As we conclude 2015, I am reposting (is that a word?) some of my favorite sports journalism columns for Poynter.
For the bulk of his professional life, Jeff Bradley has spent his summers at a Major League ballpark. He had high-profile beats covering baseball for ESPN The Magazine and the Newark Star-Ledger.
But last summer was different. Struggling to make ends meet ever since being let go by the Star-Ledger in January of 2013, Bradley worked as a clubhouse attendant at a country club near his home in New Jersey. He shined shoes, vacuumed the carpet and kept the bathrooms clean.
Bradley likely is the only clubhouse attendant who also has written about Derek Jeter for national publications. A few times, Bradley was mistaken for being a member. On other occasions, he ran into people who knew him as “the sportswriter,” prompting the inevitable questions of what happened?
“Sure, it was embarrassing sometimes,” Bradley said. “But most people, if they have heart, say, ‘I respect what you’re doing. You’re doing what you’ve got to do [for your family].”
Bradley decided to write about his situation on his website last week. In a phone interview, he said he didn’t rehash the frustrations and hardships he has endured so “people could feel sorry for me.”
“I just felt like this is what has come to for a lot of people who used to work as journalists,” said Bradley, whose resume also includes stints at Sports Illustrated and the New York Daily News.
Indeed, the comments to Bradley’s post depict a depressing snapshot of an industry where long-time sportswriters find themselves in no-man’s land. Several veterans commiserated with Bradley by sharing similar experiences after being jettisoned from their jobs.
Rachel Shuster, formerly of USA Today, writes: “I drive for Uber, where if I happen to mention, no, this is not my life’s dream.”
Diane Pucin, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, writes: “This is pretty much my story…Even been rejected for a grocery store checked out job.”
David Andriesen, once the national baseball writer for the now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer, decided to become a kindergarten teacher. He writes: “I remember telling my wife, ‘I can’t switch careers now. If I went back to get a Masters to teach, I wouldn’t even start until I was 43.’ She said, ‘You have 20 more years to work, and you’re going to be 43 whether you’re a teacher or not.’”
Wendell Barnhouse, formerly of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, recently lost his job with as a correspondent for the Big 12 website. He writes: “I doubt seriously I’ll find anything involving sports.”
Filip Bondy, who recently was laid off from the New York Daily News, writes: “Seems as if, in our business, 50 is the new 66.”
Bradley wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “I know there are a lot of us out there,” he said.
At age 51, Bradley said it has been more than a year since he had a meaningful job interview. He continues to contribute to SI.com and the New York Times, among other outlets. However, life as a free lancer is hardly lucrative these days.
He writes in his post: “The reality, however, is that I’d have to write 300 stories per year for those two outlets to make half of what I used to make at ESPN The Magazine. It’s impossible to write 300 stories per year. If you crushed it, you could write 150, which would mean I’d make a quarter of what I used to make. I have not crushed it. So, maybe that explains why I became the locker room guy.”
In our phone interview, Bradley, like most journalists in his situation, has heard the “exposure” angle one too many times.
“You hear, ‘I can’t pay you, but it’s great exposure. You’ll get a lot of page views,’” Bradley said. “It’s insulting. I’d rather clean toilets and golf shoes and get paid than write for free.”
Bradley said working as a clubhouse attendant became a necessary alternative this summer. His wife is a special education teacher [“She’s the rock star,” he said], and they have a college freshman and a high school senior.
“Every month, there are bills to be paid,” said Bradley, who earned $15 per hour plus tips at the club. “I’m not bringing in enough freelancing. As stupid as it sounds, I knew I was getting a check every week.”
The club, though, is closed for the season. Bradley continues to look for work and writes when he can.
He believes he has the talent to make a contribution somewhere. The comments section to Bradley’s post included a note of support from John Papanek, his former editor at ESPN The Magazine.
Papanek writes: “Please do me a favor. Next time you find yourself with a foot inside the door of someone who needs a proven professional, versatile and excellent communicator, tell them to call me.”
Bradley, though, isn’t holding out hope that his phone will ring for a full-time position any time soon. Regarding the journalist business, he says, “I believe there are assignments out there [for free lancers willing to work for low fees], I just don’t believe there are any jobs out there.”
As for his future, Bradley has a firm grip on reality. He is willing to return to the country club next spring, adding, “if they’ll have me back.”