Media Musings: Pope Drives Traffic By “Riding With Recruits”


By R.L. Bynum

Driving traffic to website by “Riding with Recruits”

Today’s newspaper sports writers, like their digital-only colleagues, are as likely to be holding a phone as an old-school notepad. Many times, they are recording video of coaches and players more often than they are jotting down their words.

The shift to video has added duties that sports writers never dreamed about years ago. It has evolved as the emphasis has shifted from print to digital, and has proven to drive traffic to websites.

The challenge is to come up with innovative ways to create video content that will keep users coming back for more.

Jonas Pope IV, a sports writer at The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, enjoyed watching Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series. And after checking out’s “Drive Thru Hot Takes,” with Joe Ovies and Lauren Brownlow giving opinions on a drive to get fast food, he had an idea for a video series.

“I saw their thing, kind of put it in my mind I wanted to do something kind of like that,” Pope said. “Since I was covering recruiting, I figured it was the best way to do it with recruits.”

Pope is a bit like the consolidated sports staff’s answer to Kordell Stewart, who was called Slash because he played so many positions. Among the many reporting areas for Pope are N.C. Central and the ACC, including women’s basketball. But his idea was a way to bring his two principal beats — high school sports and recruiting — into a video series.

The idea became the award-winning video series “Riding with Recruits,” which has produced good website metrics. There was one episode a month in 2018 after the debut, but there were three in January and there have been seven total. The video series won an Associated Press Sports Editors award earlier this week.

“They are always pushing us to do videos with stories,” Pope said of his bosses. “But this is a self-contained video. That was part of it.”

Instead of giving opinions like Ovies and Brownlow, he’s talking with a noted area high school recruit. Ovies said that watching “Comedians” videos and “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden led him to the idea for “Drive Thru Hot Takes,” which got a sponsor late last year.

Featured athletes on “Riding with Recruits” have been Heritage linebacker Drake Thomas (who enrolled for the spring semester at N.C. State), Clayton safety J.R. Walker (committed to Virginia Tech), Clayton defensive lineman Savion Jackson (N.C. State), Holly Ridge basketball center Kadin Shedrick (Virginia), Ravenscroft lacrosse player Brooke Baker (Florida), Wake Forest defensive tackle Jaden McKenzie (who committed to Ohio State a month after his episode) and Enloe defensive end Christian Rorie (Duke).

It’s a bit of a twist on and a longer version of Jay Bilas’ “94 Feet” TV interviews on ESPN with college basketball players. Pope invites a prep athlete to take a ride in his 2010 Nissan Altima while having a conversation.

“I had seen Jay Bilas do that and I thought it was neat,” Pope said. “Interviewing kids in a different setting, away from a traditional sit-down camera on a kid or microphone in people’s faces is always unique.”

He picks up the athlete in the parking lot of their high school and, with a camera mounted, drives around for about 15 minutes while having a conversational-type interview. Once photographer Ethan Hyman edits it down to about 3 or 4 minutes, a new episode of “Riding with Recruits” is ready to go.

“He edits the videos and, in my opinion, he does a great job of capturing the best moments, breaking it down to a 3-minute clip. I have yet to watch one of the interviews and said, ‘we left something out,’ ” Pope said.

The Charlotte Observer, a fellow McClatchy Company newspaper, started its own series by the same name last fall after noticing Pope’s videos. Its version, with preps editor Langston Wertz Jr. doing the driving/interviewing, tends to feature longer videos.

“When we talked about doing videos, right from the beginning, we were always told ‘don’t post videos longer than like five minutes,’ “ Pope said. “If you want to keep the viewer engaged, you don’t want to drag it on too long.”

Pope hinted at possible future special editions of the series that might involve athletes above the high school level.

UNC beat writer Jonathan Alexander, Pope’s N&O/H-S colleague, has been part of one video showing him play a video game with guard Kenny Williams and another one of him playing HORSE with Cameron Johnson. In both, he has a conversation with the players along the way.

