When I first approached local Football Journalist, Kenneth Tan, to share the story of his journey in the media industry, one of the first things he wanted to find out was the questions that I had planned to ask him. As someone more accustomed to quizzing the athletes, he found it a tad surprising to be on the receiving end for once and needed to prepare himself mentally beforehand.
Mr Tan has been in the media industry for slightly more than a decade, covering mainly local football and known to many in the fraternity for his engaging human-interest stories which dive deep into the intriguing lives of footballers. Yet his introduction to the media scene was rather unconventional to say the least.
“I think many journalists started out from their school, taking mass communications, and deciding to pursue it as a career later. But for myself, it was rather accidental,” the 30-year-old explained.
“I was studying sports and leisure management in Republic Polytechnic, but I loved football and would play 11-a-side every week with my friends. We would always read the match reports published on The New Paper and sometimes during our conversations, we would talk about how we should write the match reports for our own games as well. They asked me to try writing so I wrote a few times for the team and that was kind of the beginning.
“So writing was always at the back of my mind, but I did not really pursue it until a few months later at the end of 2009. Back then, I was always reading Red Sports as they covered many school games and I wanted to see how my school was doing in sports. So, I was just reading and happened to bounce onto a journalism internship programme offered there and I thought why not just try it out since I had some free time.
“I think Red Sports is always a good platform for starting journalists as there is proper guidance and advice. Starting with school sports is also much easier as you have better access to the players and the interest there is actually better than some professional sports.”
However, despite the perception of school sports being an easier starting ground for newbie sports journalists, Mr Tan still had to face his fair share of challenges when he first started out.
“One of the most important things in team sport is the team sheet. Without it, you won’t be able to identify the players clearly during the game. The struggle was definitely scrambling to get access to the team sheet because you won’t know who to look for to get it at the start,” he recalled vividly.
“Another challenge was picking the right time to ask the questions. Sometimes, the team that you are covering might have just lost in the last minute or due to a contentious decision. You will need to gauge the mood and let them cool down before asking anything.
“Asking the right questions is also important. At school sports, you are usually the only journalist and will have the chance to ask more questions. That’s when you will learn more about questioning and things like how to phrase your questions better.
“When I covered the Youth Olympic Games later, I experienced a media scrum for the first time where you have five journalists trying to interview the same person. That’s when you have to really ask the right questions and focus on the ones that can capture the athlete’s attention.”
While his stint at Red Sports required Mr Tan to cover a wide variety of sports, his love for local football meant that it eventually became his main area of focus. He started writing match reports on the local S.League (now known as the Singapore Premier League) and was soon scouted for greener pastures.
He said: “I have been following local football since I was 11 years old so I took the opportunity to cover S.League games for Red Sports even though it wasn’t their main focus. As I was always at the games, one of the guys in-charge of the S.League’s official website approached me to write for them. I thought it was a good opportunity and I started writing match previews and reports for them.”
His stint with the official website subsequently came to an end when they decided to outsource the site to another company but Mr Tan was by then already quite known within the fraternity. On recommendations by his friends in the media industry, he then moved on to write for world-renowned football publications including Goal.com, ESPN and FourFourTwo. And it was at FourFourTwo where he truly made his name as an astute writer with a keen eye for human interest stories.
“I think writing for FourFourTwo can be said to be a defining moment in my journalism career. As you know, they feature everything about football from players right down to even the kitmen. I was getting quite tired of writing only match reports all the time and when I joined them, I was given free rein to write different material like player interviews and match analysis,” he said.
“That was the platform where I was able to branch out to many different things and it was there where I developed myself as a football journalist. During my time there, I decided to focus more on player interviews as I thought people would not only want to know them for their football skills but also their personal lives.
“Every footballer has a backstory behind them, and they may not get told that often to the public so it’s good for people to know about their background. I tried to write about different areas, like why they became a footballer, who inspired them or how they nearly went out of football but one coach decided to give them a chance. It’s always good if you can find one defining moment to write about as this type of stories always sell.”
