Welcome to Atlanta: How my journalism residency at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports desk compared to expectations

ATLANTA — This spring, school looked a lot different. 

I can’t remember any other year when my day started at 2 p.m., when my homework was circulated to thousands of people I had never met or when watching sports was a welcome obligation, rather than a midday distraction.

So I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that my spring journalism residency with the sports desk of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was my most unique quarter yet. And, as you could probably imply from the previous paragraph, one of the most enjoyable and memorable ones.

Not to say there wasn’t any learning taking place. 

In terms of journalism, my college major and a longtime interest of mine, I don’t think I’ve ever learned more than I did working for a professional newsroom and in big-time press boxes. I learned how to conduct myself in a major league clubhouse (and avoid upsetting the unwritten rules) and experimented with unfamiliar story forms and new storytelling techniques in my NFL draft coverage and profile writing. That doesn’t even count the inside information I picked up on the journalism industry itself, from valuable conversations with fellow journalists and editors (sometimes even from other outlets who didn’t sign up to have an intern!). 

Though I’ve taken journalism classes in high school and college, I’ve always found that the practical experience of writing articles, whether for Wootton High’s Common Sense newspaper or the Daily Northwestern, most developed my skills as a journalist and writer, and AJC sports was the culmination of that trend.

From adjusting to a new city to fitting in with a professional newsroom to accomplishing the goals I set for myself before the quarter, I drove out of Atlanta a couple weeks ago feeling that I had made the most of the prime opportunity of the AJC. 

What excited me the most, though, was the area for growth. I have always written plenty and felt confident in my writing abilities, but the “reporter” part of the “sports reporter” position is something I didn’t think about all that much when I wrote blog posts about the NFL on my couch and analyzed what I saw from the comfort of my TV room. There’s a lot of “people skills” that goes into the job, and I felt that due to the limited time frame and my own lack of experience in establishing professional relationships with pros, I have plenty to do to improve that aspect of my sportswriting. And in a couple cases, that human side was the most rewarding side of my stories.

Many times during my AJC stint, I made an effort to see the events I was covering through the lens of 8-year-old John’s perspective. I thought of my first time walking through the gates of Camden Yards when I made my frequent trips through Truist Park before games and remembered Kevin Durant’s rookie year, which I read about in Sports Illustrated Kids magazines, when he was sinking threes against the Atlanta Hawks in my first week. I got used to the awesome sporting events I had the privilege of covering pretty quickly, so remembering back to when I was younger and bursting with enthusiasm about sports helped me fend off taking those events for granted. 

How did they stack up? Today, I’ll dive into eight AJC Sports experiences that blew my mind and represented my ideal of a sports journalism life, and give an honest assessment on what they were like and whether they lived up to the hype.

Reporting in an NFL practice facility

My expectations: Sky high. The NFL is my favorite league and has been since I started watching sports in 2007, and as a sports journalist my favorite one to write about. While I enjoyed covering high school and college sports for the respective school papers, NFL writing has always been the ultimate. 

My experience: Obviously, it wasn’t actual game action, but I had the privilege of attending three practices at the Falcons’ practice facility in Flowery Branch, GA and one at their home stadium in downtown Atlanta, the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When I secured the journalism residency location, getting to cover the NFL in some capacity was the most thrilling possibility, and when my editors said I could work on some Falcons content, I made covering the NFL a priority. 

In addition to three features that I wrote at practice, I spent the majority of the spring quarter researching for a profile and shorter football-specific sidebar on Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward, a free agent acquisition and two-time Pro Bowler who grew up in Perry, GA. The process of reporting that feature was my most intensive reporting, with 12 sources and a four-hour round trip to Perry – and plenty of last-second pivots and stress included – central to my efforts to dig out the details to do the amazing story justice. The process of writing the Hayward story (five straight hours in my Airbnb bedroom at night) was also the most satisfying and a true culmination of what I learned over the course of the internship.

When I say I was over the moon at practice, I am not lying. Working in an auxiliary building right off the practice field adorned with Falcons helmets and customized pool tables was surreal, and getting two hours of exclusive practice action to watch felt as meaningful and exciting as my Braves games. Even working alongside journalists from The Athletic, ESPN, local TV stations and, of course, the other AJC writers felt special. As I learned from taking responsibilities with the NBA and MLB beats, the beat reporter life can be a grind and is well suited for early career journalists, but the NFL reporting met my expectations and entrenched my hopes of covering the league as a legitimate career goal.

