Hopkins spikes complaints about extra web work

When JOHN HOPKINS accepted his SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year Award earlier this month, he said it proved that “an old dog can learn new tricks”. Here he explains how

If asked how I came to love writing for The Times‘s online paper, I wish I could reply that I took to it like a duck to water. It would be rather cool to say I was bashing out 400-word comment pieces immediately.

The reality is that it was a sea change for a man who has spent 40 years in newspapers. To change me from the traditional way of thinking to even understanding the internet and an online operation such as we have at timesonline needed some seduction. And suddenly, about two years ago, I realise I was being wooed. A man called James Major, a laconic type with a good line in flattery, was doing the wooing.

The first I really knew about “online writing” was the sight of a few desks being added on to one end of The Times‘s sports department. The next I knew, those desks had gone and the online people were embedded in the department. Next thing I knew I was getting flattering telephone calls from the aforementioned Major.

“Could you do a piece at the end of each day from the Masters, Hoppy? Nothing too strenuous. Just your impressions. A man of your calibre can knock it off in minutes.”

And that is how it started.

From one piece a day it became several. Daily comment pieces from the Masters, the US Open, the Open, the Ryder Cup. Then they started on the lists: my 10 best Masters, my 10 best Opens etc. The thin end of the wedge had become rather thicker.

Like most journalists who have spent their entire working life producing copy for a newspaper or magazine, I found the concept of writing for our online operation to be unusual. It seemed to me that I was having to do more work for no more money, usually at the end of a long day.

The first time I did it was at Augusta in 2007 and at the end of each day I sat alongside my colleague Owen Slot as we each bashed out our online pieces before we went out for dinner and grumbled about how much extra work we were having to write. I reckoned it added anything up to 45 minutes to my working day.

Slowly, the realisation dawned. I rather enjoyedd it and I did not find it particularly difficult. I can’t explain why exactly; I just didn’t. When you have the luxury of spending three hours worrying about a dependent clause, a gerund, a transitive or intransitive verb, writing a few hundred words that can be as punchy as you like was not as demanding as I thought. In fact, I felt a degree of liberation. I would set to with vigour, hammer furiously at my laptop in a way I rarely did when producing copy for the paper, and after about 15 minutes I had finished.

I even struck a deal with the mechanical side of it all. I had no idea how it all worked and didn’t particularly want to, but I knew enough to know that if I wrote pithy, spiky pieces, filed them to almost the same email address as I would if I was writing a piece for the paper, then back would come a note moments later saying, “thanks John”. And within a short time I could go to and look up what I had written.

But I still had the newspaperman’s conflict between writing for the paper and writing for online. Used to picking up a paper in my hands, I favoured the paper every time. At this stage online was something I did at the end of the day, an add on. It was the words of an editor that changed my thinking. “I don’t know why everybody always wants their stuff to be in the paper” he said. “It will be read by millions more people if it is online.”

Then it all speeded up. I asked if I could write a golf column. “Certainly,” was the reply. What would it be called? “On the tee.” “Fore!” “Tee off” “My honour” were some of the suggestions and all were discarded. The Spike Bar it was to be and The Spike Bar it has remained.

Then something else happened. I realised that I had free rein to write 1,500 words or so each week and suddenly it became as important to me as my copy for the paper. I thought and thought. I sounded out colleagues. I started to collect story ideas in a folder marked “Spike Bar”. It went up – see, I have even learned the lingo – around midmorning on a Thursday. I would start to think about it the previous Friday, worry about it at the weekend and panic on Wednesday morning.

Then I found another benefit. You get terrific reader feedback after an online piece. Sometimes the comments start arriving within hours; sometimes they come in slowly and steadily. The first time I really appreciated what was going on out there came when I wrote a critical online piece about Shane Williams, the Wales rugby player. It was as if I had insulted the Pope. I had 50 comments in as many minutes.

“Why don’t you eff off back to golf?” wrote one irate Welshman. “Has he run off with your missus?” was another. I loved this interaction. After years of little more than a steady dribble of letters sent to me in response to something I had written in the paper, to get a stream of comments within hours was fulfilling.

I can’t work a BlackBerry. I don’t understand the internet. I am often in trouble with my computer. But writing online, which I thought was going to be a pain in the neck, has become a pleasure. I find myself thinking of ways of getting a story into the paper and up online without there being too much of a conflict. I don’t worry about scooping myself in the paper with a story online. I have worked out how to write an online piece that ideally whets the appetite for a longer more considered piece in the paper. And if the truth be told, I love it.

See. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

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