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 :)

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