Following Jack Bradshaw’s blog on the skills you need to be a sports journalist, Raphael Sheridan, former sports editor and current editor-in -chief of Redbrick at the University of Birmingham, argues that it is the enthusiasm to stand for hours in the cold that separates a great sports writer from just a good one…
There aren’t many times you’ll find yourself in a field on a freezing, dark and sodden evening. Nor, if you’re unlucky enough to end up in said field, would you expect to end up between a mate’s legs, huddled under a flimsy coat looking at a pile of mushy notes whilst another reporter shelters under a beach towel desperately trying (and failing) to keep a dying laptop free from water. Welcome to the world of university sport reporting.
It’s an odd breed of person who’ll willingly put themselves in such compromising positions week-in week-out, nobly fulfilling the British ‘we love weather-based physical discomfort’ stereotype. And as the team sheet billows off into the far horizon and your fingers stop working, the pressure of a fast approaching deadline looms large. You’ve really got to love what you’re doing to keep putting yourself through it. When I started reporting for Redbrick I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Honestly, and this is a dire confession, I was following what Geoff Shreeves does for Sky Sports, wishing I had paid more attention to how the Times or the Guardian did their stuff. Blind enthusiasm was what drove me to keep coming back, reporting on different sports and trying different things.
You aim to be a fairly hidden figure at pitch-side, only venturing into the lion’s den when you have to interview a coach. And inevitably there will be a time when you unwittingly get pulled apart. It happened on the first ever game I covered: a rugby game where Birmingham won comfortably. Terrified at the prospect of having to interview a coach (surely he wouldn’t take me seriously) I plumbed for a sure-fire, cliched first question. ‘You must be happy with a win,’ I asked. The coach shot me a look that could kill and proceeded to tell me how wrong I was.
On another evening, one beleaguered reporter quietly saddled up to the losing coach, pen in hand ready to annotate, and asked how the game went. Cue a rant about the referee that Alex Ferguson would be proud of. And then, after all that, the report ends up buried within the paper. It’s enough to put only the most fanatic reporters off sports journalism for good.
When, a few months later, I got the sport editor’s job at Redbrick the difference between enthusiasm and skill was shown in its starkest form. The majority who fancied themselves as ‘journos’ wanted only to report on football or, if you were really fortunate, rugby. Put simply, they thought they’d reached the promised land and would venture no further. But those few who were seriously interested in becoming journalists took any job, regardless of location, deadline or, in extreme instances, their degree. They appreciated that, to become a good writer, they’d have to learn about new sports in their own time and make a coherent report interesting. Sure, some of the reports weren’t brilliant but over time the expertise would build and the reports would become more varied. In a university environment where over a dozen sports are regularly covered, you need to be willing to show dedication and that means learning about new sports, taking ‘unglamorous’ fixtures and going beyond what you’re comfortable with.
Besides, sports reporting isn’t all wet fields and cold evenings. We now ask our reporters to appear on a variety of mediums and become a jack of all trades: no student when they arrive at university has the ready-made expertise to appear in front of the microphone, or a camera. We aim to have them leave confident with everything and the more enthusiastic you are, the better you’ll become. In the fast-changing world of journalism, simply writing a print report, we think, is probably leaving yourself without a safety-net. The same principle applies to taking different sports: do as many as you can because when you finally get the football match you’ve secretly wanted to cover for two months you’ll produce a far better report. That’s if you can make out the action through the rainy mist. Or through your mate’s legs.