Behind the Byline: Gary Heatly
In the next instalment of ‘Behind the Byline’, ENRG Sport talks to Gary Heatly about his career in sports journalism, from the editorial positions he has held at Scrum Magazine to his freelance work for various publications, as well as the future of print in an increasingly digital world. Questions by Jamie Braidwood.
What was your route into the sports journalism industry?
When I was at school I was really keen on sport. I played rugby when I was a bit younger but when I got older and couldn’t play anymore, I started writing match reports for the school team as well as bits and pieces for the school magazine. I then went to St Andrews to study history and got involved with the student newspaper there in order to carry on writing.
After St Andrews I did a masters in journalism at Napier and during that year I started working for the Edinburgh Evening News a bit, doing local rugby and things like that. There was then a job going at the Midlothian Advertiser so I started there in 2005 as a junior reporter. The Advertiser was quite good grounding for me because it wasn’t just sport I was doing. I covered court, I covered various council meetings, different genres of news, I guess. Then in 2007 I got a call from a company called Bell Johnstone who were starting up a rugby union magazine called SCRUM. They asked me to be editor – and it’s gone from there really.
I was editor of the print magazine for seven years. At the start it was just myself on the editorial side, so that was a really steep learning curve. I had to do everything so it was a lot more hands on than what I was used to at local newspapers. In terms of the magazine you’re producing content but you’re also dealing with advertising in order to make money, so it’s about balancing those things together. It was quite hectic, especially in the week before it went to press. Then in 2014 I decided to take a step back because I was doing other freelance stuff, so that’s how this job title of web editor came about.
What is your role now within Scrum Magazine and what are some of your responsibilities?
We’ve just had a new website launched so that’s been quite busy. I probably upload three or four stories a day. So the breaking news today, for example, is that Edinburgh’s Cornell du Preez has signed for Worcester, so that’s just gone up online. We use the website for breaking news yes, but we’re also trying to get a balance between that and our feature articles.
We try to to make our features more human interest stories. That takes a bit of planning, so I guess I spend a lot of the day finding stories on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, and getting in touch with those people to get those plans in place.
The main features will go in the magazine but there is also a space issue because of advertising and everything else, so there’s not always room. When I was editor of the magazine I was having to cut a lot of copy down or even cut articles out, but now because we’ve got the website properly up and running it means we can have a lot more features on there that might not otherwise be published. So it gives us more options.
There has obviously been a lot of technological changes since you first started at Scrum Magazine in 2007, is there still a place for print productions in the digital world?
There’s obviously a lot of talk about the print element going out of fashion but I still think, especially for magazines, there’s still a necessity for a hard copy to be there for features and that kind of thing. A lot of people still want to have a hard copy, and Scrum is also distributed through bars, clubhouses and restaurants. It’s important to have that as well as the online element but I think the two can still work in tandem.
It’s hard to think now where we were back in 2007 in terms of Twitter, Facebook and websites. It has moved at quite a pace and I guess we are trying as much as we can to keep up with that. Most of our web traffic, about 3/4, comes through Facebook because we try to be as human interest as possible. So if there’s an article about a Napier rugby player for example, then his teammates, friends and family will find it through that. I think Twitter is quite good for discussion points and bigger stories, but we still find Facebook is very useful for us.
I think we’ve got a way to go here in terms of getting to where things are in the online world. The new website just launched last week and I think we’re reaching the audiences we want to, but it’s definitely changed a lot in the past 10 years. I can’t even remember what it was like when we started and if we even had a website. If we did I couldn’t tell you what it would look like compared to now.
You do a lot of freelance work on the side from your job at Scrum Magazine, does that essentially boil down to you approaching editors and publications with story ideas already, and you pitching what you can offer them?
Pretty much. I guess the main thing is trying to build up contacts. It does take a bit a time, especially if you’re going into an industry like rugby which is quite small, and when you first go into it people wonder who this new young person is, but you build up your relationships over time.
You get to know the staff at the clubs and with that they sometimes ask you to write articles for them when they’re busy. You build relationships with the various sports desks as well, so you get to know all the various sports editors. You just try on a Monday to pitch for the week ahead, but it doesn’t always tend to work that way. I might get a phone call this evening asking me to do something for tomorrow, it’s just the nature of the job.
I also do other work for corporate companies and I have my own website where I have a sponsored column on grassroots sports, so that takes a bit of time as well. It’s trying spin to a few plates and trying to be as organised as possible but it’s not as easy a week as it is in other industries.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you would offer our team here at ENRG Sport, as well as anyone who is looking to get a job in the industry?
Be persistent. Try to speak to as many people as possible and get in touch with as many people as possible. There’s no harm in dropping someone an email as the worst thing they can say is no. Also, when you’re out and about, speak to people because you never know where they might work and who they might know.
For people your age there are lots of companies that are looking to grow their digital side of things, so I guess when you guys are coming into this industry with those skills, although it’s a competitive workplace, it’s going to stand you in good stead.
Mainly though, build contacts, keep in touch with people and don’t get too disheartened if at first people won’t speak to you. If you can also show that you’re keen, because a lot of people think once they’ve got their qualification that’s it, but in journalism it’s not always like that. It’s about being able to show you can can turn your hand to things and you can file accurate and concise copy under pressure. Getting out there and getting the experience “in the real world’’ is the best way to show people your worth.