A Q&A with Grace Raynor of the Post and Courier on her quick rise, covering Clemson and the state of journalism as a young writer

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Grace Raynor, the Clemson beat writer for Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. Grace is barely out of school, but at age 23 is already covering a major college athletics program for a daily newspaper, even having the experience of covering the football national championship game. Here, we discuss her quick rise, her experience with the Tigers and her views on the state of journalism as a young writer.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way–at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I always laugh a little bit on the inside when I get asked this question, because I feel like for many sports writers, they have really cool stories about why they broke into the business. Or they dreamed of growing up to be reporters when they were little kids. My decision to be a sports reporter was pretty nonchalant, if we’re being honest. I grew up in western North Carolina and my dad went to UNC, so like many kids in the state, my childhood involved watching many a Carolina basketball game. When I got to UNC my freshman year, I knew that one day in the next four years I wanted to witness UNC-Duke upclose at both Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Dome. I figured the only way to do that would be to join the student newspaper, so I did.

My first year, I covered volleyball and gymnastics for The Daily Tar Heel and realized I enjoyed the storytelling side of sports writing. I then began to apply to some internships and landed my first one at The Fayetteville Observer, covering a collegiate summer baseball league. From there, the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) took a chance on me and sent me to MLB.com, where I interned for two summers with the Rangers and Yankees. Now I’m at the Post and Courier covering Clemson. I chose to go to UNC basically because I just wanted to watch good basketball, and it just so happened to lead me down this exciting path in the process. And I got that Duke game my senior year — it even went into overtime!

2. When Mike was a senior in college, a prominent columnist told him to avoid making journalism a career. He told him to go to law school instead (repeatedly). This was in 2009. Things haven’t gotten better since then. But you’re young and just out of school yourself. Obviously, if you received that advice, you ignored it. So what made you believe that sportswriting could still be a viable career for you in spite of those challenges? How often did people — parents, teachers, advisers — try to dissuade you? What was your response?

It’s funny you mention that, because I got that exact same advice about law school when I was a senior. And of course every time I told someone I was going into sports writing, I’d be reminded about the state of newspapers. One time I was in the restroom at a function with my mom, and while we were washing our hands, one of the ladies from our neighborhood told me I needed to get a job waiting tables on the side because she didn’t think I could pay the bills in sports writing. Luckily, the people who are most important in my life — my parents, two brothers, friends, professors, etc. — never, ever discouraged me from going after it because they knew I was passionate about sports writing. What made me think that it could still be a viable career was my belief that people are never going to stop consuming sports news. It’s an escape. There will always be a demand for it, and that’s not changing. The only major thing in my mind that is changing is the medium. Sure, we might get to a point where everything becomes digital
and newspapers are obsolete, but that doesn’t mean the journalists become obsolete, too. It just means perhaps our work will appear on a screen instead of in a paper. We’re still needed.

3. It used to be that growth in journalism meant you went from being a lowly daily or weekly newspaper reporter to being a beat writer to being a columnist, and the best of the best then went to magazines or books. There doesn’t really seem to be a linear model of career advancement anymore. Mike remembers being asked on a job interview what he hoped to be doing in five years, and it’s a hard question to answer because there are many variables to consider. What do you think career growth in journalism is nowadays? What should (and do) young journalists (we’re not even 30, and this makes us sound ancient) strive for in their careers now? TV? Magazines? Just keeping a job through age 50?

Not gonna lie, Jared, this one stumped me! You’re right — it is a hard question to answer, because journalism is changing so quickly and everyone has a different path. I have some friends that started out at a smaller daily paper and paid their dues, like the traditional trajectory. Then, I have other friends who immediately shot up to ESPN or SI or the Washington Post right out of school. In an industry that is rapidly changing, I personally think career growth is simply making sure that whenever you do make a move in the industry, it’s a forward move and not a lateral one. And sometimes that can be hard to do. I think young journalists as a whole still strive for the magazine/long-form journalism path eventually, after spending some time as a beat writer first. I’m biased because I now am a beat writer, but I think every young journalist should at some point spend some time covering a beat. In my opinion it makes you a better reporter when you do decide you want to make the jump to magazines or TV.

