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For budding sports reporters, another career test: a summer without internships

For five women trying to break into highly competitive world of sports media, the pandemic has created an unlevel playing field

Christina Long was supposed to spend the summer interning for the Sports section at the Seattle Times. But the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled internship plans for her and so many others in the tightknit but competitive world of college sports journalism. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

After another digital journalism outfit announced another round of furloughs, Christina Long dashed off a text to a group of friends — all women, all up-and-comers in the close-knit but intensely competitive world of sports media.

“WHY ARE NONE OF MY INTERESTS WORTH ANYTHING IN DOLLARS,” the University of Missouri junior lamented in April after Vox Media furloughed more than 100 people, many from its trendsetting sports blog SB Nation.

The responses gave voice to their collective apprehensions. In Ann Arbor, Mich., Aria Gerson raised the possibility of law school. Kennedi Landry in Baton Rogue and Ella Brockway outside Chicago mused about teaching. For Emily Leiker, just down the street from Long in Columbia, Mo., the idea of any other career path was inconceivable: “I feel I have no skills except for writing.”

The five are trying to chart their professional lives while a global pandemic and deep recession are still unfolding, accelerating job and pay cuts in their long-beleaguered industry. The disruptions are even more pronounced in sports media with the loss of live events. That’s led to more uncertainty and, for the next generation of sportswriters, lost opportunities as internships are tabled and job offers scarce.

Long, 21, was supposed to intern at the Seattle Times, writing about the WNBA and college and professional football. Instead, she’s shuttling between her college apartment in Columbia, Mo., and her parents’ home in Lawrence, Kan., working an unpaid social media internship with Austin Monthly magazine and editing a local arts and culture monthly. Brockway, a 20-year-old junior at Northwestern University, had expected to be copy editing game stories at The Washington Post, but it suspended most summer internships.

Gerson, 21, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, is working remotely in Grand Rapids for USA Today instead of in its newsroom near Washington. Leiker, 20, a junior at Missouri, is also writing remotely, though she opted to move to North Carolina for her summer job with the Raleigh News & Observer, even though the newspaper’s office is closed.

Landry, 22, the lone 2020 graduate of the group — from Louisiana State University — is job hunting from her parents’ home in Midland, Tex., rather than following the Yankees and Mets as an intern for Major League Baseball in New York.

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These days, things can change pretty quickly. Three years ago, Brockway noted, two of the standard bearers of American sports journalism appeared to be hanging on: ESPN the Magazine was still in print, and Sports Illustrated was publishing nearly 40 issues a year. Now the former is out of print, and the latter is down to a slimmer monthly release plus a few special editions, with much of its staff laid off.

“Three months ago,” she said, “I was happy and in school, and everything was the same.”

The sports wall cracks

The journalism industry was hit hard during the last recession, with newsrooms shedding nearly 1 out of every 5 jobs from 2008 to 2013, according to Pew Research Center. But media experts long held that robust sports coverage was a powerful draw for both readers and advertisers.

For decades USA Today used its expansive Sports section to power subscription growth coast to coast, noted Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. Regional newspapers pumped up high school athletics in the view that “refrigerator coverage” — the kind of stories friends and family might cut out and hang on the fridge — would drive readership.

In recent years, traditional Sports sections have lost ground with the rise of marketing and larger content operations from teams and leagues themselves, though job cuts have come at perhaps a slower pace than other kinds of news media roles.

“On balance, I think it’s a pretty healthy market compared to other types of reporters, but it used to be something that every paper had somewhat of a decent staff,” Edmonds said. “Even though some of that is gone, some of those jobs have moved to other venues that might not be considered ‘real news.’ ”

But then the pandemic hit, and suddenly dozens of news outlets were forced to slash staff and salaries as advertising withered. No platform was immune; even digital upstarts like The Athletic and SB Nation were cutting back. Vox Media offered buyouts in June to many of the SB Nation employees furloughed in April.

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The entire sports staff at the San Jose Mercury News and East Bay Times were furloughed. Boston NPR affiliate WBUR announced in June it would lay off 29 staffers and halt production of its nationally syndicated sports program, “Only a Game,” in September. Outside of sports, Quartz, Vice, Condé Nast and the Atlantic cut a combined 403 jobs in a two-week span in May.

