Taking sports journalism into a new arena
Senior Lecturer Dr Taylor Umland, a former NBC newsman, emphasises the need for students to understand branding and social media to succeed in today's media landscape. Students master the art of crafting compelling content through taking charge of social media accounts, live-tweeting games, and producing written reports. With exclusive access to local teams and behind-the-scenes events, they engage in first-hand experiences, conducting interviews with players and coaches, and covering international tournaments—an invaluable pathway to connect with top athletes.
The rules for sports journalism are changing with new media platforms like TikTok and Instagram accelerating the way sports news is delivered. How are Leeds Beckett students keeping ahead of the game?
"We talk about the skills needed to succeed in the media," explains Taylor Umland, Senior Lecturer on Beckett's BA Sports Journalism course and a former NBC newsman. "That's how I see my role in sports journalism: to teach people to exist in that world. Of course, you'll need to know how to shoot, how to write and how to edit, but you also need to be aware of the big picture."
How has that picture changed over the past five years?
"You have to understand branding in order to be successful. You can't just learn about journalism. You have to understand the whole picture of your brand, what it does for you and how to go out and earn people's trust. And you have to be aware of social media because that's where you'll have to exist if you want to succeed in this business." All Taylor's students are already active users of social media and he teaches them how to create high quality, relevant content for these platforms. In fact, first year students are required to submit assessments on Instagram or TikTok.
But where do these new channels fit into the wider landscape of sports journalism?
"I think TikTok and Instagram are great for sport. There's a huge hole in the market for people who are dedicated to covering sport on those platforms because there's an under-served audience out there. We are far more video based as a society. We want more and more content all the time. So what I say to students is, up to this point you've been on one side of your phone scrolling; now you need to be the person on the other side of the phone who's gonna put that stuff there."
Long form journalism seemed to be dying a death for a while, but I think it's made a massive comeback. And social media is the place to market that. This kind of journalism is still taking place, but in a different format, podcasting. There are the banter-based ones, but others are really nicely edited and almost laid out like a research paper. There's also been an explosion in sports documentaries over the last three to four years. I'd say up to 30% of my students say that's what they want to do.
Obviously, sports journalism can't be taught exclusively in a classroom. So how do Beckett students gain the skills and experiences they need to succeed in the professional arena?
"To begin with, every student becomes the PR/media team for one of Beckett's performance teams. That could be rugby union, rugby league, men's football, women's football, netball, American football, or basketball. They go to practices, go to games and run their social media accounts – live tweeting and putting video out on Instagram. So they're working for the brand, the same as the media department at Leeds Rhinos would do.
We also have partnerships with local teams like Huddersfield Town, Barnsley, Bradford City, Harrogate, Halifax, Farsley Celtic, the Leeds Tykes, the Leeds Rhinos, the Leeds Knights ice hockey. Students can sign up for games week by week and they get access to the press box and post-match conferences. They can cover games play by play, live tweet or produce written reports – any format, really."
When the Women's Rugby League Cup was here, we were given exclusive access to a behind-closed-doors warm-up game between England's development team and the Cook Islands. All sixty of our sports journalism students were there and we got to talk to everybody: players from England, coaches from England, players from Cook Islands, coaches from Cook Islands, even some of the England A-Team. A great opportunity to talk to international standard athletes.
While the course places students at the heart of the action and exposes them to real-world experiences, there's another important outcome that gives them an edge in the highly competitive field of sports journalism.
"This program is all about opportunity for students," explains Taylor. "I'm the course leader for sports journalism, but I'm also their academic advisor. So when I talk about opportunity, I mean the opportunity to do the things you want to do, but also to make a big transition in your life and find out something about yourself. Sports journalism is just a platform. It's the thing you're interested in doing, but it's where you become your own person. Find your own way and at the end of it, go off to get the job you really want. My job is to walk you through that process."