On The Boundary: Rohan Connolly

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THERE are few people in sports media that typify Melbourne more than Rohan Connolly.

He’s a couple of cheeky beers at Young & Jackson before a Saturday afternoon clash at the ‘G. He’s a suburban footy match before a grungy gig at The Corner.

And he’s a massive loss to the footy coverage at The Age.

Taking a redundancy after 30 years as the voice of AFL at Fairfax, Connolly is still pumping out his renowned match reports and columns over at his new website footyology.com.au.

Speaking to The Hickey Stand for our On The Boundary series, we put aside half an hour for a quick chat about life in the media, music, and his favourite memories of the countless games he’s been too.

It wasn’t nearly enough time.

By the end of our conversation we’d both agreed that a Part II was in order somewhere down the line. It’s the beauty of the game. Neither of us have met or talked before, but both of us speak the same language.

We both just bloody love footy.

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Connolly presenting the Steve Connolly Medal for the best on field in the Community Cup.

THS: Let’s start off with Footyology, it’s a step in a new direction for you, what are your plans for the website and what do you hope to get out of it?

RoCo: So I took a voluntary redundancy from The Age three weeks ago and it was something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Newspapers aren’t in a really healthy state and I think digital media is the way it’s all going to end up and that’s something I really enjoy and have embraced.

I’ve been at The Age for 30 years and look, they didn’t want me to go and previously when I’d asked about it they said they wouldn’t let me go but this time they were letting anyone who wanted to go, go.

I’d been thinking about a website for a while and I hope it evolves into something commercially lucrative but I’m not naive enough to think that’s a given.

Essentially it’s just a vehicle for me to write the sort of stuff I was writing for The Age because I love writing about footy and I wanted to keep doing it. I’ve had a lot of people approach and say “can you write for us?” and in some ways that would have been easier but I like being master of my own destiny and I thought a website might be a bit of fun. So far I don’t think fun’s the operative word, there’s been a lot of pain in setting it up but I think it looks good and so far so good.

THS: You’ve diversified your career over the years with work at SEN and on Marngrook, do you think it’s crucial that print journalists tackle that change and diversify their own skill sets?

RoCo: Absolutely. I started doing radio and TV back in 1996 and I wasn’t thinking ‘this is the way it’s going to end up’, it just sounded like fun.

But that’s basically been the case with everything I’ve done. It hasn’t been a carefully thought out professional strategy. It’s that I like doing it. That’s the great thing about my work, it often doesn’t feel like work, it’s just fun.

In terms of written media, I don’t think any journalist can afford to go into things thinking ‘I only want to write’ because even now, multi-media is a big part of newspapers. If you went in with an attitude of not wanting to do audio and visual stuff you’re probably going to be in a bit of trouble.

THS: We’ve obviously got our bigger media companies, but where do you think things will go in the next couple of decades? Can you see it being more of a grassroots movement?

RoCo: I think it’s going to become very much a niche thing. I often use the analogy of music in that 30 years ago you had a couple of major radio stations and Countdown on the TV and everyone heard the same thing. Now there’s so many little different genres of music and of how music is covered in popular culture.

I think the big media organisations are the same in that they’ve tried to be everything for everyone. The major companies are so big though that they’ll be able to stumble along for a while yet but increasingly I think people are going to go looking for their specialist information.

That’s the case with political coverage now. I’m interested in politics and I read a number of blogs ahead of reading major newspaper coverage. I think sports journalism might be going the same way.

THS: Having seen the changing landscape of the media over the past three decades, is their anything that frustrates you with the way things have changed? 

RoCo: Ah … yeah (laughs). Probably as much as anything the logistics of it. At Fairfax they kept making so many cuts to staff and resources that it makes doing your job harder. At the same time that staff numbers are shrinking, the reach is going the other way. Online is around the clock so there’s this thirst for news and information which requires more people and more resources but we’ve got half the numbers we did have.

