Credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

There is more to sports journalism than just turning up to football matches and writing player ratings. The modern sports journalist must be able to work across different platforms, find exclusive leads and think outside the box.

At a virtual event held by Reach Sport this week, four experienced sports writers offered their advice on how to break into the world of sports journalism.

Find your training ground

It is not that likely that your first break will come at a huge sports news publisher or broadcaster. Look for local opportunities to learn the ropes.

"Get in touch with your local sports club and ask to produce some content for them," suggests Katie Sands, multimedia sports journalist at Wales Online. "That is a form of work experience in sport and can help you get your foot in the door."

You can also quiz local sports journalist about their job. According to Alice McKeegan, head of football at Manchester Evening News, an appetite to learn is one of your greatest tools.

"Get in touch with your local sports desk. You might not be offered the position of chief football writer straight away, but if you show the enthusiasm, that’s really attractive."

Work experience is your chance to impress, hone your skills, decide if sports journalism is right for you, and secure future shifts with editors.

Follow your passion

Sports journalism is a crowded market, however. If you want to stand out, Darren Wells, sports writer at The Daily Mirror, says you must be excited about a particular sport or topic – bonus points if it is one not many other people are interested in.

"[Passion] puts you in a much better position to write about that topic in a great way," he says.

Darren Lewis, assistant editor, The Daily Mirror agrees: "Enjoy it. Take pride in your work. Do it because you love it."

He said he got to where he is by taking every opportunity that came his way, and accepting unpaid work in his first two years working as a journalist.

When his first match report was published in a national newspaper, he remembered feeling as if he had won a Pultizer prize.

No experience in sports journalism? No problem

None of the panellists at this event had any formal training in sports journalism. In fact three of them - Lewis, McKeegan and Sands - all started their careers in news journalism, with beats ranging from health news to court reporting.

"If you’re a good news journalist, you’ll be a good sports journalist," says McKeegan.

A lot of the skills you learn are transferable, for instance, writing good copy, developing contacts and fostering trust with your sources.

There is also an element of opportunism; Lewis' break came through deputising for the normal football writer for a few games. The lesson is to be flexible and take those chances when they come up.

That news sense will serve you well, he adds, for knowing how and where to unearth a story.

"It teaches you to be proactive. Some of the best stories about football aren't about what happens on the pitch, they’re what happens off the pitch."

Practice, practice, practice

Work experience can be scarce, and especially so during the coronavirus pandemic. That does not mean budding sports journalists have no way to develop their skills.

"Set up a blog at home and get the practice in," says Wells. "Send it to five people you know, then ten, and eventually you build up confidence”.

It also pays to be a news junkie. Sands advised any aspiring sports journalist to be reading, watching and listening to as much sports journalism as they can. But pay close attention to how it works.

"Be a critic. Soak up as much media as you can and then formulate your own opinion on it."

Try asking yourself what the journalist did well, what they could do to improve, and how you could use some of their techniques in your own work.

Think outside the box when pitching stories

Sports editors receive a lot of pitches on a daily basis. McKeegan's advice is to take a chance, be innovative and pitch something inviting.

As an example, one interviewee pitched her an exclusive feature on the inspirational journey of one Manchester United transfer target from his hometown to Old Trafford.

"If you have 400 people applying for a role, what's the one thing you can do to grab someone’s attention?” she asked.

Editors are not all-knowing, says Lewis, and even they are looking for something they had not thought of before.

Consider beats that fly under the radar, like women's sport and disability sport.

“You’ve got this huge area of stories which are largely untapped. These players and athletes have amazing stories to tell”, says Sands.

Sports journalism is more than just reporting what happens on a pitch; it's about human stories, experiences and their impact on a community.

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