Last night, Dejan Kovacevic wrote an article about the process of becoming a sports writer. Overall it was a good look at the process of making it in more traditional media. After reading Dejan’s article, I read a link that Maury Brown of the Biz of Baseball shared. I related more to this article, since Brown is an independent sports writer, and came up through a different manner than Dejan.
Today there was a lot of discussion on Twitter about Dejan’s article. People from more traditional news outlets were simply retweeting the article as a great description of how it is. People who took non-conventional routes, such as Craig Calcaterra Drew Silva, and Eno Sarris, had different views. I found myself once again relating more to them, because while they found the article interesting, they disagreed with the idea that you have to approach things in the certain manner that Dejan outlined.
I don’t think Dejan was saying that this was the only way you can become a sports writer. I think he was telling his story, and telling what was probably a very common approach for so many years. I do think that things have changed now, and I’m evidence of that. So is Calcaterra, Silva, Sarris, Tim Dierkes, most people at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and so on. The internet has provided a short cut. You don’t have to work as long to get to a position you want to be in, and you can get right to the field you want to be in without climbing any ladders. But make no mistake, there’s still a TON of work involved.
I’m not going to go through the full details of how I got here. That’s another story. The short version is that I started this site out of enjoyment. I wanted to create something like Sox Prospects for the Pirates, while also using a few features from one of my favorite blogs, Rays Index (specifically the 40-man payroll and the future payroll charts). I spent a lot of time on Pirates message boards, and noticed a lot of the same questions coming up surrounding option years, salaries, and prospects. They weren’t being answered in traditional media at the time. Rather than answering the same questions over and over on a message board, and getting attacked by trolls who only wanted to talk about how evil Bob Nutting was, I decided to put everything on one site. Eventually I used the methods below to take that from a hobby to something that had the hope of a job, and eventually to a job.
Dejan wrote the following about blogs, which I took exception to:
Most will want to take shortcuts or fantasize about how they can go right from blogging to making money for it. Unless you’re independently financed — meaning having someone pay your bills — that won’t happen. If you want to blog into adulthood about what you know or think about sports, better make sure you’ve got a separate way to actually make money.
I can tell you that this is 100% false, and this comes from someone who actually did this. You can make money blogging. You’re not going to get rich, but you do have other advantages. Set your own schedule. No deadlines. Write whenever you want. Cover the subject you want. Possibly live where you want. No bosses. Work from home. No pants.
You also don’t have to be independently financed. I wasn’t. I was the opposite — unemployed for three years while starting this site up. I worked some part-time jobs. My grandma let me live in her house while she was living with my parents. But those were necessities of the times, and a result of the horrible economy.
Throughout the entire process I was looking for other work, and developing the site with hope that this would be the answer. The “independently financed” part was actually an ignorant comment that’s offensive if you’ve actually built up a site from nothing. There were times where I was literally days from being broke, and Maury Brown shared similar experiences. I’ll go into more detail, to give you an idea of how it was. I would go through my house and find things to sell just to pay my bills. I wouldn’t eat out, and would eat extremely cheap meals. I had no vacations, and no forms of paid entertainment. I didn’t have cable, sold my car, and sold anything else I didn’t absolutely need to survive. I maxed out credit cards in the process of building the site, because banks don’t loan money to unemployed aspiring independent bloggers.
It might be a shortcut in terms of time. I didn’t spend decades as a sports writer to get here. This is my fifth year with this site, and my seventh as a sports writer. But it wasn’t easy at all. If you’re thinking of going this route, know that it’s possible, but it’s also going to take a lot of sacrifice. At a newspaper you have to pay your dues by covering high school sports. As an independent writer you have to pay your dues through personal sacrifices, with no guarantee and poor odds that this will ever work out. If this didn’t work out, I would have just been someone with no job record for several years, maxed out credit cards, and no form of income. I’m not sure if this is a better route than spending a decade before you get to cover professional sports.
As I said, I related more to Maury Brown and all of the other independent and “new media” writers, because I am one of them. So I thought about it today, and I wanted to share the process of how the other side works. As more newspapers go digital and focus more on their web sites, the lines between newspapers and blogs will become blurred. As that happens, it will make it possible for more people to take the independent route. If that sounds like something for you, then here are my tips for how to become a professional blogger, even if you have no money and no background in journalism.
