I get a lot of emails and LinkedIn messages from young sportswriters who are clawing the side of a crowded mountain to make their name. It’s a good rule to always reply to these and, if asked, I’ll happily make the time to get on the phone and share any advice that might be helpful.
The truth is there’s no surefire way to scale to the top as a sportswriter, but there are three things every aspiring Wright Thompson, Red Smith or Lars Anderson should be doing to at least dig their nails in.
- Firstly, demonstrate a true love for your craft. It’s hard to believe in a raw young sportswriter who hasn’t yet got out there, launched a blog, written for free (within reason), reached out to those they aspire to and discovered what it is that makes great writing. The best writers are mostly writing, or reading the writers they aspire to.
- Secondly, develop your personal brand. It’s not an option to ignore social media and scream “corporate sellout,” because part of your value going forward is going to be in the audience you’ve built on networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Periscope. I’m not saying you need 10k+ followers to be a great sportswriter, but what sense is there in leaving that validation on the table? Like it or not, you need to have an established personal brand.
- Thirdly, find a niche. The lead picture here is of Sam Tighe, a Bleacher Report success story who has climbed from an unpaid gig to become a soccer Lead Writer and expert video/radio analyst. Sam’s success owes to identifying his sweet spot—scouting and tactical analysis—and putting in the yards to build credibility in the space. Hard work, diligence and a willingness to build key relationships have all been a factor, but Sam’s ability to recognize his commodity early on and become an authority has greased his path more than anything else.
That’s not a catch-all, because there is a lot more to this area. But achieve these three things early on and you’re giving yourself a chance.
Will Tidey is Senior Manager, Global, at Bleacher Report.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski is one of the best beat reporters in sports media, breaking news constantly as he covers the NBA for Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports 1. In the wake of the NBA Draft last month, GQ ran a Q&A with Woj about how he does his job.
I liked Wojnarowski’s answer when GQ’s Clay Skipper asked him about tweeting out draft picks before they were announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a practice that some fans don’t like. Spoilers!
The way I look at Twitter is this: I know people argue about, you should somehow defer to a television show. The draft is a ceremony. And the decision to draft the guy has already been made. So the news is already there. Would I wait for a team to announce they signed a free agent or announce they made a trade? No. My job is to break it. If I do that, what do they need me for? I don’t care about their television show. It’s a competitor. What do I care? I hope it complicates things. I don’t care. That’s their problem. Not mine.
He also offers a great tip to any reporter who hopes to get good information from sources at crucial times, such as, for an NBA reporter, draft night, the trading deadline or free-agent season:
This job, for me, it’s a 52-week-a-year job. It’s not about cramming. To me, it’s an ongoing conversation that you have to be willing to have for 52 weeks a year. You can’t just call people when you need something. And it’s a two-way street of sharing information. The work you do over the rest of the year sets you up to hopefully have success in these very intense periods.
After the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last week in Cleveland, they celebrated, and Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated wrote about their party.
His piece is a classic of what’s known as fly-on-the-wall reporting. Here’s his lede:
CLEVELAND—The season of splash ended Wednesday at 2:18 a.m., on the loading dock at Quicken Loans Arena, 20 feet from the Warriors bus. Stephen Curry raised both arms, let out a triumphant roar, and in a fit of euphoria lost control of the Heineken in his right hand. He tried to catch the bottle, but it splattered against the cement, leaving a puddle of green shards and Dutch hops. A few of Curry’s teammates, waiting for him outside the bus, saw the final splash. They erupted in applause.
“Him dropping the beer was kind of a fun one because they’re all the same,” Jenkins tells Mark Selig in an audio interview on Selig’s Backstory blog. Jenkins is referring to championship celebrations. He goes on:
When you’ve done one of these you’ve kind of done them all and you’ve seen them all. They follow such a pattern, even what the players say and how the teams react, and the hats and the T-shirts and the champagne bottles and the smells, and you know. But to that team, to those people, it’s unique. To those people it’s something that they’ll remember forever. But you have to find a way to kind of show their joy without painting those scenes that I think for a lot of readers and fans have almost become mundane at this point.
We’ve all seen those champagne celebrations multiple times in multiple sports. Covering another, Jenkins looked for ways to make this one stand out, and he did it with that old writing standy-by: He showed rather than telling. He didn’t ask players how it felt to win the title. He showed them celebrating.
“I’m not quoting people as much as I am just capturing as many scenes as I can,” he says, “just kind of thinking of myself as a camera.”
Jenkins and Selig—a master’s student at the University of Missouri’s journalism school—also discuss Jenkins’ profile of Steve Kerr, which he wrote without having much personal access to the Warriors coach.
