Vox in the Box: Paul Hayward

As chief sports writer for the Daily Telegraph, Paul Hayward reports on some of the world’s greatest sporting events. But it’s still football that captures his imagination. So what has he learned over a 30 year career that has also taken in spells at the Daily Mail and the Guardian?

I think a good journalist is someone who notices things, who is attuned to things, who speaks to people, who goes to events, who tries to get themselves out there among the people who know the story, who tries to pick up information and tries to report from knowledge and impressions, rather than opinion all the time. I think there’s an excessive drift towards automatic opinion. I understand why everyone’s shouting and telling you what they think all the time, that’s the way the media has developed. But at the same time, there’s value in reportage.

How important is the human element?

I envy a lot of my colleagues who are incredibly good at speaking to people and getting to know them. They’re very sociable, they’re extroverts who can walk up to a manger or an agent in a bar and make a connection and then pursue the connection. A lot of journalists find that quite difficult, because it requires you to perform a little bit and you feel like you’re doing it for slightly Machiavellian reasons.

What do sports editors look for in young journalists?

Ideas, I think. The advice I always give is that to be noticed, you have to spot things. The sheer volume of football journalism is frightening, but if you can see things that others can’t, if you can look and find a story, that’s an advantage. Ideas get you published.

You’re the chief sports writer, but you still do so many football match reports. Do you like it that much or would you rather be somewhere sunny? 

Well, when I do matches, I mainly do ‘sidebar’ pieces, thematic, observational bits that go alongside the match reports. I do match reports as well, but I prefer to pick out an aspect of a game, a particular performance or a talking point and work on that. It’s challenging and I really enjoy that. It’s a good mental test.

Is there still value in actually being at a game?

Yes, I think so, More and more, the business of football journalism is going to be about comment and reaction. The bigger social media gets, the more fan involvement will grow. Everything will become a discussion, a pinball match of opinions with people who’ve watched the match and want to interact. So there’ll be this big community with everyone having their say. I always say that everyone in Britain is now a columnist basically because everyone is published. Everyone with a twitter account is published, they can make themselves heard at any given moment.

Going to the game, sometimes you’ll actually see less of the match than you would on the television. You’ll miss out on the 15 replays from every angle. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out physically what’s actually going on in a game, you have to concentrate very hard. But the sights, the sounds,  the impressions, the people you speak to…I still love that, I still think it’s really important to see the live action and to be close to it.

Like most journalists, you’ve experienced the sharp end of Twitter. Does it make you feel vulnerable?

It comes as a shock at first, but then you have to accept it and adapt to it. When I started in this business, journalists and columnists were opinion formers, or at least that’s the way they saw themselves. They were handing down opinions and the reference points for most people were newspapers. That’s all gone now. The value of a newspaper columnist’s opinion is no higher than that of a good blogger, or an intelligent fan, or a former player who says interesting things. There’s a greater equality and democracy about it now. The newspaper writer has to try to remain relevant by either working harder at it, or reporting and conveying information that other people aren’t going to get. If you’ve got proximity to the game and proximity to people in the game, if you speak to people within the game, that does give you an advantage. But still, the influence has eroded. 

And yet while it erodes, visibility increases. You’re a regular on Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports and such a recognisable face that someone in this pub just came over and said ‘hi’. Is that odd? Did you sign up for this sort of thing?

No, it just happened. I think it reflects the fact that people think you might know more than they do because you’re on the inside. The reason that football writers have big followings on Twitter is not that they’re incredibly clever, though some of them are, but it’s because people think, this guy might know something that I want to know.

Sunday Supplement is an example of how journalists are sometimes able to talk in a way that ex-players don’t. There’s a candour there and a level of detail that seems to be quite appealing to TV viewers. It’s strange, I always think that it must look like a seance with us all around that table, but it has a huge following.

Sometimes there’s an intensity there between the journalists. Has it ever got out of hand?

Yeah, people have had arguments about expenses live on air. It just goes off a tangent all at once and an old score is settled or an old grudge surfaces. You’re sitting there thinking…erm…we’re not in the pub now, this is live television!

Do you think that journalists fall into factions? That you and Henry Winter, for example, sit on one side as broadsheet journalists with perhaps Neil Custis or Anthony Kastrinakis as the hard-hitting tabloid writers?

