Tim Shoemaker always imagined he would one day cover sports for a national outlet like ESPN, Sports Illustrated or Fox. That dream began when he joined his high school newspaper, then endured as he majored in journalism at Ohio State, wrote for campus publications, nabbed a job at the Columbus Dispatch, bounced to the Ashland Times-Gazette and eventually wound up with Eleven Warriors, where he covered Buckeyes football for three years. For more than a decade, he knew where he wanted to be and doggedly strove to get there.
But Shoemaker’s march toward a national gig ended last month, when he quit Eleven Warriors to become a digital content specialist at The Shipyard, a Columbus-area marketing firm. Shoemaker, 29, left sportswriting in part because he was burned out but also because, amid a barrage of layoffs at major media companies, he wasn’t sure of his future.
“I was very happy with where I was. I was comfortable in my role. I didn’t fear for my job or anything like that,” Shoemaker told Awful Announcing recently, having just returned home from the first day of his new job. “It was kind of about the next step in my career in this field, which scared me more so than anything. Once I saw all those people lose their jobs, some of whom I knew personally, that kind of opened my eyes a lot.”
Reporters ditching journalism for more lucrative or less stressful opportunities is not a new phenomenon. Every industry veteran knows successful writers who have gone to law school or taken gigs in public relations. But with the sportswriting industry in chaos and writing jobs disappearing by the minute, there’s more reason than ever for reporters to try something new, and many of them are taking the leap.
To recap: In April, ESPN laid off about 100 front-facing employees, many of them writers. In May, Sports Illustrated laid off five employees, including several big-name reporters. In June, Yahoo Sports laid off at least a half-dozen bloggers, while Vocativ ended its editorial operation altogether and let go of three sports staffers. Weeks after that, Fox Sports eliminated all written content as part of a dramatic shift to video. In July, VICE discarded its sports desk. With advertisers favoring video and digital subscription-based models still somewhat unproven, it’s an ugly time to be a sportswriter.
We have no way to quantify how many writers are leaving journalism now as opposed to any other time, but it’s clear that Shoemaker is not alone in his fear for the industry’s future. For a fresh perspective on the problems facing the sportswriting profession, we spoke to sports journalists of various ages, experience levels and job descriptions who have abandoned writing careers in recent months. Some of their stories are more generalizable than others, but all provide some insight into how the industry has changed and what those changes mean moving forward.
Sam Laird, 32, formerly of Mashable
Sam Laird is not quitting journalism, per se, but he’s taking a pretty dramatic break. The former Mashable sports reporter announced in July that he was leaving his job to teach English in Madrid for a year, alongside his girlfriend.
'Personal news' tweet?
It's my last day at Mashable! Gratitude to all who made these 5 years memorable.
But it's time for a new adventure.
— Sam Laird (@samcmlaird) July 14, 2017
Laird wasn’t spooked by the layoffs as much as he was worn down by online media’s persistent trend toward viral, social-driven content. Since he began at Mashable five and a half years ago, he says, the sports media industry had quickened in pace, to the point where days were blending together and his life was taking on “a surreal tone.”
“Being very much in this overall world of trending topics and share counts and viral stories was something I was definitely ready for a break from after five and a half years,” he said.
Laird has no plans for when he returns from Madrid, other than that he wants to write, whether full-time or part-time. He still considers himself a journalist, but he’s unsure whether after a year in Madrid he’ll want to return to the grind of digital media — or whether he’ll even have the chance to.
“It’s really open-ended,” he said. “After this chapter I might have a strong desire to get back into something like what I was doing before, and I might have the opportunity to do it. I might have the opportunity but not the desire, or I might even have the desire but not the opportunity. I think it’s impossible to say at this point.”
Jake Pavorsky, 20, formerly of Liberty City Ballers
Jake Pavorsky ended his journalism career before it even really got going.
On July 26, the Temple University rising senior announced that he was stepping down from Liberty City Ballers, the SB Nation 76ers site for which he had written 773 blog posts over four years and served as managing editor.
After 4 years and 773 articles, I’m leaving Liberty Ballers. It’s time for a new challenge. https://t.co/Nwm5aPnlDY
— Jake Pavorsky (@JakePavorsky) July 26, 2017
Pavorsky began contributing to Liberty City Ballers in high school and soon decided he wanted to make a career out of sportswriting. In college, he majored in media studies and production while developing relationships in the NBA and building a following on Twitter and on the site he ran. He planned to cover basketball as long as he could, with dreams of a multi-platform job at ESPN.
Then this spring, he watched one publication after another lay off writers, and his plans began to change.
“It made me re-think the long-term viability of the profession,” he said, “as well as me being able to build a stable, happy career where I feel financially sound, where I’m not living with my parents forever after school. I want to be able to be in a place where I can be independent and happy and be able to take care of myself, and the opportunities for that seem to be decreasing.”
Pavorsky represents an important constituency in the population of writers turned off by industry chaos: those who are too nervous to get started in the first place.
