By R.L. Bynum
Leaving newspapers, adjusting to the change wasn’t easy for Person
Sports writers are no different than athletes: Changing teams and playbooks requires some adjustments. It took a few weeks for Joe Person to fully make the transition from decades in the newspaper industry to being part of The Athletic.
Unlike most athletes, he didn’t have to move. He didn’t even have to change beats when he left The Charlotte Observer after covering the Carolina Panthers for eight seasons.
Leaving an industry he’s loved since growing up in a newspaper family was difficult. But it was easy for Person, 48, to embrace the idea of covering the Panthers for the subscription-based sports website.
He switched jobs last August, and it took a month or so for him to realize that the daily grind of covering the minutiae of every team move, which is expected when writing for the team’s newspaper of record, wasn’t really the approach at The Athletic.
“When I started at The Athletic, it was right at the cusp of the season,” said Person, who will be busy next week writing about the NFL draft. “I had a week or maybe two and it was right at week 1, and I was sort of still coming at it from the typical beat writer vantage point, for obvious reasons.”
The routine was familiar: A game story, a follow-up story Monday, checking on an injured player Tuesday, finding a trends story Wednesday, writing a story on the opponent Thursday. And then there were numerous stories on transactions. Although a second person at the Observer also covered the team, the grind, which he embraced, still was there.
“I think we all kind of get in those routines that we’re familiar with and comfortable with, so I think I was still kind of in that routine the first month or so with The Athletic,” he said.
His editor at The Athletic Carolinas, Ken Bradley, liked his work but urged a different approach: Three special stories instead of five pretty good ones each week. Fewer stories, and more in-depth or feature-type reporting.
“It was definitely an adjustment period,” Person said.
It was helpful to Person that he wasn’t the only one making a similar transition to The Athletic after covering an NFL beat for a newspaper. Others making similar changes included Larry Holder (who covered the New Orleans Saints for Times-Picayune) and Jeff Zrebiec (who was on the Baltimore Ravens beat for the Baltimore Sun.)
“It was nice to have some sounding boards,” Person said. “A lot of us kind of went through that same sort of transition period.”
The work ethic that made him an outstanding reporter for years at several newspapers is still the same, but it’s just rechanneled.
“You’re not working any less hard, you’re just kind of working differently,” Person said. “I still want to find out about the transactions down the roster. But, whereas before I might write a 15-inch story on a backup offensive lineman signing with the Panthers, now I handle it in a tweet and move on. If there’s a cool story about that backup offensive lineman, then I’ll develop it. But, otherwise, it’s been nice to go at things from a bigger picture.”
He still breaks stories, including the news of Christian McCaffrey’s shoulder surgery and the departure of Eugene Robinson from the team’s radio broadcast team. He just gets the word out a bit differently.
He could have written a story on the Robinson news he was first to break. But, at his editor’s urging, he instead tweeted it, then started working on a story about 10 candidates to replace him.
Panthers will not renew contract of Eugene Robinson, per sources. Former NFL safety had been team’s radio color analyst since 2002.
— Joe Person (@josephperson) March 13, 2019
“I tweeted it on my way to my kid’s baseball practice and then, the next day, dug in on who are some logical replacements to take his spot,” said Person, who helps coach his fifth-grade son’s baseball team.
He also has two daughters, one who is a freshman in high school and another who is a senior and headed to Wofford for the next school year. Conveniently, Person will be in Spartanburg, S.C., for Panthers training camp at Wofford.
In addition to doing a little coaching, the former walk-on tight end at William and Mary stays in shape. He completed his fifth marathon a few years ago and ran the New York City Marathon in 2001 a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks.
Even after a full season and part of an offseason with The Athletic, Person says that he’s still trying to find that balance between the way he covered the Panthers for the Observer and the way he covers it now.
“I think, as a beat guy, you still owe it to your readers and subscribers to give them some of that stuff, too,” he said of the daily happenings. “You don’t want it all to be these feel-good or all these human-interest-type feature stories. You’ve got to give them what’s going on on the beat as well.”
Person said it did feel odd in his first days at The Athletic to be competing against Jourdan Rodrigue after working with her at the Observer for a couple of seasons.
