My first reaction was, I think, understandable in this day and age: I gulped. (Though only a bit.) And I was frank about the problems I think print newspapers face. They are being asked to make a highly uncertain transition from an eroding business that’s still profitable to an emerging business that is far less profitable. And even newspapers that take that plunge and go digital-first will still find themselves competing with digital-only entities that are completely focused on a slice of their business, without having to worry about everything else. Newspapers have been left to bleed from lots of little cuts, and will likely get a lot smaller as we discover what digital economics can support.
Fortunately, sportswriting is much larger than just print papers. And that leads to a more hopeful answer.
In the early 1990s, I told the students, I was a Mets fan living in Washington, D.C. I started my day with whatever meager portion of the Mets’ AP game story the Washington Post had printed, and ended it waiting for 30 seconds of Mets highlights on SportsCenter. Now, the only limit on how much Mets information I can consume is how much time I have. And so it is for fans of most any team or sport. Print papers face a wrenching transition, yes, but there has never been a better time to be a sports fan.
So, with that in mind, here are five reasons for aspiring sportswriters to take heart and stick with it:
1. Demand for sports news, analysis and opinion will always be high. Journalists do amazing work, reporting from war zones and local-government meetings and analyzing everything from health care to economic trends. But – and believe me, I wish it were otherwise – readers often regard such reporting and analysis as homework. Sports is different. We feel guilty as we put aside that in-depth exploration about how the yuan affects the U.S. economy, and 10 minutes later we’re scouring Twitter for the latest trade rumors. If there’s an upper limit to the desire for sports news, we haven’t found it yet.
2. The definition of sportswriting is expanding. Print papers, websites, radio stations and TV networks all want a piece of sports fans’ attention by giving them something to read, watch or listen to – or all three. Teams and leagues are increasingly creating this information themselves instead of relying on middlemen in the media to do so. All this means more niches to fill and more jobs for sportswriters. For those without work experience or formal training, setting up a blog only takes minutes – and hard work, smart thinking and good writing will let you build an audience and attract notice from the professional end of the spectrum.
3. Sports is ahead of the technological curve. It’s a natural fit for a lot of the new ways we’re learning to supply information to readers and tell stories: Video, podcasts, interactive graphics and data are all superb ways to dig deeper into sports, with plenty of reader demand — and no spinach factor. And sportswriters are similarly ahead of the curve: It’s rare to find a sports beat writer for whom Twitter, multiple deadlines and different media and aggregation are new ideas, or things to complain about rather than to embrace, or at least accept.
4. If it doesn’t work out, those skills are still valuable. Even if journalism turns out not to be for you, it won’t be wasted time. Journalists often see themselves as specialists, and underestimate just how rare and valuable their skills are. Being able to write clearly is important in many professions, and many people who aren’t natural writers are terrified by a blank Word document. The ability to quickly take in a lot of information, sort out what’s important and what’s not and analyze it succinctly is similarly valuable. It doesn’t take long for journalists to learn to do both those things, and at breakneck speed.
5. If you’ve read this far, you probably have ink (or pixels) in your veins anyway. As with a lot of journalism, people don’t choose sportswriting so much as it chooses them. By the time you’re in that sports media class, or covering high school football, you’ve got the bug. So be it. You may find yourself trying a lot of avenues, but you’ll be fine. Storytelling has been a crucial part of our lives and our cultures since the days of cave paintings, and sports provide the raw ingredients of daily stories within which we find larger meaning and a welcome clarity that’s hard to discern elsewhere: There are winners and losers, victories and defeats, success and failure. (And if that doesn’t work for you, there’s a rich vein of writing running counter to that tradition.)
Those stories will continue to be told – and to resonate with us in any medium. Ultimately, we are in the story-telling business, and that business’s long-term prospects remain as bright as they’ve ever been.
Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom http://www.reinventingthenewsroom.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.