On a regular basis I ask (and get asked) questions about how to become a better NBA journalist. It struck me that the NBA community needed to come together to create a list of tips on a number of different topics for not only aspiring journalists but those refining their craft. What follows is perhaps the greatest list of NBA journalism tips ever compiled in one place.
I reached out to a who’s who in the basketball industry and to say I was overcome with appreciation for everyone’s support would be a massive understatement. We should consider ourselves lucky that these generous journalists are at the forefront of our industry.
Zach Lowe, Senior Writer, Grantland, @ZachLowe_NBA
…on developing a voice and style
I’m not sure there’s any trick other than writing a lot, reading all kinds of different things, and when you are afforded the time, really agonizing over the language of a piece. That is something we rarely get anymore. Does this sound the way you want it to? Is there a more precise word that might better articulate exactly what you are trying to say? On the flip side, sometimes it’s better just to write — to see what comes as one sentence gets your brain firing in another direction you didn’t expect. Both strategies will gradually lead to stuff that sounds like you — authentically like you.
It’s just practice, really.
Paul Coro, Suns Beat Writer, The Arizona Republic, @paulcoro
…on conducting interviews
We, as reporters, often go into an interview with a firm idea of what our topic may be and what questions we want to ask. But an interview should be more like a conversation. That means being a good listener and reacting to the answers. That is how you can discover something unknown or unique. Athletes can be bored by the mundane, although some of that questioning is just the nature of the beast to get essential updates. But if you get a player talking on something that interests or intrigues him, unexpected stories or angles can come of that. Being attentive in conversation is not just for interviews. Talking to people with a team, not just athletes and coaches, can help you gain trust and not make the subjects feel like they’re just being used for your stories.
Matt Moore, NBA Writer, CBS Sports, @HPBasketball
…on networking and the NBA community
The only real way for your stuff to get seen on the web is if people who lots of people pay attention to say “Hey, read this.” It used to be link dumps, back when I started blogging. Then it became social media. Now it’s evolving into newsletters and all the new ways social media is integrated with mobile.
But in the end, the result is the same. If you don’t have a massive platform to work from, the only way you’re going to really get noticed in this quagmire of content is for smart people who key people read link you and notice you.
That’s not the best reason to network, though. Networking, if you do it right, teaches you things. It makes you better at what you do, smarter at what you’re trying to accomplish, whether that’s writing, understanding the NBA, or leveraging new technology. Other people are resources of knowledge, if you follow and talk to the right ones. The wrong way to do it is to network in search of opportunities FOR YOU. People want to help other people, generally, but you have to choose people you like and trust. And you’re not going to like and trust someone who is constantly telling you about their AMAZING SYSTEM or CHECK OUT THIS ARTICLE I WROTE. Instead, send a link with a question. “What did you think of this?” “I know you cover X a lot, did I get that section right?” Email writers or contacts you have and just ask them questions. Develop those relationships instead of just asking for things. Otherwise you’re not networking… you’re basically a link panhandler.
Finally, a story:
When I first started writing at Paroxysm, there were so many writers I thought (and still think) were brilliant. So I’d do roundtables, asking them to send just a paragraph (after we’d established a relationship) on a subject. That got bigger-name writers on Paroxysm and helped strengthen those connections. I approached it humbly, recognizing that they weren’t getting much out of this, but instead that it would be a fun project in and of itself. Not only did those posts create a substantial amount of traffic for HP which turned into more “sticky” or daily readers, but those connections became some of the people I turned to over the years for job opportunities or advice.
The NBA community is a strong one, and the biggest thing? We LOVE talking basketball. Use that. Talk about basketball, not what you want, approach it honestly, and you can gain connections to tunnels in the industry, and there’s no telling where those will lead.
Jimmy Spencer, Sr. Product Manager, Staance, @jimmyspencerNBA
…on breaking into the business
Get personal. Find out who the decision makers are and connect. Don’t be generic or routine, but reach out authentically and quickly show what you can bring to the table. There are literally thousands of sports writers who have reached out to me before, and it’s hard to read a long note from them or answer the general question of “What advice do you have for me?” If possible, ask specific questions and find out what you can do right away.
Learn what the company is trying to do, and see if you can become a part of what is happening. Then follow through. The worst thing that can happen is you reach out, get an opening, and then fail to execute by disappearing or not delivering. A budding writer should always be writing somewhere, even if it’s a small or self-created platform. It’s practice, yes, but it’s also a way to quickly show off your portfolio of writing and reporting. Ask yourself: What am I bringing that is unique and desired, would I want to read/click my stuff, and why does it fit a particular organization?
