Media Musings: Sports Reporters Flourish in Florence Coverage

By R.L. Bynum

Sports journalists pitched in on Florence coverage

This wasn’t the time to “stick to sports.”

Like September Major League Baseball call-ups, sports journalists around the Triangle and across the state added depth to news teams and provided the needed personnel to cover the scope of Hurricane Florence and its aftermath.

Thursday, Sept. 13, was the first of several days with no sports reporting or sportscasts as television stations provided essential information on the storm’s path, how viewers should proceed and where conditions were deteriorating.

There have been nights when there was no sportscast on some stations because of a breaking story or a severe storm, but it’s rare that there are multiple days without sportscasts.

“We have had consecutive sportscasts canceled due to winter weather as well,” Jeff Gravley, WRAL sports anchor, said via text. “But this may be the longest stretch without sports since 9-11.”

The fact that there were no high school or college football games in the Triangle after Wednesday probably made the decision even easier.

“If there were games, we would’ve been there in some limited capacity,” Mark Armstrong, WTVD sports anchor, said via Twitter message. “Thursday, for example, when our wall-to-wall coverage began, I spent the first several hours at the first day of Canes camp even though none of it made air.”

He shot videos using his phone and posted several of them on social media.

The first day of Carolina Hurricanes training camp typically gets plenty of coverage in the Triangle. There were stories in The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun and the North State Journal from the first day of camp Sept. 13, but nothing made it on the air on the TV stations.

Like WTVD, WNCN was also at the first day of Hurricanes camp. WRAL had planned to be there, but didn’t go because of more pressing Florence coverage. In addition, it’s unlikely that the Durham Bulls’ International League title even got mentioned on local television.

Normally, that would be unacceptable. But this was far from a normal situation. Because there was an actual hurricane, it was absolutely the right call.

After Wednesday, Sept. 12, WRAL didn’t resume sportscasts until the 10 p.m. WRAZ newscast and 11 p.m. WRAL newscast Tuesday night. There wasn’t a sportscast on WRAL’s 6 p.m. newscast Thursday. WNCN resumed sportscasts Tuesday during the 6 p.m. newscast.

WTVD resumed sportscasts Monday with its 10 p.m. newscast on WLFL and the 11 p.m. WTVD newscast (but not the 6 o’clock newscast). Even Wednesday, Armstrong’s only sports stories on the 6 p.m. news were about sports teams/coaches offering some sort of Florence aid.

While Armstrong helped with WTVD’s coverage of the storm from the studio, Joe Mazur and Bridget Condon were out reporting on the storm. “Game Day” Charlie Mickens, a veteran photojournalist who is a fixture at area games, was Condon’s photographer throughout her coverage.

At WRAL, Jeff Gravley, Jared Fialko, Mary Dunleavy and Nick Stevens covered the storm. In addition, former sports anchor Mandy Mitchell’s storm-reporting duties included taking a flight over Florence with hurricane hunters while the eye was over the Atlantic Ocean. Brad Simmons, WRAL’s main sports photographer who has been at the station more than 20 years, was working with news reporter Amanda Lamb covering Florence in Wilmington.

“I am so proud of how our sports team chipped in to help in the continuous coverage of Hurricane Florence,” said Gravley, who was stung by a wasp during one live shot. He has property in Atlantic Beach, but says it fared well.

Sports anchors reporting on the storm for WNCN were Jeff Jones and Todd Gibson. Gibson said that its third sports anchor, Arran Andersen, had to go to a wedding and barely made it out of town in time.

Spectrum News sports reporters J.B. Ricks and Mike Toper covered the storm. “Sports Night” with former Triangle radio host Mike Solarte returned to airing nightly at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

The sports reporters covering Florence for the TV stations worked 12-hour shifts, usually 9 to 9 or 3 to 3 (a.m. or p.m. flipped, depending on the reporter), with those hours extended in some cases.

“I think the biggest thing is we care about sports and want to cover sports,” Dunleavy said. “But we also just want to help, and I think that shines through all throughout the week. All of us want to help, and that’s the bottom line.”

At The N&O/H-S, Andrew Carter, who left the sports department in December for the investigations team, did some outstanding reporting and also took a viral photo with his iPhone 7 of an evacuee in New Bern with a kitten on his shoulder.

Carter’s story on the Atlantic Beach bar that opens 365 days a year but closed because of Florence was all but copied by the Fox News website.

“We pulled all of our sports reporters and editors into storm coverage — along with the rest of our staff — for at least a day or two late last week and through the weekend,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O and The Herald-Sun, said via email. “Several were already scheduled to work the weekend, but their games were postponed/canceled, so they were happy to help out.

“I know several have covered news in the past at some point in their careers, though.

In situations like these, it’s all hands on deck, and I’m proud of the contributions of all staff members,” Tomlin said.

