You started out doing a blog, didn’t you?
I didn’t really think of it at the time as a start into journalism, but I used to write a blog called ‘The Lonesome Death Of Roy Carroll‘. It was about Manchester City and I started it some time between the Stuart Pearce and Sven Goran Eriksson eras. I would read the papers and sum them up, or say ‘This is an interesting article’, or compare two interesting opinions. I’d just try and get a fresh angle – as far as I could – on City. This was at the time when, particularly around 2007 when I started it, there weren’t that many football blogs – there was one other City blog called ‘Bitter and Blue’ – and it was really fun. I enjoyed doing it and quite enjoyed experimenting with a medium that I’d had no experience of before.
I was fortunate because Simon Kelner, who was the editor of the Indy until about 2012, is a big City fan, and he read my blog. He emailed me about it, and we started talking about City – just things like ‘What do you think about Javier Garrido?’ ‘He’s brilliant, obviously – and then we started talking about journalism, and he asked me if I was interested in going into it. I did a bit of work experience in 2009, then in the summer of 2010 he emailed saying we’ve got a position coming up in the sports section, just a junior graduate role, helping out with bits and pieces. They basically recruited one person for every desk because of the launch of ‘I’. I started in October 2010, helping out on the desk with production, research stuff – just work experience-type tasks, and my role has more or less evolved from there.
When you started going to games did you ever get any pushback/suspicion from the old-school journalists – ‘Where’s this blogging kid come from?’, that sort of thing?
Not really. Personally I found people to be as welcoming and friendly and helpful as they would be to any 22-year-old. When I joined the Indy, other than writing a blog I didn’t know anything about journalism. I also didn’t have a NCTJ qualification, so I didn’t have any technical or practical knowledge. I was really starting from scratch, so I found almost all the journalists on the patch to be helpful, welcoming, open, and I was very willing and keen to learn from them, as I still am. What people who work in newspapers think about bloggers and what people who blog think about newspaper people is quite a big, separate issue, but personally it was very positive.
The stuff you do at the moment, it seems you try to look beyond the obvious, the ‘story behind the story’ type thing – is that a personal choice or is it a consequence of being a relatively junior reporter, where the other guys take the ‘big’ issues?
I think my strengths have always been doing what you might call ‘niche’ stuff, whether that’s foreign football or lower-league or an interesting back-story for a player. Whether that’s because of the other people we have I don’t know. The Independent as a newspaper [as a whole] has always been very open about that sort of thing, and that is the type of piece of which there has traditionally been an awful lot.
Were you ever conscious, while doing those sorts of pieces, of the Independent’s sales figures, and whether you should be doing more ‘populist’ stuff?
That’s another huge question – how conscious should you be of your reader when you’re writing? Some people say that you’ve got to bear your reader in mind, but I think you can go too far down that road, and there’s a danger if you do that you presuppose the reader doesn’t have any knowledge or curiosity. Some readers want to read things that are ambitious and…’challenging’ might not be quite the right word, but they don’t want to read pieces that start ‘Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said…’ But on the other hand there are some pieces you read and sense that they were written for the enjoyment of the writer themselves.
Is the proof just in the numbers? Some stuff I write does really well online, but other stuff does nothing at all. The other week I interviewed Bersant Celina at City and it did brilliantly online partly because he’s a hero in Kosovo, so Kosovans across Europe were clicking on it. Equally over the last few days I interviewed Maya Yoshida and that did really well online because he’s a hero in Japan, similarly Miguel Layun at Watford. But those didn’t do well because they were the best pieces ever, they did well because lots of Kosovan, Japanese and Mexican people were enthusiastic about seeing their boy representing in the Premier League. Ultimately people don’t click of stuff because it’s good, they click on stuff because they like it, which is different. You’ve got to aim upwards, as far as possible, rather than just spoon-feeding people stuff you know they’ll enjoy, or have a positive internal reaction to.
What proportion of ideas for your pieces come from you, and what’s from the people at the paper?
Mostly me. Most of my interview ideas are mine. Our desk works incredibly hard and comes up with ideas, but the Independent is a place where the writers have to bring ideas to the desk, and say ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, I’ve spoken to this person.’ The interview I did with Danny Karbassiyoon, Arsenal legend, and he’s now their CONCACAF scout, he found Gedion Zelalem and Joel Campbell – that [came about when] I got his number from a mate, then told the desk about it. I don’t know, but I’d imagine at other papers the process is slightly reversed – I’d imagine you’d have editors saying ‘Can you do X, Y or Z for us.’
In Hugh McIlvanney’s farewell piece in the Times he wrote about the old days when journalists had so much more access, when they could just wander up to the Brazil hotel and have a chat with Pele. Do you wish you had that sort of access, or do you prefer the other advantages you have now?
That’s so far removed from my experience that I almost can’t envy it. Certainly access is curtailed, but I don’t have anything to compare it to – I’m not like guys who have been reporting for 20 years and remember the good old days of going for a pint with players. Whether or not it’s better nowadays, I’d say it’s probably not. Having the numbers of various players would be great, going for a pint with players would be great. There’s no doubt you could do your job better the more access you have.
