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Morning Java: Want to be sports writer? Forget sports

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media

Morning, Lunatics …

Younger readers often write seeking either advice or outright job opportunities in this profession. Requests come in every week, actually, and from all over. And as someone who made up my mind at a very young age to do this for a living, I can appreciate that there’s no such thing as someone too young to take seriously.

I’d like to take to the blog today to put this into print once, so I’ll have it as a link for future readers who ask. If you aren’t interested, hey, the links are down there, as always.

My own story encapsulated: I carried The Pittsburgh Press as a child and grew up reading Bob Smizik, Bruce Keidan and so many other names many of you would find familiar. I loved all of the sports coverage, loved the personalities behind the bylines, loved the different approaches, loved the competing styles between the two big papers at the time. It fascinated me. I read every word.

But what interested me most — by far — was journalism. Not sports. And that’s never changed.

In ninth grade, a fine teacher at Gateway named Grace Gunderman set me on my way. In addition to the classwork I did for her, I wrote a couple articles for the high school paper, and she handwrote me a letter at the end of that school year calling me “annoying, stubborn” … and meant for this business.

I still have that letter, folded into my class yearbook.

I went to Duquesne for reasons I still don’t understand, took up a journalism major and as a freshman had a fine professor named Maggie Patterson, who once wrote for the Press. She was hugely helpful, but mostly because she recommended me after one month to the Post-Gazette. That was in 1985.

Unfortunately, humans still wore jorts in 1985 …

That’s pretty much the whole story. I got out of Duquesne way before graduation — had very little else to gain there — after which I wrote a ton of high school sports, clawed my way up from freelancer to part-timer in 1990, from part-timer to full-timer in 1992, from high schools to a backup NHL beat in 1997, from backup to main beat guy on Major League Baseball in 2004, and then, of course, crossing the river to become lead sports columnist at the Trib three years ago.

Nothing is remotely unusual or remarkable about that path. It really does take that long. If anything, I’m still probably ahead of the chronological curve.

So, for anyone seeking advice, I offer this …

1. If you’re interested because you want to write about sports, get out. Find something else to do. You will fail, and you will fail quickly and miserably.

The job is about journalism, not about being pals with your favorite teams or athletes. The passion has to be for journalism, for reporting and writing and editing and taking pics and page-designing or whatever your specialty.

There are exactly zero exceptions to this.

2. Write a ton. Small papers pay for coverage of everything from school-board meetings to town hall to, yes, high school athletics. They won’t pay much, and you won’t win awards, but you’ll build up a profile of clips.

You also can touch people even with the lowest-profile work. One of the three Pittsburgh Police officers killed in that tragic shooting a few years back, Paul Sciullo, was a hockey player at Central Catholic. After his death, I heard from many friends and family about how much that little article meant to him, as it was the only one written about while alive. In fact, you can still find it in the window of a Bloomfield barber shop. I’m glad now that I didn’t half-effort it, no matter how much I thought it might mean at the time.

Write on a blog for your own amusement if you wish, but the greatest blog stuff in the world won’t mean a whit to an editor. They want to see actual submitted news that went through an editorial process and that, to some extent, made an impact on the community.

3. Learn to write. It’s a learned craft, not an inherent one. No one is born a good or great writer. It’s up to you to read and to practice as much as possible.

4. It’s always about the news. That’s the lifeblood. People ask all the time what’s my favorite thing I’ve written about, thinking I’ll answer with some kind of big game or whatever. But all the examples I’ll cite will be news, just hard news that was reported exclusively.

The real thrill comes in breaking news or in writing a piece — of any kind — that makes a real impact, a real difference. Sure, that can be about a championship, but it also can be about heartbreak, real human tragedy. The satisfaction — if that’s the right word here — comes in a job well done, a story or opinion well conveyed.

It sure as heck doesn’t come from the team you’re covering winning a game.

5. Any amount of time you think will be productively invested in learning more about sports is not. It’s a waste of energy, at least as related to actual work time. I’ll repeat: It’s about writing, reporting and all that. If you’re applying for a sports job, chances are excellent you already know sports, and what you don’t know can come through simple osmosis or the reporting itself.

The next editor interviewing someone for a job who asks, “Hey, how much do  you know about the Penguins?” will be the very first. They couldn’t care less what you know about sports. And they really couldn’t care less what you think about sports.

They want people who can write and report. Period.

The knowledge of whatever your subject matter becomes, that happens along the way. It happens because of your skill in reporting and writing. I was “the hockey guy” to most people when I took over baseball. Didn’t matter. I made up for it by asking a ton of questions, by letting the people involved be the experts rather than me, and by applying all that I’d learned about how to break news.

No one cared if I knew a two-seam fastball from a sinker. What the readers cared about was that I got the news first. And that had nothing to do with whether I knew baseball. It had to do with knowing journalism.

I accept that the above isn’t what anyone wants to read.

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.

Contrary to perception, there are opportunities in this business. They’re out there at most every paper, including ours. We recently had an opening that we had a very hard time filling. Print is fading, but the hard fact is that never at any point in human history have more people read the work being done by newspapers. In that sense, we’re more popular, more influential than ever. It’s just a matter of getting the new business model right.

The jobs are there. But you’ve got to want one for the right reason.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls>> Jayson Megna breaks through to boost the Penguins in Raleigh. Josh Yohe is in Raleigh.

But not all the news on the night was good: Rob Scuderi has a broken ankle and needs surgery.

Here’s our full Penguins coverage.

Here’s Hurricanes news from the Raleigh News & Observer.

Here are official game highlights from

>> The Steelers insist they won’t give up on their season, by beat man Alan Robinson.

What happened to that ground game? Ralph Paulk revisits.

Here’s our full Steelers coverage.

Here’s Patriots news from the Boston Globe.

Here are official game highlights from

>> Paul Chryst aims to quell Pitt’s complacency talk. Jerry DiPaola writes.

>> Duquesne hoops faces a Bluff-sized hill to climb. Chris Harlan checks in from Jim Ferry’s barbecue … well, actually, it was the Dukes’ Media Day at Palumbo.

>> The Riverhounds will bring back the USL Pro’s MVP and top assists man in Jose Angulo and Matt Dallman, respectively. Matt Grubba has the exclusive.

There will be a lot more to this as part of a news conference the team is holding this morning, but based on what’s already there, you’ve got one really good glimpse of what strong fan support will get you: Angulo, in particular, really should be playing at a higher level, in my opinion. But money talks, and he’s staying.

>> I’ll be with the Hounds in the morning, then down the road with Mike Tomlin at noon.

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Author: Dejan Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is an award-winning sports columnist for Trib Total Media covering the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt and, recently, his fourth Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He also appears on WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word’ and hosts a weekly show on TribLIVE Radio. For 2011, he was named one of the country's top four columnists by the AP Sports Editors. For 2012, he was named one of the country's top three columnists by the National Headliners. For 2013, he was named the state's top columnist by the Keystone Press Awards and top columnist in Western Pennsylvania by the Golden Quills.

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