Tom White: “This is a 24 hour job”

I caught up recently with Sky Sports News presenter Tom White to discuss his sports journalism journey and his advice to the next generation. Interviewing Sky Sports News presenters interests me because I’d potentially like to work for Sky in the future and I want to acquire as much insider knowledge as I possibly can.

First of all I wanted to know what stoked Tom’s interest in sports journalism and how he gained early experience.

“What stoked my interest was when I was about seven years old watching Italia 90. I realised even then that I wasn’t good enough to be a footballer, so I just wanted to be close to it in some way. I particularly liked the idea of being a football commentator, and from a young age researched what it took to achieve that. From a very young age I steered myself towards sports journalism. The first official work experience I got was with two local newspapers in the north-east of England which is I how I first got something on my CV. I still continued to write cricket reports for my local team which were printed every week in the local paper.”

Tom really highlighted the importance of getting those early experiences that can strengthen your CV. Broadcasting experience was difficult to come by when Tom was growing up, but with a camera on your phone, there are countless opportunities to hone your skills.

“You can do all these things and build up your CV so that you’ve got some experience when the time comes to get a paid job. It shows that you’ve got a great attitude, you’re not waiting to be told what to do. You’re going out and doing it.”

As I’m currently pursuing a degree in History and Politics but would like to be a sports journalist at Sky in the future, I asked Tom if I should do a masters in journalism. He strongly advised me to do so because it teaches you about media law. If you’re a journalist, you need to understand the implications of potentially saying something libellous.

“It’s vital because if you’re writing a script for a presenter and they say something that can get you and Sky sued, then you’re in big trouble. If you’ve got your NCTJ you don’t need to worry about that.”

Tom may be a well known Sky Sports News presenter now, but he had to start from the bottom at Sky and work his way up.

“I started as a runner making teas and coffees, then I worked updating the tables and fixtures. Then I was writing the scripts and cutting the pictures as a sub-editor, then I was a radio presenter and now I’m a broadcast journalist. Now that I’m a presenter, when I get in I have to go through the diary and see what live sport is on. I don’t particularly like Formula 1 or golf but when I go on air, I have to be an expert. Not just know more than the man on the street, be an expert. If there’s a big race on and I’m not at work, I’m watching it anyway. This is a 24 hour job, I need to know everything. I can’t not know who won the last big race or the last major. It’s constant prep, your whole life’s prep.”

This raises a very interesting point and shows how demanding the life of a sports journalist can be. Whilst watching sport is enjoyable, that can change when you’re watching sport because your job dictates it. It is a necessary part of the job as it is awful to watch a presenter struggling when they are clueless about the sport they are talking about.

“It’s very obvious if someone doesn’t know their subject. If you pronounce the name wrong of a Banlgadeshi cricketer, most people probably won’t notice. But if you pronounce a Premier League footballer’s name wrong, people at home will be saying, how on earth has he or she got that job? If you aren’t certain how to pronounce a name, there’s no harm in asking.”

Whilst sports journalist is a job that many people would view as a dream job, eventually the initial excitement may lessen. I wanted to know what motivates Tom to get up in the morning and keeps him enthusiastic about his job.

“The thing that keeps me going is big stories. With a big story your day is hectic, busy and brilliant. For example, when Jose Mourinho was sacked, he was sacked at 9:52am. At 9:51 me and the producer had been talking about how it was a bit of a slow day, we could do with a big story. Then the news about Mourinho came through and suddenly the previous rundown has been scrapped. The viewers want reaction and straight away we had Gary Neville on the phone. I told the producer to keep bringing people on and I’ll sort out the questions. It’s a real thrill, you’re at the centre of it on behalf of the viewers, asking the questions. It was a real test which I loved, you live for a day like that.”

That story highlights how spontaneous sports journalism can be. Your plan for the day can be binned at any moment if a bigger story breaks. You have to be able to think on your feet and adapt to changing scenarios. Sky usually tend to know when a big story is coming but the Mourinho story caught them by surprise.

To round off our conversation, I asked Tom what his main advice was for aspiring sports journalists.

“It’s the same advice I’d give to anyone in any walk of life. Once you decide what you want to do, you’ve got to go for it. That involves a lot of hard work and crucially a lot of patience. When I started at Sky as a runner making teas and coffees I had a first class degree. It was demoralising making teas and coffees in my first job after university and making next to nothing. I used to get treated quite badly, people are telling you what to do and you have to do it. It took me seven years to get where I want to be. That whole time I knew I was at the bottom of a ladder and I knew if I worked hard, I would climb that ladder. You have to go the extra mile, you have to put everything you’ve got into it. You need to get yourself noticed by the people you want to notice you. You’ve got to earn your chance and take it. Don’t moan, just get on with it and you will get your chance.”

You can find Tom on Twitter @tomwhitemedia

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