1. Write a ton. That’s the universal message I saw today, whether it was Dejan, or Craig Calcaterra. At one point, early in this site’s history, I realized that I needed to write at least one thing per day in order for people to keep checking back. After my first off-season, I realized that I needed to continue writing content over the off-season the following year. And most importantly, I needed to find content that was interesting and that couldn’t be found elsewhere, even if that was just my opinion on a subject. Just re-posting news that was seen everywhere else wasn’t going to cut it. Posting a few times a week wasn’t going to work. Hitting the pause button during the off-season and returning when Spring Training was back also wasn’t an option.
I can’t stress enough how important the “write every day” aspect is. I mean every day. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have at least one post up on the site in a given day. Most days now there are at least 2-3 posts in the off-season, and 6-7 during the season. Some of them might not be as good as others, but there is at least a reason for people to keep checking back. Don’t assume that people will keep checking back, hoping you’ll provide an update after a 1-2 day break, or even after the off-season is over. Some people will check back, but you’re more likely to lose readers by taking a break. Also, a lot of other sites don’t post every day, and don’t post during the off-season. This provides a huge advantage. This site produces more daily Pirates content in the off-season than the Pittsburgh papers do. That definitely helps keep the site growing, since there are always people starved for sports information.
2. Competition Doesn’t Exist. One of the biggest splits I see between “new media” and “old media” (for lack of better terms) is the acknowledgement of other outlets. Traditional media, such as newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations, won’t acknowledge other outlets in their market. If one outlet breaks a story, the other outlet will “confirm” the original report without actually naming the report, or report the news as their own. The strange thing is that “old media” will cite a National source, but never anything on a local level. I understand that. People can only listen to one radio station at a time. They can only watch one TV station at a time. Most people will only buy one newspaper. These are zero sum industries. If you’re watching/listening/reading one, you’re taking away from another. That’s why I understand that “old media” doesn’t traditionally acknowledge their competitors.
The internet isn’t a zero sum industry. There’s not a lot of competition involved. People can read one site, then read another. You probably have read other Pirates content today. But you’re still reading this site. Acknowledging that others exist isn’t going to take away from your audience. It only helps. If you want to make it as an independent writer, you’re going to need to do some content aggregating. Tim Dierkes and MLBTR is the prime example here. Dierkes built one of the biggest go-to sites simply by being a content aggregator, and linking to anything relevant on his subject with a bit of personal analysis for each news item. This not only helps his site grow, but it helps the people he links to. Your followers aren’t just looking for content from you. They’re looking for content, period. If you can direct them to interesting content elsewhere, they’re more likely to come back than if you just provide your own opinions and act like no one exists. The traditional outlets can get away with ignoring others, because everyone will be linking to them even if they’re not linking to everyone else. But if you’re not linking to other sites, especially the other independent sites, then you’re not making a connection, which means they’re less likely to link to you.
I don’t know how traditional media feels about this subject. I know that some feel content aggregating is the equivalent of stealing work. As someone who breaks stories, I know that there have been several times where I’ve broken news, only to have someone report it a few minutes later without the acknowledgement. I know that in those cases, I’d rather have the acknowledgement, and don’t mind them re-reporting the news. I’d rather acknowledge that someone else had the story first, rather than act like no one else exists. Especially since the knowledge that other outlets exist and have good information is not going to take away from my traffic.
3. You have to love and know the subject. The biggest thing I disagreed with from Dejan was his idea that loving the sport, or having knowledge of the sport was irrelevant. It’s not. You absolutely have to love the sport you’re covering, because this is a grind. You might get into sports writing as a fan wanting to cover your favorite league/team for a living. If you get to a point where you do it professionally, you will no longer be a fan. It will be a job to you. You’ll still kind of let out a small chuckle when PNC Park is trolling Johnny Cueto and Russell Martin follows up with a homer. But part of you will also feel happy that the Pirates were eliminated from the playoffs because you’ve been traveling so damn much, and that all came at the end of a long season of writing every day, and you’re burnt out, and now you have to start on off-season articles, and soon enough there will be free agency, and you already have to make plans for the winter meetings, and before you know it Spring Training will start, and then it’s just a grind of days that start at 6 AM, end at 1 AM, and when that’s all over the season starts up, and…
You get the point. There are going to be times where you absolutely hate the job. There are going to be times where you don’t care about baseball at all, and you just want a break. If you don’t have a love for the subject, it’s going to be hard to continue. I love baseball. I love following the Pirates, but not so much as a fan because this job changed the way I look at sports. If I didn’t have those two things, I would have quit a long time ago. Even with those two things there are moments where the grind is way too much and I think about how long I can continue to do this. So I step back, take a break, and my love for the game wins out.
