By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
January 27, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM In an attempt to open a recent speech with a crowd-pleaser, Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser jokingly touched upon the delicate relationship that exists between the Wake Forest athletic department and the local newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal. Prosser began a talk at a regularly scheduled coaches luncheon, which was open to the public, by thanking the Journal for its long-time sponsorship of the event. Then he held up a recent sports section and pointed out how much he had enjoyed reading the article about UNC basketball. He continued, saying he hadn't enjoyed that one quite as much as the article on Shavlik Randolph of Duke a couple of days earlier.
The audience roared. Some at the Journal laughed. Others seethed.
When you don't really mean something, it comes across as a funny joke, one Journal employee said. When you're making public a private matter that's been a source of some contention for some time, it's not so funny ... especially when you do it at an event that we're paying for.
This high sensitivity level surrounding how a particular media organization treats a local university's sports program is nothing new. Whether fans realize it or not and most probably don't representatives of most major athletic departments initiate on-going dialogues with folks from the daily newspapers and other outlets that cover their programs. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a meeting between an athletic director and a publisher. Far more often, it's regular phone calls, e-mails and face-to-face conversations between a school's media relations officials and a paper's sports editor, columnist and/or beat writer.
With Wake Forest and the Winston-Salem Journal, however, the issue often is under a particularly high-powered microscope. Of the nine ACC schools, the Deacons' media-relations challenge may be the most difficult. The university's relatively small alumni base simply doesn't generate the huge numbers that automatically create demand for intense coverage, even locally. The school's athletic history, while impressive in many ways, doesn't seem to attract many neutral observers, as conference members Duke (basketball), Florida State (football) and North Carolina have done so successfully for many years.
Only two daily newspapers, the Journal (with Dan Collins) and the Greensboro News & Record (with Bill Hass), cover Wake Forest with a full-time beat writer. Two other papers, the Burlington Times-News and the High Point Enterprise, generally cover only press conferences, home games and road games that are within driving distance. A third tier of daily print outlets, including the Charlotte Observer, the Fayetteville Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer and the Wilmington Star-News, also cover the school to lesser degrees. In the end, though, Wake's desire for maximum coverage always comes back to the Journal first.
Dean Buchan, Wake Forest's assistant athletic director for media relations, said there is a great relationship between the school's athletic department and the outlets that cover it. He said school officials, along with the coaches and athletes, like and enjoy the reporters who cover the Demon Deacons. He described good lines of communication with several papers, including the Journal, whose editors and writers generally are receptive to hearing the school's point of view. He also said that, as part of his job description, he usually wants a little bit more media coverage, sometimes a lot more. Often, those desires cause him to turn to the local newspaper.
We want to be Winston-Salem's team, Buchan said. The Journal is Winston-Salem's newspaper. I think both sides would want to maximize that relationship in a way that makes sense for everyone. ... (Journal editors) will listen to our complaints, and sometimes they tell us we're right. There are other times they won't say that.
We understand that in the Triad area there's a great deal of interest in NASCAR. We know there's interest in other schools. We will never argue those points. We just want to make sure our student-athletes and our coaches get the coverage they're due. From the Wake Forest point of view, we're always going to want more coverage. We'll probably never be totally satisfied.
Terry Oberle has been with the Winston-Salem Journal since 1973, as the sports editor since 1974. In almost three decades at the paper, he has heard lots of calls for additional coverage from fans, high schools, athletes' parents and, yes, college media relations officials. He's heard calls for more NASCAR, more Hornets (yes, still), more Duke, more UNC, more N.C. State, even more Clemson or Appalachian State or Winston-Salem State. He understands that, as long as it's positive news, everyone always wants more. That doesn't mean he always agrees with the complaining party's point of view.
I understand where (Wake officials) are coming from, and I have no qualms about that, Oberle said. Dean's job, in particular, is to promote the school, and he does that job well. We've clashed over some things, but that's OK. That doesn't preclude them from coming in here and raising hell about something, but that's just them doing their job. I don't have any problem with that.
But (Wake Forest officials) use the word ëpromote' sometimes, and to me that's the anathema of what we should be doing. We reflect the interest of our readers. If we do otherwise, we're not a very good newspaper. Our credibility is everything, and if we ever appear to be an arm of the university, we'll be doing ourselves a disservice and ultimately the university a disservice.
