Transcript

Sports journalism

David Lowden
Email: d.lowden@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast with myself, Matt Smith, and today we're looking at sports journalism. If you've ever looked at the commentators on television and thought, that's an easy job, you can talk about sports endlessly and your mate seem to think you know what you're on about then our guest today is here to tell you otherwise.

David Lowden has had more than 20 years' experience as a sports journalist including recently being the chief of staff of Foxtel coverage of the Commonwealth Games last year in Delhi. This year, he joins La Trobe University to start the new sports journalism degree, but what does sports journalism have that other mainstream journalism doesn't have?

David Lowden:

The difference between mainstream journalism and sports journalism is that you know when the event is going to happen. Most other forms of journalism, not all, court reporting or perhaps some forms of police reporting, but most sports journalists know when most of their events are going to happen. There are obviously off-field events that crop up so that's probably the biggest difference. You may not know how it's going to unfold but you know that it's going to take place on a Saturday and so you can write a preview and then wait for it to unfold and write your match report and then follow up after that.

Matt Smith:

So you know where to be and when to be, but what about in terms of styles of reporting and how much preparation you need and what the public expects?

David Lowden:

I suppose the advantage is that you can research the particular teams and the particular participants because you know past playing history and also their personal profile. That's probably an advantage and so there's more time, I guess, to research and to prepare but the reality of day-to-day sports journalism is that you're doing today's story and so you've got to fit all that in and still do the story you're doing today.

Matt Smith:

What about as far as expectations, do you find that you're struggling a bit to keep one step ahead of the public?

David Lowden:

That's probably a unique part of sports journalism as well, is that the public know a lot about sports and so there is a little bit of pressure, I guess, to make sure that not only you're a step ahead, but that you inform and give them something they don't already know. You've got to balance that of course not getting too insular and too specific and starting to sort of use too much jargon. I think you should know a fair bit about the participants and what you're writing about because I think nothing annoys football coaches or probably anyone who's involved in sports if you turn up you didn't really know what you're on about.

I think sports readers and sports viewers expect the same and deserve the same. As we know here in Melbourne, there's a great number of sports fans and a great many of them are very well educated in sports so you need to know your stuff to I guess honour the position you've got. That is, that you're trying to inform them and tell them something they don't already know and also do what all journalists should do and that is get an accurate description of the event done for the record.

Matt Smith:

In such an increasingly modern media environment with speed being of the essence and accuracy needed, how much of a challenge does it make sports journalism?

David Lowden:

Well, I think it's an issue for all journalists, speed versus accuracy, and particularly for people who are writing for the web who sometimes may not even have a buffer between what they write and what they publish. Old forms of journalism you at least had a sub-editorial or somebody who produces looking out of your work. A lot of times these days you can go to where people do it in social networking all the time and sports stars have got into trouble doing that, so I think it's still vital that people are accurate. Yes, we all want to be first and an exclusive is still an important thing to have if you can get it for your organization but it's better to be right than first.

Matt Smith:

What is the reality of sports journalism that you really don't see when you're reading the end product? Is it very much a bit of an elbow rubbing session with important sports people? I imagine it to be among sports journalists as well a bit of an insider, a bit of an exclusive club to get into, or is it more stressful than that?

David Lowden:

I don't think it's particularly stressful. I think you don't really get to mix, I mean you can form friendships with sports stars if you're covering the same team or the same people over and over again and people who are, say, covering the tennis tour may end up being friendly with some of the players because they literally fly around the world and people see each other all the time. But in my experience, you're not really forming a friendship; you're forming a relationship and an acquaintance and both sides kind of understand what that relationship is. And that is that you're there to cover the event for the people who are interested in that sport or that person.

Sometimes friendships happen but that can be something that detracts from your ability to carry out the job of being a sports journalist because it can neutralize you. If you feel that you need to put your friendship first and you're reporting second then you're kind of working against yourself.

