(Photo by Andrew Carter)

(Photo by Andrew Carter)

As the newspaper industry continues to struggle financially, it’s not uncommon for disillusioned veteran reporters to leave the industry through buyouts or to be forced out through layoffs.

It’s not as common for young, up-and-coming writers to leave. But that’s the case for Laura Keeley, who, at age 27, is leaving The News & Observer after four years as its Duke beat writer to attend Columbia Law School.

In February, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association named Keeley (in photo talking to Jahlil Okafor’s father) the first woman winner of the Rising Star Award, given annually to the USBWA member under age 30 who shows great promise as a college basketball writer.

But she gave her notice to The N&O in June, her last day is Aug. 1 and she starts law school in New York next month.

“The industry kept evolving in the way it’s been evolving. It kind of became less and less of a good fit for me. I always value having a life outside of this job,” said Keeley, whose stories also have appeared in The Charlotte Observer. “Just looking at the whole big picture, it seemed like a good time for me to kind of find something else. I started studying for the LSAT in January 2015, so it’s been kind a long time coming. I’d be lying to you if I said money didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Moving from journalism to law school not rare

Keeley’s path from the N&O newsroom to law school isn’t a new one. It doesn’t happen often, but there are a few examples:

  • Jennifer Brevorka, who went from police/crime reporter to Duke law school to practicing law in Houston for firm of Rusty Hardin (a Monroe native who has represented many prominent athletes);
  • Toby Coleman, who went from reporter to Duke law school in 2007 to practicing law in Durham;
  • Rachel Beard, who went by Rachel Carter when she was a sports writer, left to go to law school at Campbell in 2009 and now practices law in Raleigh; and
  • Ruth Sheehan, who was a Metro columnist and reporter before heading to UNC law school in 2010 and practices law in Raleigh. Less than a year after joining the Francis Law Firm, she wrote about her transition.

There are other Triangle examples of similar paths:

  • Nicole Comparato was editor-in-chief at The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, in the 2013–14 school year while earning a journalism degree at Carolina, but went straight to law school at the University of Miami in 2014;
  • Chris Moore, who was editor at Carolina Blue Magazine, then a reporter for ACC Sports Journal (in addition to being a Raleigh & Company contributor), began law school at Campbell in August 2015; and
  • Victoria Stilwell, who studied business journalism at UNC (and once was a business-desk intern at The N&O) and has been an economics reporter at Bloomberg News, begins law school at Yale next month.

Andy Bechtel, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, says that the skill sets for journalists and lawyers are similar.

“I see a lot of overlap between careers in journalism and law: the ability to research, to distill information and to write clearly and accurately. It’s a natural fit,” he said. “Each semester in my editing classes, I typically have two or three students who are interested in law school. Some students go straight from undergraduate work to law school. Others work in journalism for a while before making the switch.”

UNC offers a joint program that allows a student to earn a master’s degree in journalism and a law degree from its law school.

“I didn’t talk to anybody specifically who has done exactly what I have done,” Keeley said. “But I did enough research to realize that this is a smart move for me.”

Keeley has worked with children volunteering with Durham County’s Guardian Ad Litem program since early 2015, and volunteered this summer with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. She said that she wants to practice law inside the public-interest field.

College beat writers busy, but not always paid well

The life of a college beat writer requires long hours, particularly during the school year. There are crazy deadlines, thanks to late start times, and it requires quite a bit of travel and the knowledge that you may have to deal with breaking news at any moment. And, unless you are a veteran writer, the pay might not always be that good.

“It varies widely based on your experience level,” said Keeley of pay at The N&O, which she joined with only one year of full-time experience, that as a prep writer at the Tampa Bay Times.

“It’s one of those things where people get annual raises and that’s fine, and you’d get up there eventually,” she said. “But if you’re like me and you get hired in at a super-low level, there’s really not anything in the system that’s going to help bump you up other than moving or seriously pursuing jobs to the point that you have an offer to try to play against somebody. And I just really didn’t have an interest in that. It was made clear to me at one point that I was never going to make substantially more money here in Raleigh.”

She knew as a high school senior not to expect to be paid well as a reporter. She got a dose of reality during a visit to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism when a flier she saw suggested that starting journalism salaries would be in the low $30,000s. So she instead attended Duke, where she studied English and Spanish but also covered the Blue Devils for The Chronicle, the school’s student newspaper.

