Do we need football match reports? Why journalists control the cash…with a touch of Alex Ferguson, the good old Saturday sports specials and journalism, but not as we know it Jim…

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When I thought about the row over covering football matches, the first thing that came to mind was Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote after the 1999 Champions League final.

 

‘Football, bloody hell’, said Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United won the Champions League in dramatic fashion in 1999, thanks to a late goal.

And it was this quote that swirled around my head as I watched from the touchline as a debate raged over whether you have to be at a football match to cover it?

In brief, a journalist was worried that at a recent Brentford game, there wasn’t a local reporter covering the match at the ground, but more of that later.

So, for a few weeks, I have thought long and hard about this debate on whether you have to be at a match?

A couple of points came to my mind, firstly, if there’s no online audience, can you afford to pay for a journalist to sit in the press box at a game?

This idea of whether to send a reporter to a game depending on whether it is cost effective is an alien concept to many journalists, but a fact of life for many 21st century reporters.

Let’s face it, if no-one bought the newspaper, you would have to shut, so really there’s nothing new here.

Secondly, do we need match reports at all? This week, I suffered the fate of having to watch Manchester United in action against Valencia, it was a far cry from that night in 1999.

So, dealing with the second point, the following day after the Valencia game, I decided to put together a lecture based around the coverage of that match.

I nipped onto the Mail Online, which to be fair, is obsessed with United, much to the disgust of other fans.

But as we all know, this obsession is due to the fact that Man U gets the biggest audience.

This is not necessarily down to their own fans eager to read about the latest spat, but because so many opposition fans love having their say on the team they hate.

However, the point of the coverage was not that the Mail loves United stories, but the variety of the stories.

It was hard to actually find the match report buried in so many of the other things going on.

In the end, with TV and social media, do we really need a blow by blow account of what’s happening?

Most journalism students are taught how to Tweet from a game anyway and if you are a football fan, you know the result and what were the major incidents without picking up a match report.

Do we really want to know about a pass, a header, a goal when we already know the result and probably seen video clips of the key moments?

And I’m led to believe that match reports don’t get the same audience as so many of the other stories surrounding a team.

So as I pored over the Mail Online after the United game to prep for a lecture, I was slightly bemused, not only about the amount of stories coming out of the game, but how far they were removed from the match report.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved match reports. Was there anything better than sinking a pint in your local as you read a Green ‘Un or Sporting Argus printed just 45 minutes after the final whistle?

I, like so many other football fans, would greedily read the match reports and picture the moments of glory or despair.

But that was a different time. Today, football fans don’t need that kind of detail, there are so many more interesting stories to tell.

The 11, yes 11 online stories about the Man U and Valencia game were at the time I clicked on the website:

  1. Paul Scholes speaking on BT sport saying that Jose Mourinho and his mouth are out of control;
  2. Mourinho refusing to discuss what Paul Scholes said;
  3. Mourinho waving his little finger at the camera for no apparent reason;
  4. The United team bus being late due to traffic;
  5. Rio Ferdinand, on BT Sport, being critical of United striker Lukaku;
  6. A comment piece on United being boring;
  7. Another comment piece on why the fans booed the team;
  8. Player ratings;
  9. A poll on whether Mourinho should be sacked;
  10. The team’s captain Antonio Valencia liking an Instagram post saying Mourinho should be sacked;
  11. Another Paul Scholes piece on why he was surprised that Mourinho wasn’t sacked after the defeat against West Ham the previous weekend.

Of course, one of the reasons for all these type of stories is that football clubs are too keen to control the message.

Add the restrictions of the footballing authorities and TV stations and it’s hard for football journalists to get a decent story, away from the bland nonsense quotes often served up.

It’s a far cry from the time when you could ring a manager or player up for a chat.

There is a benefit of doing a match report of a Man U game, if you can find it, due to the size of the possible audience compared with Brentford.

But the reality is that the audience is after so much more these days, they are likely to have watched the game and seen what is all over social media.

So the fans want something different, something to debate and interact with so the job of today’s modern football writer is to look far beyond what they see in front of them.

So are match reports a thing of the past? If this is the case, do you have to attend the game to cover it?

The reason for this blog is that Jim Levack, formerly of the Birmingham Mail and Coventry Telegraph, attacked Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) in an article for Beesotted, a fanzine for supporters of Brentford FC.

