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Establishing a solid foundation

He is a young newspaper sports editor, but he gets it. The guy who was once my intern, who covers much of the Birmingham, Alabama, area now, says that establishing relationships is what the job is all about. I wish I could take credit for his genius, but he is a natural all on his own.

The publishing group he works for covers some of the most successful athletic programs in the state of Alabama. There is the football program vying for a state title every year, a basketball program that has been ranked nationally, baseball and soccer dynasties. His absolute favorite team to cover? A softball team.

He notes that the team’s head coach befriended him in a heartbeat, and talked to him as if he had known her for ten years the first time he met her. Soon after covering a few of their games, the players were eager to get to know the young sports editor and were excited any time he came to a game. The head coach even allowed him access to multiple practices before departing for the state softball tournament, and encouraged him to stand in the dugout during games. She was also willing to have dialogue during games. He says it is not uncommon to get a phone call at eleven o’clock at night from the head coach, just to talk about why a certain player is struggling or what her little girl did that day. Why is this?

“With her and many of the other coaches I’ve covered, I’ve been lucky enough to earn their trust quickly, using discernment to not write about certain things I get to see behind the scenes, but also using some of those things to drive home a point and make for a great story,” he says.

He has also assisted a major university’s athletic programs by working in the media relations department. Had he stayed on that path, he would have likely worked with the same people every day. But as a sports editor, he routinely visits many different people.

“Instead of being limited to the handful of employees I was with at a job, now the people I interact with on a daily basis are coaches, administrators and athletes along with my coworkers,” he says. “Most of these people are thankful and appreciative of what I’m doing.”

He says that his philosophy as a community reporter is to establish relationships within the circles of people that he covers. He is learning to also be the guy behind the camera, and he Tweets game-face photos with hilarious captions.

“I’m not just there to write about them, take pictures of them and Tweet about them,” he says. “When you do that, you put off a certain vibe and people associate having to act a certain way around you, guard their tongues, and you are on the outside looking in at all times.”

He dives in to that philosophy a little deeper. 

“Establishing a solid foundation with that athletic director and that coach does wonders,” he says. “For one, that player that you’ve never talked that you’re doing a story on? That player has seen you interact with the coach, and has noticed that you’re not just some random guy that shows up needing something. That makes your interview subjects much more comfortable. Secondly, when you have a solid relationship with someone, interviews are allowed to be much more conversational, which ups the quality of your material ten-fold.”

People tell you things when you have developed solid relationships with them, and the sports editor knows that. It opens the door to more stories and allows people to tell things they otherwise would not tell a reporter who covers his or her team every now and then. 

“I could go on and on for how establishing relationships with people has created a culture of trust with the people that I interact with every day,” he says.

Another friend of mine, one who was not my intern, has covered major university athletics and football recruiting in Alabama. He has been at the forefront of Alabama football coverage, and the dismantling and resurrection of the UAB football program. All those high-profile stories, but he still routinely finds himself on the sidelines on Friday nights.

“I enjoy high school sports because it’s easier to unearth unique stories,” he says.

He remembers a couple of them. There was the football player who lost his mother unexpectedly, but who couldn’t have been more gracious with his time to talk about it. There was the other blue-chip football recruit who also lost his mother at a young age. 

“I think telling stories about kids humanizes them and their team,” he says.

He recalls a Christmas basketball tournament in 2005 in Dothan, Alabama, that he covered. One of the teams had a little guard who hit a half-court shot at the end of the third quarter. After the game, someone mentioned to my friend that the player had lost his grandfather in a house fire a few days prior. The following day, the player opened up about it in an interview, and my friend turned the story around for the next day’s newspaper, when the boy’s team played in the third-place game. 

“Seemed like he got extra applause when he got the ball,” he says.

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