Whew, where do I begin?
It’s been a heck of a first year on the Sixers beat. I said first year because, as tiring as it can be at times, I’ve loved every second of it and do not plan on logging out of WordPress any time soon. My journey is just starting, and I’m thrilled to have you all along for the ride. I wouldn’t even say it’s something of a dream come true because I didn’t dream of it. It was an opportunity presented to me once I had proven I was serious about this industry and not just casually indulging in a hobby. But, my life has gotten better and better ever since I logged into my first media availability on Zoom, and that fulfillment has become addicting.
So, now that my rookie year on the NBA beat is done, here are some reflections and lessons from my first year.
Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable and investigate interests
This whole thing, whatever the hell it is, started with a DM to Brian Jacobs on a random Friday while I was working out in 2018. I already had a job lined up for when I graduated from Villanova, so I just thought it would be cool to explore a new interest. I had already begun podcasting the summer between my junior and senior years.
The funny thing about that is, going back to my childhood, I was never quite great at verbal articulation. I talked really fast and often tripped over words. I still do from time to time, but it was much, much worse when I was younger. Conversely, I was a very gifted writer. You could’ve made a very strong case I was better served delivering my daily thoughts through written words than through verbal conversation. So naturally, I started this whole journey by podcasting. Makes sense, right?
Treat your first experience as a growth opportunity
I started out writing something every week for Jacobs and what was then called Philly Front Office, but mostly focused on growing my Twitter following in the early-goings. Half way through my first year writing about the Sixers, I had the opportunity to cover the Delaware Blue Coats a few times. It was more glamorous than I thought covering a G-League team would be. But, the electricity and environment of covering an NBA team is just different.
If you’re ever fortunate enough to cover a G-League beat, don’t turn your nose up at it, especially if you’re looking for your first exposure to the job. G-League affiliates are very connected to their NBA parents. If the time comes for you to cover an NBA team, that team’s Public Relations staff will do their research on the impression you made with the G-League staffers. If you’re given the opportunity, treat it like you, too, are being groomed for the big leagues.
I have digressed from my main point enough in this first lesson. While my point about covering the G-League is still an important one, I want to impress upon you that I never, ever went into my senior year of college thinking I’d wind up writing about the NBA or covering the Blue Coats. It was bred from my willingness to try something new and explore it at a professional level. That blossomed into Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable and investigate interests.
Scale and re-define what compensation means to you
It’s not easy to stay up late to produce content when you know you’re not getting paid much (or, in some cases, at all). If you want to make it—not just as a journalist, but in any uncommon industry—you have to drive yourself sometimes when money isn’t there to motivate you. I recommend that, if you have the resources to pursue something like this, you scale and re-define what compensation is to you. For me, it’s getting to the next one-thousand followers and adding people to my network. Every follow is a sign of respect, and it drives me right now—even when the dollars aren’t pouring in.
I’m not saying that money isn’t important. We live in a global economy driven by currency. You need money to live. But, the growing presence of blogs–platforms that allow smart people to casually deliver thoughts often without the pressure of a deadline–gives readers a free alternative for good content. So, if people can consume free content elsewhere, it strains an industry that doesn’t promise excessive financial compensation to begin with.
Some day, I hope to make more money than I do now (it would be difficult to make much less!). But, when you’re young and getting started, don’t expect the Benny Franks to be available in your bank account every two weeks. While you’re working towards that point, pace yourself by re-defining what your compensation is. That makes it much easier to motivate yourself to do work when you’d rather be watching a movie or sleeping.
Network, network, network
Sometimes you have to force yourself to initiate conversations with people who you feel are above you. Whether it be other media or people in the NBA circle, I’ve grown my network by taking time to initiate conversations even when I feel like I’m in over my head. Remember—they’re people. Just because they hold a job that you fantasize about or have a high-ranking title doesn’t mean they’re not people. The more often you initiate those conversations, the less intimidating it is.
In terms of what to say when initiating those conversations, I usually introduce myself and communicate that I notice and appreciate their craft. From there, it’s about finding ways to continue the conversation. To continue the conversation is to slowly build the relationship. That is always the goal of networking.
When building your network of prized sources, you build the relationship by talking about things other than the topic for which you’re leveraging that source. You want to build trust. That’s the most powerful currency you can trade with a source. You build trust by taking a genuine interest in your source. Start there and build that trust. If they give you information, ask if it’s on the record before saying anything publicly because the worst thing you can do is break that trust or manipulate your source. It is not easy to win them back, and your reputation will travel from circle to circle.
Know The Risks
Speaking of sourced reporting, teams and agents are looking out for their own best interests. They very well may give you information and permit you to report it. But, it’s not always easy to forge those connections. Such has especially been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic because your best opportunity to talk to such officials is through Zoom or social media platforms.
In the age of social media, you may find yourself in conversations with third parties associated with situations of interest. I would recommend not reporting what you hear the first time you hear it. You often have the least to gain by reporting something–remember that. Do your research, ask around, and try to corroborate what you’ve heard before publishing that information. Know the risks and be prepared to take the heat if your information ends up being disproven.
