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Expert’s Roundtable: Media Coverage Amid COVID

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, AthleticDirectorU chats with members of the media about adapting to deliver high-quality content, recommendations for athletic departments to provide access and opportunities to help tell coaches and student-athletes’ stories, and content strategies that have captured their attention.

 

What elements of your job/coverage beat have changed as a result of the pandemic and how have you attempted to compensate for the new world we’re living in and continue to deliver high-quality content to your readers/consumers?

 

Nicole Auerbach (The Athletic) – The biggest change is not being on the road. I think all of us who work in college sports (not just in media) are used to being on the road at least every other week or so. I haven’t traveled all for work since March 13. I haven’t had pending reservations, flight confirmations in my inbox, any of that. It’s taken time to get used to, although my dog is definitely totally spoiled now that I never leave his side. Outside of not traveling every couple of days/weeks to campuses for interviews or games, the rest of my job is pretty similar. As a national reporter, I already spent most of my days on the phone anyway, catching up with people from all over. Now, some of those conversations happen over zoom, too, but it’s still a lot of phone calls and text messages. I will say I’ve definitely been a bit more aggressive than usual in checking in with sources to make sure I am staying on top of the news of the day (for obvious reasons) and also any potential great story ideas because they’re at a minimum due to access restrictions. I’ve also cold-emailed people more than usual, too, I think. I typically rely on annual events such as media days, conference meetings and the Heisman/NFF week in NYC to meet a lot of new coaches and administrators, and it’s a bummer not to have those events. It forces me to call/check in on people individually when maybe in past years I simply take it for granted that I’ll catch up with them in person at those events.

 

I’ve also done a good amount of TV via Zoom, which has been an interesting experience. It’s easier to do from home now that I have a ring light/setup, but it’s still strange! I think viewers have been understanding about the quality of video and any delays/issues that have come about due to technology, but that’s definitely been an adjustment.

 

David Teel (Richmond Times-Dispatch) – There were moments I wondered if we were delivering quality content. ‘Twas easy to get caught on the will-they-or-won’t-they-play hamster wheel, and like everyone else, I careened from wildly optimistic to incurably forlorn, often within the same week. But the live-sports void provided more time to chronicle essential stories such as athletes’ activism and empowerment, the latter through impending NCAA legislation regarding NIL and transfers. Zoom will never trump the value of in-person interaction, but it beats the heck out of a text or phone call. Transactional news stories such as ACC commissioner John Swofford’s retirement offered an opportunity to explore legacy and history, and there were other times when the pandemic demanded creativity. How does a conference television network fill the hours when live sports vanish, and when those events return, how do broadcasters navigate working remotely? Fortunately, ACC Network folks were willing to answer those questions, providing our audience with some insights.

 

Pete Thamel (Yahoo) – A lot has changed. No games. No practices. No conventions. No meeting sources for a meal/beer. The lack of the in-person encounters has been one of the depressing professional parts of the job. Do this long enough, and the people and shared experiences matter much more than games and final scores. To compensate, I’ve tried to expand my source base. Especially early in the pandemic when everyone was trapped at home. To compensate for the new world order, there’s really been nothing else to do but spend more time on the phone and text. You just have to report harder, make extra calls and try and fill in the spaces where in-person observations would have gone.

 

