This isnt about UK sports and will not be for everyone…so feel free to move on if its not your thing.
I woke up this morning and did something that once was a daily part of my life and now I almost never do. I read the newspaper. Well not really the newspaper, but a newspaper columnist on the internet. And it wasn’t really a column, but a well-written entry on his personal blog concerning a topic that I find fascinating. Eric Crawford of the Courier Journal wrote a blog on advice he would give to young people who want to be journalists. The entry was inspired by a speech given to an assembly of Columbia University Journalism School students by ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly and should be read in its entirety. Crawford summarized two of Reilly’s main points, (a) writers should not write for free and (b) writers shouldn’t worry about their “brands”, and gave his take on both arguments. I won’t repeat them here, but I agree with most (although not all) of what Crawford wrote and it inspired me to give my quick two cents on the subject.
At least once a week, a student or young adult sports fan will write me and ask my advice on starting a blog and creating a sports career. I always appreciate such emails and try to respond to every one individually, but unfortunately my advice is often hard and pessimistic. There are many reasons for the success of KSR, but one trumps all the rest combined…SHEER LUCK. We were in the right place at the right time, covering an entity that people care about passionately (UK sports) in a style that at the time no one else locally was doing (“in the most ridiculous manner possible”) from a perspective often overlooked (the fan). It wasn’t rocket science and we by no means reinvented the wheel. But we worked hard, put together a decent product and then when the blog/fan site boom hit, we were here for a huge fan base at a cost they could afford (free). While there were crucial moments to KSR taking off (the Patterson/Lucas recruitment, hiring Beisner, Calipari arriving, podcasts, etc), in the end all of those would have mattered little without luck.
Thus I often tell people that if they want to start a blog now, they should do so expecting to make zero money. We are in our sixth year of existence and for four of those, I didn’t make a penny. Thus I firmly believe that for all but those who walk the halls at elite journalism schools writing for free at the beginning is a requirement for any type of success. What is often forgotten is that while writing is a skill, it is not one that is rare except at its most elite levels. There are more good writers than there are jobs. I realized (and came to accept) long ago that I am a good, but by no means great, writer. And the reality is that most in the profession, both in newspapers and on successful blogs, are in that same category. Thus to stand out, you cant just put your words out there and say to the world, “come discover me and note my greatness.” You must grind it out and do the hard work necessary to make it in a crowded market. It is easy for Rick Reilly, he of a multi-million dollar contract with ESPN, to tell a group of Ivy League graduate students that they need not write for free. Maybe they don’t. But for everyone else wanting to make it writing about sports, a subject that is most certainly not rocket science, doing it for free while making a name for oneself is a prerequisite.
I have heard many journalists complain that sites such as KSR are “ruining journalism” for a variety of reasons. However, the “not being paid” strikes me as the most peculiar. When athletes train for years by getting up early and shooting jumpers, doing wind sprints or taking batting practice, they don’t expect to see financial reward for that training. Such is the life of a blogger attempting to break into an already crowded profession. At KSR, you now have at least three people (me, Beisner and Drew), who spent multiple years writing for free and now have the opportunity to make a career out of sports writing and following our favorite team. If any of the three of us demanded money in the process, it is unlikely any of us would have gotten to this point.
The reason you write for free is to establish what I think is the most important reality for anyone seeking to become involved in sports media. In today’s media world, you absolutely have to establish a brand. “Branding” one’s self, either via writing style, viewpoint or personality is in my opinion, the only way to achieve success in today’s saturated market place. 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, that viewpoint would most certainly have been incorrect. In the pre-internet days of sports journalism, writers and reporters had only one set of people to please, their bosses. The key to success was to be hired at newspapers, tv stations or magazines that liked your work and felt that you would be a good addition to their enterprise. Pleasing the public was certainly a bonus, but as Jerry Tipton’s Hall of Fame career has showcased, in the old world it was not a requirement.
That is simply no longer the case. In today’s media market, if you don’t please the public, your days are numbered. The internet is the great free market, and that includes the area of sports journalism. People now are not limited to one local newspaper for their sports information and can receive it from a myriad of sources. If you lived in Lexington in 1990 and wanted to know about the Cats, it was the Lexington Herald Leader or bust. If you didn’t like what they had to say or the way they covered the team…well tough. But that is no longer the case. Websites, blogs, message boards, 24-hour television coverage and (most importantly) Twitter, have made no outlet irreplaceable. One can now get their news anywhere, so to survive, an outlet must give that news in a way that appeals to its readers. In the monopolistic world of sports media before the internet, appealing to the readers was one of many goals of a journalistic entity. Now for a successful entity, it has to be virtually the only one.
Which gets me back to branding. If you don’t create a brand for yourself, then there is no reason for anyone to choose you over every other possible news source. I often tell aspiring bloggers, “don’t worry about covering all of UK sports…find a niche that no one else covers and be the BEST at it.” A perfect example of this idea is Aaron Cordero, the newest KSR contributor and founder of Bleed Blue Kentucky. Rather than cover a saturated topic (UK basketball), he dominated a lesser one (UK football recruiting) and now has a successful site and is writing on KSR as well. I know we all love Kentucky basketball and have thoughts about the latest game that we want to share. But unless they are extremely interesting, unique or have a major twist on the normal viewpoint, they will get lost in the crowded media shuffle. But if you can create a different brand from anything that is out there, you have a chance to be seen.
It is easy for writers who came up in the old system to tell those trying to make it now that they should follow their plan of success. But the reality is that the old way of making it in sports media just doesn’t cut it now. There are still traditional jobs that have to be filled with traditional outlets, but they are slowly dying more and more every day. In the past year, large layoffs have occurred at both of our local papers and that trend continues nationally. The most successful sports journalist in America (Bill Simmons) is a former blogger and virtually every mainstream site is trying to have a “blog presence” (to generally poor results). That is sad for traditional journalism. Many good people have lost their jobs and without question, a lot of the standards of the profession have loosened.
But with everything bad, come something good. Now sports media is more egalitarian and talent (measured in resonating with the audience), as opposed to connections or ability to please an editor, can win out. Anyone out there who can afford the $10 a month to host a website, can aspire to be a sports reporter. I for one think that is a good thing as the more voices that are heard, generally the better. All one has to do now is have talent, work hard, establish a brand…and be prepared to write for free.