Q&A with The Times football reporter Rory Smith – Advice for aspiring journalists, embarrassing gaffes and what he loves about the job

Rory Smith has worked with some of the biggest newspapers in the country. He is currently a football reporter for the Times and has been kind enough to give us at Football Friends an insight to his career and advice for any one starting out in the industry.

1) When did you know you wanted to be a journalist and what was your first break in the industry?

That I’m not entirely sure about: it was just something I kind of knew. I suppose I must have worked it out at school – I did little bits writing for the school magazine and such – but it was at University where it became a conscious choice and where I set out to write as much as I could. I was really lucky with my first job: I’d done work experience at the Press Association and the Independent when I wrote to the Mirror asking if they offered the same chance. They replied that they didn’t, but invited me to apply for their trainee scheme. I assume everyone else who applied was abysmal, because for some reason they accepted me.

2) For you, what are the best parts of your job? What has been the stand out moment in your career so far? 

It’s still a pleasure to be able to go to games, even if it doesn’t always feel like it; I love the challenge of interviewing, the opportunity to try to form an impression of someone and convey that to others; and I’m very fortunate in that The Times give me sufficient freedom to go and unearth stories that are a little bit different to the day to day stuff that forms the backbone of what we do. Not every paper does that.

It’s not really for me to say what the best thing I’ve done is, but the two pieces I was most pleased to have done were an interview with J’Lloyd Samuel in Iran and the two days of coverage we gave the anniversary of Port Said. In terms of events, the World Cup and the Euros; they’re a lot of work, but an incredible buzz.

3) All jobs have pros and cons, what are the cons of being a sports journalist?

The hours. The media doesn’t stop, and the phone generally rings from 8.30 in the morning to about midnight, every day (not non-stop, obviously, otherwise you’d never get anything done). You never switch off and nor should you: the moment you do, you tend to lose track of what’s happening, such is the pace that it all moves at. The pay’s not amazing – especially when you try to work out your hourly rate – and you have to deal with a lot of hostility, whether that’s from agents and managers who don’t like you and will lie to you, or from fans who believe you’re determined to do their club down.

4)  An aspect of sports journalism that is always mentioned is the competition for jobs. What piece of advice would you give aspiring sports reporters to stand out from the crowd?

Find a niche. There are thousands of people who can write a coherent opinion on football, but that is just one element of the job, and to be honest it’s only really relevant once you’ve reached the rarefied heights of a Paul Hayward or Matt Dickinson.

What are rarer are journalists who can do more than one sport, who have an area of specialised knowledge – whether that’s tactics or a foreign language or what have you – and who, and this is crucial, understand the difference between having an opinion and having an informed opinion. People like Hayward and Martin Samuel do not just conjure their views out of mid-air. They are speaking to people involved in the sport. They know what they are thinking, and they have served their time getting news to establish the contacts which inform their views. It’s a process. You can’t just walk in and be a chief sports writer.

5)  Journalism is something that is always evolving, how do you see sports journalism changing in the future?

Broadly, it has become faster, more competitive and more immediate. The days of embargoed information and holding things for the paper are dying, and fast, in the rush to put things online. That is a seismic change. How it affects the job depends on the way media organisations react to that shift; you can either try and keep up, or you can see your role as to be providing comment, analysis and insight on the news broken by the websites and the TV. We can’t all do everything. It’s also becoming more multimedia – it’s vital that journalists now can work across outlets, doing TV, radio and print. We are all brands now, as horrible as that sounds.

6) In your opinion, what are the most important ingredients for a good journalist?

A thick skin, an ability to evolve, a desire to ask questions, a LOT of free minutes, even more free time, and an understanding of where to put an apostrophe. That’s a good journalist; for a good sports journalist, you probably need to know the area you’re talking about, too.

7) To be the best in a particular trade you need the correct guidance. Who has been the most influential figure on your career?

There have been a few. Dave Balmforth was my editor when I did work experience at PA; I was only there a month or so but he told me a lot. Steve White, the Mirror’s northern news editor, taught me how to be a proper reporter, and Dave Walker, the Sunday Mirror’s sports editor, gave me the most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever had. Then there’s people like Mark Ogden, Paul Joyce and Duncan White, all of whom helped me enormously, and theoretically I owe Tony Evans a lot, though he reminds me so often I’ve decided not to admit it. I’ve been really lucky to have people who’ll look out for me.

8)  You have worked for some of the top newspapers in the country and are obviously an ambitious individual, so where do you see your career taking you in the near future?

I’m happy where I am, to be honest. I’m fortunate to be in the position I’m in, and my ambitions stretch no further than improving how I write and how I operate at the moment. I’d quite like some of the days off they owe me, too.

9)  What is the most embarrassing moment you have had as a journalist?

Ooh. Mistaking Cristian Rodriguez for Mariano Gonzalez in a Porto mixed zone, or thinking Chelsea’s team chef was Steve Holland in Prague. Actually, no: asking Steven Gerrard what the mood in the Liverpool dressing room was like after the Cup final. The put-down was withering.

10)  And finally, if you weren’t a journalist what would you be?

I was a landscape gardener for a bit. That was a brilliant job. I suspect I’d be a teacher, though. I never really had a back-up plan.