Gabriele Marcotti is one of the most recognised faces, and indeed voices, in football media. A columnist for the Times and for ESPNFC among others, he’s also a regular pundit on BT Sport’s European football coverage.
Gab, how did you get started in the industry?
It all happened after I moved to the UK, back in 1996. I was in the right place at the right time. I’d been to university, I’d interned, I’d freelanced. I did it for a very long time. I always go back to the advice of my mentor Michael Shapiro, my professor at Columbia University School of Journalism. He said that if you’re going to freelance, there are three areas and you need to find a balance. The first is the work that you’re not really interested in, but the work that teaches you skills and pays money. I did a lot of very boring financial stuff because there was a pay cheque in it. Then there’s the stuff that’s boring, but gets you into the publications that you want to write for. That might mean doing little briefs, the sort of stuff a monkey could do, but for a good publication. That way you can build a reputation for reliability, you can build relationships, the things that really matter to freelancers. The third is the stuff that doesn’t pay well, or maybe doesn’t pay at all, but showcases your skills. Perhaps it requires a leap of faith, but it’s important. Because when you come to the next step, if you’ve only ever done crappy wire stories, you’re not going to go to the next level. People won’t know if you can actually write something compelling. It’s critical to find the balance with those three things.
The other piece of advice is to be lucky. When I moved to the UK, the Premier League was growing, the Bosman ruling was having an effect, the money was rolling on and there were more and more foreign players. I was fortunate that there were so many players coming in from Serie A and what you found was that the players from abroad were generally very happy to talk to you, especially if you could speak to them in their own language, or a language they were familiar with.
I was extremely fortunate. I was able to build pretty close relationships with people like Marcel Desailly, Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, Patrick Vieira and that certainly helped me. Suddenly I had contacts and I found myself in a bit of demand. Through going to games, I’d met some really good guys like Graham Hunter, who at the time was at the Daily Mail. I started writing interviews and getting quotes from players that perhaps other English colleagues couldn’t get because they didn’t have that relationship.
Did you ever experience any resistance or resentment from the UK media?
No, if there’s one thing I’ll always be grateful to this country for, it’s that everyone has been so welcoming. I became a columnist for the Times in 2003 when I’d just turned 30. I can’t imagine an Italian newspaper giving someone a column at the age of 30, let alone a foreign guy with an American accent. It just wouldn’t have happened. From day one, some of the established big hitters, Henry Winter, Paddy Barclay, Matt Dickinson, they were extremely welcoming.
How important are relationships to a young journalist?
I think they’re very important, but a lot of it depends on what you want to do in the industry. It’s really interesting to consider how much you need to speak to the people you cover. A film critic generally doesn’t spend hours talking to the directors and cinematographers. He just watches the films and critiques the film. In the very early days of US sports writing, there was a belief that you shouldn’t ever speak to the people you cover because that will bias you. So you’d simply go to a fight or a race and you’d write about what you see.
Now, obviously we’ve moved past that. I think it’s important to have relationships with these people, with sources. Not because you’ll break scoops, though there are some who still do that. It’s very difficult to break stories now and generally, the people at the clubs are very clever. They kind of manipulate the media a little bit. But you need sources to find out what people are trying to do.
For an example If I’m watching Manchester City and I can see that they’re playing 4-4-2 and I’m thinking that maybe they would be better with another man in midfield, if I go to Manuel Pellegrini’s press conference and ask him about it, he’ll give me a BS answer because he’s in public. But if I have access to people at Man City, I can speak to them and understand what Pellegrini is trying to do, I can get his mindset, and I can critique the team from a different angle. It’s the same with some of the players. If, to use Manchester City as another example, I wondered why Eliaquim Mangala had screwed up, if I had access to team mates or to Pellegrini or to people at the club, I can get better insight on his issues, the problems he’s facing and so on. And it makes my analysis better, and more informed.
How hard is it for young journalists to break into the industry now?
