Podcast: Catching up with Owen Evans
In the latest podcast we speak to Owen Evans, the Sport Journalism course leader, about the state of journalism today, his professional background and his work at the University.
Owen also discusses the emergence of football website The Athletic – and what it means for sports-focused media – as well as what students can expect from the University’s Sport Journalism degree.
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What is your background?
I moved over from the industry about three years ago, and I teach across both the journalism and the sport journalism degrees.
About a year and a half ago, I became course leader for the Sport Journalism degree. As well as teaching across the sport modules, I do a couple of the digital multimedia modules, I’ve got a background in sport business as well as sport journalism. So I try and use both where possible.
Ok, so you came into academia from working in sports business and journalism. What sort of work were you doing in the past and what tempted you to move over to teaching?
I got into the business of sport in my final year of a business degree at the University of Liverpool. I was doing the degree because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, as with everyone else on the degree that at the time. There was a module at the end in the final year that was looking at the football industry and corruption – or that kind of off-the-pitch issues within sport – and that got me very interested and I started reading some Andrew Jennings (British investigative journalist and author of FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals).
I got a contract to go and coach football over in America and then Australia. I then came back [to the UK], still planning on being a coach, but was told pretty quickly that no one was going to pay me to because ‘we’ invented the game and every dad knows how to coach, so don’t worry about coaching my son. So I had to find something else.
I went into a bleak two years doing insurance in Croydon – less said about that the better. And then I had a kind of epiphany and thought I really wanted to try and make a go of it in sport journalism. I did a 20 week fast track course over at News Associates in Wimbledon.
While I was doing that I was working for Setanta Sports – they were trying to rival Sky Sports News at the time – but it was short lived. It wasn’t really built on solid foundations. But in that short time, it did show to me what I wanted to get involved with. The match reporting and day-to-day sport journalism didn’t really interest me in that time. One week I was writing about how glorious Wayne Rooney was and then next week he was the biggest villain in the country. I didn’t really want to do that. What interested me was the sort of issues I was looking at at university – the deeper news issues within sport. I did what I was told was the traditional route and joined my local paper’s news desk for a few years.
The first 18 months of it was fantastic. One day in the office might involve a donkey derby in the morning, a death knock in the afternoon and then door-stepping a drug dealer in the evening. It was that varied and fuelled the sort person I was then – and still am now – that really enjoys variety and unpredictability and not just clocking in and clocking out, getting a spreadsheet done and then going home. It was fantastic.
Obviously, it was very stressful as well. And this was just at a time when local papers and regional papers were being marginalised and the economies of scale were kicking in. And we lost the subs in our Newsroom. It was a pretty fractious time and it hasn’t got any better from what I understand from the colleagues that have stayed there.
Fortunately, I found a position with a magazine that focused on an area that I really wanted to write about, which was business, sport, politics, SportBusiness International, based over in The Times’ old office by St Katherine Docks and then spent five years working my way up to editor there. That was really, exactly what I wanted to do, travelling around the world, interviewing the (Sepp) Blatters and (Bernie) Ecclestones, spending a month concentrating on a story around corruption and bidding for a particular sports event rather than piecemeal match reports. From start to finish, that was where I was from about 2008-2016.
But when I was at the magazine, I was being asked more and more to go off and do guest lectures, and I was finding that I enjoyed that a lot more than having my byline and creating a product. And so I started making enquiries into how I could switch across and spoke to Jo Doust, Head of School, in about 2013, when a job first came up here and he said I really needed a Masters first-and-foremost. And so, while I was editing the mag in the day, I was going over to Bloomsbury in the evenings to Birkbeck for a part-time MSc in the Business of Football and Sport Management, which was not a fun two years, but it was a price to pay, I guess. And then I eventually joined University of Brighton in 2015 as a sport journalism lecturer.
What was it that made you think that you wanted to move over then?
