By R.L. Bynum
Wilkerson-New leaves newspapers to run UNC-focused website
With many good journalists laid off by newspapers every year and others lured out by buyouts, it’s nice when some can go out on their own terms and on their own timetable.
Being still fairly young and having digital skills beyond what was expected of a sports writer years ago makes that more likely.
That was the case for Brant Wilkerson-New, who, at 33, wasn’t looking to leave his job covering the ACC — what he called a dream job — for the News & Record of Greensboro. He left the newspaper last week, though, for the rare chance to be his own boss, run a website and focus on covering one school.
Wilkerson-New now covers North Carolina men’s basketball and football teams, with some coverage of other UNC sports, as the publisher for Heelsmaven, a stand-alone website of Maven, a company that is associated with Sports Illustrated.
The change of beats is minor. More dramatic is the increase in his responsibilities. He has taken Maven’s model and is creating and running a website basically from scratch but without having to make a financial investment.
“It really came out of left field,” Wilkerson-New said of the opportunity. “So it’s gonna be fun and scary and wild but we’re off to a good start so far.”
He expects to write some of the same types of stories as when he was at the Greensboro paper, including long-form features. But there are no editors to review his copy in what is a one-man show. He plans at least three posts a day, including one aggregating the best UNC stories from other outlets, and plenty of videos of player and coach interviews and other digital content.
“I’m not competing with Inside Carolina and I’m not going to compete with Tar Heel Illustrated or The News & Observer,” he said. “But what I do want to do is make myself another stop along that journey daily for some stuff that people might not get on other sites.”
While at the News & Record, he earned top 10 Associated Press Sports Editors honors 10 times and four N.C. Press Association awards. He got plenty of digital experience at the N&R, including an NCPA-honored multimedia timeline (at the bottom of this link), which included photos, videos and trivia questions, to complement Ed Hardin’s column about Richard Petty’s 80th birthday.
He said that his Greensboro editors were committed to learning more about digital options.
“They wanted to improve our digital product a ton,” he said. “They gave us a lot of leeway to take chances with that, tell stories in unique ways and find ways that readers were consuming things. Obviously, they’re not consuming 800-word stories the way they used to be. They’re consuming things on photo galleries … these kind of short-blurb stories where you include a lot of information in a shorter story.”
Unlike many older sports journalists, he grew up immersed in a digital world.
“I’ve always been a nerd growing up,” said Wilkerson-New, who grew up in northern Durham. “I guess I’m kind of in that first wave of kids to have a computer in their house. You know, from age seven, I was playing with a desktop computer and I’ve grown up extremely online for better or worse. I don’t know if that’s good for my mental health or not. I wouldn’t have been in this position if I had not grown up in the digital era.”
Maven began launching sites about a year ago and has ramped up the addition of publishers. In the ACC, there are sites for UNC, Clemson and Boston College. Scott Kennedy, the vice president of content development for Maven Media, says he expects that ACC total to triple by the end of August.
It seems likely that sites for N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest could be coming. There have been plenty of inquiries since Wilkerson-New announced his move from people interested in running other sites.
“We have roughly 50 channels live across the NCAA and NFL. We plan to have publishers for all NFL teams and Power 5 NCAA schools,” Kennedy, who manages the college sites, said via email. “We will also have a full NBA and MLB network, though the early focus has been on NFL and NCAA with the football season rapidly approaching.”
Zach Lentz, a Clemson graduate who was a sports writer for The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, S.C, for more than four years, runs Clemsonmaven. The Boston College site, BCmaven, is run by A.J. Black, who had written for the SB Nation site BC Interruption until June.
Maven contacted Wilkerson-New the week of ACC Kickoff in July after somebody referred him. Maven replied within an hour after he sent his resume and, the next day, he was part of a web session where Maven showed its platform and why they are the right people to run it. Former executives at Scout, Rivals and Yahoo! with plenty of digital experience are behind the websites.
“I took a look at that, and it really made a lot of sense to me because so much of what I’ve done in Greensboro has been digital-focused, looking at how we develop audiences and what types of stories and videos and that sort of thing that our readers like,” Wilkerson-New said. “It’s kind of a combination of being a reporter and writer and all that stuff in combination with understanding digital publishing and building audiences that appealed to me.”
A couple of days later, he decided to make the move.