That said, there are a lot of other tools which give you the ability to do stuff in a different way – like Wyscout. It’s amazing. I was on it the other day and just putting in player’s names, or ‘watch these blocks’, or ‘watch all these right-footed tackles.’ I don’t know how many journalists have that, but obviously the information we have access to now is amazing. The point of journalism ultimately is to tell people things they don’t know, so it’s great having access to Google and YouTube, but if all your readers have access to that as well…it can only be so helpful if you’re just filleting Wikipedia for stuff. Ultimately you’ve still got to find things out which aren’t publicly known, and convey them to your readers. That’s why the changes in access is such a problem.
Scott Murray argued that it could actually be an advantage to be detached from the subject, because you can write about them more objectively and you don’t have all sorts of other things to consider…
I see where he’s coming from, but I disagree with that for a couple of reasons. Firstly there’s access to information. If you go to a press conference every week you will find things out – you’ll certainly find out more than you don’t. I think press conferences are incredibly useful, because over time you can build up a picture [of someone]. You can say ‘Oh, I know Pochettino thinks this, or that.’ I know lots of press conferences are exhaustively covered, you can get the transcripts and so forth, but there’s no substitute for spending half an hour in the company of someone every week.
Writing from a distance can be brilliant, and I’m a huge admirer of Scott, but I think if you report on something routinely, one you have access to information, and two – this is a point Rory Smith has made before – there’s a kind of accountability involved. If you go every week, that holds you to a standard. It’s almost the same as saying something to someone’s face and saying it behind their back. I think you’re held to a high standard of accountability, in the sense that if you write something about a manager that is unfair, they might say to you the following week ‘I thought that was unfair.’ That’s not to say you can’t write brilliantly about something you’re not intimately attuned to, but I can’t fully agree with Scott’s point, or at least there are some pretty good reasons why that isn’t the case.
You ghostwrite Danny Higginbotham’s columns too – what’s that like?
Yeah, it’s great, I really enjoy it. Danny is a joy to ghost, he does a lot of his own research, comes up with his own ideas, he’s got exhaustive knowledge, he’s very smart. I think the column has been a big success, and better than most other ex-pro columns. It’s fun to do something slightly different, because ghosting a column is a skill in itself. Having thought-through opinions is very helpful – knowing what you think in advance.
It’s kind of a three-way process between me, him and the sports editor. At the beginning of the week we’ll discuss what we want to write about, always with half an eye on whatever big games are on that Saturday, or a particular talking point thrown up that week. Sometimes I’ll go to Danny and say ‘Do you want to do this?’ and sometimes he’ll come to me and say ‘I’d like to talk about that.’ We usually have a fairly clear idea at the start of the week, then we speak for about 45 minutes to an hour every Thursday, I write it up, he signs it off and we’re good to go. It’s really fun.
He clearly thinks quite a lot about tactics and so forth. You get the impression that a lot of players will just go out and do their own thing, not really paying much attention to all of that.
Maybe. Some people think that, but he’s certainly really into tactical analysis. He spends a lot of time thinking about it, and I think there’s a freshness for his tactical insights, which I think there’s an increasing appetite for in the modern media. MondayNight Football is part of that too – people who watch football now are much more interested in these tactical breakdowns than they were ten years ago, and I think Danny speaks to that as well.
I’m not a kind of ‘You’ve got to have played the game [to have a valid opinion on it]’ person – I couldn’t be, I was and still am a terrible footballer – but I think when the topic is tactics, and specifically what is happening on the pitch, there’s a lot of authority to having played the game professionally. That’s one of the reasons why Danny’s column carries a lot of weight – it’s not just tactical analysis, but tactical analysis by a former professional, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s been so well received.
What was it like interviewing Richard Keys?
Actually that one wasn’t my idea – it was the idea of someone at the Indy. That’s an example of something that went really big online, bigger than anything else I’ve ever written. It was actually quite easy to do. I asked him what he thought, then reported what he thought – I didn’t even have to write around it. It was all on the table.
Did you have any preconceptions about what a conversation with Richard Keys would be like?
Not going into it. I went into it with a curiosity about what he was going to say, and with a fairly open mind, I think. Interviews are easier when someone has something they want to get off their chest, and quite obviously he had something he wanted to get off his chest, judging by his blogposts. We spoke on the phone for about half an hour, he laid out what he thought, and it was quite simple to write up from there. Although it had a lot of impact, it wasn’t something that a lot of hard work went into, it was all there once we had the idea.
I didn’t really have many preconceptions. I haven’t spoken with him since. I don’t know – I think he’s a great broadcaster. I don’t see him now because I don’t have BeIN Sports, and I absolutely respect him as a broadcaster. The piece was good and worked really well online, but I didn’t want it to be seen as some sort of big ‘anti-Keys’ Twitter campaign, or to stitch him up. I didn’t want to be seen to be putting the boot in to someone who’s just a bit ridiculous, really. I didn’t want to do like a lap of honour on Twitter about it.
Finally, what would you like to see more of, and what would you like to see less of in football journalism?
More resources. Lots of places are really under-resourced, and good journalism is expensive. Freeing people up to do reporting, travelling, entertaining, that sort of stuff, is expensive, and it’s a shame to see budgets being cut. Less of…I think Rory said something like this, but I’d like to see less of manager’s quotes just parroted. I think it’s easy to be snooty about press conferences, but if you have journalists there you hold managers accountable and try to get proper answers out of them. Clubs are obviously trying to do as much to make sure the players are accountable to their media teams, which is fine, but I think the industry is a much better place if you have actual journalists asking questions of managers.
You can follow Jack Pitt-Brooke on Twitter (@JackPittBrooke)
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)