written by R.L. Bynum
Plans for medical school quickly shifted for Jhabvala with two UNC journalism classes
Sometimes the timing of good news can also deliver a curveball.
Nicki Jhabvala enjoyed covering the Denver Broncos for The Athletic and living near her parents, who moved from Cary to Colorado several years ago.
She lived south of Denver near the Broncos’ practice facility and her parents bought a house near there in June to live closer to Jhabvala.
Four days after their move, The Washington Post offered her the lead Washington Redskins (now Washington Football Team) beat writer job. She couldn’t say no.
“They were thrilled for me but it was a little surreal,” Jhabvala said. “ ‘Oh, we just moved down here for you and now you’re leaving.’ They understand. They were so supportive, they’ve always been so supportive, so wonderful.”
It is the latest stop, one she hopes lasts a long time, in an impressive career for Jhabvala, who grew up in Cary and graduated from Athens Drive High School (although she attended Cardinal Gibbons High School for one year). She earned a journalism and mass communication degree from UNC in 2007.
“This is a dream job for me at the pinnacle in my mind, at least for what I wanted to do,” said Jhabvala, who left The New York Times for The Denver Post in April 2014 to live near her parents.
She wasn’t looking for another job when The Washington Post contacted her in February and she did the first round of interviews. When shutdowns began in March, the process stopped for several weeks until eight people interviewed her via Zoom.
“I feel like my role at The Washington Post kind of blends in some of what I did at The Athletic, and some of what I did as a newspaper beat reporter at The Denver Post. So, it kind of takes pieces from both stops. I thought they both made me better as a writer.”
As a journalist who was an editor for the first eight years of her career, she appreciates the work of editors. In an industry where many chains have severely reduced the number of copy editors, she’s glad to be at a newspaper that hasn’t gone that direction.
“I’m in the minority of writers who really loves good editors,” Jhabvala said. “I want their help. I want their eyes on my copy. I think it’s important. It’s a buffer between me and the reader. When you’re covering subjects or teams like this where there’s much more than just the game to cover or the players, it goes well beyond football and you need additional resources.”
Joining a newsy beat
It would be an understatement to say that she jumped into a newsy beat. The team’s name changed since she accepted the job. So has the Post’s approach.
While she was on the road traveling to Washington to start the job in July, the team retired the Redskins nickname. While she was driving, the team hired Julie Donaldson as its radio play-by-play voice. During her first week on the job, the Post ran a deeply sourced, lengthy and troubling investigative story detailing sexual harassment of former team employees. Last month, the team made Jason Wright the first Black NFL team president.
She joined the beat at possibly a good time, considering women hopefully will be treated more professionally after all of the sexual-harassment revelations. Rhiannon Walker, who covers the team for The Athletic, wrote about what she went through.
That hasn’t just happened in Washington.
“Sadly, it’s an issue with every team. I dealt with similar situations and it’s unpleasant,” Jhabvala said of her time in Denver. “But it gets better and I was fortunate that the team dealt with it properly, and it was ultimately resolved. My only goal in all of this — I just want to do my job. I want to be regarded as a good reporter and not that woman covering football.”
The original Washington Post plan was to have Jhabvala work only with Sam Fortier, who covered the Washington Nationals last season, covering the Washington Football Team. Les Carpenter was making the transition off the beat. But, with so much news continuing to happen, he’ll remain on the beat this season.
At some newspapers, the two NFL beat writers would face a monumental challenge covering all of the news the team generates. But with those three on the beat, and a deep bench of other writers and columnists, Jhabvala and Fortier, in theory, can focus on football.
With former Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera (who missed a Tuesday practice because of cancer treatment) essentially the head coach and GM, she says everything blends together in addition to players being involved in situations beyond the field.
“The lines are always blurred, which I’m totally fine with,” Jhabvala said. “I feel like if you’re a beat reporter for the team, you cover the team to its fullest, whether it’s on the field off the field or whatever. So, whatever happens, it’s our job to cover it.”
Starting a job during a pandemic creates layers of challenges. The Post’s newsroom is shut down until at least next year and she’s met only some of her co-workers. Limited one-on-one contact with players and coaches makes cultivating sources on a new beat difficult.
“It forces you to find new ways of getting information, which ultimately can help you in the future if things do return to normal or some sense of normal,” she said. “But, right now, all our interactions with the people we’re covering are by Zoom or phone.”
