An Interview with Jody Murphy
“She needed to make one to win and she missed all three and collapsed in tears….I was writing the story and debating whether to mention her name. I decided to keep her name out of it. Later, I got a letter from her father thanking me. At the college level that would have been our lead. But in the community you’re out and about and people see you and talk to you and you have to be more tender with things.”
“I remember Steve Keenan (Fayette Tribune) said to me, “Just once I’d like to watch the game like one of those fans without having to take notes.” And I said to him, “Most would them would like to get paid just once to watch a game.””
“The news side reporters, including the Executive Editor, treat election night as if it is Super Bowl Sunday. The reporters get pizza and a shitload of “Attaboys” the next day. There is no such kudos for the sports boys come Saturday morning, after cranking out an eight-page Friday night football section. Sports has election night coverage twice a week (Fridays and Saturdays) in the fall. And there are no “Attaboys.” No free pizza. No big deal.”
Jody Murphy: Interviewed on July 10, 2007
Position: City Hall reporter, former assistant sports editor, Parkersburg (W.Va.) News and Sentinel
Born: 1972, Johnstown, Pa.
Education: Concord College, Athens, W.Va., 1996, history, political science
Career: Beckley Register-Herald, 1997-2000; Parkersburg News and Sentinel 2000 –
Personal: married, two children “and one on the way”
Favorite restaurant (home): Crystal Café, Parkersburg “great club sandwich”
Favorite restaurant (road): McAdoo’s, Beckley, W.Va., “Brooklyn bridge sandwich – all your white meats, ham, turkey maybe salami with lettuce tomato, onion and McAdoo sauce, 18 inches long, with chips – goes good with apitcher of beer”
Favorite hotel: Rimfire Lodge, Snowshoe Mountain, W.Va., “I remember sitting outside in a hot tub, snow on the ground, the door to my room open and the TV turned up, watching a Nascar race from Richmond, drinking beer on top of this mountain with incredible views, and calling my wife at home to tell her about it – I said, ‘guess where I’m at’- she didn’t think it was funny.”
Jody Murphy, excerpted from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, September 30, 2006:
ST. MARYS — St. Marys girls basketball team is an up-and-coming program, but the Blue Devils aren’t there just yet.
Williamstown, one of the perennial powers in Class A, showed St. Marys just how far they have to climb.
Despite scoring just five points in the fourth quarter – all inside the last two minutes – the 8th-ranked Yellowjackets battled to overtime where they pushed over the teetering Blue Devils 58-49 in a wild Class A Little Kanawha Conference battle.
Larissa McGrew led the Yellowjackets (12-6) with a game-high 18 points. Ann Seufer tallied 12, including a cold-as-ice game-tying trey to help send the game to overtime.
Williamstown took a 38-31 lead into the fourth quarter and appeared to have the game firmly in hand after cracking a 31-31 tie with a 9-0 run.
The Yellowjackets, paced by McGrew, forced the Blue Devils into five turnovers on six possessions – including three straight – to build a seven-point lead. Williamstown scored seven points in the run in less than 30 seconds.
Although stunned by the flurry, St. Marys hung tough.
Five different players scored for the Blue Devils (12-5). A tenacious defense kept Williamstown from scoring for much of the fourth quarter as the Blue Devils edged out to a 42-38 lead with 2:25 left in the fourth.
McGrew picked up a steal and laid it in to cut the lead to two. The Yellowjackets fouled St. Marys to make up ground and the ploy worked as the Blue Devils sank only one of three attempts.
St. Marys Morgan Thomas sank the first of two free throws to put the Devils up three, 43-40, with 32 seconds left. The game might have been sealed there had Williamstown’s Carlie Ebra not stolen the ball from St. Marys Kayla Ennis, who collected the rebound from Thomas’ missed shot.
Ebra picked Ennis cleanly and got the ball down court. Williamstown worked through its options and eventually found Seufer open on the left wing for a game-tying 3-pointer. The sure-fire senior coolly sank the ball to knot the game with less than five seconds left.
St. Marys rushed to inbound the ball and managed to squeeze off a half-court shot as time expired. A referee’s shrill whistle pierced the air. Rather than OT, St. Marys was headed to the line for three shots and a chance to win as Williamstown was whistled for a pushing foul.
St. Marys, with no time on the clock, missed all three attempts sending the game to the extra frame.
Williamstown, now given a second chance, made the most of it. The Yellowjackets forced five St. Marys’ turnovers and picked up two crucial offensive rebounds on missed free throws to outscore the Blue Devils 15-6 in overtime.
Meghan Wiseman led the Blue Devils with 13 points. Ennis had nine, while Rachel Sandy scored eight.
