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Editor Darnell Dickson talks about changes in sports journalism

Darnell Dickson

By Ross Benes
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Darnell Dickson is the Lincoln Journal Star sports editor.  In an interview, he discussed his career, his work at the Journal Star and the importance of online journalism.

Q: Where have you worked prior to the Journal Star?

A: I’ve been writing for newspapers since I was about 12 years old.  My mom took an article I wrote about our football team to our home newspaper, which was a weekly, when I was a seventh-grader.  They didn’t believe that I actually wrote the article. They thought my mom had.  All I did was look at Sports Illustrated and the newspaper and tried to imitate how they wrote stories.

I’ve written part time for a lot of newspapers.  Most recently I wrote for the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, for 13 years.  First I was the prep sports editor, then eight years ago I became the sports editor and BYU (Brigham Young University) beat writer.  I did that for eight years before coming to Lincoln in July.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Lincoln?

A: I found out about the job because Lee Enterprises owns both the Daily Herald and the Journal Star.  At the time it seemed like a pretty good move up in an industry that is a little unsettled.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to come up here to cover Nebraska football, which is big time.  It just seemed like a pretty good idea.

Q: Are there differences between Provo and Lincoln in what is considered sports newsworthy?

A: There is a little bit of a difference.  For instance, here women’s volleyball is huge.  It is probably right behind football.  In Provo, football is king like it is here, but men’s basketball is pretty big too.  Of course last year, Jimmer Fredette (a Sacramento Kings basketball player who led NCAA Division I in scoring while at BYU)  kind of covered the headlines, and that was a lot of fun to cover.  The third most popular sport in Provo is men’s volleyball.  So it varies a little bit, but football is king in both areas.

Q: What does the Journal Star do to separate its sports coverage from its competitors?

A: That’s still something I’m working on since I came here in July.  The access that’s granted to the football team is the same for everybody.  So the difference has to be in the writers and their opinions.  So I think our writers differentiate us from everyone else because of their personal opinions.  And that’s what we have to rely on because access is pretty much the same for everyone.  So you need strong writers who will give you their opinion and craft a good story.

Q: So is access to players here more restrictive than it was at BYU?

A: Yes, very much so.  But we have good people here in Steve (Sipple), Brian (Christopherson) and Brian (Rosenthal) who take the opportunity to come up with good ideas and craft a story that is different from everyone else’s.

Q: What types of things do you typically do on a daily basis?

A: As the sports editor I have administrative duties that take away from time spent covering sports teams.  I help set up story budgets and planning.  A lot of it is planning.  For example, you can’t go into a high school playoff day not knowing what you are going to do.  You will get killed if you do that, so you have take time to plan things.  I also meet with the managing editor several times a day to determine what will happen that particular day and I have news meetings with others in the newsroom as well.

Because of my experience covering BYU sports, I added myself to the Husker Extra team here.  I’m like the fourth guy, but I do what I can to add sidebars.  The other guys are the meat and potatoes of the team.  They are studs.  I just help when I can.

I occasionally stick my neck out to write stories on things we don’t always have time for.  I help cover high school football too.  As newsrooms have contracted, you can’t just do one thing anymore.  I can’t be the sports editor and just do administrative things anymore.  I need to help with everyday coverage of high school, Huskers and anything else that is going on.

Q: Do you like covering those extra things?

A: Oh, I love it.  It’s what I initially went into, and it’s a good break from my administrative duties.

Q: What made you want to be an editor?

A: I kind of fell into it.  At Provo our BYU beat writer and editor both left at the same time.  I handled our budget and helped run things until we figured things out.  I told our managing editor I wanted to be the BYU beat writer.  So after a few weeks of interviewing candidates, the managing editor told me, ‘Why don’t you just be the sports editor too?’  I said, ‘Wow, both?  I don’t know how I’ll make that work.’  But I did (make it work).

I enjoy being an editor because I like facilitating other people’s work.  I like to take things off their shoulders so they don’t have to worry about things and can just focus on their job.  I enjoy making those decisions that are required of the job.

Q: What are some decisions that aren’t as enjoyable to make?

A: As the industry changes and we have less resources, it is difficult to cover everything that people want you to cover.  With less resources, I have to make some tough decisions on what to cover.  Those are the hard decisions because there are things that I would like to cover, but we just don’t have enough people to do so.  I know there will be some disappointed people no matter what we decide to cover.

Q: Does that get stressful?

A: Not really.  I don’t mind answering questions from people who are of an even mind.  It can be tough though to tell people that we didn’t have anyone to cover their event because our photographers are literally all gone covering other things.

Q: How do you feel about the emergence of online journalism?

A: That’s a really big question.  For us, we have a website and a lot of what our newspaper does translates to the website.  We have three people who are in charge of translating our content to the Web.  Not only for computers, but for smartphones and tablets.   We have all kinds of platforms that we didn’t even know would exist 10 years ago.

We are serving so many types of readers.  For example, iPad users are generally a little more fluent.  They want to read news in a certain way.  They want it differently than people who just go to the website or people who subscribe to getting the paper every day.  Finding your audience now is so much harder than it used to be.

When you get away from strict newspaper journalism and go toward online journalism, I fear sometimes there are not enough gatekeepers out there.  There aren’t enough editors to tell people what to write and what not to write.  It is kind of a free-for-all.  You see this with the pandemonium following conference realignment.  Every minute there is a new tweet out there claiming something.

It is a real concern to me because I think there is real value in learning journalism.  It’s important to learn ethics.  It is important regardless if you’re going into sports, news or anything else for that matter.  There should be value in that for the reader.  People should see what Steve Sipple writes differently than what they read in a blog or tweet because of what we’ve gone through to get here.  I hope that readers value that.  I don’t know if it is valued as much as it should be.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists in this changing industry?

A: Man, learn everything you can.  You used to be able to specialize a little more.  The way I came up through the ranks was completely different than the way it is now.  Getting multimedia figured out, learning how to edit video, learning how to do webcasts, learning how to build a website, are all things that are integrated into learning how to be a journalist now.  You need to learn everything.  You cannot just be a writer anymore.  Being a writer is a great thing, but I would not have a job in journalism right now if I was just a writer.  The way things have gone in the last five years, I would be doing something else if I was just a writer.

There are guys at the high levels that are just writers, but I don’t think you can get to that level anymore if you’re just a writer.  You need to know multimedia if you are going to be a journalist of any kind because there are so many different venues for you to get your work online out there for people to read.

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