The real difficulty is finding a niche. You can write about stuff that no-one else is writing about, stuff that’s interesting. Or you do what Michael Cox did and you can go hyper-tactical, which is very interesting. I’d like to see him now with off-the-record access to coaches, finding out what they were trying to do with the tactics. I think his work would be even better than it is already.
But unless you’re a super talented writer and you can watch Liverpool against Manchester United and write something beautiful, or funny, or interesting, unless you can do that, you have to have some other angle. You have to have something that makes your work stand out. If you’re just writing about how Messi, Suarez and Neymar are the greatest front line in history, and you don’t have special insight or a special angle, that’s going to be a hard sell because there’s a bunch of other guys all doing the same thing.
What kind of stuff do you like reading?
I like great sports writing. I like great insight and I like unusual stuff. I’m fascinated by the analytics guys. I force myself to brush up on my maths so I can get onboard with that. There are writers who are funny, some of them I like, some of them, maybe as a symptom of ageing, I find extremely juvenile and stupid. It’s the same with anything though. Even columnists who write from a distance; the more informed they are, the more it shows in their copy.
I like people who take the time to talk to a lot of people to write a story. If you give someone a week to write a profile of somebody, you expect that person to speak to ten or so people close to them and really have an insight on their subject. The reality is that newspapers don’t always do that anymore.
I like stuff that’s well sourced and well informed. You get the kind of guy who writes a United story because they’ve been briefed by Ed Woodward and so whatever Woody says is fact. Then you’ve got the guy who takes what Woodward sats and then goes away and speak to other people to put it in context. When you read something, you know when it’s authoritative, when people have spoken to multiple people. When people have thought for themselves.
I’ll give you one example that completely does my head in. There was a narrative recently whereby it was accepted in some quarters that Manchester United had to pay Real Madrid more money for Angel di Maria because they weren’t in the Champions League and he wouldn’t have come otherwise. Now, a freaking child can understand that you may need to pay higher wages if you’re not a Champions League club, but you sure as hell don’t need to pay a higher transfer fee. It’s not like that money goes to the player. Real Madrid is still Real Madrid, whether you pay them £50m or £30m. So you can’t use that as an argument. And yet, because that’s one of things that United put out as background, people lapped it up.
What often happens is that because we don’t often get access to important officials and so on, when we do speak to them, we feel good about ourselves. We’ve been let into a little secret world. We’re more prone to believing what they tell us and not thinking for ourselves because we’ve been given that little bit of access and insight. Good clubs with good PR operators, they understand this perfectly. I’m not saying anything insightful here, but the ability to think for yourself and not go along with the conventional wisdom, working it out for yourself in your own head, I think that’s something that a journalist, and especially a columnist needs.
This kind of journalism doesn’t come cheap though. How do you pay for people to have the time to work like this? With a paywall, like the Times, or by putting it out for free and hoping that the advertising comes in?
I’m not fully comfortable with an advertiser supported model. It’s not so much when it comes to sport, though there are issues there as well, but if you look at entirely advertiser supported news models like the networks in the US, it always becomes about maximising profit. You maximise profit by maximising traffic. And you maximise traffic by going for the lowest common denominator. Clickbait. “You won’t believe what happened next!”
One of my favourites was an article on the Daily Mail a few years ago where I guess a photographer had bumped into Roberto Mancini. Massive headline, big pictures. The whole story is Mancini goes to a coffee shop. That’s not a freaking story. It’s just him in a coffee shop. That’s rubbish. And that’s what we have if we have an advertiser supported model.
Now if that’s just a football thing, then that’s just a bit of a laugh. But if a mainstream news media is like that, if we don’t have investigative reporting, if we don’t have reporters reporting on our economy, on our elected officials, things that affect us, if everything is driven by advertisers and corporate interest, that becomes a concern for civil liberties.
Someone’s got to pay the bill for this. And you have to ask yourself, what’s better? A hundred thousand like-minded individuals making monthly payments to a newspaper that makes editorial decisions based on their requirements, or a million people reading a website for free and the newspaper having to rely on massive corporations for their advertising. For me, that’s very serious concern.
You can follow Gabriele Marcotti on Twitter (@Marcotti)