It’s a bit of everything, really. The seed was sewn, I think, with that introduction in the third year of university. That never really left me. It took me to the magazine, but once I was inside the industry and uncovering those stories, you’re exposed to a whole new range of constraints that you were not aware of when you’re just a reader or a consumer. Especially when you’re editing a magazine. The daily meetings with advertising departments and the understanding about difficult areas to cover because commercially they’re problematic for your organisation. And then also just from a journalistic point of view, you can become an expert in match fixing in Singapore over May. You think, right, this is fascinating, I could really focus on this. And suddenly you’ve got to focus on doping in modern pentathlon for June and then the next story for the next month and so on. You feel like a month would be long enough, but it’s nowhere near. And so that’s what academia offered, as well as an opportunity to teach – and I really enjoy teaching, I come from a teaching family.
I was finding more enjoyment in bringing through other people rather than just writing for myself… but it [academia] also offered the opportunity to become an expert in one particular area. And that’s what I really wanted to do, is to combine the teaching, getting something out of my job still, but also becoming an expert in one of these myriad of subjects that I’d had sort of a touchstone on in the past three years.
It’s a great course and you get plenty of placement opportunities. You link up with Brighton and Hove Albion, you’ve had some very high profile guest lectures…
I think the thing for me to stress is that while we do an awful lot around placement opportunities and bringing in guest lectures, fundamentally, we’ve got an incredibly strong academic core to the course. And that’s because we’re lucky enough to have the likes of John (Sugden, University of Brighton’s Emeritus Professor of the Sociology of Sport) and Alan (Tomlinson, Professor in Leisure Studies, University of Brighton) who set up the course more than 15 years ago. They didn’t do it to setup the next range of match reporters, they did it to foster the next generation of investigative sports reporters to follow in that path.
I’ve stressed that more than anything, because I’m finding now that higher education is evolving an awful lot. And you can’t be one thing. You have to offer an academic grounding. You have to offer placement opportunity and you have to offer digital training.
What we’re lucky enough to have is a really strong historic academic core. We are the joint oldest sport journalism degree in the UK. And so, my research area is in soft power and the politics around Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Simon (McEnnis, Principal Lecturer), my colleague, has done his PhD around the professional identity of sport journalists, Ben (Parsons, Senior Lecturer) is looking into crime reporting in newspapers and all of our research will go back into our teaching.
As someone that did a fast track course, I can see it both ways. I was 24 at the time, I just wanted to get into the industry in 20 weeks. I can take the hit, I can take the loan, I can take that, just get me in. But you effectively come out a foot soldier that can do media law, shorthand, news writing and you can do the formulas, basically.
What we’re noticing now with the journalism industry is its rapidly changing. A lot [of traditional working methods) have been disrupted. A lot of the tried-and-tested conventions are being challenged and changed. And what we want to create are journalists that can both handle that, but also have the general awareness to criticise what they’re doing, instead of just doing it and then moving on to the next story.
We effectively have three strands there and that was a little bit of the academic backbone. We’ve done a lot with the experiential side as well, and no getting away from it, 90% of our students come in wanting to cover Premier League football, and that’s worked very well for us timing wise with the ascension of Brighton and Hove Albion, and the club have been fantastic with us. We’ve got a really good relationship with them and a couple of years ago, we set up a scheme, because I noticed that our students were great in the classroom – If I turn up and say I’m David Beckham, there’s just been a scandal in the newspapers, you can do a press conference with me, they were fantastic with it. But there’s only so much you can do in a sort of mock newsroom environment.
It really came home to me one year when we took them up to the El Clasico for Sussex, which was a Sussex Senior Cup final between Crawley Town and Brighton (Sussex Senior Cup Final, The American Express Stadium, 2017). Crawley’s manager at the time was Harry Kewell (former Liverpool and Australia footballer). We’d taken the first year students and Kewell came into the press conference room in the bowels of the Amex. It’s where all the biggest names in the industry go to for their post-match grilling.
My first years are incredibly cocky in a nice way. I want them to be confident and challenging, but they were very, very challenging in the classroom. This was their first opportunity to speak to someone they recognised from the TV. Harry said: “Right guys, you’ve got 20 minutes, what would you like to ask me?” And tumbleweed just infested this press conference room. And it was a real eye opener for me.
