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Experts’ Roundtable: Leading College Football Journalists

By Nicole Auerbach, Dan Wolken, Dan Wetzel

Today’s media is much different from just five or 10 years ago. In fact, many sports writers are trying to decide on long-form vs. short-form, video, social media, or whatever else they may need to keep up with ever-evolving outlets. Combine this with the pressure of producing pertinent material and you have a compelling, creative environment ripe for consumer consumption. In this Experts’ Roundtable, three very well respected and experienced journalists answer a few questions about their thoughts, their process, and college sports in general.


Nicole Auerbach – The Athletic


If you were to teach a class to college football head coaches on how to most effectively engage the media, what would be three of your main points?


  1. Be accessible. I know college football coaches are guarded with their personal information and limited with their time, but giving a cell phone number out and/or having a reporter visit your office for a 15-minute off-the-record chat can be invaluable. If you can build a working relationship with reporters, it helps both sides. This could lead to better story ideas and eventually better stories which include more candid/comfortable quotes. But also, if news is breaking or a negative story is out there, we have an avenue to go directly to the coach to get his side of the story (or even a no comment), which makes the coverage more fair.


  1. Don’t lie. Nobody likes to be lied to. And while you may think it’s one thing to tell a non-truth about an injury or suspension, it’s not fun being on the other side and printing something that wasn’t truthful. Take that one step further with the Huge Freeze scandal — he was calling reporters who trusted him and telling them lies. That makes everyone look bad, and makes it harder for reporters to trust sources in the aftermath. We know everyone wants to put spin on things, but lying is a different level.


  1. Understand that our jobs have changed. We’re in an industry that’s been hemorrhaging talented writers for years, and it’s unclear what the future looks like. So, everyone’s trying to do everything at all times — write, report, record video, post on social media, etc. — while monitoring everything (including your players’ social media accounts) for stories, both major and minor. There’s no bias, and no one is out to get you when we write about arrests or injuries. We’re just trying to get the most information possible to share with an audience that hopefully sticks around and values our work. Giving us access to coaches and players helps us differentiate our work and write better, more interesting stories that can ideally do just that.


Head coaching searches come in many different shapes & sizes. Describe the perfect head coaching search & hiring process.


Call me old-fashioned, but here you go: An athletic director has, for years, had a short list that he or she has keeps consistently up-to-date (and is informed by conversations with other ADs, coaches, and media members). A head coaching position opens. The AD puts feelers out for a few of the top choices from the short list, and eventually sets up some relatively discreet interviews before making a quick but thorough decision.


I know it’s not always possible to be completely discreet in this day and age, but if you get the right guy, it’s worth it anyway. I think of Barry Collier’s basketball hires at Butler (two of his last three head coaches were hired WAY into the offseason, and he made those hires within a week both times) and former Florida AD Jeremy Foley’s hiring philosophy in general.


How much independence/input do you have in the selection of the weekly game you attend? Also, how do you ensure you don’t miss any national perspective/developments on a given Saturday when you may be locked in on the game you’re in attendance for?


We don’t travel to games every week anymore. We’ve found that a better use of time and money is to travel during the week and actually spend time with coaches and players. That way, instead of sitting in a press box every weekend, we watch games that our readers are likely watching on TV. It’s more important to distinguish ourselves with unique content and unique access than it is to be in a post-game media scrum after an Ohio State-Penn State game.


I’ll do a few games in person, and the reasons will vary. Sometimes, it’s convenient to where I live and I want to see one of the teams in person. Other times, I’m working on a story in that area and can catch a big game while I’m out there. Or I’ve been given all-access with a coach or team for a game. I talk to my editor and we figure out where to be.


When I’m not traveling, it’s much easier to keep up with the national scene. I have my TV, laptop, and mini iPad so I can watch three games at once. And with Twitter, I can easily find out if something significant is happening and switch over to another game if need be. I also keep a tab open on all FBS box scores that updates throughout the day/night.


