Emma Duffy from Kingscourt, sports journalist.

Love of the game inspires career in sports writing

In this week's Inside Story, Paul Fitzpatrick spoke to Kingscourt native Emma Duffy, a sports journalist with national outlet The42.ie who has recently been named as one of the '30 under 30' leaders of tomorrow by an influential business website...

At the start, it was all about sport. The writing part came later.

Growing up in Drumiller, Kingscourt, Emma Duffy – daughter of Patrick and Kate – was a sports fanatic but it was only as she approached her late teens that she considered a career in journalism.

“I didn’t always want to be a journalist at all, it’s a weird one looking back. I would have always been mad into sport. I played everything and anything growing up, I probably couldn’t avoid it with the house I grew up in, my Dad played for Kingscourt and had a huge interest in sport,” Duffy told the Anglo-Celt.

“It was kind of a natural thing that I would go and play football. I played football and soccer with Kingscourt and I ended up playing with Knockbride for a few years because Kingscourt didn’t have a senior team.

“Joanne McNally was my teacher and she asked a few of us over. That was great, I had a few great years, won an Intermediate Championship, played in Ulster, all that kind of stuff.

“All the while, I wanted to be a PE teacher or a sports physio. I wanted to go to DCU, that was a big thing because I knew a few older girls who I had played football with who had been in DCU and loved it.

“But then I decided in fifth year in school that I didn’t like chemistry at all and you’d need two sciences. It turned out you didn’t and biology would have done but that wasn’t my favourite either…”

That chance fork in the road saw Emma consider her options and set her on a path, which has taken her to a role with one of the leading sports outlets in the country.

“Growing up I would have always read the paper, read the Celt, looked at Teletext every day, all that kind of stuff. I always kept up with all the sport, watched all the matches, and I kind of just thought, well I like English and I’m quite creative in that kind of way and maybe there’s a good way of marrying the two things, doing journalism and trying to get into sports journalism.

“I got journalism in DCU luckily enough. I probably prioritised football the whole way through my Leaving Cert,” she laughed.

“We won an Ulster B with Cavan under Anthony Brady when I was in fifth year and then the following year we went up to A and got to the final but we lost out to Donegal. Amber Barrett came on at half-time and destroyed us.

“I was focused on football and mam was killing me, I was going here, there and everywhere for training, come home then at 10 o ‘clock and open the books!

“I went to DCU and did journalism then. In the first year or two I wasn’t gone on it, it was very news and politics heavy with archaic stuff around column inches and mad editing things that I didn’t think I was going to need.

“Then in final year we did a module on sports journalism and there and then I thought ‘this is definitely what I want to do’.”

Work placement with The 42 saw her gain valuable experience and, after a summer in the States, she threw herself headlong into it.

“I got an internship with The 42 and it worked out pretty well.

“I did two months there, May and June 2016. A few of my classmates had gone to different places and they were taking much more of a back seat. They were making coffees for their colleagues and doing the messages but the first day I was in, it was straight into it.

“Over the two months, I think I had 100 pieces published, went to press conferences on my own and then an Ireland women’s match against Montenegro on my own, which was just a class experience.

“I had planned to go to Chicago for the summer on a J1 with a few girls I played football with in DCU that summer but Adrian Russell, our editor, said ‘once you’re back, get on to us’.

Stars aligned

“I started freelancing in October 2016 and it just went from there. I did a little bit with the LGFA as well, which was great, I actually got to go on the All-Star trip to Bangkok in 2016 which was unbelievable. Then just after I came back, I signed a contract with The42. It was a mad few months.

“It all just fell into place very nicely for me, I was lucky that I got plenty of freelance shifts and then got a staff contract and I have been there since and I’m happy out.”

In her job, Emma says, there is no such thing as an average day.

“Every day is very different. We are given a lot of free rein, we can cover any stories we want to, something we have an interest in or if we see a news story and want to move it on.

“So, in normal times, I’d come into the office. The early shift is half seven to four and the latest is half two to 11 and it’s staggered in between that.

“If you’re on the early shift, you’re looking for the big news story that morning, trying to get it on the site, and then you might have one or two phone interviews so you have to research that, have the chat, transcribe it, write it up. It doesn’t always happen as easily as that sounds! (laughs.)

“It depends what team you’re covering or what sport or what matches are on. I’d do quite a bit with the Irish women’s national football team. So if they have a game on a Thursday night, say, they will have press every day pretty much.

“Obviously it’s all on Zoom now but usually you would be out to Abbotstown every day and the manager and players would be up for interview, the same as the men’s team.

“Every day is very, very different. Match reporting, press conferences and a bit of podcasting and stuff too. It’s all very varied, the whole industry is so fast-moving and ever changing so you just have to move with it.”

While she covers all sports, Emma has carved out a role for herself specialising on women in sport. It’s just one aspect of her job but something she is passionate about and has excelled at, as her brilliantly-received interview with friend and former teammate Leanne Kiernan last June illustrated.

“I was always hugely interested in women’s sport. It is just sport at the end of the day. I would have always watched the ladies football and camogie growing up, it wasn’t just as accessible then as it is now but I would have watched as much as I could and my dad was very good, he brought me to a lot of Cavan ladies matches.

“I played a good bit of soccer and we would have headed off on a bus to watch the Irish women’s team, a lot of people wouldn’t have had that experience.

“It’s something I would have always followed so it was probably just a natural thing when I started working in The42. My bosses would have been very conscious that I don’t feel boxed in. There might be a pre-conception that a female journalist is expected to cover female sport but that is definitely not the case, everybody chips in.

“That is my niche and that is where my passion is and it just makes sense.”

In that regard, she feels things are definitely changing for the better but more is needed.

Shift in culture

“Definitely in the five years, pretty much, that I’ve been at The42, I’ve seen a huge shift. I know people obviously say it but I definitely mean it. Even since I was a kid, it has advanced a lot. These players are on billboards now, when I was growing up I didn’t know what these players looked like apart from seeing them on TV on All-Ireland final day.

“Now, they’re everywhere, which is fantastic. So I do think it has improved but now is about taking that next step and putting more of an emphasis on analysis and that side of things.

“It’s great that there is more coverage but sometimes it can be run of the mill, ‘Team A played Team B and X, Y and Z scored’. That’s not the way it should be and that’s not the way it is in the men’s game.

“There has been a huge amount of work done but there is a long way to go yet. But overall, yes, it’s positive.”

The approach to coverage of female sport is not the only thing that has changed. Journalism itself is evolving at breakneck speed. Some of what she learned in college, she says, is already redundant.

“I started in 2013, a lot has changed and I think it’s only going to continue to change. You can see now that the emphasis has been put on video and audio because people want to consume their news in a few seconds and I understand that but I still think there’s huge value in those longer reads and those deep dives because people do sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and have a read of a 3,000 or 5,000-word piece.

“I do find those snippets of audio or video are very worthwhile too and that’s going to stay the same. Things have slowed down dramatically over the past year but people still have no time… It’s like ‘how do I get my news most quickly?’

“Even if it’s only a 1,000-word piece, people think it might be a bit of an effort.

“When I was in college people would have been saying it was the end for newspapers but I know a lot of people around me would still buy a newspaper, maybe not every day but every few days and definitely at the weekend.

“I still think there’s something nice about sitting down with a paper and having it in your hand, it’s something tangible. In that sense, we expected big, big changes a few years ago and it hasn’t really come true.

“What is the next big change? I don’t know if there’s going to be anything colossal, I guess. You do see a lot more things going behind paywalls and subscription services. I think that’s a good thing, you’re not going to walk into a shop and get a free newspaper with all this unbelievable work in it so why should that be the case with a website? You have to put the value on it but then it’s about finding that balance as well.

“We have become so accustomed in the last 10, 15 years or so being able to get every kind of news feature, in-depth analysis piece we want for free and now things are changing.

“I think people are starting to realise that. I might be a bit biased as a journalist but I think that’s probably the way things are going.”

Duffy’s work was recognised recently when she was selected on the Sport For Business 30 Under 30 list of young leaders of tomorrow.

“I wasn’t expecting it, I hadn’t been told before it, I was just tagged in a tweet. It is nice, to be fair. Rob Hartnett set up Sport For Business, I sent him an email afterwards to say thanks and he said that he was put on one of those lists a few years ago and it always stayed with him and he wanted to kind of do the same thing.

“It was really nice, it was nice little boost and a reminder that hard work pays off. But as every player says after they win an award, it’s all about the team and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the guys around me.

“We’ve a fantastic team and it’s been nothing but a pleasure to work there. I really miss them and the bit of craic that you have to break up your day. It’s a really strong team and onwards and upwards I guess.”

When the Celt spoke to Emma, she was preparing to cover a GAA launch – run remotely on Microsoft Teams – featuring Gaelic games stars O’Sullivan, Paul Geaney, Sarah Dervan and Dan Morrissey.

“I was on the early shift, I was working on reaction from last night’s Champions League matches and ‘return to sport’ stuff and then after the press conference, they’re embargoed till tomorrow, I’ll be transcribing and writing those up.”

As for the future, she hopes to continue playing football with Kingscourt – although a torn hamstring and a concussion in the last couple of seasons hasn’t made that easy – and to advance her career at The 42.

“I’m really enjoying working at The42. I’m a big believer that if you’re happy with your situation, stick with it. There’s no pressure to move on, into print or anything, broadcasting.

“I imagine I’ll stick around at The42 for a while longer. Bigger picture? There’s nothing major bucket list that I have in mind. I’d love to write a book down the line but, otherwise, I’m happy where I am and I imagine that’s where I’ll stay for now anyway.”

So far, so good.