In the first of a series of interviews with sports journalists, reporters and writers, ENRG Sport talks to Jack Pitt-Brooke, football journalist for the Independent, about what it is like to work in sports media. Questions by Jamie Braidwood
If we could start with your route into sports journalism, because I know it’s quite an interesting one..
Basically when I was at university I wrote a blog about Manchester City. This would have been over 10 years ago and back then, and this might be quite difficult to imagine now, but there weren’t that many blogs about football. Just at the time when people when starting to get into writing blogs I wrote one about City, basically as a distraction from my degree.
I was incredibly lucky because I was contacted by Simon Kelner, who was then the editor of the Independent and was also a massive City fan. He had read my blog and liked it. We got in touch and off the back of that I started to do some work experience at the Independent. I graduated in 2009 and then in 2010 I was offered a job. So my route into the industry was ultimately based on incredibly good fortune.
A lot of the articles I see you write seem to be on quite niche subjects. Do you find that your editors give you the freedom to write about what you’d like? What does the pitching process involve?
The Independent has always taken on a lot of niche stuff. I think it’s one of the things we do best and that’s been great for me because it means that ever since I’ve been there, I’ve been able to go through my sports editor and say ‘look I want to do a piece about this or about that, could you give me a day or two and a thousand words to go and cover it properly’. They’ve always been receptive to that, which puts me in a very fortunate position because other people who work elsewhere might not necessarily have the same leeway to do that.
Anywhere you work there will be a balance between ideas that are devised by the writer, and ideas that come from the editor. I’d like to think that the balance at the Independent is probably as it is everywhere. I will go to my editor and say ‘I want to do X, Y and Z’ and then sometimes he’ll ask me to write about a particular topic or team or player. It’s certainly a lot of back and forth but certainly in my job you have to be able to come up with the ideas yourself and execute them.
Is that your favourite part of the job? Writing about some of the stories that perhaps don’t get a lot of coverage elsewhere?
Not necessarily. There is a buzz from writing stories about something everyone is really interested in, because in a sense it’s harder. Like it’s harder to write an interesting exclusive story with real insight about Arsenal than it is to write about non-league. Simply because there are literally thousands of journalists trying to write exclusives about Arsenal and not many writing about non-league. So if you do get something right about a big team then in a sense you do feel more proud of yourself for doing it. So I wouldn’t say that like there is inherent pride in doing something that is niche.
Since you got into the industry there have been so many changes, like with social media, the rise of Twitter and everything that comes with that. But I guess the most obvious thing that has changed in your time is that the Independent is now a digital only paper….
I joined the Independent in October 2010. That was when the Independent actually stated to produce the i, its sister, paper, as well. When I joined it was like working in an old fashioned newsroom. Everyone there was concerned with getting the papers to the printers by 6pm and the rhythm of the day was dictated by trying to do that. What we put out online was not as much of a concern as it might have been elsewhere.
Obviously over the next few years the website became increasingly important and in January 2016 the decision was made to stop printing the Independent, to only sell the i, and for the Independent to go digital first. This was basically after a few years in which the website became increasingly important within the organisation.
Now it’s a very different place because it’s a much more 24/7 environment. You’re not dictated by the rhythm of the newspaper schedule. Whereas if you’re working in a digital first office, there’s a kind of constant buzz and constant demand for content, and it’s much more immediate. So the feel in the office is really different and I really like it.
Because I’m a reporter I’m not in the office every day, but it’s a great place to be and it is exciting. It has also been tremendously successful. The traffic numbers since the switch was made 18 months ago have been fantastic, I think the brand is doing very well and I think we’ve made a real niche for ourselves, which isn’t what anyone expected. This might sound like a bit of a company line, but the Independent’s repositioning of itself as a modern digital brand has been very successful and a lot of the content we produce is brilliant.
You’ve also started a podcast this year. How has that gone? And was starting a podcast something that, as an organisation, you felt you had to do, given how many other papers also produce one?
I think a podcast is a good thing for any news brand to have as people want to consume stuff that isn’t just the written word. Obviously the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian all have their own podcast, so it’s a fun thing for us to have too. I think we’re still finding our voice a bit but that’s only natural. We’ve only done maybe 7 or 8 episodes so we’re still trying to find out what we’re wanting to do. The idea is to make sure we have depth and analysis, rather than just running through the week’s games. But yeah, it is fun to do and hopefully the numbers will reflect that in time.
Finally, everyone writing for ENRG Sport are aspiring sports journalists and writers. What is one piece of advice you would offer them, as well as anyone who is looking to get a job in the industry?
I guess the first thing I’d say is to read a lot. Not just sports journalism, but everything you can. Not even to take notes, but just so you get a sense in your head of what kind of stuff you like reading, what readers like, what works well on the page, what sounds good and what doesn’t. Write a lot as well so you’ve got practice of finding your own voice. That’s really important.
The other thing I’d say, and this is maybe more general advice, is that the job really comes down to information and detail. You’ve got to able to tell your readers something they don’t already know. You can be the nicest writer in the world but if you can’t convey new information then you’re going to struggle. I think I, like a lot of people, went into the industry in my early 20s thinking that everyone wanted to know what I thought about football – which they didn’t. It took me a while to realise that in fact you’ve got to be able to deliver the information, or at least re-frame the information, to make it fresh for people. The more that young people grasp that on their way into the industry the more success they’ll have.