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By Sarah Wallace, Western University (London, Ontario)
Sports journalism can be viewed as a part of a big, scary world. It doesn’t need to be.
I’m a student-athlete at Western University, and I started out in the sports section of my student newspaper. I drifted to copy editing and culture reporting a few weeks later, because I didn’t want to just focus on game recaps — that part of sports, at the time, bored me.
After being a culture intern and culture editor, I’m now the coordinating editor of both the sports and culture sections at the Western Gazette, leading a team of more than 20 editors, reporters and interns.
The biggest issue I’ve found writing for and managing sports is the alienation that comes alongside it. Too often, writers dismiss sports reporting as just play-by-play summaries or as a foreign entity.
Sports journalism has been at an extreme disadvantage in the pandemic, with one of the major issues being the question of will-they-or-won’t-they play. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t integrate your writers into the office culture. Here’s how we did it.
Sports is extremely interdisciplinary
News and opinion writing is defined by its particular style of writing — news, more often than not, uses the inverted pyramid. Sports, conversely, is defined by its topic: Everything we write is about sports!
Sportswriters have sports as their beat all the time. As a result, sports can be presented in a variety of ways: In a cultural context, a news context or as a video. One of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written was my second piece ever, on gender equity in university coaching — something that emerged because of a news report on Ontario’s Sunshine List.
At our pitch meetings, I’ll also spend the first half an hour of our hour on an editorial board-type debate on a topic. Often, this’ll be based on something happening in the news, like the Olympics or whether sports betting should be allowed in collegiate sports.
After our debate, the sportswriters take two minutes to think of a pitch based on our debate. Because the debate is open to the whole office, we often get varying opinions and examples from other sports, like cricket, curling and figure skating. These debates have also led to longer-form stories, opinion pieces and profiles.
Push your writers out of their comfort zone
Change can be hard, especially when you’ve been on a specific beat for so long. Student journalism is all about trying new things, making mistakes and learning. Now more than ever is a time to explore and bounce around.
At the Gazette, we changed our approach and made schedules based on when our staff is supposed to be in the office — we asked them to be in the office when they’re not in class or on their days off.
Just being present naturally facilitates conversation, and it also encourages productivity. Being around various sections and staff of different talents leads to some interesting conversations. One of the sports interns did a 10-second weather report for TikTok on our first snow dumping of the year, and others are writing personal essays for our Valentine’s Day issue after interacting with the opinions team.
Biweekly, I do workshops with both my culture and sports teams where I teach them a particular aspect of journalism outside of their usual beats, or bring in various speakers. The first workshop I hosted was about integrating multimedia in their work, and I challenged them to think of a piece that could involve video or webflow. It led the sports team to help organize and create a video introducing key players of our (national-winning) football team.
I’ve found that exercises like these have helped intermingle and normalize the conversation of sports in the office. The added necessity of interacting with different sections of the office — like video production and graphic designers — gives them the opportunity to come in contact with people they wouldn’t normally talk to. My writers found they have more in common and have become good friends with other section members because of the initial forced communication.
More than anything, your goal should be to make sure everyone gets a positive experience. Being a student journalist is fun. Organize socials around everyone’s schedule (easier said than done, I know), play games and if you’re on Slack, have a random channel for people to share things they find funny or interesting that’s outside of journalism.
Communication is key
Sports is an additional world that we share on top of the shared community of journalism. My editors cite the increase in communication as having made their experiences stronger. Various staff members have accompanied my sports writers to games because they enjoy their company, even if they don’t understand the game at hand.
Sports pieces can be hard to understand as well. There are a lot of phrases that you’ll never see anywhere else or that are in a weird context. When I first started, copy editors asked me about these phrases because they knew I was a multi-sport athlete and they were afraid to ask the sports editors themselves.
I helped create a sports dictionary/style guide with the sports and the copy teams, which includes specific sports phrases, their grammatical function, the sport you would find the phrase in, its definition and an example. The Gazette uses ClickUp and Slack for organization, so we created a tab for all of our guidebooks and pinned it to the top of some of our channels, allowing anyone access to these docs to start writing a sports story.
Sports journalism doesn’t need to be scary. It’s the little things, one of my coworkers notes, that makes sports seem like not just balls and rackets but an actual world that people live their lives and revolve around day-to-day.
One piece of student journalism worth reading
Thomas Harding was the only Black player on Butler University’s football team in the late 1930s and one of the best running backs in the country. But unlike Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens, Harding’s name remains obscure, Drew Favakeh wrote for The Butler Collegian.
When Butler traveled from Indianapolis to Washington, D.C., to play George Washington University, GWU said they wouldn’t play if Harding took the field. He still traveled with the team, was required to take a separate train car and stay in a separate hotel before watching the game from the sidelines. When GWU came to Butler the following year, Harding dominated the field.
Any student publication can apply this historical approach and dig into their archives. What did the integration of sports look like at your school? Who can you talk to who’s connected to those stories?
Pitch The Lead
I’m looking for students and recent graduates to guest write for The Lead. No one knows student journalism better than student journalists, and I want to hear how you’ve solved problems, innovated or tackled complex subjects at your student publication.
All students will be paid for their writing, thanks to The Lead’s partnership with Poynter. I’m especially interested right now in pitches on these topics:
- Publishing across platforms
- Photo + video journalism
The most successful pitches are specific and concise. Think about lessons other student journalists can learn from your personal experience, and show your understanding of The Lead’s purpose and audience. There’s no deadline, but the sooner you pitch, the better.
Opportunities and trainings
- Poynter’s internship database lists paid newsroom internships at publications around the country.
- Register for a Jan. 26 panel on investigative journalism from New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
- Register for a Jan. 26 Student Press Law Center webinar on responding to press freedom threats through advocacy.
- College students and recent graduates, apply for the HBCU Summer News Fellowship Program by Feb. 7.
- High school students, enter The New York Times’ profile contest by Feb. 16.
- High school students, enter the JEA/SPJ essay contest by Feb. 19.
- Register for The Association of LGBTQ Journalists’ student conference, to be held virtually Feb. 25-26.
- Enter NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge by Feb. 28.
- High school seniors, consider applying for your state’s Journalist of the Year contest this spring. Deadlines vary by state.
💌 Last week’s newsletter: Sports journalism is about more than just sports
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