As for the “knowing the subject”, you don’t always have to know the subject from the start. Dejan mentions that he provided good content by asking people who know the answers. This isn’t a bad approach. One of the best minor league writers we’ve had on the site was John Eshleman. John came to me as someone who didn’t know the Pirates system, wasn’t a Pirates fan, and didn’t have a background in baseball. He provided some of the best prospect reports we’ve had, because he asked a ton of questions, often picking the brain of minor league pitching coach Justin Meccage. That said, the process of asking questions will lead to knowledge of a subject. And if you’ve got some knowledge, you don’t need to ask questions about those subjects later. I’ve got a lot of knowledge of the game, but I still ask a lot of questions and keep an open mind with what I don’t know. Knowledge has value, and asking questions only leads to more knowledge of the subject. If you come in with knowledge, you’re ahead of the game. But eventually you need to have knowledge of the subject.
4. Do it all. A lot of Dejan’s article revolves around being a “journalist”. One thing about my job is that I don’t have a strict definition, and don’t refer to myself as anything specific. My job isn’t just about writing and reporting. All things considered, that part is a small aspect. I’m a writer, editor, and reporter, but I’m also a webmaster, photographer, the accounts receivable department, the marketing department, the ad sales department, and so on. Traditional media outlets have separate people for all of those jobs. The only way I can do this for a living is doing most of it myself. You need more than just writing skills and the love of a sport to do this independently. You also need all of the above, because you’re not going to be able to afford to operate like the traditional outlets. If this was baseball, I’d be the Pittsburgh Pirates using defensive shifts, and the papers would be the Boston Red Sox, spending a ton of money and getting to fly from Pittsburgh to St. Louis and back, rather than driving the whole way, all while never having to worry about what to do if the site goes down. That doesn’t make sense, but you get what I mean.
5. Find a niche, or some way to separate yourself. One of the big advantages I had was that I was reporting on prospects when no one else cared to report about the farm system. There was also some luck involved, as I started right before the Pirates took off. If you’re starting a Pirates prospects blog today, I don’t think you’re going to get the same break I got. But you need to find a way to separate yourself. That can be a niche, but my feeling is that good analysis works best. If you can combine good reporting and good analysis, that’s gold. Traditional media tends to separate those. Reporters are only to report, and there are others who do the analysis. An independent writer has to do both, and often has to mix them together. Traditional media is doing more of this, at least on the local level. Travis Sawchik was an outstanding addition to the Trib this year. He’s there reporting at the games, but he also provides good analysis with his reports.
The thing about reporting is that there’s no long-term value there. Prior to the internet, good reporting could lead you to a scoop that gave you a full day of an exclusive story. Now you’ve got about two seconds before people are retweeting, and a few minutes before the story is up on blogs, message boards, and various sites. On the other hand, good analysis has long-term value. That’s unique, and that’s something you’re attached to. When people share the information, they’re usually sharing your outlet and talking about you. It’s easy to trace good analysis back to the source. It’s much harder to tell who reported a story first. In a way, good analysis can be a niche. It’s pretty much the market inefficiency in all aspects of journalism right now, not just sports.
6. Use all Social Media. This isn’t just a “new media” thing, and it’s a requirement. You need to find as many ways as possible to reach readers. Twitter is the best avenue, but Facebook and Instagram are also good routes. Reddit and Digg are good outlets online. Because of #4, you’re not going to have time to use some of the smaller services and provide unique content on them. I mostly stick with the three social media services mentioned above, with Twitter being the primary one. One trap you can’t fall into is the idea that Twitter, Facebook, or anything else is different than your writing. Your brand is the same, no matter where you are posting. If you post an opinion on Twitter, it’s the same as posting an opinion in an article. This has been a controversial subject between Dejan and Pirates bloggers in the past. Dejan views it differently, as he views Twitter as something different than an article. If you’re independent, and you’re writing on a blog, which is considered social media, then there is no difference. Your brand isn’t just the articles you write on the web site you run. It’s everything you write everywhere.
7. Know Your Audience. I have several services that keep track of traffic to the site. One of them sees all of the referring articles. If there’s a forum out there that has linked to an article I wrote, and is talking about it, I’ve read it. I check the traffic to the site obsessively. You need to do this to know where your traffic is coming from, what kind of stories people respond to, and what gets shared more often. For example, I know that people love prospect rankings. So if there are prospect rankings out there, I will make sure to share those with a post. You also need to know your traffic tendencies. Our busy days are Monday-Thursday, with Tuesday being the best day for new content (no secret why I released the 2014 Prospect Guide for pre-sales today). So if I know people love prospect rankings, and we’re releasing our own rankings, I’m going to release those on the best day possible, ideally on Tuesday. That gives the article the best chance for shares, and gives the site the best chance for exposure.
