Q&A with Dan McDonnell – Soccer Correspondent, the Irish Independent

John Hand

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Typewriter. Image credit: Flickr

Typewriter. Image credit: Kim Siever(flickr) 

Dan McDonnell is the Soccer Correspondent for the Irish Independent – the best selling daily paper in the country. And he also is a contributor to Newstalk’s Off the Ball football show.

I caught up with him for a quick Q&A.

 

How did you start in journalism?

I didn’t study it – I didn’t get enough Leaving Cert points! I always blame that on the fact I’d set up a website about Dundalk FC and spent most of fifth and sixth year going to games and writing about them instead of studying.

That website was useful enough in terms of getting bits and bobs of freelance work and I went to UCD and got really involved in one of their papers, the College Tribune, as the sports editor and then taking a sabbatical to do a year as overall editor.

When I finished that I sent around CVs  to a few places and it just so happened that the Star had started a Sunday edition and had space for someone to do a three month work placement. I went in there and when it finished I was kept on to do a couple of days a week and that sort of got my name out there and allowed me to pick up freelance work in other publications. That first step is always the hardest one.

 

Growing up, who would you have read most?

In my house we sort of tended to float from paper to paper rather than being an Indo house or a Times house or whatever. I’d be fibbing if I said there was someone that I particularly followed.

 

Who was the main person to help you get to where you are today?

I’ve been lucky to have good sports editors along the way. Gavan Becton was great to me in Star Sunday. Then when I got the job in the Independent, Dave Courtney wasn’t afraid to push me forward and give me opportunities even though I was quite young.

 

You freelanced with the Star before getting the gig in the Indo, what are the main differences in your experience between tabloid and broadsheet journalism?

I’m not a huge fan of the tabloid/broadsheet labels as there is often a snobbery attached which I think is unfair.

The Star was a good place to start because no matter what title you work for, you have to get the basics of reporting right and writing snappy news pieces or match reports with a smallish word count is actually a real test – you have to decipher what’s important and what’s not and cut out the waffle.

So when it comes to sports news stories, I’m not really sure that there is too much of a difference aside from a few stylistic things. I suppose the biggest difference is the scope you get when it comes to feature writing/interviews etc where I do have the freedom to do a 1500/2000 word piece; it’s rare you’d get that in the Sun, Star, Mirror etc. And there probably is a bit more scope to revert to colour and opinion if you’re at an event/press conference where the actual quotes are boring, whereas in the ‘tabloid’ papers there is possibly more so of a reliance on what he said or she said. Maybe the difference is more pronounced in other sections of the paper but sport wise, I don’t think there’s a wild contrast.

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A picture of the Irish Independent newspaper. Image credit: Simone Ramella (flickr)

Saipan in 02′ was probably the biggest story in the last 15 years from an Irish perspective. You weren’t writing at that time so what would have been your biggest story to report on – from an Irish perspective and then an overall kind of football story?

The anecdotes are still trotted out fairly regularly from the lads that are on the beat. I suppose the Henry handball and the aftermath in 2009 was box office stuff too but it was more so deflating than exhilarating because of the inevitability of where it was all headed. The FAI has thrown up a few controversies along the way but hopefully there’s a few bigger stories to report on in the future.

 

Do you take yourself seriously in the sense that people can contact you directly more now to criticise/abuse you through social media?

I think getting direct feedback on Twitter can be quite a positive thing to be honest; people will find mistakes fairly fast so if you post something up then you have to be sure that it’s sharp or else face the consequences! In this day and age, I think you have to be able to interact and take feedback on your work whether it’s good or bad. And it can be a useful barometer for what type of piece generates discussion and what doesn’t. If you post up a column that gets minimal feedback then you probably haven’t done a very good job of making it interesting.

To be fair, we don’t get anything remotely approaching the volume of feedback that the English lads covering Premier League clubs receive; and it does seem they receive a disproportionate amount of grief from lads who aren’t worth bothering with. That would be a pain but aside from the odd time around international matches – the last days of Trapattoni – I haven’t experienced too much grief. I’m not sure what you quite mean by taking yourself seriously; everyone will always say modestly that they don’t take themselves too seriously but they could be lying. What I would say, though, as cliched as it might be, is that you shouldn’t go into journalism if you’re the sensitive type; a lot of people have a fixed opinion of the media and those who work in the industry which will never change.

 

When you get to know someone in the game, but then you also have the responsibility of doing your job, do you ever have problems in calling them out and writing stories involving them in your experience, can that be difficult? 

The right thing to say here is that you shouldn’t care about calling someone out because it’s your responsibility to do the job properly… But of course it’s difficult if it involves someone you get on well with. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard though. I always respect the managers/players who might have a problem with something you’ve written and ring you up to give out about it; I prefer that to people letting it fester and then blanking you forever on account of a perceived slight. In my job, there’s a difference between the League of Ireland scene, where there is great access to all involved so you can’t avoid having a discussion at some stage, and the international side where there’s a distance now which didn’t exist in the old days. I’m not sure if there are too many strong personal relationships between the Irish players and the members of the media.

 

In terms of digital journalism, do you have any major concerns with it?

Most newspaper journalists are now filing live online for digital too and that’s the natural evolution, I’ve no problem with that and it can be quite enjoyable if there’s a decent breaking news story that won’t hold until the following day.

For all the click-bait rubbish that is out there, I still think there’s an appetite for old school journalism which the quick hit sites just aren’t capable of offering. My only concern would be people losing sight of that. If there’s a good quality thought provoking piece then it can do well online without the ‘You wouldn’t believe what’s behind this link..’ type sales pitch.

 

Advice for someone beginning in sports journalism?

Don’t turn down work no matter how inconvenient or unglamorous it might be- but don’t get suckered into working for free. Go to games and events and meet people; blogging about the Premier League from your bedroom won’t make you stand out from the crowd. The contacts you make could prove to be very important at some stage in the future.

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John Hand