No, not really. I don’t think there’s any division there. You don’t see a division in the press box generally. There’s no hierarchy and no prejudice in either direction. Though some of the tabloid reporters resent what they see as the privileges that broadsheet writers get and they feel a bit looked down on sometimes, but they’re not really.

The most interesting development for me has been the emergence of a group of really talented, interesting football writers who aren’t following the mainstream way of doing things, they’re not enslaved by press conferences, they’re not obsessed with quotes, they’re looking at the game journalistically in a way that a lot of people want the game to be looked at. The Blizzard, in particular, is very impressive.

I feel that some parts of football journalism have gone down a cul-de-sac in pursuit of numbers, hits and Facebook shares. I think we’re becoming too narrow. Instead of relying on knowledge and authority, we’re playing the numbers game too often and chasing the things that everyone else is chasing. We’re not giving football reporters the chance to write about players and issues and interesting things going on at football clubs.

Is there any value in the scoop anymore?

Well, that’s an interesting subject. Newspapers still break big stories. The other day, they broke the story that Steven Gerrard was going to play in the US. I noticed that Paul Joyce broke that one first on Twitter and within ten minutes it was everywhere. There’s a tremendous larceny in modern media where you can break the story and it’s yours for five minutes at the maximum. After that, no-one knows where it came from. Everybody just pilfers it and presents it as their own. very often without acknowledgement.

Does that cause resentment? 

I think it must do. I mean, I don’t get many stories of that nature, but if I got a huge story and within five minutes it was everywhere and it wasn’t apparent that I did all the hard work to get it, I’d be really annoyed.

Those battles between the classic story-getters like Brian Woolnough and Harry Harris; are they a thing of the past?

Yes I think so. I think every journalist worth his lunch money is attuned to the possibility of a big story. You want a big story more than you want a big intro, I think. But that period was really the height of the circulation war when the newspaper weren’t competing with sky and the internet, so they dominated the market and were only up against each other.  Each one was a fierce animal, big staff, big resources and the test was always to get the big back page. So we had these leviathans fighting each other and it got very nasty. The tone of the reporting was often very nasty too, as Sir Bobby Robson found out. I didn’t particularly like that period of football journalism, even though there were some great operators in the press box. I prefer it now, I think. But the turf wars were pretty much over when I started. We had about 15 years of peace and serenity and since then it’s become like the evacuation of Saigon, everyone trying to get on one last helicopter on the roof.

Some big names have fallen recently. Is this a strange time for the press?

Absolutely. We’ve lost John Ley, John Dillon, Ian Chadband, Simon Barnes… I could go on forever. There’s now an expectation that it’s wave after wave. What’s happening is that what I would call ‘traditional’ journalists are being replaced by digital savvy younger journalists who are much cheaper. So for the price of one old school journalist you could get three straight out of university and you can get them to grab things off the internet and chase the numbers. Some of them are extremely good and will become really good journalists, but that’s the way the market is driving the industry. Into that very noisy digital world. Journalists of my generation are extremely vulnerable. You kind of assume that you’re going to lose your job at some point, everyone in the press box does, you just hope it’s not going to be any time soon.

Blimey, this interview has taken a sombre turn, hasn’t it?

No, no! You can accept it. If I lost my job, I’d say that I’ve had 30 years doing this and I’ve been incredibly lucky and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. So thats the way it goes.

Has there been a clearly defined high point?

Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the World Cups. Even with the issues at FIFA, once you get into a World Cup, if you’re lucky enough to be there, you’re in the flow of it all and every day you wake up and you’re excited. You know the story is going to move and that you’re going to move, physically, around the country, so you feel like you’re in this narrative for a month.

More often than not, you’re in this fascinating country like Japan or Germany or Brazil. More often than not, the football’s going to be great and there’s just this amazing excitement. You have to remind yourself how lucky you are to be paid to do it. Like France ’98, being on the streets of Paris when they won, being up at 4am in the morning, just wandering around…it was like the end of the war, the whole of Paris flooding on to the streets to celebrate this multinational team winning the World Cup for the first time. Where can you get that outside of football? It’s the dream job.

You can follow Paul Hayward on Twitter (@_PaulHayward)

Vox in the Box: Paul Hayward
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