In terms of stress, I don't think there's any more stress. It may even be less than other forms of journalism. There's the stress of being first or being right or making sure you don't miss something that someone else gets, particularly if you're in the commercial world it can be quite competitive. I don't think it's the same as a war correspondent or someone who's reporting on the environment with the floods or health issues or whatever. So from that point of view, I think if you like sports and you like reporting then it's a pretty good job.

Matt Smith:

What's the most interesting thing you've had to do in order to get a scoop?

David Lowden:

I don't think you necessarily do interesting things to get a scoop. I mean, scoops are quite often just about working hard, making a lot of phone calls and just chasing something down. It is back to relationships. If you've got a relationship with somebody then you know that something's brewing, you can use that relationship to try and get a little bit more information. Very often scoops can be just about waiting. You might be sitting and waiting in a car park, waiting to catch someone as they come out of a medical centre or whatever but some of the journalists that I know that I get a lot of scoops, they just make tons and tons of calls. They just really work hard and they sacrifice a lot of their personal life to build relationships with the people who'll give them stories.

Matt Smith:

Do you see sports journalism as reporting on sports events and reporting on things like injury and things that impact a sporting event, or do you see it as more so the other aspect as well which is unfortunately bad behaviour of sports people which these days tend to be frequent and get high profile in the press?

David Lowden:

It's probably all of those things, I think. Certainly it is about reporting on sports events and what takes place and providing an accurate record but increasingly, sports stars, particularly people who are involved in high profile sports are going to find themselves in situations where if they do something we would consider wrong then it's going to reported on. I think it's probably a good thing that sports journalists have the capacity to do both and should be able to do both. Whether or not newsrooms will always function that way is a different question because it probably depends on how serious something is. If it's a police matter then the police reporter might take it over or if it's a court matter the court reporter might do it. But sports journalists should at least have the capacity to be able to follow that story through.

Often, you work in teams in a newsroom. The reality is that the sports journalist might say, look, I can't burn my contact that way by sort of following that day and we'll get the general news, you have to do it because you don't have to deal with them again and you can step back, but you might be helping create that story behind the scenes. So I think that's just part of the territory now, Matt. I think it's something that sports journalists have to be able to do. They might be able to negotiate their way out of it inside their newsroom but they should be able to do it and I think increasingly high profile sports stars are going to find that pretty much their every move outside of sports is reported on. Now whether that's right or not is an ethics issue that we'll discuss in our course as well. We want to train our sports journalists to be able to make those kinds of decisions as well.

Matt Smith:

Well, let's go to your course and talk about that. Sports journalism scored a good first preference round for new enrolments when it opened up last year so when you go into it this year you sound like you're going to hit the ground running with a full complement of want-to-be sports journos. What do you have planned for that course?

David Lowden:

Well, initially, they'll do the core journalism subjects and some sports management subjects in their first year and that'll give them an excellent grounding. I think it may even help some sports journalists, who would be sports journalists to decide which side of the fence they want to be on.

In years' two and three, we'll really focus on sports journalism specific subjects. We've got one called sports reporting which is kind of focusing on some of the things you were talking about earlier which is the differences between general journalism and sports journalism and sports media issues is another subject that is specific that's not offered in the journalism degree. Again, we'll discuss some of the ethical issues that might be different in sports journalism to mainstream journalism. For example, privacy issues, does a sports star deserve and expect the same level of privacy as a member of the public? If that sports star is, say, high profile, can they assume that they'll be photographed in public? Personally, I find that a touch annoying after a while.

Matt Smith:

Yes. Now, you, yourself, came from a conventional, dare I say, mainstream journalist background. What is the benefit to somebody who's going to be doing a sports journalism degree?

David Lowden:

You mean because I did the cadetship? Cadetships are still useful. It's learning on the job. It's basically like an apprenticeship, but I think what a degree offers is a huge amount of learning and skill acquisition in a short space of time and you really do get to the end of the degree a lot better educated and resourced than if you're just learning on the job because the learning on the job has its advantage that you get paid, which is not a bad advantage and you get to write and publish and that's a good thing.

