Rob Steen finds that determination can count for much when trying to start a career in sports journalism
Ahmer Khokhar and I met a decade ago in the Lordâ€™s press box. I had overheard a young Asian man sitting quietly at the back being harangued by an experienced journalist who had objected to his presence as a â€œnon-journalistâ€. The reporter in question, while a good friend, should, I felt, have known better than to trample on a young manâ€™s dream, and duly apprised him of this.
First, though, I went over to introduce myself and tell the young man. A recent university graduate, he kept me abreast of his myriad troubles. I have never met anyone more determined. Come 2006, Ahmer was earning a decent living from Melbourne, reporting for a variety of national and regional titles in Britain, India and Australasia. A precarious, hand-to-mouth existence had blossomed into a regular supply of commissions. In pursuing his goal, he has observed the essential unwritten tenets of the freelance.
I could fill another book on this subject alone, but, for now, here are the Alternative Ten Commandments:
1, Donâ€™t go for the obvious angle, or even the second most obvious â€“ the newspaperâ€™s staff correspondents will probably have both covered;
2, Once you have had one article published in a particular newspaper or magazine, and established a working relationship, keep offering more ideas
3, Do not, however, bombard desks with so many ideas that they invite suspicion as to depth of thought or, worse, you are labelled a pest (the tell-tale sign is silence: as somebody, probably Woody Allen, once observed of the movie industry, this is not so much a dog-eat-dog world as dog-doesnâ€™t-return-dogâ€™s calls);
4, Look for niches in which you can specialise, the more the merrier;
5, Recycle and re-angle stories for different markets, always ensuring every client receives something different;
6, Never kick up a fuss when your copy is rewritten â€“ accept and move on;
7, Never, unless you have ethical objections, or the fee is too insignificant or offered by an unreliable source, decline a commission;
8, Always chase payments (which can be notoriously and disgracefully slow), targeting the accounts department or even the managing editor if necessary, but not so forcefully that you anger and alienate â€“ unless, that is, your bank manager absolutely insists;
9, If one door closes, batter down another;
10, Treat rough and smooth with equal mistrust
â€œI started by interviewing Australian cricketers playing county and league cricket and selling the results to the corresponding regional newspapers in the UK,â€ relates Ahmer. â€œIt was hard work but proved to be profitable as I was able to write follow-up articles and also season previews and reviews. I suddenly discovered a niche market for my work that nobody knew existed.
â€œAlso, in Australia there are several high-profile former Gaelic footballers at Australian Rules football clubs. In general the Irish broadsheets had very few if any writers in Australia so I started to freelance for the Irish daily and Sunday papers which helped to establish me as an Australian correspondent for both Irish and British regional papers.
â€œAt this stage my focus was purely sport but a reduction in the numbers of Australians in county cricket and a lack of work from British nationals – some of whom still insist on receiving copy on spec – resulted in my expanding into news, politics and business stories.
â€œI now have regular customers in the form of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English papers who agree â€“ as well they ought – to pay kill fees for unpublished work. Last year  I was also published on a weekly basis in one of Australiaâ€™s biggest Sunday papers, the Sun Herald. I discovered there was a huge demand for interviews with Australian cricketers, many of whom knew me from my days of interviewing them for British regional papers.
â€œItâ€™s been an amazing turnaround when I consider that less than five years ago I was living in Manchester as a frustrated medical sales representative. Despite the difficulties â€“ no holidays for one thing – I have no regrets and I know that I am one of the lucky ones who is doing a job he loves and whose dreams have come true.â€
SJA member Rob Steen is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. This is an edited version of a chapter from Steen’s forthcoming book, Sports Journalism – A Multimedia Primer, to be published by Routledge in August