Football, bloody hell…big transfer news as regional newspaper journalists jump ship to join new American sports website The Athletic

Regional newspaper journalists have been poached by American-based sports website The Athletic to join its new UK operation.

 

So what is the big transfer news of the summer, Pogba off to Real Madrid or Neymar to Barcelona?

Not in the world of journalism, where sports journalists have been leaving regional newspapers faster than you can say clickbait to move to the American-based sports website, The Athletic.

Some of the cream of the regional newspaper footballing world have been poached.

Meanwhile, those at the top of the regional newspaper world must be pondering if The Athletic can gain a major foothold in the UK by picking up audience.

According to holdthefrontpage.co.uk those who have transferred to The Athletic include include the Liverpool Echo’s Liverpool FC reporter James Pearce, Yorkshire Evening Post Leeds United writer Phil Hay and Express & Star Wolverhampton Wanderers correspondent Tim Spiers.

It is understood more are following the pilgrimage including Leicester Mercury’s Leicester City reporter Rob Tanner, Birmingham Mail Aston Villa reporter Gregg Evans and The Argus Brighton and Hove Albion reporter Andy Naylor.

In a way, with the demand for football stories and the growth of football journalism, it is one of the few areas where recruitment seems to be rising.

But to leave the relative comfort of their regional newspapers and head for The Athletic is, from an outsider looking in, a gamble.

Cynics would say that the reported double your money offers may have helped this leap of faith, with the writers said to be on about £37,000 and being offered a nice $75,000 to join their new mates from America.

So is it safe for these journalists to leave for an organisation which is in its infancy? The Athletic only started a couple of years ago and is firmly based across the Atlantic.

It is making a big play for the Premier League audience by looking to recruit 50-55 people, mainly writers, prior to the season starting in August.

The Athletic is different to most regional newspaper models. Its business is based on a paywall, there aren’t any intrusive ads dive bombing you as you attempt to read each paragraph of a story.

James Mirtle, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic, Canada, makes the case for subscription. He points out that it’s difficult to make decent money based on clicks suggesting that a top story would only ever make $75-$100, hardly enough to pay a journalist.

He has a point.

James argues that while most people question the need to pay for journalism, the reality is that the existing businesses based on clicks may not generate the right levels of income to make them sustainable. Thoughtful stuff.

Finally, he says that the New York Times and Washington Post are pursuing subscription models because after doing their sums, it’s better to get two subscribers in terms of money than 20,000 clicks.

This is interesting if we reflect on what is happening in the UK. The Guardian, which is free to readers, has managed to get people to pay for its journalism.

Latest figures show that they have 655,000 subscribers and 300,000 readers who have made one-off contributions.

Meanwhile, The Sun ditched its paywall when it only had 200,000 subscribers in 2015 and by 2018 overtook the Mail Online by becoming the UK’s biggest newsbrand with more than 30m unique users a month.

The Times, Telegraph and Financial Times are three other titles which are appearing to sit comfortably behind a paywall.

UK regional titles have also flirted with paywalls. A decade ago Johnston Press, now JPI Media, tried to put smaller titles like the Whitby Gazette behind a paywall with little success.

The firm announced earlier this year that it was to put a partial paywall on two titles, The Star, Sheffield and The News, Portsmouth. Readers will have to pay £2 a week.

I’m unsure whether this will be a success, history so far tells us it won’t be. Readers don’t seem keen to pay-out for local news, local sport maybe different.

The only bright spot on the horizon is that there is a generation of people who now expect to pay for media, the culture of our country is changing.

Today they pay for TV (Netlflix, Sky), music (Spotify, Apple) and, of course, mobile phones.

So what can we conclude from these examples of paying or not for content?

I guess it is that you need to find a model that works best for your audience…that’s a bit of a cop out statement, sorry.

Clearly, Guardian readers are benevolent so dig deep while Sun readers would rather spend their cash on something else, in other words, there’s no clear pattern.

As I’ve said before, the issue with online is turning a coin. Newspaper groups have to fight tooth and nail to grab any cash online as both Google and Facebook hoover up the lion’s share of advertising.

This means for a company like Reach Plc, the largest newspaper group in the country, that revenues look lob-sided.

While to steams ahead with a web first policy with content as audience grows rapidly, back in the forgotten print rooms, the cash is still coming in as the newspaper sales decline.

The  group revealed a few days ago that its digital revenue had increased by 9.7pc on a like for like basis from £41.5m to £48.7m, with average monthly page views on its websites growing by 16pc year on year to 1.2bn in 2019. Big tick.

But look at the print revenues. Ok, they declined slightly from £306.4m to £301.8m…but compare it with the £48.7m from online. Effectively, print is still the cash cow.

Fact, the income from online is closing that of print which is also in decline; fact, online will never make the same amount of money as print once did. This is because online is so competitive, print has never really faced the same fight for money.

So, back to The Athletic. Is it worth the risk for a group of well-respected football writers with reasonably comfortable lives at decent newspaper groups to leave for a project effectively in its infancy?