The Wake Forest community, inside and outside the athletic department, has tried to address the issue with the Winston-Salem Journal in any number of ways over the years from high-brow to low-brow.
At the high-brow level, a number of prominent Deacons once met with prominent Journal executives during the time of a previous publisher. (A trivia note that will absolutely shock many fans: The Journal's current publisher is a Wake Forest graduate.) By the end of the discussion, the former publisher told the Wake group something along these lines: This is a business, and it's our business, and we'll continue to run it the way we want.
At the other end of the class scale, Wake supporters have berated members of the Journal's sports department in any number of ways, perhaps climaxing with the Deacons' 1995 ACC Tournament victory. After Randolph Childress' shot beat hated North Carolina, Wake fans filled the phone lines for the rest of the evening and into the night. They uttered pro-Wake/anti-UNC or anti-Journal screams, often obscene, then hung up. Little did they know that among those answering the phone that night was an increasingly annoyed Wake Forest graduate. Fans' criticisms have only intensified in the age of the internet.
None of the methods has made significant changes in the attitude of the Journal toward Wake Forest, although the paper did drop its rotating-writer philosophy around 1990 and assign a specific reporter to the Deacons. Collins, who arrived at the Journal from the Chapel Hill News in the late 1970s, has since become synonymous with the Wake Forest beat. Despite being well-respected in the journalism industry, he continues to incur the wrath of Wake fans who are dissatisfied with the Journal's coverage of the Deacs.
Dan takes the heat sometimes, even though he's working within my parameters, Oberle said. I can hardly remember telling him not to write a particular story, but sometimes I just don't have the space. It's unfortunate that the fans and sometimes the Wake folks get on Dan, because lots of times it's not his fault.
We really enjoy Dan and the other individual writers who cover us, Buchan said. They're very receptive to listening to our thoughts and ideas. There's no ill feelings at all, and that's good.
Any lingering issues between Wake Forest and the Journal grew dimmer in the late 1990s, as Jim Caldwell's football program floundered and Dave Odom's basketball team fell from its Tim Duncan-NCAA peak (1994-97) and became NIT-bound for three years in a row. Odom, in particular, was a beloved, media-friendly coach who had a deep respect, understanding and appreciation for writers and their craft.
Upon his arrival in 2001, Prosser another friendly guy, also well-liked in media circles didn't hesitate to question the Journal. First, it was mainly Buchan and assistant coach Chris Mack, targeting Collins and Oberle. This season, perhaps after getting a better lay of the land, Prosser has become more assertive at times. Besides his recent luncheon comments, his tactics included showing one writer a copy of what the Cincinnati newspapers did for Xavier, his former school, in their preseason previews. (Prosser said he did so only in response to a request for feedback by the writer in question.) Some at the Journal have seen some things that they consider examples of a coach crossing a line.
I guarantee you I know more about (Prosser's) job than he knows about mine, Oberle said, speaking generally. He's never worked at a newspaper. He reads them, but he doesn't know how they work. I've played basketball, I've coached basketball, so I know a little bit about the game. ... I think we all need to be careful. It's good to have a running dialogue about things. It's not good, in most cases, to go outside your area of expertise and tell someone how to do his job.
We have a head basketball coach, Buchan said, who cares very much about how we're treated in the local paper.
The Wake-Journal issue remains a complex one, and perhaps one with a set of variables unique to any college program. Here are some of the many challenges Wake Forest faces:
- It's tiny, the second-smallest (behind Rice) Division I school that plays I-A football. That means not a lot of alumni. Plus, as a private school, Wake understands that fewer of its alumni stay in the area, especially compared to nearby state schools. Seventy-five percent of Wake Forest students come from out-of-state, meaning few have grown up as Wake fans and few have incentive to put down local roots after they graduate. Generally speaking, a newspaper isn't interested in out-of-area alumni for circulation or advertising purposes.
- (Buchan) came from Kansas, which is a big school that's the only show in town for miles and miles in every direction, Oberle said. That's not the case here. We have four major colleges, plus lots of Clemson fans and Appalachian State fans and Winston-Salem State fans. Wake's often a good show, but it's never the only show in town.
