A letter to the future college sports journalists of America
College Contributor Network
Future journalists and broadcasters of America,
For four years, I was a college sports journalist.
I don't just mean a journalist who covered college sports, but rather, a journalist in college covering college sports. I chose to spend my four years at Quinnipiac University, a private Division I institution in Hamden, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven. Smack-dab between New York and Boston, it was a no-brainer to maximize the potential for covering major events, garnering internships and enjoying high-level competitive sports.
It was the best experience of my life, and it was also one that required intense patience, thousands of hours and open-mindedness. As I embark on my next journey, I wanted to leave many of you with some parting words I hope will help shape your next four years. While I am no professional life lessons dealer, I do believe these will help maximize the upcoming amazing opportunity you have.
Remember your purpose
The concept of becoming a sports journalist or broadcaster is a glorified one. Out there, in the distant future, there are prospects of seeing oneself on a major television network. There is the possibility of you having a national column in a major paper. Or perhaps, if you're lucky, you are the face of the franchise at a major radio station.
And yes, that is mighty cool.
In fact, covering sports for a living is among the coolest occupations you can have. But if you plan on pursuing this career for the sole reason that it is cool, it's time to find a different field.
We, as aspiring professional journalists and broadcasters, have a commitment towards serving as storytellers. Stories exist within all realms of life, and particularly in sports. And believe it or not, they can exist beyond who won the game and who lost.
You will be asked to tell gripping stories on the basketball court, and to turn around the next day and do the same for the winter track & field team. And while one sport may be more "popular" than the other, their respective stories are equally as important. Your job is not to be a talking head and merely say "this player is good." Instead, you must say how this player became who they are, and do so in a way no one else has.
Sometimes, you will become involved in the story. But no matter what the perception has become on the national scene at times, remember, you are not the story. It may be a trying experience to present someone else's, but it is never about you. You are the narrator, not the main character.
Forget the fandom
I have encountered many colleagues who began in journalism and ultimately decided to change paths and go the public relations route. I have a great amount of respect for them, because they realized they could not adhere to this core value of journalism and, rather than pretending they could, decided to go elsewhere with their work. There is nothing wrong with this.
However, if one does plan on calling themselves a journalist, they must leave all rooting interests at the door.
Perhaps The Boston Globe's Christopher L. Gasper summed it up best when referring to Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price's rant on the role of the media:
"The job of a traditional media member is not to root, root, root for the home team, or aid its quest for victory. It is also not to intentionally undermine it. It is to report the news or provide insight or commentary. We strive for Swiss neutrality. But in an era of league-owned television networks, fawning team websites, and partisan fan blogs, it's easy to see the lines between journalism and boosterism getting blurred and folks such as Price getting confused."
His words resonate with much of my experiences as a college journalist. Attending a school, and in particular, a private institution, makes covering a team very difficult. You may go to Duke University, but if you're covering Duke, you can never refer to the school as "we." Your friends may be part of the Cameron Crazies, but to you, it makes no difference if the Blue Devils win the national championship or lose in embarrassing fashion on their home floor. And this is a concept that is hard to grasp for many.
Why would you not vocally support the school you go to? Well, simply put, that's not your job.
Many athletic departments are now hiring students to cover or broadcast for the teams in a move that is reflective of the changing climate Gasper refers to. It is a move that promotes fandom, which is a major part of the culture change he alludes to.
Despite these changes, journalistic integrity remains powerful. Even though you are in college, your audience will not view you that way. But if you pen a critical piece about the football team, then at its next game, you are seen sporting the school colors out in the bleachers, that clouds the credibility of your words.
As journalists and broadcasters, we are not fans of the team. We are fans of the game.
Don't be afraid to pursue truth
There is nothing harder than the subjects you cover being your colleagues you see in class every day. You form friendships and relationships, where trust becomes an imperative piece towards obtaining information that will help your stories become that much better.
College athletics can provide for some amazing story opportunities. Unfortunately, some of them are not flattering.
The most valuable lesson I learned in my four years came from this fact. While we are storytellers, journalism is based on the principle of truth. And with the very first story we dabble into, we take a Hippocratic Oath of pursuing that principle.
Do not be afraid to chase the truth, even if it will upset those above you. Many times, the truth can be ugly, but it will open up opportunities for improvement and bettering the lives of those affected by it. As the journalist, you are the voice of the voiceless, and it's a privilege to make a difference not many get to experience.
Utilize those around you for support, and do not be afraid to make mistakes. This is college, the time period where people make more mistakes than they ever will! And while yours will differ from the "typical" college students', the only way to learn is to mess up. Don't let it deter, but instead, motivate.
Journalism is a passion-fueled industry. Sure, there will be some who make it to the top of the mountain, but most will do it for little physical reward to start. But that's because we do it for the love of the game -- our game -- the storytelling game.
I thank AOL Sports for the opportunity to tell stories over the past year. And thank you to all who took even a moment of time to read my thoughts. Being a college sports journalist changed my life, and both the good and bad experiences helped shape me and invigorated my passion for this field.
Pursue the truth, tell great stories and never lose sight of the fact that you can make a difference.
Jon Alba recently graduated Quinnipiac University. There he served as general manager of the school's television station, Q30 Television. Find more of his work on his official website. Follow him on Twitter: @JonAlbaSFC.