Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Initial class laid foundation for SJI family

By Kendra Andrews
Class of 2017
When 15 sports journalism students came together in a classroom at Norfolk State University in 1993, they knew they were on an unprecedented journey.
The Sports Journalism Institute was a brand new program aimed at bringing more diversity into the field of sports journalism, and the first class couldn’t know the impact it would have.
Now, as the 25th class of SJI heads into a summer full of deadlines and networking at internships at newspapers, websites and multimedia outlets around the country, things are different. SJI has turned out successful journalists like Jonathan Abrams, Baxter Holmes, Candace Buckner–and nearly 300 others. In the process, the institute has cemented its reputation for helping women and minority journalists get their foot in the door and prove they belong.
With the success of the program, it is easy to forget the roots. But the members of SJI’s first class know the impact the program has, and remember well how things began.
“I always felt like I was the one who came in with the least amount of sports writing experience,” said Chanda Washington, a member of that first class and a former assistant editor at The Washington Post. “But I learned how to feel confident and how to cover games. I learned how to be competitive.”
While they were competitive, the members of the first class had no problem putting that aside. Their bonding and closeness laid the foundation for what has become an SJI family.
“My favorite memories were when we and the other interns were just hanging out and cracking jokes,” said Milo Bryant, founder of the Coalition for Launching Active Youth and a former sportswriter at several newspapers. “There were things that were done where I can drive down the highway right now and think about and just crack up.”
Duane Rankin, columnist and videographer at the Montgomery Advertiser, echoes that thought. His favorite memories were when the group would be able to relax together at the end of the day.
While those moments created favorite memories, they weren’t what made the program valuable. That came from reading the paper every morning, taking news quizzes, attending and covering a baseball game and turning out stories in mere minutes–memories that members of all 25 classes take with them.
“Paying attention to detail was one of the things Leon [Carter, co-founder of SJI,] did with his sports checks, where he would ask us questions about sports but also about other things going on – what street we were on,” Bryant said. “With the program that I have right now, there are things people want me to put out but I can’t because I don’t have the details. We have to focus on the things that to some people may appear to be insignificant.”
Washington’s biggest takeaway was fact checking and the priority of accuracy over getting it first, something she feels has changed in the business overall.
“In communication, the thing people say about me is that I am a stickler about getting things right. Even if it is just spelling someone’s name, don’t assume,” she said. “Don’t believe what you saw. Always double check.”

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These lessons, though taught more than two decades ago, are still among the tenets of journalism.
It’s true that now there are more ways to tell a story, but the basic ingredients are the same.
“Back then you just wrote the story,” Rankin said. “Now you can podcast, Snapchat, tweet. All of these additional ways of telling the story is a great thing. Journalists have needed to learn how to use social media to their advantage, and I think they are.”
Bryant agrees that electronic media, particularly on the small screen of a smartphone, has changed the business. One thing that hasn’t changed is the search for the truth.
“The search for the truth is what you did back then and it is what you do right now,” he said. “There is a lot of talk now about what is real and what is not and we didn’t really have that talk back then but there were still publications that you had to compete with. The search for the truth and relaying that message has not changed.”
One more thing that has not changed, and is a reason why the first class believes SJI has continued to be successful, is the lack of — but need for — diversity in the industry.
“I know that diversity has the tendency to fall on the weak side when you start looking at job cuts and when you look at job availability where you only have one spot so you’re just going to take the best and not take diversity into consideration,” Washington said. “So to have a program that’s sole focus is diversity and thrives and continues to build the industry with sports journalists who are diverse is awesome.”
And she’s not alone in that feeling. Bryant appreciates what co-founders and co-directors Carter and Sandy Rosenbush have done for the program.
“[The success of the program] lets me know that the things we did as a family, meaning the students and the instructors, was good or great enough to help us sustain [SJI],” Bryant said. “Because of the state of the industry and given that there were huge obstacles already and knowing that they were able to get through those obstacles and keep it going 25 years later, that is pretty sweet and it let me know that I was a part of something special.”