Lauren Brownlow is a freelance sportswriter with a focus on the Atlantic Coast Conference. She has also written for N.C. newspapers such as the Herald-Sun in Durham and the Sanford Herald. In this interview, conducted by email, Brownlow discusses her job, offers career advice and talks about her love of GIFs.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workweek like?
A. I’m a freelance contributor to FOX Sports Carolinas, and my contract stipulates that I do at least five articles a week for them. And with all the sports going on right now, I usually do more than that. And then I also work for GoHeels.com’s digital magazine as a freelancer (I do weekly stories for them), and my weekly previews for ACCSports.com. So it’s a balancing act.
But my main responsibilities are covering football and men’s basketball for the Triangle-area teams (and a little bit of general ACC thrown in) for FOX. So each week, I try to find a topic or angle I can take with each area team’s upcoming game and do one piece for each.
I can also come up with a more “fun” piece that doesn’t involve interviews or heavy analysis. For example, I did a piece on the various odd fashion choices from NBA stars back in June. And I did a piece on football “coachspeak” in August.
During football season, Monday and Tuesday mornings are usually filled with press conferences, and so I try not to schedule myself for any stories due on those days. UNC’s presser is Monday at 11:45 and N.C. State’s is at 1:00, so I usually have to choose one or the other. Duke’s is Tuesday at 11:30.
So basically, I spend most of the day (and night) on Wednesday and Thursday writing. Especially Thursday night, when I’m finishing my ACCSports.com previews (which go up as early as possible on Friday).
On Friday, I usually have a little more time off, and so I try to catch up on sleep, take care of things around the house, etc. Sometimes, I’ll write my GoHeels.com stories on Friday. Saturday, I cover at least one game and do a write-up afterwards — either a “Four Downs” recap where I talk about the four most important aspects of the game, or a straight-up column.
If a game is at noon, I’m usually not home and/or finished with my story until 8 or 9 or so. It’s a full day.
I get up early Sunday and do my weekly power rankings, and I also write up my budget for the next week with my five stories. If I have a GoHeels.com piece to finish, I’ll do that too.
And I watch the Carolina Panthers on Sundays and die a little inside with each gut-wrenching loss. After years of doing this, the Panthers are my last outlet for true fandom/homerism/etc., and thus it’s extra painful when they lose in the fourth quarter for the 1,000th time in the Ron Rivera era.
I also have Sunday Ticket, so I’ll flip back and forth to Red Zone. This isn’t work, per se, but I’ve somehow gained Twitter followers based almost solely on my nutso Panthers’ tweets, which are filled with rage and sadness.
Basketball season will change my schedule somewhat, and the overlap between football and basketball will be especially brutal. But right now, that’s my workweek.
Q. You are known for your “GIF-tastic” previews of the week’s ACC football games. How do you put those together?
A. Well, it actually takes awhile. I’m a procrastinator by nature, and I work best in the early-morning deadline hours (or so I tell myself), so I put off a good deal of it until then.
But I do a lot of it throughout the week, filling in a the teams/records/details first, then a narrative here or a prediction there if it crosses my mind, or even a player to watch or a key to the game. I have a very casual (and, I’d like to think, funny) approach to writing these, and so I don’t want to sit down and write a game preview when my mind is focused on finishing other articles or I’m not feeling particularly silly or goofy.
Jim Young (editor of ACCSports.com) sent me a template when I started working for them last year for the basketball previews. I’m using a scaled-down version of that for football, since there’s a lot more detail involved in each game.
It’s keys to the game for each team, a player to watch from each team, various random statistics from the game notes and then, everyone’s favorite, narratives. For instance, when UNC loses in basketball, it becomes an indictment on Roy Williams as a head coach. And thus, a narrative is born.
I can’t remember if it was Jim or I that came up with it, but I’ll give credit to Jim. I think we were trying to find another category for the previews and throwing around ideas, and he suggested it. I’m happy to credit my editor, either way. (Note to future journalists: Editors are your friend!)
Last year, the site wouldn’t load GIFs properly, so I would use images quite a bit for my “narrative” if a team won or lost. Image of a mushroom cloud of a dumpster on fire, for instance.