“I’ve kind of lived my dream a little bit with the News & Record, so I figured not a lot of people get to do what they really want to do in journalism,” he said. “They don’t really get to go out on their own terms. So, I figured if I’m going to go out, I’m going to take a big swing at something first and get to be my own boss and see where it goes.”
While nearly every newspaper, other than The New York Times and The Washington Post, seems to be on shaky financial ground, they do give their employees health insurance. Although Wilkerson-New said that the pay bump compared to what he earned at the News & Record is “a pretty significant number,” he adds that part of the reason is that he’s an independent contractor.
There is no company health insurance and he files no expense reports. That’s all on him. Fortunately, he can get his health insurance through Lauren Horsch, his girlfriend who he has lived with in Durham long enough to be considered a domestic partner. A former Herald-Sun and Indy Week reporter, she works for The Insider State Government News Service.
“They’re giving me a guaranteed amount of money every month on top of what I’ll be making as far as ad revenue and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s ad revenue and, I think, there’s some amount you can make off of traffic. I know ad revenue is kind of the most important.”
The Heelsmaven site will eventually sell a subscription, but that is down the road. It will be the same as a lot of similar websites, with most posts available free and just a few elements that require subscriptions. There also is a self-service ad option that allows a client to upload an ad to a particular portal, specify how long they want it to run and pay for how they want it to be run.
“When I was covering so many teams with Greensboro, I’m not necessarily going to write a story about a second-string center,” Wilkerson-New said. “But, you know, in drilling down and covering one team, I can post a four-minute interview with the backup center who’s battling for a job and people are going to be interested in hearing about that because I found the right audience for that.”
Wilkerson-New has so many ideas that he finds himself in bed at night adding some of them to his iPhone notes app.
“I think I’ve got all these cool ideas and basically, you know, I get to create the sports website and I always wanted to read when I was that IT recruiter sitting at my desk hating my job like six years ago,” he said.
Oh, those days as an IT recruiter.
While at UNC Wilmington, he was sports editor of The Seahawk for nearly four years, and he worked part time for the StarNews of Wilmington as both a reporter and a page designer for a few years. But he was a recruiter for more than four years, first for Core Health Technologies and then Extrinsic.
“I made some bad life choices there for a bit,” he said. “I thought I wanted to make money because I thought that would make me happy. I get in. It made me very depressed, made me very sad. And I realized, basically, the only thing that was going to change my life for the better was if I chased this passion for journalism.”
That shift came in June 2013 when he joined the Winston-Salem Journal, and he quickly won The Associated Press’ Walter Spearman Award for best writing by someone with two or fewer years of experience at a North Carolina newspaper.
“To be honest, you know, journalism and getting back into newspapers is something that’s kind of saved me, and helps me out,” Wilkerson-New said.
After two years covering high school sports and other subjects, he was on the Appalachian State beat for the 2015–16 school year. That school year, he also was in Santa Clara, Calif., to cover the Carolina Panthers’ loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. From there, he shifted from one Berkshire Hathaway Inc. newspaper in the Triad to another, joining the News & Record in July 2016 to cover the ACC.
Although he was happier as a sports writer, there still was nagging anxiety that he couldn’t shake. He’s been very public about his struggles, including in this Facebook post last summer. A moment in the Duke basketball locker room in fall 2017 convinced him to do something about it.
“You know, I’ve always known that I had an anxiety issue. I knew that I was not dealing with it,” he said. “I think there were some questions that I wanted to ask for a story and I had the opportunity to do it. And, I just … the words wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t … I couldn’t do it.”
He was worried that if he asked a stupid question, people would make fun of him.
“And so I started to think about, ‘hey, at some point, this is going to restrict you from being as good a reporter as good a writer as you want to be,’ ” he said. “And, obviously, there’s almost nothing as important as this to me given, you know, the career change that I made. So, that kind of spurred me to go and see someone and talk with a therapist and get medicated. And since then, I think it’s really allowed me to speak up and be myself and not be afraid after that.”
He was planning to do a series of stories for the News & Record on mental health in college athletics that was going to include many schools. Now he’s working on a series that will focus on Carolina but include a bigger-picture view.
He’s already spoken with former UNC football player Dwight Hollier, the senior associate athletic director for student-athlete health, well-being and program outreach, and current linebacker Jake Lawler, who has talked about his battle with depression.
