Breaking into sports journalism; a beginner’s guide
You’ve decided you want to be a sports journalist; a bold move in today’s game where job security is non-existent, and everyone is pivoting to video.
Still, its a career, or at least it can be if you dedicate yourself to it properly. The difficulty starts with the fact it isn’t necessarily comparable to other trades. You can get a degree in Journalism quite easily, but that won’t teach you how to use punctuation or articulate a story, (perhaps my writing here proves that).
Whereas with plumbing, or bricklaying, or even a business related degree you can start at the bottom quite easily and slowly progress up the ladder, journalism is quite unique. There are internship type scenarios, but those are few and far between. In my time I’ve had some misguided souls reach out to me for work experience. It’s sweet, but I’m a one man band. I can’t offer you work experience anymore than an altar boy can oversee your wedding.
That said, I can dispense advice, or in this case opinion. The latter feels a better word. Some of what I say may ring true for you and some may not. I was told by Graham Parker, (a very talented writer that lives near New York) to always pay it forward. So here I am.
I’ve tried to start with 5 tips outside of the obvious, (e.g. read a lot and write everyday, be polite, be honest) so that you can navigate things easily. Points that didn’t fit that but are still worthy, include building a schedule for yourself, and keeping organised financial records.
- ) Network
It is unlikely you will be offered a full time gig from the off, nor will someone reach out offering you work unless you know them already. This is where networking is essential. It can be LinkedIn, it can be DM-ing people, it doesn’t matter. The more initiative you show the more you will be rewarded.
Don’t ever be pushy or demanding. I was horribly impatient in my younger days, (I still am sometimes) and so my enthusiasm was perhaps misconstrued or grated on people. That said, I got my first piece with ESPN by DM-ing one of their editors with an idea I had. That spawned into more pieces, and eventually a job.
It’s important that I acknowledge there was a healthy dollop of good luck involved, but the fact I was willing to reach out to someone with a bit of confidence did help.
Ironically, the one time I didn’t try to network — when I was in said ESPN job — I got myself in trouble. Had I taken the time to introduce myself to the local press, shake hands, it would have saved me a lot of needless hassle, and maybe even made me some friends.
2.) Find a niche whenever possible
This nugget of wisdom was provided by Andy Brassell. It’s not always possible to choose a niche, but I opted for MLS as my speciality. You’ll notice a trend here, but I was a tad lucky with that too. I was dating an American at the time, and as such was visiting a major U.S. city fairly often in Washington D.C.. That allowed me attend the odd game, speak to players, and practice some of my skills with the belief I could fail and it would be O.K..
MLS has a lot of critics, understandably in some cases, but it does afford you a lot of freedom. I realised that if I could find the human interest angle for my interviews I could sell those stories on. Your niche may be Spain, or Italy, or further afield, but whatever it is make sure you watch it, take it in, and make contacts in that area. Chances are you’ll eventually get a shot to write something on it and get paid.
Andy explained it to me as, ‘Try to be the person that an editor thinks of when they want a story from that region’. He was spot on.
3.) Always seek to get paid
Or don’t, it’s up to you. Use common sense to work out whether the offer of exposure is genuine. I didn’t ask for money with my first piece at ESPN, but I did for the second piece I wrote and they offered me £100. ‘Wow, £100!’ I thought, ‘Where am I going to spend all of that?’
The key here is, don’t be afraid to ask for money — shy kids get nothing. A lot more outlets are able to pay these days and have a digital budget to do so. The same applies with YouTube channels, TV stations, the lot. There’s a chance they say no, but that’s O.K..
It should never cost you money to work, remember that.
4.) Accept rejection
You have to like you, because you spend the most time with you, and there’s no getting away from that.
Chances are you’ll be rejected at some stage. It may be an idea you have, or a piece you submit, or a job you apply for. It may even be by some of your colleagues who just don’t like your enthusiasm, your humour, or the cut of the jib. If you’re nice and respectful, then it’s not your fault. I’ve never acted towards someone in malice, and that’s the difference with an honest mistake.
Social media is bad for providing personal validation. I still get bugged that X doesn’t follow me, or Y doesn’t reply to my tweets/DMs. It’s destructive, trust me. So is questioning why outlet X won’t accept your pitches, or even reply.
The key is, don’t let that rejection define you negatively. Work hard at your craft and you’ll have nothing to feel insecure about, and always, always, treat people with respect, even if it’s not forthcoming from them.
5.) Take care of yourself
This one is a touch more personal. I see a lot of my peers struggling with mental health issues, whether privately or publicly, and I’ve had the same obstacles to overcome.
Being self employed is certainly a mental strain. You’re the boss, the employee, the accountant, the lot. Money may not always flow, but be sure to surround yourself with good people and talk to them if things get tough. The greatest damage you can to do yourself is to stay silent. You don’t need to tweet about it, or write it down in public like I am now, but make sure you have someone you can open up to and trust.
Maybe your maintenance involves the gym or exercise, (both of which are great avenues) or grabbing a coffee and reading a book. As long as you find someway to disengage from things that is all that matters.