“A little bit. I have a good relationship with Jourdan and that’s good. I think competitiveness on these beats is a good thing,” he said. “Was it awkward? Sure it was. I left, then immediately stayed on the beat, doing it for somebody else a couple of days after I left the Observer. I appreciate my time with them and got to work with some really good people. I took a lot of pride at the Observer in being a team player kind of dude. I’m a team player. I do value that in that job and my current job.”
Being out of the newspaper business still feels different, though. When he was a kid, his grandfather was the publisher of the Williamsport (Pa.) Sun-Gazette, and he also had uncles who worked at that newspaper.
Person said that he hadn’t looked at a job board for years, and it was The Athletic who came to him.
“They approached me,” he said. “It was very, very humbling and it was very nice. It’s been good. Really like what I’m doing and like the fact that I was able to stay in Charlotte.”
Although he didn’t have to leave Charlotte or his beat, he had to leave a business he loved. That wasn’t easy.
“I was really taking a lot of time, first of all, to see if they even were going to offer me. And then when they did, it took a couple of weeks at least of really talking with my family,” Person said. “I grew up in it. It wasn’t like something I came to it late in my career. I’m talking about, like as a middle-school kid, my dad taking me down by the newspaper on a Saturday morning and smelling the ink. Not to sound too corny about all that, but it was very hard. The Observer had been very good to me and I still have friends there.”
He admitted that it wouldn’t have been as easy to leave had the offer come a decade or so ago when the newspaper business was in a little bit better shape.
“Probably, yeah. I think that’s probably a fair assessment,” he said. “I guess there were opportunities 12 years ago. ESPN was hiring people for digital platforms back them. Those were different. Those were meat-and-potato kind of daily-grind-type jobs and that’s what’s different about this.”
Person’s family was more on the business end of newspapers, so his interest in reporting and writing wasn’t necessarily stoked by being around them.
“William and Mary did not have journalism. I finished with an English degree,” Person said. “I knew I didn’t want to teach or work for a publishing house, so I wanted to see if I could get a job combining sports and writing. I liked the writing piece of it.”
His writing career started with internships at the Sun-Gazette working the cops beat and covering city council meetings during summers while he was still a William and Mary student.
He graduated in 1992 and, before playing for the Tribe during the 1992 season as a fifth-year senior, he found out during a summer internship at CNN that newspapers and not TV were what he wanted to do.
After college, an internship at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in West Virginia led to a full-time job at that newspaper covering high schools and helping with Marshall coverage. After three years, he took a part-time job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the Gwinnett County bureau because he wanted to “chase a woman down to Atlanta.”
The last part worked out well because she’s still his wife 20 years later. But, after a full-time job never happened at the AJC, he took a full-time job as the Atlanta bureau person for the Macon Telegraph.
“It was a very cool job, I did a lot with Georgia Tech, I did the Falcons during their Super Bowl season. Covered a lot of the Braves during their heyday and lived in Atlanta working for the Macon newspaper, and that led to The State,” Person said of the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., that he joined in 2002.
That job came about, thanks to a chat with Steve Wiseman, who now covers Duke for The N&O and The Herald-Sun but then worked at The State. Both were in Omaha, Neb., to cover the College World Series, which included Georgia Tech, Clemson and South Carolina.
“He says, ‘hey, dude, you have any interest in covering the Gamecocks? We’re hiring on the football beat.’ I said, yeah, I definitely would,” Person said of that conversation in Omaha. “I was living in Atlanta, but getting paid like you would in Macon, Georgia. I had just met Steve. I still remind him to this day that that was a very fortuitous conversation we had in Omaha.”
Wiseman covered South Carolina’s men’s basketball and baseball teams and Person began eight interesting years covering the Gamecocks football during a time when Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier led the program and, no doubt, provided interesting copy.
“I went over there, I covered the last few years of the Lou Holtz era and the first few years of Spurrier,” Person said. “So, it was an interesting time to be there and kind of dealt with some NCAA stuff at the tail end of the Holtz thing.
“We enjoyed Columbia,” he said. “You couldn’t beat the cost of living. But it was just sort of like, once you covered the Gamecocks for eight or nine years like I did, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do at that paper.”
That’s when he joined the Observer in 2010 to replace Charles Chandler as the newspapers’ main Panthers beat writer. Chandler left the Observer to become an editor and writer for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.
“I moved around a lot but they all felt like natural moves, in terms of I wanted to stay in the Southeast,” Person said. “I married a girl from the Southeast and really like the Carolinas, so once we kind of got to Columbia, if we were going to move, hopefully, it would be somewhere else in the Carolinas.”