She’s used to being busy on an NFL beat. In her nearly 2½ years with The Athletic, she was the only Broncos beat writer. Before that, she was one of either two or three writers covering the Broncos at The Denver Post for nearly 2½ years.
While in Denver, she did quite a bit of radio, including filling in as a host, and also hosted podcasts.
“My six years in Denver were packed,” she said.
From sports to pre-med to journalism
Jhabvala did ballet and gymnastics growing up and played softball and basketball. But her athletic career didn’t reach the NCAA Division I level like her two siblings. Her brother Jordan, who is a year and a half older, played basketball at Brown and her sister Kersie, who is younger, ran cross country and track at Penn.
Given all of that, she says it’s ironic that she’s the only one with a sports-related job. Her siblings have finance-related careers — Jordan at Charles Schwab and Kersie at Optum.
“He was very competitive growing up,” she said of Jordan. “I played basketball in high school. Although I did it more because my brother played and I wanted to be like my brother.”
Even with so much exposure to sports, she didn’t arrive in Chapel Hill as a freshman expecting to become a sports journalist. She first wanted to study medicine and started on a pre-med track, but says she changed her major several times that first year.
“I kind of shied away from journalism,” said Jhabvala, whose grandfather was a state reporter for The Boston Globe, leading her family to encourage a journalism career. “I was like, ‘no, no I want to do my own thing, blaze my own trail.’ ”
Her career goals changed dramatically after taking a night class in sports journalism during her sophomore year taught by former Sports Illustrated writer and author Tim Crothers.
“He had just started there as a lecturer. So, I took the course and absolutely loved it and decided to do more in journalism,” she said.
That sports writing class and an introductory journalism course, which Chris Roush taught, combined to end any medical school plan.
“Those two courses really turned me on to journalism,” Jhabvala said. “And I really felt it was something I could do. I’ve never been somebody who’s super confident and that was one thing that I felt fairly confident in, and that that was big for me. So I just pursued it. And once I get my mind set on something, I can be relentless. Which is great for the work I do.”
She got into journalism school and did so much freelance writing with The Cary News covering local news and sports that she lived at home. Reporting for The Daily Tar Heel, she covered UNC’s 2006 women’s soccer national championship team, Coach Sylvia Hatchell’s’ last team to make the Women’s Final Four in 2007 and some baseball.
She advises students that clips are important.
“I was never asked once what my grade point average was in college,” she said. “I don’t think they even cared about my degree, really. It was, ‘Show me what you worked on. Show me your clips. Let’s see what you’ve done.’ So, I made a point throughout school to work as much as I could. And I did and it helped, ultimately. It also helps having the professors that I did and the connections that I made throughout my time in the J-school.”
An internship with SI Kids the summer before her senior year turned out to be a springboard for her career. She had another internship with SI after graduation and, after that, she took a full-time position as an editor/producer for SI.com. She was initially the producer for the website’s MMA and boxing vertical and also wrote stories.
“To do that which was interesting, to say the least,” Jhabvala said. “Learned a lot and it was good and then moved on to the NBA, which is still probably my favorite sport.”
That fandom doesn’t mean she has any desire to stop covering pro football.
“I don’t know that I can handle the kind of schedule that the NBA has, and I’ve honestly really grown fond of covering NFL teams,” she said. “I like having the bigger locker rooms. The number of stories and the people you meet? I’ve enjoyed it.”
After six months as an online producer and editor for Sports on Earth, she started at The New York Times in October 2012 as a senior staff editor. It’s a prestigious news organization but the hours weren’t glamorous. During most of her time there, she was the overnight homepage producer working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
During her first 13 months at The Denver Post, she was senior digital sports editor before joining the Broncos beat. She went from being the “third wheel” on the beat (helping out for home games) to the No. 2 reporter in her second season to the lead reporter.
Many newspaper journalists start out as writers and go on to become editors but Jhabvala took the opposite path. She said that was more happenstance than because of a plan.
“When I went to school, I wanted to become a writer,” she said, adding that it was harder to get her name out there because writing wasn’t her main job right out of college. “I’m very glad it worked out the way it did. I think having that experience as an editor and an online producer helps me tremendously as a writer.”
