Brett Smiley of SportsHandle On The Five Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Journalist
Less is often more. Be economical with words and phrases in your writing. Avoid adverbs and semicolons. Read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and keep it on your desk. I occasionally read some of my earlier work and am horrified at how many extraneous words and phrases I used. Part of the learning experience.
As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Brett Smiley.
Brett Smiley is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Sports Handle, which joined forces with the US Bets team in November 2018. He focuses on the sports betting industry and legislation. He’s a recreational sports bettor and DFS player himself, focusing on the NFL. In a past life, Smiley practiced commercial litigation in New York City and previously wrote for FOX Sports and SI.com. He lives in New Jersey with his family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I think the backstory begins at my college fraternity, when I took the roles of “recorder” and “chaplain,” responsible for roasting the brothers via email Listserv and a quasi stand-up performance each week for their various transgressions and embarrassments. Then in law school, I discovered that I detested lawyering, but loved the process of writing and weaving together words and ideas, so I spent more time blogging about law school than studying. After only 18 months practicing law, I had had enough, so I started freelancing for peanuts, built a portfolio and some contacts, made a lot of mistakes and found a bit of luck.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
If not the most interesting, one of the most eye-opening was a situation involving a payday loan chain gaining a sports betting license in Tennessee after exerting political influence over local elected officials. The company proceeded to engage in some dubious tactics, got itself into some legal jeopardy, but the regulator completely botched its duties, the company got off the hook, and then the regulator abdicated its duties. It was a total disaster and a failure of leadership to the detriment of the public and the most economically vulnerable.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, it wasn’t funny at the time. One of my earlier freelancing assignments for New York Magazine’s entertainment website Vulture had me conducting a phone interview with British actress Helen Mirren. Who was lovely. But the voice recording app I used malfunctioned, picked up only my side of the conversation, and left me with only my recollection of the interview. Once I calmed down, I wrote out everything as much as I could remember. I realized the only acceptable way out of the problem was to own up to the mistake, tell Mirren’s press person, present them with the transcript I created from memory, and go from there. The rep was understanding and appreciated the transparency, and my editor accepted the story as submitted. So, own your mistakes, and always have two recorders.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Breaking news for Sports Handle and US Bets remains the most exciting piece of the job, though when it occurs we usually cannot predict. As for interesting, we’ve reached the point in the expansion of the legal U.S. sports wagering market where many sportsbook operators hoping to compete have discovered there’s just not a pathway to profitability, so we’re seeing some operators bow out of the race, as well as consolidation, while some other potential and formidable competitors loom, such as Fanatics as well as an ESPN-branded sportsbook.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve had the fortune of speaking with a lot of unique characters and accomplished athletes, entertainers, politicians, businesspeople, and various others. One of the most enjoyable interviews occurred around 2013, when Key & Peele on Comedy Central was in its first or second season and I had an interview with the duo scheduled for about 20 minutes that ended up lasting almost an hour. They both gave really thoughtful answers, were engaged in the conversation, sincere, and kind. They’re also hilarious. It’s cool to see them both finding a lot of continued success.
What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?
Exercise, sleep, get outside, drink plenty of water, and make sure to unplug. In other words, same thing their mother or doctor would say. But it’s true — take care of yourself and your body, and give yourself mental breaks. The news cycle is frenetic and if you allow it to suck you in, it can and will consume you.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m not really sure. I just try to be a kind and decent person, and cognizant that everyone is struggling with something. Professionally, my team and I cover the news in our industry honestly and without bias, which I suppose is one very small form of goodness.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
A desire to pay my bills and retire on the younger side.
According to this Gallup poll, only 36% of Americans trust the mass media. This is disheartening. As an insider, are there a few things that journalists can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?
Be honest and transparent, always do your own research, ask lots of questions, and don’t go to work for propaganda machines.
Ok wonderful. Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Journalist” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I’ll preface this by saying that my path has been nontraditional, so these five things may not necessarily apply to all, nor is it some kind of exhaustive list. I’ll call it five things to consider.
1) Less is often more. Be economical with words and phrases in your writing. Avoid adverbs and semicolons. Read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and keep it on your desk. I occasionally read some of my earlier work and am horrified at how many extraneous words and phrases I used. Part of the learning experience.
2) You need a willingness to take risks and step outside your comfort zone. This goes for any field. I left a full-time sportswriting gig in order to launch an independent media startup Sports Handle in 2017, and while very risky and statistically likely to fail, it didn’t. Although the experience would have been valuable even if it had flopped. I learned a ton.
3) You need a thick skin. There’s lots of trolls and haters out there. Learn to tune it out or the negativity will gnaw at you. When I was writing for Sports Illustrated online, I used to get anonymous emails at least once a week from a person who criticized some component of everything I wrote, and called all sorts of names. It was baffling and disheartening until I realized the person was probably miserable and/or psychotic.
4) You need allies. Make friends, not enemies, and you’ll probably get much farther. Do people favors without expecting anything in return. I believe if you put good energy out there, that’s what will come back to you.
5) Learn to listen more and talk less. Especially when conducting an interview. Listen to what the person is saying and let that inform your subsequent questions. Rather than just checking off questions that you wrote beforehand. If you’re engaged and show interest, you’re much more likely to connect with the subject and elicit more, better information.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
President Obama. I’d be interested to get his unfiltered take on the state of affairs in the U.S.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter at @brettsmiley but I’m using Twitter less and less and may leave entirely in the coming months. I ditched Facebook in 2016 and it proved an excellent decision. Social media has become so divisive and destructive. Look for me on LinkedIn, I guess. I’m not really enjoying social media and am more interested in relationships that exist offline, out in the world. So I’ll see you out there.
This was truly meaningful! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise!
Brett Smiley of SportsHandle On The Five Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.