What do sports editors want? A mix of old and new skills, they say

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A Florida sports editor says nothing is more important than developing news instincts on a beat.

A North Carolina sports editor says he looks for personality, enthusiasm and multimedia experience.

A senior editor in Illinois says sports journalists ought to know – and use – language well.

And a sports editor in Kansas says college students ought to get editing and reporting experience.

Above else, job applicants should know how to develop and insert a wide variety of sources – something some editors look at first. As a matter of fact, many sports editors only briefly review an applicant’s resume before going to the clips. If the clips impress, then the resume and cover letter may get a second look. Beat reporting is essential to attracting some of this attention.

Beat experience is essential to honing reporting skills, forcing sports journalist to cultivate sources, develop story ideas, and learn news values. “I don’t care about the beat they covered,” says the North Carolina sports editor. “Covering high schools is just as good as covering a small college or minor league team. In fact, there are more good stories on the high school beat, and therefore, more opportunity to show your reporting and writing ability.”

Beat coverage also requires reporters to develop organizational skills, a must for many sports editors like the one in Kansas: “I’ve already interviewed one job candidate who admitted he works week-to-week and never plans too far ahead. Strike three right there. Especially with a high school beat where you have to know what’s going on at three dozen schools. Reporters need to be forward thinking and not reactionary.”

Finally, beat reporting helps instill the value of real news. “Nothing is more important than news instincts on a beat writing job,” says Kim Pendery, sports editor for the Tampa Tribune. “It doesn’t matter how gifted a person is if he or she isn’t a good reporter. Beat writers live and breathe their beat and must be determined to break news first. Usually, that’s a matter of effort.”

Sourcing is the single most important way one can stand out in a field populated by college sports journalists who rely mostly on home-team players and coaches. And this is not just the case for game stories. Outside sources are used even more infrequently in profile stories and features. Doing a story on the top scorer on the women’s basketball team? Then, interview opposing coaches and players over the course of several games. You will learn much about this player’s skills that cannot be learned from watching at the scorer’s table or by talking to a few teammates and coaches. Speak to as many outside sources as possible, whose perspective is essential to better understanding an issue and that will impress sports editors.

Sports editors also want to hire writers who are creative, journalists who can find new (and significant) angles in gamers, news features, and profiles. That means college journalists should read – and evaluate – as many books and articles as possible, including non-sports pieces.

“I also value creativity,” says Pendery, whose full title is Senior Editor For Multimedia Sports. “We write a lot of stories through the course of the season. I like someone who sees interesting angles and can do more than deliver the nuts and bolts. Readers have a short attention span and we can’t afford to be complacent and predictable.”

A central Illinois sports editor says applicants should include clips that look beyond the stats. “As far as writing goes, our approach is to avoid game stories filled with stats that could be found elsewhere, says Jim Rossow, sports editor for the News-Gazette in Champaign. “I look for someone to tell me not what happened, but why it happened or how it happened.”

In addition, sports editors are looking for new media skills. “Reporters are equipped with cameras to get shots when photographers are not available,” says a Chicago area editor. “Multitasking has become the rule.”

Rossow points out that his basketball beat reporter does much more than write stories for print each day. The News-Gazette’s University of Illinois beat reporter also does radio three to four times a week, conducts online chats once a week, participates in podcasts twice a week, continually updates the blog on the paper’s web site and regularly speaks on TV. “If I were seeking a writer right now,” says Rossow, “one of my first questions would be: What else can you do other than write?” Ralph Morrow, sports editor for the Key West Citizen, says the shift to multimedia means he’s now much more interested in personality. Enthusiasm goes a long way. Although this is not the most significant trait, personality is now a part of the equation. “I like someone who is Internet friendly,” Morrow says, “who’s a go-getter, a good interviewer, a good writer, and has a pleasant personality.”

In North Carolina, the sports editor wants someone who has at least a little new media experience. “It’s great if they’ve done something web-related, or even TV/radio, because we’ll use that. HTML skills are a plus, but not a necessity for a reporter position. When I interview them, I’ll be looking for personality and enthusiasm, because those will be key job requirements when we ask them to do multimedia projects.”

Finally, do not neglect your writing skills, the basis for good sports journalism across all media. Use language precisely and correctly. Editors especially hate clichés. “The one thing I stress to everyone who asks is that a good writer knows the language and uses it properly,” says a Chicago area editor. “Too many writers butcher the language — I sometimes think some never took, or paid attention while in, an English class.”

So how do editors look at packets sent them by prospective sports reporters? Usually, by first scrutinizing clips that should include a variety of stories – news, game stories and features. Toss aside the columns. Copy editing experience is a plus for many editors who believe editing others’ work teaches reporters where to improve their own copy.

“I put more of a premium on the ability to write,” says the Kansas sports editor. “If a candidate sends me his best feature and it doesn’t grab me, I probably won’t go too much farther with the packet. Gamers are lowest in importance. I put an importance in number of sources in news and feature stories. And again, for a job like this, I don’t care about column writing that much.”

The North Carolina sports editor goes straight to the clips. “I can eliminate more than half the field just by reading the first six to eight graphs of each clip. I’ll hire somebody who went to a junior college over someone who went to Missouri if the junior college kid has better clips. Once I’ve narrowed down the field, I go back and read the cover letter and resume, then read the clips again, this time top to bottom. I’m looking for a lot of things. Again, most important is writing ability. The clips should cover an array: gamers, features, enterprise. They must have good leads, multiple sources, good organization and a creative touch. Then, I’m looking to see where they’ve worked and where they went to school. I do have a lot of respect for strong journalism programs like Missouri, Kansas, Northwestern, Texas and North Carolina. And ideally I’d like to hire someone who’s worked at least one full-time job after college. I don’t care about the beat they covered.”

So get out there and keep developing your skills – and your clips. Be persistent, enthusiastic, curious, and diligent as you chase down your dreams.

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2 Responses to “What do sports editors want? A mix of old and new skills, they say”

  1. Innovation in College Media » Blog Archive » Gisondi: Sports editors looking for multimedia skills Says:

    […] Gisondi, a colleague here at EIU, does a good job canvassing some sports editors and beat reporters about the state of the job market. One thing that sticks out: multimedia skills are an increasingly […]

  2. Coverage commandments for a new semester | Sports Field Guide Says:

    […] and investigative reporting. Fans want to learn more than the final scores. [Plus, you'll need to assemble a portfolio that helps you stand […]

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