The newspapers still put out a sports section, but its sports writers wrote several stories about the storm, including columnist Luke DeCock on the woman who interpreted sign language for Gov. Roy Cooper’s storm updates and the work of tree crews, as well as Chip Alexander and Jonathan Alexander contributing to this collection of stories..

There are many other examples of sports writers throughout the state pitching in, including Fayetteville Observer sports writer Rodd Baxley reporting about the devastation in his hometown of Bladenboro.

Workweek for Condon and Dunleavy quite contrasting to a normal week

When they took sports-anchor jobs in the Triangle late in the summer 2017, Condon and Dunleavy knew they were going to be covering some of the country’s top college basketball programs. If they didn’t know then that our area sometimes gets hit by major hurricanes, they certainly do now after delivering numerous live reports over a multiple-day stretch.

Condon grew up in Holliston, Mass., and Dunleavy in Fairfax Station, Va. This was the first hurricane for both, although Dunleavy had experienced much-weakened storms in Virginia.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Condon said. “I’ve been in plenty of blizzards but never a hurricane, so I was just shocked by the amount of flooding and water that the coast got.”

Neither was surprised to be shifted to a breaking news event because it had happened before for both at other stations.

Just before taking the job at WTVD, Condon was a sports reporter in Charlottesville, Va., for WCAV and was assigned to cover the white supremacist rally in August 2017. During that coverage, she and the station’s main anchor interviewed David Duke.

“That one obviously was a lot more mentally draining, I would say, just because of everything you’re seeing. That was a very strange thing to just listen to some of the people,” said Condon, adding that covering the rally and Florence both had something in common. “They are both very intense. It wasn’t as emotionally draining as the Charlottesville rally, but they were both exhausting in their own ways.”

Dunleavy also has worked in Charlottesville but before Condon and at a different station, first as a general-assignment reporter, then a sports reporter at WVIR. She had experienced covering a storm while she was a sports anchor at KTHV in Little Rock, Ark., her previous stop before joining WRAL.

“We had a big tornado the second day of work there, so I jumped in and helped with that,” she said of that 2014 coverage “That’s the other news reporting I did storm-wise, disaster-wise.”

During the phone interview, Dunleavy had to deal with phone issues that came from water damage to her phone that happened while she was covering Florence.

Instead of previewing games, doing player features or going out to cover games, they were battling the elements trying to give viewers information.

“We were all kind of running on fumes, but I think it’s important,” Dunleavy said. “I think a lot of the information, that’s when news is most important, just to get the information out because a lot of people didn’t have power and they were listening to us on the radio. When we were going from story to story, we were listening on the radio.”

The audio of WRAL-TV’s coverage aired on WRAL-FM (Mix 101.5).

The skills both have gained covering sports transfer well to storm coverage, even though the reporting isn’t the same.

“It’s a little different but you’re still dealing with people and getting to know people,” said Dunleavy, who usually anchors sportscasts on weekends. “I think it’s just seeing people at rock bottom. During sports, you’re covering the happiest moment when they are celebrating a win or its lowest moment when you’re talking to them postgame right after a loss.

“This is reporting on people when they’re losing their most prized possessions and that’s what was the biggest contrast,” she said. “Trying to understand where they’re coming from, and a lot of times you can’t, so it’s letting them tell their story and backing off.”

Dunleavy and her crew raced to the scene on Poole Road in Raleigh last Friday after hearing on the scanner that a tree had fallen on a house. She immediately went live with a report after talking to the homeowner and finding out what happened.

It was a bad situation considering that the down payment on the house had been made 15 days earlier. But tragedy was averted because the mother had her three children move, and they were sleeping in the living room. The tree hit where they would have otherwise been sleeping.

“Essentially, that mother’s intuition saved her children,” Dunleavy said. “What’s crazy to me is that, after the interview aired, we were just inundated with emails and calls and foundations trying to help her. So, it was one of those situations where she was probably at her lowest point in her life and she just lost her prized possession, she still had her family and a lot of people wanted to help her.”

News reporters on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News routinely appear live several times a day reporting on stories. Condon and Dunleavy got a taste of that experience.

“I have a newfound respect for hard-news reporters and breaking-news reporters just thinking about how difficult it is to go live at a certain location,” Condon said, adding that doing that many live shots was her biggest challenge.

“We probably went live at least once an hour every day, so at least 12 live shots a day,” she said. “I think that’s the most live shots I’ve done in a three-day span in my entire career, just talking for so long and describing what you’re seeing.

“With a game when you go live, it’s pretty X and O, ‘this is who’s playing who and this is what we can expect to see,’ ” she said. “ ‘This is what happened in the game.’ When you’re describing a flood or a staging area, it’s just different to try to talk for two or three minutes off the top of your head without having anything written out. That was challenging.

