The first session on the second day of the Association for Women in Sports Media’s 2015 Convention focused on “Landing the Assignment!” Mike Sherman, the sports editor of the Oklahoman, described it another way: Working for the coveted assignment.
Sherman asked panelists — Susan Miller Degnan, who covers the University of Miami for the Miami Herald; Melissa Hoppert, an NFL/colleges editor and horse racing writer at The New York Times; and Jeff Legwold, who covers the Denver Broncos for ESPN.com — to share their most coveted assignment, which elicited a variety of responses, ranging from Degnan’s experiences covering the Winter Olympics to Legwold’s opportunity to play in a game against the Harlem Globetrotters.
“I got that assignment just because I happened to answer the phone,” Legwold said. “Ability is just a part of availability. You have to be available to land the assignment.”
The group also discussed pitching stories, particularly for freelance writers, especially emphasizing the idea of self-starting freelancers who are competent in a range of skills outside of just writing. All three panelists said pitching several stories at once is the best way to approach an editor.
An editor for The New York Times, Hoppert said her preferred method of contact is email, though she also cited her busy schedule, and said follow-up emails are encouraged because she often cannot respond — or forgets to respond — to the first. Degnan said writers who begin writing a story before they pitch it are more likely to land the assignment.
“If you really love it, show it,” she said.
Finally, the group covered what they thought constituted compelling stories. Legwold said to always take the assignment that no one wants, giving the example of a journalist at ESPN.com who took a fishing story and ended up getting hired at Sports Illustrated because he did such a good job with it.
“I wish I had some great magical tip, but my magical tip is that the stories are the people, not the institutions,” he said. “You learn in reporting that the five ‘W’s’ and the ‘H’ are how you report. As I’ve gone on, I’ve realized that the ‘why’ is really what matters. If you can be the ‘why’ person, you can separate yourself from all the other folks.”