I guess the answer is probably ‘yes’. If the rumoured salaries are right, in a year they will get paid double what they would have received and more than any redundancy, if that became an issue.

Any company worth its salt would sit this project out for at least two to three years, in which time they will have earned what they would have received in six years if they had sat it out in their old jobs.

Then there’s the idea that the content required is different to the terms of engagement in traditional regional newspapers web operations.

This is what James says of The Athletic philosophy: “We’re focused on fans who want high quality, in-depth coverage of their teams, content that isn’t designed to service advertisers or clicks.

“It’s designed solely to be informative and entertaining. The Athletic would not happen on the ad revenue model. So far, we’ve seen that it can work through low-cost subscriptions. By all indications, we’ll be around for a long time.”

It seems James, maybe unwittingly, has taken a swipe at the publications his organisation has been so keen to ‘steal’ their writers from with an attack on click culture.

The good news for the journalists is that The Athletic wants ‘high quality, in-depth’ content, a dream for most hacks.

So the model for success according to The Athletic is to write brilliant journalism, ask readers to pay for it, go for quality, not quantity and don’t get hung up on getting thousands of clicks which won’t produce enough cash to pay the writer of the article.

In America, The Athletic has been a comparative success. Just a couple of days ago it was reported that the company now had 500,000 subscribers in the States.

In the UK it is expected that it will cost around £8 a month or £40 a year, possibly up to £60, to be a subscriber. The question is whether there’s a big enough market of football fans in the UK who will pay for content?

I hope so for the sake of the journalists who have taken the gamble to join up. Also, for the future of all up and coming football journalists, including those my colleagues and I teach, I hope it’s a success.

  • Today (August1), holdthefrontpage.co.uk has reported that three more local journalists have left their posts, 24-hours before the new English season starts. While it’s not confirmed they are joining The Athletic, it adds to the major upheaval going on in the regional newspaper sporting world.
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Gloves off for the Johnston Press blame game as Reach goes back to regional subbing hubs with a difference and my part in the creation of a newspaper production monster…

Johnston Press has gone into administration.

The writing has been on the wall for Johnston Press for a few years due to the massive debt the company was juggling with, so it was no surprise that the firm went into administration.

 

Where do we lay the blame for the chaos that surrounds the collapse of Johnston Press? The management? The journalists or journalism? The changing media landscape?

I know that some of you won’t want to play the blame game, but hell, I just feel like it.

As soon as JP went up for sale for £250m we all knew that no-one from outside JP was brave enough to empty their bank account to buy into a turbulent newspaper business.

The CEO of JP and now the CEO of  the newly-formed JPIMedia, David King, put his finger on the button when he announced that the business was going into administration.

He blamed the firm’s acquisitions in the early 2000s as the cause of the firm’s financial mess, you’re not joking…

Obviously, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it was in the 2000s that Johnston Press made some astonishing moves, not astonishing for what they bought, but what they paid.

I remember raising an eyebrow as the firm splashed the cash like a drunken gambler who believes they can’t lose so they keep spending.

In 2002 the managers paid a staggering £560m for Regional Independent Media (RIM).

“This is a transforming acquisition for Johnston Press at a fair price,” said Roger Parry, the then chairman of Johnston.

Fair price. Really? Mr King said that it was not obvious that the business would suffer from the impact created by the rise of the web in 2002 with the loss of classified and motors and the rise of Google and Facebook.

Maybe, in 2002 he was right, it was not too easy to see what lay ahead for the newspaper industry with the rise of the web, home wi-fi, smartphones and Facebook.

But we all knew something was in the air, even back in 1999 as I sat in an office in Lincoln with a ‘dial-up’ to get online. Ok, it didn’t work very well, but even for a then naive deputy editor, I knew things were on the cusp of changing.

This was also pointed out by David Higgerson, Reach’s Chief Audience Officer, who at a conference I attended last summer pulled out a copy of the Birmingham Mail from 1999.

That paper had a puff across the top welcoming a new health and fitness supplement.

As he rightly said, it was an attempt by the paper to grab new readers as sales of the paper continued to slide. It was almost unspoken pact, that we dare not talk of what lay ahead of us, but we all knew, didn’t we?

But when Johnston bought the Scotsman Group for a mouth-watering £160m and were said to be in the frame to buy Northcliffe for £1.6bn in 2006, you would be rightly concerned about who was giving out the advise.

Ok, I accept that this maybe easy for me to say, but by 2006 the writing was firmly on the wall.

In early 2006 Northcliffe had brought in Aim Higher, yep, the accountants were in the corridors of most newspapers in the group counting stories and paperclips.

Job losses were firmly on the card, it was a big clue for the Johnston managers. The second clue came when Northcliffe decided to sell its cherished regional newspapers.

The papers, once loved when they used to bring in £96m profits a year, went from being the most-cherished child to the black sheep of the family.

Oh, the final bit of evidence surrounded the fact that newspaper sales had been in decline since the early 80s anyway. Yes, financially they had held up well, but that was without the threat of the web.

