Have you a nose for a good story?
Will a newspaper be able to rely upon you to come back with all the information if a story breaks when you’re at a match? If your club’s longest-serving player gets sent off for abusing fans, will you spot that it is an interesting angle for your local paper? Are you prepared to fight through other journalists to get an interview with him after the game?
In addition to being able to write coherently - and, most importantly, to a set brief and a set number of words by a set time - you also have to know enough about the sport to be able to come up with plenty of ideas all the time that no-one else has thought of. You won’t always be contacted by the paper and commissioned to do things. Sports journalism can be as tough as any journalism, despite the perception that the political and ‘hard news’ journalists are taken seriously on newspapers. This is simply not true any more. The sports journalists are as passionate, enthusiastic and committed to writing about sport, uncovering the truths about sport and exposing malpractice in sport as the current affairs reporters are.
There are always contemporary politics which affect sports, and sports issues tend to reflect the general issues of the time. For example, while the South African apartheid problem was being examined on the front pages, there was a very real overlap into sport. As sporting teams refused to tour there, and players who went over there were black-listed from competing for Britain, sport found itself dragged into the major political debate of the day.
Sometimes sport can set the news agenda for the day…like in the Hillsborough tragedy or the case of Lance Armstrong and drug taking in cycling. But angles won’t always be so glaringly obvious, and in every match, interview, feature or news item there will also be a smaller, individual ‘angle’ which you will have to learn to spot. If you miss an obvious ‘hook’ for an article, this could result in the whole piece looking flat and untimely so that it may not make it into the paper. If you have never written for a news publication before, the best way to work on looking for angles is described earlier in this chapter in relation to writing skills. Have a go and compare your results with those of a professional. Watch a match and decide what you think was the most important factor in that match. Then have a look at a printed match report, and see whether the professional journalists agree with your decision.
Later on, I'll look at how you put a sports piece together, but being able to spot what is the most important angle can depend as much on your knowledge of the sport and its participants as on your news sense.
What is considered ‘newsy’ depends as much on the publication you’re writing for as the story itself. Like most things in journalism, the bottom line is common-sense, but you do also need to understand the sport to spot opportunities. For example, if you go to a rugby match and see the man with the No. 1 shirt on his back kicking, you may not be particularly interested if you don’t know very much about rugby. If you understand the sport, though, you’ll realise that No. 1 is a prop and one of the most unlikely candidates for a kicker. The fact that the prop was kicking would definitely be worth investigating with the club afterwards - ask them if he always kicks; if not, where’s the usual kicker?
The more knowledge you have and the more research you do, the more unique angles you’ll spot immediately. For example, a few phone calls after a match in which someone called Liam Botham was playing informed a key journalist that Liam was indeed a relation of Ian Botham - a nice angle, and one which others did not pick up on. Liam went on to become a good rugby player, but in the early days a quick-witted reporter got a good story which made all the nationals in addition to television and radio news.
What’s your USP?
In business it’s known as a USP - a Unique Selling Proposition. It describes what it is about a business’s product that makes it unique in the market. As you try to sell yourself to an editor, you too should have a USP. What makes you stand out from the crowd? Why should anyone employ you when there are so many aspiring writers around?
In journalism, you may find yourself being asked to sell yourself more than you would in most job interviews. This is because you will not just be having a ‘loose connection’ with the product which your employers are selling - in journalism, unlike in most industries, you are that product. You’re not going to be tucked away in some back room with no public contact; you are vitally important, because your words will make up the product and will therefore help to decide whether the product sells, whether advertisers are interested, and whether the company makes money or folds.
You create the whole purpose of the magazine’s or newspaper’s existence; therefore they have to make sure you’re right and worth using. It’s about more than the money they’re paying you - it’s about the publication’s whole prestige. They’re not going to let you loose on their readers if they can’t trust you - and like every other industry in the world they haven’t got time to waste - so they want to make sure that you know what you’re doing, and they want to be able to let you get on with it without them having to check everything you write.
In order to convince people that you are unique and worth investing in, you should have a specific area in which you feel you are unique or at least have enormous experience. Perhaps you’re a former top-class player, or a coach at a leading club; or perhaps you can also take photographs, do cartoons, or sketch. Make sure you promote this as much as you can. Anything you can utilise to sound ‘different’ will help - your experience, the fact that you know everyone at the local club or used to serve on a committee, the fact that you once wrote a novel - anything at all. Then, when you talk to editors, it gives you something positive with which to sell yourself and it gives you a promotional tool when you come to write your letter. The newspaper or magazine may use your uniqueness when they come to use your work, for example: ‘by former international hockey player, Jane Sixsmith’. They get reflected credibility, and you get work. Find yourself a USP - it definitely helps.
Do you have a real passion for the sport?
Playing a sport and enjoying it socially is very different from committing your working life to it. If you work full time on a particular sport it can soon lose its charm, especially if every phone call, every conversation and every picture you see, and every word you read or say revolves around it.
Does every area of the sport - from new coaching and fitness techniques to the latest wrangles over club finances and fixture clashes - excite you? Are you interested enough to watch everything you can about a sport? And talk to everyone you come across? You really will find your-self living and breathing sport if you pursue your ambition to become a sports journalist.
Every journalist will tell you that they’re never off duty. If a local news journalist drives past an accident he’ll always pull over to find out what’s going on. He’ll look for an eyewitness or get an exclusive ‘on-the-spot’ report. What is different about sports journalism is that the vast majority of the bread-and-butter, day-to-day stuff takes place in anti-social hours. You will find yourself working evenings and weekends as a matter of course; and that’s before you start chasing any specific stories. The hours in sport can be extremely long because whilst the base of your work takes place during evenings and weekends, the mechanics of putting together a publication take place between 9.00 a.m. and 9.00 p.m.
Getting hold of people for quotes and interviews, particularly if you’ve only got work numbers for them, also takes place during the day. If you’re not completely obsessed with your sport, and willing to pour every waking hour into writing and researching, thinking and talking about it, you will find yourself getting very resentful of the enormous amount of commitment that’s required.
Getting a ‘scoop’ once in a while is wonderful, but accuracy is the cornerstone of good journalism, and it is absolutely vital that you learn to check, double check and triple check everything.
You can’t afford to get peoples’ names wrong or use inaccurate statistics. If you’re not a perfectionist you may find it difficult to remember the importance of it, but the first time you make a mistake and the letters flood into the newspaper you’ll learn a valuable lesson about how carefully sports fans read their publications.
It’s not only statistics and names that have to be checked every time you interview someone. If anyone gives you information, you always have to check it because even though it’s not your mistake, if your name’s on the piece it’s always your responsibility.
In sport, since much of the information is accrued through phone calls, collating results, getting team news, etc. - you need to make sure that every name you take over the phone is spelled out, and you need to double check any odd-sounding names with a separate source (the club, or ideally the person themselves). Anyone who’s been misquoted, had their name misspelled or been referred to erroneously will know how frustrating it can be. Since in local sport you come across the same people week after week, you can’t afford to upset anyone, let alone run the risk of legal action.