“At some point over the summer, Jonathan and I were talking about ways to try to get in front of the camera more the upcoming season,” Pope said. “We were looking for ways to show our personalities a little bit more. They can read our words. They really don’t get to know us. It’s also something that’s non-traditional when it comes to student-athletes.”

While Pope still was brainstorming about it, he wondered if people would be interested in watching videos like that. He bounced the idea off of Brenden Whitted, his friend Nick Birdsong, the manager of social media and digital content for the Denver Nuggets, and college friend Jemayne King, an English professor at Johnson C. Smith.

“I asked them if they’d watch something like that and they all said yes,” Pope said. “So, I said, ‘I’m doing this.’ ”

One issue with being innovative is that there’s really was nothing to pattern the videos after since he wasn’t aware of anybody doing it before his first episode.

“I had never seen anybody do something like this with a recruit,” Pope said of driving a recruit around while interviewing them. “That’s kind of why I wanted to do it that way. With these high-profile recruits, people call them on the phone all the time, talk about the games.

“What I wanted to do for their fans and for their fanbase of these schools was to kind of show them in a different light,” he said. “One thing I always tell kids before they get into the car and we start riding: It’s a very laid-back, casual conversation. I talk about sports a little bit and the sports they play. I talk about it as little as possible.”

When you’re breaking ground on a concept, the first episode is always the most difficult.

That was the case for Pope, who decided to try to get Thomas to be the first guest with the idea in September when he was starting his senior season at Heritage. Thomas agreed to do it, but it took some convincing.

“That first Friday night when I was kind of telling him what I wanted to do, he kind of looked at me like I had two heads,” Pope said.

They had an interesting conversation because they could relate to having a name that is more associated with a musical act — Pope’s first name with the Jonas Brothers and Thomas’ first name with Drake. Yes, Thomas’ friends do call him Drizzy.

“That’s one of the few times where I went into it with some questions in my head I knew for sure I definitely wanted to ask,” Pope said. “I knew I wanted to ask about that because I was curious about it myself.”

Pope said that it got much easier after the first episode was complete.

“Now, I have a link and send it to a coach or send to a player. ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do,’ “ Pope said. “The challenge of the first one was convincing Drake of what the idea was. But once we did it, it turned out OK.”

There is a waiver to be signed before each ride, either by the athlete if they are at least 18 years old or one of their parents if they are younger. He says there, fortunately, haven’t been any awkward traffic situations during an interview.

“No, thank God,” Pope said. “I think it’s because I try to find to areas to ride around. I’m not going to hop on the interstate. I try to find areas where there aren’t a lot of stops or turns.”

He also got a taste of the challenges of Hollywood when Hyman was recording the lead-in that you see at the beginning of each episode.

“We shot the lead-in the same day we did the Drake interview,” Pope said. “It took us 20 minutes to do that. Starting my car, cutting my car off. I did it like 10 or 15 times, I kept rolling by the camera.”

Most journalists conducting an interview have a list of questions. Pope doesn’t do that. But he couldn’t refer to a list and drive at the same time, anyway.  

“I rarely go into it knowing I want to talk about a particular thing,” Pope said. “I do a little research on the kids but, for the most part, the conversation just flows. It helps that Drake, Savion Jackson and J.R. Walker, for the most part, I knew background information on those kids because I had done stories on them or in the case of J.R., I did a whole profile on him, so I knew him pretty well and didn’t have to go into it with a lot of notes.”

9 of 20 at N&O/H-S who were offered buyouts took them

There were 20 newsroom people who were eligible for The McClatchy Company’s early-retirement buyout offer at The N&O and Herald-Sun and nine accepted. The last day of work for all was Thursday, but all have until March 15 to change their mind and return.

In addition to Sports Editor Steve Ruinsky (far right on second row of above post) and photographer Chuck Liddy (far left on third row), others taking the buyout were Mary Cornatzer (business/growth editor; far left on first row), Eric Frederick (audience growth editor and former sports editor; far left on second row), Thomasi McDonald (breaking news reporter; middle of second row), Craig Jarvis (state government/money; middle of third row), David Menconi (music/arts; far right on third row), John Murawski (health/environment; middle of first row) and Jane Stancill (higher education; far right on first row).

