They think it’s all over…should regional newspapers pull the plug on football match reports?

The screams of disgust could be heard across the land as regional newspaper hacks muttered desperately into their frothing pints of real ale.

The source of this despair was the news that Tom Bodell, who works for Newsquest North London, will no longer provide on the whistle Barnet FC match reports or in-game tweets for the Barnet Times website, or match reports in the print edition.

Why we all asked? The reason was simple, not enough web hits. It would have sent the most hardened journo racing to the bar for a top-up.

So are all decisions on stories going to be based on web hits? I have already touched on this issue before. The defunct Local World used to shout loudly by the fact that health stories didn’t get any hits so bin them and deliver more servings of web bait.

Pitch
Regional newspapers have to decide whether they can afford to cover football matches like they have traditionally done so in the past.

The reality is that not all health stories, all council stories or all football stories get big hits. Some health stories fly online, like the threat of scarlet fever or a dodgy doctor.

But the run-of-the-mill health stories often don’t get many hits online, despite the fact that they were often of real importance around staffing or finance.

We already know that Trinity Mirror journalists were threatening strike action over the firm’s ‘Big Brother’ approach to set journalists targets over how many hits they get on their stories.

In a New Year goodwill gesture, TM has now withdraw this idea…for now, although the newspapers which are doing this as a trial will continue to do so and it is certain that it will be back on the table soon.

So where is this all leading? Obviously, part of Newsquest’s decision was based on cost. The reality is that journalism is expensive and is seen as a drain on resources and not one to bring in the money, which is not true.

Selling more newspapers thanks to a big story or getting more hits online are areas where you can argue the journalist helps to bring in the cash.

There are other ways, through business awards run by newspapers which are events cleverly packaged as celebrating greatness, but the reality is that they are a damn good advert for firms involved.

Let me assure you, I’m not knocking this, I’d rather bring in £100,000 for the business to protect jobs than turn my back on this money-making opportunity.

Anyway, back to the web hits. What really annoys journalists is that based on web hits, certain stories may well never be covered again, this could include aspects of holding authority to account, what we often proudly call Fourth Estate journalism.

But there is another argument. Simply, what if the traditional news agenda is wrong? When I was in a senior editorial position I would often question whether the stories put up in conference were the stories which people really wanted to read?

While the web audience is different to that of the newspaper, what the web has shown is that so many of the stories which traditionally appeared in regional newspapers didn’t really get read.

In a bygone era we relied on instinct or newspaper sales spikes (do you remember those?) to form an idea of what our readers wanted.

However, even if we were right about that for a period of time, that news selection passed down through generations of news editors and editors may just be out of step with the rest of the world.

Going deeper into this, the bundling of news into a newspaper is an out-dated concept. As I have said before, it’s all about personal media, not mass media.

So if football match reports fail to grab the audience, do something else. It is clear from the report on Barnet that aspects of the club will be covered, the parts that in many respects the fans are more interested in and will get an audience.

Football fans want so much more than reading about something they have just watched.

A simple match report is all but dead in the water. Football games can be covered live, so why would I want to read a match report hours or even days after?

This is where a football writer now comes into their own. They have to look deeper into the game, look at data, talk to the fans, or a moment in the game and look to expand what happened in that moment which changed the game.

It means football writers have to have a holistic view of the game and look beyond the usual ‘the lads done well quotes’.

What readers are after is the extraordinary, the piece of data or insight which will make them stop and say ‘gee-whizz’.

How many football writers really know everything about the club they report on? Do they understand the finances, the work of the physio, the nutritionist, the groundsman, when was the last time they spoke to a ref?

And remember, in the future all football clubs will provide their own match reports. We are moving faster and faster to the situation that exists in the States where American football clubs provide all the reports and interviews directly to the media without an independent journalist anywhere to be seen.

There is a massive movement towards professionalising media output right across the football world, most clubs will be asking, why do we need to even talk to journalists outside the inner sanctum of the club?

Back to the demand for web hits. It won’t go away, particularly as some senior staff get a bonus based on performance, a case of forget about the quality, go for the numbers, Primark economics.

This goes hand in hand with the demand to make more cash online despite the fact that print still is king on the money front. The solution, casually transfer funds from one to the other, which makes print look like its cash income is declining more rapidly and the web is booming.

It’s a slight of hand. Lies, damn lies and statistics, but if it keeps my former colleagues and friends employed, I can live with it.

If there’s any budding football journos out there who want to get some experience in reporting, I’d bang on the door of Barnet FC.