What's it like being a motor racing correspondent? Q&A with Kevin Eason of The Times
The Times' motor racing correspondent, Kevin Eason, on what his role involves on a daily basis and why keeping in touch with people is essential
Our guest this week is Kevin Eason, motor racing correspondent at The Times. He tells us what his role entails and how it has changed in the age of digital and social media.
How did you land the job?
By complete accident. I joined The Times in 1989 from the now defunct Today newspaper as an industrial and motoring correspondent, but was regularly used for other stories. In 1997, I had been moved to cover the General Election and then in August, I was on the team covering the death of Princess Diana – so a world away from sport and Formula One.
That autumn, The Times was handed a massive scoop involving the finale of the 1997 world championship, which I was asked by David Chappell, then the sports editor, to untangle and write. The story was a front page lead with inside coverage. I joked he owed me an all-expenses trip as a reward – and he was as good as his word. Two weeks later, he offered me the job as motor racing correspondent.
Since then, I have also worked as a general sports correspondent covering events like the Olympics (Winter and Summer), the 2010 Football World Cup, cycling, golf, darts... you name it.
What is a typical day in the life of a Times racing correspondent?
There isn’t one. Life is split between home and away. I am on the road for more than four months of every year and spend the equivalent of two full weeks in an aircraft annually. Home time is precious, but I try to wake early to read all of the papers from front to back, then deal with any early stories that need writing for the internet. Then it is exercise time – keeping my weight in check is crucial given my lifestyle – before I settle down to deal with the rest of the work for the day.
On the road, anything can happen, I keep a suitcase permanently half-packed. It is a routine of packing and unpacking from March to December – off to the airport, fly, land, work, attempt to sleep and overcome jet lag, then turn around and come back and prepare to do it all over again. Some back-to-back races mean I am away for two weeks.
Grands prix in the Far East mean late, late nights – the latest have been 5:30am finishes in China and Australia and then up at 8am to go to the track. Working in the Americas is the opposite way around – up early to file for the newspaper deadline, and then watch for any internet updates.
A grand prix weekend starts on Thursday with meetings with the drivers, such as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and then a few minutes with anyone I fixed an interview with. Friday is practice day and usually involves a fair amount of writing as an introduction to the weekend’s grand prix. Sunday is the big race day and coverage usually involves a 900-word “on-the-whistle” report as the race ends, a race around the paddock to do interviews and catch-up and then back to do the newspaper report, which is usually 1,000 to 1,200 words on the action plus other quotes, stories and graphics.
Time then for a glass of calming red or three and, hopefully, to pack for a return home on Monday. At the long flyaways, that means returning on Tuesday or Wednesday and a few days downtime before we go again.
How do you keep your integrity for being an honest reporter yet maintain your relationships with key car brands?
If they know you are not for bending, it is not a problem. If you work for The Times, you already have the advantage of credibility before you write a word, so you can trade on a position of authority and integrity. People take The Times seriously and it is the duty of the reporter to live up to that.
It often means trouble and I have been ostracised more than once, particularly when I covered Formula One’s involvement in the Arab Uprising in Bahrain in 2012. It caused me no end of grief with the Bahrain authorities and the people in charge of F1 – but I was nominated for UK Sports Journalist of the Year as a result, so the pain was worth it.
How did the Top Gear phenomenon influence racing reporting?
Not at all in my case. I first met Jeremy Clarkson about 25 years ago – so maybe he copied me (that is a joke before Clarkson aficionados storm the place). I am not a petrol-head and have rarely watched Top Gear, so I don’t speak from great knowledge of the programme. I like cars but I love rugby, football and roast beef dinners. I largely live without seeing a car, apart from watching them going round in circles for 21 weekends a year.
I also have a lot of experience from working across news, industry, politics, features and lots of sports, which means that (I hope) I have my own distinctive style. I do think, though, that the “Phew”, “Whoar” style of reporting has caught on with a lot of youngsters. My advice to them? Be yourself.
What are your desk essentials?
Most of the time there is no desk, just a spot in a media centre somewhere, crammed between the men from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and in front of the team from Autosport magazine. There is no privacy but plenty of jokes, and I keep handy noise-cancelling headphones I bought to use on flights; you would be surprised how useful they are for shutting out the mayhem around you.
I built a shed/summerhouse/office at the bottom of the garden where I work when I am at home. There is a pen and pad on one side and, increasingly, a voice recorder with a remote microphone that attaches to the iPhone.
On the other side is an iPod and stereo system (and headphones in case I am going full volume). When everything is going pear-shaped, or the boredom sets in, or the heart is racing with fear that a story is getting out of hand, Edward Elgar is the man to turn to. Full volume.
Journalists nowadays increasingly have to produce bite-sized pieces of content to be published online – these often get shared while the reporter is still out in the field. To what extent has this become a part of your role?
Working for a broadsheet has always meant covering subjects across a wide range, particularly since the dawn of the internet age. Starting coverage with punchy news stories online has been going on for a while, and it is little surprise that these are picked up by websites.
As time has gone on, broadsheets have realised that the story is only the start and now the best analysis is the added content that websites are simply incapable of providing.
As a journalist who is a little long in the tooth now, servicing the newspaper always remains my priority (there is nothing like the feeling of seeing your name in print), but my role has widened extensively so that there is a lot of exclusive content – comment, features, pictures, video and sound – now being directed to the iPad and website. Although that makes life very busy sometimes, it has in some ways become quite liberating and fun to come up with new ideas and formats.
How has your relationship with the audience changed with the advent of social media and reader comments?
Probably not a lot. I learnt early on not to get wound up by the extremes of reader comments – good or bad. It is tempting to fall into the trap of believing you are a genius – or totally useless – because readers say so.
I have been asked many times how I changed my style when I moved from tabloid to broadsheet and I have always maintained that I didn't: good journalism is good journalism and you can find terrific writing in the best of tabloids or broadsheets. I write primarily for me – and the boss. So far, so good, because I am still in work.
What’s one activity essential to your job now that wasn’t so important five years ago?
Keeping in touch. The world moves so fast now that you can never truly escape. Hacks of my vintage will remember the Golden Age when you could leave the office for days without anyone noticing, or searching the streets for call boxes to phone in. Now the phone is under your nose and you can't move half-a-dozen steps without someone noticing.
Thanks to Evelyn Waugh, James Cameron, Alan Whicker, Norman Mailer, Hugh McIlvanney, Frank Keating, Neville Cardus and many more, plus the many legends that emanated from the old Fleet Street, I visualised myself as a Gentleman Journalist, crafting wondrous words on an Imperial 66, glass of whisky by my side.
Now it is a Lenovo Thinkpad, plastic bottle of water and more deadlines in a day than there are numbers on the clock. Still the best job in the world, though...
This post was originally published on NewsUK and is featured on Journalism.co.uk with permission. The current version includes additional questions.
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