How’d he manage that? Listen and find out.
As part of the project of staying current on the media landscape, which we should all do, I always think it’s a good idea to have a look at Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report. This year’s came out late last month.
Meeker is a venture capitalist who issued her first report in 1995, when she was working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley.
The report consists of a 200-slide deck that I find hard to follow without context, so I usually end up reading coverage about the report, rather than the report itself. Here’s Techcrunch’s breakdown of the most important insights.
On the media front, Meeker says she’s excited about five-second mobile ads and notes that “user control of content has grown significantly,” but that the massive growth in internet and smartphone adoption has slowed. Still, adults are spending more than twice as much time per day with digital media than they were just seven years ago, 5.6 hours to 2.7.
She also points out that, based on how much time people spend with various technologies, advertisers are spending way too much on print ads, and not nearly enough on mobile ads.
Dig in. It’s fascinating.
This is a few months old, but I just saw it this week: An Open Letter to Young Journalists by Tamara Keith, NPR’s White House correspondent.
The letter, posted on her personal Adventures in Radioland blog, actually started out as a personal note to a young journalist Keith corresponds with, she writes. But she thought the advice in it was “a really important thing they don’t teach in journalism school or intern orientation,” so she posted it on the blog.
The advice: “Don’t be a pain in the ass.”
Specifically, the advice is to be easy to edit. Don’t be a prima donna with your editor:
Edits can be negotiations. But they should never be battles. Resist all urges to be defensive. Treat every editor as a mentor. Sometimes this is hard to do, especially if you don’t actually have a ton of respect for the editor. But realize you can learn something even from a mediocre editor.
Of course, Keith writes, you can push back, and you should fight to resist errors being inserted into your copy or words being put into your story that you would never write. But “there is always a way to push back without being a jerk about it.”
I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the editor-writer relationship, and I think this is pretty good advice, even though I’m an accommodating, writer-friendly editor and a screaming terror of a writer, willing to go to the mattresses over every last golden comma that emits from my keyboard. I’ve had some poor editors, and I’ve had some great editors, not all of whom I’ve treated well. But I think Keith’s right: I either did or should have learned something from every one of them.
On the other hand, I’m not sure about this judgment from Keith. Writing about working with interns on a podcast she used to produce, she says:
The people who were somewhat unpleasant to edit, or fought over every word or came off like they knew it all … I’ve watched their careers derail. Not a single person who I edited who I thought “damn, I didn’t enjoy that and I’d rather not edit them again,” not one of them has had a successful career in public radio or even journalism.
I think that’s a sample size issue. I can think of a few young writers I found unpleasant to edit, uncooperative, not as good as they thought they were, who went on to successful writing careers—sometimes with me as a fond reader. I don’t think being a pain in the ass during the editing process necessarily derails a career.
But it does mean you have to be that much better than writers who aren’t one. And it makes the workday of at least two people more unpleasant than it needs to be. So my advice is to at least try Tamara Keith’s advice. Don’t be a pain in the ass for a while. See how it works.
I might even try it myself.
Butterworth is, as CJR describes him in its headline, “the man who wants to help journalists with numbers.”
As the editor of STATS.org, Butterworth has long facilitated an informal advice-giving process for journalists in need of numerical guidance. But it’s only in the last month that the official advisory board became active, after a collaboration with the British charity Sense About Science and the American Statistical Association allowed the site to expand its reach.
Here’s Butterworth writing on Stats.org’s about page:
Now, everything is becoming a data point, and everything is becoming searchable and analyzable. Instead of hypotheses seeking data, billions of data points seek hypotheses. As we once looked to the stars, we now look to databases to reveal new truths about the universe and our place within it.
Statistics is the only way to hold this new empiricism accountable; statistics is—in our information age—the new journalism. Which is, presently, a problem. If you are a statistician you are unlikely to engage in journalism in a serious way, and if you are a journalist you are unlikely to engage in statistics in a serious way.
He’s talking about covering science and healthcare there, two fields where numbers are thrown around—and manipulated—a lot. But the sentiment applies across journalism, including in sports, where numbers are everywhere, and they’re often manipulated by someone trying to make a point.
The site’s blog offers examples of numerical watchdogging that illustrate ways of getting at the question that forms the basis for all data journalism: “Is this really true?”
As Digiday’s Brian Morrissey notes, Delaney wrote many 800-word pieces during his 12 years with the Wall Street Journal. Now, though, Delaney sees the form as a problem in digital media, because digital media isn’t newspapers:
What people read online, when you look at the data, is shorter stuff that’s focused, creative and social with a really good headline. It doesn’t mean it’s unsubstantial. It just means it’s really clear about what’s interesting and focuses on that. A lot of the 800-word stories have been padded out with the B matter. It’s called B matter because it’s B grade, not A matter, which is the focal point of the story.
