The News Leader has been following the Staunton Storm team throughout the season, with the mission to highlight high school girls athletics and to give readers an inside look at what it’s like to be a student on a team.
But now, Coach Eric Payne and Staunton High are backing out of the agreement worked out in advance for the season-long project, with not much explanation.
It started when Payne called The News Leader in early January and tried to abruptly cancel the collaborative project. That was just five weeks after the first story appeared and 11 weeks after agreeing to open up his locker room and practices to a reporter.
One reason, according to Payne, was that the project was making it hard for him to focus on coaching the team. He said it was nothing specifically we did, other than the expected distraction of being around team practices, etc.
Payne said he would not allow his players — many of whom have been eagerly participating in the project with their families — to answer any questions beyond those about the basketball game.
Being able to talk to players about more than basketball — about academics and their home and social life — was at the heart of the project. These players are more than just athletes, juggling a lot in their lives to even make it possible to show up on the court to play a game. The News Leader hoped to show some of that.
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A day after Payne tried to end the project, The News Leader sent an email asking him to reconsider with a new plan that slightly limited access but still allowed the core reporting.
Payne didn’t respond for a week, so The News Leader contacted Nate Collins, the principal. Collins said he understood both the position of his coach and The News Leader.
We were not able to reach a new understanding with Staunton High, and we apologize to readers of the series who wanted to follow the Storm's basketball season.
"I am disappointed," said News Leader editor William Ramsey. "We do a professional job of telling the community's stories and had worked hard to openly and collaboratively set this up. Patrick is an amazing reporter and has been doing his job properly and respectfully, as always. His reputation in this town is excellent.
"But things happen beyond our control, and this is not the end of our projects on Staunton High young people and it's something we've agreed with the principal that we'll revisit in the future."
Patrick Hite is The News Leader's education and sports reporter. Story ideas and tips always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to us at newsleader.com.
This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: The Storm: HS coach backs out of newspaper story series about season