In most ways, The Herald-Sun got better for readers when The McClatchy Company bought the newspaper from the Paxton Media Group in December.
One of the exceptions is the print deadlines. Another is if you enjoy extensive high school football coverage, including game stories, about teams in Durham, Granville, Person, Orange, Vance and Chatham counties as it has provided for decades … at least if the first week of the prep football season was any indication.
It’s a matter of timing. McClatchy’s reinvention initiative started a few months after McClatchy bought The Herald-Sun. But these decisions don’t necessarily appear to have been made at the behest of McClatchy.
Early deadlines (the last page has to be done at 7:45 p.m. for Durham and 8 o’clock for Raleigh) would make it impossible for game stories to make the Saturday print editions of either The Herald-Sun or The News & Observer. That didn’t matter, though: There were no game stories on either newspaper’s website or in Sunday’s print editions from the consolidated sports staff.
The only game-related story both online and in print Sunday for both newspapers was the same roundup/notes package. While every team mentioned is in The N&O’s coverage area, there were only three paragraphs placed deep into the story about the “western Triangle,” which includes all counties in The Herald-Sun’s traditional coverage area except Granville and Vance. Those two are among the “northern counties,” and there was one sentence on Southern Vance’s victory.
The picture with the story on The Herald-Sun’s website was from a game in Clayton, which isn’t in its coverage area. The picture with the story in The Herald-Sun’s Sunday print edition was from a Hillside game … played last October. The only high school football photo gallery on the H-S site is from a game involving teams that aren’t in its traditional coverage area: Southern Nash at Green Hope.
Contrast that to three nearby N.C. newspapers that Paxton still owns. The Daily Dispatch of Henderson had a story about Southern Vance’s overtime win, the High Point Enterprise had coverage of three games and a roundup and the Sanford Herald had stories on two games and a roundup.
Paxton papers weren’t the only ones who still covered high school games Friday night.
Despite also covering the PGA tournament stop in Greensboro, the Times-News of Burlington and the News & Record of Greensboro each covered two games and had a roundup. The Fayetteville Observer covered three games and wrote a roundup and the Winston-Salem Journal covered five games (and the News & Record ran two of those stories that involving teams in its coverage area). Earl Vaughn Jr., who was announced Thursday as being part of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame class to be inducted in April, wrote one of those Fayetteville stories.
Que Tucker, the commissioner of the NCHSAA, has noticed the changes in prep sports coverage at some newspapers.
“While it is certainly disappointing to see significant changes in how much prep sports are being covered in many of our state’s traditional major newspapers, we recognize there has been a significant change in the way people consume media the last few years,” she said in an emailed statement. “We understand that they are running a business and have to do what they feel is best for their organizations.
“While we disagree that a shift like this is in their best interest, we look at this shift as an opportunity for our schools to get students involved, helping them provide coverage of their school’s athletic events and posting stories and stats to school-affiliated pages,” she said.
Steve Doyle, the managing editor of the News & Record and former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, has seen plenty of changes in recent years.
“Newspapers of all sizes are going through sea changes for production and delivery processes — in an effort to create efficiencies — that affect coverage of all sorts, but nothing more dramatically than sports,” Doyle, the former sports editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said via email. “High school football, to me, is at the epicenter of that current because it has been such a fundamental part of ‘local’ coverage. These days, more than ever, ‘local’ is our world.”
He said that practically everybody in sports journalism started out covering games in high school stadiums and gyms, with all available resources fanning out in many places.
“Well, that fanning out still takes place in most cities, and the loyal audience, which turns over every year, remains in place,” he said. “We simply are having to find new ways to get that coverage to readers because of the need to start and stop our presses earlier.”
He says that the News & Record’s “2-minute drill” videos were among the most watched this month.
“I can’t speak to the thought processes in other newsrooms — all our dynamics are different — but I can tell you the News & Record is committed to coverage of high schools, even if the presses don’t imprint all the information.”
What’s happening to prep newspaper coverage in Raleigh and Durham isn’t happening at every McClatchy newspaper.
The Charlotte Observer’s Friday night deadline (it has until 11 p.m. for the last Friday night page to be done) allows prep stories to make the print edition. Saturday’s print edition featured a high school football photo as the main art on the front sports page and there were two game stories, a list of top players and a scores list on an inside page. Online, there were stories on four games. There was another game story in Sunday’s print edition.
Why are deadlines so much earlier for the Raleigh and Durham papers? In June, John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O, explained in this story.
From the time that high school football practice started July 31 until the season started Friday, only one story about high school football appeared in the Herald-Sun’s print edition. It was a short story that ran online and in the Friday and Saturday print editions explaining how high school football coverage would change this season.
There were no previews of the season and there wasn’t even a schedule of games for opening night in Friday’s paper. There was an online story last week about the Triangle 6 Conference, which includes two Durham schools. It didn’t appear in The Herald-Sun’s print edition until Tuesday.
