How do you become a sports journalist?

Just to let you know that we at the SJA think about you too, with membership of our ‘SJA Academy’ available to those looking to take their first steps in the industry. Sportsbeat’s James Toney writes on why this job ‘beats working’.

What is more competitive than the Olympic 100m final? Answer: covering the Olympic 100m final. Perhaps it is appropriate that a profession that spends so much time judging people against the clock, or each other, should be so difficult to break into.

You need to do your training, serve your apprenticeship, persevere, dedicate not deviate, and then, when the time comes, seize your chance.

And a bit of luck along the way helps too – not unlike those you aspire to cover. There is no harm in dreaming big and aiming high – provided you are prepared to start small and lowly.

Every year sports journalists tell hundreds of thousands of stories. Tales of success and failure, triumph and despair, gold medals and 43rd places, no score bore draws and five-goal thrillers.

They cover the inspirational and the corrupt. You can bounce from press box to hotel room via dinner in a motorway service station.

You can travel to scores of cities and never see the sights. You will know your laptop better than the back of your hand and how to ask for a receipt in 25 different languages.

If you are lucky you might be feted – some journalists have their fan clubs. And you will be hated – because sports journalists certainly have their critics, who, in the digital age have plenty of options to voice their views that you are biased, incompetent, lazy, or, more likely, all three.

Don’t take this too personally, after all, you will spend plenty of time in your career arguing you are entitled to your opinion –and they are too.

Your stomach will frequently be knotted from the anxiety of an approaching deadline – which is why every journalist’s toolkit should contain a pack of paracetamol and antacids.

You will learn to hate the blank page and your failure to ‘nail the intro’.

Nothing is better than reading your copy or watching your package and thinking it can’t be bettered. The times it happens can be counted on one hand.

Your heart will soar when you get your first byline and sink when you realise you’ve made a mistake.

Sports journalism is hard yards, it’s long hours, it’s ruthless, and it’s utterly addictive.
It can be frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure.

Every magical moment you witness is offset by the countless sporting encounters whose results will be quickly forgotten, even by those who participated.

Ask a sports journalist to tell you about their most glamorous assignment and they may entertain you with a few anecdotes for a couple of minutes. Ask them about their worst and you’ll be there for hours.

Not that you should feel any twinge of sympathy, after all the saying is that those who ply their trade at the ‘back of the book’ are meant to be underpaid and overprivileged (though I’m not sure we can really agree with that).

In sports journalism you will meet your share of amazing people, although to temper your enthusiasm, they will almost always be heavily outweighed by those who were touched with arrogance – some of them may even be other reporters.

The hours are unsociable, weekends are nearly always working days, and pressure to deliver can be intense.

Even on your days off you can be guaranteed the moment you dig your toes into the sand, the phone will beep and a story will break.

And if you’re a journalist you should always want to be where the action is, right in the heart of a developing story. Sports journalism can be relentless. The moment one season concludes, the build-up starts to the one that follows.

Within minutes of a team winning the league, or getting relegated, thoughts immediately turn to who they will sign next or who their next manager might be. The story rarely ends, it can always be continued.

Sport is at the heart of the battle for newspaper circulation. It drives internet traffic and fuels ratings wars. Sport is big business, high finance and dirty politics – and when those three combine it should prove a fertile ground for a journalist to do their work.

However, nothing gets the nation talking like sport – short of a Royal Wedding, a Diamond Jubilee or, perhaps a reality TV talent contest.

It has the power to generate unrivalled controversy and debate, and schedules and pages can be filled with previews and reviews.

It is unscripted drama, and no industry is better fuelled by sensation than the media. Newspaper sports pages have rapidly expanded in the past decade and now occupy more space, even in newspapers that once were ‘sniffy’ about those who covered ‘muddied oafs and flannelled fools’, than world news.

It could be argued there is too much space to fill. The internet craves content like a hungry hippo and the result is that sports news becomes over-stretched and over-exposed.

But the demand is there – viewing figures prove sports news is more popular than the news, and switchboards light up fastest at radio stations when the phone-in is discussing the next England manager as opposed to the next prime minister.

Sport has become part of human culture to an extent that was previously inconceivable. As former BBC sports editor Mihir Bose once said: “We have lost religion and found sport.”

But while sports journalists are criticised by those who write the serious stuff, it’s worth pointing out the job of political and sports reporters is not that different.

Both obsess with who is ahead and who is behind, both look to analyse strategies and tactics, win favour and access, and are targets of spin. Both have to maintain readers’ interest and enthusiasm through seasons or campaigns that even at their most exciting, will still have the occasional tendency to drag.

But sports journalism is fast changing, especially for those who prefer the anonymity of print and the written word as their favoured medium.

Opportunities and threats abound in this new digital age. The internet and new technology have created new jobs and innovative ways of producing sports content.

Journalists are no longer leading the national sporting conversation, they are just part of it, with everyone a commentator now on social media. Some argue journalists are now under such pressure to deliver quick copy and sensational stories that they have lost the art of writing.

They fear computer skills now outweigh journalistic aptitude and too many stories come from a quick scan of social media rather than from hitting the phones and working your contacts. Speed trumps quality, they moan, and, as the saying goes, speed kills.

They believe quotes are king for today’s aspiring star reporter. An interview with a footballer, in which they say little of note and only become animated when they are plugging whatever product they are being paid to promote, holds more value than 1,000 words of reasoned analysis and colour writing.

Hugh McIlvanney, whose peerless words and faultless turn of phrase make him the much admired sports journalists’ sports journalist, summed up these fears when he said: “These days, it can be said of too many in our business that if they went blind, their work wouldn’t suffer; but if they went deaf, they couldn’t work. They cannot function unless fuelled by quotes.”

But there is still a place for good journalism to thrive and opportunities for young talent to make their mark.

The internet and 24/7 sports news cycle has changed the way sports reporters work.
The old ways are being challenged, but you still need to learn the basics and develop your skills.

Before you can be a good sports journalist, you need to first learn to be just a good journalist. You need to hone your nose for a story, and stop thinking like a fan and start thinking like a reporter.

You need to embrace the digital age and accept the traditional media no longer enjoys a monopoly on information.

You’ve got to be prepared to work hard, stand out from the crowd in a job marketplace where editors can afford to be selective, and deliver when you get your chance.

In truth, preparing for a career in sports journalism is much like preparing for a career in sport – although, unfortunately, the transfer fees aren’t quite so astronomical, the hotels are more budget than five-star and there are no star-crazed hangers on.

Still, it beats working.

James Toney is the managing editor of national sports agency Sportsbeat and wrote Sports Journalism: The Inside Track