Before we start, here is a warning. Things are going to get meta. And I’ll have to discuss my own life. Please be assured, as anyone who gets a glimpse of the brief and unsatisfactory story that is my pay cheque would attest, there is no triumphalism here. What’s troubling me is the article on the Sports Journalists’ Association website entitled ‘How do I become a sports journalist’ by Keith Elliott, the SJA’s training adviser. It’s been there for five years. It may have been out of date when it was written. The fact that it’s still sitting there now is beyond frustrating. But much worse, it’s potentially damaging to the very people it purports to help. Consider the opening lines:
“Wish I had a pound for everyone who comes to see me saying: ‘I’d like a job in sports journalism.’ Sadly, their qualifications rarely match their ambitions. For many, it comes as a surprise that watching Match of the Day and being a member of Plymouth Argyle Supporters’ Club are not enough to have The Times offering huge sums for their undoubted talents. I don’t know what careers officers are telling today’s kids, but it’s a pile of the stuff left behind in the stables after Cheltenham Festival. Yes, you can get a job on Sky Sports, FourFourTwo or The Sun sports desk – if your dad’s the editor. Otherwise? No chance. They don’t take beginners.”
Anecdotal evidence isn’t always helpful in refuting an argument but in this instance you’ll have to indulge me. I work for Sky Sports as a football feature writer. It’s my first full-time writing job. And yet, my dad is a retired mechanic from Wolverhampton. He’s not the editor of Sky Sports. In fact, I had no contacts in the industry. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did have some contacts. I wrote a blog. I was a blogger. Here we come to the crux of the issue. You might think blogging is a significant development in the recent history of journalism, particularly at the aspirational end of the scale, but it’s not mentioned once in Elliott’s article. Magazines and websites, meanwhile, get one line:
“The days of knocking on an editor’s door and getting a job because he (it was always a ‘he’ in those days) liked your nerve are long gone. Editors want people who are immediately useful, rather than enthusiastic amateurs. The latter are a liability: they work too slowly, miss out key facts, can’t spell or punctuate and make too many mistakes. So don’t even bother applying unless you’re coming to me with the core skills. But how do you acquire them? By working on a newspaper, magazine or website, dummy.”
Amateur it may be, but there are a lot of skills you can gather from blogging that are highly relevant. Firstly, there are the implied skills that any potential employer can quickly assume. You’re a self-starter, enthusiastic and committed. You have some experience of content management systems and HTML. Perhaps most crucially, as an employer you get to try before you buy. Magazine editors offering freelance work have a portfolio they can peruse. Through your Twitter presence, websites can get a feel for the extent your ideas will resonate and find a ready-made audience.
Websites, Twitter, magazines and broadcasting companies. It’s not real journalism though is it? As John Humphrys said this week: “Reporters matter above all others. The reporters on the road that report. You can do without almost everyone else.” Having noted the way experienced hacks lose interest in offering a word of advice once it emerges I work for Sky rather than the Croydon Advertiser, it seems there is a certain prevailing snobbery when it comes to the new way of doing things. But while the current generation might be a product of local papers, there are other routes.
Michael Cox is perhaps the finest example of parlaying a blog into a journalism career, writing for the Guardian and elsewhere, but there are others: Jack Pitt-Brooke at the Independent, Ed Malyon and Jack Lang at the Mirror. Andi Thomas does great stuff online. Let’s face it, even Matt Stanger is almost making a living. Elsewhere in the football industry, there is Chris Mann at Prozone, Chris Mayer at Opta and many more. Ultimately, it would be foolish to overlook, as Elliott apparently does, (a) the changes brought about by new media, and (b) the importance of specialist knowledge in a niche area such as sport:
“Subject knowledge is important. But would you know what to do if a fire broke out in the ground and dozens of people were trapped? Could you file a running story? If you had been covering the Munich Olympics when members of the Israeli team were taken hostage, would you have had the wit to dress as an athlete (as the late John Rodda did) and get into the Athletes’ Village? That’s why you need to learn the core journalistic skills.
“Imagine a giant house, with a huge party going on. Inside the house are lots of rooms with Art, Sport, Political, Foreign, Theatre and so on written on the doors. You knock on the door. A bouncer the size of a redwood answers. ‘You can’t come in unless you’re a journalist,’ he growls. You wanna join the sports writers? Was that the pop of Dom Perignon from their room? Then you’ve got to get through the main door.”
He paints a vivid picture and it’s a view being supported in classrooms all around the country. When I was studying for the NCTJ qualification – pertinently, one I’m not convinced my current employer or indeed any of the editors for whom I’ve freelanced are even aware I possess – I was also writing for When Saturday Comes and FourFourTwo. It felt incongruous to be getting paid for this but then being told on work experience at the Stafford Newsletter that five years of court reporting would be expected before I got to cover my first Stafford Rangers game.
Maybe I’d be a better journalist if I had done it that way. The grammatical errors in this piece might be less. Or fewer. Or something like that. I’m not saying this is a better way. But aspiring sports journalists should know that it is a way. Otherwise you risk spending a fortune you can’t afford on a three-year journalism degree and a further five years earning a pittance on your local paper only to discover that all the jobs have gone to Michael Cox and his buddies because they spent that time getting to know the subject you’d wanted to do all along. What a shame if young people are led down an unnecessarily costly and meandering path to their career of choice or – even worse – discouraged from a career in sports journalism altogether based on outdated information.