“By the 12th live shot, my brain and my mouth were just disconnected, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore,’ ” Condon said. “It was definitely a good experience because now I feel like if I ever do a live shot for a minute, I’m going to be, ‘wow, this is a piece of cake.’ We just did so many of them throughout the three days.”

Working from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. was an adjustment for Condon, who says she usually works in the evening and doesn’t go to sleep until 3 a.m. She reported from an Emergency Operations Center staging area at the music amphitheater at Walnut Creek early Sunday morning.

Like any reporter who changes beats, even temporarily, there are obvious adjustments.

“You have so many contacts in sports, but I don’t have those same contacts in news, so just trying to figure out how things work with contacting the [public information officer] and having to go through certain people to get interviews and stuff. That was obviously different because I don’t have many contacts in news,” Condon said.

Condon got a connection to home when her dad, a fire chief in Needham, Mass., told her that one of his firefighters was coming to the Triangle to help with swift-water rescues.

“I did an interview with him and that was cool,” she said. “It kind of gave me a sense that I was at home just talking to him. Just to see how many people from all across the country were coming here to help out really put it in perspective.”

It will likely be back to a normal football weekend for Condon and Dunleavy. But they won’t soon forget a crazy few days of storm coverage.

Florence replaced football until Sunday

With TV stations providing continuous Florence coverage, the only college football that aired on the primary local channels last Saturday was Fox Network coverage of Houston at Texas Tech and USC at Texas on WRAZ. Capitol Broadcasting Company owns WRAZ, but CBC’s coverage was on WRAL.

NBC, CBS and ABC college broadcasts only aired locally on secondary channels.

That approach changed for Sunday’s NFL games. WNCN paused its continuous Florence coverage to air an NFL doubleheader of Kansas City at Pittsburgh, followed by New England at Jacksonville.

WRAL, which went to regular programming for a short time early Sunday morning, paused its Florence coverage for NBC’s Sunday night game between the New York Giants and Dallas.

Both WNCN and WRAL provided Florence coverage during halftimes.

When there was a tornado warning during games on WNCN, the station used a split screen so that viewers could follow the game and the breaking weather news.

Still no Hurricanes writer for The Athletic

Training camp started last week for the Carolina Hurricanes, but there was no beat reporter for The Athletic there to cover the team.

James Mirtle, the NHL editor for The Athletic, said via email that he expects “we’ll have every team covered by season start.”

The Canes opened their exhibition season Tuesday and the regular season is set to begin with an Oct. 4 home game against the New York Islanders.

It seems possible that the Canes beat writer will be hired from outside our market.

We lost two terrific journalists

The state lost two popular journalists early this month: Mike Hogewood and Al Carson.

There was plenty of media coverage of Hogewood because he was in television and was known throughout the ACC for his work on league broadcasts. He also was a sports anchor in the Triad for years. He passed away Sept. 5, just days after working the Catawba at West Georgia football game Sept. 1.

Little attention was given to the Sept. 4 passing of Carson, who covered high school sports for The Durham Sun (the afternoon paper that ceased publication in 1991 when it merged with The Durham Morning Herald) for years.

He later was a feature and food writer for The Herald-Sun. After 32 years with the company, he was one of many the Paxton Media Group laid off in January 2005. After that, he was editor of the Oxford Public Ledger for eight years.

Jock Lauterer wrote a nice feature on Carson in The Carrboro Commons in 2008.

  1. North Carolina-related sports stories of note

Ed Hardin in the News & Record of Greensboro and DeCock in The N&O/H-S put in perspective the role of football when a hurricane is threatening.

“Carolina Insider,” the twice-a-week UNC podcast with hosts Jones Angell and Adam Lucas, aired a revealing two-part interview with former UNC coach Matt Doherty. He talks about how things went badly, the criticisms he received, the mistakes he made and when he knew things were going south. Part 1 starts at 5:20 of the Sept. 6 podcast on this link and part 2 starts at 26:24 of the Sept. 7 podcast on that link.

In The Athletic, Seth Davis wrote about how former Duke star Grant Hill had to be convinced he was good enough to be a star.

Former UNC star Dustin Ackley was the second overall pick in the 2009 first-year player draft, right behind Stephen Strasburg. Although his MLB career initially showed promise, he’s struggled to get back to the major leagues. In The Athletic, Fabian Ardaya writes about those struggles and how Ackley refuses to make an adjustment in his “launch angle” that has helped so many players.

On the Barrett Sports Media website, former Triangle radio host Demetri Ravanos conducted an interesting interview with Pablo Torre and Bomani Jones, another former Triangle radio host, about their evolving ESPN TV show.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Adam L. Jahns wrote that Chicago Bears and former UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky will never forget his Ohio roots and what made him the player he is today.