If biz journalism is something of a rough game, then good for Dane Huffman that he got his start in sports.
Huffman spent countless nights and weekends chronicling the play-by-plays of high school, college and pro sports in North Carolina’s Triangle area. It’s a fanatics’ red zone, if you will, where team reporters often double as local celebs.
But when the electricity of the locker room lost its charge, Dane did what many of us do: he followed the money — though let’s stress that he’s just writing about it.
As managing editor of the Triangle Business Journal — a scrappy and fast-growing ACBJ pub in the Raleigh/Durham area — Huffman has no regrets about leaving what many would consider a dream career. Since then, he’s pursued a master’s degree and proved a winner in a different arena altogether.
Dawn Wotapka: You moved from a local daily to a business journal, while many reporters have done the opposite. Give us a glimpse of the path.
Dane Huffman: After 24 years in print, I went to work in television, managing a sports department and then a TV news website. It was a great experience and I learned to appreciate how hard it is to be great at television — so many technical demands. But I always thought I’d return to print and loved business-related stories. When the Triangle Business Journal had its managing editor job open, it was a great opportunity for me. And I also thought the business journals could grow in this fractured media environment.
Dawn: How have business journals changed during your career?
Dane: TBJ has more than doubled in circulation, which has been great. It’s a terrific team and because of our growth, American City Business Journals has given us two more reporting positions. So we are at five reporters now. That’s still small in this market compared to The N&O [News & Observer newspaper] or WRAL-TV, but it’s allowed us to expand our coverage. For example, we now covering nearby counties that are rapidly growing and reporting the business-related and development stories that other outlets rarely do. That’s expanded our reach and brought in new readers and advertisers. And we think we can keep growing.
Dawn: You spent decades as a sports reporter, something many people dream of doing. Why did you leave that line of work?
Dane: I loved being a sportswriter and did it in an era when coaches and athletes were more accessible. And I had a chance to cover epic stuff, such as being in the room in Chicago when the NFL announced it was giving a team to Charlotte. But it’s hard to raise a family while trying to balance the demands that come with covering sports and having a wife who has a career as well. I remember one time Caroline [Dane’s wife] was out of town and I was trying to write a sports story while our toddler sat in my lap and tried to bang my keyboard — quite stressful!
One advantage of moving to editing was that I wanted more leadership opportunities. There are definitely times I miss covering sports, but overall I’m glad I made the changes I did. I really enjoy defining new opportunities and the strategic part of this business.
Dawn: How did you transfer your specialized skills as a sports journalist to business reporting?
Dane: In both sports and business, there’s a clear scoreboard. Someone wins a game, someone loses. Someone makes a profit, and someone goes out of business. But in both cases, the most compelling stories are about the people involved.
The best business stories have numbers and dollar signs but they really detail the moves people involved and making, and the strategies — and outcomes — behind those moves. I still write stories from time to time and one of my favorites was one I did on a local developer, Steve Stroud, who has been a major player in the markets for decades. Much of the growth and development in this town has been intertwined with his career.
Dawn: You went back to school deep into your career. What led to that decision?
Dane: I wanted to get a master’s degree so I could teach one day. It was so hard to balance the demands of journalism with a master’s program — gosh, talking about long days — but I loved it and it was worth it. I’ve truly enjoyed teaching and hope to keep doing that in the future.
Dawn: How has this degree impacted your career?
Dane: First, it helped me serve as an adjunct at UNC, and I have loved working with those students. You never know if you will enjoy teaching, or be good at it, but I found that I loved the conversations that come from being in a classroom with college students. I’m grateful that I’ve received strong feedback from the students and I really hope to do it more.
And second, there’s this canard that people who cover sports aren’t as smart or as motivated as people on the news side, and that’s just ridiculous. Some of the best writers around are in sports and are quite serious about their work. When I was at The N&O, all of us in sports were producing more than 300 stories a year when only some news writers were hitting 200. Of course, this was back in the 1990s, so I realize the demands now are different with the internet. But I felt like if I wanted to branch out beyond sports at some point, having a master’s would help me, and I believe it has.
Dawn: What do you look for in hires today?
Dane: The biggest point that jumps out to me is passion. I love to ask potential hires how they got into journalism, and those answers tend to be revealing. Anyone can produce five great clips, but to be great regularly you have to have that desire. And that’s more important now than ever because people have so many news options. You have to be consistently excellent to maintain and grow an audience.
Dawn: Who were your mentors?
Dane: Mickey McCarthy was the sports editor at The N&O who hired me out of UNC and had real faith in me. He was a tough, old-school editor but he had a tremendous amount of confidence in me. Dan Barkin at The N&O always had time to talk and still does. He has a great sense of the news business but he especially enjoys peering ahead. We had long discussions in the 1990s about the internet and where it is headed.
Chip Alexander is still a sportswriter at The N&O and I learned so much from him, especially on how to frame questions and get people to open up to you. Chip is smart and approachable and knows how to ask a tough question, but in a fair way. That skill really helped me in covering professional sports. And Eric Frederick at The N&O always gave me opportunities. I enjoyed trying new approaches and thinking about how we could change up what we did, and Eric was always open to that.
Dawn: What advice would you give to a younger Dane?
Dane: Relax — it will all work out. … Get more feedback from those around you. … Hold people accountable and stick to it .(I’m much better at this now but it’s a hard lesson to learn for a young editor.) … Your children will grow up much faster than you think. … And be nice to Caroline. You are fortunate to have her!
Dawn: What advice can you offer PRs who want to pitch your reporters?
Dane: Oh, good question. 1) Get to the point quickly — in the first paragraph. What action do you want an editor or reporter to take? 2) Follow up. Journalists are hugely busy and sometimes just miss something. 3) Make sure you know why the publication you are pitching should cover this story.
At TBJ, we are interested in how money is flowing. So you have to make the case for why a business audience would care. And is someone in authority such as the CEO available? But a TV station needs visuals and people to talk on camera. So are there B-roll options?
Dawn: Finally, which of your stories stands out the most and why?
Dane: I was covering Duke in 1992 when they played Kentucky in the Eastern Regional finals in Philadelphia. Duke had a great team — Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill — and had won the national title the year before. But Kentucky wasn’t afraid of them and this ferocious game evolved.
I was sitting on the front row across from the Duke bench and there was this palpable sense as the game progressed of just, wow, this is college basketball at its best. Kentucky hit a wild basket with 2.1 seconds left to take the lead and virtually everyone thought it was over.
Caroline and I were getting married that summer and Caroline was watching the game in Charlotte with a friend and was thinking, “OK, this is great! We have more time to plan the wedding.” And she was working on the talk she would give me about how sorry she was I wouldn’t get to go to the Final Four. But Laettner’s shot at the buzzer happened right in front of me and I remember the Greensboro reporter yelling in my ear, “Can you believe it?”
The arena was chaos – just thunderous. You knew you’d seen something epic. And my game story that night was one of my better ones – it’s easy to get too flowery, especially on a tight deadline — but I remember trying to just stay calm and let it rip. That night I was going to drive back part of the way with Bill Brill, who was a legendary sportswriter living in Durham. Bill was so excited he couldn’t sleep and drove all the way back that night to Durham. I fell asleep in the passenger seat in Baltimore and remember waking up and it was morning and we were pulling into Bill’s neighborhood.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn