After more than two decades as one of New Zealand’s foremost sports journalists, Dylan Cleaver is striking out on his own with The Bounce, a newsletter ‘on sport, the business of sport and other things loosely related to sport’ that launches today. Here he explains what prompted the move, and what readers can expect from The Bounce.
Subscribe to The Bounce here.
Why am I doing this?
For a long time the working title for this project was called “The Rebound”. I might still regret not calling it that. It’s got a certain ring to it and comes with immediate sporting connotations, but it also describes a misguided dalliance following a long-term relationship.
My marriage to traditional media lasted 25 years. It was a decent run. I’m proud of a lot of what I produced in that time. If you’ll momentarily excuse the sound of me beating my own drum, over that quarter century I have had my work acknowledged by judges for uncovering an multi-pronged investigation into match-fixing by New Zealand cricketers; for exposing outsized occurrences of dementia among our rugby legends; for examining a worrying trend of high-performance athletes seeking help for acute mental health issues, a story that feels even more urgent now; and for narrating the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
More cheerfully, I have covered three Olympics, two Commonwealth Games, two Rugby World Cups, a Cricket World Cup, countless tests in various sports and even a Rugby League World Cup final, though it might have been better for everybody if I’d stayed away. These were my opening paragraphs for the Herald on Sunday, filed on the shrill of the final whistle, from that glorious night at Suncorp Stadium (for context, a huge tropical storm had been forecast to hit Brisbane that evening):
All day locals waited for the big one to hit. The perfect storm never arrived but the Kiwis did, shaking Suncorp Stadium and the rugby league world to its foundations.
The Kiwis are the world champions.
That is not a misprint. Say it again: THE KIWIS ARE THE WORLD CHAMPIONS. THE KIWIS ARE THE WORLD CHAMPIONS. THE KIWIS ARE THE WORLD CHAMPIONS!
Hail Stephen Kearney, hail Wayne Bennett, hail Nathan Cayless. If you’re Australian, hail a cab because you’re going home with nothing.
Good grief, it makes me wince to read that even 13 years later but what it also does is transport me straight back there, to that feeling you get when you’re expecting one thing to happen and the opposite does. That feeling is not unique to sport but it happens often enough to keep us hooked to lost causes and foregone conclusions.
Yes, mistakes were made (just look at that screeching final paragraph as Exhibit A). I no doubt taxed the patience of several editors, just as my faith in the industry was occasionally tested, but on the whole it was a blast.
In the end, I didn’t go with “The Rebound” because it implied that this project could be a meaningless fling; a fly-by-night exploration of the value of my “brand”. That is not what I’m after. False modesty aside, I couldn’t even describe what my brand is, if indeed I have one.
Sports journalist. Since my 20s, that’s really the only thing I’ve called myself. There have been brief forays into hard news, feature writing, editing and even, as grandiose as it sounds, investigative journalism, but at heart I’ve always been a sports journalist. That, if you can call it such, is my “brand”.
In recent times, it has become a difficult badge to wear.
I seriously started thinking about a separation from the job I loved about five years ago. It wasn’t the pace of change that was frightening so much as the pace of disintegration. For the past 10 years New Zealand sports journalism, and I’m talking more about publishing as opposed to the broadcast genre, has been hollowed out to a point where it is barely recognisable as the industry I joined full of misplaced self-importance in 1996.
To the reader it might look much the same: there are headlines, photos and words, some put together better than others, but the process of news gathering has all but disappeared. Sports reporters have instead become clearinghouses for scraps of information disseminated through media releases, press conferences, the dreaded media scrum and, increasingly, social media posts.
There is still some great stuff that sneaks through. There is still great talent in the ranks, but most of it is misused.
The reasons are the same that have blighted the media the world over and don’t need rehashing here other than to say that decreasing traditional revenues mean each vertical is under pressure to pay its way. Some, like business, have found it easier to market to a paying audience. Other verticals are glorified commercial partnerships dressed up as editorial.
Sport, however, looked increasingly like a cost centre – a luxury that could no longer be justified. At least, that’s what sports journalists were made to feel.
Like slowly boiled frogs, we didn’t recognise our peril at first. Perhaps we should have. It was hardly subtle. Parts of the job we took for granted, like travelling to matches involving high-profile national teams, had to be cleared through management. “No” was a word we started hearing a lot more.
Don’t let anybody tell you it doesn’t make a difference if you’re on the ground or not. The biggest misconception young and trainee reporters bring to the job is that sports knowledge = sports journalism. To steal a line from Danny Ormondroyd, does it bollocks. Sports reporting should tell you about the things you can’t see on the screen. We can all watch the race; the best sports journalists can get you to the start line, into the sheds and inside the lives of athletes.
