We happy few have opportunity in crisis

NORMAN GILLER finds himself looking ahead to the challenges of 2009

It was the muttered general agreement among the mourners seeing off the Fleet Street colossus Norman Dixon at Mortlake on Monday that we were also witnessing the demise of sports journalism as he knew and loved it. As 2008 makes way for 2009 and the Age of Obama, our profession has never been so ravaged by budgeting butchers and ice-veined bean counters.

I was a lone voice saying that it has been worse.

When I tunnelled my way out of the Daily Express on December 31, 1973, my first week as a freelance coincided with the start of what was literally one of the blackest periods in our history, the three-day week that lasted from January 1 until mid-March.

As I typed by candelight I wondered and worried as to whether – with a wife, two kids and a mortgage to support – I had been a tad reckless in walking out on the comfortable job of chief football reporter at the Black Lubianka.

Inflation was running at 19.1 per cent, the miners were preparing for all-out war, Tricky Dicky Nixon was drowning in the Watergate scandal, and unemployment was galloping towards 2 million.

I am deliberately painting this pitiless picture to prove that things have been bad before, and you know what? There is always sunshine at the end of the tunnel. Bodies were left unburied during the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, and they said the end of the world was nigh when interest rates jumped to 15 per cent on Black Wednesday in 1992.

But we came through it all to see footballers jump into the £100,000-a-week bracket, and with – let’s be honest ¬ a spoilt posse of sportswriters each getting more in their wage packet than the likes of old giants of the game like Peter Wilson, Des Hackett, George Whiting and Geoffrey Green earned between them.

Now we are back to gloom and doom, but this Old Hack pleads with you to hold your nerve. There has never been a wider media canvas on which to work.

Thanks to my former neighbour in dozy, delightful Dorset – World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee – there is a new world to conquer for anybody who can string sentences together. We have only scratched the surface of the internet’s potential, and if I were a young sports journalist I would be excavating and exploring to see how to make the web pay.

If you have real knowledge of sport, then there is a market for you. Look hard at the fast-growing world of electronic publishing, and also see whether you can turn the new, low-risk print-on-demand technology into a profitable project.

I am in the process of writing my 82nd book (I was 38 before I made my debut as an author), and you can attract the interest of publishers provided you present your idea with flair and style. Packaging and presentation is all important, and your best chance of getting a commission is to tie a star name to your book in what is now, sadly, a celebrity-driven world. By the way, I have specialised in writing first editions (there’s a joke in there somewhere).

If you have a great idea for a sports book, think of a major star that it would fit and approach his agent and get him on board before trying to sell it to a publisher. Norman Giller on Footballers’ Diets? It would possibly be commissioned with a pittance of an advance. But Gordon Ramsay on Footballers’ Diets: there could be a huge advance that even with a 40 per cent share is much more than the money offered if the book was just in my name.

Why should we as journalists be so arrogant to think that our jobs would always be safe? When I first came into the wonderful world of words in the 1950s there were printers, dockers, miners and car workers. They have all gone to the wind, and it is only a matter of time before many newspapers fold.

But there will always be work for the journalists who are willing to mix industry and imagination. It’s the lazy journos who will struggle to make a living.

Our old mate Norman Dixon bled newspaper ink, and would have hated the new world in which we are going to have to learn to survive. David Emery reminded us in a wonderful eulogy that danced between the poignant and the hilarious: “Norman would often resort to the Henry V Agincourt speech to rally his Daily Express troops and also to put fear into his golfing opponents.”

I won’t plagiarise the Bard, but I know that Norman would have rolled up his sleeves and given the rallying call to our band of brothers, “Right, lads, no time for feeling sorry for ourselves – let’s get on with it.”

As we go into the Age of Obama, be strong, be resourceful and be industrious. Yes, as Barack says: “It’s time for change.”

To read previous columns by Norman Giller, click here

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