- For once, the increased attention on the Cleveland Browns comes with actual expectations for the team. It also brings new challenges for a veteran group of reporters that hasn’t covered anything quite like Baker, Beckham and this iteration of the Browns.
BEREA, Ohio — Soon, Odell Beckham Jr. will take his position before the two dozen scribes and handful of cameras waiting in the staged media area at the Browns’ indoor practice facility. But before he spends 12 minutes with the press—delivering a half-dozen quotable items along the way—on this Friday in July, he’ll put on his helmet and make his way over to the JUGS machine for some post-practice work.
Seven of the Cleveland writers eventually leave their posts and walk across the end zone toward Beckham, who’s in the midst of catching 100 balls fed to the machine by an equipment manager. The last 30 or so of Beckham’s catches are one-handed; the writers handle their phones horizontally while capturing video. If captioned correctly—and, more importantly, if posted to Twitter before the others—their individual tweet has a chance to go viral.
The long-suffering Browns have had long-suffering fans who have had long-suffering media. With the promise of Baker Mayfield, the excitement of Jarvis Landry and the international superstar status of Beckham, these Browns have greater expectations than any iteration in recent memory. Therefore, the Browns media contingent has more eyes on it than ever before, and a greater pressure to deliver maximum content. Be it how Mayfield consumes alcohol at baseball games or what he thinks of the Giants’ draft, be it Beckham’s practice feats or what he thinks about the Giants period, everything here matters, because anything can become news.
It hasn’t been too long since the Browns were a national curiosity. You’d find a similar environment after the 2014 NFL draft, when Cleveland used the 22nd overall pick to select Johnny Manziel.
Because the Browns were bad for so long and because the media here seems to more or less stay the same year to year, there was long a rhythm to this beat: cover bad football, start pre-draft stories around Thanksgiving, ready for the GM or coach firing and subsequent hiring.
Manziel disrupted that by introducing chaos. A homeless man told team owner Jim Haslam to draft Manziel. In his first preseason, Manziel flipped off the crowd. In his second season when everything was going poorly, reports had him in Las Vegas while he attempted to cover his tracks by posting an Instagram with an Ohio geotag.
“Johnny was larger than life,” says Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot, who’s been covering the team for three decades. “People come here and they wonder how you can cover such a large entity here. First of all, Cleveland had LeBron for all those years—so Cleveland knows how to handle a superstar, for sure. And a championship team. So that’s not new. From a Browns perspective we had Johnny Manziel and the circus was in town.
“It was no less than this in terms of the national media attention, the hype. The coverage [in 2014] maybe wasn’t as comprehensive as it is now because we’re blowing it out. But it was pretty intense, the scrutiny and focus on this team when Johnny was here.”
Perhaps no NFL beat writer in the country has more of a stranglehold on his or her market than Cabot in Cleveland. Any reporter worth his or her salt visiting the Browns pores over Cabot’s reporting beforehand. She has more than 170,000 Twitter followers when the top beat reporter in any given city may have 50-70,000.
Cleveland.com’s training camp coverage this preseason was among the most robust in the country. Cabot and her colleagues offer daily podcasts and videos, offensive and defensive observations, a writer dedicated to following a different Browns player each practice, a videographer dedicated to doing the same and a film analyst grading Mayfield’s camp practices each day. On a given camp practice, Cleveland.com had as many as 10 representatives here.
And for $4 a month, Browns fans can subscribe to a service that sends insider texts from Cabot that she doesn’t put on Twitter.
“I do think [this year] is different,” Cabot says. “Just the expectations of the team alone have inspired us to really cover the team more thoroughly and aggressively than we ever have before.”
ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi, who’s covered the team for more than 35 years, is equally recognizable in this market. He is out of the daily beat-writing grind but was present for all three camp days this reporter attended. He was active in media scrum, drawing some of the more interesting reactions.
Mayfield has not at all forgotten Grossi being the anti-Baker flagbearer for Cleveland before the 2018 draft. Grossi regularly—and incorrectly—compared Mayfield to Manziel. He’s been admitting since last year that he was wrong and the relationship seems to be slowly improving, but it’s led to some “awkward byplay” in press conferences.
A reporter asks Mayfield about the reason(s) behind his mustache, to which Mayfield gives an answer that soon will go viral. Amid the laughs, Grossi playfully pokes Mayfield about his facial hair that may also be seen on an actor from a ’70s adult film. “You’re not appearing in any films in the future, are you?,” Grossi inquires.
“You would like that, wouldn’t you, Tony,” Mayfield retorts.
