Interview: Donald Walker (Scotsman Sports Editor)

On a glorious sunny afternoon it was a treat for me to meet up with The Scotsman’s Sports Editor Donald Walker. We left his offices for a local café and he answered every question I posed him, which was very refreshing as a lot of interviewees can block certain questions.

So here is how we got on.

Q) How did you get into journalism and how did you get to the position as Sports Editor?

Donald: Journalism I guess is something I was attracted to from an early age as I had a fascination from the paper my mum and dad got everyday. It was The Scotsman funnily enough and I would devour it, particularly the sports pages. I went to university, where I got to that stage of what am I going to do? I was drawn into journalism, as there was a student newspaper there. It was also a good way of showing your interest in the industry and you could show an employer ‘look, I have done this’.

The best way to get someone to take a chance on you in journalism is to play to your strengths and in my case it was my interest in sport. I tell people to this day: offer  something to a sports editor that is different and they don’t already have. If you go to a newspaper saying ‘can I do something for you?’ there are countless people looking for that kind of opportunity. I convinced one of the local papers in Edinburgh that I had a few good ideas one day and the editor must have liked the cut of my jib cause he asked me to come in again. I started on a work experience basis, unpaid and that did the trick for me. I then applied for my first job at a newspaper and they liked the experience I had gained.

To cut along story short I ended up in London at the Daily Mirror, working in news and a bit of sport. After four years there, the opportunity came up to become the deputy sports editor at The Scotsman. A year later I was made sports editor.

In some ways it’s about being in the right place at the right time as well as looking for opportunities. I am indebted to those who have helped me along the way.

Q) Do all the stories regarding newspapers integrity and super injunctions make life harder for an editor?

Donald: Super injunctions have been as much a matter for the newspaper’s lawyers as for journalists. We know what’s behind them – quite a few have involved sportspeople – but whether they can be published or not is really a legal debate. I would say they have largely backfired, because all they have done is created a lot of smoke where people have been convinced there has been fire and the rumour mill is such on the internet that it is impossible to maintain a super injunction, through leaks or social media sites like twitter.

On the integrity of newspapers, this is a difficult time for the industry because you get a lot of people, not that I necessarily agree with it, who will tell you newspapers and journalists are held in very low esteem because of the phone tapping scandal. Whether that faith will ever be restored I don’t know, but I would like to think that we do maintain a modicum of respect somewhere out there!

Q) Can the SPL be a tough place to find news of interest?

Donald: I would say it’s tough first and foremost because football clubs have become very good at managing the media when giving access to players, managers and even employees, in a weekly briefing or post match interview and that’s your lot for the week. Outside those opportunities you have to put in a formal request, which clubs regularly knock back because the players are too busy! The older writers will tell you that it never used to be this way; you would just ring up a player and chat to him on the phone. Clubs are very wary to ensure everyone is onside and singing from the same hymn sheet, and the club is aware of what everyone is saying. Obviously they have their reasons for doing that and they want a show of unity. But it makes it a very dull world because as well as clubs managing the media, players are well coached in what to say and how to handle difficult questions and stick to the party line. We see people in sport offering very little in terms of personality – it might be in there but they keep it well hidden, so you struggle to come up with something that will engage a reader.

It is refreshing when you go into the Scottish Football League, where the clubs know they need help with any newspaper or media outlet taking an interest in them. You can get access to the managers and the players, within reason, and they all have stories to tell. It is also a good place to make contacts because the best of them will gravitate to the top leagues and you can hopefully strike up a relationship with them early.

But the SPL can be difficult to deal with. Some are better than others but the bigger clubs, Celtic and Rangers, know they are going to be featured no matter how available or unavailable their players are. Many newspapers rely on the Old Firm to sell copies. The clubs at the other end of the scale are more likely to cooperate because they feel squeezed out by the wall-to-wall coverage given to the Old Firm.

We have to take our opportunities when we get a chance to talk to a more out-going player as they can be like gold dust. When a club puts up one of its better talkers the journalists get a bit excited as it makes their job so much better and they can produce something people actually want to read.

It is very interesting to see how different clubs react when they having to front up for  a pre match briefing when going through a spell of bad publicity. Sometimes journalists are told you must not ask about a particular incident or subject, but when  they go in, quite often one of them will ask about it. That creates tension and bad feeling between the journalist and the press officer. But the journalist is just doing his or her job, asking the question that the reader wants answered, and the editor wants answered.

Q) So you are based in Edinburgh, with Hibs & Hearts having interesting summers your business must be good?

Donald: Hearts have been interesting for years. It is quite an unpredictable club. It became very interesting after Vladimir Romanov took over, that is not to say it wasn’t interesting before then where the previous regime led by Chris Robinson were on verge of moving to Murrayfield and Tynecastle was going to be sold.