“I really don’t want to travel the amount you have to travel to cover the NFL, the NBA, the NHL. That kind of ruled out that,” Keeley said. “And I told my editors too, too: I thought I didn’t make enough money to stay here in Raleigh forever. So I didn’t want to be one of those people who had to jump from market to market every two to three years the next 10 years in order to slowly inch my way up the pay scale.”

Are schools adding to traditional media’s competition?

She said that covering college sports also has become more of a challenge for the traditional media because schools are generating more of their own content. Schools paying writers for their websites isn’t new, but Keeley says Duke is adding elements.

“They have a huge in-house media operation at this point and they look at us as competition, so it makes it difficult,” Keeley said. “You do need a certain amount of access and cooperation from the school you cover to tell the kind of great, awesome, real stories that I and other journalists want to tell. The landscape to do that is changing and it’s changing very rapidly, so there’s just kind of a lot that went into it and I just ultimately decided that, for me, to make a personal choice to try something else.”

Among the examples Keeley pointed out of Duke-generated content that began this summer: “The Offseason With Jon Scheyer,” a podcast by the former Duke player and current assistant coach, and Devils Life, a web-page concept similar to The Player’s Tribune where athletes can tell their story in their own way.

“You know that other schools aren’t going to be far behind,” Keeley said of the school-generated content. “I think every traditional media outlet needs to kind of sit down and look themselves in the eye and say ‘what are we doing here?’ and ‘how can we best serve our readers?’ because more and more schools are going to try to keep stuff for themselves, so how do we do what we want to do given the changing landscape?”

A lot of highs, few lows on Duke beat

Keeley says there were so many highlights from her time covering Duke for The N&O, including chronicling the Blue Devils’ rise in football under David Cutcliffe to covering Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth NCAA title.

“Obviously getting to cover the national championship was something that so many people work for so many years in this industry and never get to see the season the entire way through with a team,” Keeley said. “To be there in October at the first day of the season and to be working on the last day of the year in April, win or lose? It’s rewarding.”

As for lows, she couldn’t think of any other than the one in September 2014.

After Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski wrote this column that was highly critical of Krzyzewski, Keeley wrote this story about that column. Some at Duke, she said, apparently didn’t feel the story properly defended Krzyzewski.

“It’s funny, looking back at that, I think it’s very wishy-washy, what I wrote about it,” Keeley said. “I don’t think I took any type of hard stance or whatever. I covered that because I thought it was newsworthy.”

Her story led to a meeting at Duke with three Duke athletics officials that Keeley attended with Steve Ruinsky (N&O sports editor) and Chris Wright (the N&O’s assistant sports editor at the time).

Keeley was one of seven who made up a panel of women in sports journalism under 30 who fielded questions from Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated in February 2015. That Duke meeting came up when the question was, “What has been your toughest moment in the business and why?”

Keeley’s response:

“This fall, there were Duke athletics employees who were upset about something I wrote, to the point where they requested a sit-down meeting with me, my direct editor and our sports editor (both are male). So the three of us went over to Duke to meet with the three of them (all men). And after a contentious meeting, one of men who works for Duke shakes both of my editors’ hands and then turns abruptly and leaves without shaking my hand. It was the most unprofessional behavior I have ever seen.”

Keeley said that it was Jon Jackson, Duke’s senior associate athletics director for external affairs, who didn’t shake her hand.

“I never really talked to Jon after that. I was able to do my job without him,” Keeley said. “I should say that Mike Krzyzewski never reacted poorly to me after that at all. I don’t even know how much he knew about that meeting or what went on. It was just a disagreement between me and the sports information people who handle men’s basketball.”

Jackson didn’t want to comment on the meeting.

“I will refrain from making public any details from a meeting that was intended to be private among professional colleagues,” Jackson said in an email message. “Certainly, I appreciate the work Laura put in on the Duke beat and wish her the very best in her future endeavors.”

Other than that experience, she said that being a woman in the male-dominated field of sports journalism wasn’t an issue. She said neither the lack of many women colleagues nor the 2014 meeting had anything to do with her decision to leave The N&O.

“I’ve always been super fortunate,” Keeley said. “Whether it was Tampa or here in Raleigh, I’ve always had great male friends in the industry and some of my best friends are male reporters around here. I never felt less than because I was a woman and will deeply, deeply miss being part of the sports reporting fraternity.”

For now, it’s on to law school and Keeley says she’s offered to cover games for The N&O as a stringer, if needed. New York, after all, is a frequent spot for Duke basketball games and the ACC Tournament will be in Brooklyn the next two seasons.

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