From humble beginnings

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: “I 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 didn’t write it, no-one else would do so).”

Brian Scovell, staff football and cricket reporter, Daily Mail: “Lying 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 ‘My son is a better football writer than Fred whatever his name is!’

“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!”

Stephen Fay, cricket reporter, Independent on Sunday: “By 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.

“I 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.”

Ted Corbett, sportswriter for, among others, the Daily Star, The Sun, the Sunday Herald and The Hindu: “The Kemsley Group, which owned the Evening Press at York in those days [1951], 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.” (TC)

Peter Deeley, cricket correspondent, Daily Telegraph: “At 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.”

Kevin Mitchell, chief sportswriter, The Observer: “Maitland Mercury, New South Wales, February 1970. Because I love to write.”

Nick Pitt, former sports editor, now golf and tennis writer, The Sunday Times: “I 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.”

David Hopps, cricket writer, The Guardian: “Because 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.”

Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent, Sunday Telegraph: “Thought it would make a pleasant vacation job. And thus it has remained.”

Brian Oliver, sports editor, The Observer: “Because 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.”

Robert Kitson, rugby union correspondent, The Guardian: “I had done a bit of writing for my student paper and got a summer job making Reg Hayter’s coffee. It was supposed to be a six-week trial but I never returned for my second year at uni.”

Paul Newman, cricket writer, the Daily Mail: “It 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.”

Mark Ray, cricket correspondent, The Age, Melbourne, and Sydney Morning Herald: “I 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: “It 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.”

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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