For me, I think it's a bit hit and miss system, who you get as a superior. If you get a really great boss or someone who's a good teacher that can be good, but if you get someone who haven't got time to show the ropes or even if they do, they might forget something, a legal issue, an ethical issue. I mean, ethics is something that's not really discussed day to day in mainstream journalism in my experience. I think doing the degree will give students a really good base.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that when you get into the first lecture, you're going to have to maybe shatter a few misconceptions about sports journalism?

David Lowden:

I don't know what they are, Matt. I'll be interested to hear what people think and that's probably one of the things I'll do first, is ask people what they think they've got themselves in for but I'll give people listening a hint now that you should be a journalist first and a sports fan second. All journalists in sports journalism should be able to cross over to another form and still be quite competent. There are issues about whether it's a dead-end street. I think that's something that we'll be discussing in sports media issues, is you end up going down the sports media career. It can be more difficult, not impossible but it can be more difficult to be taken seriously and have, say, the same credit for what you've done and go back into mainstream. I've managed to hop back and forth a few times but that is an issue for sports journalists for sure.

Matt Smith:

As a sports journalist, do you still manage to find the time to take a moment and enjoy the sport?

David Lowden:

All the time, Matt. All the time. Yes, I watch a lot of sports and that's because I love it. Sports journalism is a great career if you like sports because you do have to watch sports. There are sacrifices. You need to work weekends pretty much your whole career. For 20 years, I probably worked 90% weekends. Christmas day, especially based in Melbourne, you'll work a lot of Christmas days because of the cricketers being here and that was pretty usual for me to miss most of Christmas day.

As a father, I can remember sort of opening the presents with the kids and then heading off to work. So there are sacrifices but if you like sports, you do have to watch sports.

Matt Smith:

You were recently in New Delhi where you were their chief of staff for the Foxtel coverage. Can you tell me a bit about that? What was that experience like?

David Lowden:

A great experience. I mean covering big events is always really hard work. They're almost in a sense a bit trite because a lot of people do work that's much harder than what we do, but they genuinely are 12, 15, sometimes 18-hour days. You'll be there 30 to 40 days so you still got to do your washing and you got to eat and sleep and do all that sort of thing so by the end of it, you can be really wrung out. But it's a great experience. I always liked going to a different culture. I like that personally but it's also more stories to write about. If the commonwealth games were in Melbourne, I think next time they're in Glasgow, you can kind of almost write the stories now. You know roughly what is going to be said about Scotland.

Going to India, it was fabulous to be able to infuse the Indian culture into our stories and show people the colour and the city around the events. The challenge is well documented. It wasn't the world's best organized commonwealth games and there are a lot of hurdles to jump over but you jump over them, you get on with it.

Matt Smith:

What were some of the lengths you had to go through because I imagine it'll be hard to live up to the first world expectations of operating in a country like India?

David Lowden:

There certainly were challenges in trying to maintain our standards. There's no doubt about that. So we had some just on the ground challenges. There were times where we had a technician and a laptop pointing a webcam at a scoreboard which was being Skyped back to the commentators who were calling in a booth because that was the only way that we were getting up-to-date information because the commentator information service didn't work for the entire games adequately. So we had lots of challenges but you can still report with a pen and a pad and a tape recorder. It's great to have technological advances but if you can get yourself in front of the person or the event and you can write something down, you can report.

Matt Smith:

One question that I did want to ask you is in such a testosterone-fueled environment as sports, do sheilas have a role in sports journalism?

David Lowden:

Sheilas? Yes, women definitely do have a role in sports journalism and I'm pleased to see that a great many women are now reporting what we would call the serious rounds. In the old days, it was swimming and net ball and that sort of thing but if you look at the age for instance, the chief football writer is a woman. I think the chief cricket writer is a woman. If she's not the chief, she's certainly right up there. They've got a great many women writing some really good stuff. The ABC's had women in sports for ages. There have always been female presenters but there have been some really good sports journalists and plenty of opportunities. So anyone listening, if you're a woman and you think you want to get into sports journalism, certainly don't be put off on a gender basis.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. David Lowden, thanks for your time today.

David Lowden:

My pleasure.

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