Media Musings: Fayetteville Observer Sports Section Stays Passionate About Print


by R.L. Bynum

Fayetteville Observer evidence that complete print sports sections still exist

Print-edition lovers in the Triangle probably long for the days when they could peruse MLB box scores and read about night games in their newspaper while sipping with that first cup of coffee. Some also miss coverage of sports that the Triangle’s newspapers all but ignore because they produce a light digital audience.

If you read the sports sections of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun (which are nearly identical most days since it’s one consolidated department), you might think that the days of getting a complete print sports section are over.

Yes, the print readers are probably not in the coveted younger demographic. But not every newspaper has turned its back on print readers who were so loyal for years. Even with smaller staffs, there are some newspapers that still are like a grocery store — providing a little bit of everything.

There are examples of complete print sports sections that, while still smaller and produced by smaller staffs, do their best to give readers the sort of product they enjoyed for years. One of the best examples in North Carolina is The Fayetteville Observer.

Its sports writers still cover games involving area minor-league pro teams and high school teams at a time when some newspapers have drastically reduced such coverage.

“As far as covering those specific things, even though we’re way smaller than we’ve ever been, we’re not going to just eliminate our coverage of those kinds of things,” said Thomas Pope, the sports editor of the Observer, who has been at the paper since 1973 and full time since 1979. “I know how we used to do things.”

The coverage approach is very similar at The Times-News of Burlington, a fellow GateHouse Media newspaper, as well as other papers in the state. The GateHouse newspapers in the state, including The StarNews of Wilmington and newspapers in Kinston, Jacksonville and New Bern, also do a good bit of story-sharing.

Coverage decisions at the Observer aren’t driven by what does or doesn’t elicit page views.

“We still try to cover what we think is important up to the point where you can prove that it’s not,” Pope said.   

The state’s oldest newspaper, the Observer has dealt with some upheaval in recent years. After being locally owned for 93 years, it was sold GateHouse in 2016. The Observer’s page production is now done at GateHouse’s massive hub in Austin, Texas, and, with that, the look of the pages has changed and is more streamlined.

A sports department that not too many years ago boasted 13 sports writers is down to three. It’s dealt with huge losses with the departures in recent years of Bret Strelow, Stephen Schramm — two of the best ACC sports writers — and longtime high schools sports writer Earl Vaughan Jr., who is in the NCHSAA Hall of Fame.

Readers can no longer read their work in the Observer. But they can read about the NBA finals and Stanley Cup final games, night NASCAR races and other evening games in the next day’s print editions.

That never happens for the Triangle’s newspapers these days.

MLB box scores still appear daily in the Observer’s print edition

Nearly all Major League Baseball box scores, except for West Coast games, appear in the Observer’s print edition the next day. It’s been a couple of years since The N&O has run MLB boxes and a year since The Herald-Sun has done so, although they are available to digital subscribers through Sports Stats, one of the specialty national McClatchy Company e-edition offerings.

“We run them as part of a paginated page that’s done in Austin,” Pope said. “They literally put the whole page together. We can trim some off the bottom and use them for jumps or whatever. It’s got the box scores on it and your print reader, being the older generation, they expect the box scores in there. We still have the space and the mindset to want to give them that since that’s our core audience, at least for the print product.”

One of Fayetteville’s big advantages is that the newspaper is printed on-site, unlike the Triangle newspapers. Several GateHouse newspapers are printed in Fayetteville, including The Times-News and The StarNews.

The Observer gets the coveted last slot each night, which means that the last page doesn’t have to be done at the Austin hub until 12:30 a.m., and that deadline sometimes shifts to 1 a.m. during high school football season. The Times-News gets the same baseball page, but with fewer box scores since it has an earlier print deadline.

“It definitely gives us a leg up,” Pope said. “It doesn’t help us online but for the print reader, giving them that extra coverage.”

Fayetteville’s deadline allows significantly more night sports to make the print edition than much-earlier deadlines for The Herald-Sun (which has a 7:45 p.m. deadline for the Monday through Saturday papers at 6:45 for Sunday’s paper) and The N&O (8:30 p.m. and 8:10 p.m.) The N&O occasionally replates (or updates) pages, as it did for the NBA draft, for late editions.