It just makes everyone work harder, which on its own you can cope with that. But in addition to that it means you can’t devote the amount of time and research and energy into anything you do.

Once upon a time if I had a big feature for a weekend paper I might get three days to work on it. Now you have so much in play that you can’t invest that time, which in the end compromises the quality of your work.

Most journos are perfectionists. I don’t mean they get everything right but they really want everything to be as good as possible. Fewer people means the editing process isn’t as rigorous as it once was so you get more mistakes creeping in. Particularly online. That rush to be first means that accuracy sometimes gets pushed down the priority list and that can be not only frustrating but dangerous.

In a broader sense I think one thing newspaper journalists find frustrating is the competing priorities of quality and quantity online. The Age is a good example, it’s always prided itself as being a quality publication – and don’t get me wrong, I still think it is – but online they’re also conscious about clicks. So you go on the homepage and see the fantastic investigative journalism from Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, but under that you’ll see something about Miley Cyrus having a nipple piercing.

I don’t see the wisdom of that strategy because the sort of people that gravitate to those type of stories aren’t the people that become devoted readers. They click on it then move onto TMZ. And that alienates your dedicated readers, who look at it and go ‘hang on, this isn’t The Age I remember’. You don’t pick up readers who hang around, and you piss off the readers you’ve already got.

It doesn’t strike me as a smart business strategy. But I’m not counting the dollars and cents so maybe I’ve got that wrong.

THS: The landscape has obviously changed a lot since you started. What was your initial inspiration to become a footy journalist?

RoCo: Two things conspired at the same time. My father was a journalist, Keith Connolly, and he started on the old Argus, which was a newspaper in Melbourne until the late ’50s. Then he went to the Sun News-Pictorial and from there ended up on the old evening Herald. Dad did a number of things, he was a football writer himself for a while and sub-editor and production editor, then over the last 20 years of his career he became a film critic.

I used to go into the office with Dad a lot. He’d take me to a film preview and then go straight into the office to write his review and I used to hang around and see the paper coming together. It was all really exciting.

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Rohan’s father and respected film critic Keith Connolly.

At the same time, when I was about six or seven, I suddenly developed this obsession with football. I used to listen to games on the radio and write my own match reports and draw pictures.

It sounds a bit ridiculous but from the age of seven I wanted to be a sports journalist. Specifically for the Sun News-Pictorial. Fortunately enough that’s how it ended up! I went straight out of high school into the Herald and Weekly Times, I was a copy boy on The Sun, then became a cadet reporter and within six months of that I was in sport and stayed there because I was so obsessive about it. I made it very well known I wasn’t interested in doing anything else and they just left me there.

Then I went to The Age in 1987. I didn’t really want to go but they made me a fantastic offer that The Sun couldn’t match.

I’ve only really had two jobs and worked in two different workplaces. That’s what I mean in that it’s never felt like a job, it’s felt like a calling. It’s been like some fantasy that I’ve been fortunate to have play out in real life.

I’ve never thought of doing anything else. Occasionally I have these sort of panic attacks where I think I might wake up one day and suddenly hate football. I’d be stuffed because I’ve got no other skills! So I never lose sight of how lucky I’ve been to live out the dream.

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Paul Kelly, Archie Roach and Rohan’s brother Steve in the studio.

THS: You mentioned earlier about your love of music, you’ve been involved in the Community Cup. Is that something that’s close to your heart?

RoCo: Absolutely. How that came about is that my brother, Steve, was a guitarist with Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls and the Messengers for a long time. Steve unfortunately passed away in 1995, he was only 36. It was a couple of years after that they set up the Community Cup and I got a call out of the blue from someone who said that they wanted to name the best on ground medal after him and that they’d like me to come along and present it.

I’ve gone along every year. I don’t often get to see the whole game because I’m writing about the AFL, but I get along and watch enough to know who’s playing well and present the medal.

