Wednesday, October 14, 2009

String theory

These days, sites such as will let anyone claim to be covering major pro and college sports.

Guess what: No newspaper editor with hiring authority will ever care one whit about your work on those sites. They probably won't want to see clips from them, and they may even consider the fact that you submitted that as professional work to be a flaw in your judgment.

So how is a young go-getter to find a chance to cover some games, outside of the college paper?

Stringing. Everybody needs stringers. There are a lot more prep games out there than prep reporters. Call all the newspapers within driving distance and ask them if they need someone to string for them. During football and basketball seasons, I can almost guarantee they do. Not only that, but keep an eye on local prep schedules for games you can offer to string for the visiting teams' newspapers. Maybe your Podunk News doesn't need someone to cover Podunk High, but Crossstate Rival High is visiting, and the Crossstate Rival Digest doesn't want to pay their reporter to drive four hours for the game. But they'd love some first-hand accounts, so call up their newsroom, ask for the sports editor and make your pitch!

Here's some tips about stringing:

1) Be upfront about your abilities and experience. As an assignment editor, I can work with almost anything. It'd be nice if you were a good writer (and one who knew how to write a sports gamer), but if you can ask the questions I tell you to ask and record the box score information I want, then that's enough for me.

2) Act professionally. Journalists take their code of ethics seriously, even sports journalists. This means no cheering and no conflicts of interest. Don't offer to cover your son's team, or your old high school that you cheer shamelessly for. Don't wear school colors. Act as if you don't care who won the game.

3) Get there early and introduce yourself to the coach. Say something like "Hi, I'm John, I'm covering this game for the Podunk Press tonight. I wanted to let you know I'll be looking for you after the game. Do you mind if I roam the sidelines during the game?"

4) Find out if the newspaper can use photos as well, and tack on an extra $10 to your fee for some. You'll need a digital camera that can be set to high resolution photos, and preferably one where you can control the shutter speed. Don't be surprised if your first attempts come out unusable: shooting sports is hard. Some basic photo tips: Try to keep the ball, puck, whatever, in frame at all times. Make sure the main subject of the photo is facing you. Flash is useless outdoors, and for your skill level, you'll probably only be able to get usable photos early in a football game when the outdoor light is excellent. You'll need to set your shutter speed for at least 125 and preferably 250 in order to freeze the action of a football or basketball game. You'll need to go up to 400 for baseball or volleyball.

5) If you want to do this regularly, invest in a handheld recorder, otherwise taking notes is fine. Just do your best to make sure that every quote is word for word.

6) Negotiate your fee up front and make it clear when and how you will get paid. For a first-time stringer with little experience, $25 is probably a reasonable price for your story. You could triple that if they know you are talented and reliable after a few assignments.

7) During the game, take some notes on interesting things that happened, especially turning points and strong individual performances. This can be your "lead," the angle you open the story with. Take note of the jersey number of the players doing the best, so that you can ask the coach for them after the game.

8) Don't be surprised if the editor rewrites your story completely, especially the lead. Sorry, we've been doing this a lot longer. Most new writers tend to fall heavily back on cliches and Sportscenter catchphrases, and we'll try to scrub those out.

9) Ask the editor for a sample of a box score that paper prints from that sport, so you know what information to record.

10) Every coach has a different preference, but if you don't know the coach, the best way to approach talking to athletes is through them. Usually you'll meet the coach walking off the court or outside the locker room. When you are done with your questions to the coach, ask him or her "Could you grab #35 for me, he had a big game and I'd like to talk to him?"

11) Unless the coach invites you in, high-school lockerrooms are off-limits.

12) Consider your audience and your subjects. You need to be objective, but there's nothing wrong with emphasizing the hometown team's successes over their failures. Especially remember if you are covering preps that these are minors and 18-year-olds, so focus on the positive and be careful reporting things such as injuries, which could be considered private medical information. At the college level, the gloves come off a little more.

E-mail me at if you have any questions :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Where to look

In case you didn't know, here's the only two places you really need to look for sports writing job listings:

This site should have most job listings.

This site will be where job openings are discussed candidly (and usually, though not always, anonymously) by the true industry insiders.

That said, these are just a starting point. The real place to be is your own network of contacts. Most job openings can expect several dozen applicants at a bare minimum, and sometimes the count goes into the hundreds. That's a lot of work for a sports editor just to pick through them, so often jobs aren't being formally advertised. It's a small business, and people know who is good and who isn't. Make sure they know you.

Don't cut corners

The best advice I ever heard about looking for a job was that you should treat the search as a full-time job in itself.

How much job searching can you do in a 40-hour week? How thorough can you be? A lot and very.

Is your resume spotless? Are you sure those are your best clips? Have you scoured for every possible contact and opening? How much time did you spend on your most recent cover letter?

If you have an interview, do the research. For my first job interview, I was expected to take a quiz matching the towns and nicknames of the 15 local high schools the paper covered. I got about half right just by guesses and alliteration, and although I later got the job, my new boss told me that I'd almost been disqualified right there. He couldn't believe that I hadn't taken the time do research the paper before driving three hours for the interview. And he was right. Why hadn't I? Sure, I'd been a busy college student. But if finding a newspaper job was as important to me as I'd said, I would have done it.

Never leave a stone unturned. It's easy to say, and I'm sure everyone reading this is nodding their heads right now. But only a small fraction of people do it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's brutal out there

So you want to work the press box, eh?

I'm sorry to tell you that you've picked the worst possible time to get into sportswriting. It's awful out there. Really awful. There are more talented journalists laid off each year than there are new jobs, and that's even before you start adding a few thousand eager college grads to the market.

I think that's the most important thing to know: That the odds are stacked against you.

That said, it can be done! You have to be, to borrow from Scrooge McDuck, "Smarter than the Smarties and Tougher than the Toughies."

A few years ago, even, it was possible to break into the business for almost anyone, as long as you were willing to start low enough. I got my start at a paper with a circulation of less than 5,000, in a town so remote that the publisher almost tried to talk me out of taking the job out of hiring me, because she was just trying so hard to make sure I understood how far away from civilization I'd be so that I wouldn't arrive and then quit. I was the only one to apply for the job.

Now, even those jobs get 50 applicants the first day they post a job opening. But that's very likely where you'll be starting. Is your love of sports journalism that great? Are you willing to move halfway across the country to some forsaken farm town to cover basketball games between two schools with a combined enrollment under 100?

Great! Here's a little good news to end it on: While the bottom of the job barrel is no longer so easy to scrape, the top of it is no longer quite the long haul it used to be. Getting to the big time used to be like working your way up through the minor leagues in baseball: a long, slow process. You stopped at progressively larger papers every 3-5 years, and after four or five such stops, you were working at a major metro.

These days, on the very rare occasion that a major metro is hiring, they don't care that much about experience. They mostly just want someone young and cheap. If you are truly more talented and a better interview than a few hundred other applicants, then having just a few years experience is enough to get a major pro or college beat!