Covering an NBA playoff game

My expectations: Aside from the NFL, the NBA has been my go-to league. Literally. I’ve gone to Wizards-Magic contests since middle school, and my years in Chicago have included at least three or four games a year and plenty of Orlando Magic League Pass. Many times at Capital One Arena, I’d glance down to the press row and imagine what life would be like if I was the one writing the game story. In fact, I’d bring my notebook and take copious notes during the games, with no end goal other than a possible blog post. Having plenty of familiarity with players such as Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Trae Young made the experience of seeing those guys in person that much more unbelievable. 

My experience: This one was no sure thing — the Hawks were well out of the playoff picture when I signed up to take my journalism talents to Atlanta. But a late-season five-game win streak and a pair of wins in the do-or-die play-in games set up a first-round matchup between the Hawks and top-seeded Miami Heat. As soon as that happened, my editor let me know that the sports desk was taking an all-hands-on deck philosophy to covering the series, and I was (thankfully) one of those hands.

Seeing Kevin Durant score 55 points in a tight Nets-Hawks battle on just my third day of work was a real highlight, but the playoff atmosphere in State Farm Arena was just unreal. I tried to soak up as much of the experience as I could, whether that meant watching courtside as Tyler Herro hoisted up warm-up shots from beyond the three-point line to testing both the vanilla and chocolate ice cream in the press workroom. 

In my three NBA games (one regular season, two playoffs), I covered the Hawks bench, reserve guard Delon Wright and the return of center Clint Capela as my sidebars those evenings, respectively. I enjoyed infusing each with my analysis built from years as a fan and experiences as a Northwestern beat writer and commentator, and the honest postgame quotes assured me that each added a great deal of value to Hawks fans and other readers.

The three games were probably my most stressful assignments (the first playoff game was delayed due to a possible bomb threat, and I didn’t know whether the deadline would be moved until after the game), but I enjoyed the assignments more than I thought that I could.

Taking on beat reporter responsibilities at an MLB ballpark

My expectations: A offense-crazy Rangers-Orioles game at Camden Yards was the first pro sports game that I attended, and baseball games, whether in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia or either Chicago ballpark, have been a fun annual tradition and change of pace from my football-centric ways. Trips to the beach always included watching the Nats, Orioles or Phillies on the Bethany Beach pizza parlor TV’s, too. Of course, any mention of my MLB experience has to include Jon Lester, my favorite athlete of all-time and the reason behind my years rooting for the Red Sox and Cubs (and a couple other teams). Watching those games inspired me in my home run derbies in my backyard and “the grasslot,” a drainage area near my house that was shaped like a baseball diamond. 

My experience: I definitely spent the bulk of my time with the AJC at Truist Park reporting on the Braves and got a great taste of life as an MLB beat reporter. My daily routine included going to the ballpark four hours early to talk to players and manager Brian Snitker in the Braves’ clubhouse, watching pregame batting practice on the field and watching the game from the press box – a dream for a baseball fan like me. I also learned a lot from Justin Toscano, the new Braves beat writer, and having a friend sitting next to me at all of the games enriched the experience.

Naturally, I learned the most from my time covering the Braves, and a lot about myself. For example, I learned that my life’s destiny is not to be an MLB beat writer. I enjoyed writing about baseball and the smells, sounds and sights of a ballpark, but the romantic aspects of baseball couldn’t make up for my own personal preferences. I never played on a real baseball team and felt out of my element a lot of the time, and the 162-game schedule robbed the games of two things I love about basketball and football — the immediacy and emotion. 

The burning questions I had as a fan for football and basketball are also central to my writing about those sports and makes sports journalism feel so necessary; baseball didn’t compel me in the same way. Minute parts of the NFL ecosystem like schedule releases and minicamps are magical for me, while, ironically, the latest call-up to the major league roster feels extraneous and inconsequential. The thrill of walking into an MLB clubhouse wore off after the first week, with a constant chorus of “I don’t miss this part of the job” from former baseball writers that I conversed with. I didn’t even realize that many evenings required pregame features filed an hour before first pitch. The logistics – seven or so months of the year dedicated to baseball every single night, with plenty of travel across the country – also scared me.

