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Peak Perspective: Life of a Beat Writer

MWCConnection interviews five prominent Mountain West beat writers to learn more about their jobs.

Note: A huge thanks to Jordan Kaye, BJ Rains, Alex Taylor, Kevin Lytle, and Chris Murray for taking time out of their days to speak with me about their jobs for this project.

If you follow college sports or any sports, you likely follow one or more beatwriters for your favorite teams. You read their work like their tweets and have read countless stories they have written. But have you ever heard their stories before? We decided to turn the tables and interview a group of Mountain West beat writers in order to learn more about them as well as all the work that goes into their craft.

A range of origins:

Often, one of the most interesting parts of the story is the starting point, and this group of writers has unique and varied beginnings.

Jordan Kaye and Alex Taylor had the most straightforward paths of the bunch but even had to take a turn or two before settling into sportswriting.

“I was in journalism school at Arizona State wanting to do video or be on SportsCenter. I had the idea it was a bit easier than it was until I found I wasn’t the best in the field.” Kaye quickly had to pivot and discovered the program didn’t have as many writers. “I started interviewing people and enjoyed it, so I kept going.”

Finding his path allowed him to get opportunities covering his college team with the ASU Rivals site, and applying for jobs led him to Pocatello, Idaho, and later Boise at a local paper. Since speaking with him for this post, he has joined Bronco Nation News.

Alex had always been drawn to writing and sports, but the idea of putting them both together didn’t click right away. He recalls, “I was working as a general news reporter in North Dakota and realized I hated it. I saw the sports guy at the same paper making a living talking to athletes and covering games and decided to try the transition.”

He lucked out by getting a job at a Wyoming paper covering high school sports, and when the Wyoming beat writer job opened up, he had a connection at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and got offered the job.

In his own words, Kevin Lytle “stumbled into it.” Like many people in their late teens, he didn’t know what he wanted to major in. He fell into an internship at a local TV news station and ended up loving it. From there, everything took off for Lytle. “I started working at the college student paper, and things carried on from there.” He applied to a multitude of papers until he found a job. His current job is at the Coloradoan, where he handles Colorado State football and basketball responsibilities.

Chris Murray was a copycat turned trailblazer. “My brother went into journalism, so I did too. “he admits. “He eventually switched his major, but I stuck with it.”

Sticking with it proved to be a wise decision because Murray got an internship at the Reno Gazette-Journal, which proved to be life-changing for him. After six or so years mostly doing editing and box scores for sports, Murray got a break in 2008, becoming the beat writer for Nevada’s men’s basketball team before later adding football. After a decade of bringing Wolf Pack coverage for the paper, he was an integral part of the Nevada Sports Net launch, where he still resides today.

For BJ Rains, it was more of a decision to go into the family business. “My dad is a reporter, so it was always a possibility. I loved sports and maybe wanted to be an agent. But I ended up following in my dad’s footsteps.” he explains. “I did the school paper in high school and then wrote for a Kansas paper in college covering the basketball team.”

Rains bounced around, doing an internship with, but a desire for a new challenge led him to Boise. What was originally only going to be a year or two covering Boise State athletics has turned into launching his own website, BroncoNationNews. “I figured out Boise was a great place to raise a family, so I wanted to stay. I saw the way journalism was going, and I tried to get in front by starting a website and going toward a digital.”

Breaking into the beat:

A common theme from nearly every reporter interviewed was that hitting your stride when covering a team takes time, and it can be tough in the early going. Unfortunately, there are plenty of challenges.

For Kaye, it was a rookie mistake, coming in assuming too much at a new stop. “A mistake I may have made is assuming how things were at previous stops would be how things are everywhere, and everyone is different in terms of access.”

Poor Taylor came in during the middle of the season, which was an uphill battle. “I started on the beat in the middle of football season and had to quickly get up to speed with the players, coaches, and, of course, what the fans thought about the team. It was definitely an abrupt transition.”

Adjusting to the new people at a new job, whether it’s the players, the coaches, or other personnel, can be quite challenging because the relationships don’t exist yet. It can feel worse when other reporters already have those relationships established.

It can be frustrating to join a beat and see others get info that you don’t, but it’s all about trust,” explains Lytle. “You have to be present and show you deserve trust with both your words and actions.”

