Sports journalism your thing? Here’s how to stand out in a very large crowd

Jon Birchall

Reach PLC recently recruited five trainee sports journalists to work on some of its biggest titles in the UK, with hundreds of people applying for the roles straight from university. Digital head of sport at Reach, Jon Birchall, shares tips on how to stand out in a very, very competitive field

My favourite part of any job interview with a trainee sports reporter is when I ask them to be brutally honest and tell me what we’re bad at. It is essential.

Firstly, it soon becomes clear which would-be trainees have done their research into a publication and more importantly, the audience they serve every day. For those who have taken a cursory glance at a home page and one or two stories, here spells trouble. The others, simply with good preparation, have already become invested in what we do as a reader, even if it is with a critical eye.

We don’t need journalists who love what we do, but we do need them to care.

The second and increasingly evident advantage of this question is that all trainee reporters, of all backgrounds, will know more about a trend in this ever-expanding industry than the expert sat opposite of them casting an eye over CVs for literals and missed words.

As it happens, I don’t have Snapchat. And I have never spent tens of hours in a month watching eSports on Twitch. I’m not particularly interested in MMA and have never had my own YouTube channel. Our readers do all of this and more. And if we are to build a sustainable future for digital media based on an audience of sport-mad, platform agnostic teenagers who consume news in a variety of different ways, who better than to ask for advice from than sport-mad, platform agnostic wannabe journalists who consume news in a variety of different ways?

The digital landscape has not only democratised content, but newsrooms also. Trainee reporters, now almost exclusively digital natives, can drive strategic change by simply telling stories differently to what has gone before or distributing their content to new places and new audiences. These are insights and opportunities to be harnessed by all editors.

Yet, as with our stories, it is the very human response to this question which often tells you most about a potential trainee reporter. As journalists, particularly in Sport, we are expected to be forthright in our opinions and above all honest in what we say. Can a no-doubt nervous interviewee, with the manners, confidence and professionalism of a senior journalist, completely skewer you and your perceptions?

Arsene Wenger in the press box at Chelsea. His route to the press box was probably shorter than a career in journalism

And that is not to bring bravado or ego to our newsrooms, but simply good journalism, led with evidence, data or a considered argument that you take back to your desk long after an interview is over. There is no greater frustration than seeing talented, passionate people keep brilliant ideas to themselves, for fear of disturbing the status quo. Any good editor and any good newsroom never stands still. The most junior reporters on desk can often be most key in how we evolve for the good of our readers, watchers and listeners.

So what makes a great trainee sports journalist? Someone who understands how to pitch new ideas and challenge perceptions with confidence based on research and their own experiences. Maintain a sense of humour and the ability to listen without preconception. Take all the feedback you can get. Work hard, treat every single one of your colleagues with respect and be kind.

Be professional, be polite and always be honest. Brutally honest.