Be kind and be humble
The great Rob Maaddi once advised me in passing how valuable being kind is in this industry. You never know who might be able to help you down the line. You wouldn’t want someone else to talk down to you, either. Even if you disagree, even if you want to clown a bad take, choose kindness. Trust me, it helps. It’s easy to get caught up in how many followers you have, how many of your opinions have panned out, how many likes/RTs you get. Stay grounded, and don’t forget who helped you or where you started. Help people as much as you can. Answer your emails and direct messages when warranted. Don’t ignore those who follow you and care about your opinions.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself or stand by your work when people criticize you. But, you won’t gain anything by attempting to shame people when it’s not warranted.
Re-read and value the previous point
I’ve made those exact mistakes. I’ve compromised my own credibility and I’ve burned bridges because of immaturity in the past. It takes persistent, hard work to rebuild that. Learn from what I did wrong, please. I’ve chosen to reflect on my mistakes because I hope it helps someone who is less experienced than I am. I’m very fortunate to be where I am, but I could’ve been farther along than I am had I not made the mistakes I’ve made.
Be conscious of how your actions affect you and your brand in both the present and in the future. Ask yourself how your actions might be interpreted by others. It might sound a bit excessive to put that much thought into your actions, but it’s not worth the anxiety you’ll feel and damage control that will need to be done as a result of your misstepping.
Take endless notes
When your sport is at the height of its activity, you’ll get overwhelmed by the number of ideas you have. You don’t have to produce content for every development in that moment. Rather, take notes on everything, build a framework for your story, and save the draft for a time when it’s most pertinent.
Those notes may take the form of a sourced story in which you’re just compiling everything you’ve heard into an organized document. They might just be a bunch of thoughts about a particular topic you plan to re-visit later. If not either of those, it could just be an interesting quote you extract from a media availability. It doesn’t matter–if something tickles your fancy, note it. Make sure to include the date on which the idea was developed, the information received, or the quote delivered, too.
Observe your interviewee
Whether it’s a press availability or a 1-on-1 interview, getting your interviewee out of their shell can be quite challenging. The best practice for getting the most out of your question or conversation is to figure out what makes your interviewee tick. Obviously, don’t waste everyone’s time by droning on about something unrelated to your purpose. But, make them comfortable by talking about things they enjoy or are passionate about. If you don’t know what that topic is, fine. You don’t need to be the first hand raised. Let other reporters take their swings first and listen to see how detailed or authentic the answer is. Whenever someone steps to the microphone for the first time, step back and listen. You very well may learn more doing that than you would being amongst the first to ask questions.
Request recordings of your guest appearances
I’ve requested recordings of a number of the guest appearances I’ve made on television programs, radio shows, and podcasts for three reasons. One, every repetition helps you get more used to such spots. Two, those appearances serve as reinforcements that you can add to your résumé and portfolio. Three, they serve as reminders of how far you’ve come at moments when you feel like giving up on the journey.
Speaking of guest appearances…
Say ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as you can. The people who invite you onto their programs are showing that they respect your content, and they’re helping you grow your exposure and credibility while you’re helping them add value to their content. It may be late at night or early in the morning, but they’re not just asking anybody to join their program. If you say ‘no’, someone else will surely say ‘yes’ and, boom, your competition just gained a leg up on you. Now, if you legitimately cannot make it, fine. You can’t say ‘yes’ to everything. But, if you can feasibly be there, be there.
Don’t count the hours
If you enjoy what you’re doing, keep pushing as much as you can. You never know what doors will open. Don’t count the hours you’ve already put in or the hours you think you have left to put in. Most people have to start at the bottom and build their ways to the top. Your goal shouldn’t be to put in a certain number of hours every day. This will sound very cliché, but, at bare minimum, you should strive to improve your craft every day. I work my day job 8 AM to 4:30 PM every day. After that, I dedicate as much of my evening as possible to just getting better. Some days, that’s researching statistics and taking notes. Other days, that’s watching film or re-listening to previous media availabilities.
All of it is done to build towards an actual piece of content (story or podcast). In my experience, it’s fine to take one day totally off per week. But, I’m doing something, anything to improve my craft every other day of the week. Like I said, if you find yourself always counting the hours, you’re not actually enjoying it. If you’re not enjoying it, stop doing it. Take pride in your content and love the process of creating it. If you view sports media as a path more serious than a casual hobby, treat it like a job even if you’re not currently being compensated like you would in a traditional job.
Before I wrap this up, I just want to thank a couple of people for guiding me through my first year on the beat, giving me incredible opportunities, and opening new doors for me to walk through as this journey continues into my second year covering the NBA. THANK YOU for your help, time, belief, and access:
Jason Blevins, Ky Carlin, Rob Maaddi, Vince Quinn, John Crichton, Rob King, Patrick Rees, Molly Mita, and Dave Sholler.
That’s all for now, folks!