“I was swimming upstream for about a year and seeing other people break stories.” Echos Rains, speaking about his first year in Idaho in reference to another reporter who had been covering the team for many years already.

However, there is a bond between writers who are willing to help one another despite being competitors when it comes to breaking news or readers.

“I credit the other two UW beat writers,” says Taylor. “Cody Tucker of 7220sports and Ryan Thornburn of the Casper Star-Tribune for helping me get comfortable in the new environment since this was my first job covering college sports.

The experience was similar for Kaye early in his career. “It’s been great to lean on veteran reporters. Everyone has been super nice.”

Forming relationships with one another seems important for learning the ropes of a new beat. For a reporter to be successful in covering a team, they need to form good working relationships with those they are covering as well.

Relationships and Honesty

If relationships are integral to the job, how do beat writers build those relationships?

“It can be tricky to build relationships while knowing there will be times where you write things that those people don’t like,” Lytle admits. “But if you make sure to be credible and ethical, people will respect you.”

Kaye and Murray explain part of building that respect is earning your keep, especially with team personnel who like to keep things close to the vest.

“Sometimes it’s being trusted with small access and doing a good job, which leads to bigger access,” says Kaye. “But also, it’s learning the access and then how you do your job adjusting off of that.”

Murray agrees. “Some coaches may not see much value in the media; more teams want to share messages through their own channel or social media team. There can sometimes be hesitancy about access. I try to build trust with open dialogue at every opportunity. Maybe it’s going to a press conference just to build rapport. Or going to every practice and building credibility, traveling on the road, showing your dedication to try to get to know the team as best as possible. Also, asking smart questions and telling people’s stories. Coaches respect all of that.”

There are also times when connections start through random, chance meetings.

“It might be as easy as a random meeting in the community and having an organic conversation,” says Rains. “Each coaching staff is different and has different rules. It took a few years and coaches getting to know me before realizing I’m trustworthy and credible.”

If it takes this much time and effort to build a new professional relationship, it takes even more work to maintain that relationship when the priorities of writers and coaches can sometimes be at odds.

Asking the group of writers about their thought process when reporting on something, knowing there may be backlash, was a question they were in near-unanimous agreement. The common refrain was to be fair and stick to the facts.

Kaye’s stance is simple: “My goal is to be fair. I have an evaluation process for an article. I read it, and I’ll send it to my friends in the industry to get their thoughts and ask if this is fair, accurate, and not personal.”

“Journalism is about minimizing harm. If I don’t have all the information, I say I don’t know it. And sometimes, in order to get information, I have to ask hard questions.”

Lytle, who is more of a veteran writer, has been through enough moments to learn to be okay if not everyone likes his work. “If it’s news, it’s news. I have to write what is happening even if they don’t like it. As long as I do it in an upfront way, people are okay with it.”

“I don’t stab in the back or fall into “hot take” culture. I try to be upfront and honest with sources, which I’ve found key. They may not like something, but if you give them a chance ahead of time to share their view, they can usually understand the process. I encourage people to let me know if they are upset, and talking it out helps.”

For Taylor, his guiding force is presenting facts in an interesting or newsworthy way. “The only guide for navigating this is whether something is newsworthy enough is if it interests fans, and if there are enough facts out there to back up the story.”

He continues, “It can be hard to toe the line of not being harsh when it comes to college athletics and also maintaining those relationships with the players and coaches. But at the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to ask the hard questions and hold those people accountable.”

Murray focuses on the readers first, as he has had those relationships longer than most others in the athletic department. “My bottom line is to my readers and viewers. I have been with the beat longer than all but one coach in Nevada AD. Of course, it would be easier only to write positive stories, but there needs to be a balance. I can’t play favoritism or be the cheerleader. I can’t compromise my morals or approach, and having thick skin and ruffling feathers is part of the job.”

However, that doesn’t mean he is cold-hearted regarding how he approaches stories. “I do try to give a heads up about a story and get their side of things and give them an opportunity to comment. But at the end of the day, I can’t censor myself.”

Rains echoes what the rest of the group is saying. “Writers have to be fair, present facts but don’t resort to cheap shots. Columnists may be in the spotlight a lot of times since it’s more of an opinion. I will try to call a coach first to give them a chance to report or get a comment before it’s posted. I’ve learned you will probably upset someone somewhere in this business.”