Whereas Grossi got off on the wrong foot with the franchise quarterback, ESPN’s Jake Trotter has known Mayfield since the QB was a teenager. ESPN’s NFL Nation has 32 jobs, but a handful are higher profile than the others, and Cleveland is among that handful.
The company slid Trotter over to Cleveland from his duties covering the Big 12 this summer and he’s settling into his new role. He broke stories on Mayfield when he was a walk-on at Texas Tech and continued through the quarterback’s career at Oklahoma. ESPN hired the veteran reporter to take over the beat, and Trotter offers a fresh set of eyes to an established media contingent that is mostly from the area.
“I don’t have a lot of Browns institutional knowledge,” Trotter says. “I’ve been here a couple of weeks. I’m aware of the history but I haven’t lived it like some of the people who have covered the team for a number of years have . . . But I do have a lot of Baker institutional knowledge. I feel like if you know a lot about the quarterback, that helps. Even if you’re new to the team.”
Trotter is the face you’ll see on ESPN platforms for daily coverage throughout the season and beyond. He reports on all phases of the Browns team, but one week into camp it’s all about Baker and Odell. During the first weekend of camp, Mayfield yelled at his receivers for not working back to him as he scrambled during a drill. In his first press availability since, Mayfield addressed it by essentially saying he was unafraid to lead his wideouts. Later that day, Mayfield’s comments were on ESPN’s bottom-line ticker. The following morning, Trotter’s story was still in the No. 3 position on the front page of the website.
“I learned this covering [Patrick] Mahomes and Baker at the same time in college: Sometimes you play the hits,” Trotter says. “And right now, the hits are Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham.”
This beat offers diversity across generations and genders (The Akron Beacon Journal’s Marla Ridenour is one of the rare female sports columnists.) But, like so many groups around the league, racial diversity is missing.
It’s unlikely the majority-black Cleveland Browns, who represent a city that is 53% black (per the 2010 census), will have a black daily beat reporter, just like they haven’t in previous years, leading to blind spots in the coverage. The problem isn’t limited to Cleveland; it’s a sad reality in media in general, sports media precisely. Four of the seven teams this reporter visited during training camp do not have a black daily beat reporter. Many black writers across the country noticed Beckham opened up to a black male writer in his GQ interview that published last month.
According to media members who have covered the Giants as well as people within the organization, Beckham has never had a black daily beat writer during his professional career. A black columnist here and there, sure. A black newsman or woman showing up to a press conference, yes. But it’s believed Beckham has never had a writer of color cover him on a day-to-day basis in the NFL, a trend that will continue for one more season.
Typically when group interviews with the coach or star players break, the more established media members tend to linger a bit and have some on- or off-the-record chit-chat. It’s a way you build relationships with the guys or get that exclusive quote you didn’t want to share with the group.
On this Friday, Beckham’s schedule doesn’t permit it. Once he’s answered 24 questions or follow-ups, the interview ends and he’s pointed in the direction of Time Magazine senior writer Sean Gregory for a one-on-one sit-down interview on the back of a cart in the indoor facility.
Of the five national writers here this day, Gregory and Newsday columnist Bob Glauber will be the ones who get an exclusive crack at Beckham. Glauber’s relationship with Beckham dates back to his Giants days, and the receiver grants the scribe a few minutes after Gregory and before his day of talking is done.
“The local media never likes when they see a national person come in and they’re getting one-on-one time when we only get group time,” Grossi says. “You learn to not let that get in the way of doing your job.”
The Beckham gatekeeper here is PR chief Peter John-Baptiste. A former Giants PR guy overlapped with Beckham for a few months when the receiver was a rookie; now, John-Baptiste is acquainting himself with the star and developing a relationship, figuring out what requests to take to him and what to filter. But New York and national media have a five-year head start on Cleveland media.
It seems Beckham’s strongest media relationships are with NFL Network’s Kim Jones and ESPN’s Josina Anderson, both of whom were here for the start of Browns training camp. Beckham and Landry did an interview with Jones and Steve Smith at the start of camp. If Browns media want to forge a relationship with Beckham, it will likely have to start during the season when regular locker-room access lends itself to interacting with the star in a less formal environment.
Until then, access will mostly be limited to these group interviews. (But they can follow Beckham on his latest YouTube channel launched last month that promises inside access to his transition to life in Cleveland and what cleats he’ll wear in upcoming games!)
The past five years have brought an 0-16 season, a spectacular draft bust, revolving doors on the coaching staff and in the front office, and the cameras of Hard Knocks.
“We’ve seen this media [attention] for a while,” says Grossi, “and now it’s for the right reasons.”
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