The past few years, when it was time to create the budget for the news department at the paper, I would slash expenses with all the surgical precision of Freddy Krueger. (At least that’s the way it felt.) Sending reporters and photographers with UNC and Duke through the NCAA tournament? Whack!. (It never occurred to me that N.C. State would make it. My bad.)
My thinking was that scores of journalists are there, all reporting basically the same story. Why add a few more to the mix? The paper subscribes to wire services that are sending dispatches from the games. Besides, perhaps staying away from the madding crowd might inspire our reporters to write something different.
It wasn’t a popular choice among the staff.
So, I was surprised and delighted when I read the story by Jeff Mills of the UNC-Ohio game in Saturday’s paper. The only way I knew he wasn’t sitting courtside was that the story didn’t have a dateline. I had watched the game on television and listened to the post-game interviews on the radio, as, apparently, had he. Unlike me, he had taken his experience of covering ACC basketball this season and written an on-the-mark expert analysis of why Carolina won, complete with player and coach quotes.
It was, as sports editor Eddie Wooten later told me, as if Jeff were the News & Record’s version of Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis sitting back in the studio commenting on the game. We had always assumed that 99 percent of the readers who cared about a basketball game watched the game on television. The value of the reporter wasn’t recapping the game itself, it was in using their knowledge of the players and coaches to tell people why and how a team won or lost. Jeff did that from 750 miles away. I asked Eddie to elaborate.
We like to offer readers analysis of the big ACC games. What is the big takeaway from this game? The only way to get that out of the NCAA regionals, without being there ourselves, was for our writers to produce that content from home. We could have printed stories from the wire services, but those stories are more often game rehash with a few quotes.
Yes, we miss things when we’re not there. We miss things the camera won’t pick up during a live broadcast: Discussion between coach and player, or official and coach, or among players. It’s hard to get the feel for the game from the den. We have access to quotes from locker room, but we don’t see the body language or sense the emotion.
So it’s not perfect. But just as a suit in a studio can deliver analysis on a game played far away, so can we. And at this point in the season, our writers know our teams better than the writers assigned to cover NCAA tournament games.
It was a smart and creative use of Jeff’s skills.