4. Lately, there has been a good amount of hullabaloo over the idea of taking unpaid internships in order to make it in the business, something that is extremely common for young writers. Have you ever written for free or considered writing for free? To what extent do you believe writing for free is a necessary evil for people just starting out? How would you advise, say, a classmate who might be considering such a job?

Kudos for using the word hullabaloo in a sentence. That’s amazing. I’ve only written for free once, when I was a sophomore in college, and because it was during the school year, it was not too much of an issue. Had it been a summer internship where I needed to pay rent and bills and such, that would have been a different story. But I was already living in a dorm at UNC, and I only wrote about once a week. I never took an unpaid summer internship when I was in college. I totally understand that often that’s the name of the game to crack into the industry, but I just always felt pretty strongly that if I was going to move to a new city and pay rent there for at least 10 weeks, I wanted to have an income. I also felt like I was providing a valuable service, and that deserved compensation. Thankfully, I interned at wonderful places with awesome people (The Fayetteville
Observer and MLB.com) where pay was not an issue. I think there’s a case to be made that it can be a necessary evil for young journalists, but my philosophy is that if you’re a strong writer, you get to be picky. And no matter where you intern, your clips will speak for themselves. If I was advising a classmate, my advice would be to not work a summer internship for free. Sports writing can be a grind as is, and to be stressed out financially on top of that would be tough. The only circumstance I would have considered doing an internship for free in college would have been if the internship was in my hometown and I could have lived at home for the summer.

5. As the newly named Clemson beat writer for The Post & Courier (congrats!) you’re now covering one of the most important college sports programs in the country and, in Dabo Swinney, a towering college coach. College sports coverage is usually coach-dominant because he’s the one that survives all the turnover and has the most sway in a program. How do you plan to cover Swinney? He is obviously successful and has developed a golden sheen to him, but he has also said some unsavory and wrongheaded things over the last few months.

Thank you! I’m very excited about the Clemson beat and certainly I’m coming in at a time when there’s a lot of stuff happening around here. My hope is that I cover Dabo in the same way that my predecessor, Aaron Brenner (who’s awesome), covered him. Aaron and Dabo seemed to have a very strong working relationship, where there was a mutual
respect. Aaron gave Clemson credit where it was due and wrote some awesome profiles on Dabo’s players. When Clemson made the run to the national title, Aaron documented it nicely. But Dabo also understood Aaron was not a Clemson fan — and there are Clemson fans on the Clemson beat. Aaron asked him the tough questions, covered his comments objectively and challenged him on certain things. I remember an engaging back and forth they once had in a press conference about concussions, and I admired so much how Aaron followed up three and four times until he was satisfied. I hope my relationship with Dabo is similar. What’s unique about him is that because he does have such a huge personality and is so personable, the Clemson beat writers get to form a deeper relationship with him than other beat writers at other schools might with the coaches they cover. I want to use that to my advantage and get to know him. We met recently, and he was very friendly to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how our relationship develops.

6. You recently had an incredible opportunity: to cover Clemson in the football national championship game. I imagine you were one of the youngest professional journalists in the press box that night. What was that experience like as a young reporter? How did you fight off the urge to feel overwhelmed? What do you think you learned from the experience?

Certainly that was a bucket-list moment for me that I’ll never forget. But it’s also so easy to feel overwhelmed in a chaotic situation like that! Obviously with a national title game, it’s going to be televised at prime time, which is great for viewers and horrible for newspaper writers on a deadline. I learned so much that night about the importance of staying calm and really paying attention to details that we as journalists sometimes miss when we’re frantically typing on our keyboards and not watching the game. Obviously that was a game that came down to the last second, and had I not been looking up at the field when Deshaun Watson threw that pass to Hunter Renfrow, I literally would have missed the most important moment of the entire college football season. I have never learned more about attention to detail than I did that night. Viewers already saw the game and the replays, so it was crucial that writers tell them something they didn’t already know. In a situation like that, the postgame locker room scene is so important to take in, because that’s the part viewers don’t get to see. You have to be their eyes and ears, and I learned that firsthand that night. I feel so spoiled, though to have gotten
to cover that game at 23 years old. I will never forget that night.

