After a distinguished career as a rugby journalist, the Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones gives his tips on making it in the industry
By Graham Jenkins
Welcome to The Forward Pass, a series of conversations with leading rugby union journalists, broadcasters, presenters and photographers who will offer the next generation of media professionals – and fans – an insight into how they cover the sport.
The latest industry veteran to join host Graham Jenkins to reflect on his career journey, discuss the key decisions he has made along the way and share how he approaches his job is Sunday Times rugby correspondent and author Stephen Jones.
Read extracts from the podcast and listen to the complete conversation below.
Where did your rugby journey begin
“My love of the sport came from my dad, he was a flanker at our local club in Newport and when he retired we would go down to watch Newport and the magic started there – and not just the magic of rugby but the magic of club rugby and what it meant to the community, because you sort of owned the team then.”
And your passion for writing?
“It was very much a passion for newspapers, I can remember when I was about 9 or 10, reading the big rugby paper The Western Mail and realising that these people were covering rugby, in fact it wasn’t a rugby thing or even a sports thing, I just wanted to be a newspaper journalist – the sports thing was just a lucky add on.
“We’re talking about a time that when you licked your fingers the newspaper print would come off in your hands. It was a fairly basic addiction to newspapers.”
Who had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
“There was a very famous writer called Bryn Thomas who wrote under the by-line J.B.G Thomas. I was lucky to meet him later, I think he wrote something like 24 books and he covered all the Lions tours. He would go on Lions tours on these great Dakota aircraft and there would be dinner and drinks every night where they would have to put on their dinner jackets. It was the great era of touring and these heroic old guys gave me an almost rapturous vision of what could be.
“Journalistically you tend to follow columnists, the likes of Ian Wooldridge, Hugh McIlvanney, my colleague at the Sunday Times, if anyone ever wants to be a sports journalist Hugh has done compendiums on boxing, racing, football – just the most muscular beauty in those books.”
Where did your first break come?
“I must have written about 80 letters to every local newspaper you could think of, I think I even wrote to one on the Isle of Skye, asking to be taken on but didn’t get any joy whatsoever.
“Then one day a friend of mine showed me Rugby World magazine and in there was an advert for a really basic journalism post – editorial assistant. It said you must be willing to learn sub-editing and picture filing, the salary was unbelievably basic as well but I applied and I got it…it was a perfect grounding.”
“While I was at Rugby World I would go and do match reports for the Sunday Times as a freelance and that was where the link to the Sunday Times initially came. Every Wednesday morning the letter would come asking you to go and do this match and say how many words they wanted. I would sit by my front door waiting for the post to come because I as so thrilled and overwhelmed that I would get from the Sunday Times and have a by-line.”
How have relationships with players changed?
“You still have players you know well and can chat to in most teams but in general the whole thing is media managed. You have to have 10 minutes with a player, you get shipped out and someone else comes in. We are missing all the vividness and colour and characters we used to have in the old days.”
Do you enjoy generating a reaction?
“The job of a correspondent is to have opinions. Get off the fence every single time. Occasionally you might do it to provoke a reaction, if you get a nasty reaction then that is our fault, so opinions are huge for me. Whether they wind people up the wrong way is another matter, but I have developed a thick skin and I’m going to continue down the path I have set for myself and that is to say exactly what I think… but I am not slaughtering people week in, week out and I also enjoy writing about someone I really enjoy watching.”
How does your role differ to that of your colleagues working on daily newspapers?
“You have got to be careful working for a Sunday. If I say on a Monday I’ve got a great news story there are five days for your daily competitors to come up with it themselves and scupper you. So the key for a Sunday paper is to work out what has still got legs for a Sunday morning.”
How do you rate the ‘state of the union’?
“Sometimes you have got to ignore us old whingers because the sport is about 10 times the size of what it was! There used to be just eight members of the International Board and now there are 120 or whatever. You see things like the Spanish Cup Final attracting 35,000 or 40,000 going to games in Madagascar.
“The game is on the rise in South America, rugby is crossing barriers in places like Rwanda and you hear there is an Iranian women’s team. Rugby does so much, then there’s the Olympics, it is monstrous. Rugby has grown like a forest fire and I cannot believe that any sport has grown so widely and so rapidly.”
Stephen Jones’ top tips for a career in sports journalism:
+ “Publish a blog on a regular basis – even if only five people read them at first”
+ “You have got to grab people’s attention.”
+ “Don’t make them too long – restrict yourself to 750 words and have the discipline to get all your thoughts in.”
+ “Start at the end, not the beginning, if you are doing apiece that says is Dylan Hartley the man to captain England, then you conclude at the very start, you say Dylan Hartley is the very man and then justify yourself.”
+ “Whoever you meet, even if it is a bloke in the street and you chat for two minutes, keep every single contact in your contacts book – that is absolutely vital.”
+ “Find your own heroes and make sure you are listening when they are speaking.”
+ “Stay close to the media…go into WH Smith and see the huge range of magazines that there are, stay up with local and national radio, TV, newspapers”
+ “Get on Twitter – if you’re not already”
+ “Get in touch with people, don’t be afraid to write to the editors of the big papers.”
+ “Realise that if you are dedicated enough then the dream can be fulfilled.”