(When you have the time, read this, arguably the greatest piece of sports reportage ever filed, certainly among the most harrowing, and tell me it could have been “done off the telly”.)
The New Zealand Herald and its weekly titles, the biggest-selling mastheads in the country and the newspapers I spent the bulk of my career proudly working for, did not send a single reporter to the past two Olympic Games, the most successful in this country’s history. In 2019, for the first time in living memory, the Herald did not have a reporter at a home cricket test, despite this being widely regarded as a golden era for the Black Caps.
They were no means alone in tamping down their sports costs.
Then Covid hit. As a rule, conspiracies are not my thing – OK, I admit to being sceptical about JFK and the single-shooter theory – but there was something deeply troubling about the way so many sports journalists lost their jobs as the coronavirus surged, then were brought back almost immediately on casual contracts.
It was almost as if it was the grand plan after all.
I kept my job. It was a good job and I should have been grateful, but it irritated the hell out of me. Something felt broken. A friend told me it was me. It was meant as a joke but on reflection he was right.
So in some respects The Bounce is a repair job. I can’t reset the stopwatch and take sports journalism back to the place it was when I started. I can’t “fix” anything but I can mend my relationship with the craft. That’s my giant conceit, but if that was all I thought it was going to be, I wouldn’t ask you to come along.
I’m going to try to bring back the best traditions of a craft I love and, if you feel passionately about sports journalism and all that it could be, I invite you to help by subscribing.
I’m asking you to join me because I reckon it could be a lot of fun. Sometimes it might even be enlightening. That’s why I stuck with “The Bounce”. The name wasn’t my idea, or even my first choice, but it grew on me. As most followers of rugby know, if you put the ball in the air and let it bounce, it could go anywhere.
So where might it go?
That’s a two-fold question. The first part is practical, the second more whimsical.
If you subscribe, you will get a free weekly edition of The Bounce. If you’re a paying subscriber, you get every edition – at least two per week, usually three – delivered straight to your inbox.
If you don’t subscribe, you’ll still have the opportunity to read The Bounce periodically here on The Spinoff. The big reads, the ones that take hours of interviewing, research and writing, they’ll be free too. I don’t want to blow smoke up anybody’s URL but The Spinoff feels like a hand-in-glove partner. They’ve broken the mould: their journalists are encouraged to write skilfully, irreverently and bravely – and occasionally indulgently (if there’s one thing I cannot be accused of, it’s lacking the indulgence gene). They have also been critical in giving advice and support after I started down this path. Maybe even the name was their idea.
That’s the practical element, the more nebulous idea is where the concept might head. At its most basic, The Bounce will be me writing about the thing I love most: sport. I don’t want to put any hard-and-fast rules around the style of stories and posts you will see because I’m attracted to the idea that The Bounce is no one thing. There will be opinion, there will be critical analysis both fervent and sober, there will be narratives and features, profiles and oral histories. There will be reviews, listicles and links to some of the best sports journalism from around the globe.
There will be reportage from on the ground. I will get to cricket tests, to rugby tests, and to a bunch of other stuff.
It will be fiercely independent. The arm might hover over the handbrake but it will mostly stay off. I know for a fact there will be posts that I’ll re-read later and think ‘Why the hell did I push publish on that?’
In the future I’d love to explore The Bounce: Podcast; I see live chats and panel discussions. What I’d really love, however, would be for The Bounce to evolve into a platform for emerging voices and some of my favourite sports thinkers and writers. If you join as a Founding Subscriber, you will be helping to make that happen.
A little bit more about me, my career and why you should subscribe
I have been a sports journalist for the bulk of the past 25 years, writing mostly for the New Zealand Herald and associated titles, but also for the Sunday News, Sunday Star-Times, ESPNCricinfo, Cricket Monthly, The Nightwatchman, Irish Examiner and various magazine mastheads including the excellent but sadly discontinued Sky Sport: The Magazine. I have ghost written three books and would need a very good reason (or subject) to do a fourth!
I have entered plenty of awards and won some. If I had to pick one for a skite reel, it’d be Best Investigation at the 2015 national media awards for my work on the Chris Cairns saga involving allegations of match-fixing and charges of perjury, for which the legendary allrounder was eventually acquitted. Taken as a whole, though, my work linking dementia and rugby as featured in The Longest Goodbye promises to have a more profound impact.
So that’s the what, the why, the where and the who. Even the seemingly simple task of writing a “welcome note” has been an energising exercise. Also a slightly discomfiting one – as a salaried man for so long, it’s a little weird asking for your money, your private equity if you will.
Which brings me inelegantly to a subject I know you’ll want to hear more about: New Zealand Rugby, Silver Lake, a dubious media strategy and where it all went wrong. Stay tuned.
The Bounce launches today. You can subscribe here.