Meet Martyn Ziegler, the Leeds Graduate who is now the UK’s top sports journalist
As the chief sports reporter for The Times, Martyn Ziegler has been responsible for breaking some of the most significant stories in the sporting world, from the Russian doping scandal to the proposed European Super League. Having studied at the University of Leeds between 1986 and 1989, Billy Stewart speaks to Martyn about his time at the university and his experiences of the industry as one of the UK’s premier sports journalists.
Tell us a bit about your time at Leeds
At that time, in the mid-eighties, it was an interesting time politically with student activism, Margaret Thatcher being in power, the minor’s strikes etc. Being in the north of England at that time was really interesting. I loved it from day one, I’m not sure why I just thought it was a great place. It was nothing like it is today. The city centre was very run down compared to what it is like, but it was still vibrant. The university was great and hasn’t changed much. I saw some great concerts here, like the Pogues in the Refractory. Living in Hyde Park, I worked at a pub which is no longer there, known as the Newlands on Hyde Park Road. A year after I left there was a riot there and has been demolished.
There were also some gritty elements to Leeds. I went to see Leeds United play at Elland Road. I saw them play Portsmouth who had two Black players. I couldn’t believe how much racism there was. The National Front were selling newspapers outside the ground as well. This was a really dark aspect of life back then. Leeds signed the two Black players, Noel Blake and Vince Haller. This changed everything. As a result of having these two players and a drive by fan groups to get rid of the racist element, when I went back in 1989, racism had mostly vanished, and there were people outside handing out anti-racism brochures rather than National Front newspapers.
How did you get into journalism?
As soon as I got to Leeds is started writing for the student newspaper. At that time Jay Rayner was the editor. I had a good time doing that and doing stuff for the student newspaper really crystalised in my mind that it is what I wanted to do as a job. After university, I did a journalism course where I learned 100 words a minute shorthand. After that I got a couple of short-term jobs for radio stations and local newspapers before getting a trainee role at the Hull Daily Mail, spending 5 years there before going to the Press Association, and eventually The Times in 2016.
I have never been too into reporting on live sports events. I am more of a news reporter who writes about sports. I haven’t reported on a live sports event in about a year. I do sometimes. I usually go to the World Cup and Olympics. Generally, I do investigation stuff and the business of sport. That is what I am really interested in. Even from when I was doing stuff for the student newspaper, what I really liked was the buzz around breaking news. Some people like doing ‘fancy writing’, reviewing music, arts or whatever. For me, it was the buzz about breaking news, and even now that is still what I really like about the job.
What goes into breaking a big story?
Luck is definitely a big part of it. Contacts is a big part of it as well. Because I’ve been doing the same job for 21 years, I’ve made a lot of contacts just through the time I’ve spent going to events, meetings, travelling a lot. You meet and talk to a lot of people. Moving to The Times in 2016 was a big help. Not so much in the UK, but if you’re speaking to people abroad, they know what The Times is, it’s a respected name. I seem to have become more receptive to talking to people, off the records and briefings and that sort of thing.
How has journalism changed since you started your career?
Digital media has been the biggest change for me, somebody who has been in journalism for a long time. We are now digital-first. 10 years ago, your whole focus was doing stuff for newspapers – the first time something was published was the next morning. That’s completely changed now. The website has a priority. If you have a story, it’s no longer ‘will that hold till tomorrow morning’, it’s ‘let’s do it straight away and the newspaper can pick up the best bits.’ At The Times, we have more digital subscribers than people who buy the newspaper.
When I started my career, local newspapers were great places to work. The Hull Daily Mail sold 100,000 copies a day when I started in 1991, similar figures that the Guardian has now. Everybody in Hull bought the Hull Daily Mail. Now, local newspapers are struggling so much. I hope digital journalism can save the local newspaper.
Twitter is important, not just to attract readers to what you’ve written, but people tweeting stuff can often set the agenda. The Yorkshire County Cricket Club racism story, for example, Sajid Javid tweeted about it, and it became the big story because he tweeted about it.
What advice would you give your younger self at the start of your journalism career?
When I arrived in Leeds, I was quite nervous. Some people find it easier to push themselves forward and I was probably not pushy enough.
What advice would you give a young, up and coming journalist?
As a young journalist, having lots of ideas is really good. Editors don’t want to come up with all the ideas themselves, what they love is other people coming up with the ideas. A lot of stories are ongoing. For example, stuff around the rules of football, things are constantly changing and there will always be a story there. It’s always good to ask people about these kinds of subjects. I spend a lot of time thinking about the various issues that are around, and how they can be developed. For example, issues around the COP26 climate summit. Think about potential stories that surround these subjects, such as ‘Is Boris Johnson going to fly to Glasgow?’ Also, a very important thing is when you make contacts, keep your contacts happy and ensure what you’re writing is fair and accurate. As long as you’re fair and accurate no one can hold it against you.
Image Credit: Billy Stewart