It reminded me of when I recruited as a sports editor, one of my key criteria was, are you comfortable speaking with high profile personnel? Are you comfortable challenging them and asking difficult questions? And right there, they understood that they weren’t as close to the final product as they thought they were.
But you only get to do those kind of things if you’ve got a really good partnership with a sports property that can give you access. Brighton have been great. In the same year we took them [first year sport journalists) to Sussex Cricket Club and they were interviewing Jason Gillespie (Sussex Head Coach and former Australian international). We did the same thing up at the London Lions (British Basketball League). So we try and put them in the field as much as possible. That’s a key element for the course.
We also try and bring them [high-profile speakers] to the students. Last year we had Martin Tyler, Geoff Shreeves and Kelly Cates from Sky Sports come to the Falmer campus and gave a talk about basically that gap – that you can have all the best grades and work placements, but you’ve got to be comfortable talking to us and you’ve got to take your chance when it’s given to you. Initiative – as most journalists coming to higher education will tell you – is one of the biggest elements we want to see.
Ultimately, it is all about practice. When you get your first job, you just get thrown in at the deep end and you end up finding yourself in a real bunfight mixed zone, where there’s plenty of very, very confident, protective and territorial journalists. It is very much sink or swim. It’s learning to integrate into those situations – those sort of skills….It’s survival.
It’s hard to learn those things, though – what sort of warnings do you give?
Well, we’ll give them multiple mock scenarios, but we won’t find out until we take them out in the first year – that’s why we don’t wait until the third year before we put them in front of [high-profile people.
We do multiple exercises, but you can only do so much (in the Newsroom). And we were lucky to be nationally recognised by the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists), which is the national body which accredits us (The Premier League Apprenticeship between Brighton and Hove Albion and BA Sport Journalism won Innovation of the Year at the 2018 Awards for Excellence).
Everyone’s got their story about when they froze. A couple of years ago one of my apprentices was working a shift. He was mature beyond his years – a grade A, NCTJ Gold student. His only flaw, it turned out, was that he was a Manchester United fan and that he was working on the night they played Brighton and Hove Albion. He said he was really nervous in the day leading up to a Friday night game between the two, and he was coming out in blotches all around his face, about to meet Jose Mourinho. He said to me, ‘I didn’t want to ask a bad question because I thought he [Mourinho] was going to take the mickey out of me’. Straight away from being this grade A student, it suddenly felt like something’s missing here, because you’re actually having all the wrong instincts. But it’s only that confrontation that could happen that night that was bringing out these kind of nerves. It’s no longer Eastbourne Borough’s assistant manager, it’s this guy who I’ve seen on the TV, who’s manager of my team, who I’ve loved as a fan. What we’re talking about is that evolution from fan, to fan with typewriter, to objective reporter.
That’s the journey that a lot of them go through. And I don’t believe you can do that exclusively in a classroom. It just doesn’t happen because it’s that sort of magical missing element that you can only get from being in the field. However, you can’t build up to it. And that’s what we do. They get to see a lot of the dressing rooms and non-league grounds, and they become used to being in that professional role, a mode of post-match, post-event questioning.
Eventually – meeting these ‘stars’ becomes normal…
Yeah, absolutely it does. And there’s a couple of things that I would suggest to anyone. Once they’re on my course or even if they’re thinking about it…for as long as I’ve been interested in sport, I’ve always been interested in rugby, tennis and football. However, the real advance I made as a sport journalist was when I started covering sports outside of my favourite area, because then you really have to concentrate on the technique and you have to understand the angle that you’ve got to look for. You tend to not take the pre-event research as a given, because you’re such a fan anyway.
I actively dislike Formula One, but I had to go and cover it a lot for work. I went with the magazine to Singapore and Barcelona to cover the grands prix, and it really felt like ‘I’m here for a job’. I know I’ve got to write three or four features, I’ve got to get four or five interviews. I’m here for three days. How am I going to map this out? The first time I did that, I used the template, some practices, back into the football and the tennis and the rugby world. You need to see this out and be a professional.
And so that’s one thing I’ll try and say to anyone coming in – nine out of 10 will be football and Premier League fans first and foremost. I always ask them to have a Plan B up their sleeve.