Q. What was your approach to covering preps?
A. One thing I worry about is becoming a homer. My first boss was big on stressing that. Don’t be a homer. Sit there, keep your mouth shut, write down plays, and don’t be rooting for guys. Report the story. I think we try to do that here. We try to be head-on in situations where it’s delicate.
I covered a girls basketball game last year, Williamstown was playing St. Marys. St. Marys hadn’t beaten them in seven years. A girl from St. Marys was fouled at the final buzzer and had three foul shots. She needed to make one to win and she missed all three and collapsed in tears. They went to overtime and St. Marys lost. I was writing the story and debating whether to mention her name. I decided to keep her name out of it. Later, I got a letter from her father thanking me. At the college level that would have been our lead. But in the community you’re out and about and people see you and talk to you and you have to be more tender with things.
I had a similar situation in football. I covered a game last fall where a team scored twice right off the bat, but its defense was awful and the other team scored every time. I wrote that the opposing defense surrendered quicker than the French army. I didn’t name any players but I felt I was accurately describing the defense. I got a letter from a lady saying the kids will be crushed and how could I do this and what about the morale of the team.
Most writers who cover preps can relate to what I’m talking about.
I learned a lesson in Beckley when I covered the golf team. Golf is one of my favorite things. One of the best players was a girl. She was on the 17th hole which had a huge water hazard in front of the green. She put her first ball in the water. She dropped a ball and could have laid up but she went for the green again. The ball went in the water again and she carded a quadruple bogey and her team lost by two strokes and didn’t go to the state tournament. The coach was trying so hard not to say anything or blame the girl. I went back and asked the assistant SE if I should mention this. He said ‘yeah, I think you have to.’ I ended up writing about her and what happened and mentioned her shortfalls but I didn’t say that was the reason they didn’t make state. The next day I got a call from her mother, which I missed. I called back and got the answering machine. I always felt bad about writing that. The girl is playing for Marshall now.
Q. What were your duties as assistant sports editor?
A. What weren’t my duties? My primary job was laying out the Sentinel, Monday through Friday, about five to eight pages a day. That’s the afternoon paper, with a circulation of 3,200 daily. The News is the morning paper with a circulation of 32,000 on Sundays.
I covered high school football and Marshall University football. Huntington is two hours away from us – everything is. We cover 27 high schools in a 12-county region in Ohio and West Virginia.
Q. How does your paper cover high school football?
A. We have about a six-man staff and cover every game in Wood County. We staff six to seven games every Friday night plus we get a dozen call-ins from other games. We’d be on a rotating schedule. Every month and a half I’d sit in the office and take the games. My SE (Dave Poe) is not a typical SE – he prefers to sit in the office while other editors are out covering things. I had the luxury of going out almost every night and had a lot of free rein. Almost every Friday night I was out. One guy would be in to help Dave.
We had a veteran staff. I was the least tenured with seven years. The next youngest had eight or nine years. Three guys probably had 15 years.
There’s a lot of good guys around the state – it’s like a fraternity. We’ll swap stories – we might have a Beckley or Morgantown byline in our paper. Everybody in the state is good about sharing stories. We have a lot of events here in Parkersburg and we send out a lot of photos – we operate on the give-and-take. If we have to pay $30 for a story we will, but most of the writers know it all comes out in the wash. It’s not an every day thing. But if Morgantown is trying to get the Preston-Parkersburg South game we’ll send them the story and next year they’ll send us the story.
Q. How did you end up in newspapers?
A. Out of college I was in the job-of-the-month club. I sold cars for a month, then I was in the restaurant business. I wasn’t finding what I wanted to do. I had grown up reading newspapers forever, since I was 9 or 10 years old. I was thumbing through the newspaper sports section and it hit me that I could write. I called Dave Morrison, the SE in Beckley and said if you have an opening I think I can help you out. He called me the next night and offered me a part-time job. I did that for a year-and-a-half – the pay was awful but I enjoyed it.
Q. What was the pay?
A. Minimum wage. Little did I realize that’s pretty much the scale in the newspaper industry. Then I went to work at 84 Lumber and after a winter of working in a building with no heat and walking around on cold concrete floors I went back to Dave and worked part-time for two months. Then a full-time writer left, the Marshall beat writer, and they gave me the full-time job. The pay wasn’t spectacular but I was a full-time sportswriter and tickled to death. I started doing Virginia Tech home games that fall. That was in 1998 – I was 26.
Q. As a full-time staff writer you got benefits?
A. I got the benefits. My biggest benefit was getting married. My wife was a registered nurse. She was making good money and I could afford to be a sportswriter. To this day that is the biggest benefit.
When I went to Parkersburg I got almost a $10,000 pay raise, which brought me in at $25,000. Quite honestly, I think I had the best job in the state, in terms of my boss, and my position. I was in charge of the Sentinel’s sports section. I laid it out and wrote columns and set my own schedule, Monday through Friday. As long as I had it laid out Dave Poe had faith in me to write and pitch ideas. I made assignments to the rest of the staff.
