Be prepared to do it all in your first job

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Like many smaller newspapers across the country, the Quincy Herald Whig focuses more on local sports. As it should be. More mid-sized and larger newspapers are also turning to local sports coverage. Gone are the days where readers turned to the local newspaper for national sports coverage. Now, readers can get live play by play online and can view highlights of national games on ESPN. Even larger newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, are turning to more prep coverage.

High school sports are more attractive to editors for several reasons. A senior editor at the Washington Post told me the NFL had blocked the paper’s attempt to create an online site for the Redskins. The NFL, which wants to control as much as it can, has draconian rules that limit video posting to 45 seconds per day. That’s not enough time to tell a substantial story. So the Post turned to high schools, whose coaches, players and fans are excited to get the star treatment. The Washington Post shows videos of key games, includes team rosters, and offers features on teams, players and trends. It’s impressive.

The Washington Post’s sports editor told me the prep beat is as important as any other beat. If you can cover preps, he said, you can cover anything. He said he feels comfortable assigning the prep beat writers to cover college or professional events as well. If the Washington Post is pushing local prep coverage, you can bet other newspapers are doing the same.

Since many new reporters will be starting at smaller newspapers like the Quincy Herald Whig, I asked sports editor Don O’Brien to offer advice for those seeking jobs and to those who want to learn more about covering high school sports.

1. What advice do you have for young reporters trying to break in as a stringer or intern (or even to those looking to get hired in their first job after college)? What do you look for in resumes, clips or in interviews?

At a small paper like mine (circ, 26,000) , you really have to be able to do it all. If you can only report, I won’t have much use for you. If you only do desk work, I won’t have much use for you.

Students must take full advantage of [working at college papers like the] Daily Eastern News to hone their skills in reporting and design both. You must be efficient in Quark or InDesign. Unless you’re God’s gift to prose, a one-trick pony isn’t going to get my attention. (And if you’re that good at reporting, you’re probably out of my league anyway.)

When I was at the Daily Eastern News, I also worked part-time on Friday nights at the [Charleston] Times-Courier for a few semesters. Yes, it stinks that you lose a Friday night of fun, but it helps you in the long run. You get to see how the pros work on deadline and what it takes to put a paper together. (Not to mention, I had more beer money than my buddies.)

Having that type of experience will also help you when you go job hunting. If someone clerked or strung stories for a paper in addition to what they did for their college paper, that resume will stand out a little more than the others who only have college experience.

The DEN and other college papers are great places to learn the craft. Those who take full advantage of the opportunities there will have a leg up on the others when it comes time to job/intern hunt.

2. How do you approach covering high school sports, such as football, basketball or cross country? Do you want your reporters to approach the games differently than they would if they were covering college or the NFL?

I think we cover the high schools a bit differently than we do the colleges and pros. We’ll report on the games and do feature stories on high school athletes, but we’re not going to do some of the things that we might normally do for the college or pros. A lot of papers like to grade teams after games or after a season. That’s great for the pros and colleges, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for high school kids.

There’s no real need to give a high school junior who plays quarterback and F grade for throwing four interceptions in a blowout loss to their rival school. Those high school players aren’t receiving anything to play. It’s an extracurricular activity. They shouldn’t be scrutinized that way.

That’s not to say you don’t report that Johnny Quarterback threw those four interceptions in the loss. Facts are facts.

We cover more than 40 high schools in our area and concentrate heavily on the two high schools in town. Don’t know how others deal with this, but unless there are arrests made, we tend to go with “a violation of team rules” when high school players are suspended. We try not to make a federal case out of it. These are 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old kids who are bound to make some mistakes.

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