You also need to know what your audience is discussing. I’m constantly checking forums, comments, and responding to tweets to see what topics people are discussing. Then I’ll take those topics and give my own thoughts. I already know there is a market there, and that there is interest in the subject. Thus, it’s more likely that article gets shared and talked about, which leads to more traffic. The key here is that you shouldn’t write what you think people want to hear. That’s not genuine, and it’s a mistake a lot of people can make. Instead, write about the topic people are interested in, but give your honest opinion and analysis.
8. Prepare For Criticism. When I first started this site I got nothing but positive reviews. After about a year or two, I started getting critics. I don’t mean “I disagree with your opinion”. I mean “Tim Williams is an idiot”, and things that are very graphic that I probably should be offended by, but instead find funny. You haven’t really made it until there are people who dislike you, your work, or both. The thing is, these are the people who will interact the most. What you do with that criticism is up to you. You can go “the customer is always right” and be friendly. You can have fun with them and be a bit of an asshole right back. I’ve definitely done that with a certain forum that hates me. I don’t feel proud of it. You can block or ignore them and move on. But you need to prepare yourself, because when you’re going through those times where the job is a complete grind, and you’re sick of writing every day, and you’re not getting paid a lot of money for the amount of work you do, having some guy treat you like garbage because of a difference in sports opinions is going to tip the scale towards “why do I even do this?” And once again, if you don’t love the subject, you’re going to have a hard time coming back from that.
9. Do your own reporting and always be 100% correct. The biggest change for this site was when I started doing my own reporting. In the first six months of this site’s history I made $50. Six months. Writing everyday. $50. I spent that money on a digital recorder, which I still have. I used that recorder to interview minor league players and provide content that other people didn’t have. As the site grew, I started traveling more and going to more games. I did more interviews, made more contacts, developed some sources, and eventually got to the point where I was getting information before anyone else. One thing about blogs is that there’s a huge lack of trust. When I first started reporting draft signings, I got a lot of “Tim Williams is reporting this, but let’s wait until we hear it elsewhere.” Eventually, my reporting was enough, but only because I established myself as reliable.
There is no room for error. Dejan mentioned the editorial process. He has publicly lectured me on this process, and how I don’t understand it. Yet we run the editorial process here. No breaking news goes up unless it is 100% confirmed, and the sources are known to me. There are articles that never get posted to the site, either because they’re not telling the story correctly, or because the analysis can be picked apart easily, or the quality isn’t good. We have software that searches for typos, spelling errors, and other mistakes, and it runs before anything is posted. I don’t really answer to an editor as the owner of the site, but I will often discuss a topic with others on the site before posting it, or have others read over it and make any changes or suggestions. I suggest the same approach. If you want to separate yourself, the best way to do so is reporting. But that process comes with the responsibility to be accurate, and there is no forgiveness for a mistake as an independent writer.
The job isn’t all bad. I go to bed when I’m tired, and wake up when I’m not. I live in Florida near some nice beaches which I never go to because I’m constantly working on the site. But I have found a way to get ahead on my articles at times, allowing me to go to the beach or go golfing during a weekday afternoon in the off-season. I can work from anywhere, which allows me to visit friends out of town while still being able to upload articles. Your friends will get used to you visiting them, but saying “hold on, I’ve got to post something, what’s your WiFi password?”
Sometimes I feel guilty about liking the job, especially right now when I’m asking people to pay for a book I’m writing that makes this possible. I get paid to write about sports and have a pretty awesome job. On the flip side, it took a ton of work to get here, and it takes a ton of work to stay here.
If I’m giving advice to anyone who wants to be a journalist, I’m going to tell them the same thing Drew Silva of NBC Sports and Rotoworld said tonight:
Start a blog. Start it now. And you'd better love to write, think, talk and LEARN about the sport you cover because your readers already do.
— Drew Silva (@drewsilv) October 30, 2013
I couldn’t have said it better. It’s going to be a hard road no matter which path you take, with a ton of writing and work involved. I feel the best route is creating your own job in the field where you want to work, rather than working hard for someone else’s brand doing crap assignments like covering high school football, and hoping that an opportunity in your desired field eventually comes up. Just don’t expect it to be easy.
Links and Notes