ESPN editor uses sports savvy to move up in male-dominated field
By Natasha Rausch
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Heather Burns found a career in talking people off of ledges.
As a deputy editor at ESPN and one of the few women in sports editing, Burns uses her level-headedness to calm her reporters at the sight of trouble.
“I think I can be a bit more of a peacekeeper because I don’t lose my head over things,” Burns said. “Whereas a lot of guy sports editors just get pissed and start stomping around, and that doesn’t help anything.”
Although Burns has used her calm attitude to her advantage, being a woman in the industry has come with its challenges.
As a college reporter, she ignored the 50-year-old coaches who thought a girl couldn’t learn the ins and outs of sports.
As a young journalist trying to break into the business in 1992, she ignored the Reno Gazette-Journal editor who asked why a female would want to be a sports reporter.
Now, as an editor at ESPN, she ignored the McDonald’s worker who questioned her choice in jersey because she was a woman.
“They believed that because I was a woman I knew nothing about sports, and that still happens sometimes today,” Burns said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man; it just matters if you know your stuff.”
Burns has been learning her stuff since she was 3 years old, when Saturdays and Sundays were nothing but days to watch football with her dad.
It was then that she fell in love with sports and most of all, the National Football League (NFL).
“I just think that sports were the first reality TV,” Burns said. “Sports do something for people that nothing else does. They take you away from your life, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Burns, a graduate of the University of Iowa, started her career as a stringer, taking phone calls at the Iowa City Press Citizen for the sports desk.
That turned into covering actual games, like track and swimming. Those were four-hour events she didn’t particularly enjoy.
But football? She loved football.
Burns became the women’s beat reporter for the Press Citizen for a year, making $5.25 an hour.
“I decided I was starting to be too good of friends with all the people I was covering,” she said. “It started to be a conflict of interest, so I left.”
She moved to Minneapolis where she worked at Dominos for eight months and applied for journalism jobs here and there.
Nothing panned out, and her parents were starting to wonder if she’d ever put her college degree to good use.
She finally broke into the business for the first time out of college as a sports reporter for the Reno-Gazette Journal in Reno, Nev. During that time, she did some reporting for USA Today as well. Then, she went to the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota and after that to the Port Huron Times-Herald in Michigan for a total of almost four years.
“You go bigger and bigger, until you get where you want to be,” she said.
From Port Huron, Mich., she went to The Detroit News, where she would dabble in editing for the first time.
After working her way around The Detroit News as a copy editor, she applied for an assistant sports editor position.
“They were like, ‘Well you’ve really shown the ability to lead. You have a good demeanor, so I think you’d be a good editor,’” Burns said.
Burns had been a reporter for 15 years. She figured she could always go back to reporting if editing wasn’t her thing.
Burns said it turned out that she is better at being a manager than being a writer.
“To be a really, really good writer you have to be plugged in and have great sources or just be predisposed to be a good writer. Not everyone has that talent,” she said. “I think my talent is with managing people and keeping everyone from jumping off ledges.”
In January 2008, Burns was offered a position at ESPN. She almost didn’t take it because of the tight niche she found at The Detroit News, but her girlfriend convinced her to take the job.
“Props to her for saying, ‘Take the stupid job, ya idiot,’” Burns said.
Now, instead of sitting at home and watching football with her dad, Burns is paid to watch 10 to 12 hours of NFL every Sunday during the season.
“Yeah, it’s a long day,” she said, “but it’s football.”
Watching football for an entire day is hardly a challenge to Burns. The hard part is keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle and the constant digital content.
“You have to react to anything at any time of the day,” she said. “If you have to wake up in the middle of the night to cover something, you do it. It’s just the nature of the beast, and it sucks.”
Burns said it’s important to maintain a presence on social media in the digital age. Besides using her Twitter account to promote her favorite teams—the Tigers and the Cowboys—she uses it to promote her own writers.
“I usually just use Twitter as a way to send out news or analysis for ESPN,” Burns said.
In the 25 years she has been a reporter and editor, Burns said media have changed a lot. They have moved to digital, and women have become more prominent in the sports newsroom.
But the only thing that hasn’t changed is her love for football.
“If you can do a job everyday where you’re having fun, then that’s the way to go.”