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mike sielski Mike Sielski
The Intelligencer, Doylestown, Pa.
How did you get interested in journalism?
My interest in journalism came from my interest in sports. I began reading The Philadelphia Inquirer's sports section daily when I was in grade school, just to keep up with all the news on the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers. As I matured, as I grew to enjoy writing, and as I became more and more interested in politics and current events, I realized if I made journalism my career, I could build a profession around the things I enjoy most.
Do you have mentors?
Yes. I grew up admiring the work of Bill Lyon, the lead sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1995, when I was a sophomore in college, I wrote him a letter, asking him for advice on breaking into sports journalism. He looked up my phone number, called me, and invited me to tag along with him to a Phillies game. We have been in contact ever since. He has always been generous with his time, willing to give constructive criticism. He's a better person than he is a writer.
Do you see yourself as a strong reporter or strong writer?
I find that I do my best writing when I've done thorough reporting. The two go hand in hand; any journalist worth his salt would say that. Only the select few journalists -- usually columnists -- can get away with insufficient reporting because they can turn a phrase so well. That said, I enjoy the writing more, particularly when I know I reported thoroughly and dug up good stuff.
Is it hard to interview team members when they lose a game?
It can be. It depends on the nature of the game and the personality of the team member you want to interview. Some athletes are easy to interview, win or lose; with others, you have to tread lightly, asking difficult questions in a sensitive manner.
How did you learn to take thorough notes?
I haven't. I'm still learning. Most times, especially for lengthier interviews, I "cheat" and use a tape recorder. However, when I know deadline is tight, I'll just use my notebook and pen. I simply try to concentrate, listening for the nuggets that will make strong quotes or anecdotes; then I start scribbling away.
How do you cover a favorite team without turning into a public relations person?
You have to remember that your job is to deliver the facts of the game, or to deliver a fair opinion that is based on the facts and not on any sort of loyalty you have to the team. Perception is important, too. If you don't act like a fan while you're doing your job -- if you ask tough questions and remind yourself you have to be fair and impartial-the athletes and coaches won't expect you to write like a fan.
What are the biggest differences in covering teen sports, college sports and pro sports?
When you cover college and pro sports, each team has a "sports information" or "media relations" staff who provide sports writers with all the game's statistics, a transcript of the post-game press conference, and a breakdown of every single play of the game. You don't need to watch the game to cover it. (It's an arrangement that cultivates laziness in most writers who cover pro and college sports -- which is exactly what the teams want -- but that's a response to another question.)
Covering high school sports is much more difficult. You have to coax insightful answers from teen-agers, most of whom have never been interviewed before, and you have to keep your own statistics during a game. It may not sound like much, but trust me -- I've heard pro beat writers complain about covering high schools because no one provides them with ready-made stats and quotes . and there's no instant replay if you miss something.
How do you concentrate during a game when there's so much noise and commotion around you?
You just block it out, concentrate on the game and the angle of your story, and keep your antennae poised for anything interesting or different happening on the field.
Do you work a lot of nights and weekends?
Yes. I don't really follow a set schedule. My work hours are dictated by the projects or pieces I'm working on. But I do work many Friday and Saturday nights, and when I'm in the office, I'm usually there from 4 p.m. to midnight.
What advice do you have for aspiring sports writers?
First, read. Read everything. Read literature and history and comic books. Read Sports Illustrated and The New York Times and National Review. Read Tom Wolfe and Stephen King and Mark Twain. Every bit of it helps.
Second, write. Experiment. Try different styles. Get feedback from teachers, professors and friends. Join your high school or college paper, your school's literary magazine. Just write on your own. But you have to write. It's hard work, and you only improve by trying, then trying again. And again. And again...