Lots of Hours

One thing is for certain: a career in journalism is not a typical nine-to-five job. Our group of Mountain West writers have experiences that as much as anyone. Their answers ranged from more than 40 to as many as 70 hours a week, although 50 seemed to be the average answer. However, it’s how those hours are spent that truly sheds light on what goes into the job.

Many hours include things we can see and read, but a lot of time is dedicated to behind-the-scenes work. As Kaye describes, “A lot of time is spent going to see practice and then conducting interviews, but there is some waiting until the interviews occur. Then it’s transcribing the interviews, writing the article, or maybe putting video stuff together. Plus, spending time researching the next story.”

Writers are focused as much on the next story or next task as they are on the current one. Some of the other additional projects may include radio or TV interviews, special game preview sections for the paper, interviewing a beat writer for the opposing team, feature stories on a specific player, and, of course, breaking news like recruiting. Rains accurately stated that “news can occur at any time.”

It’s easy to see how the hours add up for beat writers. And like Lytle said, “That doesn’t even touch on game day.”

Game Day Routines

As varied as everything else is for this group of writers, the game day routine is very similar. This makes sense, as that is the most unchanging part of the job.

Prior to the game, writers will get there anywhere from two to five hours before the start of the game. There may not be much else to do when it’s a road game, so they may as well get to work. Plus, you may want to check out the lay of the land, as Lytle explains. “If it’s a place I’ve never been to or the team has played in a long time, I’ll get there early and walk around the campus. Sometimes, I like to sight-see or see what the tailgate is like.”

Rains indicates there is a practical component too. “I want to make sure I know how to get to the press box. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the process of parking and credentials and finding the press box before the team arrives, just in case there is an issue.”

Otherwise, beat writers may spend some time talking to parents and then walk down on the field. While down on the sidelines, writers may take some video of warmups and definitely keep an eye out for players who are injured or not suited up.

During the game, it should be no surprise as we follow along with their coverage on social media. However, the group also often writes their stories while following along with the game, especially those who have deadlines to meet with newspapers.

The work is not done after the game, and in many ways, that’s when the majority of the work starts. Lytle will post a quick “3 takeaways” story immediately as the game ends to get people reading his work immediately. Taylor finalizes the questions he will ask during the post-game press conference. Everyone goes down to ask the players and coaches questions after the game at the pressers to gather quotes and ideas for stories.

“I heard from someone once that at every game, something happens that never or rarely happens,” Kaye states. “So it’s about finding that one thing for lede for a story. The most interesting thing should guide the story.”

Most, if not all, of the writers will complete a few different posts and upload videos from the press conferences. A traditional game recap with more details and then a column or more of a story into how the game was won or lost.

Overall, writers can spend eleven or twelve hours on a game day providing coverage before, during, and after a game. Sometimes, the work doesn’t get completed until they are back at the hotel if the press box closes. And don’t forget about the early morning flight back home for road games.

Working in the hard times

The reality is no job is perfect, and sometimes, times are more challenging than others in the field of journalism. Some of the less fun instances can often be when the team is having a tough year and the season is dragging on. How does a beat writer navigate the tough times?

“First, you have to be honest.” Lytle proclaims. “Readers aren’t coming to us as an unbiased outlet to read sugarcoating. If it’s bad, say it’s bad and how. That doesn’t mean hot takes, just honesty in what isn’t working.

It certainly leaves one trying to think outside the box to avoid writing the same story game after game, as Taylor notes. “It can be tough when a season starts going so poorly that even the coach doesn’t have many unique answers to different questions anymore. A good example is UW’s recent basketball season.”

There is no doubt that writers have to dig deeper during the hard times. However, it does beg the question: Did they change their coverage at all?

“In those times, I do more “analysis” work on what has gone wrong, how and when it might change, and what the future outlook is,” explains Lytle. “If a coaching change is possible due to the losses, that’s always a key component to track.

Taylor’s approach is similar. “I try to focus on the players and their experience and how the season is never truly over until it’s over. I’m also a big fan of columns for these situations to analyze what’s going wrong and how to try and fix it.”

On the other hand, other writers choose not to change things up, and that seems to work just as well, demonstrating that there is more than just one correct approach.