But this year, GIFs do load on the new site, and it’s really expanded what I can do. I can include a pratfall to signify the kind of fail it would be if Team X lost a game it was heavily favored in, or I can use a GIF of someone crying. Those tend to get the point across a bit better than a still image.
The GIFs are the most creative part of what I do, and so I enjoy that. What I’ve done is gone through one of the more organized GIF sites (giphy) and gone through various categories, bookmarking GIFs that I think I will use in the future. I already have one of a 2-year-old falling on his face trying to dunk on a toy basketball hoop that I’ll use for basketball season. But I prefer GIFs from great movies and television shows, if I can find them.
The GIFs I use in my previews are generally from those shows, and when “Breaking Bad” went off the air a few weeks ago, I did a narrative for each team, win or lose, with a “Breaking Bad” GIF for each. It was well over 20 GIFs.
I do feel, though, that if I hadn’t started writing those previews, I never would have been able to fully develop as a writer. When you spend so much time writing fact-based content, it’s hard to flex your stylistic muscles, so to speak. And that’s also why I always enjoyed (and agonized over) writing features whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity.
But the previews are fun because they really allow me to be myself and write in my own voice. Writing a good feature, though, is one of the hardest things you can do in sportswriting (or just writing in general). When it’s good, you know it’s good. And when you know you could have done better, it haunts you. There’s never that self-doubt with my previews. It’s just me.
Q. Twitter seems to have changed sports journalism in a big way. How has social media affected how you and other sportswriters do their work?
A. I rarely ever knew another way, or if I did, I don’t remember it all that well. I’ve been doing this since the fall of 2005, and obviously Twitter didn’t come out until … 2009, maybe? That’s when I signed on.
I think it initially changed things for me by giving me a peek into the way other writers did their jobs. At that time, I was working for Tar Heel Monthly full-time, and I didn’t have a ton of exposure to that part of it. National, local, whatever — I got a glimpse into their world and how hard they had to work to be good at their jobs. (Or not, in some cases.)
But to answer the question, Twitter gave me the chance to write in my voice, so to speak, before I started writing the previews. I was restricted to 140 characters, obviously, so it was tough — but it also helped me become more economical in my prose, I guess.
Last year, I was just a freelance writer for a small newspaper and wondering if I would ever work full-time again. The more active I was on Twitter, the more people in higher places started to pay attention to me, and I think that kind of networking paid off, too. Also, if you’re funny and/or you know what you’re talking about, people will find you. I’d like to think that I’m both of those things.
Other writers tend to use it differently than I do. At a news conference or a game, I’m not going to inundate my followers with a quote every minute or so, or even with updates on the score or how many points a person has. There are traditional beat writers they can follow for that kind of information, and I am conscious of the need to avoid flooding people’s timelines.
I want to have the kinds of tweets from games that stand out. I’d rather observe something interesting (well, interesting to me anyway), either about the game itself or even about the mascots or something. I don’t want to be a Twitter user that people scroll through during games because they don’t care about an update on the action — they’re generally watching the action themselves.
So I’ll tweet a quote or two if it seems particularly newsworthy, or I’ll tweet an observation from a game. For instance, I think one of my more retweeted tweets from the past few weeks was “UNC’s defense is basically like the big paper sign that high school teams run through before games.” (This was during the ECU game.) It’s informational, but still tongue-in-cheek, and it gives you something different.
If you’re watching the game, you KNOW the UNC defense is bad. You don’t need proof. I was trying to get across HOW bad in a concise and (I’d like to think) humorous way. That’s how I like to use Twitter.
Q. Each semester, I have several students in my classes who want to go into sports journalism. What advice do you have for them?
A. I was very fortunate coming out of school. I won’t lie and pretend hard work and years of internships and fantastic grades landed me in this situation, because it didn’t.
I had Mick Mixon as a professor at UNC twice, and he was the first person who really believed in me as a writer. He recommended me for an internship to Adam Lucas (for what was then Tar Heel Monthly and TarHeelBlue.com), and Adam trusted Mick enough to take his word for it. I worked for him for five years, straight out of college, in a full-time position with benefits.