Shift to The Athletic meant adjustments
One of the adjustments when she went from The Denver Post to The Athletic was no longer dealing with strict deadlines or word counts and gaining more freedom and more ability to write longform stories. That was the good part. But she found herself stewing and losing sleep over every word because she had more time. Not that she doesn’t stew over every word anyway.
“I think it’s still figuring out what it wants to be,” she said of The Athletic. “When it started, it was a much different model than the newspaper model, obviously. And the idea of kind of experimenting a bit and doing something a little bit different while also covering the team you’re familiar with was incredibly appealing. It worked out. I learned a lot at both stops.”
In February, Jhabvala wrote a riveting story about the still-ongoing battle for control of the Broncos between seven five daughters and two sons of the late Pat Bowlen, who owned the team. Oh, and there was another daughter many didn’t know about until her name appeared on court documents. The storylines also include trustees, team executives and attorneys, all with agendas, seeking power and money.
It took her five years of building up sources to craft a story that she calls both her favorite and hardest.
“There are many different layers to it and there’s just so much there that can and should be reported,” Jhabvala said. “That was probably my favorite just because I was pretty proud of the final product.”
One of her editors at The Athletic was Pulitzer Prize-winner George Dohrmann, a former Sports Illustrated writer. She raves about how he helped her with the Bowlen story.
“I lost sleep over that story,” Jhabvala said. “It kind of opens your eyes to things that I never would have thought about. The way he helped me form the story is something that never would have happened otherwise. I would have never thought to form it that way or to focus on certain things or certain characters or certain moments or open a certain way. Just the whole construction of the story, and at times different parts of the reporting, he had a big hand in. And that helped make the story much better than it would have been had it been just me and maybe another line editor or something.”
Another favorite story was a June oral history of the 2002 Peyton Manning trade. It includes parts of interest to Triangle readers because Manning talks about his visits with David Cutcliffe at Duke in March of that year.
“I talked to Peyton for probably close to an hour,” she said. “It was the easiest interview I’ve ever done. I literally asked three questions and he just talked the rest of the time.”
When the Washington team-to-be-named-later opens its season Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, she hopes it’s the start of many years covering whatever twists and turns are ahead for the franchise.
Pandemic changes ACC football coverage
As with just about everything else in 2020, covering ACC football will be different because of the pandemic. It was already different before this week because there never was the traditional league-wide preseason press gathering in Charlotte.
Under league guidelines, only one pool media photographer and one pool media videographer will be allowed on the field for each game. For the Triangle schools, the photographer is expected to be from The News & Observer or The Associated Press and the videographer from a Triangle television station.
In addition to those pool journalists, others allowed on the field are football and game-day operations personnel, four school-employed social media content collectors for each school and a television sideline reporter. The content collectors, in many cases, will include school photographers.
Schools can credential other media photographers who will be restricted to the stands, and Boston College is doing that.
All press availabilities with coaches and players after ACC games, as has been the case with preseason press conferences, will be done virtually (mostly via Zoom but some schools use Webex or Microsoft Teams). That means that, much like for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the only advantage for reporters being in the press box is the ability to watch the game in person.
It’s game week!
New normal for press conference setup. pic.twitter.com/yvqoVMxEXo
— Rebecca Fiorentino (@beccafiorentino) September 7, 2020
The N&O will make road coverage decisions on a game-by-game basis.
“If the beat writers are comfortable traveling, we will go to any games that are within driving distance,” Todd Adams, The N&O’s sports editor, said via text. “We don’t want any Raleigh sports writers getting on a plane. It’s a safety concern, not a money concern. That plan will obviously be re-evaluated frequently. But that is where we are at for now.”
The newspaper doesn’t plan to have a reporter in South Bend, Ind., for Duke’s opener since that would involve a plane trip.
To maintain social distancing, press box seats for the media will be limited to 17 at UNC and 25 at N.C. State. At UNC, temperature checks will be done at the media gate and there will be no media meal. At N.C. State, media must fill out a questionnaire before arrival and list their temperature but they will be given a boxed lunch. With Duke’s first home game not until Sept. 19, its guidelines haven’t been finalized.
Changes force radio networks to adjust
With no school radio sideline reporters allowed on the field, networks are adjusting. Wake Forest IMG Network sideline reporter Dave Goren is sitting out this season. Duke Radio Network sideline reporter John Roth will instead do game updates from the booth in addition to his normal pregame hosting. Tony Haynes, the Wolfpack Sports Network’s sideline reporter, will join play-by-play announcer Gary Hahn and analyst Johnny Evans in the booth.
