Sports journalism is a demanding career but can be rewarding for those who combine their job with their hobby. Several journalists told the University Observer about their experiences of the role.
Brendan Fanning, of the Irish Independent, is one of Ireland’s top rugby journalists. He has been writing and reporting on the game since the mid-80s, and minutes into our interview, he lifts the lid on the painstaking elements of the job. “Typically, the week is taken up with a press conference one day, and a player interview on another day. This can involve a fair amount of travel if the press conference or player interview is in Limerick or Cork, or Galway, or Belfast. A painful amount of time is spent transcribing notes from interviews.” On the other hand, Fanning explains that one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job is that he gets to work from home, which he has done for a large part of his career. It seems like a well-deserved perk after spending years, in his earlier days, doing the hard slog in the office. “I work from home, I don’t have to go into the office, I never go in there and I’d say most journalists are the same because most journalists now are on contract rather than staff. it’s fantastic. You don’t have to get into a suit and get into the traffic at half seven in the morning, none of that.”
Colm Kinsella is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Limerick Leader, and offers an alternative perspective to the Dublin-based journalists. “No two days are the same really,” explains Kinsella. His daily work mostly involves carrying out editorial duties for the five weekly editions of his newspaper, which also includes the Limerick Chronicle. These papers play a crucial role in Irish media, giving important, more localised and less Dublin-centric news, to a highly populated region. Kinsella’s regular work includes a weekly press briefing with Munster Rugby at UL, where journalists have the opportunity to interview the coaching staff and selected players. His work also includes reporting and previewing the Ulster Bank League, and the Munster Schools Senior and Junior Cups. While in the summer months, Kinsella can focus on other sports such as soccer, horse racing, GAA, and golf.
Ryan Bailey, of the42.ie, has achieved a lot at a very young age. Bailey echoes Kinsella’s words regarding the variety of the job. “No day is the same, you can’t expect to work 9-5 Monday to Friday, and that be it. You could be sitting in the office one day and expecting to be there for the whole day, when suddenly you get a call to say that there’s something on. That’s what keeps it refreshing.”
Patrick McCarry, author of The New Breed: Irish Rugby’s Professional Era, and ghost writer of Stephen Ferris’ autobiography Man and Ball, works for JOE.ie, whose social media driven news platform is in keeping with the modern trend of clickbait journalism. The daily work of McCarry differs to that of the other writers. He has a relatively set work schedule, which he says is normally Tuesday to Saturday, working 7am-4pm on weekdays, and 1pm-10pm on a Saturday. His output is also a lot more frequent. “I will generally write seven or eight stories a day. Two to three will be features, analyses, or opinion pieces that take a bit of time, while the rest may be shorter, sharper pieces that we hope folks are interested in. I’ll go to anywhere between 15-20 games a year and I do love that part of it. The player ratings, opinions, post-match reactions and quotes. We don’t necessarily have to do that many stories. Less will certainly do if they are proving popular and bringing in page-views.”
The fast paced, social media driven nature of a website such as JOE.ie may not have the same quality of output as more broadsheet-style sites such as the42.ie but what they lack in substance, they make up for in mass appeal. They are easy to engage with on platforms such as Facebook, giving an indication of the direction in which sports journalism is heading. Even more instantaneous is of course Twitter, which all four journalists acknowledge as playing a major role in contemporary sports journalism, particularly for breaking news stories. In this regard, Bailey laments the presence of ‘fake news,’ emphasising the need for fact checking to always take priority over the need to release news as soon as possible.
The paths each of the four have taken to get to where they are share many similarities. Each of them stressing the importance of flexibility and being prepared to take on any work in any area when starting out to maximise opportunities. Colm Kinsella started off his career working as a news journalist, which gave him a ‘solid foundation’ in covering all aspects of journalism, before moving into sports coverage. McCarry’s route into sports journalism is a testament to the importance of flexibility, as he explains. “I worked for music and entertainment magazines abroad in the USA and New Zealand first and did some freelancing in Ireland until I eventually got a full-time job with my local newspaper, the Echo in South Dublin. I worked there for 3 years before deciding to fully embrace my dream of being a sports journalist. I worked in that profession in Canada for a year before returning to Ireland with some good experience behind me to work for theScore (now the42.ie) and in 2014 I moved to sportsJOE.ie, which was just starting up at the time.”