And Mr Tan’s stories have almost certainly always sold, with a high readership online and often generating plenty of buzz and traction. His efforts were finally acknowledged in 2018 when he was nominated for the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) journalist of the year award. While he did not win the top prize, he still counts that as one of his most memorable achievements to date.
“I was very surprised to be nominated as one of the top five, as the rest of the nominees were experienced sports journalists who went to all the major games like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. I was the only one there who was writing mainly football,” he explained.
“I think even though it’s not the top priority, it’s always at the back of everyone’s minds that they would want to get some recognition for their work and having been in the scene for eight years already at that time, I never thought I would get something.
“I feel like if you really put your heart and soul into the story then people will eventually recognise. There’s always a lot of hard work behind it. One article might take maybe five minutes to read but it can be two to three days of sleepless nights where I can just be sitting there staring at the computer. I don’t think journalists get enough recognition as the focus is always on the athletes or the coaches but you rarely hear people saying that the journalist writes really well.”
With Mr Tan already considered a veteran journalist in the local football scene by some, having written countless articles over the years, it would come as a surprise for outsiders to know that he has never done this on a full-time basis and has instead always been a freelancer.
“I have always been tasked to help my family car rental business and I feel that it should always be sustained and not go down during my generation. The media industry is also quite volatile these days, with organisations closing and even mainstream media outlets merging. I wanted job stability and yet I still wanted to follow my passion of writing so this is like the best way to go about it,” shared Mr Tan, who has two kids of his own.
However, even as a freelance journalist with the flexibility to choose his assignments, Mr Tan is not fully excluded from the challenges that full-timers in the industry must contend with such as late nights and tight deadlines. But despite all the difficulties, his passion for writing continues to burn ever so strongly.
He added: “Being a full-time journalist is not a 9-to-5 job and sometimes you can only go home past midnight depending on the matches. It can really take a toll with the irregular hours as you won’t know what’s going to happen in sports such as a football match going into extra-time, and you might end up sacrificing many nights.
“But I think when you are good at something, you want to keep doing it. And when you have the passion for writing, it never dies. Any job will require passion but this is especially important for journalism. For some jobs, if you don’t have the passion, you might be able to just go through the motions but if you don’t have the passion for journalism, people will be able to tell right away from the quality of your writing.
“Having started my own family, I’m quite busy now but I still want to promote the game that I love and if you cannot play football at the highest level, why not write about it. And I plan to do this for as long as I can and as much as my services are required.”
Mr Tan has undoubtedly been an ever-present in the Singapore football media scene for the past decade and he looks set to continue for many more years to come. And some advice he has for budding journalists looking to follow in his path would be to stick by the old-fashioned but undying values of determination and persistence.
“Some people started off in this line because they want to meet stars but a lot of them don’t really stay long. You have to be really interested and along the way, it can be quite frustrating especially when the story doesn’t flow,” shared Mr Tan, who has interviewed many global football icons including the likes of Thomas Muller and Roberto Carlos.
“Just like footballers who have good and bad games, journalists also have their good and not so good articles. You will always have those moments when you feel that it’s not worth it, but the advice is to persist at it and always keep in mind that you want to tell a good story.
“Some journalists are friends with the athletes and they might be inclined to paint a very good picture of them. But I feel that if you want to document a person’s life and career, you cannot only say the good things. The key would be to just put down the facts in a tasteful way and leave it for people to judge.”
“Every journalist would naturally want a good response to his article, but we should not write just to get a good response. At the end of the day, as long as you know that you have written your best and did not unfairly criticise or overhype the person, that’s the most important.”
They have always been the ones telling the stories of others and now it’s time for us to share their stories instead. This article is part of a brand-new series, Stories of the Storytellers, where danamic. looks into the lives of media professionals and tell their often-unheard stories. Have someone you’d like us to feature? Write in: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of Kenneth Tan.