It’s a wonderful thing. I love grassroots footy and I often say to people that it’s easy to become a bit removed from the grassroots when you’re covering the AFL and sitting in a press box every week. It’s the same if you don’t correspond with people who send you emails or messages. I love that interaction. I mean I feel like a footy fan who got lucky enough to write about it and nothing’s changed.

I went and sat in the outer the other week for the first time in about 10 years and it was great. Other than the fact Essendon got rolled by Brisbane.

But yeah, the Community Cup is a part of the fabric of Melbourne and I think music has always been big in Melbourne so combining those elements is a wonderful thing and I’m honoured to be involved.

And Steve, he was a funny bugger, he was even more crotchety than me but certainly more talented in an artistic sense. We’ve been without him for 20 years now but we’re lucky that we still have his sounds on some great music, and we’ve also got this medal that is part of a wonderful day in Melbourne so it’s a fantastic thing to involved with.

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Leon Baker, Terry Daniher and Simon Madden after the 1984 Grand Final.

THS: Just to finish off – until next time – from a footy sense is there anything that stands out to you on the field that will always stick in your memory?

RoCo: There’s too many to rattle off. There are different sorts of moments. There those that stay with you professionally and those that are great football moments.

In a professional sense I remember the stories I enjoyed the most, not the biggest news stories. Back in 1996, when the merger talk was happening with the Fitzroy-North thing and the Melbourne-Hawthorn thing I was exclusively on the Sunday Age and we were lucky enough to get the drop on both those stories. That was exciting in a cliched ‘stop the presses’ sense.

Some interviews stay with me. Back in 1993 I did one with Mark Harvey where I went out to do an interview with him about his 150th game and he ended up talking at length about his battle with bulimia, which he’d never really discussed with anyone.

I did a really moving interview with Ross Lyon after St Kilda lost the 2010 Grand Final replay. The premise of that was how do they get back from losing two Grand Finals in a row by a kick and it ended up with us talking about the death of his sister during that 2010 season. Incredibly he’d barely told anyone at the club because he didn’t want to derail the tilt at a premiership. He was literally with his sister when she passed away then fronted up at work the next day. Only a handful of people at the club knew. Ross really opened up about that and only a couple of weeks before that interview Ross lost a nephew in a motorbike accident, so it was incredibly bleak year for him where he somehow managed to maintain that professional facade.

The other interview that stands out is when I finally got to interview my childhood hero, Leon Baker, a media recluse. A couple of years ago Essendon had a premiership reunion and he came down from Port Douglas for that and fortunately for me I got to do the first interview with him since he arrived at Essendon in 1984. It’s an incredible story and if anyone’s reading this, it’s on the internet, look it up. You know, football nomad who played all over the country and just played for the love of the game. It was short-lived but he was a superstar of a player and crucial to Essendon winning those ’84 and ’85 flags. (We’ve saved you the work, here it is).

I’ve also spent a week at a time at a few clubs. Three years in a row I spent a week leading up to the season at Collingwood and then the Western Bulldogs and then North Melbourne. Open access to everything. Team meetings, match committee, in the coaches box on game day. They were wonderful experiences.

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Nick Malceski’s game-sealing snap in the 2012 Grand Final.

THS: And memories of the game itself?

RoCo: As a supporter, the 1984 Essendon premiership was pretty special for me. I was 19, I’d been going to the footy for 15 years and they’d never done anything and finally broke the premiership drought with this incredible last quarter burst. I don’t mind admitting I was shedding more than a tear. That was actually the last game I watched sitting outside the press box until a couple of weeks ago.

All the ones I’ve covered, there’s some incredible memories there too. Leo Barry’s mark. But probably the best Grand Final I’ve seen – and I pride myself on having been to every Grand Final since 1973 – even my own club winning, I reckon the 2012 Grand Final is probably the greatest ever in a sense of how competitive it was and the quality of football. That game delivered everything. I still drag out the DVD and watch that once a month. That match is what the game is all about for me.

 

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