- As is the case at many private schools that provide a top-notch education, sports seem to be a lower priority for many Wake Forest students and alumni. Also, while Wake employs many at its hospital and related businesses, the nature of many of those jobs is transient, and few of those folks seem to have the desire to become devout followers of Wake athletics. This non-sports focus can extend to faculty as well; witness the current issue of the university faculty fighting to keep lights out of the school's baseball stadium. We want casual fans to get to know our people, Buchan said. We think if they get to know our people our student-athletes and coaches they'll become our fans. It's frustrating for us if we see those articles being done on another school but not on us. We know we have far more interesting stories than are being told.
- The Deacons play in a market that includes two smaller programs, Appalachian
State and Winston-Salem State, with a lot of alumni and some sports success.
(The Journal's circulation footprint basically runs west from Winston-Salem
to Boone.) Add to that three neighboring programs in the same conference:
two state schools (North Carolina and N.C. State) and a private one (Duke).
We understand that there's more North Carolina graduates who live in (Winston-Salem) than Wake Forest graduates, Buchan said. I think the numbers are even comparable to Appalachian State graduates. On the other hand, we have some pretty good teams and stories here right now.
- Wake Forest has a weaker connection to the area than most universities. The school actually was moved to Winston-Salem in 1956 from a small town outside Raleigh, and it's never seemed to find the same niche as most colleges. The campus, while beautiful, doesn't feel like a part of the community, as it's surrounded by walls, gates and forests on most borders. There's no strip, where the campus borders the city, as there is in most college towns, that encourages locals to mingle with students and builds atmosphere. The football and basketball venues, both off-campus, are bordered by R.J. Reynolds property, a fairgrounds and a baseball field on most sides. The small strip of restaurants in the area has never become a big pre- or post-game hot spot to draw locals into the mix.
- In most towns, a good number of unaffiliated locals would support the home school. However, that number has been significantly lowered through time by the fact that the Deacons, no matter what they've done, have perennially run second-fiddle to UNC, N.C. State and/or Duke. Since the creation of the ACC in 1953, Wake has only one league football title and four bowl appearances. The other three have won or shared 19 league titles and made 46 bowl appearances. In basketball, Wake has won four conference titles and been to one Final Four. The other three have won 38 league titles and been to 31 Final Fours, with eight national championships. So if you're a bandwagon fan in the area, what incentive has there been to choose Wake Forest, other than perhaps to rebel against the obnoxious fans of those other schools? It's simple numbers, Oberle said. People tend to identify more with state universities, even those who didn't attend any of the schools and don't have any kids at those schools. Duke basketball is getting maximum coverage right now because it's winning, not because of any inherent numbers advantage. Wake Forest is doing great things right now, so that's going to help their coverage.
- There's little media competition in the area for Wake Forest to play against the Journal. Only two TV stations regularly cover the Deacons (the CBS affiliate is Greensboro-oriented, and the ABC affiliate no longer has local news), but they rarely travel for anything but the biggest events, such as bowls or NCAA Tournament games. The most significant newspaper competition is from Greensboro, but even the News & Record didn't cover Wake intensely until the late 1990s, and it still doesn't go on all road trips. While Greensboro does provide quality competition on sports coverage, there's little incentive for people in the Journal's circulation area to buy the paper for any other reason, as it doesn't cover many other issues in the Journal's area.
The Journal while, like most in the publishing industry, feeling the affects of the economic downturn generally has bucked the national trend of steep circulation declines. Since it absorbed the afternoon Sentinel in 1985, its circulation figures have varied only by a few thousand. While numbers have fallen some from a high in the early 1990s, the drop is not significant when compared with national figures. It remains higher than the 1985 numbers, which is more than most markets can say.
So where does that leave Wake Forest? It doesn't have a strong alumni base, and it hasn't gained many bandwagon fans, so it commands little of the newspaper's market. Thus, it has little leverage to improve its situation, other than winning and accessibility.
Our coverage has gotten better in recent years, Buchan said. Our teams have been better. Our coaches and athletes could not be more accessible, and that's with every sport. Our fans through the internet, chat rooms, message boards have taken notice of some problems with our coverage, and I think they've made sure their complaints are heard. That helps, too.
Nevertheless, those Wake fans or officials who desire hometown coverage, as Tennessee might get in Knoxville or Kansas in Lawrence, probably will never get their wish. Neither will those who desire the paper to be a promotional arm for Wake Forest sports. (Few ever claim such a position, but many especially fans communicate the stance whether they realize it or not.) While most TV stations threw out the journalism rules long ago, most newspapers still hold to the idea that news reporting has nothing to do with promotion, and that's particularly true with the old-guard Journal sports staff.
