Perryn Keys is executive sports editor at The Advocate newspaper, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In this interview, conducted by email, Keys discusses his role in the sports department, the process of story editing and headline writing, and the Advocate’s coverage of LSU’s championship season in college football.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. Well, if I ever get a typical day, I’ll let you know. I know plenty of people say this, but every day is different around here. It really is.
I’ve been in this job for about a year, and we’ve spent so much of the past 12 months in day-to-day survival mode. So many big stories.
I mean, it started with the no-call in the Saints-Rams NFC championship. Then we had Anthony Davis’ trade demand; the sweeping change in the Pelicans front office; LSU suspended basketball coach Will Wade amid the FBI wiretap scandal; LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was pushed out; LSU hired his replacement … and that was just the first five months of 2019.
And then The Advocate acquired the Times-Picayune. Obviously, that was an enormous transition. It took up any spare moment we might’ve had, and we barely had any to begin with. We haven’t even discussed the Saints’ 13-3 season, Zion Williamson, a fair amount of staff turnover and the once-in-a-lifetime year LSU just had.
So I’m really just now starting to feel like I can settle in. A typical day starts early in the morning with a handful of emails, checking in with writers and trying to plan long term. That’s often before I even get into the office, which is about 2 or 3 p.m., and I’ll typically leave at around midnight.
At some point, when this all settles down, I’m hoping to make this job into more of a noon-to-9 routine. But there’s never enough time.
Q. How do editing and headline writing work at The Advocate?
A. Our desk staff is not as large it once was, as is the case with most news organizations. So again, this is an overused term, but what we do amounts to organized chaos.
Our writers and editors all work on short-term and long-term story budgets via Google Docs. We have our daily budget, and for our print product, we’ll have a designated desk chief put together a plan, deciding what goes where. From there, we’ll divvy up line-editing, headline-writing and layout duties.
Everyone has a hand in everything. Thank God we’ve got great people on our desk.
We have three editions that go into three markets — New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette — and they are all unique and different. That means our desk people are flipping out stories and redesigning pages on the fly. It’s only because of their dedication and expertise that we can pull it off.
Thankfully, we have writers who are going to get the basics correct 99% of the time. During the day, we often trust them to post breaking news before anyone can give it a look. Obviously, we refine and edit as we go, but in this age, we have to get news out there ASAP. Consumers aren’t going to wait for us; they’ll go someplace else.
If the writers have concerns about posting something before one of us sees it, they’ll give us a heads-up. Otherwise, editors will go behind the writers and fix typos, commas, etc. — and obviously if there’s a serious question about a fact, or about a phrase, we’ll fix and update.
The thing that has amazed me over the past year is how cooperative our young writers are with each other. We have writers who are 26 and 23 covering LSU, writers who are 28 and 24 covering the Saints.
It used to be pretty rare that writers so young would have the keys to a big-time beat, but it’s a different day — and the fact is, these writers can handle it. Better yet, they work together and support each other. Often, if one of them is working hard on a long-form feature or a touchy story, that writer will submit his/her story to a peer first, then turn in the first draft to the editors.
I wish I’d been smart enough to think of that as a young writer. But they want to get it right, and they cheer each other on. I’m so thankful that we have people on staff like that; it makes our jobs soooo much easier.
As for headlines … obviously, web headlines work differently than print headlines, so you’ll have a different set of ideas and rules for both formats. Writers come up with the first versions for web headlines, and if the digital team has a better idea, they’ll rework them.
When it comes to the “big” headlines for the big events, we go old school and new school. We have a giant, easel-style whiteboard behind my desk, and everyone calls out suggestions. We write ’em all down and debate which one works best.
But we also turn to social media. For an LSU or Saints win — especially a big one, when we know everyone is watching — I’ll tweet out a simple phrase toward the end of the game: WE’RE TAKING HEADLINE SUGGESTIONS.
We get tons of responses. Every so often, you’ll get a stunner. We’ll use it and acknowledge the winner on social media. And on most nights, we tweet out images of our front pages, along with a link to subscribe.
Q. LSU’s run to the national championship in football is obviously a huge story for your readers. How did you prepare and carry out a coverage plan for the season, including the title game?
