Behind the Games: Breaking into Sports Journalism

Many of us grew up being told by our parents to follow your dreams. “If you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” It’s truly something that is easier said than done, especially when (roughly) a quarter of the country thinks they can do it too.


Imagine sitting behind a desk, discussing the big talking points of a huge football game that went down to the wire. Better yet, imagine being at the game itself and interviewing to the quarterback who threw the game-winning touchdown pass.


Now imagine getting paid for it.


For Michigan State alum Jamal Spencer, it took years of hard work and determination before he could look back and feel like he’s finally made it in the industry. Now the Sports Director at WZZM, Spencer reflected on his long and arduous journey in the field, including his year as the weekend sports anchor in Fargo.


“I did such a mediocre job I thought I was going to be fired. Then the sports director quit and they hired me on an interim basis in August of 2012. I worked 95 days in a row and 122 out of 123 days total. By the end of it I was exhausted but I won over the respect of all my peers and co-workers and my news director removed the “interim” gag and promoted me full time to Sports Director.”


It’s work like this that goes unnoticed to viewers at home. You turn on the TV, the local station delivers highlights on the high school basketball game, you change the channel. Watching the nightly news has become routine and much like clockwork. You really only notice the details when something goes wrong. But Spencer had proven he had what it took to keep the clocking ticking over.


“In November of 2012, after five and a half years in the business, I knew I had made it in the industry. If I could go through all that and still be standing, still be hungry and determined, then nothing could stop me.”


But for every successful reporter, analyst or producer, comes years of trial and error, countless internships and working for free. Brian Calloway, the Lansing State Journal’s lead high school sports reporter, reflected on his early experiences.


“My first job was at a small paper so I was responsible for not just writing, but laying out the newspaper and proofing all the content and writing headlines, cutlines and it all. There were errors in the design aspect of things. I gradually got better the more and more I did things, but having to wear many different hats made me much more versatile.”


That versatility was thanks to Calloway’s work within his college newspaper while also balancing his study and social life. While Jamal Spencer had no prior work experience before heading into the industry, Calloway spent years preparing. It just goes to show that there’s no “right” path into journalism, but only the one you carve out for yourself.


“I worked at my collegiate newspaper – the Eastern Echo at Eastern Michigan University – all four years of my college career and spent two years as a sports editor and a year as an assistant sports editor.  I also freelanced as a sports stringer at the Ann Arbor News covering high school sports during my final two years.”


Rookie errors come with the territory as Spencer gladly pointed out. He once went out on a shoot and forgot to bring a tape with him, forcing him to drive to three different CVS stores to find another one. He also used to mispronounce names while on the air, something rather crucial for an anchor on television. In order to overcome these speedbumps, Spencer continued to push himself to get better.


“I overcame both those issues by becoming addicted to preparation. I studied notes and double checked them constantly. Also I started asking questions about any name I wasn’t sure on how to pronounce instead of just trying to sound it out. I once was so nervous on the air that I misspoke and called the “Deutsche Bank Open” the “Douche Bank Open”. My co-anchor snickered at me and during the commercial break just told me to slow down and get it right.”


Every journalist in the industry has their own personal shortcomings. Some writers may struggle with presenting; some presenters may struggle with video editing. It’s rare to find someone who can do everything at the top-level. And while Spencer had his own problems to deal with, he was also faced with another roadblock when he was hired as the weekend sports anchor in Fargo.


“It was clear that the Sports Director didn’t like me and didn’t want me hired. For the only time in my career I felt I was being treated unfairly because I was black. It started to affect my performance. It was awful. That was the worst.”


And just like most college graduates, both Spencer and Calloway needed full-time jobs to pay tuition fees and to somehow make a living out of the zany world of sports journalism. In what many describe as one of the most competitive industries in the world, there were multiple moments of self-doubt for both Calloway and Spencer.

“When I first started I was so nervous every time I had to be on air that my voice would break to the point that it sounded like I was going through puberty. I hadn’t had enough training so I barely knew how to run a camera and I had no idea to write my scripts or present them. Also I was a college student on a budget so I always thought my appearance wasn’t professional enough, unless I was anchoring.”


One of the toughest parts of journalism is being stonewalled, either by recruiters or interview subjects. These instances can not only kill stories but more importantly motivation. As Calloway found out, a big part of journalism is who you know.


“At times during the job hunting process in the late stages of my senior year, there were. My school wasn’t exactly known for producing journalism talent. I also had sent clips and resumes to a number of places and never heard anything back… If I didn’t have a vehicle on campus my final two years at EMU, I wouldn’t have been able to freelance and cover games at various schools on nights as a stringer. And if I don’t do that, l may not have gained any professional connections.”


Spencer was in a similar situation in regards to travel but also made it his mission to continue working despite the constant stress and workload.


“My second internship required me to drive from East Lansing to Detroit and back numerous times a week, all while taking a full academic workload. I could’ve let that distance deter me but I didn’t. You can’t make excuses when you’re starting out.”


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