How to Slam Dunk a Career in Sports Journalism: A Dribble of Information from Texas Tech Beat Writer Courtney Linehan

2 04 2010

by Jenna Reisch

Coutney Linehan with former college and NBA player, Stephen Bardo at Texas Tech. Photo courtesy of Linehan.

Are you interested in a writing career ?  Consider sports journalism.  Courtney Linehan – beat writer for Texas Tech’s men’s basketball team and sports editor at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, a newspaper in a college town of West Texas – is an expert in her field.

While in college, Linehan, who majored in journalism, was a staff writer for the University of Illinois’ student newspaper .  She was also sports editor for Ames Tribune for two years before she began  her current position as sports editor for Texas Tech.  Linehan gives us the play-by-play of the unconventional lifestyle required of the beat writer, and gives us expert advice that has helped her score an exciting career on the court of journalism.

“What exactly is a sports beat writer?” you may ask.  A beat writer, in essence, is a journalist who covers a specific sports team.  They usually cover the team year round, even during offseason.  According to wisegeek.com, because beat writers cover usually one team in one sport, his or her writing skills must be varied to be able to write different kinds of stories.  For example, the sports beat writer may have to cover a certain player’s struggle with an injury, a feature story on the coach or sports fanatics, the pep band, or an article detailing the outcome of last night’s game.

Linehan ran towards a career in journalism because of her love for writing and because she did not want a career where she would have to sit on the sidelines, mostly in an office, editing and writing stories at a desk all day.

Beat writing can be a lot of fun.  “As a basketball beat writer, my job is exciting,” says Linehan.  “Texas Tech is a member of the Big 12 Conference, one of the biggest sports conferences in the country. I go to every game, whether it is in Lubbock or Kansas or Colorado or wherever, take notes on what happens during the game, then interview the coaches and players afterward.”

The work hours for beat writers are far from normal.  Linehan usually goes to work in the early afternoon to put together a page for the next day’s newspaper.  She meets with the other editors (news, photos, features, etc), goes over different plans, and decides what is important enough to go on the front page of the next day’s paper.  After the editorial meeting, Linehan usually goes to basketball practice, interviews a few players, and then heads back to the office.  At the office,  she edits other reporters’ stories for the next issue, writes her own articles, and finalizes the sports section around 11 p.m.  “I am usually in the office until close to 1 a.m.,” says Linehan.

Sports writers often work on Saturdays and Sundays.  Many times sporting events happen at night and on weekends and holidays.  “People want to read the newspaper on December 26th, so somebody has to work on Christmas,” says Linehan.

While these work hours may not sound pleasant to some people, many sports journalists love their jobs because they are able to be active and see their favorite sporting events live.  “My job allows me to spend time outside, at games, and generally away from the office,” says Linehan.  “That’s really the best part, I think, because it keeps it interesting.  If I’m going to do this for 40 years or more, I want to enjoy it.”

Aside from out-of-the-ordinary work hours, frequent traveling also makes beat writing an unconventional job.  Most beat writers travel with the team they are covering.  Linehan travels with Texas Tech’s basketball team and is on the road usually at least twice a week during season.

Another perk of being a journalist is having the potential of interviewing famous people.  In the past, Linehan has interviewed Hillary Clinton, Charles Barkley, Deron Williams, Bob Knight, A.J. Pierzynski, and Ozzie Guillen.

As a journalist, there are opportunities for advancement.  Most entry-level journalists start out at smaller papers and work their way up to larger ones.  “You might start at a once-a-week paper that prints 5,000 copies, then move to a daily newspaper that prints 10,000 copies, then a daily paper in a city that prints 100,000 copies,” says Linehan.  “Your job title won’t change, but it’s still career advancement.”

According to an article on About.com most sports writers do not make a fortune, but most love what they do.  While typical pay is from $25,000 to $45,000, sports writers may also have chances to make additional money through radio, television, books, and internet outlets.

Linehan’s long-term career goal is to stick in the industry until retirement.  “That might be a real challenge in this industry, where people are constantly being laid off and the way we deliver information is rapidly changing,” says Linehan.  She explains that most reporters’ general long-term career goal is to “work at a bigger paper, cover a more high profile beat and make more money.”

People interested in pursuing a career in journalism do not necessarily need a major in journalism.  While many journalists have a major in journalism, others are English or Political Science majors.  “The health writer at my paper was a biology major, Linehan says. “And you don’t need an advanced degree to be a journalist, although I think it’s helpful as an editor.”

To prepare for a career as a sports journalist, Linehan suggests that students work for their school paper and get an internship or shadow a local reporter.  She also suggests that students who are not majoring in journalism take reporting classes to become more familiar with the field.

While you don’t have to be a sports fan to be a sports journalist, “you definitely have to be willing to do things that you are not comfortable with,” says Linehan. “You have to be comfortable in new situations and asking questions of people who are often very intimidating. And if you don’t know a lot of the rules of sports, you have to be willing to learn.”

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