Media Musings: Sports Media Pivot to Pandemic


written by R.L. Bynum


Pandemic has presented challenges for sports writers, reasons for anxiety

It’s a difficult time for many sports journalists. Until NASCAR restarted its season May 17, there were no live sports to cover and plenty of uncertainty to trigger anxiety.

Even with robust online traffic at many newspapers, the digital revenue hasn’t been enough to compensate for the loss of print circulation and advertising. Chains still seem intent on reducing newsroom staffs. The pandemic only intensified the resulting job security concerns, particularly after Gannett laid off numerous journalists nationwide, including two North Carolina sports writers. Staffers at McClatchy newspapers wonder what the chain’s bankruptcy will mean, although it has added news reporters. 

Many sports reporters, logically, have shifted totally or partially to covering the pandemic when they haven’t been forced to take furlough weeks. Press conferences conducted via Zoom have become common.

For sports writers who emerge from these turbulent spring and summer months with jobs, the curiosity will turn to what their jobs will be like when team sports resume. They all expect and understand restrictions until the pandemic wanes. But some wonder if the “new normal” won’t be much like the normal that existed heading into the abbreviated ACC Tournament.

“I couldn’t help but feel like this was a glimpse of the future for all sports writers,” Ed Hardin, a sports columnist at the News & Record of Greensboro since 1997, said of press restrictions at the NASCAR races in Darlington and Charlotte in the past two weeks. 

“I don’t know that it’s because of the pandemic, or the fact that we’re probably always going to be living with this virus one way or another,” he said. “But there are going to be restrictions on, at the very least, the numbers of media invited to some events, I just have that feeling. You know how it is. We’re getting less and less access, anyway. And it’s all headed toward the sports or the entities or organizations themselves controlling the message now that they know they can do that. They’re never going to give back that power to us.”

Hardin doesn’t want to retire anytime soon. But that’s an option for him that he knows many other writers don’t have.

“If we survive this as a profession, there aren’t going to be many of us left,” he said. “At some point, they’re going to start lopping staff. And it’s probably going to be right around the new fiscal year, which means there will be a lot of nervous people. We’re already nervous.”  

What’s it like to cover a NASCAR race during the pandemic? Few know. Pool reporting that is common on the White House beat has arrived on the motorsports beat. 

Only four reporters, all required to have their temperatures checked upon entering the track and to wear protective masks at all times, were allowed in the press boxes for the Darlington and Charlotte races: one reporter from The Associated Press who is the pool reporter (in most cases Jenna Fryer, but Steve Reed wrote the main story for the Xfinity race), two reporters who the National Motorsports Press Association selects, and one local or NASCAR-designated reporter.

“In my opinion, it shouldn’t be the same in Darlington, where you have a small press box as it is for Charlotte, which has a huge press box,” said Matt Stephens, McClatchy’s senior sports editor for North Carolina. “I don’t know what a good answer is. I’m glad there is media access, because there was a rumor beforehand that there would be no media access. It would just be TV cameras or no written media. So, it’s a tough situation. I really hope that they start to see that this has worked for them. I hope people don’t get sick.” 

The local reporters, respectively, for the two Darlington races were with the Florence Morning News and The State in Columbia, S.C. Reporters from The Charlotte Observer were tapped to fill that slot for all Charlotte races: Alex Andrejev for the 600 on Sunday, the trucks race Tuesday and the Cup race on Wednesday, and Scott Fowler for the Xfinity Series race Monday.

“I hope, as things continue to improve, NASCAR will continue to expand what media they allow and how much because NASCAR and UFC are the first big sports leagues in the U.S. that are back,” Stephens said. “And other leagues may look at what they’re doing and try to use that as a guide. You don’t want a Panthers game where you’re allowed only five to 10 people in that press box.”

For the Panthers’ stadium press box as well as the press boxes in football stadiums at Wake Forest, UNC, Duke and N.C. State and for Carolina Hurricanes home games, you have to take an elevator to get there. To maintain social distance, it would have to be one person in an elevator at a time, without an attendant. In some cases, though, stairs are an option.

Unlike pre-pandemic races where reporters got access to the grandstand, infield, garage and pit road, reporters are confined to the press box. Because there are no in-person interviews, all interviews outside of the race television broadcast are done via Zoom. Reporters have to bring their meals because there is no traditional media buffet.

Ed Hardin covering the Darlington Race from a remote press box (his home)

Other than possibly seeing things not shown on the TV broadcast, this meant that reporters could cover the race from home, which NASCAR encouraged, nearly as effectively. Hardin, who has the most experience on the NASCAR beat of anybody at a North Carolina newspaper, did just that. He covered the Daytona 500 in February and most years would have been in Darlington and Charlotte.

It was the first time Hardin had covered an event from home, something he couldn’t have imagined even while in Daytona. “Not in a million years,” said Hardin, who still had his credential displayed on one of his laptop monitors.

