So…you want to be a football journalist? You want press access to all the matches and press conferences, one-on-one interviews with the football stars, dining with the biggest names in the game?
There’s good news, and there’s bad news.
The bad news is that your chances of ‘making it’ as an averagely-successful journo working for a top-of-the-line newspaper are less than 1 in 10,000. And your chances of being a really, really, REALLY successful journalist and ‘living the life’ (which usually involves writing a book, being called up by players for exclusive interviews and god knows what) are 1 in a 1,000,000. 1 in a million, and I’m being generous.
The good news is that most people quit at the first hurdle – the challenge of getting in. The real battle for the top starts once you’re in the business – as long as you’re on the outside, you’re nothing (or very little). And since most people quit before they’re in, your chances of success can be a lot higher (still very poor odds but better than 1 in a million, at least) as long as you can figure a path into the world of football journalism.
So how do you do it? I asked the same question to a few journalists – some successful, some getting there, but all of them with different backgrounds, experiences and tips to share. From our conversations, here is a collection of tips that you can follow to dramatically increase your chances of getting in – of becoming a football journalist.
- Contacts Are Everything
- Build A Strong Portfolio
- Get Plenty Of Work Experience
- Learn From The Industry
- Know Your Subject
- Pick Your Niche
- Master The Approach
- Master The Pitch
1. Contacts Are Everything
It’s not just what you know, it’s WHO you know. From editors to reporters to anyone working in the publishing industry to bloggers to local club players to agents – the more people you know, the more ‘relevant’ people you know, the better your chances are of breaking into the field (and being successful later on).
To quote Adrian Clarke:
“From experience, if you have great contacts it is half the battle, so make as many as you can!”
How to build your contact network is worth a whole separate article, but here are some basic suggestions:
- Get involved on a local level with football – clubs, academies and even sports publications. Your goal here is to be useful and help others, and make as many new friends as possible. Meet new people, learn what they do, what they’re good at and who they know.
- Identify the top 5-10 blogs and top 5-10 forums online and become an active member of their community. The goal is to create leverage – if people know you and trust you they are more likely to help you when you need their help later on (and you will in finding paid work and other opportunities).
- Approach journalists online (easy to find email addresses / personal blogs for them) – many of them will be up for a chat as long as you don’t ask for favors from the word go and keep the conversation to a topic of their interest. Build a relationship, it will be useful later on.
2. Build A Strong Portfolio
Show me some work samples…
Your portfolio is your chance to show your ability to handle different types of articles and tasks as well as showcase your past experience. Your articles should not only cover a variety of topics but should also show a mastery of several formats (match reports, opinion columns, news reports, minute-by-minute reports, satire, etc).
If your previous work has already got exposure, even better. Usually this means getting published in your local newspaper or fanzine, but increasingly portfolios are about the web and as such getting your articles up on the top football blogs will be as useful in getting your work exposure as would being published in print.
If you’ve got some sort of web presence, be it something that just exists to highlight your printed work, or a personal blog, that’ll help. There are lots of excellent football blogs online as well, so it’s worth contacting them with a couple of ideas for pieces. If you can get a regular column, or just write the occasional piece, it all helps – all of them can be used in your portfolio. Don’t forget to use social media to share any pieces you write – digg, delicious, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
As Gary says, setup a blog to showcase your writing work – Gary himself is setup at http://garyandrews.wordpress.com/.
Approach others to do guest commentaries/blogs or volunteer to provide commentaries for a local club or youth academy in your own geographic locale. This will provide you with feedback on your writing, along with exposure and published clips.
This is a fantastic idea – assuming that you have a strong football presence where you live.
3. Get Plenty Of Work Experience
I’ll let Gary, Andy and Adrian take over this one. As a preface, remember that without putting in the hard hours you will not be able to build a portfolio, build a network of contacts or polish your writing skills. Do you think the national media takes on writers and then hands them a list of writing tips?
The very traditional route is to try and get a bit of work experience with a local newspaper – there’s nothing wrong in this and journalists at this level are worth shadowing – they often work to tight deadlines and need a new angle every day. They’re also likely to be an expert on their local team and can teach you how to build contacts.
But regardless of whether you’re working on your local rag or a national magazine, make an impression. Offer to help out, suggest new angles, try and get yourself a byline (without being pushy) and leave them with the impression you’d be worth taking on. If it goes really well, pitch for some freelance work from them.
I’m a huge Tottenham fan and my first writing jobs were for a club fanzine, (called Cock-a-Doodle-Doo), where I aired my views on what was going on at White Hart Lane. Contributing for your team’s fanzine is often a great way into football journalism – fanzines are always looking for budding writers to produce articles (for no fee of course, this is very much a labour of love).
