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Brendan O’Brien, Sports Journalist with the Irish Examiner

Brendan, did you leave school wanting to be a sportswriter?
Not at all. I enrolled in a Business and Leisure course in DIT when I left school (for the first time) as I had worked in that sector in the family business most of the way through school and I thought I would like to continue in that vein. I didn’t. I dropped out, repeated my Leaving Cert, did Social Science for a year in UCD and dropped out again and I then took some time away from education working in the UK. Looking back, I was way too focused on ‘getting the degree’ and it was only when I stepped back from all that that the penny dropped and I thought I should combine two of my main interests – English and sport – and that’s when I applied for my degree in Communications: Journalism in DIT. It took a while to figure out but I got there in the end!

After college, how did you get started?
It was drilled into us in college that our degree would only be worth so much in the big bad world of media and I was lucky to get a bit of work here and there with Setanta Sports who were putting a lot of effort into their website content at the time. That was an invaluable experience and I also did a brief work placement in the Irish Times and contributed to a local paper ‘The Liberty’ for the inner city that we ran in DIT. I suppose my big break was when a classmate put me in touch with the sports editor in the Irish Examiner. He was looking for some young and enthusiastic writers at the time. My first job was to cover the Irish Sailing Championships  and write a feature and a news story. I knew nothing about sailing – I’m from Portlaoise – but I seemingly did well enough to be asked to do more.

As a young sportswriter trying to make your name, how competitive was it?
It’s actually a very small pool and you get to know most of the other people very quickly. There is certainly competition there – I still get that sinking feeling when I see a colleague write something particularly out of the ordinary and wish I had thought of it – but other sportswriters were, in general, very accommodating to a young guy learning the ropes. The hardest part was getting your name known with the various sports desks who even then tended to have their choice of young whippersnappers eager to do their bidding. I would say that you are competing with yourself more than anyone else in this industry.

What would you consider as your first big break (story)?
The lecturers in college used to tell us time and time again that we should stick to what we knew when we were trying to break into the industry. I was fortunate that at the time I left college, and for a few years after, my own county of Laois was enjoying its most successful period in Gaelic football and I knew quite a few of the players from my days growing up in Portlaoise.
This was that old situation of being the right guy in the right place at the right time. I covered quite a few of their games at the time and had the phone numbers for a fair few of the players, coaches and administrators which gave me an inside track and, looking back, that was definitely a very important happenstance in building my career.

You mainly cover GAA, Soccer and Rugby; is that by choice or how does it work?
I would say that I have a fairly unusual situation as a daily sports journalist in that my desk is based in Cork and I am in Dublin. What this means in practise is that my bosses will ask to me to cover certain events/games etc but there is an expectation on me to suggest certain stories/angles as well. It’s the best of both worlds, in that sense.

Growing up, soccer was my first love but from a work point of view I haven’t covered as much as I thought I would. I covered mainly Gaelic games for a long time but have now seen my duties swing more towards rugby as that sport has become more and more central to the daily activities of every sports desk in the country.

The beauty of life as a general sports journalist is that I could cover anything and everything. I have also written about boxing and rugby league in recent weeks and I’ve covered everything from a football World Cup for priests to beach volleyball in the past.
It tends to depend on your paper as well. Other writers leaving or arriving changes the collective dynamic in a sports department. Everyone brings different talents and interests to the table so some flexibility and an interest in a number of areas is handy.

What has been the biggest moment for you in sport?
I would have to say the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. I have covered a Rugby World Cup, Euro 2012, a Ryder Cup, numerous Heineken Cups and All-Ireland finals but the Paralympics trumped them all and by a considerable margin.

The success of the Irish athletes obviously played a large part but it was much more than that. I hadn’t covered the Olympic Games earlier in the summer but the buzz from that clearly carried over into the Paralympics and the feelgood factor was something I had never experienced before.

