Trainee sports hacks must go off-piste to bag a job

Sports journalism is becoming big business in the higher education sector. In the past year or so, the number of dedicated university courses has spiralled.

The benefits to colleges come in the form of better recruitment, more income from fees, the anticipation of higher student ‘approval’ratings, and the nurturing of ‘community links’with local clubs prepared to accommodate tutors and undergraduates.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists last week put a batch of 29 candidates through an examination for a preliminary certificate in sports journalism.

Swindon Advertiser editor Dave King, recently appointed as chief examiner for the venture, is convinced that the council’s preliminary certificate is just what the industry requires.

His message on the council’s website is upbeat: ‘The course provides a solid grounding to journalists aspiring for a career in sport, acting as a perfect extension to the bread-and-butter basics of journalism training.

‘It requires depth of knowledge about the subject, an ability to work to the tightest of deadlines and to cope in a multimedia environment.”

Units include an introduction to sports reporting, press conferences, interviewing, writing copy, political themes, feature writing for sports and sub-editing sports copy. Candidates are tested on their general sports knowledge and prepare a match report under exam conditions.

Other sports journalism modules are running at universities in Staffordshire, Brighton and Nottingham. Lincoln is currently marketing a masters degree in the discipline.

But will there be rich pickings of exciting jobs at the end of the line? Mainstream pursuits such as football, rugby and cricket are bound to feature heavily in the curriculum of any self-respecting media course. But a ‘populist’approach could prove to be counter-productive.

It is an inconvenient truth that the chances of landing an editorial post that includes a press pass to international, national or regional football matches and tournaments is on a par with winning the lottery.

Few trainees and junior reporters who are lucky enough to be ‘in the right place’at ‘the right time’– and get a slot in the press box of the local club – can hope to make a living out of following their favourite teams around every track, pitch and stadium at home and overseas.

On the academic level, there is nothing unethical about offering good quality teaching to students who understand that they are entering a highly competitive market. The important thing to remember is that a university degree is not an apprenticeship.

Education exists to broaden the mind. But on the vocational side, it is surely in the students’ best interests to look beyond the Premiership, to gain experience and expertise in a range of sports subjects, and aim to establish a reputation in an up-and-coming discipline.

Sports journalism in the classroom need not be confined to the business of recounting matches and reporting on boardroom bust-ups.

To what extent should a training course include discussion and debate on ethical issues (beyond adherence to the legal questions)? Examples could include challenging racism in sport, intrusion into athletes’ private lives, graphic footage of injuries to competitors, and the use of material supplied by the public which could breach licence agreements.

How important is it that students spend time examining the financial and commercial relationships between athletes, sports clubs, their sponsors, and the media? What about media access to teams, players and directors, or restrictions on the use of cameras and recording equipment?

There is also the issue about whether editors would be better off employing specialists with direct knowledge and experience of particular sports, in preference to taking on trainees straight from college. Broadcasters frequently hire athletes and players who have retired and migrated into journalism. Magazines and national newspapers haven’t been slow to sign up famous cricketers, football players, snooker stars and athletes as columnists.

Speaking from the snowy setting of St Anton am Arlberg in the heart of the Austrian Tirol, during the women’s downhill ski racing weekend last month, media liaison director Wilma Himmelfreundpointner said: ‘The best advice to give to any student of sports journalism is to experience the atmosphere, before they decide what sort of journalist they want to be.”

As BBC presenter Hazel Irvine once explained, reporting from a race event in the Swiss Alps, atmosphere can be a big part of the attraction of sports journalism.

Surveying a splendid picture-postcard scene nestling beneath the north face of the Eiger mountain, she remarked: ‘Not a bad place to have the office, is it?”

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