For now, he’s happy to take the option of covering races from home.

“I just can’t,” he said of going to a track on race day. “I’m just not ready yet. My wife’s a nurse. She’s not about to let me do that. I blame it on her.”

Considering he could be a designated local reporter for the June 10 Cup race in  Martinsville, that it’s a mid-week race and the first night race in track history, he admits covering it on-site will be tempting.

If other reporters want to come to the speedway, a staging area is set up outside of the track. As the below map shows, in Charlotte that staging isn’t very close to the track.

The State’s Michael Lananna, a UNC alum, and a few other TV and print journalists made the Raceway Grill their home base instead of the staging area in Darlington. He wrote a story on the scene surrounding that first race. 

“They had a media staging area outside of the track, but it sounded like that was mostly designed for TV folks, and I never went to it,” Lananna said via Twitter message.

There is one pool photographer — at Darlington and Charlotte, it was an AP photographer — for all media outlets. Initially, the pool photographer was going to be from Getty, which has a corporate relationship with NASCAR. Stephens and others conveyed their worries about NASCAR having oversight over that photography work and the switch to AP was made.

“We said that if Getty is the only photographer there, the AP will not distribute those [photos] across the AP wires,” Stephens said. “And, thankfully, NASCAR worked with us and they said they understood and we’ll always have an independent pool photographer there.” 

Strangely, there were more newspaper reporters and photographers (at least five newspaper reporters, at least two TV crews and at least three newspaper photographers) at the season opener for Alamance County’s Ace Speedway on Saturday night than there were at NASCAR tracks for races. 

Those were only minor differences. While there were no fans at the NASCAR races, a packed-in crowd of about 4,500 with little social distancing showed up at Ace. Virtually every reporter wore a mask but face coverings were rare among the fans. At least one was extremely rude to a reporter on his way out.

Media access to NASCAR shops in the Charlotte area is up to the individual teams and Andrejev and photographer Jeff Siner separately visited Corey LaJoie’s Go FAS Racing, for a story on what it’s like for teams during the pandemic. 

“Alex kept her distance and Jeff kept his distance and everyone was wearing masks,” Stephens said. 

Hardin said, in both a positive and negative way, that he wasn’t surprised to see NASCAR be the first major professional sports entity to return since the speedway complexes are so large and it’s easier to social distance.

“I think NASCAR is uniquely positioned to do it,” he said. “The other side of that is that NASCAR’s a little bullheaded sometimes. It’s kind of cool, in a sense, that it’s a southern sport again. They’re only doing the tracks that they can drive to in a day.”

Will press restrictions extend beyond the pandemic? 

“I think it’s absolutely a fear,” Stephens said. “It is a fear that this is how it will be for a while, which potentially limits what information even their fans are getting, allowing them to potentially control the message too much if they limit enough reporter access, where it’s only team reporters, only in-house staff covering games.

“My hope is that once life starts to go back to normal — whenever that is, maybe a year from now — that media access will start to resume to at least what it was before the pandemic,” he said. “I had complaints about what it was before, especially on the college level. But I’d hate for it to get worse in the long run.”

At least for the upcoming academic year, Hardin expects covering college football and basketball to be a lot different.

“It almost has to be, doesn’t it? We’re not gonna be crammed in locker rooms anymore. That’s just never gonna happen again,” he said. “And we’re probably not gonna be crammed in press boxes, either. I think they’ll probably just eliminate two-thirds of us that would have been in a game on a Saturday at Kenan, and that press box opens up a little bit and maybe we can do it. I just think it’s gonna be hard to go back to where everybody’s invited to everything. Schools are gonna do it definitely, I’m sure.”

Well before the pandemic, colleges had reduced access to their programs, as Stephens pointed out. Hardin remembers when Wake Forest welcomed reporters to football and basketball practices with the full support of the coaches and the athletics program.

“Dan Collins used to joke that they should pick [him] up at [his] house every morning,” Hardin said of the retired former Deacons beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal. “There’s nobody else paying attention. And then when they shut him out of practices? That was the writing of the wall there.” 

Hardin, a four-time National Sports Media Association North Carolina sports writer of the year (including the last two years), used to have plenty of fellow sports columnists in the state, including Lenox Rawlings, Ron Green Sr., Ron Green Jr., Ned Barnett, Caulton Tudor, Tom Sorensen and Frank Dascenzo. 

BH Media reduced the number of newspaper sports columnists in the state to three (Hardin, The News & Observer’s Luke DeCock and The Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler) in April 2017 when it laid off Scott Hamilton from the Winston-Salem Journal

Meanwhile, the number of team and school reporters has increased.