Do reports of head injuries and concussions ever give you pause on the future of the game & your responsibility to report on the topic?


Yes. I think about this often. It’s a topic I’ve discussed with many friends in the profession, framed as ‘Would I let my child play football?’ conversations. I think that the future of the sport will work itself out, starting at the youth/grassroots level and work its way up. This is something I monitor and hope to write more about in meaningful ways. Covering the serious medical concerns — starting with head injuries but expanding to cover myriad lifelong health issues — is part of our jobs as journalists who cover this sport.


I don’t think anyone can watch football in a vacuum anymore; we know too much about its consequences to do so as fans and as media members. It’s our responsibility as journalists to write about these findings. It’s not often in sports journalism that we have the opportunity to write about life-changing, life-saving medical research, but this is one of those times.


Dan Wolken – USA Today


What are the appropriate ways for a coach or administrator to build a mutually beneficial relationship with the media?


It sounds simple, but the most fundamental thing is to interact like human beings. Talk about stuff that isn’t business related. Interact and grow to a level of comfort. If you’re an administrator, give reporters a direct line to communicate with you. If you’re a reporter, don’t wait until you need something to reach out. These things will build rapport over time. There will be times when we write harsh information, but keep it professional on both sides.


How do you determine the importance of a story and if it needs your perspective?


It’s mostly a gut feeling. And after 15 years in the business, I think I have a pretty good feel for what resonates. Writing for a national audience is difficult. You have a lot to choose from and you have to determine what will make an impact across multiple fan bases. You may even have to draw attention outside of the hard core sports fans. You’re looking for anomalies, hot button issues, characters and personalities,  and touching stories of great personal interest. Social media helps because you can see what people respond to in real time.


To what degree are you a bull or bear on the future viability of new media companies like ‘The Athletic’ & why?


Everyone is looking for a silver bullet in the new media environment but I’m not sure it will be that simple. I think the future includes a mix of big companies that focus on general interest, hyper local content, and specialty niche publications. If there is a time where a subscription model like The Athletic can work, then that time is right now. People are accustomed to paying premium prices for what they want in every facet of life and most people run everything through their credit card now so it’s not that big of a departure. But all media companies face the challenge of giving people what they want in a format that is user friendly and pulls their attention away from a million other things.


During the season, what is the volume of “pitches” you receive from communications staff around the nation on story ideas? What’s the wrong way for an administrator to pitch a story?


I get some pitches but I actually wish I got more. I like having a good idea thrown my way, and if I don’t think it’s worth my time, I’m not afraid to say, “This isn’t going to work right now but maybe next time.” I don’t know everything that happens on every campus, so pitches are important. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this – a text, an email, or whatever. Ultimately, if a story exists, a good reporter is going to smell it and jump on it. I often come up with my own ideas from simple conversations with people talking about issues they’re dealing with on their respective campuses.


Not to go all ‘Freezing Cold Takes’ here, but what past story/development do you regularly kick yourself for not covering differently or seeing the outcome more clearly?


I thought the Big East as a basketball conference without an attachment to big time football would be a total failure in the current CFP/Power 5 environment, and without ESPN. But they’ve more than held their own.


Dan Wetzel – Yahoo Sports


Given ever-escalating salaries for head coaches & overall football revenues, is it any surprise many programs are becoming so restrictive with media policies? How would you advise head coaches & sport administrators to think about finding the right access balance?


I don’t know if escalated salaries and revenues have anything to do with it. To me it’s about catering to the, presumably, controlling nature of coaches. It’s a bad look no matter the salary.


I don’t know the motivation or care about the motivation. I just know it’s short-sighted, unfair to the players (in case anyone cares), and completely paranoid. I’d say 99.9 percent of college athletics coverage is overwhelmingly positive and comes from the day-in, day-out beat reporters trying to do their best for local papers, websites, and television stations.


They are hardly a menacing lot. They have done a great job for the players, coaches and schools for generations. They undoubtedly share your love and passion for college athletics. Yet now someone is terrified of them.