But in this business — much like in sports — you have to be lucky and good. You just do. And sometimes, you can be really good, and no organization has a good use for you or the money to hire you.
Sportswriting is changing so much that a lot of Internet outlets are cutting back more and more, either firing full-time employees or just having those employees cover most events from home, posting blog/wire updates. Newspapers will give young talent a chance, but it’s competitive and the work is extremely difficult.
My point is that it’s a hard world out there, and even if you’re really good, you might not get hired right away. Just keep at it, and something will open up.
I have spent two years already since I left college as a freelance reporter, unsure of what to do next or when (or if) I would ever make real money again, so I know that feeling. I’m lucky enough that my husband supports my career and believed in me enough to let me work ridiculous hours for very little money until the opportunity that I have now came up, but that’s not always practical for some.
Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve received along the way, though. I don’t always obey them all, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth remembering:
Put the same time/effort into your work as you expect to get out of it. This is particularly true in freelance. This isn’t just about money, although that’s important. There’s no need for you to agonize over a high school football game story if you’re only making $30 or $40, for instance. But if that high school football game story will be on a high-traffic site like WRAL.com, then maybe you spend a few extra minutes on it.
Don’t forget that you can be paid in exposure, too, and that’s as valuable as a currency sometimes as money. If the right eyeballs are reading your stuff, you can move to a higher-paying position eventually. That doesn’t mean you should turn down certain jobs because of how much they pay, though. Any experience you can get is very valuable. Exposure, experience and economics. The three E’s. (I just made that up.)
There have been plenty of times where I didn’t want to spend as much time on something as I did because I knew no one would read it, but then I remembered how much I was being paid to write it. That matters, particularly in our line of work.
It would be nice if those who pay more for good work get that good work in return. And sometimes, you have a great idea for a high-concept piece that you’re doing for an outlet that won’t pay you much for it (and that no one reads), and you end up wasting your day trying to research it when you could have been doing something else. That’s not a good use of your time.
Network, network, network. Make friends (or at least, acquaintances) with as many people that work around you as possible. For way too long, I never bothered to do that. After I did, I couldn’t believe I’d been so hesitant. Old, young, it doesn’t matter.
If it’s like sportswriting, these people are often the only other humans you see besides your family on a daily basis, and so why not be friends with them? This is especially hard when you’re first out of college and you think you need to hang on to those friends, but you have to move on.
One word of caution: You have to be very careful in our business — there’s plenty of backbiting that goes on, and so you should avoid being overly gossipy — but it won’t take you long to figure out who your friends are.
Be social. Go to lunches or out for drinks or to the hospitality room, or whatever it is that those people are doing. It will pay off down the road.
If one of those friends moves up to a higher position, they can put in a good word for you (and vice versa). Or they can pass along job openings when they hear it about from a friend of a friend from an old job in Nebraska, or whatever. And you can talk shop with them, bounce ideas off of them and what not. It just never hurts at all to have friends in this business.
Especially if you don’t have steady work, start a blog. I got this piece of advice from a friend of mine, and I don’t know if I’d still be doing this today if it weren’t for that (or for him). It’s a way for prospective employers to quickly get a sense of your writing style.
You can mix in more serious pieces with some funnier things — I did that for my blog, where I did my own version of the previews — but it wouldn’t take long for someone researching you to find out if you know your stuff.
Be able to be your own editor. I have editors at FOX, but often they don’t have time to parse over my writing the same way a newspaper editor would. And I have to create my own budget each week as well, for the most part.
I’m happy to do that, but you have to be able to generate your own ideas and edit your own work. This is becoming more and more of a problem in our industry, as outlets want to cut back on copy editors (particularly in the newspaper world).
It’s just a reality we all have to face, and if you want your story going out into the universe as a fully formed, grammatically correct piece of writing, then you’ll have to be responsible for that. I’m sure UNC is preparing you for those kinds of realities, but I know I thought writing would be a much more collaborative venture than it ultimately was based on my J-school experience.