The problem was that the business model was too fragile. It relied too heavily on certain areas of advertising and failed to pull in more income in from cover price, which only ever crept up a penny or two and therefore was never enough to prop the business up.

Despite this evidence, Johnston ploughed on and snapped up the Scotsman titles which only made £7m in pre-tax profits in 2004 anyway, hardly a great acquisition for £160m.

So there were some pretty good indicators around that maybe it wouldn’t be worth paying such large sums for a newspaper business in decline.

And here we are today, a company riddled with debt it cannot pay. Administration had been on the cards for a long time.

Now a new company, JPIMedia, made up of those who were owed money by the old Johnston Press, has been created to run the business.

Under the deal, £135m will be wiped off the firms debt, £35m injected back into it and more time to pay off the remaining £85m debt.

The new company has body-swerved taking on the pension scheme which did not transfer and will come under the Pensions Protection Fund, a scheme set up by the government to provide pension benefits to members of scheme whose employers have become insolvent.

While the pension should be safeguarded, according to holdthfrontpage, some of the pension pay-outs may not be as high. This is a bitter pill for staff.

On the up side, we are told by the new company that jobs are safe, there’s not even that good old ‘for now.’

It is a grand statement to make as the regional newspaper continues to reconfigure weekly to meet the needs of its consumers and the business.

The reality in my opinion is that JPIMedia, like its fellow media groups, will inevitably make editorial cuts once the dust has settled and there’s a debt to service.

This is because, with falling newspaper profits and circulation to consider, despite a growing online presence, I think the only way financial targets can be hit is via streamlining.

We have seen the latest remodelling of the industry with recent job losses at Reach Plc, the old Trinity Mirror, where 41 more production jobs are going.

A few years ago I welcomed the steady move away from regional subbing/production hubs to a return to producing the newspaper on your home soil.

But the latest plan, on top of regionalised sports departments and centralised page units, does see a return to centralised subbing hubs, of sorts.

Before I move on and because I was feeling nostalgic, I managed to dig out some old notebooks (see photographs below).

They show my wild scribblings as I put together a new workflow plan for the then newly-created subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

Stoke was one of several hubs which took in pages from other Staffordshire newspapers including Tamworth, as production was streamlined and subs lost their jobs.

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This rough diagram shows how I was trying to provide a new workflow system for the subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

My jottings also show my attempts to calculate how many pages had to be subbed per paper, per day, per sub. Yep, terrifying.

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In this picture I’m attempting to work out the number of pages to sub per day per newspaper and how many staff in the would be required in the Stoke-on-Trent subbing hub, the home of The Sentinel.

It is different this time, as I understand it, looking from the outside in. This time there will be production staff still in the local centres.

The subbing hub will be virtual, so, for example, as I understand it, in my area there will be one big production unit covering the East and West Midlands.

While the local teams will take care of their paper, they will also have the capability of helping out the other centres when the pressure is on and there is a greater ability to share content/pages.

The outcome of all this? Probably more generic pages, similar to the ones which appear in the regional papers at the moment.

You know which pages they are because it’s like you are reading two different newspapers every day, but that’s just my design snobbery coming out, but boy do they look ugly…

Secondly, based on some recent research of one of my University of Derby students looking over the last 30 years, which shows that story count in the local press is way down, I’m wondering if this trend will continue?

Please note, at the moment I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, it’s a debate for another day, particularly on around what is local?

One of the issues is that most of the content comes from the web. This is a bit of a poison chalice, because while the content is perfect for the web, it can be more difficult to translate that into newspaper content.

It’s the reverse of the argument in the late 1990s early 2000s when newspaper content was uploaded onto the web.

The problem with that was it was impossible to search for a story online with a newspaper headline.

Let me assure you, somewhere in the ‘cloud’ are a load of stories no-one will ever find, because they have a newspaper headline, not a web head.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of errors. holdthefrontpage used to have a field day during the old days of the Northcliffe subbing hubs when it found an error in a newspaper, for example, such as Lincoln, because it was subbed in Hull.

The difference this time is that at least there are some local staff at the local centres who should be able to pick up any problems, hopefully.

So is this latest move good or bad? My old journalist bones shout out ‘oh no’ but I’d rather have journalists employed and a newspaper to buy.

The newspaper industry has to use the technology it has at its disposal, for too long it relied on the old ways of production.

From what I know, there’s still some terrific journalists in the print units who through sheer love of the job will continue to turn-out newspapers to the best of their ability.

For too long, newspapers buried their heads in the sand. You can see by going to www.archive.org and checking out some of the regional websites and realising how far behind they were even in the mid-2000s.

The industry failed to modernise quickly enough. Now it’s all coming at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up. Let’s hope it works.

So back to my original question, is there anyone to blame for poor old Johnston Press going under?

OK, none of us claim to be Mystic Meg, but the foolhardy nature of Johnston’s spending in the early 2000s suggests, without sounding like a shop steward, I think the blame must lie with those in charge.

If Lord Rothermere was prepared to sell Northcliffe without looking back in anger in 2006, surely JP’s top team must have had a whiff of what was going on…didn’t they?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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