Sport has always been a testament to the human spirit and nothing exemplified that like the Paralympics. It was a privilege to report on the achievements of so many inspired and inspiring people for almost two weeks and exhilarating to jump from one sport to another at such short notice.

Has anyone you met / interviewed ever completely surprised you. If so who and why?
I interviewed George Foreman very early on in my career and I remember walking to the hotel where he was staying and thinking how cool it was to be meeting him because I had read quite a bit about his days as heavyweight champion of the world and seen lots of footage of his fights.

He was painted as this Hollywood villain in ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the famous documentary about his fight with Muhammad Ali in Zaire, but by the time I met him he was a preacher and selling his famous Foreman Grills – though still a boxer.

I’ll never forget his handshake. He made no attempt to squeeze, probably in case he broke every bone in my hand. He spoke in this feint whisper and with such humility it really took me back. That taught me to leave all expectations at the door when interviewing people.

When you are in the press centre after a match is it very competitive between the journalists?
Press centres after a match are strange places and even more so when the game in question starts quite late in the evening. Deadlines are everything. Match reports are being written before the final whistle is blown and ‘spell check’ is your best friend.

The pressure can be enormous. For a number of years there my most hated assignment was to do a piece on Giovanni Trapattoni’s press conferences after Republic of Ireland matches when deciphering his words was a job in itself.

Trapattoni would invariably arrive out to talk to us at approximately 10.20pm and my desk would be expecting 600-700 words by half-past. Well, you can imagine how fast your heart is thumping! Naturally, I’m thrilled his successor is a native English speaker.

The reality is that access to players and coaches is so restricted and the time factor is so central that there is very little time to think of your colleagues in other papers. It is only the next morning, when you survey the papers, when you can allow yourself to think about what you wrote and how it compares to others.

What makes a good sports journalist?
A love of sports, naturally. You have to care about what you write. That goes for any area of journalism or for anyone who writes a book, a blog or even a Christmas card. If your heart isn’t in it then it isn’t hard for the reader to figure that out.

A neck is important, too. Sportswriters have been described in the past as fans with typewriters or failed sportspeople themselves and, to an extent, there is a layer of truth in both, but you have to leave that fandom behind at the turnstiles and do a job.

You sometimes need to ask the hard questions and write the unpopular point of view and it helps to have a fairly stacked contacts book as well. Naturally, that comes with experience and it is all the more important now that access to players and managers is far more restricted than it used to be.

Numerous sports journalist have written either sports books and biographies or ghosted auto biographies, have you any plans to do that?
Definitely. I have contemplated it numerous times. Who hasn’t? The reality is that the book market in Ireland is frighteningly small and you need a damn good idea – and publishing team behind you – to make it in any way profitable.

There have been lots of superb sports books released in Ireland in recent years but so many have recorded incredibly poor sales figures and the trend towards high-profile (auto)biographies has hurt the more in-depth and layered stories that are out there and deserve to be told.

Right now, I’m studying part-time for a Masters in Sports Management in UCD which is giving me a very different snapshot of the sports industry and, who knows, maybe that will afford me with a different angle on the sector here that could shift a few units down the line.

Sport is big business now whether it is professional or amateur, has that had any effect of the relationship between Sports Bodies / personalities and the sports media? (if so what does it mean)
Money changes everything. Always has and always will. The relationship between sports and the media is no exception and with that comes professionalism and regimentation. So little is left to chance, as in any business. The most obvious manifestation of that is in the painfully restricted access to players, coaches and sometimes even administrators for journalists.

The GAA probably provides the best example. Even five years ago you could ring a player or manager the week of a big championship match and hold out reasonable hope of getting someone to talk to you over the phone for 15 or 20 minutes. There was still that personal, informal touch that made for better stories.

People were far more amenable to meeting up for a coffee and a chat too but that has all changed. Managers trust players to perform in front of 80,000 people but they are paranoid about someone sitting down and chewing the fat for a few minutes.
More and more journalists have to rely now on invites to product launches and press conferences to speak to people – in all the major sports – and these are invariably artificial environments with groups of journalists crowded around the one player or coach and they make for sterile ‘us and them’ situations.

