After being crowned Guardian Columnist Of The Year at the 2007 Student Media Awards, history graduate Jonathan Liew wrote for various sports publications before landing a place on the Telegraph trainee scheme…
Fast-forward to a year later and Liew had secured a full-time role at the broadsheet as a sports writer, where he’s since covered major tournaments and events ranging from the latest football, cricket and rugby world cups to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.
Today, the 2011 SJA Young Sports Writer Of The Year continues to provide comment, opinion and analysis for the paper (when he’s not being taught how to throw a javelin by Olympic athletes or attempting to set a record in the pizza box long jump).
We caught up with Liew to find out how the scheme helped him kick-start his journalism career:
Journograds: What was your background prior to starting the Telegraph graduate scheme? Did you already have much experience in journalism?
JL: Four years at Edinburgh University, where I putatively did history but in reality did very little of anything. Except the student newspaper, which in retrospect was probably where it all started.
I did try and get involved in the school newspaper when I was about 16, but because of my reputation as a ‘troublemaker’, failed to get a look-in, despite being the only person in my year who knew what the word ‘soporific’ meant.
The man responsible for that decision was a crotchety, whimsical fellow called Mr Keenlyside. He’s dead now. Those two facts are almost certainly unrelated.
From Edinburgh I sent off a few letters to various publications that interested me. I didn’t go crazy on the letter-writing, partly because I didn’t generally rise until about 2pm, but partly because somebody from the Wisden Cricketer magazine wrote back, sardonically pointing out that writing letters was “a bit 20th century”.
So I did two weeks there, which led to a feature which I sort of pitched a few months later and suicidally attempted to write at the same time as my dissertation. I also did a couple of weeks at the much-missed Observer Sport Monthly, followed by another month during my final year of university.
Those four weeks were my first taste of paid journalism. Back then, the idea of actually getting paid to do journalism seemed giddy, fanciful and ridiculous. Now, of course, it seems… well, much the same.
Journograds: Looking back, why do you think your application was accepted? What unique qualities do you think you were able to portray?
JL: I wasn’t even on the interview shortlist for the Telegraph scheme. I got a call telling me I was on the reserve list, and that if someone dropped out, I could have an interview. Someone clearly did drop out.
I went down to London, got on the Tube for the first time in eight months, got lost, and turned up dishevelled and 20 minutes late.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that it was probably the interview that did it.
It was the easiest, breeziest, most pleasant interview I’ve ever done. I cracked jokes, I spoke with brevity and precision, I neatly sidestepped the question about whether my own political views aligned with the Telegraph’s (as my mother once told me, there are three things you should never discuss in polite company: politics, religion and your aunt’s wooden leg), and showed them clear, concrete examples of my work.
The feature I wrote for the cricket magazine seemed to impress them. They liked how I’d just pitched it, done all the work for it and written it. It showed gumption. They’re still waiting for me to show gumption again.
Journograds: How challenging was the application and interview process? What advice would you have for any graduates looking to apply to this year’s scheme?
JL: It was hard. But it wasn’t hard like an exam, which you can revise for. And it wasn’t hard like a court case, where you’re either guilty or innocent.
This was more hard like appearing on television or radio. Needing to think on your feet, and sound clever, and be clever, and remembering to smile, and remembering to make eye contact, and remembering not to cite the cryptic crossword as your favourite section of the newspaper.
It’s a multi-skilled, multi-layered juggling act, which I think is why girls tend to do better out of the process than boys. Being a girl is one long juggling act. I sense I’m digressing, though, so, um, just be yourself.
Journograds: What do you think were the most valuable skills you gained from taking part in the scheme?
JL: Practically, shorthand helped a lot. Law helped a bit. Learning to operate a video camera that was about to become obsolete did not help a great deal.
This is going to sound nebulous and boring, but perhaps the best thing about the scheme was that you essentially got to learn how news works. What makes a story, and what doesn’t.
