This week we talked with Zoe Collins Rath, who joined The Progress-Index in Petersburg last year to cover the sports and education beats. While there, she has also been able to perform some investigative journalism.
Rath won a first-place award in the 2021 VPA News & Advertising Contest for her column “Sports Rath,” and was recognized with a Best of Gannett 2021 award for her investigative story about allegations of racism in Prince George County Schools.
The University of Colorado and Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism graduate shares with us why she was drawn to sports journalism, discusses some of the challenges of the beat, and dishes out a few tips to future female sports journalists on how to find their own success on the sports beat
1) Please introduce yourself and give us a little background (personal and professional), where you work, how you got there, and what you do.
I grew up in Evanston, Il, which is north of Chicago. If anyone has seen movies like Home Alone, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, or The Breakfast Club, that is the general area where I grew up. I played sports growing up from cross-country to basketball and in college. I played Ultimate Frisbee at the University of Colorado. I still play it today when I am not working in the newsroom in Petersburg with the Progress-Index. I got there after I turned down one job and this one came up and it gave me the opportunity to work as a sports reporter. Even though I also do education reporting, it has been a fun year since it is my first job.
2) Tell us what led you to become a sports reporter, and how has that fit in with the education beat you also cover?
I always liked sports because I played many of them as a kid, and writing about sports seemed to be the easiest thing because of the amount of knowledge I have. It felt weird if I wasn’t sharing the information somewhere, somehow. A lot of times they intersect because decisions made by the school board and grades impact if students get to play. Also, some students that I reported on, are working towards their associate degrees like high school students, and it’s a balancing act.
3) What does a typical day look like for you during a busy athletic season?
A typical day includes me having some meetings, going over notes that I had from the week, and a mini “scouting report” for the opponents. My editors encourage me to not be too busy on game days since it is a lot of work, so I shower, charge my camera battery, and work out before the game starts. I snap photos, take notes, keep stats, and live Tweet as much as I can. When I get home, I get to work and can write a minimum of one article, but sometimes a max of three articles, and that does not include photo essays. My day typically ends in the early morning hours because my “workday” basically starts at 6 p.m. when I get there for games.
4) Are there any challenges you’ve had to face in covering athletics?
The main challenge is not writing the same story over again, especially if the team is losing and it boils down to the same thing that has previously been written. A lot of times I will focus on the positive performance of an athlete or a moment that was rather out of character.
5) How many sports teams do you cover and how do you manage to juggle all the different sporting events?
I cover one high school, Petersburg High, but if there is a story worth looking into in other school divisions, I go and cover it. I cover football, basketball, softball, track and any of the other school sports.
6) What’s one story you’ve written that you are truly proud of and why?
The story I am proudest of is my first investigative story about racism and discrimination in Prince George County Schools. I had never thought about investigative reporting or trained for it, so it was A LOT of work and edits. But when it was over with, and my work earned me a prize I was floored because I didn’t think a sports reporter could win an award in investigative reporting in their first year. Doing something like that was pretty cool.
7) Why do you think sports journalism is important today?
Sports journalism may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is a niche market for people who take great pride in their community, and some do it through sports. Going to basketball games at PHS, community members came out in droves to support their high school. Some people take pride in their community’s food scene, architecture, etc. and those stories are written, but for a community like Petersburg with a strong history in sports, it is worth looking at. Not to mention, sports are a way for people to escape the real world and reporters have the duty to make sports journalism fun for everyone. I wrote a football story about how some players changed roles out of sheer circumstance on the field and it did well. Anything can happen on any given day and sports reporters have the job to write down what happens.
8) Female sports writers are a minority in the news industry, but the trend has grown somewhat in recent years. What advice would you give to other women who want to break into the sports journalism beat and what skills do they need to develop to become successful in this area?
First, read a lot because it can inspire you. Second, be fearless and open to learn, it pays off. Third, find what you love about sports and let it guide you. I played sports and one of the things I guide myself on is how I can empathize with athletes because I have been in their shoes.
9) As an athlete, I’m sure you’ve read articles about some of the competitions that you played in. Do you think, after reading those articles, that they gave you a sense of how to write similar stories?
I have and sometimes reporters can talk about the sport without having to play the game or play close attention to something. For high school especially, if someone makes a mistake, I explain in an article WHY they did what they did because if I was in the shoes of an athlete, I’d do the same thing. I also know that as a kid trying to figure yourself out, it can be difficult when an article tells you who you are and what they should do. So, I try to avoid criticism as much as possible of any athletes, especially when they are still kids.
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