7. This is cool: You just won an APSE award for feature writing! Awesome! That’s quite an honor. Which story or stories do you think really resonated with the judges, and why? How much do you think being able to say “APSE award-winning sports writer Grace Raynor” will mean or your career? Basically, do these kinds of journalism awards matter?

Thank you, friend! Our college sports editor and columnist, Gene Sapakoff, guided me through the whole process and read countless drafts of the story that eventually won. (He is the bomb). The story I wrote was about minor league pay, which as a baseball writer, I know you understand all too well. That story’s been done a million times, so I wanted mine to be different. As you know, Charleston’s Low-A team is an affiliate of the Yankees. I had a good relationship with the players by the time I wrote that story, so I asked if any of them would go on the record about their financial struggles. Pitcher Sean Carley did. He held nothing back about how he had to be an Uber driver and how he slept on an air mattress to save money instead of buying a bed. He was a dream source and gave me a local angle for a bigger-issue story. I’m so honored APSE liked the story. Obviously I never write a story specifically for an award. I just want to write stories that make people feel and evoke some emotion. But if it happens to win an award, that’s the cherry on top and I’m so appreciative to APSE! I think awards help get our names out there for sure and can only boost a resume. But I don’t think they should be the primary focus when we write.

8. You covered plenty of college sports during your time at the Daily Tar Heel when you were a student at UNC. What are the biggest differences between covering college sports as a student journalist versus as a pro journalist? To what extent do you think athletes view you differently now?

What I loved about being a student journalist was the built-in advantage of also being the athletes’ peers. When I covered UNC basketball, I would see Marcus Paige on a Wednesday night in a locker room and then on Thursday afternoon walking through the journalism school. I just think there’s an extra level of comfort athletes feel around their classmates and around the student newspaper. But I also feel like I’m taken more seriously and respected more now that I’m a professional. I love the position I’m in now because I sort of get the best of both worlds. I’m 23, so I can still very much relate to
college athletes and what it’s like to be in our young 20s, but I also have that extra sense of respect now that I’m no longer a student. I’ve also just learned so much about reporting, now that I’m surrounded by people who have been professional journalists for decades. I have the BEST mentors at the Post and Courier who I could brag about for hours.

9. If you could, what would you change about how college sports are covered?

I think the one thing I would change would be the access. Let it be known, Clemson is very, very good to the media in terms of access. Dabo will talk to us for 45 minutes or so every press conference. We get coordinators and players every time. We can talk to freshmen as soon as they play in a game. But that’s not the case at other programs. Many schools have rules in place that prohibit the media talking to freshmen. Alabama is one of them, meaning Alabama readers went the entire regular season without hearing from the Crimson Tide’s quarterback. That’s bizarre to me. I’m lucky that I landed on a beat that offers so much access. But other beats aren’t like that and I think college coverage as a whole would be way more entertaining if the access plan was a little more consistent among schools. I also think there’s a need for less aggregating and more feature writing. With box scores and play-by-play and TV, readers can get all of their information anywhere, but  features can still be unique.

10. Mike’s made two trips to the Chapel Hill campus and loved it. So this is a three-part question. A) Do they still sell Santa’s Secret from the Carolina Brewery? B) Will you buy some for us and send it up here? C) Give us a tour of the food scene in the ACC and SEC. What do we need to know?

This makes my heart so happy because Chapel Hill is among my favorite places in the world. A.) I’m not sure, but I think so/don’t see why not! So let’s go with yes to please the crowd. B.) Obvi. C.) I know Kansas City gets the reputation for having the best BBQ, yeah yeah, but y’all should definitely check out North Carolina BBQ if you haven’t already. It’s amazing. The best places in the Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham area are Bullock’s (family style), Q Shack and The Pit. I see you’ve been to Carolina Brewery, which is a great place to catch a game. Chapel Hill also has an iconic drugstore/food counter called Sutton’s that’s 90-plus years old with amazing burgers. It’s the staple of UNC and for sure you’ve gotta make a trip there. I haven’t explored the SEC too much. When I was in Lexington, Ky., I did hit up this place called Darlin’ Jean’s! That was an experience. And last but not least — you’re going to laugh at me, but go to Bojangles. It’s fast food, but you can’t leave the south without it!

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