Romanov has a completely different view of life in general to that of Scottish society and as a result we have endless reams of copy about what he’s doing with the club. That is offset by a distrust of the media which has been well publicised, with Romanov attacking the press as monkeys, and for a long time it has been hard to get one-to-one interviews at Hearts. The Craig Thomson story was a desperate affair and although it creates headlines for newspapers, no one wants to see that again. But the other regular issues at Hearts like the comings and goings of managers, players’ late wages and players being taken out of the team before the game starts  mean there is never a dull moment at Hearts.

Over at Hibs the Colin Calderwood staying-or-going situation is fascinating. A lot of it has been about how Hibs are managing this situation. From a media point of view the club said absolutely nothing for an age until the chairman put out a statement on the club’s website, which was pounced upon as a rare scrap of news. For a long while, every time the manager spoke, nobody was convinced that he is going to stay and he might have been too open for the club’s liking. For instance, the club has been keen to suggest that his future was not a big issue, but the manager himself was openly admitting the dilemma of compensation. He wanted to be honest about his position and I think, for the club, it might have been better if he said less about it. But they can’t stop journalists asking him the question before or after games, and every Hibs fan out there wants to know what’s happening. They look to the press to find out.

However, the overall position at Hibs is that they have a good relationship with the media and we find them a good club to deal with because they are aware of our position and their own position, and why that relationship works. To be fair they are keen to have a presence in all newspapers but they know they have a strong element of their support who read the Scotsman. There was an SPL survey a few years ago, which asked football supporters which papers they read and I think the best response they got from a single club was from Hibs fans, and a significant proportion of them were Scotsman readers.

We see Hibs as an equal to Hearts in the coverage that we offer and it would be nice to see them both do a wee bit better than they are doing at the moment because there is nothing that sells more in terms of sport than a success story.

Q) Why should people buy The Scotsman for their sports needs?

Donald: The Scotsman is a national paper but we are in a country that apparently has more titles per capita than anywhere else. The fact that it is a national paper should mean there is something in it for everyone. We try to cover as much as the country as possible, while we know our strengths as well. If you wanted every cough and spit from the Old Firm then we can’t provide that because we will be offering other subjects and other football stories at the same time in a limited amount of editorial space. We don’t devote all our pages to the Old Firm – some might argue that we do, but we don’t! Based in Edinburgh, if the city’s two clubs do well that’s big news for us, as our readers want to know about that.

Rugby is another big-interest area for us. I don’t believe that any daily paper has stronger coverage of Scottish rugby than The Scotsman, and we know from the feedback we get that there is a demand for this kind of coverage which is also an expectation. It’s a reputation built up over decades, and it’s an area of expertise that the Scotsman is renowned for.

Likewise no one covers Scottish cricket more than we do, and this is an area we have strengthened further in recent years. Golf is comprehensive too when it comes to coverage of the Scottish golf scene. You can read about the European Tour and the majors in any paper, but if it is Scottish golf you are interested in, we’ll give you both the global events and the Scottish scene.

People now get their news pretty easily from 24-hour TV, internet, Twitter and mobile phone alerts but we also offer coverage you can’t get elsewhere. We also offer terrific writing and columnists so that a reader will pick up the paper and want to read a specific writer’s take on events. They give the paper an identity that you can’t get elsewhere.

Q) What is your view on ‘Sports Bloggers’?

Donald: Sports blogging is a new way of people engaging in the great debate and maelstrom of opinions that is sport. The blogging aspect means people can get their view across instantly, just like others can email us with an article they have an interest in and we look at that and see what they have to say. Previously, your best hope of getting your point of view over was to write a letter, or try your luck on a radio phone-in. The odds were stacked against your voice ever being heard. In some ways blogging can be part of gauging the public mood on a particular subject like a football club. Bloggers and readers who respond with comments on our website can help stimulate our own thoughts as journalists, and they are all welcomed by us. Apart from the rude ones.

Q) Has the Internet hit Newspaper sales hard?

Donald: There is a generation who just don’t buy newspapers now in the way their predecessors did. Whether we can survive that is one of the great debates of the industry, along with how to convert online output and activity into revenue. These are two enormous issues for every newspaper. Everyone has kept an eye on News International since it moved to ‘pay for’ content. While we know that online is the future, what we produce needs to make a profit or it becomes unsustainable. We are still working in a print industry, as we clearly believe it has at least a short-term future, but the medium to long-term future are other matters.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Donald for his time and his honest answers. Remember to check out The Scotsman or even better go out and buy it.


2 Responses to “Interview: Donald Walker (Scotsman Sports Editor)”

  1. Great interview mate. Nice to hear from Donald.

    I think from the last question the papers know their time is slowly drawing to an end. Paying for on-line contact is the way forward I think.

  2. Thanks again Andrew.

    Yeah I dont think they will all die out but I think a few publications may go to the wall. More paid content online is a must for papers I would imagine.

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