“I think that’s where it’s headed, I really do. I think they’ve already figured that part of it out. And [the pandemic] comes along and they come out on the other side of this,” Hardin said, pondering the questions teams and schools might ask. “ ‘How many people do we need covering us if we’re doing it ourselves and we can control the message?’

“Everybody’s doing furloughs now. The layoffs are happening. And I just see it all getting worse for sports writers. The industry in general, but sports writers in particular, are gonna pay the price,” Hardin said.

The News & Record never hired another ACC writer after Brant Wilkerson-New left last summer. Don’t expect another sports editor to be named at the Times-News of Burlington. The Charlotte Observer’s plan to hire a second Carolina Panthers writer and a real-time sports reporter are on hold.

“I’ve been told the positions are not frozen, that we’re just kind of in a holding pattern until we get more answers about what’s next,” Stephens said.

The N&O’s N.C. State beat writer job vacated when Joe Giglio left for Capitol Broadcasting Company in March still hasn’t been posted.

That N&R decision wasn’t pandemic-related. Factors for the three McClatchy positions are likely the pandemic, the lack of sports this spring and summer as well possibly the chain’s bankruptcy proceeding.

There isn’t much the average reader can do to improve access for sports writers. But if you don’t already subscribe to your local newspaper, now would be a terrific time to do that and support local journalism.

Interesting nuggets on NSMA award history

The NSMA published some interesting facts on winners of its state awards over the years.

Only three have won its North Carolina sports writers of the year award and also won it in another state: Ron Green Jr. of The Charlotte Observer (2000; also won the S.C. award with The Greenville News), Herman Helms of The Charlotte Observer (1962; also won the S.C. award six times with The State), and Mark Whicker of the Winston-Salem Journal (1975 and 1976; also won the Pennsylvania award with The Philadelphia Daily News).

Only three of its N.C. sportscaster of the year award winners were also honored while working in another state: Steve Martin of the Charlotte Hornets (1994; also won it in 1980 in Maine with WABI), Wake Forest’s Mac McDonald (1992 and 1995; also won it in Virginia with UVa in 2004), and Wake Forest’s Leo Morris (1971; also won in Wyoming with KVWO four times.)

Ron Green Sr. of the Charlotte News (twice) and The Charlotte Observer (three times) and Wilt Browning of the Greensboro Daily News (twice) and the News & Record (three times) each won state sports writer of the year a record five times. The late Woody Durham, the legendary play-by-play voice of UNC sports, has the record for winning sportscaster of the year at 13.

The Charlotte Observer has the most sports writer of the year awards at 19 and WPTF has the most sportscaster of the year awards at nine.

Walston named executive editor in Asheville

Jewell Walston, who BH Media laid off in April 2017 when she was Winston-Salem Journal sports editor, became executive editor of Gannett’s Asheville Citizen-Times last month. It’s a return to Asheville for Walston, who was its sports editor from 2002 to 2003.

Walston, who previously was regional sports director for Gannett’s South region, will also oversee the Times-News of Hendersonville, the Gaston Gazette and the Shelby Star.

Cotten to enter Knoxville Hall

Stan Cotten, the play-by-play voice of Wake Forest football and men’s basketball for the last 24 years, will enter the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame this summer.

The four-time NSMA N.C. sportscaster of the year began his broadcast career while a student at the University of Tennessee.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

Wright Thompson wrote an excellent, lengthy feature on Michael Jordan for ESPN that touches on many aspects of his upbringing, the heritage of his family, where he grew up in Wilmington and much more.

Fowler wrote a column documenting Jordan’s failures as the owner of an NBA team.

In The Washington Post, Les Carpenter wrote about former Guilford College basketball star Jennifer King. She grew up in Reidsville, has been a football player, a police officer, a basketball coach and is now an assistant coach for the Washington Redskins. She’s the first black woman to be a full-time NFL assistant coach.

During an interview on the “Two Writers Slinging Yang” podcast with host Jeff Pearlman, author Peter Golenbock discussed how his N.C. State book Personal Fouls came to be, starting at the 22-minute mark. Golenbock alleges that a Wolfpack coach dislocated the shoulder of former manager John Simonds, whose information led to the book being done.

In the Carolina Alumni Review, Tim Crothers, an author and former Sports Illustrated writer, wrote about UNC field hockey star Erin Matson, who is the ACC women’s athlete of the year and has been part of two undefeated national-championship seasons in her two years in Chapel Hill.

In The N&O/Herald-Sun, Andrew Carter wrote about what it was like Saturday night at Ace Speedway’s season opener. The track didn’t take measures to limit the crowd or to enforce social distancing, but Carter’s story is a balanced look at how fans and drivers viewed that evening of racing.

Hardin wrote about the odd feeling of covering a race from home.

The N&O/H-S has a series of stories on ACC record-breakers that runs until June 3. The first one, written by Steve Wiseman, looked at former Duke defensive back DeVon Edwards.