We’ve had many students come in as football fans, but we had a really good example of one coming in who was also an eSports connoisseur. I know nothing about it. We really actively encouraged him to focus on it as his dissertation topic because that it was a way to get on to the sports desk and then shuffle across, rather than wait in the very long line for the football reporter roles. And he did that, on the dark side of eSports. When he graduated, he was appointed the first eSports reporter on a national news sports desk at MailOnline. So having a second sport is a huge element.
The other thing I’d say – and I used to die on this hill but I’m not going to anymore – but experience in news really helps aspiring sports reporters. In three years as a news reporter, if you go off and doorstep a drug dealer, that’s intimidating, and you’ve certainly been given perspective so when it’s your turn to ask Tony Pulis (former Stoke City manager) a question about his defensive tactics, it’s not a big deal at all. You’re not under threat in any way, shape or form. You’re not worried about upsetting people. You’re not worried about genuine fear, about a really high-end human environment that you’re about to go into, that you often come across with news, especially crime. It really puts into perspective sport. It really helps you, as the reporter, to lose that inhibition.
Sports Journalism – it’s probably the most fascinating time that I can remember. The Athletic (subscription-only digital publisher) has really shaken things out. So for people who don’t know, this is a sport subscription website which has come over from the USA, very popular over there, and now it’s here. The focus is on quality, longform sports writing. Premier League teams all have their own writers. They’ve taken some of the biggest talent from newspapers and employed them on huge wages. What do you make of it? It’s an incredible shake up.
Yeah, it’s seismic. And it’s great. What I really enjoy about it, first and foremost as someone who’s trying to get graduates into the industry, is that there’s 57 new jobs that I saw at the last count (as of August 2019). That means that there are 57 places open on those newspapers where they left.
For example. We’ve seen it here in Brighton with The Argus chief sports reporter, Andy Naylor. Not many people have been able to cover the Albion. I think he put something on Twitter saying that since the turn of the 20th Century, there’s been about four or five reporters in the role – only a handful have had the privilege. Yet he’s gone to The Athletic and he’s written a really interesting essay as to why. I’ll leave anyone listening to this to go over and read the essay and to understand his motivations for doing it.
But as a result, one of my graduates in 2018, Adam Stenning, has now joined The Argus sports desk. And in a microcosm, you’ve got an idea now about the impact. They’ve put in some of the biggest names – Daniel Taylor, David Ornstein. They’ve also been very specific in finding a couple, or at least one big regional reporter, to go across to The Athletic to cover all 20 Premier League teams, as well as a couple of Championship sides with big followerships online.
If you step back and look at it from a management science point of view, as an industry, sport journalism, has been in decline. The print model, that was the heartbeat of it, we know – it’s nothing new – has been in decline for a while now and different things have been popping up to try and become the digital disruptor of that era.
We saw it with Vice Sports, BuzzFeed…heavily, SEO click-bait in culture that were really targeting social media usage. They kind of came and went, huge record losses and 3000 redundancies or more in the US alone this year. So I think everyone within the industry has been waiting to see what it’s going to look like. The general consensus was information is free, so you can’t charge for it, we have got to find other ways. This subscription only, no ad model, that really if you look at the content as well, isn’t immediate – it’s all feature length – it’s really harking back to the Observer Sport monthlies type content, which was longform pieces that are unique in their scope.
I think it’s very refreshing for a start, but also it’s really interesting because it is probably a symptom rather than a threat. It’s a symptom of what the industry has become, especially if you read the essays from the local reporters. How bogged down they have become. Churn-alism had been the phrase right? ‘I have to get seven or eight stories out a day now, instead of one or two every two or three days’.
I’m really interested to know what will happen with it. The only thing that you can use as an evidence base is what’s happened in America. The Athletic only published its first story three years ago. If you think about the effort that The Times in particular is putting behind its pay-wall and the sort of loyal, existing readership it had going into that experiment, it’s going to be really tricky. And there’s really different characteristics between the American and English sport journalism, historically. But you can see the reporters are already saying, ‘all right, I’ll produce a lot less, but work a lot harder’. And the quality of the work means – in their eyes – they’re getting a lot more satisfaction.
