Advice to future journalists – from journalist and match-fixing expert Declan Hill

‘If you want to be a journalist, do it differently, so you get a unique brand and a mark on it.”

A journalist since the early 1990s, Declan Hill is an expert in match-fixing and corruption in international sports. He is best-known for exposing corruption in sport, and his books, Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime (2010) and The Insider’s Guide to Match-fixing (2013). He is currently also leading an investigation of community activists into odd municipal politics back in his home country of Canada.

By Simone West

Declan Hill sits patiently in the lobby at Van der Valk Hotel Eindhoven, the Netherlands. He is sporting a black bow tie with specks of blue, grey and white, with a matching folded handkerchief visible in his breast pocket. He walks out of the conference venue into the fresh air, and heads towards a football field.

“I’ve been fascinated with things that most people try to ignore,” he tells me, “things like organised crime and corruption.”  

We delve into a discussion on how he became an investigative journalist. “It’s interesting, the title, ‘investigative journalist’, I don’t really believe in it, I think I‘m just a journalist.”

But Hill feels much of journalism is problematic – he sees it as not being secretarial, as simply “booking a local expert who will talk about Prince Harry’s wedding, or spin stuff.” There is one underlying problem with modern journalism – that  “journalists have turned away from finding original stories.”

I ask him how journalists can adapt in order to produce quality work.

“Do it differently. I think the problem is that you go into these sausage-making machines of journalism schools and they pump you out like you’re professors and your professors are teaching you  – they’re not actually being journalists. So right away you should ask yourself, well hang on a second, do I want to be a teacher of journalism or do I want to be a journalist? And if you want to be a journalist, do it differently so you get a unique brand and a mark on it.”

“You’re not going to be able to break through; you’re not going to be able to make a mark in journalism unless you do it differently. My advice to a young journalist starting up is to really look at themselves in the mirror and just say right, what is my value adding? What can I do differently, that no one else can do?”

Hill speaks about two “sad truths” of journalism – the first being that it is “a declining industry; the traditional forms of journalism are declining rapidly.” While traditional forms of journalism are declining, it is an adapting industry. New jobs are replacing the old ones, however this means large media corporations are cutting jobs. In May this year, Fairfax Media announced that up to 125 journalists, or one-quarter of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review newsrooms would be made redundant in order to save $30m. Similarly, U.S.-based global cable and satellite sports television channel ESPN announced just last month that it was laying off 150 people, about 2 percent of their 8,000 employees. This came after a round of cuts earlier this year which cut jobs for 100 people.

The second sad truth, according to Hill is that “most journalists aren’t actually journalists- they are secretaries. Their editor will read the New York Times that morning and say  – “We should really do a story just like this one!” and they’ll do a story exactly like the New York Times, or De Telegraaf here in the Netherlands, or Politiken in Denmark or the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, wherever.”

He tells me the most challenging story he has ever worked on.

“There have been so many. I think the ones that are challenging are the ones with human cost. There was a guy, who his daughter and her friends had been murdered at a shooting at a university. He was the police officer and he was called in to go after the shooter and he had no idea his daughter was there so he was running.”

“And he goes up and he finds his daughter, killed in the hall, surrounded by her friends. I remember him looking at us, and I thought, “What can I possibly say? What words could I use to describe something like that? So there have been a number of those challenging stories really finding the human cost and I think those stories are really, really important to do.”

Why we need journalism

“I think giving a voice to the voiceless, that’s what I do journalism for. It’s to empower people. It may not be able to rectify an injustice, but at least I can give a voice so they can articulate what has happened to them.”

He says there is an art to picking what stories to write about.

“The ones that come to you and are tapping you again and again are the ones you have to go back to – you have to figure out a way to go back to”.

Play the Game 2017 - Plenary session: Reform in sport: An inside job or an outside intervention?
Declan Hill speaking at the 10th Play the Game conference in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in November this year. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard

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