We are a business, Oberle said. Imagine walking into Lowes Foods as a representative of R.J. Reynolds and saying, ëYou should carry only RJR products. We're the hometown team. Pull Philip Morris (products) from your shelves.' Lowes would laugh you right out of the store, as they should. We have to sell newspapers, and we have to appeal to a wide audience to do that. That part of this business is sometimes lost on those on the outside.
So what kind of coverage should the Deacons receive from their hometown newspaper? According to the Journal's own research, not much. Every two years, the Journal's parent company, Media General, commissions a massive study of its circulation area. The study covers all kinds of topics, ranging from the general, such as demographics, to the specific, including readership of certain comic strips or articles.
Consistently, in analyzing variables and making recommendations for college sports coverage, the study ranks Wake Forest sports below North Carolina, N.C. State and Duke (basketball, assumedly) and in the same range as Appalachian State and Winston-Salem State. In general coverage, the Deacons rank below numerous other topics, including NASCAR and the Charlotte teams. (That's the Panthers and the Hornets, although the Panthers have slipped some, and the Hornets are gone but soon to be replaced.) Meanwhile, local stock-car races at Bowman-Gray Stadium draw more than 10,000 spectators on most Friday nights, sometimes more than 15,000. Wake averaged 7,852 fans for its first seven basketball home games this season.
So it seems to make little economic sense for the Journal to treat Wake Forest as the hometown team. Yet, despite Wake's occasional protests to the contrary, a recent ACC Sports Journal study of the newspaper showed that they do anyway, at least in terms of story count.
The Sports Journal yes, we know, we have entirely too much time on our hands studied the Winston-Salem Journal from Aug. 1, 2002, through the end of the calendar year. It counted headlined stories (not briefs or notebook items) of the area college programs. The findings, from those 153 days: 228 articles on Wake Forest, 120 on UNC, 97 on N.C. State, 94 on Duke, 81 on Winston-Salem State and 78 on Appalachian State.
In the sample period, then, the Demon Deacons received more than twice as many stories as any other school except UNC. And it was more than 100 ahead of the Tar Heels, which is pretty significant in a sample of only 153 days.
If we covered Wake Forest purely by the (Media General study's) numbers, they would get less coverage than they get right now, Oberle said. We do (have an extra focus on the Deacons) because they're local. They do get some special consideration because of that, just probably not as much as they would like.
We think it makes business sense for the Journal to maximize its Wake Forest coverage, Buchan said. WXII-TV in Winston-Salem treats us as their hometown team. We dominate their coverage. They go live to our events as often as possible. They went to the Seattle Bowl. They make it pretty clear that we're their hometown team, and their ratings are the best in the Triad in some important demographic categories. That to me shows it can be done and be successful in a business sense. We'd like to be treated that way (by the Journal) and see what happens.
The Journal recently supplemented its football and basketball coverage with other items, such as regularly staffing home soccer games and following Bea Bielik's run to the NCAA tennis title and into the U.S. Open. It also followed the golf team closely. In addition, the Journal has sent a web staffer (from journalnow.com) to provide extra content quotes and a photo gallery to virtually all home football and men's basketball games, including exhibitions, since the end of the 2001 football season. It doesn't have a web staffer provide similar extra coverage in any other area, sports or news.
This is done because the Journal recognizes that, while Wake doesn't have much power in the newspaper's circulation footprint, it does have a number of out-of-area alumni who check the website, since the paper is the only consistent media provider of Wake Forest news. In contrast, while local UNC supporters may demand coverage in the paper, those on-line probably head to sites more geared toward UNC coverage.
When Prosser made his comment, the Journal had printed 26 stories about his team, which had played three games. The front of the Journal's basketball preview was dedicated to two Wake Forest legends, publicist Marvin Skeeter Francis and player Dickie Hemric, in celebration of the ACC's 50th anniversary.
The Journal has forged other relationships with Wake Forest that are more along the promotional lines, but it has done so outside the relationship with its reporters, which is how it should be done (if at all). For example, the Journal sponsors and promotes the coaches luncheon, and it did promotions at home football games, where it printed Wake cheer cards and gave them away inside a free Journal. The newspaper also gives the Deacons two football and basketball tickets in exchange for significantly lower advertising rates. Because of that, Wake has been running fairly large ticket or game promotions almost every day in the Journal.