It’s all about personal connection, and blind emails to the top don’t always work. Build relationships and find ways to get your work in front of the people who make decisions. When I first started at The Sacramento Bee back in 2003, I entered as a sports clerk willing to do everything from writing the smallest of high school stories to organizing box scores in the paper. I climbed the ladder by working hard and accepting everything. I did not show up expecting to cover the Kings. Prove yourself with the little things, and you will be trusted with larger things.
Jared Wade, NBA Columnist, FanSided, @Jared_Wade
…on covering a team from afar
In 2015, you don’t need to be local to cover an NBA team well. The key to being credible from afar is knowing what you can and cannot speak about authoritatively. By simply watching 82 games on television, pouring through statistics, and reading every quote you can find about, for example, a team’s offensive philosophy, you can become an expert about a team’s strengths and weaknesses. You can break down plays through video clips or do deep-dive analysis into what factors cause the team to lose. But you cannot get anything more than secondhand info about the locker room dynamic, team chemistry, and interpersonal issues that might be affecting performance. So just focus on the things you can know — how the team plays basketball — not sideshow speculation.
Fran Fraschilla, Basketball Analyst, ESPN, @franfraschilla
…on being prepared to deal with collegiate athletes
“Great preparation” is the best advice I can give a young basketball writer. Covering college and NBA basketball, for me, is not work. It’s a passion for me. People expect that, because of my love of the game, I am going to do my homework and tell viewers something about a player, coach or team that they have never heard before. In addition, preparation allows me to attempt to forecast something in a game before it happens rather than always reacting to what happened
As for criticizing a college player, I try to do it in a way that is constructively critical. But, I also realize that if a player chooses to go to a school that provides great media exposure, he must be prepared to take the good with the bad. Getting exposure means, sometimes, getting exposed.
Ben Golliver, NBA Writer, Sports Illustrated, @BenGolliver
…on getting noticed
I think the most important question to ask is: What’s my competitive advantage? What can I do better than everyone else (or almost everyone else)? What skills do I have and can I develop to help differentiate me in the eyes of editors? I think editors are generally looking for hard-working, dedicated, knowledgeable, and proficient writers. That said, none of those traits really count when it comes to answering that first question. Those skills are prerequisites and the other writers who are fighting for the same jobs you want likely have all of those bases covered too.
So, what can make you different? Are you good on social media? Good at breaking news? Good at quick-hitting analysis? Good at painting scenes? Interviewing people? Making full use of access? Explaining complicated situations or themes in easy-to-understand language?
Conducting a self-assessment to decide exactly what your strengths are is a great place to start, and it’s a good idea to solicit feedback from friends/colleagues if you find it difficult to go through that process. From there, try to focus your efforts and time on what you do best and network with others who share those skills as you continue to hone your craft. Try to create as much original content as much as possible — whether that’s an interview, your own analysis, a GIF, whatever — so that people will view you as new/different/unique. Also, try to get “on the ground” at arenas, practices, Summer League, etc. as much as possible so that you can build industry relationships. It’s always easier for an editor to trust someone he has met or seen in action.
Realize before going in that it could easily take years to get the job that you think you could handle right now. Run with every opportunity that comes your way: always try to over-deliver and work as efficiently as possible in a self-sufficient manner. Being reliable and low-maintenance goes a long way once your foot is in the door.
Jody Genessy, Utah Jazz Beat Writer, Deseret News, @DJJazzyJody
…on embracing the journey
Read, write, read, write, read, write. It’s so important that young writers get a good feel of how other writers perform their craft. How do others structure sentences? How do they make transitions? How do they incorporate quotes? How do they keep a reader engaged? Reading — and reading a lot — is the best way to discover the answers to all of those questions.
In the meantime, go write. Write for your local newspaper, your school paper, your blog, your journal, your mom. My journalism career was sparked when I started writing for my work’s newsletter (one I created while a manager at McDonald’s called “The McD Monthly”). The important thing is that you learn the basics of storytelling, become familiar with writing rules and AP style, and then put the pen (or pixels) to paper (or the screen).
Once you’re familiar with and comfortable with writing the basics, then you can start working on creating your own voice. I like to use a conversational, occasionally witty style in my writing. I write about sports. It should (when appropriate) be fun.