He’s covered some memorable Panthers teams, but the first one wasn’t one of them as Carolina went 2–14 in John Fox’s lame-duck season. Whether they were going to the Super Bowl or struggling, years on the same beat has allowed him to cultivate sources.
As with any beat, Person says it’s all about trust.
“That’s absolutely paramount to developing sources,” he said. “You have to decide what’s worth burning a source over because if you get to the point where they don’t trust you or you give them one reason not to trust you, then you’ve lost that source.
“But you also want to stay fresh, too,” Person said. “That’s what’s kind of good sometimes in these NFL cycles. It’s not like you’re going to State College, Pennsylvania, and covering Joe Paterno for 20 years. Ron Rivera has been here a long time. He’s been great to work with. My point is, after so long on one beat, you have to guard against becoming stale.”
Person, who eventually earned a scholarship at W&M and was inducted in the school’s Walk-on Hall of Fame, is the rare NFL beat writer who played college football. There are numerous former players who have become television analysts, but it’s hard to find a former player on an NFL beat. Former Northwestern and NFL player Matt Bowen, now with ESPN, was a contributor at the Chicago Tribune for three years, but mostly providing analysis.
Person is quick to minimize any edge playing college football might give him on the NFL beat when you compare his level of play to that of the players he’s covering.
“It’s not like I was some 5-star recruit who played at Penn State. So I understand that it was a good time in my life. I’m thankful for that experience,” Person said.
What has made a difference on the NFL beat is that two of his former Tribe teammates coach in the NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Alan Williams, the secondary coach for the Detroit Lions.
“That probably has helped more than anything with the relationship-building. That gave me some credibility with not just those guys but other coaches who might have worked with Mike and Alan,” Person said. “I am embarrassed a bit to say that I was never a huge guy in the film room who would spend 12 hours breaking down film in college. I would like to tell you that I am just a wizard at the whiteboard and dissecting NFL secondaries but that is far from the truth. I know just enough to be dangerous.”
Most of Person’s interaction with Tomlin has been in the offseason at either the combine or the owners meetings. If the Panthers acquire a Steelers player, he knows he can count on Tomlin for a quote and some good information.
“It’s very congenial, but it’s also a little embarrassing,” said Person of situations when he’s around Tomlin and also other writers. “He usually will say, ‘you guys know this is my college teammate, Joe P!’ ”
Another W&M teammate was J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ son who went on to a successful NASCAR career.
While playing for the Tribe, he suffered concussions, and that’s given him a unique view while reporting about concussions in the NFL. He wrote about that while still at the Observer.
“I have an interest in learning more about concussions because of what I experienced. The media in general, and me specifically, could do a lot more in terms of just trying to figure out what’s what,” Person said.
Although team access for media covering the NFL is generally much better than it is for those covering college sports, both levels face increasing challenges because of in-house media. Person says that the schools and teams “want to control the narrative.”
The in-house media at the Panthers includes senior writer Bryan Strickland, who has been with the team since leaving The Herald-Sun, where he covered Duke, in the summer of 2010.
“These guys are great. They’re talented,” Person said. “But it’s tough because they get access we don’t. They kind of get the first crack at some of the best stories involving those 90 guys on the roster.
“The good thing is, there are 90 guys and each of those guys has a story to tell and there are plenty of stories that the Panthers still don’t want their guys to write about,” he said. “So we get to write those stories also. But the access, that’s the most challenging.”
With the exception of quarterback Stephen Garcia (shown below with Person), who Person covered when he was outspoken during his time at South Carolina, NFL players are more likely to make sure stories the team/school don’t want told get written.
“In college, the SIDs will muzzle them and these kids are kind of the home team, so to speak,” Person said. “These are grown men we are dealing with on the NFL beat and they’re also grown men who might be in contract negotiations and might feel like the team isn’t giving them a fair shot in terms of playing time, and it’s hurting their next future contract. So they have an agenda. They have a willingness to want to talk with you where the college guys? Sometimes that wasn’t always the case.”
And, for the ninth season, one of the go-to reporters for players to speak with will be Person.