And the already existential troubles facing the industry are bound to create more, experts say, if opportunities for young journalists continue to be stifled by business head winds and public health concerns. The college students who once envisaged themselves as beat writers traveling on the road with sports teams or showing up to cover Friday night prep football games will look for other jobs.

“I don’t think there are many students growing up reading the Sports page cover to cover,” said Galen Clavio, head of Indiana University’s sports media program, “because there largely isn’t a Sports page to read that way anymore.”

‘It’s a competition for respect’

Internships are the metric by which a slew of standards are measured for college journalists. They’re resume builders that allow reporters, copy editors, photographers, videographers and designers to fill their portfolios with professionally vetted work, ways to attract a mentor’s attention, and — perhaps most crucially — improve the prospects of attaining a more prestigious internship.

“It’s uncompromising,” Clavio said. “Everyone is fighting for a small amount of ground.”

It makes landing a position its own crucible. Gerson spent half her weekends in October studying for exams while on the road with the Michigan Wolverines football team for her student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. On Nov. 1, she drove from Ann Arbor to Washington to meet up with more student reporters, and the group spent the night finishing applications for the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. Then she woke up early the next morning to cover Michigan’s game at Maryland.

It’s a process sometimes made easier by the collaborative nature of journalism education. Landry and friends from LSU’s Daily Reveille student newspaper proof one another’s cover letters and personal statements, a common application requirement, over dinners during the fall semester. Long and Leiker, members of campus chapters of the Association for Women in Sports Media and Associated Press Sports Editors clubs, ask other members for feedback on their clips.

“Half my friends are sportswriters. We’re all doing the same things,” Long said. “We talk about the Sports [section] all the time. We commiserate. But there is an aspect of competition. It’s not like I’m going to beat these people out for jobs one day. But it’s a competition for respect at some point. It’s not that I want to be better than my friends, but my friends are all really good sportswriters, and I want to be like them.”

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Long applied for internships at 12 newspapers after combing a map and narrowing her list to cities she thought might be fun places to spend the summer. (Four were in Florida). Leiker sent out for 20 jobs; she added the News & Observer to her list because its application requirements were simple enough. She’d never been to Raleigh or North Carolina before.

Many news organizations prioritize preserving internship programs, even for remote work as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Internships have a big upside for employers, opening a crucial pipeline for new talent. Interns bring fresh perspectives that can elevate coverage and foster innovation.

A pair of interns each working 30 hours a week over a 12-week span can give a supervisor 75 added days’ worth of productivity, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit Internship Institute. For every hour of hands-on supervision an intern manager provides her charges, interns return six hours in productivity.

“This is just a great summer of news for interns, even if they’re not here,” said Jessica Banov, the News & Observer Features Editor and internship program leader. “They’re writing about some of the biggest news of our time. Even if they’re missing some of the personal aspects of the newsroom that I miss, it’s a great summer of experience, and I know they’re learning a lot.”

“I understand this has been a really challenging time to have interns,” USA Today Sports Managing Editor Roxanna Scott said, “but I’m also grateful that we’re able to do it this summer because you’ll learn skills about how to work with your editors in not an ideal situation, and going after stories when all you can do is call people on the phone. It’s a challenge that I know will help her grow, and it’s important to have her around even if it’s not in person.”

‘Truth Hurts’

Long, Leiker, Brockway, Gerson and Landry met on Twitter, when their stories showed up in each others’ timelines. Only a few have met in person: Long and Leiker go to college together; Long and Landry got drinks at the College Football Playoff national championship game in January; Leiker and Brockway met at an industry convention.

They began corresponding in early March, joking about television shows and boyfriends, exchanging writing tips and story ideas. Eventually, the conversations included navigating the male-dominated sports media landscape: enduring abuse from online commenters, feeling scrutinized in professional press boxes, handling newsroom drama.

“We all had great internships, so we talked about that, but we mostly talked about stuff that wasn’t about work,” Landry said. “Now we talk almost every day.”

On March 10, they texted through “The Bachelor” season finale. They call themselves the “Hannah Ann Stans” after bonding over their affection for show contestant Hannah Ann Sluss. On March 11, they jokingly grumbled about transcribing interviews. On March 12, the coronavirus hit American sports.