I can’t lie; It’s hard to step away,” Ruinsky said in a Facebook post. “The past couple of weeks have been filled with second-guessing, anxiety and soul-searching. (Actually, that’s pretty much my regular state of mind, so business as usual!) I’m looking forward to what comes next and thankful to be able to make this decision on my own terms.”

One who won’t be changing his mind is Murawski, who has taken a job with The Wall Street Journal. He will cover artificial intelligence for the WSJ Pro Artificial Intelligence digital newsletter, WSJ’s 11th digital newsletter that recently was launched. He’ll work from Raleigh, with some stints in New York.

Others likely will be looking for other work, although a couple are expected to retire.

Sports leadership to be consolidated

Earlier this week, jobs openings were posted for a North Carolina Senior Sports Editor and a Sports Editor for McClatchy in North Carolina.

McClatchy is combining the leadership of the sports departments in Charlotte and Raleigh with the exits of Ruinsky in Raleigh, in addition to the departures of sports editor Mike Persinger and assistant sports editor Harry Pickett in Charlotte.

Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O and Herald-Sun and the Carolinas regional editor, said that the senior sports editor will either work at The Charlotte Observer’s office or the N&O’s office in Raleigh and the sports editor, who will report to the senior sports editor, will work in the other city. There will also be a deputy sports editor who will work with both sports departments.

“All three will work with reporters from both newsrooms — but each will have a particular focus on their local readers’ needs,” Tomlin said via email. “This will allow us to have more reasonable editing schedules and to improve planning, communication and collaboration across the state.”

Once the hires are made, it will be determined in which office each will be based.

“We’re trying to leave the locations flexible until we find the right people — and see what works best for them and us,” Tomlin said.

Until the hires are made, columnist Luke DeCock and Carolina Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander will take over leadership of sports in Raleigh, Tomlin said, with the help of others. DeCock will focus on planning and communication and Alexander on editing.

“Both will continue writing as much as is feasible during this transition,” she said. “We hope to get new editors in place as soon as possible.”

N&O/H-S assistant sports editor Jessaca Giglio still is on leave while battling breast cancer.

In addition to the sports openings posted this week, the higher-education reporter position Stancill vacated also was posted.

N&O/H-S garners seven APSE awards

The consolidated News & Observer/Herald-Sun sports staff won seven Associated Press Sports Editors awards and an honorable mention, with multiple individual awards going to Pope, The N&O’s Andrew Carter, The Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler, the News & Record’s Brant Wilkerson-New and the Wilmington StarNews’ Alex Riley.

All the awards were announced earlier this week. Instead of award categories being grouped by fixed circulation-size groupings, this is the first year that APSE divided all outlets into four categories of equal size. The largest 25% are in category A and the smallest 25% are in category D. All winners were among 10 selected (unless noted) in their categories.

Pope’s video award came through The Herald-Sun in category D, as did his award for a feature on an N.C. Central baseball player who recovered from a pitch to the face. Also winning category D award through The Herald-Sun was Ron Morris for a feature on UNC baseball player Reece Holbrook.  

In category B, Carter and Steve Wiseman each won for explanatory stories. Carter’s was a story on UNC’s Tommy Hatton, who walked away from football because of concussions. Wiseman’s was for a story on Marvin Bagley III’s path to Duke and the similarly crazy path of Bagley’s younger brother. In addition, Carter won a features award for a story on the Wallace-Rose Hill football team as it tried to find normalcy after Hurricane Florence.

Also in category B, DeCock won for columns (four columns had to be submitted), as did Fowler.

In the digital contest, The N&O earned honorable mention in category B, the Gaston Gazette won an award in category C and the StarNews got an honorable mention in category C.

Fowler spearheaded the Rae Carruth series that won in the multimedia category, and Fowler also won for projects. The Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville Observer (one of six to win) also won projects awards. Charlotte and Wilmington (one of eight winners) also garnered video awards.