No McClatchy sports editors hired for N.C. papers yet
It’s been more than six weeks since McClatchy’s early-retirement buyouts led to the departures of sports editor Mike Persinger and assistant sports editor Harry Pickett at the Charlotte Observer and sports editor Steve Ruinsky at The News & Observer and Herald-Sun. [disclosure: author is a former Herald-Sun copy editor]
McClatchy will hire a senior sports editor and a sports editor, one working out of Charlotte and the other working out of Raleigh. The senior sports editor spot will be the first one to be filled.
“We’re working hard on filling the sports editor openings,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O & H-S and McClatchy’s Carolinas regional editor, said via email. “We’re down to a strong group of finalists for the senior job. We’ll work more intensely on the second job as soon as we get someone in place for the senior role. I expect s/he will want to help make that decision.”
Canes game coverage making some print editions
So far in the postseason, game coverage of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Washington Capitals has made some N&O print editions for Game 2 and Game 3.
It was obviously easier for Game 2 because that started in the afternoon. But Game 3 was a 7:20 start and game coverage still made the e-edition on Tuesday and some print editions.
“We have been replating for a final edition for the Canes games so far, so some readers farther out may not get the final version,” Tomlin said. “But most of the readers in the Triangle have been. We will continue to do so as long as we don’t get any really late starts.”
Saturday’s start after 8 p.m. for Game 5 might be more of a challenge.
Nearly every sports writer on staff has contributed to Canes coverage, in addition to both beat writer Chip Alexander and columnist Luke DeCock traveling to Washington for the first two games of the series.
Do ratings suggest N.C.’s NBA team is in the wrong area?
There were some surprises when ESPN released the list of the highest-rated local markets for NBA games during the regular season.
There was a North Carolina market in the top 10, but it wasn’t Charlotte. At No. 7 was the Raleigh-Durham market, one of four markets in the top 10 that doesn’t have an NBA team.
The full list: 1. Norfolk, 2. Oklahoma City, 3. New Orleans, 4. Memphis, 5. Birmingham, 6. San Francisco, 7. Raleigh-Durham, 8. Richmond, 9. Houston, 10. Los Angeles.
Mudcats left behind on Triangle coverage
The Carolina Mudcats seem to be the forgotten minor-league team sometimes when it comes to media coverage in the Triangle.
The N&O/H-S had a story and a video on Durham Bulls returnee Kean Wong and a story on the new food choices this season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. There has been nothing on the Mudcats.
The Bulls and Mudcats shared the same opening night. WRAL and WTVD had sports anchors at the DBAP for their 6 o’clock newscasts and WNCN had a story on the Bulls. None of the three had a story on the Mudcats that night on their 6 o’clock newscasts. Durham had also been in the news that week due to a building collapse cause by a gas leak, and reporters covered a moment of silence at the Bulls game in honor of victims of the collapse.
The TV stations have done other stories on the Mudcats, though. WTVD and WNCN both had reporters at and coverage of Mudcats media day the week the season opened.
Late last season, INDY Week had a story on the Mudcats that highlighted the difference between the two teams and their respective goals.
For the Bulls and the Mudcats, daily coverage by the N&O/H-S is limited to a story from The Associated Press that appears on their websites and pretty much can only be found by using the search function.
So far this season, no scores or standings for either the International League or the Carolina League have appeared in the print editions. The only presence for either team in the print editions is each team’s schedule for the next three days.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In the News & Record, Brant Wilkerson-New wrote about Greensboro native Chris Huffine, who spends countless hours living his NHL dream as video coach preparing clips for the team and Coach Rod Brind’Amour. Occasionally, Huffine’s keen eye will lead to a coach’s challenge that nullifies an opponent’s goal.
There were many good stories on Mack Brown during spring football practice: A couple of the best were in The Athletic by Max Olson and another in Sports Illustrated by Andy Staples. Each looked at how Mack Brown has gathered plenty of information during his time at ESPN and how he has refined the way he does just about everything.
In The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski wrote about how Tre and Tyus Jones’ worlds got rocked in January with the news of their mom’s breast cancer diagnosis, which made their respective injuries seem minor for the current Duke and former Duke point guards.
In The Athletic, C.L. Brown looked at why former UNC star Jerry Stackhouse decided to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt and the reasons why it might just work.
On espn.com, Steve Wulf wrote an interesting account of Michael Jordan’s brief minor-league baseball career.
At Inside Carolina, Matt Morgan chronicles roommates at 106 Carolina Avenue in Chapel Hill who dove into some controversy but also led North Carolina to the 2009 national championship.