long enough to remember that,” he said. “It is sad, but I’ve got hope that it’s going to continue to morph into something that’s just as good. It’s going to be different. It’s obviously going to be more online, more virtual stuff. 

“The print product is obviously really shaky right now and not going in the right direction. But there’s always going to be the need for local news in cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and the whole Triangle area. There’s always going to be a need for that. There’s absolutely no organization positioned better than the local newspaper,” he said.

Although the business has gone through many changes, his approach to reporting — regardless of the beat — has always been to be fair. That has a lot to do with the praise he received when he announced his retirement.

“It goes beyond winning and losing. You just want to be fair and make sure your relationships are solid enough that — during good times and bad — they can count on you to write fair stuff and I can count on them to provide news and stuff like that because they have that kind of faith in me,” said Scott, who has covered Charlotte through some pretty down seasons, the start of a football program and the move to FBS. “Things got a little rocky with them in terms of wins and losses. So, you just have to be fair with them and shoot straight and I hope they respected that about me.”

Two stories off the field stand out for Scott.

One was a 2013 series he worked on with Gary Schwab on Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, a great Black football star at Myers Park High School in the 1960s when integration had just started. He had a terrific senior year but was not allowed to play in the Shrine Bowl. Here is the first story in the series, and links to the other stories in the series are at the bottom.

The other is a 2014 story on former Charlotte basketball star Henry Williams. He was a preacher in Charlotte but became quite ill with kidney disease. Williams passed away shortly after the story ran.

Scott’s love for sports and writing came together while he was a student at Guilford College and wrote for two years at the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record.

Writing a story on a phone?

This was the second time he decided to retire. He took a buyout from the Observer two years ago but accepted an offer to return six months later to work 20 hours a week covering Charlotte and Davidson.

But after he left the Wallace Wade Stadium press box after filing his story on the 49ers’ loss to Duke, he knew it was permanent this time. He decided in early September to retire and there are plenty of reasons.

“A bunch of things came together,” Scott said. “I have a new granddaughter, our first one, who we’re going to be able to spend some time with. The time was right, so I decided to pull the trigger.”

Although his last assignment was in a Wade Stadium without fans and with postgame interviews done by Zoom, it was infinitely smoother than what he thought was his last assignment two years earlier.

In the middle of a Charlotte Hornets game, his laptop died and, with it, his running story of the game that he would file as soon as the game ended. With no other option, he filed his story on his phone. Veteran journalists complain about the old Tandy TRS-80 laptops, derisively known as “Trash 80s.” But those made writing a story easy compared to using a phone.

“I ended up emailing the story with my thumbs to the desk,” Scott said. “A whole game story on deadline, as it turned out, because everything got wiped out that I had written. So, I’m sitting there with my little iPhone, writing a story on deadline. It was the last one, at the time, that I thought I was going to do, so that was completely crazy.”

A more common frustration, one many sports writers have endured, is being locked inside a high school football stadium after filing a story. That’s happened to him and it also happened at Dover International Speedway when covering a NASCAR race once.

Chronicling the big upset at the Big House

Scott was on the Appalachian State beat in 2007 when the Mountaineers won the FCS national title and shocked the world by opening the season with a 34–32 victory over Michigan in Michigan Stadium.

He didn’t necessarily go to every road game, though, and sending him to Ann Arbor, Mich., that weekend wasn’t automatic.

“It wasn’t that it was a huge stretch for us to want to cover it. But why should we cover it? They’re going to go up there and get beat,” Scott said. “But we finally literally had the conversation. Harry Pickett, my editor, and I said, ‘maybe something will happen,’ so they decided to send me.”

His story the day of the game was about the disrespect the Mountaineers were getting, including having the school’s name mispronounced, despite being two-time reigning FCS champions.

Since the game was only televised on the Big Ten Network, which was in its first year and unavailable in North Carolina, fans back home could only listen to the game on the radio. That made game stories even more important, but the only North Carolina writers at the game were Scott, Tommy Bowman of the Winston-Salem Journal and Steve Behr of the Watauga Democrat.

“It was obviously something we’ll never forget,” Scott said. “It was really something. It was really fun and there’s definitely a sense of history about that.”

As much of a highlight for Scott as that huge upset was the Women’s World Cup final in 1999 when he hadn’t yet returned to sports full time. The Observer wanted to send a reporter there and he volunteered to cover what he calls a historical athletic event.

His highlights now won’t involve writing or deadlines. They’ll be quality time with his granddaughter.

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News & Observer loses sports editor

One day shy of a year as sports editor of The News & Observer and deputy southeast sports editor of McClatchy, Todd Adams left the newspaper Tuesday. He is returning to Illinois for a non-editorial job outside of a sports department and plans to reveal details about his new job later.

The job opening already is posted. The person filling that position could be based in Raleigh or Charlotte but Stephens said that someone would be based in Raleigh to lead the day-to-day sports operations there.

Stephens is based in Charlotte and fills the role of Observer sports editor but his title is southeast senior sports editor, overseeing sports coverage for the McClatchy papers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.

Also overseeing that regional coverage in deputy roles are N&O assistant sports editor Jessaca Giglio, Dwayne McLemore, the sports editor of The State in Columbia, S.C., and the person who fills the opening Adams created.

Scott’s opening hasn’t yet been posted, and Stephens said it most likely will be a part-time position. In the interim, Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell and preps writer Langston Wertz will assist on the Charlotte and Davidson beats.

All Wolfpack site ends

After 14 months of running an N.C. State site that started as a Maven website and was later rebranded by Sports Illustrated as All Wolfpack, publisher Brett Friedlander announced the end of the site late last month.

All along, Friedlander has been a sports writer for the North State Journal and he’ll continue in that role.

“Because of changes in corporate strategy, Sports Illustrated is discontinuing most of its team-specific websites, including ours,” Friedlander said in his final post for the site Oct. 28.

The first of the Triangle Maven sites was the UNC-focused one that launched in August 2019 with Brant Wilkerson-New as the publisher. After that, Friedlander became the publisher of the N.C. State-focused site and NSJ sports writer Shawn Krest became publisher of the Duke-focused site, now called Blue Devil Country. Quierra Luck took over the UNC site, now called All Tar Heels, early this year after Wilkerson-New left the position.

The Duke and UNC sites are still active.

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North Carolina-related sports stories of note

In the Charlotte Observer, Jonathan Alexander wrote about the difficult road to the NFL for rookie safety Sam Franklin.  

In The N&O, C.L. Brown wrote about how Nolan Smith, a former Duke player who is now the program’s director of basketball operations, has become a leader in the community.

In The Athletic, Seth Davis wrote about Mitch Kupchak’s 2004 pursuit of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to be the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach after UNC’s Roy Williams turned them down, and the panic that ensued at Duke before relief when Krzyzewski said no.

In Indy Week, Brennan Doherty wrote about former N.C. State soccer star Tziarra King who took a leadership role in her rookie season in the NWSL in speaking about racism and discrimination.

In The Athletic, Zak Keefer wrote about the football life of former N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers.

ESPN and FiveThirtyEight looked into the history of political donations by wealthy sports owners. Included in the list are Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and former Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos.

In The N&O, Jonas Pope IV checked in with former East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, who in July became special assistant to the head coach at N.C. State.