#GameChangers: Simon Evans ‘Back to the basics: a good story makes the difference’
Simon Evans talking to AIPS Media outside new Puskas Arena building site in Budapest
Maria Pia Beltran, AIPS Media
LAUSANNE, May 23, 2019 – 'I never studied journalism although I’ve been writing about sports since I was a kid when I did cricket reports for the local paper. I loved journalism, but I never formally studied it.' And he admits: 'Every now and then I wonder if someone will tap me on the shoulder and ask me where my journalism degree is!'.
But it isn’t going to happen.
Reuters correspondent Simon Evans started his career in Budapest, after finishing his studies in politics. He covered SERIE A in Italy and then moved to Miami before getting his dream job in his home country. Leading Reuters football coverage in England: Premier League, Champions League, England national team a part from FIFA and UEFA issues.
We met him in Budapest on the occasion of the Jubilee Congress of the Hungarian Sports Writers Association where he was awarded for his career and where we discovered he speaks fluent Hungarian.
How did you move to Hungary for the first time?
After finishing university I was curious about this part of the world having studied its political system and history at University. I was teaching English to make ends meet and starting out with freelancing journalism. In 1995-1996 Ferencvárosi TC qualified for the UEFA Champions League and was drawn in a group with Real Madrid and Ajax: Reuters needed some help with their coverage. Since then I have been writing on different sports for Reuters.
What was the turning point in your career?
Defintely the 1998 FIFA World Cup. I was in France following eastern Europe teams. I was there to cover Serbia, Croatia and Romania. My editor told me – ‘You stay as long as Croatia are in the tournament’. That was the lucky break – they had an amazing cup reaching the semi-finals. I took advantage of being the only non-Croatian journalist to be with them from the start. After that incredible experience, Reuters sent me to Italy where I spent eight years covering Serie A: it was amazing to be there at the time when the old Ronaldo was playing and Nedved, Batistuta, Veron, Shevchenko. It was a great time in Italian football…
How did you develop your language skills and how important was the contact with different cultures in your working experience?
Foreign sports correspondence is quite unique. Learning a language is crucial. In Hungary, I had great access to clubs and to the national team because I was the only foreign journalist speaking Hungarian. That allowed me to get to know a lot of coaches and players well. The Hungarian colleagues were also extremely helpful. I am not sure they would have been so kind if I hadn’t gone to the trouble of learning their language.
But how did you learn Hungarian?
I didn’t have a big budget as a freelancer so I rented a spare room with an old lady, living on the edge of Budapest. Very few people in that area spoke English at that time: so it was a real full immersion. I had no choice but to learn the language. I am really glad I did.
And your experience as a foreign correspondent in Italy?
Italy was different: I wasn’t so isolated from other journalists, but as a foreign correspondent I had to live the ‘vita Italiana’ – espresso and Gazzetta dello Sport every morning! I remember when Mr. Trapattoni was coaching the Italian national team, he used to enjoy making fun of my Italian…but that helped me build a relationship with him. Then in America there was no language barrier, but when I entered a NFL dressing room speaking with a northern English accent they sometimes looked at me, as if to say, 'Who’s this guy?'.
How did sports journalism change during your career?
The Internet has transformed everything. When I was covering the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Reuters was one of the few companies having a website and spreading sports news through the net. But it was nothing compared to the transformation we’re living today. Our role as journalists has been transformed by the internet and social media, now newspaper journalists have to file quickly, to the web, just like agency journalists always have had ‘instant deadlines’. Everyone’s working rhythm has changed and then there is twitter with the constant stream of news and opinion, but the fundamentals of journalism are still the same.
What are the sport journalism fundamentals?
Obviously the stories. You have to know what is the story and how to write it well, how to write a lead. You have always to work on building contacts. Basics like that haven’t changed. What has changed is how we present and distribute content.
How are the AIPS Sport Media Awards important for journalism in this delicate period of transition ?
We have to recognize quality. The danger that comes with the web and social media in particular is that sometimes the rush to be fast and put out news comes before quality. But there are still fantastic pieces of journalism all over the world. There are great sports stories every day in the newspapers in England and everywhere else. The fantastic thing about the AIPS Sport Media Awards is that journalists from 'minor' or less recognised countries can get recognition for their works, and this prestigious spotlight can really boost their careers.
Your best memories from your career?
In 2005 I was in Istanbul to cover A.C. Milan’s Champions League Final against Liverpool: that was unforgettable, not just because of the extraordinary comeback from Liverpool but, as a journalist, sitting on the hotel terrace through the night writing with my Reuters colleagues while the sun came up over that wonderful city. That game came into my mind again recently with the wonderful semi-final between Liverpool and Barcelona. Outside of football, I had the privilege to see both Phelps and Bolt breaking all the records at the Beijing 2008 Olympics Games: that’s something I won’t forget!
What’s your advice to the younger generation of reporters?
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that, while many of us feel at the start of our careers that the media is dominated by people from the capital cities with existing connections to the media companies, in fact, when you get involved in the business, you realise there are many successful people without such backgrounds. It is possible to break into sports journalism, with hard work, regardless of where you come from.
I come from a small town close to Burnley in the North of England , it is not a place where you are going to bump into an editor in a bar. But I’ve found that there are plenty of people from small towns or from cities away from the media centres, who have been able to break into journalism. It is hard to break into the profession but it is possible – wherever you come from.
Then you have work hard. Very hard. I can’t stand people who take the job for granted or who are jaded or cynical about it. It is a wonderful job and if people aren’t motivated by it then they should make way for those who are ready to give their all.
You have to be quite obsessed sometimes and the job can take over your life. But if you love sport and love writing then there is no better way to live.
Do you regret choosing sport journalism instead of politics?
No. It’s such a wonderful job: I’m lucky to get paid to watch and write about sport and I never forget that. I can’t think of any other job I’d rather do.