In category B, Jourdan Rodrigue, the Carolina Panthers beat writer for the Charlotte Observer, won for beat writing in (five stories had to be submitted). Her Observer colleague on the Panthers beat, Marcel Louis-Jacques, won for breaking news for a story after the Carolina Panthers’ Eric Reid said that the random drug tests don’t feel random.

The Charlotte Observer was named a top-10 Sunday section in category B.

The News & Record was named a top-10 daily section and a top-7 Sunday section in category C. It also won an investigative award for its reporting on concussions and how it relates to helmets, including a story and a podcast by Joe Sirera and Spencer D. Turkin.

The Fayetteville Observer got an honorable mention in category C for special sections.

In category C, Wilkerson-New won a breaking-news award for a story reporting the suspensions of 13 UNC football players for selling shoes, a game-story award for a story on Reggie Gallaspy’s five-TD game in N.C. State’s victory at UNC and an explanatory-story award for what’s behind college baseball’s success in North Carolina.  

Also in category C, Riley won a breaking-news award for a story about the dismissal of UNCW’s pitching coach, an explanatory-story award for a story on the science of making the dirt right on a baseball infield and a features award for a story on UNCW alumni embracing baseball cards.

Winning column awards in category C were Ed Hardin and Jeff Mills of the News & Record, and Thomas Pope, the sports editor of the Fayetteville Observer.

In category B, photography awards went to Winston-Salem Journal photographers Andrew Dye for a Carolina Thunderbirds photo and Walt Unks (a former Herald-Sun photographer), for a shot of a Bowman Gray Speedway driver celebrating. In category C, Khadejeh Nikouyeh of the News & Record was one of five winners for a photo of a Southeast Guilford assistant coach consoling a player after a loss in the state championship game.

Former Fayetteville Observer sports writer Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune won in category A for an explanatory story on the James Jordan murder.

Former N&O writer Steve Politi of NJ Advance Media won in category A for column writing.

The last month of regular ACC games on over-the-air channels

You’ve become used to watching ACC games regularly on over-the-air channels. But after the ACC tournament — at least for the next few years — the only time that will happen is when an ACC team plays on a national network.

The network of stations in the league’s footprint for ACC broadcasts begun in 1957 by C.D. Chesley will end its run under Raycom with the championship game March 16 at the ACC Tournament.

Next season, you’ll only see games on CBS, ESPN channels, regional sports networks and the ACC Network, which launches in August.

The Athletic hires UNC alum Grace Raynor

The Athletic lured another talented sports writer this week when two-time National Sports Media Association South Carolina sports writer of the year Grace Raynor, a UNC alum, left The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., for the subscription-based news outlet.

She will be on the same Clemson beat she covered for The Post and Courier.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

In The Athletic, C.L. Brown chronicled some of the intense pick-up games of yesteryear between UNC and Duke basketball players.

D.G. Martin did a fascinating two-part interview for WCHL with Lennie Rosenbluth, the star of North Carolina’s 1957 national-championship team. He talks about failing to make his school teams until the second semester of his junior year in high school. He discussed the N.C. State scholarship legendary coach Everett Case offered but later rescinded. The interview is full of interesting stories.

Hardin, in the News & Record, wrote about how Joey Logano is the face of the youth movement in NASCAR.

In The Athletic, Chris Kirschner chronicled the frustrating NBA dunk-contest experience in Charlotte for former Wake Forest star John Collins.

In The N&O and H-S, Jonathan Alexander wrote about sophomore UNC pitcher Caden O’Brien’s difficult childhood as the son of teenage parents. He was saved when his great aunt and great uncle took over custody of him. Now he’s a key member of the Tar Heels’ pitching staff.

Knuckleball shooters are rare — players who create no spin to the ball when it leaves their hands. But Morris in The N&O and H-S wrote about N.C. State’s Jericole Hellems, who is one of those shooters.

Why did Daniel Jones get so little interest from recruits coming out of high school before playing for Duke? In a story in The Athletic, Nicole Auerbach wrote about that.