“UMich is holding all sporting events without fans now and I’m lording it over my roommates by telling them I’m the only one in this apartment with access to sporting events,” Gerson wrote.

“So I finish this beach volleyball story?” Landry replied.

By the end of April, Long and Landry’s internships were called off. On May 1, Brockway’s internship was canceled, too.

Long dived back into the application process, looking again city by city for publications that still had positions available. She found unpaid remote part-time work drafting and scheduling social media posts — but no writing or editing — for Austin Monthly. Brockway is applying for freelance work at the Premier Lacrosse League and a podcasting job with Religion of Sports, the documentary production company co-founded by Tom Brady and Michael Strahan.

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Leiker and Gerson each learned their internships would go on as scheduled but remotely, and they started figuring out living arrangements.

Landry held out hope, for a time, that Major League Baseball would recall its interns when the season started.

They shared Spotify playlist recommendations recently, she said, including “Drinking Wine and Being Sad” and “Quarantine Sadness.” Songs include Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die” and Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.”

“We’re able to have healthy discussions and joke around sometimes and still recognize what’s going on in the world right now,” Landry said. “I’m the only one who’s graduating and going into the industry, but we can all talk about the world and coronavirus and racism and sexism, all those things.”

“There’s something nice,” Brockway said, “about having people to talk to who can be exactly understanding about preparing to look for a job in the sports industry when there are no sports.”

‘I’m numb to it’

As a child, Christina Long had aspired to work at a zoo. By middle school, she switched to sports photography, shooting pictures of baseball games at the University of Arkansas, where her father worked for the athletic department. That led her to sportswriting when she got a couple semesters into college.

“Have you met sports photographers? They’re very grumpy,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be like that.’ ”

And quickly, Long distinguished herself among Missouri’s student sports reporters, writing first for the Maneater and Missourian campus newspapers, then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covering the Tigers football and basketball teams. When the “Hannah Ann Stans” went to college, it was as good a time as any in recent memory to consider a career in sports journalism.

The Athletic, the private equity-backed, subscription-only site, and The Ringer, the online and podcasting outfit founded by Bill Simmons after he left ESPN, both launched in 2016. The Athletic went on a hiring spree, snapping up beat reporters from publications around the country to build out its international network. The Ringer reclaimed staffers from Grantland, Simmons’s sports-meets-pop-culture blog that folded in 2015, then burst into audio production.

Bleacher Report, a digital arm of Turner Sports, hired a new editorial team for an online magazine in 2017, the year Long graduated high school. (Its CEO was forced out in late June over concerns about how minorities were treated in the newsroom.) A 2018 Supreme Court decision legalizing nationwide gambling gave publications a whole new topic to discuss and brought in a new audience.

For a time, it appeared fortunes were improving for the sports media industry, or at least job cuts were slowing down. The news business shed 2,000 jobs from 2014 to 2019, according to Pew, compared with 22,000 the preceding six years.

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“My thought was that sports are always theoretically going to be there,” Landry said. “Maybe only a pandemic would stop it, and here we are. But my thought was, someone is always going to need you to cover sports, no matter what is going on in the world.

“It seems like every time you open social media, another newspaper has gone under or people get laid off. I honestly think I’m numb to it at this point. There was a point in time when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ every time something happened. There comes a time where it does affect your psyche, where you think, ‘Oh, this is what I’m going into.’ ”

And for the five women, there’s an odd benefit to being in their early 20s and watching their chosen profession try to regroup. It gives them plenty of time to change paths, they say, or lower their expectations.

“There’s a lot of stuff I would be okay with doing,” Long said, “but I don’t think a lot of it makes any of this any better.”

She could run a social media account, or write about the travel industry, another passion, she said. She could write for a team’s website. She could edit — she’s enjoyed magazine editing courses and will work at her college town’s city magazine next year.

Long has wondered the past couple weeks while writing tweets in her magazine internship if a sportswriting career is still viable. It keeps her up at night. To make it this far, she said, to be this close to what could accurately be described as an entry-level dream job, and then watch the industry immolate — is forging on a matter of hubris or a market-driven choice?

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m tough enough to do this job,” Long said.

She’ll have to get a job first to find out.