The key to being a successful sports journalist is working hard and asking good questions.
That’s the opinion of CBC sports broadcaster Elliotte Friedman, a recent winner of a Gemini Award for Sports Broadcasting, who offered his views on the business on Oct. 26 at a sports writing class that is part of the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. It wasn’t long ago that Friedman was an aspiring sports writer. But now a successful journalist—having the opportunity to cover amazing events such as Usain Bolt’s 9.69-second world record–breaking 100-metre finish at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing—he is happy to pass along advice to others.
Friedman arrived dressed casually, a far different look from his regular formal attire worn for his role as an interviewer on Hockey Night in Canada. He was animated and didn’t hold back when he spoke to the class—even swearing to emphasize certain points. He constantly paced back and forth, blurting out that he has Attention Deficit Disorder. There was no pretense to what he was saying or the way in which he was saying it. Friedman loves his job, and was keen to pass on tips on sports writing and broadcasting to the students, who hung onto his every word.
“Athletes love to be challenged because they’re so used to the same questions all the time,” said Friedman.
He added that public relations staff for teams prepare their players with media training, so in order to get good answers, sports journalists need to be creative with their questions. Friedman credited his success to being able to tell people things they didn’t already know about the stories he is reporting. He said that in an industry where fans think they know everything, producing original material will make a writer or broadcaster stand out from others in the industry.
“You need to think to yourself, how can I find something fresh?” said Friedman, while explaining that the athlete will be able to tell if the reporter is unprepared and will appreciate the questions they likely haven’t already been asked.
Friedman said broadcasters and writers are fans just as much as they are professionals, so it is a huge mistake to not ask what you want to know.
“You’re a fan as well, so what interests you the most?” Friedman asked the class.
Although the interviewer needs to ask tough questions, Friedman said it is paramount to “warm someone up first, and then bring the hammer.” In some circumstances, he admitted, there’s no time for a warm-up.
“If you’re interviewing Todd Bertuzzi the day after the Steve Moore incident, he knows what’s coming and there’s no time to waste,” said Friedman.
He said another key component to a great interview is to listen to what the person says and to not focus automatically on your next question.
“Your power is in your listening.”
Friedman advised all aspiring writers and broadcasters to use a contact if they have it. But he believes that even though someone may open a door, it’s the individual who ultimately decides their own path through working hard and being willing to make sacrifices—it is important at the beginning of a career to do whatever it takes.
“The initial break is luck, but you have to make your own luck afterwards,” he said. “You need to be driven.”
Friedman noted that early in his career, he received a last-minute opportunity to work on Victoria Day weekend when he had already made travel plans with his then girlfriend. When he cancelled on his girlfriend he was given an ultimatum: the job or her. They haven’t spoken since.
“You’re going to have to make choices like that,” said Friedman.
Friedman has moved on since the days of sacrificing girlfriends for work, and is now happily married, but he noted that when they first started dating, his wife-to-be had to adjust to his hectic spring schedule covering the hockey playoffs.
Although Friedman has a knack for discovering interesting information through his extended list of contacts, he doesn’t report everything. “Ultimately it’s your name out there, so you need to ask, ‘Do I trust it? Do I believe it?’” he said.
He suggested it is important to have a thick skin while in the business. Friedman interviewed Pat Quinn during his days as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Quinn happened to be in a foul mood and disparaged many of his players. Afterwards, Quinn forcefully requested that Friedman not run the interview, but Friedman would not comply and asked his employers to back him, knowing he had done nothing wrong.
“If someone isn’t getting mad at you at some point, you’re not doing your job well,” he emphasized.
He said in the case of female sports reporters, looks used to matter more than actual knowledge. Now, that doesn’t happen as much, because there is far too much credibility to lose for an employer. However, he noted that female reporters are held to higher standards.
“If a man makes a mistake, he just made a mistake,” said Friedman. “If a woman makes a mistake, it’s because she’s a woman.” But he also noted that the industry has opened up to women and visible minorities. “If you’re good, they will find room for you.”
Friedman thinks the Internet, specifically sites like Twitter, has given everyone the opportunity to have a voice. He believes that it is only when you’re comfortable with who you are and who you want to be that you should you go out and broadcast yourself because first impressions last in the business. It’s also important for aspiring writers and broadcasters to let their long-term goals be known to their bosses and peers. Aspiring writers should have their work looked at by a more experienced writer in order to learn from them. Friedman emphasized the need to keep pushing and apply good work habits.
“The best in the business go the extra mile.”
Despite his Gemini, Friedman has retained all of his old rejections letters from early in his career. It just proves that aspiring writers and broadcasters need to persevere and apply the work ethic that Friedman stresses.