And this harks back a little bit to what Andy Naylor said in his piece, in that that the pressure now is to create the best work you can. What’s interesting is that it’s obviously ruffled a lot of feathers within the industry and within the established hierarchy. Some of their best colleagues have been taken from their own papers. So all of that is understandable.
However, you can’t get away from the fact that the industry’s needed refreshing. It’s needed something to adapt from the form of print-based business model to something that acclimatises better for the current digital environment. This might be it. I don’t know if it will be – I expect it will be around in another year or two. They invested $90million into it so far. So you wouldn’t scrap that after a year and it’s a solid looking business. There are 600,000 subscribers (according to Bloomberg). They’re expecting a million by the end of the year.
I don’t expect it to diversify into League Two football or grassroots sport in England or anything that goes below the Premier League line. I might be wrong. I expect it to be around and to thrive, but I don’t think it will go down into those areas. However, that would be where I would hope a rival comes in, with the same business model that caters to that audience.
The newspapers now, they have to raise their game – as do online sites. They now have to react to it. They need to fill holes. Creatively, they have to do something different…
I’m a sentimentalist, having been a former local news reporter, but also its democratisation of the sport journalism industry. You want to get someone in there to shake things up and to disrupt and then usually, in any other industry, once the disrupter comes in, a lot of the working practices become more efficient. They become a lot more competitive. And the consumer benefits, which is what we all are as well when we’re outside of our job.
What is quite interesting is the issue around accessibility and the rise of club media. We do a lot with club media and it benefits students. And I think it’s useful from that point of view. But certainly in the last four or five years, the really big clubs no longer see themselves as the utility maximisers, the heart of the community, with a sole purpose to exist for our community, that’s why Goodison Park and Anfield are in among the rows of houses, to win trophies and to do it for the community.
It’s a totally different model in America where you’ve got profit maximisers and these guys that come out and say, ‘well, we’re here to make a profit, you know’. Totally different situation. Totally different set up.
But now the British clubs are no longer seeing themselves like that. Clubs like Manchester United claiming they’ve got hundreds of millions of supporters around the world. That’s their global fan base because they see themselves more as content creators rather than football clubs. They can go to an advertiser and say, we reach an audience of hundreds of millions, let’s say, per match. That’s not the language of a football club, really. It’s the supporters, it’s about achievements, your history, your heritage. Whereas when you look at the media packs of the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and all the top 20 teams and beyond, it’s about describing themselves as a media behemoth rather than a football club.
What’s gone hand-in-hand with that is this rise of the club media. This is a bit of a bugbear of any journalist who’s ever stepped foot in the industry. If you’ve come across a press officer that has an influence in any way – I know it’s a broad spectrum – of how you interview someone and the quotes that you get, you will understand how that affects the quality of the journalism. And that’s been happening for a long time now. I saw a Loughborough study (in 2017) saying that clubs were investing more and more jobs in the club media. They were becoming better so that they could bypass the media and go straight to their fans. And so straight away you’ve got a threat to the independent sports press with that kind of action.
Secondly, we’re now seeing things like All or Nothing with Manchester City, the documentary – I think a Leeds one has just started on Amazon Prime as well. The early reviews from the Leeds documentary is that it’s a kind of faux confession. It’s ‘we’re taking you behind the scenes, but only as far as we want.’ The documentary is a partnership. There are conditions. And there’ll be a lot left on the cutting room floor. I’m sure any producer or editor will be absolutely fuming about it.
So you’ve got that as a problem. The rise of club media. It’s about who gets to control what’s being said and how is that diluting how good the journalism is.
That actual authenticity, whether it’s through a subscription-only platform or through another model – it doesn’t really make any difference to me – I would just like it to emerge, because anyone with a journalistic instinct would want to read a proper story. You get that nervousness if you feel like you’re being fed a line. We’ve all had that. The reader has got to be paramount.
Finally, seeing things like The Players Tribune coming through. (Romelu) Lukaku, (Raheem) Sterling writing pieces – some of it is really good. But again, they’ve got control over it. I’m always worried that there might have been something else that was really good here.