You may think that as a consumer of the media, you know what you want to read, but you don’t really. You only really know that you want to read something after you’ve read it.
Journalism is essentially the process of working out what people want to read before they do. The new idea, the fresh angle. How do we present it, and when do we put it out? Writing is just the easy part.
That’s what I learned, anyway.
Journograds: How were you able to impress during your time on the scheme and secure a job afterwards? What advice would you give to future trainees looking to do the same?
JL: The regional placements were a bit of a laugh, to be honest. I did some work, but not a lot, and certainly nothing important.
In fact, the highlight of my entire time in Glasgow was getting off with Izzy, the beautiful, dainty, flaxen-haired video journalist, at the pub one night, and spending the next month unsuccessfully trying to close the deal.
Getting back to London, and actually inside the Telegraph, was a different matter entirely. It was a perfect laboratory for the real world of journalism, in that the quality of your work mattered a lot less than getting to know the right people.
I got to know David Bond, the sports editor (now doing a very fine job at the BBC), and over a momentous if slightly unconventional conversation in the gents’ toilets, he casually asked if I would be interested in filling a vacancy they had in the department.
Up to that point, I had displayed little more than a working knowledge of more than one sport and a willingness to go to Milton Keynes on a cold Monday night to cover League One football.
Journograds: What was the most challenging task you were set during your time on the scheme, and how were you able to rise to it?
JL: Man, these are getting hard! I’d have to say it was probably the time PA sent me to stake out the BBC during the whole Andrew Sachs palaver and wait for Mark Thompson to come out.
I got there at 8am and spent eleven hours in the deadening cold, holding a microphone up to a motionless door, unable to eat, drink or go to the toilet in case the Director General should emerge at that exact moment.
Eventually, at about 7pm, he did emerge, walked 20 yards to a waiting car, and got in, although not before I was able to shout: “WILL YOU RESIGN, MR THOMPSON!” at him.
That was my day. I don’t know whether I rose to the challenge, exactly, but I was certainly there.
Journograds: What is it like working at the Telegraph? What do you enjoy most about working there?
JL: The Telegraph is, simply put, one of the dwindling band of media organisations that still values good sportswriting.
It still places a high premium on superb ideas, thorough research and clean design. But – and this is maybe something that has changed in the last decade or so – it still feels incredibly fresh and current.
It still sets the agenda rather than follows it. It’s not afraid to go in the other direction to everyone else. As a writer – and erstwhile schoolboy cross-country runner – who has made a habit of going in the other direction to everyone else, this makes things pretty exciting.
It means you can pitch an idea or feature that Sport magazine wouldn’t go near, and not only make it work, but see it through to the page.
You get to work with some fascinating people. You actually get read by people who care about sport, rather than bored barbershop customers and racist cab drivers.
Oh god, I love my job.
Journograds: There is a growing perception amongst many young journalism graduates that newspapers might not be the best place to be right now – that it’s a dying industry. How would you respond to that?
JL: Oh, gosh. Let me put this succinctly. Let’s say you write a thing. The thing goes in a newspaper. But as well as going in the newspaper, the thing goes on the web, where deeply rational, broad-minded souls with generous spirits can comment on it.
It also goes in the iPad edition that someone reads on a bus the next day. Later that afternoon, a girl reads the thing while running on the treadmill at the gym. After she’s showered and changed, she decides to put the thing on Facebook, where 14 people ‘like’ it.
One of those people puts it up on Twitter, where the thing gets retweeted and reshared a few dozen times, one of them by someone reading the thing in an internet cafe in Jakarta, who didn’t really like the thing, but doesn’t really quite understand how Twitter works yet.
By which time, of course, you’ve probably already written another thing.
Now, doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful thing in the world? It’s not – I’ve romanticised it – but I still maintain that I’d rather be a journalist in 2012 than in any other year you care to name.
Are newspapers dying? Yeah, probably. Is news dying? Only if new stuff stops happening, and I’m yet to be convinced that we’re anywhere near that stage yet.