Understanding the publication and its market
There is a big difference between preparing an article for The Telegraph and writing a piece for a local newspaper. The latter requires a strong local angle and information that is relevant to local residents; whereas the former has to interest people all over Britain, so it has to focus on much wider, national issues.
You need to understand the specific demands of the publication you want to write for, and exactly what they want from their journalists. In addition to understanding who the publication is targeting, you also need to understand the complexities of the market-place in which it is operating. For example, who is its keenest competitor and how does it compare to its rivals? Is it the market leader? How is it positioned in the market? It’s useful to think of these things in terms of style, design, price and content. Look at things like the cover of a magazine or the front page of a newspaper. The advertisements will also give you an idea of where the newspaper is pitching itself. What promotions do they run? What pictures? Are they all stock photos, or is every photo shoot specially commissioned? Do they do any branding or merchandising? Try to get an impression about the whole package and who they are gearing themselves to.
The most common complaint I have when I receive feature ideas from students, is: “Don’t they read the publication? We’d never run something like that,” or “We did that two weeks ago”. The very least a sports editor expects is that you will know about the publication that you are aspiring to write for. You will instantly alienate an editor if you write to him or her suggesting an interview with a player if it turns out that the player is a columnist for the magazine, and has been involved with them for years.
So study the publication or publications you want to write for in great detail. You have to be sure to understand exactly who they target, what areas they cover and what their aims are.
Have you got good contacts?
Do you have a little black book brimming with telephone numbers? Or, at the very least, do you know whose numbers it would be useful to have, and how to get hold of them if you need to? Do you know who you should be cultivating a friendly working relationship with? You must be fairly involved in sport, or think you would like to be, to be reading this in the first place; but do you know the people who make the decisions in your chosen sport? Could you call on them for quotes? Interviews? News and views? At any time?
Having contacts does not always mean having a direct line to Alan Shearer’s house. It means knowing how easily you can get hold of the key people in your particular area when you need them. Having lots of contacts is obviously better than having one main contact - that person may leave. Developing contacts is one of the most important parts of the job.
Every time a new person joins the club, or a new manager, coach or official is appointed, you will have to make yourself known to them. Most journalists have a bulging contacts book, and know who all the key people to get to know are. No-one will expect you to arrive for an interview on a local paper with fantastic international sporting and media contacts, but if you want very quickly to become a correspondent for a particular sport, you will have to develop contacts rapidly. If your aim is to write for a bigger paper or specialist magazine, you will be expected to arrive with an impressive list of contacts. The only way to develop contacts is to keep going to sports events - and to keep talking to people.
The more people you know, the more stories you’ll get. It's that simple. The usefulness of your contacts depends on them as individuals and what their attitude to the press is, as well as on what your relationship with them is like and how effectively you can ‘court’ them. Good contacts are invaluable - never underestimate them.
Knowledge of the sport
It’s no good aspiring to be the world’s leading golf correspondent if you don’t know the difference between a birdie and an eagle, and don't know what separates the great players from the rest. Being able to play off an impressive handicap is all very admirable, but the reality of sports journalism is that at midnight in the office you have to be able to recognise the 14th- placed Scottish golfer by the back of his head for a picture caption.
Even if all you’re doing is writing an infrequent golf blog, you need to understand the sport you’re writing about and the people who play it. How much of an expert are you? Make yourself an expert - it’s vitally important. Have opinions, feel passionate. Know the characters, know the news stories, understand the politics, or you’ll come unstuck.
It’s not just basic information that you need at your disposal. Knowing who is the best squash player and which racquets you think are the best will not give you enough knowledge to head up a squash magazine. Who are the best players and why are they the best? What are their major achievements; why are these achievements so important? Know the stories of the characters you’re writing about, aim to understand them and what motivates them, so you can bring colour to your writing.
As a journalist you will have to delve far deeper into the sport than knowing about an individual race or event. You will need to know the ‘ins and outs’ of a player’s route to the event: for example, when did they win certain matches? What were the scores? Ask yourself too how the sport is developing and who makes the decisions.
Do you think you’re an authority on your chosen sport? You really need to be able to impress with your understanding of it if you want to be taken seriously.
It’s not just the top sportsmen and women that you have to know about. Discover the ones coming up the ranks - the players of the future. For instance, you may know what time Linford Christie completed his last eight races in, and what his World Record is, but do you know who finished further down the order and how he has been progressing since? If you write to a national newspaper and tell them you’d like to do a feature on Linford Christie, they’re not going to take you seriously. It’s something they’ve already thought about and done a million times. Their athletics correspondent probably knows him personally and there’s no way that they would use you to write an article rather than him. If, however, you research carefully and discover that there’s a youngster coming up through the ranks who is emulating Linford Christie’s times, you may be able to sell a feature on him to an athletics magazine or to a local newspaper. Try to think of new ideas and fresh angles. Thinking of stories with a difference can be one of the most difficult parts of being a journalist, but if you really understand your sport and are enthusiastic and eager to find out more, you will find that there are dozens of unexplored avenues. Talk to people, read all you can and watch all you can. Keep your eyes and ears peeled at all times. I got a piece into The Times about the England rugby doctor after I discovered that he was practising in the area I had moved to, and I decided to register with him. Over a period of time I managed to get him to talk about life behind the scenes with the team. If I had not known his name, I would never have got the story. Do you know the names of all the ancillary staff in your sport?