The Questionnaire: Jon Colman

JON COLMAN, after being highly commended for his work in 2007, this week was named as the SJA’s Regional Sports Writer of the Year for 2008 at the British Sports Journalism Awards.

Here, he answers the answers’s questionnaire

What do you consider to be essential abilities for a good sports journalist?
A willingness to read and learn from the best in the trade, confidence in your own writing style and the patience to develop it, an understanding and trusting sportsdesk, the usual persistence and tenacity that any reporter needs, and a readiness to suffer the many mundane days of watching mediocre sport in the knowledge that something remarkable could happen at any moment.

Give us some basic background bio details: I’m 28, from Hayton, near Aspatria, in west Cumbria. I went to Cockermouth School and to Lancaster University, where I got a BA (Hons) in Linguistics & English Language. After that, I went to Darlington College to do the NCTJ qualification.

Where else have you worked before the Cumberland News?
I was full-time editor of the student newspaper at Lancaster University for a year in 2001-2002, before joining The Whitehaven News, where I spent nearly three years before moving to Carlisle on the News & Star and Cumberland News.

How did you get your first “break” into sports journalism?
From my school days I had always taken a keen interest in sportswriting and was fortunate to receive invaluable encouragement from John Walsh, then the sports editor of the West Cumberland Times & Star, during early work experience assignments. Later, I was encouraged to write a weekly column and contribute sports features alongside my news reporting duties on the Whitehaven News. The Carlisle United reporting job came along at the perfect time for me in 2005 and I was fortunate that the then sports editor, Vic Gibson, overlooked the fact that I clean bowled him in a recent work cricket match to give me the job!

What was your first sports assignment?
At a student level, it would be covering university teams at various sports at Lancaster. Then I worked as an Info Assistant at the 2002 Commonwealth Games which involved covering many of the main events in Manchester. At Carlisle, my first game was a 3-2 win at Cheltenham in September, 2005.

What has been your most memorable assignment during your career?
Reporting on Carlisle United winning the League Two title in my first season covering the club was as good as it gets for a journalist and lifelong fan. The team also played in a Millennium Stadium cup final that season; another fantastic experience.

The entire Commonwealth Games experience was hugely beneficial, while some of my more modest assignments have provided lasting memories, such as Carlisle beating Manchester United in an FA Youth Cup tie in 2008. Covering the astonishing sacking of the Carlisle manager Neil McDonald in 2007 was memorable in a different way.

What sports book would you recommend?
Compilations of the best work from writers such as Hugh McIlvanney, Patrick Collins, Ian Wooldridge, James Lawton, Michael Parkinson and Simon Barnes are invaluable for any aspiring sportswriter, and Paul Kimmage’s works (Rough Ride, Full Time with Tony Cascarino) are among the more intriguing sports books on the market. Simon Wilde’s recent book on Shane Warne is a fine piece of journalism, any edition of Wisden is worth picking up, and for a real treat, nothing beats dipping into the archives for some of Neville Cardus’ finest pieces.

What sports do you specialise in, and why?
Predominantly football, as my job is to cover Carlisle United on a day-to-day basis. The summer months offer a little room for manoeuvre and I write occasional pieces on cricket. But even at that time of year, the demands of Carlisle fans need to be met first and foremost.

What part of the job do you find most challenging, and why?
The dead days are often the most difficult, although I have been fortunate in that managers and players at Carlisle have always been accessible even at the quietest of times.

The club has restricted the paper’s access in recent months, however, which could make life a bit more difficult. Fortunately, I have yet to be on the receiving end of a ban, or a manager unwilling to speak after a heavy defeat or during a difficult spell.

Who has been the biggest help to you in your career so far, and how?
As mentioned earlier, John Walsh at the Times & Star was the first person to introduce me to the world of sports journalism and I will always be grateful for his cheerful help. Likewise Vic Gibson, the sports editor who took a chance on me at Carlisle and then helped me learn something new about the job on a daily basis. My parents have been completely supportive throughout everything I have done, and I would also like to give a mention to Richard Kay, a friend at university who dragged me off my lazy backside and urged me to join the student newspaper.

What aspect of the business do you really dislike?
There are times when internet duties, such as live updates, oblige you to be staring at a laptop screen for minutes on end, when you ought to be watching what is happening on the pitch. But you learn to deal with that.

Unhelpful press officers are a standard gripe, although that has not been a problem at Carlisle United so far.

And there are times in the season when you are faced with a cluster of long away trips, to watch your team lose at places like Hereford and Peterborough on grim Tuesday nights, when the job can test your patience. But that feeling usually goes when you remind yourself that some people – your readers – are paying to be there. Even at the worst times, it is still a fantastic job.

If you did not work on sport, or journalism, what else might you have worked in?
Having set my sights on this kind of job from an early age, I find it hard to imagine being in any other industry. Having a job which did not involve writing in some form would be frustrating in the extreme. An alternative might have been to continue my studies and stay in academia, but that didn’t really appeal.

Who has been your toughest interviewee, and why?
There have been a few (but not many) Carlisle players who have had a particular dislike of being interviewed. I interviewed the midfielder, Chris Billy, on no more than two or three times in a two-year period and on each occasion he gave the strong impression that it was the last thing he would choose to be doing.

Interviewing the various parties after Neil McDonald’s sacking was a challenge, because one man (McDonald) appeared not to know why he was axed, and another (Fred Story, the owner), was unwilling to go public on the reasons.

Which sports journalist’s work do you look for first (and why)?
I tend to look for the big-hitters, the chief sportswriters, before anything else. Paul Hayward, Patrick Collins, Simon Barnes, Oliver Holt, James Lawton. They are simply the best in the business and I try to learn something every time I read their words.

Collins was probably the first writer I read religiously, and still do. In terms of his turn of phrase and the rhythm and control of his pieces, he remains unrivalled.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to enter the profession?
Do just that: read the best writers as frequently as possible, see what works for them, study every dash and comma. Have faith in your own style but don’t expect to become a polished writer overnight. Pester sports editors for work experience, and nag writers for advice. Write as much as you can, on as many different subjects as you can. And keep hammering on the door for as long as it takes until you get in.

Read some of Colman’s work here:
Interview with Michael Bridges

Carlisle v Leeds match report

Carlisle player gets international call-up – two reports, here and here

More sports journalism links

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