Jon Wilner (The Mercury News) – Well, I never used to follow epidemiologists on Twitter. That’s the most succinct way I can phrase what the past seven months have been like. The pandemic has created an intellectual challenge — on top of all the other challenges — of the kind I’ve never experienced: How do you cover college sports when there are no college sports? It became clear early on that the Pac-12 planned to “follow the science” — at least, as its presidents and doctors saw the science. So the only way for me to properly cover the Pac-12 was to follow the science, as well. That has meant following epidemiologists on Twitter, reading news articles on the virus, reading study pre-prints on Medrxiv, watching virology videos and interviewing scientists. That process has certainly meshed with my intellectual curiosity. There are only so many articles on quarterback competitions and playoff scenarios that you can write about without the eyes glazing over. I have always tried to cover the off-the-field issues that impact the on-field product — budgets and debt service, the sports media landscape, scheduling, CTE and concussions, the ‘revenue gap’, etc — and this was another off-field subject to better understand, except magnified 1,000x because of the seriousness of the pandemic. But following the science made it clear that even the science isn’t clear. Everything about the virus is complicated, from the incubation period to the act of mask wearing. Like the website FiveThirtyEight.com said: “Every risk is a decision, every decision is a risk.” If you don’t incorporate the nuance into your coverage, you’re missing the story. If your views of the virus aren’t evolving, you aren’t following the science. There was a huge learning curve for me, sheer as the face of El Capitan. You’d think that a complete shutdown of college sports would result in a slow news cycle, but the news was relentless — the only thing I’ve experienced that was remotely comparable was the realignment wave in the early 2010s. And they are similar in the number of layers involved: It’s not just the players and the coach and the games. Presidents and chancellors are involved, state officials are involved. I would go long stretches without creating a shred of traditional football content and yet couldn’t possibly cover the story as comprehensively as I would have hoped. And for the Pac-12, there were other elements: The #WeAreUnited Movement and, especially, the state and local restrictions. I have spent more time reading California Dept. of Public Health guidelines than I have reading Phil Steele’s magazine. But the entire story on the west coast was about the Pac-12 finding a way back to the field. That required me to become immersed in the issues blocking that return.

 

What recommendations do you have for athletic departments on access opportunities with coaches and/or student-athletes to ensure media members can still tell all the key stories around a program?

 

Auerbach (The Athletic) – Please give us one-on-one interviews, even if they’re phone calls or over Zoom!! It’s really difficult to tell good stories when all you have is a group Zoom and you know a coach or player’s answer is going to be immediately tweeted out by 18 different reporters on the call. The conversation/quotes from that coach or player will also likely be better in a setting that’s not just 20 people yelling out questions on a computer screen. And, yes, please feel free to pitch us story ideas. We’re all trying to think more outside the box than ever. I just wrote a story about the marketing folks who are handling artificial crowd noise for home games at stadiums without fans. Every school I reached out to about that random/weird topic made someone available for it, which was great and super helpful. Also: If you can convince your head coach to let assistant coaches talk to media, please do. They give us so much more than head coaches do, especially when we’re working on player features. They’re the ones who spend the most time with the players.

 

Teel (Richmond Times-Dispatch) – Your staffers, coaches and athletes have worked tirelessly and thanklessly to create and follow the protocols that have made the return of FBS sports possible. Moreover, many of them have been out front on the issues of racial and social justice. Applaud those efforts by granting, or even suggesting, remote interviews. Among my favorite Zooms of the last seven months was with a Virginia men’s lacrosse player and his mom about the day they spent delivering PPE to hospitals in New York City. And don’t limit this to athletes and coaches. Administrators, and especially chief medical officers, have been essential to the return of sports, and their insights are often not only interesting but also educational. Finally, don’t be bashful about financial transparency. Sure, it may expose current and previous excesses, but if you truly want to convince folks of your budgetary straits, then be willing to explain them clearly and concisely.

 

Thamel (Yahoo) – I’ve tried as hard as possible to replicate the experience virtually. I’ve done some great one-on-one interviews with players on Zoom — Trey Lance, Zach Wilson and Rashod Bateman are recent examples. I’ve found that doing a few extra ancillary interviews has helped for longer profile pieces. Some schools have been great about access — Alabama comes to mind. The best advice is being very clear about who you are having on the zoom. If it just says “offensive players” or “select assistant coaches,” I’m probably not going to pop in. Schools have been great about making players available, which has been really helpful.

