By R.L. Bynum
Experimental project offers plenty of high school sports coverage
Newspaper readers aren’t getting the volume of high school sports coverage as before and some have all but eliminated from their budget money for stringers to cover games.
The brainchild of Nation Hahn, EdNC’s chief growth officer, Gametime NC covers high school sports statewide. It debuted with stories on the website late last month and the first of weekly newsletters was emailed this week. He calls it an intense 8-to-10-week prototype.
“It was on our minds that we wanted to do sports one day in part because we believe you can’t separate schools from communities and, for many towns, you can’t separate the community from sports teams, the memories and the traditions,” Hahn said.
EdNC started in January 2015, publishing on the web and in newsletters weekdays with a primary focus on education policy and education news. In 2016, it expanded its scope to early childhood coverage and, last year, added community college coverage.
“We’ve traditionally been grant-funded,” Hahn said. “High school sports, college sports aren’t necessarily something that a family foundation might care about, and so while it was always on our radar, it wasn’t something that we really had the resources to do.”
Since starting, EdNC’s budget has quadrupled, and its staff has tripled. It’s one of 10 news organizations in the Southeast that’s part of part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, which tries to rethink their business models and drive revenue.
“One of the ideas we landed on was pop-up coverage,” Hahn said. “Limited to an event, a season, a time of the year coverage that would have an audience fit that would help us expand coverage. Sports was a natural fit.”
Just like with EdNC content, newspapers can use any Gametime NC coverage for free.
“We definitely have newspapers around the state that take advantage of that,” Hahn said. “It’s not something that consistently happens, but it’s definitely something that does happen.”
Gametime NC fills coverage gaps in the Triangle, particularly with non-revenue sports. HighSchoolOT.com does a good job with that as do television stations in many cases, particularly with football.
“As we build our audience, we’re going to be actually asking the audience directly through surveys, through text messaging, through focus groups, ‘Is this story compelling to you? Is this something that you would pay for knowing that we don’t necessarily have ad-supported revenue for it?’ ” Hahn said.
The consolidated News & Observer/Herald-Sun sports staff didn’t cover any of the state championships in volleyball, cross country or girls tennis last weekend. Gametime NC covered all of it, including many bylines that you used to see in both newspapers when stringers were commonly used.
In addition to J. Mike Blake (Gametime NC’s editor and the former high school sports editor at the N&O/H-S), contributors include D. Clay Best (one of the The N&O’s community newspaper sports editors who was laid off in November 2016), and former N&O and H-S stringers Dan Way (a former H-S managing editor and Chapel Hill Herald editor; he has been a staff writer for Carolina Journal since shortly after The H-S laid him off in 2011), Lee Montgomery (a former H-S sports writer), Tom Shanahan and Alex Bass.
“I thought, they’re all close with one another and they all feel like they are part of the same fraternity, so it’s been kind of a nice little reunion for a lot of them to get to do this work again,” Hahn said.
Blake, an English teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High school who still will write for HighSchool OT.com, will cover games and write a weekly column from a statewide perspective.
Stringers hardly ever cover prep sports for The N&O and H-S any more. In addition, Jonas Pope IV took over high school sports coverage when Blake left in August, even though he’s still expected to write about college sports while continuing to handle the recruiting beat. Coverage focus has mostly been on football.
Saturday’s historic Panther Creek-Green Hope state volleyball title match at Reynolds Coliseum was the first time two Wake County schools have met for a state title in a team sport, but there were no newspaper or television reporters at the game. Gametime NC and HighschoolOT.com both were there.
Last weekend, The N&O/H-S did use stringers, but to cover East Carolina’s home football game against Memphis and UNC’s match with Florida State in the ACC women’s soccer tournament final Sunday in Cary.
Hahn said that the lack of newspaper coverage was a factor in deciding to start Gametime NC.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The whole reason for our founding was that more and more papers were cutting back on policy reporting. It’s definitely part of our business model to look for areas where there’s audience interest but there’s been a retrenchment based off the traditional business model.”
Gametime NC expects to have writers at every state football championship game.