The more that a team, or any entity, limits access, the more they force the media to embrace a critic’s role. It’s like Hollywood. You can’t talk to Tom Cruise, so Tom Cruise stops becoming a relatable person. Hence the media rips him to shreds in reviews or in salacious coverage.


That’s not college sports, but that’s the trend. Check the difference in the way European soccer is covered compared to American sports. In Europe, there is almost no athlete/coach interaction with media. As such, the coverage is vicious. Seriously, check out the London tabs.


Here the accountability goes two ways. When Jurgen Klinsmann was the US Men’s National Team coach, he used to compliment us for not being like the German media, but he did it while limiting access. He never understood.


For college sports, I just see it all as so pointless and pitiful. Most of these kids are dying for the attention. Their families want the attention. Their communities want the attention.


Yet the coach wants the focus solely on himself. At the Olympics you can talk to the parents of the athletes, and the parents love it. In Rio, I stood between Simone Biles father and Laurie Hernandez’s parents as the Star Spangled Banner played. They loved what I wrote. In London, I interviewed the parents of Jordyn Wieber after she won a gold and they loved the column. Why wouldn’t they, it was a great moment for their family? Try that in college and someone might shoot you.


I’ve almost never found a college athlete that didn’t want a good story told about them. I’ve found plenty of colleges that don’t want a good story told about their athletes though. Strange.


It’s a big reason I increasingly cover professional sports.


Being the first to break important news in college football is a key piece of your job. You & your peers are clearly hyper-competitive on this front, but does everyone play by the rules?


If there are any rules, I’m not sure I know them. What I consider a rule someone else might not.


During head coaching searches, how often do ADs ask your opinion on a potential hire? How often do you fully support or vehemently disagree with the road an AD may be going down with a selection?


It is not unusual for some of the ADs I communicate with regularly to ask my opinion on a candidate or any other decision we’re discussing. We generally are having ongoing conversations across years and years about all sorts of topics.


This is also true with coaches on the other side of the process. Everyone is always talking about jobs.


I wouldn’t vehemently support or oppose any decision with people I know. There’s a difference between offering an opinion and becoming an advocate for a particular side. In my coverage, I rarely condemn any hire immediately. I like to give people the opportunity to play it out. You never know.


Which off-the-field storylines are you monitoring most closely at the present time? Which one is most important for the future of college football?


In general, the money. More specifically the unwillingness to either grant name and likeness rights to athletes or, at the very least, increase the number of scholarships granted. These major schools can’t invent ways to spend the money but no one is willing to share it.


You won’t let your quarterback get paid $1,000 to sign autographs at a local car dealership because you want to the dealership to send the $1,000 to you because you claim you need to support all these non-revenue teams. Then you support the non-revenue teams with gold-plated facilities and endless travel but not full scholarships for the actual student-athletes.


It’s absurd. There are million dollar a year baseball coaches running 25-man teams with 11.7 scholarships. Come on. Go ask all your baseball players, for instance, would they rather have that revamped locker room or a full ride.


In the long term, I’m fascinated to see how cord cutting will impact the conference television networks. I’ve long called the Big Ten Network little more than a Big Ten tax. I watch and have appeared on the network. They are great people who do a great job. But almost no one watches. Yet every cable household in the Midwest is paying for it every month.


It’s a tax. I tip my hat to them. It’s a very, very smart deal by the Big Ten, SEC, etc.


As the basic cable model is phased out, however, how many people are going to pay for these networks? If ESPN is bleeding customers, then these networks will get crushed and eventually the entire modern economic model is gone.


How does college sports react if revenue stalls or even drops? Conference realignment changed so much and that was chasing growth. A decrease is when panic really sets in and the knives come out.


For instance, the Big Ten invited Rutgers mostly so it could tax the people of New Jersey. If cord-cutting means the Big Ten is no longer capable of taxing the people of New Jersey, do they kick out Rutgers?


If you say that’s impossible, just recall that Texas and Texas A&M don’t play each other anymore.