In his piece, Jim claimed there had been no local media representation at Brentford’s Griffin Park stadium, for the first time in the club’s professional league existence.

But Reach came back at Jim and said that it was now bringing its coverage of the club to “a bigger audience than ever before”.

David Higgerson, Reach’s Digital Editorial Strategy Director, entered the debate.

He set the cat among the pigeons by daring to suggest that you don’t have to be at a match to produce credible coverage.

Bringing in my first point at the start of the blog about making journalism pay for itself, David argued that the audience was not big enough to cover the costs of sending a reporter to the game.

He didn’t say Reach wouldn’t cover Brentford, but they would cover them in other ways, which is what has happened.

Of course, other journalists were a bit steamed up by David’s stance.

In defence of David, he clearly states that he is not against reporters being at games, far from it. However, big decisions have to be made when considering whether a match/event should be covered.

Simply, because something has always been done it doesn’t mean it has to continue this way.

Journalism has to find a way of financing itself. Today, I know some of you won’t like this, but it is through gaining the best audience possible.

If there is no audience, then you are leaking money to send a reporter to a game. Would Tesco sell a product no-one wanted?

OK, it’s not what most journalists want to hear, but for the first-time ever journalists can help the company they work for by providing the right content which brings with it the vital cash to pay for the work.

It makes economic sense, even if it is a little unsavoury to some.

What some, dare I say older journalists, also forget is that technology does allow coverage of games without actually being at the ground. Many organisations already watch games in the office before producing content.

This may be unpalatable to some, but this is the way of the new world.

General news reporters often don’t have the time to cover stories by going out, but can use other tools to get the story, such as social media.

The worry for journalists is that stories which hold authority to account will not be covered, because they maybe deemed not cost-effective.

But this leads us full circle. The stories that get an audience and therefore ad revenue should help pay for journalism which is not necessarily audience grabbing, but important.

I’m not saying this is easy, but in principle, it could work.

I want journalism to survive, but it can’t on a wing and a prayer. There has to be some sense of realism and expectation that reporters understand that what they do brings in money.

There also has to be an understanding that a business has to make money and if it doesn’t, it has to move to the place where cash can be made.

It doesn’t mean that journalists have to prostitute themselves to turn a coin, just produce top-notch quality journalism which has an impact on the lives of the communities in which they serve and it is read by a large audience.

It all sounds so simple…

P.S This isn’t the first time I have written about the outrage over football coverage, here’s another story which stirred up emotions, click here

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Trinity Mirror’s editorial big guns Neil Benson and David Higgerson stirred by Croyden Advertiser’s Gareth Davies after Twitter storm

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Former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies created a social media storm with his criticism of Trinity Mirror.

 

There have been few occasions as far as I can recall when two such prominent editorial executives such as Trinity Mirror’s Neil Benson and David Higgerson have been moved to respond in such detail from the criticism of one reporter.

I understand that there was an emotional outcry when former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies spilled the beans on how he felt TM was destroying his beloved newspaper.

The response from Mr Benson and Mr Higgerson showed as much passion for what TM is doing as Mr Davies obviously has for the Advertiser and his belief that TM is ruining it.

As stated eloquently by Mr Higgerson, TM hasn’t banned stories which generate less than 1,000 page views.

But, from what I know one of the firm’s digital documents states that 43 per cent of stories on TM’s top 12 web sites have generated an audience of fewer than 1,000 page views.

This is in a section which asks how well the firm’s journalists know its audience. The inference from this section clearly is that 1,000 pvs is a benchmark for stories…

Based on this, you can perhaps conclude that there’s a misunderstanding by some of the TM team over what is required, this isn’t a ban, just a quiet word of guidance.

What is clear, is that TM has a plan, this has not always been the case for many newspaper groups. It is based around growing its digital audience, so the focus of the newsroom is clearly geared towards this.

Analytics of the audience is a tool to help this growth. Never has an editor had so much quality intelligence about its audience.

It means, for the first-time, editors can base decisions on hard facts and not just finally-tuned instincts. I do think Mr Benson describing journalists as ‘arrogantly’ choosing what they want to write about as slightly harsh.

Most journalists I have worked with write stories which they believed were important to their readers. There was never a day when an editor and his top team worth their salt didn’t talk about sales and how to improve them.