Here’s something young writers might not want to hear: I was a full-time sports writer for 16 years before I finally got my first big beat-writer assignment (Utah Jazz beat writer). This seems like an eternity in this instant gratification era, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I seized many incredible opportunities in the years leading up to my break. I wrote about high school sports, amateur events, people and things outside of the sports world, anything and everything I possibly could. That helped me be prepared for the big challenge of trying to figure out how to be a beat writer — something I’m still trying to figure out.
My short tips: Read, write, learn style/rules, experiment, find your voice, embrace opportunities, don’t give up, have fun.
Jeff Pearlman, Author, @jeffpearlman
…on writing books
Two things—1. Always make the extra call. Call everyone. Then everyone else. Then everyone else. Don’t leave any stories on the table; find them all. 2. When you start writing, set a definitive daily word minimum. It can be 600, 1,000, whatever. But writers often need that discipline. I sure do.
Tom Ziller, NBA Columnist, SBNation.com, @teamziller
…on bringing original ideas to fruition and writing at multiple places
You need lots of ideas. Keep grinding. Make time, find time and put good stuff out as frequently as you can. I once wrote at four places; I don’t recommend it. My advice is to find publishers whose ethos you agree with and do what you can to get there.
Coach Nick, Founder, BBALLBREAKDOWN, @bballbreakdown
…on taking the conversation to the next level
What I do best is have the conversation. Sharing what I see is the tipping off point, and with video, it’s a much better platform to share insights than even the best written paragraph or still shot. But once I put my videos out there, the comments get filled with more insights, questions, comments, insults.. you name it. And I respond to as many as is humanly possible (apologies to my wife, who puts up with the constant glancing at the phone).
I believe this is the primary reason for our popularity – I’m not some anchor on the TV having a 1 way conversation. And this brings people back for more, knowing they have direct access and a real conversation.
Sekou Smith, NBA Analyst, NBA.com, @SekouSmithNBA
…on getting more out of interviews
Stop talking and listen. Seriously, just try it every now and then. Listen instead of trying to talk over the person you’re interviewing. I can’t tell you how many times, particularly in group interview settings, I’ve seen reporters so bent on getting their questions out that they completely miss the opportunity to pull a great anecdote or answer from the person being interviewed. A pause, a brief moment of silence can redirect or refocus the topic of conversation in a way that would not happen without that stoppage in the activity of the person conducting the interview.
We’re all know-it-alls in a sense, that’s a significant part of why most of us are in this business. Everyone has strong opinions and we’ve been ushered into an era where everyone thinks that brandishing their own thoughts about something is the most important component of any interview and subsequently any piece (written, audio or on camera) born out of that interview. But I’ve learned from experience just how powerful it is to allow an interview to be a conversation rather than an interrogation. There are times when the hard-ball interview is required to get the best out of whatever time you have, as well as getting the basic business done.
You will have to drag the information out of someone, by any means necessary sometimes, in order to do your job. But I’ve always found the process far more intriguing when you take your time and let the conversation flow organically. And I’ve often found the results of a good interview far more rewarding when you don’t follow a strict script and allow the person you are dealing with to breathe a little bit and share things they might not otherwise. And it comes from being as good a listener as you are an interviewer.
Sam Amico, NBA Analyst, Fox Sports, @AmicoHoops
…on building a brand
Building a ‘brand’ is essential. It’s not enough to just be a good writer or maintain a blog. That’s a good start, but in order to get places, you need to sell yourself along with your work.
I launched Pro Basketball News in 2005, and along with managing the site, I used it as a resume. I emailed links to all the major news outlets and every NBA team. I printed business cards. I made sure to do my due diligence when it came to reporting, using my site to get press credentials. I made friends with the bloggers to help sell my work. Eventually, Twitter came along and made selling myself that much easier. I wanted people to see that I took writing about the NBA very seriously.
I majored in psychology in college, so I had to teach myself journalism. I learned that good writing begins and ends with good reporting. I read everything I could — not just NBA stories. I read Steinbeck. I read Associated Press stories from Iraq. I read everything from crime to entertainment. And I used my website to practice writing — a lot.
Eventually, people started to believe I was serious, and not just some blogger throwing out random opinions on basketball. There’s a place for that, but I wanted to do this for living. In order to do that, you have to sell yourself, and you have to be relentless about it. I must have sent FOX more than 500 emails over five years before they finally gave in. But I’d like to think they wouldn’t have done it if my work was horrible.
People will either get annoyed with you or finally relent and hire you. The key is to not get discouraged when they tell you they don’t have any openings. The key is to stay in their mind, to make the NBA know who you are. It’s not easy. If it were, everyone would do it. But you have to be more than just a writer these days. You have to be a marketer and seller of yourself.