For Rains, his approach means staying the course and being as straightforward as possible, almost leaning into the hard times. “We don’t really do anything different game to game. It’s still telling the story of what happened and sticking to the facts. If it’s a losing season or period of time, then it’s about diving more into what is happening and why teams are losing or in a rough stretch.”

“I don’t change my coverage, although I have thought about it,” says Murray. “The only way I know how to cover it is to go 100% and go at it to the fullest. In the trying games, I have had moments of what I am doing and whether I should change it up. But there is always a story to tell, no matter what is happening.

Telling the story seems to be the vital aspect to keep in mind, regardless of the game’s outcome. Perhaps Kaye puts it best when he says, “There are different stories. Why is a team losing? What has gone wrong? It’s about looking for a story that is happening. Someone is doing something, whether it is really good or really bad. Find that answer.”

What if it Never Gets to Print

“I’ve always said there would be a great book of stories from reporters that never got printed.” Rains says immediately.

It’s clear from conversations with this group that several volumes of stories will likely remain unpublished because something ended up not happening, happened in a different way, or hasn’t happened yet.

One might think writers would grow tired of hard work not amounting to anything in some cases, but this group has gotten used to it and recognized it is just part of the job.

“I’ve grown used to knowing not every quote you get is going to be used, at least right away,” admits Taylor. “I set the leftover content on the side and maybe use it later for another story. While not all quotes will be used, it’s good to get those different perspectives instead of just reusing the same quotes over and over again.”

Likewise, Kaye appreciates learning something and savoring the information he does end up using. “It’s not a waste of time if I gain perspective or knowledge for that story or a future story. Sometimes, you might only use 10% of the info you have, but that 10% is completely worth it.”

Not being able to use quotes is one thing, but not being able to use a story is another.

For Murray, one of the best games in Nevada football history was also one of his most frantic nights on the job. “I rewrote the Nevada Boise State 2010 game four times because of how the game went back and forth so much. It can be frantic, and you’re working under a lot of pressure to deliver it, but people learn to thrive on that.”

Writers like Rains have had to learn to adapt. “I now do two stories at the same time, one for a win, one for a loss. The Boise State Colorado State game in 2017 was especially tough with all the back and forth. When it comes to something like breaking news, you have the story ready and know you never run it. It’s just part of the job.”

If nothing else, writing stories that never see the light of day is still preparation for the next successful story with the proper mindset, as Lytle illustrates.

“I always like to be prepared, and sometimes that means writing stuff that ends up in the trash bin. But the successes from that prep make the failures worth it. It’s always better to have too much than too little when reporting.”

The Age of Social Media

Thanks to social media, people from all over are able to read the work of local beat writers. But for those writers, what is their mindset when it comes to using social media? How intentional are they about interacting with fans, what information is a tweet, and what should be saved for a story? The group of writers share their thoughts.

Kaye admits it’s still a work in progress for him. “This is the hardest thing I’ve encountered, and I would like to get better at it.”

Rains had the most practical answer, explaining his process with breaking news and sharing stories. And since moving his work to his own website, he needs to be practical since all of his work is now digital in one way or another.

“I try to have the story ready to go before I tweet something if it’s breaking news. If I don’t have time, I just get the tweet. But if I can, I try to have a story ready and have that all set.”

It sounds like a great plan, but playing the waiting game isn’t easy. “Sometimes, it can be 15 minutes between learning the news and getting the story all set. It can be very nerve-wracking.” Rains describes. “It’s very important to have the story in the tweet that might go viral and circulate all over. Rather than clickbait, I want to report the facts and entice people to read the story that way.”

One thing that is certain in the social media age is that people want the info in real time. Lytle describes this well. “People expect things NOW (hence the immediate game story). And, they like sharing their opinions on social media.”

Social media has many positives, and one of them is to better understand what readers want to read about.

“It gives me a good gauge of how some fans feel about certain things happening with the team,” Taylor explains. “A good example is conference expansion and SDSU storylines over the summer, with fans sharing their thoughts and reactions on the whole situation.”

Lytle agrees. “I’ve tried to lean into social media for my benefit. I ask for reader questions for mailbag segments and use that fan insight to try and further share information from my beat. I try to make sure fans know they can come to me for information.”

However, it’s not always positive, as the reader’s reactions can sometimes be negative and strongly worded. Unfortunately, writers can often take a lot of personal attacks.