A. It was just not possible to overdo this story, or this season. People in Louisiana will talk about this season for decades to come. They plan their whole lives around LSU football, and we’ve got the web traffic and single-copy sales to prove it.
But in some ways, planning for this season was the same as planning for any football season. The weeks are very regimented, and you don’t typically have a lot of stuff coming in live and late — until Saturday night, when the actual game happens.
We throw all our resources at LSU and the Saints. Prep football is huge here, and we have tons of other state colleges with strong followings, so we go to great lengths to service all of it. But the digital data confirms what we’ve always suspected: LSU and the Saints are far and away our bread and butter. We have up to four full-timers on LSU football, and once we get into the season, each of the writers knows his/her role.
But it’s all collaborative. We try to think ahead about what we need each day — and certainly for the biggest games, we’ll get together way in advance and map out the entire week. The Alabama week is like that every year. This season, plenty of games were like that: Texas, Auburn, Florida, the SEC championship, obviously the playoffs.
Joe Burrow’s run to the Heisman Trophy was every bit as big, too, and we treated that entire week like a game week. The Saturday night ceremony was essentially like a game night: Plan everything as best you can, then execute on the fly as best you can.
This year, we knew in real time we were producing print sections that will have a long, long shelf life. We have sold tens of thousands of poster reproductions of the sports covers following the Alabama game, the Heisman ceremony, the national championship, etc. That’s a feeling you don’t get much anymore. It puts a lot of pressure on our designers and desk people, but it’s also a lot of fun in the end.
We take a lot of pride in our Saturday advance coverage, which consists of a six-, eight- or 10-page print section dedicated solely to LSU and college football. (This is separate from the “regular” sports section, which includes high school football, NBA, major leagues, etc.) Some of this stuff, like keys to the game or our staff predictions, will digitally publish Thursday or Friday, as those stories generate lots of “I’m bored at my job” web traffic.
We did two special sections for the national championship game: one Sunday (the day before the game) and another Monday (the day of). Between the semifinal and the championship game, we brainstormed all the things we wanted/needed to have as part of our coverage. (Thankfully, sports editors from across the country are all too supportive — they’ll gladly let you “borrow” some ideas they’ve used before.) Also, we’ve got some super-talented writers and designers. You can’t produce great content without both.
When the time came, we used the old whiteboard to draw up thumbnails of those special sections, as well as the day-after game coverage in print.
As for the national championship game, we had another tremendous advantage: The game was in New Orleans. That allowed us to send more than 15 people (writers, photographers, editors, runners, etc) into the stadium — something that would not have been possible if the game had been in, say, Indianapolis. Because of that, none of the writers had to juggle more than one assignment on deadline. A huge, huge advantage. Even with the game running so late, we were able to post multiple stories quickly and put out a dynamite print product.
The moment LSU had clinched the national championship, our digital team had multiple posts ready to go, trumpeting all of our coverage — and, of course, how readers could buy poster pages, commemorative books, subscriptions and so forth. Again, this was absolutely the biggest thing for our readers in years, and every department in our company had a hand in making sure we gave them their money’s worth.
Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in sports journalism?
A. Reach out to someone who’s already in the business. Whether it’s a writer you respect, an editor you’ve never met, a recent retiree — someone, anyone. One of us will respond. Promise.
In just the past two or three weeks, two students emailed me (more than once) asking for advice. I still haven’t gotten back to him yet. I know what that feels like. But I will eventually get back to them, and most of us will at least take a few minutes to talk.
My path was a little different. People who know me aren’t at all surprised I’m doing what I do — but in college, I was an advertising major. I was almost all the way out of school before I decided I wanted to take a stab at this profession, and I always felt that put me at a disadvantage.
But more importantly, I did not have the self-confidence to walk up to a professional and introduce myself or ask for advice. That was really hard. If I had one thing to do over, that’d be the thing: Get yourself in front of the people who might hire you one day.
In this industry, there were always too many people for the number of available jobs. Now it’s even harder than it was before. So here’s what that means: Even if you really are the best, most talented person who’s up for a job, you might still slip through the cracks. One way to combat that is to not wait for a job posting. You want someone to think about you before it comes open.
Finally, for God’s sake, don’t listen to me. Our business has much smarter, much more accomplished individuals. Right now, the Associated Press Sports Editors organization wants more student members. It can open up some doors that you maybe didn’t know were there.