When the NCAA announced they would be investigating the University of Montana, Jayme Fraser, now reporting at the Houston Chronicle, was the editor of the Montana Kaimin, the daily paper at UM.
I was alone in the Kaimin office when news broke that the University of Montana was hiring a retired state Supreme Court justice to investigate whether campus administration properly responded to sexual assault allegations against athletes. That feeling of loneliness is familiar to many campus newspaper editors, even if they are surrounded by staff as news breaks, rather than an office emptied by a holiday break. Few outline ahead of time how best to cover events that are both “news” and “sports.” Should beat sports reporters risk damaging source relationships by asking tough questions? How will a crime reporter get caught up on NCAA complexities and convince superstars to talk to someone they think is out to get them?
Ideally, the answer is to have someone dedicated to the news and administration of college athletics, like Jill Riepenhoff at The Columbus Dispatch, who delves daily into the overlap of both worlds. I was fortunate to have met Jill a year earlier and brainstorm with her on this nebulous, but recurring, area of coverage.
Unfortunately, some of my sports staff were hesitant, or didn’t have the reporting skills, to dig into this story. Particularly as a small campus, we also were hyperaware of reader criticisms that we were blowing the investigation out of proportion. We decided to report the story like we would any other alleged student criminal: We assigned the crime reporter. That said, we coordinated closely with sports staff that received tips from players, some intended to misdirect. I urge editors to outline a game plan beforehand and, more importantly, make sports news a regular part of the enterprise diet.
As with any beat, if you regularly analyze budgets, hires, and fires, it will strengthen your coverage and make it easier to convince readers that the big breaking story is just part of the routine rather than a smear campaign.