John Drescher, the executive editor of The (Raleigh) News & Observer, is probably a bigger sports fan than most of his counterparts at the top of mastheads across the country. He has tickets to N.C. State basketball games, tries to take in games in Cameron Indoor Stadium whenever he can and self-deprecatingly says that "it's probably not a good sign when you've read more John Feinstein books than books by Ernest Hemingway." It's also fortuitous that such a sports nut is the editor of the Triangle's largest and most influential newspaper, because he is far from naive about the impact of athletics on the area.
And he's certainly not one to dismiss press criticism from perhaps the most prominent figure in the area, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who blasted local newspapers Jan. 7 after he was displeased that no media outlet printed a story about his Blue Devils jumping to No. 2 in the rankings. "I know it's not that big here," Krzyzewski said, not-so-subtly alluding to his team's status in comparison to the fan favorite, North Carolina. "But it's pretty damn good. So when this group makes No. 2, it's a new group, they should be celebrated for doing something good."
Except, as Drescher pointed out in his weekly column Jan. 17, The N&O did write something about the team's new placement in the polls. The newspaper printed the Associated Press' top 5 on the front page of its section Jan. 6, and posted a short story detailing the new rankings Jan. 5 on ACC Now, one of its three flagship blogs.
Understandably, Drescher, who attended both UNC and Duke, did not let Krzyzewski's thinly-veiled accusations of media bias go ignored. He fired back in the same spirit ("Know this--we love you, man. But like a good ref, we'll keep calling 'em like we see 'em," he wrote), vigorously defending his newspaper's coverage and jabbing Coach K a few times in the process by insinuating that he overlooks the local media for the national allure of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.
"I thought he was tweaking us a little, so I tried to return that same kind of spirit in my piece," Drescher told The Chronicle Monday. "I was fine with what he said, but I disagree with it, and that's why I wrote a response."
Promoting the accomplishments
Indeed, Drescher does more than simply defend his newspaper's coverage as fair.
Although none of his sports reporters are Duke alumni and four went to UNC, Drescher deflects Krzyzewski's accusations of bias for the Tar Heels by citing Jay Bilas, a Duke alumnus, who correctly observes that his affiliation with Duke should not impede his ability to fairly comment on the Blue Devils.
The N&O even sent former Duke beat reporter Luciana Chavez to Beijing in August to cover Krzyzewski in the Olympics, and the newspaper, not McClatchy Company, footed the bill. It was the most expensive trip Drescher said he has ever been associated with, costing the newspaper more than it did to send reporters to Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily because of lodging fees. There was, at one point, talk about not sending Chavez to China, as The N&O is certainly not immune to the problems almost every newspaper has encountered in the past two years.
In June, The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, another McClatchy newspaper, consolidated coverage, and now, The N&O's sports department is managed by a Charlotte-based editor. The Raleigh newspaper, which can feature more NASCAR and Panthers reports with access to Charlotte reporters, has undergone two rounds of layoffs and buyouts in the last 12 months and has been forced to re-organize almost every facet of its coverage. Sending a reporter to Beijing was a journalistically ambitious decision; it may not have been as financially laudable.
"It's kind of the era we're in. We're constantly being asked to cut costs," Drescher said. "The bottom line is that we don't have as many reporters as we used to, and we're having to cover things differently."
Staffing changes affect Duke beat
And even though Drescher said he considers Duke Basketball one of the newspaper's franchise beats—along with state and government politics, the local universities as academic institutions and the Triangle's college athletic programs—the Duke athletics beat did not survive the basketball season unscathed.
Chavez juggled the end of football season and beginning of basketball season before covering her last game Nov. 29, and she has since been re-assigned to the lifestyles department to write features. Ken Tysiac, formerly the Raleigh-based reporter for The Charlotte Observer, is now doing double duty for The N&O, shouldering the N.C. State beat while leading a three-headed reporting team on Duke. He is joined by longtime N&O writer A.J. Carr, a Krzyzewski favorite, and J.P. Giglio. UNC still has one full-time beat reporter, as it did during football season.
Drescher, however, did not address any of the staff changes in his column.
"I'm not going to respond to something that hasn't been stated," he said. "I can't imagine that Coach K really has a major problem with our coverage.... If he had brought that up, I would have responded to it, but he didn't bring it up. It's interesting to me that there's some online chatter that people 'know' that Krzyzewski is upset about it. How exactly do they know that?"
Regardless, an editor's column could have served as an outlet for Drescher to explain the unconventional beat system in the spirit of transparency. He could have reiterated his belief that coverage won't be affected, and he also could have further quelled the charges of bias.
'More than one strategy'
The N&O's coverage of Krzyzewski's squad hasn't seemed to decline in quality, but there are, of course, advantages to having one full-time beat writer—that's part of the reason why the one-team beat system is so popular and was used by The N&O before the shakeup. That doesn't mean this type of de-centralized beat team can't work, though, and Drescher is hoping that it succeeds as well as it has so far.
Even so, obstacles loom. It's too early to make a decision about next year's football beats, but it's clear right now that Tysiac won't be able to be in two places at once on Saturdays; Drescher said the newspaper will reevaluate and regroup after basketball season.
And in the face of a sinking economy, a shrinking crop of reporters and the abundance of free information online, a petty quarrel with a basketball coach might be the least of Drescher's concerns.
"I will be thrilled if we can get through this year preserving the staff and news hole that we have right now," said Drescher, who received about a dozen phone calls and e-mails in addition to the 19 total online comments about his column (most were positive, although some Duke fans assailed him for criticizing Krzyzewski). "It is not a perfect world that we live in. It's a journalism world that's very different from what it was two years ago, and we're doing all different kinds of things.
"I think our coverage of Duke has been good. I think what we need to be judged on here is the quality of our coverage in the newspaper. I'm open to hear criticism from people who say we're not doing a good job with Duke coverage, but I'm not really hearing it, and I think it's because we are doing a good job with Duke coverage. There's more than one strategy to win a basketball game. There's more than one strategy to get good newspaper coverage."