While Pavorsky still hopes to make a career in basketball, he now sees himself working for a team or maybe becoming an agent. He’s got one more year of school, and then he’ll give up writing for good.
“For now, I’ll probably try and write maybe through my last year of college,” he said. “But after that, I’m going to explore other avenues and other paths that I think might be more stable long-term.”
Adam Rubin, 43, formerly of ESPN
Adam Rubin may have been the very first victim of this year’s ESPN layoffs. The longtime Mets beat writer announced in February that he was leaving his job to become a sports information director at the New York Institute of Technology and revealed soon after that the move followed ESPN’s decision not to renew his contract.
After 15 years covering the Mets, I'm leaving the beat … and journalism. Thanks so much for the long-standing support! Joining PR world.
— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinMedia) February 6, 2017
Rubin has said all along he planned to exit journalism regardless of his status at ESPN, but the fact his job was disappearing made the choice easier.
“I had turned down some [public relations] positions in the past, and the reality of the fact that the ESPN position wasn’t going to be there, in all likelihood, nudged me over the line,” he said.
After a decade and a half covering baseball for the New York Daily News and then ESPN, Rubin had tired of his job’s around-the-clock requirements. Before the internet and social media changed the profession, he’d been able to unplug after his deadline and relax until the next day. Now, with the 24-hour news cycle, the only way to stay on top of every story was to engage with his phone and laptop at all times of day.
“It just wasn’t enjoyable,” he said.
So Rubin decided not to pursue another beat-writing job. He has not departed journalism entirely — he still writes part-time for the SNY-affiliated Mets Blog and contributes to the New York Post — but he spends the bulk of his time hyping NYIT’s 13 varsity teams, 12 of which compete in Division II (baseball, the lone exception, is DI). The new job pays him less than his gig at ESPN did, but it provides him the security he could not have found in sportswriting.
“The scary thing is, if I’d stayed in journalism, I could have probably found another job now, but what is the industry going to look like in five or 10 years?” he said. “Do I want to be in my 50s at that point looking for a job in an industry that’s shrinking?”
Tom Farrey, 53, formerly of ESPN
When Tom Farrey was informed in April he would no longer be working at ESPN, he was hardly shocked or devastated. In fact, he says, he was almost relieved.
Farrey, an investigative reporter and Outside the Lines contributor, had already cut back to part-time at ESPN as his role grew at the Aspen Institute sports and society program he founded in 2011. For the final four years he spent at ESPN, Aspen had been his primary focus anyway, and he says he would have left his job at the network when his contract ended even if he had not been laid off.
— Tom Farrey (@TomFarrey) April 26, 2017
Farrey’s reason for switching careers had little to do with industry dynamics. He simply thought he could better enact change in a different role.
“I love journalism, and I will always be a journalist, and I will always be a storyteller and a truth-teller,” he said. “I just got a little bit frustrated a few years ago that I would spend all this time on stories, I would break down a problem, I might put someone on the hot seat, that person might get fired, the story goes out the door, people might cry or they might feel something or they might be angry, but then three days later everybody moves on and you don’t see policy changes. I didn’t see problems being solved in any sort of systemic way.”
At Aspen, Farrey’s mission is to help sports serve the public interest, allowing him to seek solutions in a way he couldn’t as a reporter.
Farrey, like Rubin, isn’t done with journalism altogether. He plans to work on a documentary or a book project every few years while continuing to grow his Aspen program. But as he transitions out of the industry he has devoted three decades to, he realizes how fortunate he was to carve out a career as an investigative reporter.
“I got lucky in that I came up at a time when newspapers, and particularly the ones I was involved with, the Miami Herald and the Seattle Times, had investigative cultures,” he said. “They spent a lot of money, they had large newsrooms, there was a lot of teaching those newsrooms, a lot of grooming of young people.”
Tim Shoemaker, 29, formerly of Eleven Warriors
Had he stayed in journalism, Shoemaker might well have attained his lofty goals. Still shy of his 30th birthday, he was a veteran on one of college football’s biggest beats, writing for a hugely popular local website. The idea that he could have eventually latched on at an ESPN or Sports Illustrated was hardly far-fetched.
But in the end, Shoemaker worried that the road to those jobs had become too treacherous. He was already feeling worn down from the rigors of beat writing, and layoffs at ESPN, SI and Fox sealed his decision to depart the industry.
“Every kid who gets into journalism wants to work there someday,” he said of those publications. “I wanted to work at some national outlet covering sports. And the path became a lot more challenging, in my eyes, within the last several months.”
— Tim Shoemaker (@TimShoemaker) July 28, 2017
So instead of covering the Buckeyes this fall, Shoemaker will be at The Shipyard, doing copywriting, social media and email marketing. While his former colleagues on the Ohio State beat watch J.T. Barrett and company face Indiana on August 31, he’ll be relaxing after a regular old 9-to-5 workday.
Shoemaker said he enjoyed the first day of his new job and liked his co-workers, but acknowledged the new gig might require an adjustment.
“We work with a lot of insurance agencies, so I’ll be writing about insurance instead of football,” he said. “So that’s a little different.”