So you’ve got the clubs and the players taking control of their own communication. That’s the way the industry is changing at the moment. And they’ve got the money behind it while our print model is really struggling to keep up and get the stories, and they’ve been denied by the gatekeepers/press officers from getting the quotes that they would like.
So what does it look like in the future? If one option is longfform, genuinely interesting analysis…a lot the American journalism that I’ve read is that they’ll get a player that performed at the weekend – they’ll spend two weeks going back to school and they’ll go back to his first coach… It’s not immediate reaction from the match, but it does have a level of quality to it. It doesn’t feel filtered.
We end every podcast with some questions away from your work. The first one would be, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d plot a path. When I was about 15 or 16, I was sport mad, like a lot of people. You have your careers advice meeting and I thought one thing I could do was go in to sports writing. The uniform response from family, friends, teachers etc was ‘everyone wants to do that, find something that gets you a job’. What I would say now is – if that’s what you want to do, work backwards. I want his job. What’s he done? What’s the qualification that I need? What’s the experience that I need to get? Where do I need to go? Think about it quite rationally. If you’re 16, everything’s quite pie in the sky. And I go from school uniform to this dream job and I don’t really know the link. And so, especially on open days, if you can be quite cold and rational about it and say, what do you look for? What do I need to get? And then not be too bogged down by the timeline of it all, then I think you can be quite methodical about it. Don’t take the safe option, basically.
Can you pick a favorite place in Sussex?
I didn’t grow up in Sussex, so I think anyone that has should be told that you’re pretty blessed when it comes to sporting venues. So for instance, the Amex is a great stadium to go to. Brighton Racecourse – the press room there is brilliant because you look across the sea, the finish line and the South Downs. Unbelievable office, if you want to call it that.
The whole of the seafront is brilliant. The biggest welcome surprise was being introduced to non-league culture in Sussex. In East Sussex in particular. It’s really thriving. Go to any of the grounds. There’ll always be good fun – I take the students to Whitehawk. I’ll take my guys in their first week, in their first year in a sport journalism degree, we go and watch a game with the Beachy Head Ultras at Eastbourne Town, a really picturesque place. And they’re totally hooked from the first week, they come in thinking of Mourinho and the Premier League. And then suddenly it’s about your turn as the Beachy Head Ultra that carries the statue of a horse up and down the goal.
The one I enjoy the most is The Dripping Pan over at Lewes FC. Interesting club in itself. They market themselves as the only club that pays their men’s and women’s teams the same wage. But they also do other things such as matchday posters that I’d urge anyone to have a look at. Also, instead of corporate boxes, they have beach huts that you would normally see on Hove Promenade, there’s music, really good food, ale from Harvey’s Brewery based just around the corner. It’s just a great experience. So I’d suggest anyone go there for a game.
What are you currently reading, watching and or listening to?
Well, I read a lot more leisurely during term time and then summer’s a lot more about reading for the upcoming year. I’m taking on a couple of modules this year, Power, Politics and the Sport Media and Social History of Sport. I’m doing a lot of the reading lists around those and I’m re-reading a lot of stuff that I was looking at from Jennings, Alan and John’s book Football, Corruption and Lies. That was a retrospective text about all the work they did with Badfellas, their first book into Blatter and corruption in FIFA. And then the evening, because basically I just want to close my eyes, I put an audio book on. I’m listening to Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing at the moment
Describe your perfect weekend…
Last year felt like a bit of a golden summer. I’ve been living in Brighton for about a year, and we were going out as much as we could to try new things. But then it was also the heat wave and the World Cup euphoria as well. So I can’t remember one particular weekend, but there are a couple where they started off with getting out to Hove Prom parkrun… you’re looking out to sea, up and down the beach, and done by 9.30. That’s me cashing in my exercise cheque for the weekend and after that, it was really about barbecues on the beach followed by the open air cinema that was showing films like The Goonies, Jaws, but also a lot of World Cup games. So a lot of that summer really has that glow.
Finally, if you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?
Neville Southall, Muhammad Ali…and Bob Mortimer.