Sports journalist supremo Dan Retief hankers for the days when sports reporters had to know their subject, could write well and were respected.
It used to be one of the best moments in the life a newspaper journalist… the low hum followed by a gathering vibration throughout the building, and finally the drumming roar of big motors running.
And the smell? Just like the evocative aroma of a rainstorm sweeping across the Karoo. There was that mixture of hot lead, oil, musty paper and printer’s ink that I’ll never forget.
I’m talking about hanging around at night for the presses to run; the blur of printed rolls of paper flashing along on the conveyor belts and then standing by while the foreman grabbed you one.
The tingle of excitement when you allowed the paper to drop open… and there it was, a front-page byline. I remember my first as though it were yesterday.
Sports writing has come a long way from when I started in the 1970s. I used to bang away at a big old typewriter in the Diamond Fields Advertiser offices. And when I started to tour for the Rand Daily Mail, my portable went with me, stack of newsprint wedged into the cover, along with a couple of sheets of carbon paper.
The job was never done until you’d dropped off your copy at the telex operator – and often that would mean finding some backdoor at a poorly-lit post office to find those clackety machines whose very sound said, “The news is running”. Sometimes the deadline was too tight to type, so you had to phone and do running copy – building a match report in the course of the game and then topping it with an intro and a couple of pars.
Now, of course, there are laptops and cellphones, the Internet and 3G – wonderful when they work, and hateful when they don’t. Still, being able to file while waiting for a plane or wedged into the back seat of a car while hurtling along the A1 Autoroute in France is quite something.
Technology is everywhere in sport and sports journalism these days, but sadly with a concomitant falling off in the standard of sports writing. Instead of spell checkers and Google raising the standard, it seems to have caused it to slide.
Sports departments around the world used to attract journos who wanted to write. Their names became revered, but that gradually changed as the reach and depth of television grew. TV stations – after initially employing broadcasters who knew their subjects, could use the language and had good voices – moved to hiring former players, on the basis that “people will listen to someone who has played the game”.
An obvious print response to this was to have writers who could provide strong opinions or who had a bent for investigation to ‘get behind the story’ – for instance, the current furore in cricket, where not a single newspaper seems to have been able to come up with irrefutable facts to support accusations of gross mismanagement. But more and more of this has been pushed aside in favour of cosy relationships.
Over the years, for some reason I have never been able to understand, editors started to attach less value to the sports pages and the bylines that appeared on them – even though there are few things that captivate so many, so completely.
Wages, although never particularly attractive (after all, sports writers are meant to be underpaid and overprivileged), began to slide to a point where it made no sense for someone with a good brain and the ability to string together words not to move on.
The entry level became too easy, space too cramped and the requirement was not for a ‘story’ but ‘a few quick pars and scorers’. Of course, this slide into ineptitude was hastened by the advent of the Internet, where computer skills outweigh journalistic aptitude. Very little training is done, and you have cocky youngsters passing strident comment – no longer adhering the old rule that ‘you have to earn the right to have an opinion’.
Many underestimated the profile of their readers, misreading the advent of social media to mean that ‘in future readers will be our reporters’ – whereas most still wanted ethical, reliable and factual reporting.
Cut and paste rules the day. Most of the copy comes from agencies, and a good deal from public relations firms or sports bodies themselves who put out a steady stream of garbage. Some of the copy one sees seems to be aimed at an audience with the collective intellectual age of 12.
Hugh McIlvanney, considered by many to be the best British sports writer of his age, remarked: “These days, it can be said of too many in our business that if they went blind, their work wouldn’t suffer; but if they went deaf, they couldn’t work. They cannot function unless fuelled by quotes.”
There are many who strive to uphold high standards of reporting and excellent writing, but their influence is ever weakening. Sadly, from my perch, there are not many who can write, or get it right.