Making the biggest adjustments of the Triangle’s ACC school radio networks will be the Tar Heel Sports Network. Sideline reporter Lee Pace will not only be in the booth, he will replace usual color analyst Brian Simmons for nine of 11 games.
Simmons lives in Orlando, Fla., and will only be the analyst for the two games he can drive to: at Miami and at Florida State. Simmons will still be involved in the pregame show via telephone.
“We didn’t feel it was prudent to have Brian flying commercially multiple times as he normally does,” Jones Angell, UNC’s play-by-play announcer, said via email.
The UNC network plans to travel to all road games. It could broadcast road games off of a television feed from its Media & Communications Center on campus, but hopes to avoid that.
The entire Duke radio crew — including Roth, play-by-play announcer David Shumate and analyst Dave Harding — will be in South Bend on Saturday. For now, the N.C. State crew plans to broadcast road games from the school’s ACC Network studio in the Murphy Center.
All booths are expected to have plexiglass separating crew members, allow social distancing or both.
McClatchy sale completed Friday
The sale of The McClatchy Company to hedge fund Chatham Asset Management LLC was completed Friday, turning over a newspaper chain that had been under the control of the McClatchy family for 163 years.
What’s ahead for the chain that owns The N&O, The Herald-Sun, The Charlotte Observer isn’t clear. A name change isn’t, though, since Chatham will keep the McClatchy name.
The new CEO is Tony Hunter, a former executive for Tribune. Hunter is chairman of the board of directors.
One of the two independent directors on the board is former Kentucky and NBA basketball star Jamal Mashburn, who owns more than 90 businesses, including 34 Outback Steakhouse franchises, 38 Papa John’s franchises and many car dealerships.
Duke beat writer Wiseman on medical leave
Steve Wiseman, the Duke beat writer for The N&O and The Herald-Sun, confirmed via email that he’s on medical leave but added that it’s not COVID-19-related. His last byline was on Aug. 25.
In the interim, Carolina Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander has written most of the Duke stories.
All the best to Steve for a speedy recovery.
— John Focke (@JWFOCKE) August 18, 2020
Offensive word in tweet gets Hornets broadcaster fired
The Charlotte Hornets last week fired John Focke, who was their radio play-by-play announcer last season, after he wrote a tweet last month that included the “n-word.”
Focke has said that he was commenting in the tweet about the Jazz-Nuggets game and intended to type “Nuggets” on his phone. When he realized what he tweeted, he quickly deleted the tweet.
Focke, the National Sports Media Association’s 2017 Minnesota Sportscaster of the Year, previously was a producer and studio host for Minnesota Timberwolves radio broadcasts.
Focke is the second consecutive Hornets play-by-play announcer with a short tenure. Chris Kroeger didn’t even make it through the 2018-19 season before the team fired him in March of that season.
Before that, either Steve Martin (2004-05 through 2006-07 and 2015-16 through 2017-18) or Scott Lauer (2007-08 through 2014-15) handled radio play-by-play the previous 14 seasons.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Charlotte Observer, Scott Fowler wrote about his interview with Focke detailing what the announcer called a typing mistake that led the Hornets to fire him.
In The Athletic, Brendan Marks wrote about how UNC’s Chazz Surratt is a quiet guy but that those around him can’t stop talking about his talent.
In Variety, Will Thorne wrote about how Black sports journalists were once discouraged from discussing racial injustice but that has changed. One journalist spotlighted in the story is Milwaukee Bucks sideline reporter Zora Stephenson, a 2015 Elon graduate, a former WNCN intern and a former reporter at WNCT in Greenville.
In Vanity Fair, ESPN’s Bomani Jones, a former Triangle resident and radio talk-show host, wrote a lengthy commentary about the lack of rights given to college athletes.
In Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, Miles King wrote about how former Duke track and cross country runner Jill Karofsky was sworn in as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in the middle of running a 100-mile ultramarathon.
In the News & Record of Greensboro, Ed Hardin wrote about how some sports fans don’t like social justice protests by athletes, aren’t happy with Bubba Wallace and seem to view the mainstream media as the enemy. This is only part of his frustration. He’s also discouraged that when he hears these opinions, the readers often do so anonymously.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, Conor O’Neill wrote about the racial inequity for Wake Forest athletes on campus.