First rule of journalism: read and research

SJA Secretary STEVEN DOWNES wades through recent student emails demanding careers advice

It must be that time of year, with university applications or GCSE option decisions coming up. In the past couple of weeks, the SJA emailbox has received an unusual raft of enquiries from students and pupils who think they want to become sports journalists.

The insistence of some of our correspondents is, frankly, astonishing in its barefaced cheek.

“I am in the fourth”, yes, that’s right, fourth, “year of my journalism degree course and am doing a dissertation on sports journalism. Can you answer these 37 questions? My deadline’s tomorrow.”

Or there’s the “I’m in Year 11 and regularly do match reports of our school team because I am desperate to become a sports journalist. Can I send the reports to you?” To which the immediate answer is “No!”

Or there’s, “For my project I am doing something on women in sports journalism,” we get at least six of these every year. There’s no such thing as original thought. “Can you write it for me?”

All right, I might be extemporising slightly in one or two of those examples. But you get the drift. Because the real gobsmacker in all of these enquiries from apparently budding journalists is the absolute lack of any self-reliance, or the simple ability to demonstrate that the most basic amount of preliminary research has been conducted.

It is as if the pupils and students, so used to copying out of text books or cutting and pasting from websites throughout their school or college careers, expect someone else to do their work for them.

For several years now, this website has offered, freely, an entire section of careers advice for wannabe journalists, much of it provided by the SJA’s training consultant, Keith Elliott, who has decades of experience in delivering training courses for post-graduates making the next step towards journalism. Other useful articles have also been contributed by working journalists and trainers with many years of experience, such as SJA member Rob Steen, who lectures in sports journalism at Brighton University.

Our less-than-studious correspondents rarely appear to have taken the trouble to delve into any of this valuable advice. Despite Keith’s best efforts, we still receive requests for advice that are badly written, full of txt-speak and sometimes bordering on the illiterate.

As Keith has pointed out in several of his articles, the glamour and the glitz of sports journalism often sees our wannabe sports hacks ignore the basic requirements or fail to appreciate certain simple first principles for entering the profession.

One of the things that Keith stresses regularly is the need for a good standard university degree – not necessarily in journalism; in fact, some recommend a degree not in journalism at all. For the younger teenagers that contact us, he suggests a start with a set of good grades across a range of subjects at A Level.

The fundamental tenet is that you will need to become a journalist, first and foremost. And you need to get experience.

You might even want to volunteer for some work on the school magazine/newspaper. You might want to seek work experience placings with a local newspaper or hospital radio station during the summer holidays. You need to demonstrate that you have gone out and done something to underline your ambition.

Writing match reports at this stage is fine, but, as Evelyn Waugh once put it, up to a point, Lord Copper. You actually just need to write and write and write – and your course work ought to demand that you do plenty of that. Think of every essay as a training session for your first live match report.

Other than that, you should read, outside your coursework, as much as possible. Fiction and non-fiction. Books on journalism and works of complete fantasy.

Read Bill Bryson – Letters from a Small Island is a good start, but also his English language primer. Read Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, especially if you are one of the near-illiterates who has yet to work out where capital letters ought to go in a sentence or that plurals don’t require apostrophes.

Read Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Read All the President’s Men, by Woodward and Bernstein. Read Tell Me No Lies, by John Pilger. Read Pratt of the Argus, by David Nobbs.

Read Dickens. Read Wodehouse. Read Kingsley Amis. Read Graham Greene.

And in the newspapers, read Patrick Collins (Mail on Sunday), Matthew Parris (The Times), Matthew Engel (FT), Martin Johnson (Sunday Times), Martin Kelner (Guardian), John Cross (Daily Mirror), Kevin Mitchell (Observer) or Tom Humphries (The Irish Times).