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Alumni Q&A: Jim Sexton

Tennessee RiverJournalism graduate Jim Sexton (’81 and CCI Emeritus Board of Visitors member) has described his evolving media career as “long and winding,” and that path has led him once again to his hometown and alma mater. 

At least for this week.

Sexton is now in his eighth year as vice president of digital for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) and is in town for Knoxville’s first hosting of the prestigious Bassmaster Classic, which will be held Friday through Sunday on the Tennessee River. He is in charge of generating and developing content for the organization’s website, mobile, and social platforms.

Jim SextonRapid changes in technology radically changed the media landscape since Sexton walked the graduation stage in 1981, but he has transformed his skill set over the years to meet those new challenges.

Outside of an unusual first job in which he played a “Bill Nye the Science Guy-esque” character giving science demonstrations to junior high and high schoolers on behalf of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Sexton has spent his career as a content creator. He worked in Chicago and New York before returning to Knoxville for Whittle Communications, rising to editor and chief. After the organization folded, he moved to Washington, D.C., to be an associate editor for USA Weekend.

In 1998, Sexton was back in Knoxville again to work with HGTV, where he pivoted from mostly print into digital production, helping grow the company’s fledgling online presence. He moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives today, working with Time Inc.’s magazine division before his present job with Bassmaster.

After returning from his boat covering the anglers’ practice day, Sexton sat down to discuss his career, storytelling, and advice to students preparing to enter the media workforce. Here are excerpts from our Q&A:

Q: Where has your career taken you since graduation?

A: “I’ve got a journalism degree and have always been in content. I came up in the internet world when we were deciding, ‘Who do you put in charge of internet stuff?’ I made a case that it should be the editor instead of a technology person. I had to learn the technology. So I’ve always managed technology and content. I was there in the early days of HGTV and it grew and grew. I was there nine years and then went to Time Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama. At that time, it had eight magazine brands that also had websites. It had sort of been under paid attention to, so I came in to turn them into real websites with real content, not just remakes of the magazine. That whole operation was during the recession. Time Inc. started cutting everything, so I lost my job there.

“At that time, Bassmaster moved to Birmingham. It was in Orlando and ESPN owned it, then three guys bought it, one of them being the retired chairman of Time Inc. I landed at Bassmaster doing the same kind of work, content for our website and social media. It’s been a wild ride. I’ve always been a sports guy. My father’s a coach and I loved sports, but I never worked in sports media. It’s really what this is. It’s the sport of fishing. The mentality left over from ESPN was to cover it like a traditional sport, meaning we do a lot with stats, we have a live leaderboard, we have live broadcasting and really treat it like baseball or basketball or football would be treated.”

Q: What’s it like being in Knoxville for the Bassmaster Classic, the biggest event on your tour?

A: “We announced it this time last year, so I’ve known it’s been coming for a long time. I’m the only person who works at Bassmaster who went to UT. I’ve got a freelance writer/photographer who went to UT. We have one of our tournament contractors who went to UT who was wearing the plaid orange and white overalls this morning at our practice launch.

“It’s been so much fun. For one, I get to brag a lot about Knoxville and UT. It’s been really fun to see the reaction from our events people who’ve been back and forth here a lot over the last year. It’s really unique. For the seven classics I’ve been to before this, everything has been spread out. We were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, twice. The weigh-ins were downtown. The expo was downtown. The lake was 90 minutes away. Last year, we were in Greenville, South Carolina. The weigh-ins and expo were downtown and the lake was 45 minutes away. That’s typically what we’re doing. Here, you could walk from the weigh-ins at Thompson-Boling (Arena) to the launch at Volunteer Landing to the expos at World’s Fair Park. Everybody’s been really excited about it.

“Knoxville has become what I always thought it could become. When I worked downtown at Whittle, it was a very sleepy downtown. Nobody lived downtown. The only places to eat were lunch places and maybe Regas on the far end. Now, it’s a cool downtown. Lots of people live downtown, and there are cool restaurants and bars. It’s beautiful looking. I’m just very proud of it as much as anything. Being on campus this week, same thing. There’s been so much construction over the last five years that showing someone through campus on Monday, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s all come together.’”

Q: As a journalist and content creator, what makes a good story?

A: “In covering fishing and covering sports, you’ve got to cover the game and tell the score and who did what and who won and those kinds of things. You’ve got to keep the record. I had this conversation recently with my son, who is 24 and is a video editor. He asked how do you determine what makes a good story? And I said, ‘If I’m interested in it.’ I’ve always just felt, if I’m interested in it, other people will be too. That’s not enough of a good answer, but it’s a good story if it’s got a personal angle to it.

“With Bassmaster, we have to do the how-to stories: how to fish, how to catch bigger fish, how to use the equipment. We even tell the stories about the different species and the conservation. The really interesting stories to me and that the fans like are personal. All of these professional anglers that we cover, they’ve all got an interesting life story, right? Going from growing up to becoming a person who relies on fishing for a living, there’s an interesting story there somehow. There was a parent or a spouse who was encouraging. We’ve got an angler from Arizona, in college, he told his professor he wanted to be a professional angler. The professor laughed at him, and that really motivated him to pursue it because that was his passion. … Everyone has personal stories and struggles. Everyone has successes. Everyone has family inspiration. Those personal stories I think are the most interesting.

Q: What are some of your big takeaways from journalism school that you’ve used in your career?

A: “One of my first professors said, ‘Act like you know what you’re doing.’ He meant that as a reporter or editor, you’ll be involved in topics you don’t know that much about. If you approach it like your audience, who also might not know much about it, it’s okay to ask the basic questions and the things an experienced reporter or editor might not ask because they know the topic so well. That’s one thing I took with me.

“I got the sense of possibility in journalism school that you can do anything, whether that be writing or photography or videography or getting into technology. I worked at The Daily Beacon as a photographer, and we developed our own photos in a lightroom. That was the technology. A typewriter was the technology. Somehow, I’ve never been afraid of the technology. I’m 60 now. I’m going to say it’s not rocket science, but it kind of is. You don’t have to understand how it works, but you have to be able to use it. We do some crazy stuff at Bassmaster. We have an app called BASSTrakk. We put it in the hands of the marshals who ride the boats, and they log in every fish and every weight and it shows up instantly on the website. Stereotypically, you may think of a fishing website as simple, but it’s not for us. We do a lot with technology.

“Those are a couple takeaways from my time at UT. It was a mind expanding experience, partially from the people and partially from the subject. My career has been all learning all the time. I never learn enough. After eight years at Bassmaster, there’s a ton I want to learn. Learning’s fun for me.

Q: What is some advice you’d give to CCI students preparing to enter the media field?

A: “I’ve thought about that a lot. I’ve got kids and one is in a similar field. Would you recommend someone go into the field of journalism these days? There are probably more reliable job paths to stay employed with as much change as there has been in the media world. The thing is, people are consuming more media than ever. So there is always a need for people who can communicate well. I still think it’s a great career path and an interesting career path.

“My advice is to learn the basics really well. Be a Swiss army knife where you can do writing and photography and video and podcasts and play with all those platforms where they are all telling stories. Learn those basics really well, and they’ll set you up for any number of directions to go in where you can respond to the marketplace. If podcasts can continue to grow and you’ve done a few, you can do podcasts. If it’s all blogging and photography, you can do that. Learn the basics well. In my time on the Board of Visitors, it was their approach. They wanted kids to be able to come out with a broad skill set so they can take on anything.”