It seems to have been determined that, at least in the Triangle, demand for newspaper prep coverage isn’t that high. Hahn isn’t convinced, and is the process of gauging the demand.
“This is just an experiment for us,” Hahn said. “There are sort of two things to keep in mind with it. One is we want to test out people’s interest in subscribing to the content. We want to ask if people would give $3, $5, $7 a month to receive really consistent, high-end, premium content around high school and community college sports across the state.”
After eight to 10 weeks, Hahn will evaluate the Gametime NC concept and decide how to proceed.
“We usually don’t start something without some intention of maintaining some level of commitment to it,” Hahn said. “It may take the form of being not as intense as Gametime NC. Now that we’ve gone down this route and we have the audience, I think you’ll continue to see us engage in some way with the sports community.”
The components to pay for Gametime NC in the long run would be subscriptions and underwriting sponsorship. It can create integrated advertising, with specific coverage being underwritten.
“We’re going to live or die based on the feedback and the interest of our audience. We definitely know the interest is there so far,” said Hahn, who said 34% of the website’s total traffic in the first week was for Gametime NC. “Based off of audience and underwriters interest, we very much think there’s a niche that we’re filling things that aren’t being sold otherwise.”
Game stories are far from the only content that he expects from the site.
“There are enterprise pieces that we want to explore, such as, should coaches take up teachers’ slots? Should more communities look at club model rather than athletics being the dominion of schools,” Hahn said. “We want to actually explore hard questions through our coverage as well. You’re going to see a lot more of that.”
Hahn says that coverage could eventually expand to community college sports.
This isn’t Hahn’s first sports-related venture. He was the director of digital media for the United Football League. It was a six-team pro league that they hoped would be like a Triple-A affiliate for the NFL and lasted from 2009 to 2012.
“It was a good two-and-a-half-year run and a lot of fun,” Hahn said.
Terrific ACC sports writer, historian lost
If you wanted historical insights on the ACC, or Duke in particular, you’d always get the definitive perspective and information if you read the work of Al Featherston, who passed away Monday.
How long did he follow both? He grew up in Durham going to Duke games with his dad, who was a Duke alum. In 1960, he saw his first ACC Tournament (which Duke won with a 63-59 victory over Wake Forest in the final) and attended the Duke’s 19-10 football victory over Navy on its way to an 8-3 finish and a Cotton Bowl victory.
He saw many peaks and valleys for the Blue Devils after that, chronicling much of it, and had been looking forward to seeing them face Kentucky on Tuesday night.
“The passing of Al Featherston has certainly been one of the saddest moments in the 10-plus years I’ve been here,” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said in a statement. “I’ve had a lot of great memories with Al — working with him, chatting with him and talking with him about anything and everything.
“What a creative and talented journalist; what a great mind; what a person you trust and count on,” Cutcliffe said. “Duke football, Duke University and this community will all miss Al Featherston. May he rest in peace.”
Al Featherston, one of my first mentors in journalism dating to my sophomore year in college, passed away yesterday. Al was at the Durham Sun when I was an undergrad and always went out of his way to help me understand the business. Two weeks ago…(1 of 2)
— John Feinstein (@JFeinsteinBooks) November 6, 2018
(2 of 2) I mentioned in a column (https://t.co/tSA5XDqI86) that it was Al who first told me that going into losing locker rooms was part of the job and I better get used to it. He battled physical issues his whole life; he was sweet, kind, gentle and brilliant. I'm devastated.
— John Feinstein (@JFeinsteinBooks) November 6, 2018
After graduating from Duke, “Feather” started his newspaper career with a brief stint at the Times-News of Burlington in the early 70s. He then worked for years at The Durham Sun (the afternoon newspaper), and was a stalwart on the Duke beat for 13 years at The Herald-Sun after the Sun and The Durham Morning Herald merged in 1992.
He briefly was on the N.C. State beat for The Herald-Sun before being one of many layoff victims in the Paxton Media Group’s first cuts in January 2005. He was the last N.C. State beat writer for The Herald-Sun under Paxton.
