Monday, 15 October 2012

'How to be a football journalist' - Guardian Masterclass review

I attended a Guardian 'Masterclass' in how to be a football journalist on October 14. The event was held at the Guardian's [stunning] offices in King's Cross. But at £225 for the day it hardly came cheap, and so I went there brain fully switched on, pen and pad at hand to record any priceless insights. David Hytner and Jacob Steinberg were our tutors.

The day began with David reeling off daunting figures of the success of the Guardian's website. He told stories of and emphasised the human side of football, lamented cliches and praised the Sun for their "incredibly concise and punchy" writing.

The notion that being an excellent writer is the be-all and end-all to becoming a football journalist was quickly dispelled in the first session. "I've worked with people who can barely spell their name," David told. They referenced the 'perspiring journalist' Duncan Jenkins as a case in point. In fact, they said the job of a journalist is roughly only 10% about writing. Being successful in the industry weighs heavily on one thing: contacts.

We were told that "a huge amount" is what you know and who you know - the tutors could not help but use cliches themselves here. The person who knows who punched Alan Shearer in the face, David hypothesised, may be offered the position first.

So, the class was now considering both Who can be a contact? and How do I gather contacts?. The tutors offered useful insight into these million dollar questions:

  • Press officers are the official channel of the club but may not respond nine out of ten times or for two days.
  • Agents are gossips, which is good, but they may have an agenda. It's important to ask yourself the following: What's in it for them? and Why they are telling me this?
  • Players are nowadays inaccessible, ring fenced by so many people and networks of agents. Contacts lower down the food chain are easier to work directly with.
  • Some of the best contacts you can have are other journalists, especially foreign journalists. They can enlighten you about a certain player in the match you are about to report on.

It is important to remember that a contact will only remain a contact if you stay in touch with that person. The tutors advised friendly texts and emails as ways of maintaining the connection. Furthermore, a contact can always be strengthened. Case in point: the Mail on Sunday put considerable groundwork in with Paul Stratford, agent of Wayne Rooney. When the story that Rooney wanted away from Manchester United broke in October 2010, the MoS were answered first with the most fruity details.

The tutors gave full answers to all questions the group had. One of the more straightforward-seeming ones was Are there different types of writers?. Hytner explained that the Guardian's football writers are each assigned to cover a certain geographical area; for example, he rarely reports on football outside of London. He stressed caution at limiting ones field, unless you are very good at a specific type of football writing - as Arseblog, a dedicated Arsenal blogger and Zonal Marking, a website analysing tactics post-match, have successfully managed. For perspiring aspiring journalists, it's better to first hone an all-round set of skills.

The class wanted to know how to get started in journalism. The tutors told us that you don't need a degree: "Get work experience, impress, show you're willing". The local newspaper is an excellent place to start, as everything originates from a local level. The manager of Tooting, for example, might want the Wandsworth Guardian to be nice about him and the team.

Newsworthiness. This singular word explains why Luis Suarez, a controversial and in some arenas hated character, is gold dust for papers. The way he combines being an anti-hero on one level and a genius on another means that everyone has an opinion of him. Regardless of what you think of Suarez, he sells papers. The tutors used the idea of 'A-list' footballers, saying Suarez is an A-lister along with, you guessed it, John Terry and Wayne Rooney.

A discussion ensued, and the hypothesis Do A-listers receive preferential treatment from the press? was considered. The example given was when Robin van Persie appeared to elbow Yohan Cabaye during Manchester United's 3-0 win over Newcastle a week previous on October 7th, yet avoided a media scolding. This example was dismissed by the tutors, as the FA chose not to punish the incident, but it was an interesting consideration whether celebrity footballers may be somewhat 'untouchable' in print.

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