As I enjoyed that so much, I decided to start writing about Spurs online and landed a role with ESPN Soccernet covering Tottenham. At the same time I also got a weekly column with a local newspaper in North London, writing fan reaction/previews etc.
Many publications will be able to get you press accreditation for football matches – grasp any opportunity you have to cover a match. Not only will this help you develop your ability to write match reports, but you’ll get to interview managers and players and get those golden quotes that will be able to give your writing value. Companies are most likely to pay for your work if it includes quotes you have got, especially if they are exclusive quotes.
Consider taking work placements. I’ve spent time with the BBC, The Guardian and The Observer, where I was in an environment working alongside the best football writers in the business. As well as getting the opportunity to gain bylines, I was able to pick the brains of these journalists, find out how they rose to the top of the sports journalism world and also find out how I could start getting paid for my writing.
During the last seven years I have worked with, and interviewed many aspiring young journalists and I can say with a degree of certainty that competition is fierce in this industry. Everyone wants to be a sports journalist! I come from a different angle because I have learned how to be a better journalist purely by experience rather than by having formal training. Therefore, my view is that there is no better way to learn than by doing the job. Get work experience placements. Write as often as you can. Send your work to people in the industry. Show as much initiative as you can. If you show a willing attitude as well as ability, soon you will be employed!
Persistence pays off. Put in the hard hours learning the craft and get as much press access to games and players as possible – it will give you experience as well as help increase your network of contacts.
4. Learn From The Industry
Learn from those at the top – analyse their style and topic choices, why are they successful and what can you learn / apply from them.
I would strongly recommend that you read different sports publications (and read a lot of them) with a different perspective – spot the mistakes, learn what techniques the authors are using and learn from both.
Study mainstream writers and commentators such as Andres Cantor, Matt Dickinson, Steven Goff, Rob Hughes, and Gabriele Marcotti. Or others whose work you enjoy and respect. We all need to develop our own style and voice; however, we can always learn from those with influence, credibility, and a large audience. Ask yourself what makes people want to read their columns, and what do they tell you that others don’t?
READ as much about sport/football as you can. By reading well respected writers as much as possible you will pick up styles and tips. To call yourself a proper football journalist you also need to be an expert on the game. If you know what you are writing about, it will show.
5. Know your Subject
Building on that last quote from Adrian Clarke, you need to be an expert on the game. This means that you need to get your research spot on and you cannot, cannot afford to make factual mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes once or twice – that’s why we have editors – but if your portfolio is littered with errors or if your initial submissions to a publisher / editor are error-strewn you won’t have a very long career in journalism.
…Know your subject. Every aspiring football writer will want to do the big name interviews and Champions League games, but you’re going to boost your chances of getting somewhere no end if your knowledge extends beyond this, either to the European or World leagues or further down the football league pyramid.
If names like Sam Vokes, Stuart Fleetwood, or Owain Fon Williams don’t mean anything to you, brush up. You don’t need to be an expert on every member of every squad, but the more you can speak with authority on smaller teams and their players, the more this will impress people up the top.
6. Pick Your Niche
It’s simple maths – your chances of success will increase if you’re better than your competition. And it’s easier to be the master of one trade and jack of the rest as opposed to trying to be the master of all trades (if you insist, do it one by one and not all at the same time).
Playing to your strengths also allows you more entry points into the business than the usual wannabe journalist gets. Building a network of contacts by conducting interviews and building up your interviewing skills will make you a valuable asset to any major publication (especially if they’re sending you to cover matches). Knowing the ins and outs of podcasting (and blogging) gives you an advantage on the online frontier – and again makes you valuable as every major and minor publisher is looking to enhance their online presence.
If you have a knack for doing live commentary (helps if you’re funny, but pithy and sarcastic works too), work on it and polish that skill. Makings of an editor? Get a job at a major blog / web publisher as an editor and use that position to build contacts (and learn the ropes).
With all of the global competition, you have to set realistic goals and fill a need that others may have missed. For example, if you know a lot about Italian or Spanish football, start a page/blog in English or languages other than those from the respective leagues. If you have a specific niche of expertise, brand it such as John Stevanja has with Keeper Skool. You have to paint a picture with different hues in order to stand apart and create credibility.
7. Master The Approach
When it’s time to approach a publication looking for work, you should take the time out to pick a target that complements your goals – going for the local newspaper when you want to build an online brand is hardly the way to go (but it’s a good start if your aim is to go on TV).
In addition, research your target and approach appropriately. Some publications like the Guardian put a lot of emphasis on the narrative (plus their minute-by-minute and interviews sections are good entry points for the versatile journalist), others like the BBC are stricter in their news reporting while some like the Sun and News Of The World prefer titillation and entertainment.