There were two boys soccer previews in Monday print editions of The N&O.
Appearing with the football story in Sunday’s print edition was the same scores/schedule list that ran in The N&O. Four of six the high school football summaries that ran in The N&O’s local scoreboard also ran in The Herald-Sun’s local scoreboard. None were for teams in Durham’s coverage area.
In previous seasons, at least one or two of a group that included Steve Wiseman, Jonas Pope IV (who, respectively, cover Duke and N.C. Central) and John McCann (the former UNC beat writer) usually covered high school games Friday nights. In addition, high school sports reporter Joe Johnson always covered a game, as did some stringers. McCann used to do a weekly webcast about high school sports on YouTube.
Much has changed since the 2016 football season. McCann left the newspaper in January and, a few weeks ago, Johnson moved over to the news side as a real-time reporter.
Although Wiseman and Pope still report sports, they are part of the consolidated sports staff along with the N&O sports writers and report to Steve Ruinsky, the N&O sports editor. If the first week is any indication, they won’t be covering high school football. High school sports isn’t mentioned as a responsibility for either writer, according to a list of N&O beat names and descriptions.
“Our decision to make changes in our high school football coverage was based on several factors,” Ruinsky said via email. “Traditional game coverage has a limited readership. Focusing so heavily on it diverts us from looking for high school sports stories about health issues, recruiting, academics and individual achievements that can attract a broader readership and make a difference in the community.”
His staff only has one writer completely devoted to high school sports: J. Mike Blake, whose full beat title is “local high school sports heroes reporter,” according to the list. Jonathan Alexander, listed as a recruiting/general assignment reporter, provides high school coverage but principally focuses on recruiting.
As part of McClatchy’s reinvention initiative, stories that analytics show don’t get many clicks aren’t as likely to get written. High school game stories apparently don’t meet the threshold. Game coverage will be limited to major events.
At the News & Record, Doyle says that HSXtra.com traffic was up 112% over its average over the weekend and page views were up 14%.
“The traffic was spread over several different games/topics. We also had some problems loading video and getting out our newsletter, which could’ve hurt us a bit,” he said.
At The N&O and The Herald-Sun, instead of game coverage, the focus will be on area players to watch, with a push for enterprise stories about “inspirational athletes” who overcome adversity or achieve excellence in sports that get less attention. Another focus will be on issues and trends such as safety and shady recruiting practices.
A story on one nondescript high school football game, or even a big game, won’t get nearly as many clicks as a story on the game performance of a highly touted recruit. An example from the first weekend of the season was a story on UNC recruit Jordyn Adams, which went on the websites Saturday and appeared in both print editions Monday.
The N&O went from running about a dozen game stories from Friday’s football games in previous years to just that one roundup/notes package.
Whether covering high school games helps make money for newspapers is an open question. But there’s no doubt that high school game stories and other coverage will continue in most North Carolina newspapers, particularly the smaller ones that might cover only one or two high schools.
This is where the progression of the media landscape has taken away those sorts of outlets for prep coverage in the Triangle area that were around for years.
Newspapers such as The Cary News (which The N&O bought in 1974), The Smithfield Herald and the Chapel Hill News (previously the Chapel Hill Newspaper, purchased by The N&O in 1993) were among the N&O community papers with traditions of prep coverage. The same was true for The Wendell Clarion, the Zebulon Record and the Knightdale Times, which merged in 2003 to form the Eastern Wake News.
Those outlets for prep coverage are now gone.
The five sports editor positions at the 10 N&O community papers all were eliminated in November and all of the editorial staffs were eliminated earlier this year. Those five sports editors also wrote game stories for The N&O.
This the first year for no sports coverage, for example, at The Smithfield Herald, which was established in 1882. The News & Observer Publishing Company purchased the newspaper in 1980, then it became a McClatchy property in 1995.
D. Clay Best, the sports editor of the Smithfield Herald and the Garner-Cleveland Record when he was laid off, found full-time work within a month of being laid off. Friday was the first time in 23 years that he hasn’t covered high school football on opening night.
Readers in those communities who have depended on those newspapers for coverage of their high schools won’t get the consistent, specific coverage of their schools. With one person covering so many schools, that’s impossible for The N&O and The Herald-Sun.
Some other print outlets in the area that cover high school sports are the News of Orange (Orange and Cedar Ridge high schools), the Chatham News (all Chatham County high schools, including Northwood in the traditional Herald-Sun coverage area), the Courier-Times of Roxboro (Person High) and the Oxford Public Ledger (Webb High). Collectively, the Rolesville Weekly, the Franklin Weekly and the Wake Weekly cover Wake Forest, Heritage, Rolesville and Franklinton high schools as well as Franklin Academy.
Fans of all of the above high schools have an advantage over the rest of the area when it comes to consistent print coverage of their high schools. Followers of the rest of the area high schools will have to settle for newspaper coverage of their schools that could be only a few paragraphs here or there, and possibly a player feature at some point.