“I’ve learned a good bit about the things that they’re offering the athletes there and how coaches have kind of responded to all these new things, because it’s kind of a crazy world,” Wilkerson-New said. “Obviously, this is something really important to me, so I think it’s a great story. Because, at the end of the day, people want to read about games or whatever, but they want to read about the kids more. And, obviously, I come at this subject from a personal level, because I’ve been public about dealing with anxiety over the years.”
He has nothing but praise for his former N&R colleagues but plenty of disdain for newspaper executives. He’ll miss his co-workers but not the industry.
“They’re buying up these papers basically so they can swing their real estate into big money while they completely bleed the newspaper dry of the resources that we need to do our job, and it’s terribly unfair,” he said. “To see the traffic numbers that you see and to be given goals. To be told these things about, hey, we gotta hit these certain numbers. And then you know what, what’s there to show once you hit those numbers and you blow them away? Nothing. That really sucks because I think newspapers are hugely important to this country moving forward.”
He wrote in his farewell column that he hopes readers continue to support local journalism. He got a taste of the impact news reporters can have when he joined coverage after a tornado hit the Greensboro area in April 2018.
“It was a dream to cover all those things that I did, but it was an honor to work with the people that I worked with when we covered the aftermath of the Greensboro tornado,” he said. “They live in that community and we’re part of this community and nobody talked about fake news and all that crap those days when we posted something like 107 stories on the tornado after the next week.”
One regret he has from his time at the News & Record is that he never got the chance to cover the Final Four. The newspaper didn’t have the money budgeted to send him when UNC won the national title in 2017. He got the OK and was all set to cover the Final Four the last two seasons, only to have Duke come one win short of advancing each time.
“I’m pretty sure I will get a shot here soon,” he said.
And if the Tar Heels do advance to Atlanta, there will be yet another all-digital outlet to cover every aspect of that journey.
Gravley says plans after WRAL run not set
Longtime WRAL sports anchor Jeff Gravley surprised many viewers and colleagues when he announced Friday that he will leave the station when his contract runs out in December.
Gravley, who grew up in Oxford and is an N.C. State graduate, said that he doesn’t have firm plans for what’s next
“Don’t know the next stop yet,” Gravley said via text. “Working on a few things.”
Asked if the fledgling ACC Network would be a possibility, he said, “It’s sure on my list. I’ll keep tossing bait in the water.”
Gravley has spent all but three years of his 35-year broadcast career at WRAL, covering everything from Final Fours, Super Bowls and the Olympics to 31 ACC Tournaments. At 56, he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“Nowhere close to retirement. I’ve got a lot left in the tank,” Gravley said. “Just excited to see what’s next after a great run at WRAL.”
The December exit allows him to host the 39th season of “Football Friday.”
This past Saturday, SportsChannel8 talked about Gravely’s time at WRAL on their radio show:
— SportsChannel8 (@SportsChannel8) August 12, 2019
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Athletic, Peter Baugh wrote about former Millbrook star Larry Rountree III, whose early academic struggles in high school kept UNC and N.C. State from offering him a scholarship. His academic push gave him the grades to earn a scholarship at Missouri, where he is now the Tigers’ main running back.
In USA Today, Dan Wolken wrote about how women are in all of the key management positions for the ACC Network.
In The News & Observer and Herald-Sun, Joe Giglio wrote about how brothers Thayer and Drake Thomas took different paths to playing football at N.C. State.
In the North State Journal, Shawn Krest wrote about the strange path taken by Chazz Surratt from coveted recruit to UNC’s starting quarterback to converting to linebacker. Yes, he wishes he still was a quarterback.
The Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler wrote about Joey Slye, who is on the Carolina Panthers training camp roster trying to win a kicking job. Whether it’s with the Panthers or with another team, Slye hopes to be able to kick field goals in a real NFL game and hold up six fingers as he did in an exhibition game in Chicago. The six fingers are a tribute to his brother A.J., who died of leukemia in 2014.
In The Athletic, Jourdan Rodrigue wrote about the “pounce” that the Panthers’ Bruce Irvin uses and the stance that he uses “like a crunched-together semi-colon” to create movement “like a coiled big cat who has spotted his prey.” The technique is as rare as his personality.