By Chris Carr
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Among our talented six-person APSE Diversity Fellows Class of 2016 is a voice that sounds more like that of a savvy professor or forward-thinking mentor.
She speaks clearly about the often confusing, rapid evolution of our trade. She has ideas sports editors need to hear on how to break through to new audiences, a crucial next step for many of us. She sees a new business model emerging, and she knows which old habits need to die a fast death.
This is because Graham Watson, at 36, already has 20 years under her belt. And it could have been more, if those pesky California driving laws hadn’t gotten in the way.
“Putting the puzzle pieces together on the agate page” was the job for the 16-year-old Watson, the freshest face possible in 1996 at the San Bernardino Sun, where she was hired as soon as she could shift the car into D. It was “an old-school start,” complete with wax boards and pica poles “and those green screens!”, she recalled this month.
We’ll need to check the records to see if any previous APSE Fellows have ever uttered the words “wax boards” before, but for now let’s call Watson one of the most seasoned of all. And, yes, she’s aware.
“When we [the APSE fellows] met earlier this year, we were all wondering whether I was the oldest Fellow ever,” Watson said with a laugh. “I’m a late-bloomer in APSE, I guess.”
We can be thankful for that. Watson, the editor of Yahoo!’s college football blog Dr. Saturday, brings to the program both years of experience and fresh ideas on what sports editors can do to recapture lost momentum. Specifically, Watson wants to see today’s editors get in the digital game in a more meaningful way.
“Sports editors need to be digital editors, too – thinking of themselves as one and the same,” she said. “‘How does this story play on the phone? What will it look like on Facebook? On Twitter? Can it have a teaser video on Facebook or Twitter? What’s the art, the visual?’ Get your social and mobile strategies to all complement each other. Too often all these pieces fight each other.”
She has studied today’s news consumption habits and wants to help editors trade old thinking for new. An example: editors should spend less time worrying about what their homepage looks like, and more time creating content shaped for the mobile and social media audiences.
Why? Check your latest web stats and they’ll likely match those of New York, L.A. and so many places in between: the “social-mobile economy” isn’t using bookmarks anymore; not many people are typing in your www address any longer. These game-changing shifts are happening fast, and Graham wants to see more editors reacting to them.
“The future of our business is at stake; this is about our survival,” said Watson, who then shared a line she learned from an editor who helped shape her career, Tim Stephens of SportsManias: “This is the evolution of news media, where the cell phone is the new front porch.”
Watson said the social-mobile audience of today (more thoroughly described as the flood of people who are coming to your site via social media links, and coming on their phone more and more) is still reading, and reading a lot. But their habits are different from ones we were familiar with two blinks ago. Even Watson admits to changing habits.
“We don’t get the newspaper here,” she said. “I love the Denver Post, but I get the Denver Post on my Facebook feed and Twitter feed, and I am by no stretch a Millennial. I hire Millennials. But that’s the future, the phone, so make things that work on the phone.
“Be cognizant of this stuff. Don’t give up on the longform and really great features – just present them well. Have a mobile version, make sure it’s digestible on mobile and looks good on the phone.”
Motivating stuff, and we’re fortunate to have Watson and five other fellows who are not just ready to listen and learn, but to also help us find a new way forward. But before you click away to schedule that urgent pow-wow with your managing editor for digital, get to know more about Graham Watson:
*Watson at home*
Watson quarterbacks the Dr. Saturday blog from her home office in Denver. She is married to freelance sports writer Kyle Ringo, who confirms everything in this article so far in his Twitter bio: “married to a rock star.”
Watson and Ringo have two boys, both named after Chicago Cubs greats (Ringo’s idea): Banks, 4, and Maddux, 2. On the way is a baby girl. “Grace,” perhaps? We’ll know in six weeks.
“It’s been so fun,” she says of motherhood. “Banks is really into baseball right now, although I’m not sure he’ll quite live up to his namesake.”
Watson is a Missouri grad, but she’s having a hard time getting any Tigers gear on the wall with all this renewed optimism from the big Cubs fan in their home.
*Watson at work*
Watson manages a team of both full-time writers and freelancers that chase breaking news and build comprehensive content. “We cover everything, from the absurd to the very serious,” she said.
Watson’s day includes everything from organizing weekly coverage schedules, to line-editing stories, feeding the social-media beast, and coaching younger writers.
She still loves going to the national championship game, but with two (soon to be three) kids at home, she doesn’t miss the traveling that came with her previous career stops.
When football lets up — wait, does it ever let up? — Watson enjoys writing about her first love, soccer. “I probably get more attention for the soccer coverage I write than I do for football,” she said.
“I offer more opinion and perspective, having played the sport my entire life.
“During the season, it’s all football — 16-hour days and all the news that is out there. In the offseason, I like to try to take on pet projects and try to branch out and take a breather.”
*Before Dr. Saturday*
“I always knew I wanted to be a journalist,” Watson recalled. “I sent query letters to SI when I was a kid. I kept them, too.”
She grew up in Redlands, Calif., known for best-in-class soccer players (Landon Donovan) and terrorists (sadly, San Bernardino, 2015). Her best friend’s dad was one of the Sun’s sports editors, and as soon as her license said she could she went to work.
A torn ACL curbed her collegiate soccer career at Missouri and turned her attention to academics and journalism. Her Sports Journalism Institute stint landed her at the Dallas Morning News, where six weeks led to six more weeks, which led to two more years. She scored a scoop on Adrian Peterson’s college choice while “covering recruiting before recruiting was a thing.”
In 2004, Watson signed up with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to take the Missouri beat, where quarterback Chase Daniel, who Watson knew from her days in Dallas, once answered a spread-offense question from the media by saying, “I don’t know, just go ask Graham.”
In 2008, she became one of ESPN’s first power-bloggers, cranking out stories and traveling the country covering upwards of 56 schools on her “independents and others” college football beat. “I was everywhere,” she said. “From Fresno to Louisiana Tech to East Carolina. Spent a lot of time in Utah. Notre Dame, Army, Navy.” But the big victory of the job: being able to work out of the same city as Ringo.
She has been at Yahoo! since 2011, running the college football blog since 2012.
She has navigated the changes in her career and life over these 20 years with the help of two other pros in particular: Mike Harris, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, and Mark Pesavento of FoxSports. “They have really helped me, especially with my focus, both personally and in journalism. Without those two guys, I wouldn’t be where am I today.”
*Impressions of APSE*
Watson has enjoyed getting to know her colleagues of this year’s class. She hopes she can squeeze in a trip to the summer convention in Charlotte; the newborn Cubs fan likely will have final say on that trip.
In a short amount of time, Watson has been inspired by the APSE community.
“So many sports editors want to help, and help us navigate our careers and all this change,” she said. “There’s a synergy between young and old. A lot of people are helping us move forward.”