Your portfolio should reflect the demands of the publication you’re approaching – so it pays to read them for a while and get a good understanding of what they want and what you can offer.
In addition, as Andy says below, formal training is often a criteria for the bigger jobs – and if you have the chance to do so, get formal training. If you can’t, follow #4 and learn the art of journalism on your own. If you can show that you know the ropes, it’s worth more than a degree (warning: the person hiring you might disagree, but that’s what your network of contacts will be for).
National newspaper sports writers will almost always study journalism at university, then go on to gain a postgraduate degree. If it’s you aim to land a job at The Guardian, The Independent or The Times, then academic qualifications are as important as experience. It goes without saying that opportunities to break into the national press are extremely limited and only the very best succeed. With so many graduates wanting to be sports journalists, the simple facts are there are not enough national jobs to go round.
Persistence, talent and the ability to work long hours and to pressured deadlines the bear minimum you need to make a break through. That and the all important luck factor, being in the right place at the right time etc.
There are plenty of football and sport publications – both in traditional media and online – all with very different audiences. Some of them may be writing to one man and his dog, others to an audience of tens of thousands. Know exactly the tone and audience they’re aiming for when you’re looking for a gig with them.
8. Master The Pitch
When you approach publications, make sure your pitch is concise and catchy. Make the first line as snappy as possible. Put yourself in the mind of the editor, who will get maybe 20 pitches a week. Why should yours be different?
It helps if you know the editor beforehand, but even after you get their attention it will require something special to convince them to call you in for a trial or an interview. What matters though is that once you pitch and you get in, you do your best to make a positive first impression. The early gigs are bound to boring and tiresome – do them with enthusiasm, put out quality reports and eventually you’ll break through to the big ones.
Finally, don’t be afraid to send out unsolicited pitches or enquiries for writing to anyone and everyone. The worst they can say is no – and don’t get too disheartened if you get a few knockbacks. And if you’re sent to cover the Dog and Duck XI v Arse End of Nowhere FC that clashes with a mouthwatering Champions League semi-final, don’t moan of complain. Approach it with the same enthusiasm that you’d have if you were covering the big match (and if you’re a genuine football fanatic, any game should be cause for excitement). File enough excellent reports on the more obscure stuff and there’s a good chance you’ll land one of the bigger gigs.
It’s also important at this point to set a price level for your work. Initially you’ll be approaching either a major local publication or a major online publication so what you earn might be low but eventually (and you should be aiming for this in the first couple of years) you can earn at least $50 per hour and more depending on the length of the feature you’re doing and the value you’re bringing in (quotes / interview will fetch more than a regular feature – assuming that you got those quotes first-hand).
Once you have spent a year or so putting together a varied portfolio, this is the time to make money from your hobby (if of course that’s what you want). As you have done before, email editors and specify that you are looking for paid work. With an excellent portfolio of work behind you, editors can assess your worth.
If you have built contacts that enable you to get quotes from players, you can could earn up to £300 for a 1000 word article. Feature articles of the same length could net you up to about £100, while short news pieces of about 300 words could be worth up to £20-30.
Editors respect journalists that stick to their principles with wage demands, so be firm with you financial requests. Equally, be willing to listen to offers. Understand website’s financial restrictions and assess whether what they are offering you is worthwhile. For me, any writing job that is offering me less that £20 an hour (work out how long it takes you to produce an article), isn’t really worth the time and effort.
The internet has been a godsend for football writers, offering thousands of websites who can pay for articles. The possibilities of how much you can earn are endless – its all about how hard you push yourself.
My best advice to freelancers approaching publications for features would be to get in touch with them with ideas. Not just any ideas but well thought out ideas that would suit that particular client. The more good ideas you provide, the more respect people will have for you.
In addition to this, I’d suggest you offer an interview with one of your best contacts. If they take it, and it’s good – you’re in! The competition is high though with editors receiving many approaches. To stand out, make sure you show some innovation and originality.
In other words, work hard on your pitch and remember that ‘getting in’ depends a lot on providing something they cannot get from anywhere else.
In the coming weeks we’ll be publishing more tips and how-tos for bloggers and journalists – if there’s anything in particular that you want to read about, let me know here. And as always, you’re more than welcome to add to this article by sharing your opinions in the comments below.
Football Media thanks Rob Smyth (Guardian) Adrian Clarke (Sport Media Solutions), Steve Amoia (World Football Commentaries), Gary Andrews (ITV) and Andy Greeves (freelance journalist) for their valuable contributions to his feature.