 

Wilner (The Mercury News) – The pandemic is the perfect excuse for athletic departments to limit in-person access, because who’s going to argue with attempts to keep both the interviewees and the interviewers safe? And coaches being coaches, I fully expect that some of the points-of-access that have been rolled back will never be returned. But hopefully, sane minds will prevail more often than not: Access is more important in the 2020-21 sports cycle than ever before. Fans are craving content, media outlets are desperate to deliver content, and the schools should be keenly interested in providing the content. The return of sports makes for an ideal branding opportunity — for a team, coach, player, department endeavor, whatever. And what’s easier than a Zoom call, right? The media contact doesn’t have to ask the athlete to be at Location X at Time Y for an interview. It’s just: ‘Could you fire up Zoom from your kitchen table and talk for 15 minutes?’ That said, video interviews aren’t the same as in-person interviews — you don’t get the scene, you don’t get the vibe, you often can’t get the body language. And hopefully, once the pandemic ends and the safety component is no longer dictating every decision, we’ll get back to the in-person interviews. But there’s no doubt: This is a time of opportunity, a time to get creative, and a time to reconsider strategies that can maximize resources. Because eventually, once a vaccine becomes widely available, there will be a new normal. Now is the time to set the framework for that existence.

 

More broadly, what strategies around the nation – whether it be by your peers, by sports teams/organizations or even non-sports media outlets – have you seen since the pandemic began that have captured your attention and cut through the clutter to creatively deliver/communicate content?

 

Auerbach (The Athletic) – A couple of things that stood out in college sports … Penn State made players available basically all spring/summer. UNC did, too, and also made Mack Brown available very regularly. That was really helpful both for my colleagues covering those teams closely but also me, if I needed anything from a coach or player perspective on any topic. I think team social media accounts (looking at you, Arkansas) have been mostly terrific throughout this, too, having more fun than usual with whatever is happening and snarkier to rivals than ever before. The Pac-12’s media webinars throughout its scheduling/season decisions were also very helpful. It was great to have a variety of perspectives on those, especially the day the league postponed its fall season. The Big Ten’s decision to use that format for its return-to-play announcement was good for the same reason. I attended a lot of the LEAD1 webinars and found them largely informative as well.

 

In general, a lot of brands and individuals have done a great job using Instagram lives. Fitness instructors have taught at-home workouts, celebrities have done pretty candid Q&As, etc. Even my favorite nail salon in NYC has done tutorials about nail art. That’s a really interesting use of an interesting platform, in my mind. That unfiltered access has really humanized a lot of people. Plus, it’s almost like Cribs and we’re getting to see what everyone’s homes look like!

 

Teel (Richmond Times-Dispatch) – The most effective teams/athletic departments have been the most revealing and accessible, whether weekly COVID testing data, granting interviews to mainstream media or producing their own content. UVA and Clemson stand out on all those fronts. Among media outlets, The Athletic was very creative with projects such as sports movies, sports villains and “Who coached your coach?” And a random, non-sports observation: The Food Network became our family’s outlet for televised competition, especially with its virtual “Guy’s Grocery Games,” which took viewers to the home kitchens of host Guy Fieri and his celebrity chefs/judges.

 

Thamel (Yahoo) – I always appreciate the schools that transcribe and send out the weekly press conferences by their head coaches. I’ll always read those — pandemic or not — as a way to learn about a program, gather ideas and get a pulse on what’s happening around the sport. As games are unfolding Saturday, I’ve appreciated the schools that have zipped out postgame links — with estimated start times — of their postgame Zooms. A lot of us are working at home. So being able to listen to Brian Kelly for 15 minutes after the Louisville game and ask a question is a nice bonus. At the end of every game, shooting out a link is a nice way. (We all get flooded with emails.)

 

Wilner (The Mercury News) – When I think back on the past seven months from the standpoint of content delivery, one day stands out: Aug. 11. We all saw the difference in how the Pac-12 and the Big Ten approached the votes to postpone football — two momentous decisions that came about an hour apart and could not have been handled more differently. The Pac-12 not only issued a news release on the CEO vote to postpone football, it also included the 12-page report by the medical advisors. It not only conducted a Zoom call with commissioner Larry Scott, it put the chair of the CEO Group, an athletic director and a doctor on the call and opened it up to questions from regional and national media. The Big Ten issued a statement and then Kevin Warren gave his best non-answers on the Big Ten Network. One league opted for transparency, the other for secrecy — and the results were entirely predictable. I think that was a lesson for conferences and schools: Be open. The best way to get your message out is to get it out. Be proactive. Don’t hide. The only other example that comes immediately to mind is from outside the sports world. The Atlantic’s coverage of the pandemic has been phenomenal — a reminder that, now and forever, content is king.