It was a really good atmosphere to explore different opportunities. In the summer we did a silver anniversary team for high school football for the last 25 years. We got the coaches together and had them pick the top 25 players. Most recently we wrote a book on 100 years of Parkersburg high school football.
Parkersburg had 10 or 12 undefeated seasons. It’s the birthplace of Greasy Neal, who coached at Yale and coached the Philadelphia Eagles to two titles, and who played baseball for the Cincinnati Reds in the late teens. Parkersburg has a big football tradition – it’s also a big wrestling school. It dominates wrestling year in and year out.
We cover more preps than anybody in the state. Tennis matches, golf matches, Legion baseball and softball.
Q. Are your readers demanding?
A. Yeah, pretty much. In 1967 the city got so large it created Parkersburg South, which is now the bigger school and is clamoring for a lot of respect. PHS owned them in so many sports but South is starting to gain ground. Anytime those teams play they will sell out, and whoever loses, they will call the next morning to complain about the coverage. For their football games they put 5000 tickets on sale Sunday morning and sell out in 45 minutes.
Q. How would you describe West Virginians as sports fans?
A. They’re pretty rabid. The Mountaineers are the state team, with apologies to Marshall. People root for WVA like Pittsburgh fans root for the Steelers. Locally the high school scene is pretty big. Football in Parkersburg is bigger than in Beckley, and it’s every bit as big as it is in Weirton. People put a lot of emphasis on athletics in Parkersburg. Parkersburg High and Parkersburg South both have huge followings. You have that in a lot of places where it’s rural and not a lot is going on.
Q. Does the economy affect fans in your area?
A. I don’t think it does. Most of your fans are parents and relatives, and then you have the die-hards. Most of them will cough up $6 for a Friday night football ticket or a Tuesday night basketball ticket. We have season ticket holders for Parkersburg High from 1937. Our population peaked in the 1980s at around 50,000 and the newspaper circulation was around 50,000. It has declined steadily over the years but interest in football and sports remains very heavy.
Q. Did you like sportswriting?
A. Yes I did. I remember Steve Keenan (Fayette Tribune) said to me, “Just once I’d like to watch the game like one of those fans without having to take notes.” And I said to him, “Most would them would like to get paid just once to watch a game.”
Q. Why did you move to news?
I guess I got burned out.
Among the monotony, we do a ton of signing stories – you know the deal – 40 or 50 parents and coaches who want signing stories done on their kids who are attending Hillbilly State and intend to play a sport. The stories are all the same thing and we do each and every one of them. Spending 10 years covering high school sports day in and day out was enough.
And, sports really didn’t give me a chance to cover the gritty side of things. If I stayed in sports, I would never cover a fire or a fatal car accident, expose corruption in government or call a dead person’s next of kin for comment. That’s not something I relish doing, but I think it is something I need to be able to do – to say I did it. To learn how to deal with that type of situation. To be a good reporter I need to be able ask hard questions, make tough phone calls and write straight news. That’s not something you get covering sports in West By God Virginia. I need to learn to be a tougher, more efficient reporter. Working in news will help.
I love writing sports gamers – it gives me a chance to be more creative. News is much more straightforward. Covering high school sports you don’t get to ask a lot of tough questions and deal with real, tough issues. Granted, It’s not as popular, but it is more important. In sports, I would get 20 e-mails a day on a game story. Hell, I’m lucky to get 20 e-mails a month covering City Hall!
However, starting in sports, I learned quickly to work within the confines of a deadline. Truth be told, news is piece of cake when it comes to deadlines. For example, the news side reporters, including the Executive Editor, treat election night as if it is Super Bowl Sunday. The reporters get pizza and a shitload of “Attaboys” the next day. There is no such kudos for the sports boys come Saturday morning, after cranking out an eight-page Friday night football section. Sports has election night coverage twice a week (Fridays and Saturdays) in the fall. And there are no “Attaboys.” No free pizza. No big deal.
Like I tell my EE: The first time you see Jack Lambert crush a quarterback it is impressive. But after a watching him awhile it becomes normal to see him turn a QB into a quivering mass of bloody flesh.
The boss is used to seeing our sports guy kick out three or four pages of copy and results within a 60-minute deadline every week. He’s become accustomed to it: It’s Average Everyday Excellence.
I will always enjoy prep sports. In fact, I will be covering Friday Night football for the sports department this fall to stay in the loop. I want to continue to be creative. And honestly, I like to sit at my local watering hole and tell the locals about the latest local sports happening. You know, give them some inside info. And quite frankly – apologies to Stephen A. Smith – I love the whole local Friday night football scene. It is something I have really grown to appreciate in the last few years.
(SMG thanks Jody Murphy for his cooperation)