“Getting your message out is a huge positive to social meeting. But I’ve also taken a lot of flack on Twitter with some of my votes and content,” says Murray. “I’ve shifted my use of social media for my own mental health.”

Interestingly enough, Kaye reminds us that not all generations of readers flock to social media for their news. “A lot of fans are on Twitter, so I’m engaging with fans, and they are seeing it, but based on traffic and numbers, a lot of people only consume news from the paper. If I’m only on social media, I’m missing out on engaging with another portion of the fanbase.”

It’s a Dream Job

There is no doubt that none of these writers take their job for granted. Though, like any job, it includes moments of frustration, the good outweighs the bad.

The obvious answer is getting paid to watch sports and write about it. But there are more perks than that, as Kaye explains. “It’s great that people can joke I do something that isn’t a real job. I get to create my own schedule and have that flexibility to get everything done I need to do at different parts of the day.”

Taylor added, “It’s a dream job, even though it can be a high-stress position most of the year. It’s a good gig for someone my age in terms of meeting new people and getting valuable experience covering a D1 school.”

The ability to travel and experience so many different cities is hard to come by and something that does not go unnoticed by those on the beat. “I get to travel to some great places and meet so many great people I wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” Lytle says. “It’s special when someone opens up to me about themselves and trusts me to share their story.”

Being able to be a storyteller was the most common answer given by our group of writers. Specifically, Rains expresses that “he enjoys all the relationships with the coaches, players, and fans getting to talk sports all day.” And Murray reminds us that “it’s hard to be a D1 athlete. To sink your teeth into a story and have a reader learn something from what you wrote is the most fulfilling thing.”

That doesn’t mean between all the travel and games, the job isn’t challenging. Perhaps Murray puts it best when he sums it up by saying, “We work a lot of hours for little pay on weekends and holidays, but I’ve never once in 22 years felt like I’ve been working, and it’s rare to enjoy your job.”

The aspects people don’t know:

It seemed important to ask this group of writers for some parts of their job that the average fan wouldn’t know about or even parts they wished fans knew about. There was a healthy range of answers and some great insight into their world.

The most common refrain was the reminder that they are not fans of the teams they cover, but they are not rooting for the team to fail either. Along with that, reporters have feelings, too, and being called things like “a dumb blogger” or “hack journalism” or repeatedly being told by fans (or coaches) that they need to cover the team better doesn’t always feel great.

“I think the biggest misconception is that my job is just going to games (and jokingly adds he can’t get anyone tickets),” Lytle explains. “Yes, I do that and am very fortunate to do so, but the game coverage is just the tip of the iceberg on how my time is spent.”

Kaye and Murray’s answers focused more on the behind-the-scenes aspects of the job. “A lot of people aren’t fully aware of media policies or how there is a process to everything.” He admits that “sometimes we can’t interview people or share information. It is also difficult to report if we can’t see how someone is doing, so we go off what we hear.”

Likewise, Murray expressed, “My mind immediately goes to the behind-the-scenes phone calls with coaches that could be difficult,” but then went on to say that “being asked to hold a story or wait and then having someone else break it can be frustrating.”

On a personal note, he reflects that “Reporters need to know their priorities and who they want to be. It can be hard to be a spouse or parent in a newsroom when trying to work 70 hours a week for half the year. It’s important to find that balance.”

Taylor went in a different direction, highlighting the relationships, a common narrative in many of his answers.

“I can’t speak for all beat writers, but myself and the other beat writers here have a solid relationship in terms of helping each other. My first impression was that it would be super competitive between us, and that would reflect how we treated each other. That simply hasn’t been the case.” It’s nice to know the group in Laramie all get along.

Rains had one of the more insightful answers. On the one hand, media members get to attend a lot of games. On the other hand, that means missing out on other games the rest of us may take for granted. “It’s what we miss out on: watching most sports. I miss most big games on Saturdays during football and basketball season because I’m working on and covering my games. I miss tailgating and hanging out with friends or family.”

To sum things up, this group of writers, along with many others, take their job very seriously and enjoy getting to do what they do. The field has changed dramatically over the years, but for the dedicated ones, the job remains the same: report the facts that need to be reported and tell the stories that demand to be told. Murray puts it best:

“We have to evolve as the field evolves, but we can’t forget the root of our job is journalism. Content is fluffy, but journalism matters, and it’s important that it remains strong.”