Meet Celeste Whittaker: SJIEP reporting fellowship adviser
Veteran sports journalist will help guide and mentor South Jersey reporting fellows in 2023
Celeste Whittaker’s career as a sports journalist spanned over three decades. Born and raised in Willingboro, New Jersey, she spent 17 of her 24 years at the Courier Post reporting on sports. She later transitioned to the features department, covering topics such as restaurants, arts, and entertainment.
Willingboro holds a special place in Whittaker’s heart, and she takes pride in the local talent that hails from South Jersey.
“Willingboro is a hotbed of talent in the entertainment world, sports, the arts, and more,” Whittaker said. “Athletes like the great Carl Lewis, Chuck Faucette, Kareem McKenzie, and so many others have come out of Willingboro as well. I’m just so proud to be a product of our town.”
Looking back on her career, she recognizes two key sources of inspiration: her mother’s influence as a teacher who encouraged her love of reading and writing; and her English teacher, Jane Charvat, who helped Whittaker develop her storytelling capabilities during her junior year at Willingboro High School.
Seeing Allen Iverson perform the famous step-over move with Tyronn Lue against the Sixers at the Staples Center was a dream come true for Celeste Whittaker as a young sports journalist. Not only was she covering this historic event as a writer, but she is also personally in love with the art of basketball.
Whittaker’s dream of playing basketball professionally overseas, however, was cut short when she suffered a serious ACL injury during her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she had received a full-ride scholarship to play. After her second knee injury the following year, she rediscovered her passion for storytelling. In the fall, she decided to pursue journalism at the University of North Carolina, which has a well-respected journalism school.
Whittaker’s passion for storytelling was reignited after her basketball career ended. She kept herself involved with the team by keeping the scorebook for the women’s basketball team, allowing her to stay connected to the sport and her teammates.
“It was a bit of a challenge completely refocusing my energy in a different direction because sports had been part of my life for so long,” Whittaker said. “I had played basketball since grade school in a local Police Athletic League, then all the way up until college. I loved my teammates at UNC so much and enjoyed being part of the team. Keeping the scorebook allowed me to still be around the team sometimes but I didn’t have the same rigorous responsibilities of daily practices or playing in games. And the good part is my friends on the team remain my friends to this day.”
While in journalism school that semester at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, she took a rigorous course that required Whittaker to go out and cover stories across the campus.
She loved the experience and says that during that time she learned her first lesson about accuracy in journalism and storytelling with an early assignment about the campus Gospel choir, and the new robes the group received. When writing her article, Whittaker put an extra zero in the cost of the robes, reporting the new robes as a much larger purchase.
“I added one too many zeroes,” Whittaker recalled. “I think I said the robes were $1,700 apiece instead of $170.”
Her professor told her that while the article was well-written, she’d given Whittaker a bad grade on principle, because of the mistake. If she were an actual reporter, she would’ve had to make a correction in the article due to the factual error.
“It taught me a lesson about being very careful with reporting,” Whittaker said.
During her junior year at the University of North Carolina, Celeste Whittaker seized an opportunity to merge her two passions of basketball and journalism. As part of her spring break, she received extra credit for shadowing a reporter for a day and writing about the experience. She chose to shadow Tim Kelly, a sports reporter for the Burlington County Times, who had previously covered her as a high school athlete.
As she watched Kelly report on a basketball game, conduct interviews, and write up his copy, Whittaker realized that this was what she wanted to do. She was impressed by Kelly’s ability to cover the game and then interview players after the game and felt that this was a perfect merger of her love for basketball and her interest in journalism.
“He gets to go to games, watch the games, and then interview players after the game. I want to do that!” Whittaker added.
The experience also reinforced the importance of mentorship in career development. With Kelly’s guidance, Whittaker to gained a better understanding of the industry, and it solidified her desire to pursue a career in sports journalism. The opportunity to shadow a reporter and learn from someone who has already achieved success in the field was a valuable learning experience for Whittaker.
After graduating from college, Whittaker began her career as an editorial assistant for BusinessWeek, based in New York City. She spent two and a half years working in this role before moving to Atlanta. It did not take her long to find a new opportunity and she landed a job at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was hired by then executive editor Ron Martin and initially served as his editorial assistant for a year and a half.
From there, Whittaker secured an internship in the sports department and worked her way up to become a full-time sports reporter. She had several mentors who helped her to develop her skills and succeed. Among them were her first editor, JC Clemons, and AJC reporters Ernie Reese and Milton Giddens. Unfortunately, both Ron Martin, Ernie Reese, and Milton Giddens have since passed away.
Appreciative of her early mentors, Whittaker also takes stock of how hard work and her passion for journalism helped to drive her professional journey from editorial assistant to sports reporter.
In March of 1998, after spending over eight years in Atlanta, Whittaker decided to return to her roots in South Jersey. She accepted a job at the Courier Post in Cherry Hill and moved back to her hometown of Willingboro.
She spent 24 years at the Courier Post, during which she developed a deep passion for her line of work. She believes that journalism is not only an opportunity to be a student of new discoveries but also a way to inform others of what you have learned through writing. She takes pride in her role as a journalist and feels it was a privilege to be able to inform and educate her community.
“Not only can you be a student of new discoveries,” she said, “but you can also inform others of what you have discovered through writing.”
👋 Want to learn more about the SJIEP reporting fellowship? Visit the project website!
Adrienne Bauldock is the project coordinator for the South Jersey Information Equity Project. Contact her at email@example.com.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.