A year of headlines, a year of lessons
As of October 1, I have made a living writing about sports for a year. Here is what I learned in that time. Maybe it will help other sports writers at their first spot:
1. Step your game up: Remember those big features you did once a month at the student paper in college that you were so proud of? Yeah, now do that at least once every other week.
2. Don’t settle: Your byline is going to be attached to a lot more stories. And because of that, it’s easy to become complacent. The first couple weeks, you’re going to think everything you write has to be Pulitzer-worthy (this lasted a couple months for me). You will then realize that every daily story you write (typical 15-20 inches) is not cause for aneurism-inducing stress.
Find that medium between treating the story as your first-born (this is the approach I take with ledes) and writing to merely show you did something that day.
Remember what got you to this point as a journalist. On my desk, I have written in all-caps: WOULD I READ THIS? It’s something I think about with every story. Even for those little articles, I want to make everything I write interesting. Actually give a shit. Care what you produce even if that story is on a local 12-year-old soapbox racer or Little League team. Those stories might not win you awards, but that doesn’t mean your readers don’t deserve your best effort.
3. Get better: What are you going to do today to become better than you were the day before? Ask an extra question before turning off the recorder. Turn in the FOIA request that you’ve been putting off doing. Pick up the phone for that extra source. Drive to do an interview in-person and take notes until your hand cramps.
You’re a young writer and this is your first job. That’s an incredible opportunity. The newsroom is your classroom and experiences are your teachers. Mistakes will be made, so learn from them (just don’t plagiarize or fabricate…those are BIG no-nos…duh).
Reread your articles even after they’ve been published and ask yourself what could have been done better. Even if you underperformed on something, do better the next time. That’s the beauty of this industry, each new story is a new chance to succeed.
4. Love it or leave it: Your first job location is probably going to suck. I know somebody in Fort Wayne, another in Wyoming, Nebraska, Lansing, nowhere, Tenn., nowhere, Ind. and I’m in Beaumont, Texas.
None of these locations are fun places for twenty-somethings to thrive in. In media, for the most part, you start in the small markets and work up to the metros, while all your friends seem to get to live in NYC, D.C., Chicago, etc.
Yeah, screw those guys.
But really, you’re sacrificing being in a place with friends, family or fun for the profession you have chosen. I could be in Baltimore right now, in some trendy townhouse, if I wanted to commit to a generic sales job.
But I didn’t want that.
I like what I do way too much. And that’s the thing that barely makes sense. I have more fun when I’m on the clock than when I’m off it. The best part of my day is going to a football practice or game. Or even when I sit down to start writing a story after all my notes and quotes are done (seriously, it’s the best). Outside of that, nothing too special happens when I’m not “working”.
Every week I meet somebody new and collect their story. And then every Friday night I get to be a part of Texas high school football in one of the historical cradles of it. How cool is that?
If you view your job as only a means to a paycheck, find yourself waiting for the eight-hour work day to expire and are bothered you don’t make enough money to buy shit you don’t really need, then don’t do it.
5. Enjoy the ride: If you’re looking for a way to drive yourself insane, I suggest trying to solve the problems of 30-year-old you when you’re 22 or 23. The truth is, you don’t have all the answers –none of us do. Maybe I’m being irresponsible by not considering long-term consequences to my career decisions, but I’m enjoying being a sports writer while I don’t have financial responsibilities like a mortgage and family.
I just have this faith that I will be most successful following what I have a passion for and one day, it will lead me to the answers of those big questions. This faith partly comes from considering the alternative. If I put myself in a cubicle, doing something I really didn’t enjoy, then, well, I can’t see myself excelling and moving up within that scenario.
True, you’re in an industry going through growing pains and the pay is getting you Coors Light instead of Heineken every week. But this is your first job out of college. It’s OK. A college degree, job doing what you want to do and living on your own…that sounds like somebody who is doing alright to me.
Smile. Laugh. Remind yourself every day that you’re fortunate enough to choose what you want as a career.
6. Serenity prayer. Mercy, do I love the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
In a way, it’s selfish. You can interpret it as a way to avoid responsibility. But if used correctly, I believe the serenity prayer can be the key to happiness and success in this business.
For a finished product to come together, the writer, photographer and designer have to somehow work harmoniously -OK, maybe not harmoniously, but at least cohesively. Believe it or not, things don’t always work the way you want them to.
Sometimes those factors come from outside the newsroom. I was planning on writing a feature about a promising local high school player that decided to quit football before committing to play college ball at Lamar. Well, the week the feature was slated to run, he texted me saying he changed his mind and he was now going to walk on at Lamar. So 1.5 weeks worth of centerpiece planning were for naught.
Old Avi might have put his head through the computer monitor. But I realized that this is just how things go sometimes and the best approach was to make the best of the situation. I wrote a new story about the same kid, and no it wasn’t as good, but it still made for a decent sports page front.
What was beyond my control? The player’s decision.
What was in my control? To still produce the best story I could.
If you put the whole paper’s problems on your back, life will become very hard, very quickly.
But if you look at how you can make the best of every situation life throws at you, well, you might be fortunate enough to write about sports for as long as you want.