The times a gleeful newspaper sales manager entered a news conference to proclaim a sales spike on the back of a top story are too many to remember.

No, the newspaper men and women I worked with were obsessed with their ‘audience’ (readers) so there is nothing new on that front.

The difference is that now there is more evidence available to work out which stories the audience is reading.

What would you rather rely on, fact or instinct with a teaspoon of evidence from the sales history of a newspaper?

However, there is a word or two of caution here, the web audience is different to the newspaper audience, so what works well online doesn’t necessarily reflect what might work well in print.

There is little evidence to suggest newspapers are doing well thanks to the digital-only policy, indeed, sales decline for many still smashes double figures.

I was also concerned with the point raised that there’s more content in the newspapers. Recently, sadly, I spent a day counting stories and pages in a couple of TM’s biggest regional papers.

I used the same formula as I had used when I was a deputy editor and editor and it was clear to me that rather than there being more stories there were fewer. I used to aim for between 65-100 local news stories a day in my papers and a minimum of 15-17 overnight pages.

Clearly, from my research, this wasn’t the case and there were a lot of centrally produced pages, which I didn’t count, because I wouldn’t have previously.

This is not a direct criticism, but there are fewer local stories, fewer pages and newspapers cost a lot more. With staff cuts and an emphasis on digital, something has to give.

One of the reasons for fewer stories is because a journalist will be asked to go out on a story, cover it live, write Tweets, post it on Facebook, a version or two online and then it is shifted to the paper.

This takes time, so one story will be polished, but there’s many other stories that won’t be written due to lack of time. The idea is to get, say 20, great stories online and get the audience to come by building content around them.

I guess the way to resolve this is to harvest content from elsewhere to publish, but once again this takes time, unless you can get out the automatic content scrapers.

When we got rid of the editions of the newspaper and printed overnight the newspaper felt dead, we dreamed of those adrenalin busting days of swapping stories around and writing breaking news.

This died with overnight production, but the web gave us a continual edition and I think reinvigorated the newspaper office, the buzz returned and that was great.

However, the demands are many for the journalists at any newspaper group. The 21st century journalist has to have an array of skills, which is exciting for the next generation.

At the centre of this is the ability to tell a great story using core journalistic skills but they also need to understand how to attract an audience using analytics, understand Twitter and Facebook, after all, just view these as modern day bill boards, the ability to use Facebook Live or Periscope, to edit video and write great SEO.

Challenging, yes, but this multi-skilling has helped to reinvent a business which was floundering. It is because a journalist is asked to do so much that massive effort is put into key stories.

What these stories are, is now based on a history of performance online. Is this click-bait then or the ability to give the audience content they want to read?

After all, a newspaper and a website are products which have to be sold, I can’t see Tesco’s selling something no-one wants to buy.

Similarly, why would a media organisation provide content no-one wants to read?

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of concerns about the ability of firms to hold authority to account, for example, how many local councils and health authority meetings are covered today?

Newspaper groups may well argue that the reality is that no-one wants to read this anyway, where is the audience, so why cover them?

I completely understand Mr Davies for being so annoyed with the way TM has developed. But what choice did the firm have?

Newspaper sales are in terminal decline and there’s a chance to keep the business going by throwing resource into digital.

The issue however comes down to cash. Most of the money still arrives from newspaper advertising and sales, as sales decline, so will the cash.

However, no newspaper group will ever be able to get the same revenue returns online, even if the cuts go deeper.

So we will all have to accept that it’s a different business, one with less income, better audience knowledge, journalists with different, but more skills.

Is it better or worse than when I started? Difficult to say, it’s just different. I often had the discussion with my newsdesk about content.

I constantly challenged them on whether the stories newspapers had traditionally covered were the stories for the 21st century readership?

What we are seeing is that the content produced has to reflect the new needs of the audience.

The web has proved that a re-focus of what is good content is needed and that is why it has changed and Mr Davies is unhappy, as are many other journalists who plied their trade when regional newspapers were in their pomp.

There is an argument to say that the policies of modern newspaper groups has accentuated the decline.

But for at least two decades the industry dithered over what to do with the web and while this went on the world passed it by.

Now there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Regional journalism has some great challenges ahead. My hope is that surely, continuing to tell great stories means that it will continue to be the best job in the world…for now.