But that’s what an internship is supposed to do. I enjoy baseball most when it’s Fourth of July or an outing to a ballpark or the World Series between teams that haven’t lifted the championship trophy in decades. I enjoy football most when I’m writing about it and capturing and processing what I saw into words. 

What I enjoyed most about the baseball beat was walking through the underground tunnels and walking onto the field before games, just to take in the sights. Seeing visiting players like Bryce Harper and Xander Boegaerts up close was a thrill, and being in the dugout in pregame pressers with managers like the Cubs’ David Ross and the Phillies’ Joe Girardi were well worth my time. I should also mention an all-time highlight — meeting Jon Lester on the field before the Cubs game. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that all of my baseball appetite is set, maybe for the next ten years.

Did I enjoy Braves’ games for the AJC? Yep. Could I do the beat writer job? I think so, though it is a lot harder than it looks. Would I consider a job of MLB beat writing? Probably, though it would rank below the NFL (obviously), the NBA, college football, college basketball, Olympic sports and maybe even college baseball on my personal ranking. 

Pitching and diving into features for a definitive newspaper

My expectations: I enjoyed my keynote features for the Daily Northwestern: Pete Nance for NU men’s basketball, Shawn Goosenberg for NU baseball and AD Derrick Gragg. Translating that to one of the biggest newspapers in the United States upped the stakes, but also elevated what I love most about features — their potential for impact (and second, the capacity for style and voice, and third, the generous word counts). 

After all, features really hooked me on the sports world. I would read off Sports Illustrated Kids headlines to my grandma growing up, and I loved the literary flourishes and vivid details that brought me closer to the athletes I watched on TV. In Atlanta, I knew it would take some time to build my confidence in a new city, but I planned to capitalize on the prime opportunity to write features on the area’s pro sports teams.

My experience: I wrote four features in my time at the AJC: a profile and sidebar on Hayward, a feature on standout high school freshman Kayla Debrow and a historical feature on the Branch Rickey League in the 1950s and 1960s. As much as anything else on the internship, penning those pieces encouraged me to continue down the sports journalism path.

Having the AJC name in my email was like a superpower — everybody I contacted responded (though not always positively). A couple of “quick-turn” stories dragged on for a bit as I compiled sources and the minutiae of transcribing interviews paled in excitement to watching games up close, but I mitigated those two hindrances with constant communication with my editor and frequent transcription trips to a nearby Barnes and Noble. Those stories ended up as my proudest pieces, and most likely the ones from my AJC tenure I will use for future internship and job applications. And, most rewardingly, the ones where I received the most feedback, from sources to editors to, in the case of the Branch Rickey story, people who had past experiences with the league but never had the full picture in a newspaper. That rocked.

Exploring a new city

My expectations: I’ve already had experience moving to a new city where I pretty much knew nobody (Chicago, 2019), but Atlanta gave me a chance to stay in the Deep South for the quarter and enjoy warmth in the springtime for once in my college experience. Given the number of sports teams and the warm climate, I’ve always had an interest in Atlanta specifically. The combined mystique of a new city and sports journalism has also enthralled me growing up, and I grew to see Atlanta as a playground to really give journalism my all.

My experience: Atlanta was fun. I realized pretty early on a truth that I first learned during the first months of coronavirus – that spending time away from a college campus while in college can be kind of brutal – but the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made the constant FOMO somewhat bearable (it wouldn’t be if I was on study abroad, I imagine). 

I saw all of the major stadiums for work purposes, but also spent off-days seeing the sights of Atlanta, including the Georgia Aquarium, Stone Mountain, Piedmont Park, Ponce City Market and, of course, the IKEA. At the same time, going by myself made those experiences feel more empty, and I would have indulged in each more in a group setting. That, along with being in an Airbnb living out of a suitcase for three months, contributed to me being eager to start the summer and return home, even with all of the exciting highlights.

Working with editors and a newsroom

My expectations: I set the bar pretty low, not because of the AJC but due to the back-and-forth and drama that characterized the college newspaper. However, I saw the AJC as a top newspaper and a very respected one in the area, so I was overjoyed to see it on the list of possible internships and immediately knew my top choice. 

My experience: Maybe the one area where experience most bested expectations. My editors were incredible, not only guiding me every step of the way if I needed it but also throwing everything I could handle my way and challenging me to expand beyond a normal internship. Whether it was covering the NBA playoffs or writing 1,000-word NFL draft recaps on back-to-back days or filling in for a sports desk member or writing recaps for print with a deadline of the final out, the editors trusted me with important responsibilities, and in doing so really elevated my internship experience. 

