Rob Steen, in a second extract from his forthcoming primer, polls a range of top sports journalists about how they started in the profession
I sent a questionnaire to the sports journalists I hold in the highest regard. They include editors, reporters, chief correspondents, foreign correspondents, feature writers, columnists and sub-editors with extensive records of distinguished service in the world of newspapers and agencies, magazines and websites, broadcasting and books, from Britain, Australia, India and South Africa.
I intentionally consulted a number who plied their trade in an age when a single telephone shared by a dozen reporters cooped up in a cramped wooden press box devoid of electricity or warmth was considered a luxury. Seldom have so many skills and virtues been represented by so few.
How and why did you become a sports journalist?
Murray Hedgcock, London bureau chief, News Limited of Australia: â€œI simply drifted into the business – and not in the fashion we are told is typical in British experience: the drudgery of collecting local soccer results, or watching junior matches in appalling weather, keen to avoid upsetting local worthies. The first newspaper report of any sort I wrote (when a bank clerk) was on a badminton league final in country Victoria in 1948 or 1949, when the team in which I played beat the hot favourites. The motivation? To get publicity in the local bi-weekly for my teammates and friends (if I didnâ€™t write it, no-one else would do so).â€
Brian Scovell, staff football and cricket reporter, Daily Mail: â€œLying in hospital for much of two years I started listening to Raymond Glendenning and Howard Marshall on the ward’s only radio and fell in love with football and cricket. Decided I wanted to be a Fleet Street sportswriter.
“My hero was Tom Phillips of the Herald (I snaffled the one copy and read every word!). Back at home in the Isle of Wight, I started going to watch local matches and came home to write reports. My mother found one and took it to the editor of the IOW Mercury and said â€˜My son is a better football writer than Fred whatever his name is!â€™
“I was 13 and was hired by 7/6d a game to write about the reserves. That year I contacted the Daily Mail and asked if I could come to Northcliffe House to see the paper being produced. I went on my own, something that would never happen now, and the conducted tour started at midnight. I left school at 15, worked as a road licence clerk at the County Council, while studying for four A GCEs and the two National Council of Journalist Awards, by post, and passed all of them. By 17 I was working full time at the IOW Guardian and for four years wrote most of it. Fantastic experience!â€
Stephen Fay, cricket reporter, Independent on Sunday: â€œBy accident, following my involuntary departure from the deputy editorship of the Independent on Sunday in 1992. I had been a generous colleague to the sports editor and, as a reward, he allowed me to do 350 words each Saturday in the summer – at 3.30 and close of play – on a county game. I was constantly aware of how much I had to learn about a specialist subject, but I had a reporter’s instinct, and I delighted in the work. My break came on the Saturday of The Oval Test against South Africa in 1994. Simon Kelner decided a sidebar might be necessary and my county game had finished early. Devon Malcolm obliged by taking nine for 57.
â€œI became editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly in 1999 because I had already edited a monthly magazine and I had become a committed cricket writer. The learning curve grew a bit steeper then, and has barely levelled off since. Recently Mike Atherton said I didn’t know anything about cricket. I replied that I must know something because I had learned a bit from him. But the accusation did not upset me. I remain a reporter after all, and I know more about journalism than Mike does, though he is learning.â€
Ted Corbett, sportswriter for, among others, the Daily Star, The Sun, the Sunday Herald and The Hindu: â€œThe Kemsley Group, which owned the Evening Press at York in those days , sent a training officer called Alf Dow round every week and when he asked what ambition I had I told him I wanted to be a cricket correspondent. He told me, in blunt terms, that it was a step too far and that I should learn to be a proper journalist first.â€ (TC)
Peter Deeley, cricket correspondent, Daily Telegraph: â€œAt 53 I still needed a job of some sort having fallen out with Donald Trelford at the Observer, where I was home news editor. I freelanced for a bit for the Daily Telegraph then out of the blue their sports editor Ted Barratt offered me the job of cricket correspondent.
“They needed someone who knew cricket but had a strong news background. I had done sport as a youngster (football mostly in Birmingham) and during a freelancing period in Australia had done a lot of cricket for UK papers, including the Packer revolution. Now I still needed a job to keep body and soul together. I would have been tiddlywinks correspondent if he had asked.â€
Kevin Mitchell, chief sportswriter, The Observer: â€œMaitland Mercury, New South Wales, February 1970. Because I love to write.â€
Nick Pitt, former sports editor, now golf and tennis writer, The Sunday Times: â€œI was 29 and joined the Stratford Express in East London. Happened to start on sports desk then did general subbing. Just wanted to get into journalism.â€
David Hopps, cricket writer, The Guardian: â€œBecause when I was 10 I thought that Don Warters, who covered Leeds United for the Yorkshire Evening Post, had the best job in the world. Then I came to my senses and decided that I wanted to cover cricket instead, because it is a sport that still allows an attempt at decent writing, and retains a degree of honesty. I wanted to write and I loved cricket. Seemed easier than working.â€
Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent, Sunday Telegraph: â€œThought it would make a pleasant vacation job. And thus it has remained.â€
Brian Oliver, sports editor, The Observer: â€œBecause a vacancy came up on the weekly paper where I was working, and because I’d always wanted to be a sports journalist, ever since my days as a paperboy when I used to read the papers avidly.â€
Robert Kitson, rugby union correspondent, The Guardian: â€œI had done a bit of writing for my student paper and got a summer job making Reg Hayterâ€™s coffee. It was supposed to be a six-week trial but I never returned for my second year at uni.â€
Paul Newman, cricket writer, the Daily Mail: â€œIt was always what I wanted to do. I used to produce a little news sheet at junior school (writing out several copies by hand), started work experience with my local paper at 14 and joined them at 16. I was made sports editor when I was 18, basically because I didn’t enjoy news and local crime stories.â€
Mark Ray, cricket correspondent, The Age, Melbourne, and Sydney Morning Herald: â€œI began as a newspaper photographer covering everything, including sport, mainly Australian football. This was in Launceston, Tasmania in 1983. I was in the middle of four seasons of Sheffield Shield cricket for that state so I had a strong background on the field.”
Sharda Ugra, deputy editor, India Today: â€œIt was exactly the same month as Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut [November 1989]. It is the only thing we have in common. It sounds utterly fanciful, but I wanted to convey the experience of watching sport in a way that people would think that sportswriting can actually be an art. It was very much regarded as back of the paper, mundane stuff in India.â€
SJA member Rob Steen is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. This is an edited version of a chapter from Steen’s forthcoming book, Sports Journalism – A Multimedia Primer, to be published by Routledge in August
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