Listening to the journey Brendan Fanning has taken to get where he is, is akin to a brief history of Irish newspapers since the mid 80s. His initial foray into Irish sports journalism was working part-time for the now defunct Irish Press and the Irish Independent, covering “mickey mouse” club rugby games on the weekend. The Sunday Tribune eventually became a source of more work, and Fanning does not hesitate to heap praise on the publication.
“I started getting more work from the Sunday Tribune and then in 1990 they set up the Dublin Tribune, which was a free newspaper, a broadsheet which had something crazy like ten or eleven editions right across the City, it was a big operation, but I was made redundant after a year and a half, and I just went back to the Tribune. The Tribune was fantastic grounding for a lot of journalists in Dublin. Unlike the Press and the Independent there weren’t heavy demarcation rules so you could wander from one element of the newspaper to the next without breaking union rules and causing an all-out strike. So, it was a fantastic place to learn.”
From there Fanning moved to the Sunday Times in 1993, who were using rugby to help establish a foothold in Ireland. In 1996 he moved to the Irish Independent and has been there ever since. Over the years, he has been on radio shows such as the Last Word, and even hosted his own podcast, Down the Blindside, with fellow rugby journalist Peter O’Reilly.
All four journalists offer words of advice to anyone hoping for a career in sports journalism. Kinsella urges young writers to get as much work as possible published, and says it is crucial to “have a good nose for a story.” Patrick McCarry cautions, “Value yourself and your work. Don’t let outlets or editors take advantage and take tips and support where you can get it.” When asked what advice he would offer to an aspiring sports journalist, Fanning replies with, “Do something else.” His experience is such that his words must carry a certain amount of realism and truth. “Print is a dinosaur business. The quality of a lot of stuff online is horrendous. The current model of people getting paid in peanuts and get them to fire out as much stuff as they possibly can and just whack it all up online, and don’t worry about the quality, don’t worry about the content. Compared to the situation obtained when I started where you’d be filling your pants if you made a mistake. It was a much better time to be a journalist back then. Now anybody with a phone is a journalist.”
Fanning laments the current environment surrounding interviews and the effort it takes going through a media officer to contact a player, as opposed to the ways of old where you could contact a player directly and organise a meeting place. Fanning also describes how the nature of interviews have changed.
“The people I’m talking to now have very little to say for two reasons. Firstly, they’ve just gone straight from school into an academy. They’ve never experienced anything outside of rugby. They’ve very little experience of life so they’re very uninteresting people. Not all of them obviously but a lot of the and moreover, if they do have something interesting, it’s coached out of them by people in their own organisation. They’re petrified that the players will say something that will be used by somebody else.”
These diluted interviews are indicative of the power of the media to take words and stories out of context, and the ability of the public on social media to do the same. It is hard to blame clubs for being wary of its dangers.
It is not all negative however, and Fanning does say that if you are good, you will find an opening. Ryan Bailey’s success is proof of this, and at just 22 years old his career path is the model that any aspiring sports journalist should look to. Deciding what he wanted to do when he was in secondary school, Bailey did journalism in Griffith College and his career progressed rapidly. He began freelancing for Goal.com and RTÉ, reporting on League of Ireland matches, while he interned for ESPN in the summer of 2014. Bailey cites the sacrifices of going to matches on ‘miserable’ Friday nights for no pay as an important part in learning the trade and gathering contacts. He stresses that experience was more important than his degree. After working part-time with theScore.ie, he was then taken on as a full-time employee. He singles out travelling to Rio in 2016, to report on the Summer Olympics, as a highlight in his career so far. With such growth at such a young age his advice shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“You know who people are and once you build those relationships up it becomes a lot easier. Just go for it. It’s not always about the money, it’s about passion.”