Why are the deadlines so early for the Raleigh and Durham papers? It’s about priorities. Last summer, John Drescher, the former executive editor of The N&O, explained.

The N&O and Herald-Sun hardly ever covers the area’s two minor-league baseball teams (the Carolina Mudcats and the Durham Bulls), its Coastal Plain League team (the Holly Springs Salamanders) or its two pro soccer teams (North Carolina FC and the North Carolina Courage). With few exceptions, the in-season coverage of the pro teams is limited to the standings and scores that run each day. The Bulls and Mudcats box scores are sometimes included.

The last N&O/H-S story about the Salamanders, which ran six months ago, was a six-paragraph report after Capitol Broadcasting Company bought the team. No CPL standings or scores run in the print editions.

There are races all summer at Wake County Speedway and Orange County Speedway. Those never get coverage, either. For years, The Herald-Sun covered OCS races.

A recent Observer sports page included news on the NBA Draft–national and local–Carolina League baseball, and the World Cup

Even with only three full-time sportswriters, the Observer always runs at least a short story and a box score in each day’s print edition on its area’s minor-league team (Buies Creek Astros) and its CPL team (Fayetteville SwampDogs).

“We hit them at least once every homestand,” Pope said of sending one of his writers out to a game, “and at the same time [they should] be looking to do feature stories, which I think are more interesting than game stories are in this day and age.”

The Times-News takes a similar approach to minor-league baseball, covering every Burlington Royals home game and many Bulls home games.

The Observer also covers Fayetteville’s arena-football league team, the Cape Fear Heroes of the American Arena League, and its hockey team, the Fayetteville Marksmen of the Southern Professional Hockey League.

“We want to have a little bit of something on everything that’s going on,” Pope said. “We’re not going to satisfy everybody. If we had 25 writers, we still wouldn’t make everybody happy. We kind of live with whatever blowback we get with whatever coverage we’re able to give. It’s a tough balancing act.”

A bigger difference is the approach to high school sports, both in Burlington and Fayetteville and other many state newspapers.

For the consolidated N&O/H-S staff, Jonas Pope IV covers recruiting. But J. Mike Blake is the only writer covering preps, and generally only covers games in the postseason. Even when games are covered, sometimes it takes two or three days for the stories to make the print editions. Not every story on championship meets makes it to the print edition.

All three full-time Observer sports writers — including preps writer Jaclyn Shambaugh — cover games on high school football nights. Also covering games is 30-year veteran Sammy Batten, whose specialties are ACC football and football recruiting. Rodd Baxley, who joined the Observer earlier this year after being sports editor of the Robesonian, will also cover prep football games. The Observer also gets game coverage from former full-time writer Patrick Obley and Al Myatt.

“We pride ourselves on being the source for information on high school athletics around here,” Thomas Pope said. “We have a dedicated website. If you’re going to be all that, you’ve got to do more than pay lip service to it, so we do the most we can with what little we’ve got.”

The reduction in preps coverage by other newspapers surprises Pope.

“Yeah, it really does,” he said. “It’s a new era. Most of your subscribers are of the older generation. The younger kids read everything online or on the phone. We’re having to appease both sides of that deal. But they like to read about each other.”

Spring college sports coverage was cut

There are college lacrosse programs at Duke and North Carolina that have won national championships. And there has been a tradition of the Triangle newspapers covering those sports.

During the spring season, which concluded last month with Duke’s men losing in the NCAA final to Yale and UNC’s women losing in an NCAA semifinal to eventual champion James Madison, coverage nearly disappeared.

There was no coverage of men’s lacrosse until this short story after the Blue Devils clinched a berth in the NCAA semifinals.

In previous years, Patrick Stevens — one of the top lacrosse writers in the country — was a stringer for The N&O for tournament games. He wrote a game story for the semifinals and an advance story ahead of the final but The N&O and The Herald-Sun both ran a game story from The Associated Press on NCAA final.