Here’s a funny thing: A commenter points out that the Digiday story summarizing the podcast interview is 802 words, though my count was 764. At the moment I saw the piece, the lead story on Quartz, Stop comparing Pamela Geller to the murdered staffers of Charlie Hebdo, clocked in at about 780.
The 800-word article is pretty useful. Remember this B/R Blog post from last fall, also based on a Digiday piece? It talked about how Chartbeat data found that when it comes to user engagement, the ideal length for digital stories was around 700 to 800 words. Was it a coincidence that the the classic newspaper story, created without the ability to measure reader behavior, also averaged about that length? Or did the newspaper folks in the old days intuitively understand how people read?
Do you think the 800-word article has got to go? Or is it in our bones?
It’s been fun to watch the rest of the journalism world catch up to sports in its interest in numbers over the last few years. Sportswriters have been working with numbers for more than a century, but only recently have the non-sports types become fascinated with “data journalism.” Some of the splashiest news startups of the last few years, including Vox and FiveThirtyEight, have been centered on numbers and data.
In fact, the non-sports folks may be ahead of the sports folks in the data game.
Martha Kang of PBS Media Shift writes that It’s Time For Every Journalist To Learn Basic Data Skills, and gives several examples of even small news operations doing more interesting things with data than even the most sophisticated sports sites.
Kang offers some advice:
For those who haven’t delved into data, the first step is to simply commit to try. Even if you need additional training, you won’t know what you need until you start.
Pick something small, simple, and silly as your first project; you don’t have to attempt a huge database or a five-part series. A list of names — most popular dog names, baby names, etc. — could be a good place to start.
Or not. But we can translate those silly non-sports suggestions to something sports-related. Kang continues:
Once you’re ready to tell the story, think about how you’ll visualize the numbers to drive home the point. Show too little, and the reader may not see the bigger picture. Conversely, show too much, and you lose focus. Highlight portions. Don’t make the reader dig through the numbers to find the story, but do allow them a chance to engage.
What’s a question you can answer, or a story you can tell, with data?
So now that this blog isn’t daily, I’ve fallen into this bad habit of seeing something interesting, thinking, “That would make a nice quick blog post,” saving it—and then, without the daily deadline, forgetting it.
So I’ve got a backlog of interesting tidbits. I’ll present them as a roundup today, and pledge that I will be more conscientious about heading straight to the blog when I see something interesting.
Felix Salmon’s report on the death of journalism as a career is greatly exaggerated by David Cohn, Digidave.
Remember a couple of months ago when Salmon, the former Reuters business reporter who’s now at Fusion, posted a letter to all the young journalists who ask him for advice? His message was tough, telling young journos it’s “almost impossible to make a decent living at this game.”
That spawned a day of other journalists responding on social media under the hashtag #AdviceForYoungJournalists, which remains intermittently interesting, if you can get past some relentless anti-Dalai Lama spamming.
Cohn, who has worked at Circa and AJPlus since founding the pioneering crowd-sourcing news funding site SpotUs, doesn’t buy Salmon’s premise. I’ll let you read his post to see why, but Cohn argues that building skills and knowledge is valuable even in a world of constant disruption.
“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this. by Jay Rosen, PressThink
This is a little wonky, perhaps, but important. Rosen, an NYU journalism professor and prominent media critic, argues that Facebook is being disingenuous with its answers to questions about how it designs its News Feed algorithm. Facebook is a powerful player in the news ecosystem, and seems to want to argue that it’s not. Rosen’s argument is consistent with his view on bias in journalistic writing, which is that there’s no such thing as “We don’t have a point of view.”
If you’re part of the news ecosystem, you have to at least try to understand how the big players work, and there aren’t many players bigger than Facebook. Mathew Ingram of Forbes helps on that score with this story about Facebook changing News Feed.
Millennials Aren’t Buying More Cars, There Are Just More Millennials by Joe Cortright, Jalopnik
Finally, a classic case of “be careful when you do math.” Cortright takes the Atlantic and Bloomberg to task for getting basic stats wrong when writing about how Millennials are just as interested in buying cars as earlier generations. The evidence: Millennials buy more cars. But, as Cortright points out, there are more Millennials. If you do a little simple division, you find out that, per person, Millennials buy fewer cars than previous generations.
Sportswriters work with numbers all the time. Literally. This post is a great reminder of an important lesson: Do the math, yes, and make sure you’re math is correct, but also make sure you’re doing the right math. And if at all possible, have someone who’s pretty good at math check your math, and confirm you’re doing the right math.