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Future-Proof Career Advice for Sports Media and Journalism

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Sports Journalism by Matthew Zimmerman,Lauren M. Burch & Brian Moritz.

OK. So enough talk about career paths and business models and all that. How can I get a job in sports journalism? That’s what you’re thinking right now, right? As this chapter has shown, there’s not only one way to do it. And offering career advice in a changing field like media and journalism is a tricky thing in a textbook, because technology changes so quickly. With that in mind, here are our top five pieces of future-proof career advice. These are tips that will serve you well no matter what the newspaper industry and digital and social media look like in the years to come.

Treat People Well

Sports journalism is a small world, and your personal reputation is just as important as that of your work, so first and foremost, don’t be a jerk. Don’t burn bridges. Don’t be needlessly antagonistic, especially on social media. Be professional with everyone you deal with—not just sources and people who can help you in your career. This is the most important advice, not just for your career but for life in general.

Act “As If”

If you’ve written one sports story in your life—whether it is in a class, for a student news organization, or for your blog—you are no longer an aspiring sports journalist. You are a sports journalist. You’ve done the thing. Approach every aspect of your work and your career as if you are already a sports journalist, rather than its being something you want to be when you are older. This mindset will help you develop a professional attitude and focus, which will help you stand out.

Develop Your Craft

Acting “as if” does not mean acting like you already know everything and can’t get better. You should always be working to get better at the craft of reporting, writing, and storytelling. Solicit feedback from mentors, and listen to that feedback. Focus not on getting the next job but on getting better as a journalist. That doesn’t guarantee advancement, but it helps. Follow Steve Martin’s career advice: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Create a Portfolio and Keep It Updated

The only piece of technological advice we’ll give, since this area changes so much, is create a simple online portfolio of your best work that is easy to update and easy to share. Make sure you update it often with new stories. It doesn’t have to have any kind of fancy design to it. But it is an easy way to share your work with editors, and it is an incentive for you to continue to do good work so that you can have new stories there.

Say Yes to Opportunities

When presented with a new opportunity—a summer internship, a first job in a new city, an assignment covering an unfamiliar sport—make your default answer yes. Saying yes gives you the chance to meet new people, develop new skills, and get chances to do new things. This doesn’t mean do every single thing to the detriment of your physical and mental health. Balance is important. But changing your default answer to yes rather than no or maybe will open doors for you to develop your craft and advance in your career.

A Warning About Working for Free

When looking for sports writing jobs online, there’s a good chance you will find plenty of websites offering you the chance to write about sports for free. The implicit promise these sites make—and sometimes it is explicit—is that young writers will gain exposure and an audience for their work. That is the trade-off they offer. You won’t be paid money for your work, but the exposure will make up for that.

Be very, very, very careful about writing for these sites. Many of these sites are making money for their owners off the free labor of young, hungry writers like you. There’s an inherent unfairness in this. Also, these sites tend to focus on quick posts and the kind of digital churn that do not lend themselves to the types of stories that will get young writers good sports writing jobs. The promised exposure almost never comes.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing for free, but it is always better to do it on your terms. At the very least, be very clear about why you’re doing it, what you are getting from it, and who benefits from your work.

More Excerpts From Introduction to Sports Journalism