It’s quite easy to understand why sports journalism is one of the most saturated markets in the profession. Being paid to write about your favourite sport, with access to the stars and people who make these incredible moments happen, and then a platform on which to showcase your spin on it to the world? Forget ‘if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’ – that’s an opportunity so many would do for free.
Of course, that only creates competition for jobs, with many young professionals scouring news desks up and down the country to get their foot in the door at entry level – so what’s the key to getting ahead?
It sounds a little cliché – but experience will go a long way. There is some assumption that the pathway into the field is ‘complete a relevant degree, get a job and then go out and build up your reputation, skills, contacts and portfolio’. And that’s not wrong per se, but isn’t necessarily the right order to do it all in.
Firstly – degrees are good. They show a level of responsibility, commitment, the ability to turn a keen eye and mind to a wide range of research tasks and still have some pedigree, even if the number of graduates continues to rise per year. But, is a degree in media necessarily the best thing even if you want to go into that career field?
My argument instead would be that it is far better to build up a portfolio whilst studying a degree in a different field – one that interests you and helps develop key skills such as presenting information in layman’s terms, quality of written work and researching – whilst simultaneously starting to attend sporting events and making an effort to learn the trade that way.
Consider – you’re the Editor-in-Chief at a well-respected newspaper, with an advert running for an entry-level position on the news desk for sport. The vast majority of candidates will hold media-based degrees and may have some limited experience, but nothing above and beyond the realms and requirements of their course. Then, you have candidates with a degree in a different but relevant field, such as English or History, but who also have a raft of experience and have demonstrated a level of independence to go about learning the trade?
Even if it’s just attending local football matches, interviewing players after (who may or may not be mates with someone in the family so it’s a bit awkward), and then putting the report on your own personal blog afterwards, that’s an invaluable start. The advent of social media means anyone can have their work read, with little work, so this starting point is a lot less low-key than it used to be.
Be prepared to deal with difficult personalities – especially if you start covering larger events. The majority of athletes are perfectly normal, friendly people – but egos exist and arguably none more so than in sport. Keeping calm, asking insightful, fair questions and standing your ground are all part and parcel at the beginning, especially when tasked with grilling one of your heroes (I definitely have never been sworn at by someone I used to idolize), but the experience only serves to make you a better interviewer, and that can pay dividends further down the line.
Working for free is not a bad thing, to begin with. Some professional journalists – particularly freelancers – will probably tell you that working just for the experience is a cardinal sin and sells your talents short. That’s not true. Volunteering for gigs at lower-budget outlets can open doors for you, and put you in an environment to build up your own personal network of contacts. And that’s probably the most underrated skill of being a journalist.
A clichéd final point to end on would be to not take no for an answer, but that’s a terrible idea. Managing relationships with section editors and staff at newspapers, digital outlets and even PR companies is a constant balancing act, but keeping everybody on-side can pay dividends in terms of career opportunities. Be careful not to nag, though, it’s an excellent method of being dismissed and burning a bridge. Know when to push someone for that work experience you’ve been craving, and when they’ve got a busy window of work and staying respectfully quiet will reflect far better on you.
As a sea of recent university graduates will attest – it’s not easy. But sports journalism is arguably the most rewarding of all, in terms of job satisfaction and the variety of content produced, and certainly one worth chasing.