So why the touchy feelings?
Well, some Wake Forest fans simply resent the coverage given to rivals, of which there remains plenty. (Oberle and others in the Journal sports department have been the target of the most common and pathetic argument presented by the lunatic fringe element at every ACC school: You dislike us because you're all Carolina graduates. For the record, Oberle is a 1967 graduate of Florida Southern, and only three of the paper's 16 sports staffers are UNC alums.) But the Journal also brings some criticism on itself.
For one thing, according to some veteran North Carolina media observers, the sports section and the paper in general often fails to act as though anything is particularly special. When a player the caliber of Tim Duncan leaves school, or Wake wins a bowl game, fans are looking for that something extra, and the paper sometimes fails to deliver. However, this is not a Wake-centric problem: The sports section simply doesn't cover many things that way.
In addition, there are varying opinions about the Journal's writer on the Wake Forest beat. (Collins did not return several messages seeking comment.) While he is universally respected for the quality of his work and some regard him as one of the better writers in the ACC, others question the intensity of his coverage at times. Many others vehemently disagree.
This is significant because at the Journal, the writers dictate the amount of coverage to a great extent. While the Journal has a general philosophy about Wake Forest, it's not something Oberle or anyone else carefully calculates each day. Because the Journal's sports staff is made up mostly of writers with more than 20 years of experience, the sports editor leaves the decisions up to them. He does not regularly assign specific stories.
Dan has been (at the Journal) for 25 years, (columnist) Lenox Rawlings for about 20, (UNC beat writer) Bill Cole for about 30, Oberle said. They grew up here. They know the ACC inside-out. They've been alive for the whole existence of the ACC. They tell me what they're doing, and I talk with them every day, but I generally let them do their thing.
When the Journal ran six articles about N.C. State's bowl game in the three days surrounding it to three for Wake Forest, many fans complained. But the disparity really had little to do with a college coverage philosophy, the relative importance of the games or space considerations, and it had a lot to do with the fact that one writer decided to write six stories and another three. If the writers had been assigned to opposite bowls, it's possible that readers would have seen opposite story counts. Again, there's no conspiracy here.
In the end, Wake Forest probably should be careful about its wishes. An ultra-aggressive beat reporter may write about more of the negatives, such as the high number of transfers caused by the Odom regime or the events that caused Mike Pratapas, who was athletic director Ron Wellman's golden boy, to leave the school and what impact it might have on fund-raising. The football program has had a number of academic problems over the last few seasons, and the lack of media coverage essentially has let Wake slide most of it by, where it would be more significant news in some other ACC markets. (The fact that one of the Deacons' football signees failed to qualify academically last year wasn't reported in any daily newspaper. That wouldn't happen on any other beat in the conference.) While Wake seemingly runs its programs at higher standards than most, there are still plenty of rocks to be turned over, often with unflattering things underneath.
What can Wake Forest do to improve its media coverage? Stay accessible and win.
Prosser and football coach Jim Grobe are two of the most accessible coaches in the league, and they're good interviews who are quick with a quip. They will only grow on reporters over time. Former UNC football coach Mack Brown didn't win many games early in his career, but the public relations groundwork he laid during that time paid off big later. Generally speaking, despite some exceptions, Grobe and Prosser are winning and doing good PR.
Wake can improve its accessibility in some other areas. Wellman is a strict no comment on anything important, and he usually refuses to even point reporters in the right direction, a courtesy many ADs often extend. Also, Wake doesn't leak word of its recruiting commitments, as many schools do.
But winning is really the cure-all. Wake sports are at an all-time high. They're an ACC factor if not a national one in almost every sport. Even the football program, which has the second-worst winning percentage in Division I-A history, appears to be on solid ground, with better prospects ahead.
In addition, the Deacons' success has come at a time when UNC's major sports have hit significant bumps in the road, Duke football continues to be horrible, and N.C. State basketball is coming off a long dormant period. Wake has its best chance, possibly ever, to fire up its own constituency and grab a larger portion of the bandwagon fans.
More fans and more wins should equal more attention from more outlets. That kind of competition would force the Journal into coverage that goes even beyond its already high level.