I had a strong foundation from my various experiences in journalism and blogging. But a lot of the assignments were new ground for me as a journalist: pregame features for baseball, writing a historical feature on a local baseball league, topics like sports gambling and community involvement, sports news stories, doing multiple stories in a day or even after the same game. I developed a lot as a sports journalist, especially in my confidence that I can do sports journalism at a pro level after so many discouraging setbacks at the college level.

The fellow writers also exceeded expectations. If I did a draft of all Atlanta sports writers, the ones I’d pick first, regardless of affiliation, just happen to be the AJC ones. The beat writers helped me develop my sidebar ideas to complement their coverage and indulged me with their opinions and inside scoops about the industry, and all I had to do was ask the right questions. Each writer was also really good at their job, giving me plenty to learn from by just reading their content and how they approached their jobs. 

Talking with professional athletes and coaches

My expectation: Before this internship, I had experience talking with one former NFL player and current president, Jason Wright, interviewed one Orioles prospect and my only interactions with pros had been either high fives or noogies (thanks, Ray Lewis). Even seeing stars from the rafters of Capital One Center was a thrill, and the opportunity to talk with pros after plenty of time with college athletes represented one of the biggest leaps in starting my internship with the AJC.

My experience: Pretty good, all things considered. I was surprised how respectful and insightful a couple of the guys were. My All-Riker interview team would include Braves third baseman Austin Riley, pitcher Max Fried and catcher William Contreras, Falcons corner Casey Hayward and quarterbacks Desmond Ridder and Marcus Mariota, Hawks forwards Danilo Gallinari and John Collins and would be coached by Nate McMillan. Oh, and of course, Marcell Ozuna for making my last Braves game a blast on social media.

Conversely, I was most frustrated with the Georgia football program and the awful ratio of media members (many) to insightful answers (almost none), and the everyday monotony of baseball took a lot of the uniqueness out of the Braves’ answers. One learning point for me was learning which questions to ask, having been in a college environment where I’d ask an open-ended question to Chris Collins and hope for a coherent five-word phrase somewhere inside his answer. With some of the players and coaches, an imprecise question was just asking for getting roasted or shown up with a one-word answer.

Over the course of the internship, I got somewhat used to seeing guys like Ronald Acuña and Trae Young in close proximity. You have to strike a balance between being jaded (so every thrill isn’t overwhelming every day, as was probably the case with my AJC time) and tapping into what you love about sports and being in awe. After talking with Jon Lester for a minute, I couldn’t type a word for an hour. My biggest takeaway was the importance of relationships and showing respect in both obvious and subtle ways, not for the purposes of a story but to do the right thing and go beyond the job.

Final Musings

Choosing to join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the spring quarter was a slam dunk decision that yielded slam dunk results, and I’m beyond grateful for all of the people who made it happen. I don’t think the three months could have gone any better or been more fruitful than they were. I certainly learned a lot and wouldn’t do everything in my first week the same as my last week, but thanks to editors, sources and advisors, this opportunity really bore fruit. 

I found a lot about sports journalism that drives me to be the best I can be and keeps me up at night thinking about my next move, and this JR revealed and confirmed those:

  • Structuring, crafting and adding flavor and flair to a feature 
  • Unearthing the personal details behind a major moment in a game that add depth
  • Connecting fans with their teams’ reflections and decision-making processes
  • Talking with sources that add perspective so valuable you can’t see a story or subject the same way afterward
  • Weaving analysis and narrative to make content irresistible to the reader

And then there were aspects of sports journalism that you can’t really know about until you actually do them, and find out for yourself. Some are just part of the job, while others are legitimate concerns that require reflection:

  • Having demanding hours and capacity to turn into an all-encompassing obsession
  • The possibility of dulling your senses to what makes you enjoy sports in the first place
  • Frustrations in navigating sourcing and protocols and last-minute, early-morning pivots
  • Covering great games while at the same time dealing with rejection and searching the industry and web to find future internships
  • Distance from family and friends, and, naturally, a normal routine

I left Atlanta with a highlight reel of memories and newspaper clips, renewed personal and professional confidence and both a more informed and less committed perspective on the sports media industry. Sounds like a good use of tuition dollars to me.

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