The professional sports now have PR and communication experts who feed players and managers with the party line, areas to avoid or be wary of and the result is so often bland and boring interviews which suit no-one.

That is why covering sports and events, like the Paralympics, can be so fulfilling as people are less guarded and their thoughts are less constrained simply because they are grateful for the coverage they get but then the media isn’t exactly blameless either.
It is fair to say that the media industry has cottoned on to the economic benefits of sport. It sells, basically, especially if there is a big event such as a World Cup or a big controversy. That reality plays a large part in the editorial approach which is another reason for sportspeople to tread carefully.

Do you have any advice as to how to improve relationships if that’s what needed?
In terms of access, there has to be more trust on the part of the sporting bodies that the people representing them can look after themselves without their hands being held and a perfect example of that are the All Blacks.

Unlike most sides, who rely on formal top-table settings and limited access, the All Blacks in recent years have opted to flood the media with access and I can still remember my shock at this when covering them on a trip to Ireland a few years ago.

One day, over a dozen All Blacks walked into the meeting room and the PR manager basically said ‘work away’. The players mingled and there were so many of them that journalists got to sit down individually or in pairs with people and actually – wait for it! – talk.

Yes, boundaries are needed. The days of being able to pick up the phone and ring a household player or coach in any sport for a quick word are gone but very simple things could be done to improve the relationships between sports and the media.

Some teams actually arrange occasions where their players sit down and have dinner with the media and the fact is that such efforts are viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light by journalists. It won’t buy you good press, but it does help to build up a functioning relationship and mutual understanding. Like all business, the human element is missing all too often.

Many people believe that print journalism is on the way out, do you agree?
They call print the ‘Sunset Industry’ in the US and it isn’t hard to see why. A lot of good and even great newspapers have gone bust in the last decade or so and there is no doubt but that online and digital media is making huge inroads.

Younger people source their news from smartphones and laptops now but the fact is that so much of the news they consume is still coming from the traditional print media so it still has an incredibly important role to play in society in general.

That said, the future for print is precarious unless someone can solve the conundrum that would see newspapers transferring their content online wholesale and being able to charge for it. It’s an uncertain time, for sure.

Given the speed of development in online media, what is the future for individuals such as yourself?
Diversify and self-educate. Jobs for life are a thing of the past in most walks of life these days and print journalists need to embrace the reality that is online and digital media. Most have established themselves on social media, especially Twitter, but it is paramount for print journalists to educate themselves in how to provide content for broadcast and online as well as newspapers. Video content will play an increasingly large role as we go forward so an ability to shoot and package all forms of content will be needed.

Some newspapers have been quicker than others to realise this. Some print journalists in the USA even wear camera hats to shoot press conferences live. It’s a brave, new and exciting world and the people with a more diverse range of skills will their while those without won’t.

Off the job, what do you do to relax?
As I said before, I’m studying in my spare time and currently putting my thesis together. Add in work, one child and another on the way any day now and down time is a rare treat at the moment.

I’d like to be able to say that I do something completely unrelated to my job to unwind but, like most people involved in sport, I find myself either watching or playing it when not working in it. I don’t play team sports anymore – its impossible to commit when the job involves so many evenings and weekends – but I try to run or swim whenever I can and I’ve promised myself I’ll go back playing squash before its too late. I like golf too but I’m keeping that in the back pocket until I’m not able to do anything else!

If you had any advice to give to someone wishing to be a sports journalist – what would it be?
As with any walk of life, make sure it will be something you really love doing. Work isn’t work when you enjoy it and that’s certainly been the case with me. Be prepared for life being completely different to the normal 9-5 too. To be a sports journalist it is important that you accept that and, not just you but your nearest and dearest as well. Flexibility should extend to your talents too. Write, blog, post, broadcast, shoot, edit and design.