J.A. Adande (BSJ92) served as Northwestern University’s Homecoming Grand Marshal four years ago this fall. As part of his Homecoming festivities, Adande took time to speak with 75 Medill students about his professional journey and his thoughts on the sports journalism industry.
Now, as Adande joins Medill’s faculty as the director of the school’s sports journalism program, we look back on that Homecoming speech and some of the key messages Adande shared.
On approaching work like a professional, even as students
Everything you’re doing here, every blog, every tweet, all that stuff counts if you make it count. Approach it in a professional manner. I was at the Daily Northwestern at 2-3 a.m. My weekends I would spend driving around the Big Ten. That led to my first job at the Chicago Sun-Times because I (covered) the Big Ten for four years. Even though I was a student with no real work experience, professionally, I had a lot of experience, so this stuff counts.
On journalism fundamentals
The fundamentals haven’t changed. I was the last class to use typewriters in basic writing (at Northwestern). It shows you just how much — in my time — things have changed. iPod. iPad. iPhone. People can get on air Skyping via their laptop. So who knows what’s going to happen 20 years from now. But, again, the fundamentals don’t change. So that’s why everything that they teach you here is about the application of (those fundamentals). Even if you’re only writing for 140 characters.
On standing out as a journalist
Whether you write, tweet or are on air — what are you going to do that’s different? That’s the most critical thing. Everybody’s got a blog, everybody’s got Twitter, so why should I read yours?
On making time for personal development, particularly as a student
(While at Northwestern), I did an internship with WMAQ Channel 5 here (in Chicago). So twice a week, I’d get up, hop on the El and go downtown. You make it work, even while you’re going to school. And the key is — and this goes for everything — to have something to show for (your time). A lot of TV internships, they just have you there, log tapes and that’s about it. But I had a very good guy, Art Norman, who was with Channel 5 for years. And he always insisted his interns would have something to show for (their time). We’d go out and we’d shoot a story, so he’d do his standup, and then slide the camera man a few bucks and they’d shoot me doing a standup. We’d go in and they’d edit the package, and he’d do his for air and then slide the editor a little money and re-edit the package with my voice-over, put in my standup, and I could have something to show. It didn’t air, but at least I had something. It’s possible to do stuff while you’re in school, but, again, make sure you take away something from it so it’s not just showing up, logging tapes and getting coffee for people.
On whether students interested in broadcast should spend more time learning to write
I would say you can learn the TV. Not that it’s easy, not that it comes naturally, but you can learn that. It’s very difficult to learn how to write well and to develop a voice in writing. But those are highly sought assets. And so that’s why they put all of us on TV because we developed those skills. Almost everyone you see at ESPN, in terms of analysts who aren’t a former athlete, was a writer. Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Michael Wilbon, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Woody Paige — they all got their start in writing.
On the hardest part about working in the sports industry
The demands on your time. You have to tell yourself, “Alright. You can forget any kind of personal growth in the next six months once (the NBA season) gets going.” I’ve had some relationships end during the playoffs because when you’re home, you’re at the games, and then you’re gone for a week or two at a time on the road.
On developing personal relationships with players
This business is about trust and relationships, so one of the ways I like to provide people with something they don’t get elsewhere is by developing relationships with the players so I’m not just talking to them at press conferences, (where we’re) all hearing the same quotes and then writing the same thing.
So how do I get something different? Well, if I have a good relationship with a person, I can get him off to the side as they leave the press conference and they’re walking out to the bus or the car. I can walk alongside them, talk, and get a little something different.
On what he considers one of his career’s defining moments:
June 20, 2000, when my mom passed away. It was the one time I wrote a personal column, and the response was huge. It was probably one of the only columns that if you gave me another week or year to work on it, I don’t think I could make it any better.
On deciding when to make a job change
I always tell people when it’s time to make a decision to stay or go, if it’s a difficult decision, you should stay. If it’s the easiest decision, you should go. I had an offer to go to the Washington Post a year after I’d been working (in Chicago). And I just didn’t go. I was just settling in. I had an apartment with a view of the lake. I just wasn’t ready to go. It was a great opportunity. It was a lot more money, and it didn’t feel right. So next year they came, the money was a lot better, the situation was better. The situation at the Sun-Times was uncertain, we were looking at a strike coming in the fall, my contract ran out, and even my editor told me I should leave. So when your editor tells you you have to go, it’s a pretty straightforward, easy decision to make.
On the Medill alumni network
Once you get out in the field, the Medill network is vast. It’s almost impossible to step in a press box and not see a Medill alum.