So sorry to learn of the passing of longtime ACC sportswriter Al Featherston. Al was a true pro, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lore of ACC basketball. RIP. https://t.co/Q2BJEyCDN4
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) November 5, 2018
You could still read his work in multiple places after that, including at Duke Basketball Report, in Basketball Times (he had a monthly column), in the Blue Ribbon Yearbook and on goduke.com.
You would always either learn something you didn’t know or get some better perspectives on what you thought you knew (like this story on Duke great Dick Groat from January, this one on the history of the Cameron Crazies from 2007 or this one on the evolution of the Duke program from 2010). He was an author, sometimes using his full first name of Alwyn, whose sports books were Tobacco Road and Game of My Life (a collection of Duke basketball stories).
Feather wrote books about history, including Battle for Mortain and Saving the Breakout, both focusing on World War II. He also wrote an alternative-history novel called The Making of Heroes, which explored the possibilities had Bill Veeck’s plan to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with Negro League stars not fallen through.
The respect he earned as an ACC historian is one reason he appeared in ESPN SportsCentury documentaries on Mike Krzyzewski and Larry Brown, as well as the 2013 documentary “Duke-Carolina: The Blue Blood Rivalry.”
More than being a terrific writer, he was just a nice guy who loved baseball and politics. It didn’t take long to realize his liberal leanings once politics were brought up. I remember being in a group with him eating lunch at ACC Operation Basketball before the 2016 elections as we tried to predict how they would go. (Sadly, for both of us, we were mostly wrong.)
He was a fixture on press rows at Cameron Indoor Stadium and, until recently, at the ACC Tournament, and it just won’t be the same without Feather there to take it all in and give his opinions.
McClatchy pleased with response to Sports Pass
In late August, The N&O and H-S began offering a sports-only digital subscription called Sports Pass.
Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor at both newspapers, said the response has been good but she wouldn’t disclose the numbers.
“We’ve been pleased with the initial response to the Sports Pass, and we’re hopeful that the numbers will continue to grow as we head into basketball season,” Tomlin said via email. “I honestly can’t say whether we are meeting or exceeding expectations because we didn’t really know what to expect.”
Similar subscriptions offered at other McClatchy newspapers such as the Miami Herald have been highly successful.
“It has been most popular in major NFL or MLB markets,” Tomlin said. “Also, the ones with SEC football teams have been a bit stronger. That’s why I think we’ll see an uptick as we head into basketball season here.”
The Athletic Carolina adds Glenn as contributor
David Glenn wears many hats, and he added another one this week: contributor for The Athletic Carolina. He is expected to write at least one story a month, with the stories likely becoming more frequent after football season.
He still is host for the noon-3 p.m. statewide syndicated show bearing his name and also works with the ACC Sports Journal and ACCSports.com.
His first story for The Athletic, published Monday, was about Duke’s quest to win a national title with one-and-done players, along with a deep look at the history of freshmen in college basketball.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
The Rocky Mount Pines, a Carolina League team that existed only for the 1980 season, was probably the worst in minor-league baseball history. With a season-ending 13-1 loss to the Durham Bulls, the Pines finished 24-114-1. There weren’t many wins, but there were a lot of good stories, which Samuel Evers, a writer for the Rocky Mount Telegram, tells in this article in The Hardball Times.
Marvin Bagley III took an interesting path to his one-season Duke career, and his brother Marcus is in the midst of his own strange path. As Steve Wiseman wrote in The N&O and H-S, Marvin’s decision to sign with Puma has changed things for Marcus, who is at a Sacramento high school after attending Ravenscroft a year ago and not playing.
In The N&O and H-S, Jonathan Alexander wrote about Daz Newsome’s path from defensive back to wide receiver at North Carolina, where his big-play ability gives him a better chance at making in the NFL than his older family members who played college football.
In the North State Journal, Shawn Krest looked at the numbers to see if North Carolina’s football team really plays as fast as the reputation it has built under Coach Larry Fedora. Spoiler: it doesn’t.