If you only got your information from The N&O or The Herald-Sun, you’d have had no idea that the UNC women’s team made the national semifinal until it was too late. The first and only mention of the Tar Heels for the season was an incorrect TV/radio listing of their semifinal game in the Saturday, May 26 print editions. The ACC champion Tar Heels’ season-ending semifinal loss was Friday, May 25.

In previous years, when he was sports editor of The Herald-Sun, Steve Wiseman — now back to being the Duke beat writer for the consolidated N&O/H-S sports staff — or another writer would cover NCAA games.

The Herald-Sun used to cover numerous regular-season college lacrosse games, with Peter Koutroumpis frequently stringing the games for the newspaper. That disappeared this spring.

Add lacrosse to the list of sports that don’t produce enough page views to deserve much coverage. There was actually more high school lacrosse coverage than college lacrosse coverage. There were a few college tennis stories this spring, though.

Scores, box scores or schedules never appeared during the spring college sports season unless a game showed up on the TV/radio schedule.

Baseball coverage, thankfully, stayed at about the same level as in past years at The N&O/H-S, including standings running most of the season. Coverage picked up a few weeks before the ACC tournament and postseason coverage included sending Wiseman to Duke’s Super Regionals series at Texas Tech and UNC beat writer Jonathan Alexander to Omaha to cover the Tar Heels in the College World Series.

Tudor Award honors player cooperation with the media

A new award, spearheaded by N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock, will be given every season to recognize the Triangle basketball player who is most cooperative with the media. It’s called the Caulton Tudor Award, in honor of the late sports writer who wrote for the Raleigh Times, The N&O and and is in the N.C. Sports and U.S. Basketball Writers Association halls of fame.

The selection will be made each year by a rotating committee of media members and, retroactively, winners were named for the 2015 (N.C. State’s Ralston Turner), 2016 (UNC’s Marcus Paige) and 2017 (Duke’s Matt Jones).

The winner for 2018 is the Tar Heels’ Theo Pinson, which is well-deserved.

Pinson always was a go-to player for quotes no matter what you were writing about. Following UNC’s game at N.C. State last season, I was the first to approach him in the dressing room. After asking him a question, he noticed that the recorder app was slow to open on my phone, so he paused. After it came up he asked “are we good?” and then proceeded to answer the question.

How many athletes would even notice that, much less wait?

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

UNC fans may not want to follow the link. But, in The Athletic, Dana O’Neil took an in-depth look at the play that led to Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating shot to beat the Tar Heels in the 2016 NCAA final, and the aftermath of the play.

Also in The Athletic, media reporter Richard Deitsch caught up with North Carolina resident Jim Vanderford, an ESPN/ABC cameraman whose job during the NBA finals was to focus completely on whatever LeBron James was doing.

On the website Slam, Yaron Weitzman looked at the journey of former Duke player Cherokee Parks. He went from hating basketball because he thought it was the source of his problems, to loving it again. It was too late to return as a player, but he was able to return to the game with a job in the NBA office.

Columnist Barry Jacobs, on Father’s Day, wrote in The N&O/H-S about how Chris Carrawell, a new addition to Duke’s men’s basketball coaching staff, became the kind of father he never had.

Ahead of North Carolina’s CWS appearance, Chip Alexander wrote in The N&O/H-S how Coach Mike Fox persevered through down seasons and rebounded with this year’s impressive run.

What was it like to be an extra in “Bull Durham”? David Hall of the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk found out in an interview with Norfolk Tides hitting coach Butch Davis.

The NBA draft, in most cases, is where dreams go to die, wrote Ed Hardin in the News & Record of Greensboro. He examined where the NBA is heading and the impact that will have on college basketball.

DeCock lost an old friend, an East Carolina fan, who died last week at the age of 60. He wrote about William “Busta” Howard in The N&O/H-S, but one of the points of the column is to never hold a grudge. Howard attended DeCock’s wedding but, because of a disagreement, they hadn’t chatted for nearly two years.