We’ve seen future of football writing, and it tweets

The SJA routinely receives a couple of dozen enquiries each week asking for careers advice or help from students seeking insight towards their journalism degrees.

Twitter logoSean Irwin, at the University of Salford, recently contacted us with a list of questions about the effects of social media on football coverage. So we got David Walker, the sports editor of the Sunday Mirror (and the SJA chairman), with 30 years’ experience of covering football, and Janine Self, a freelance football writer with two decades’ of experience working for The Sun and, most recently, the Daily Mail (and the SJA’s deputy chair), to offer their views.

How has football journalism changed in the last four years?

DW: Football journalism has been dominated for many years by reporters/writers from the print media, in particular at the top level of the game by our national newspapers, both dailies and Sundays.

In the last four years there has been increased competition between newspaper websites to the point that many now do not seek to protect exclusive stories for their newspapers but want to attract website hits by getting a story or interview online as quickly as possible.

I can recall the days, not too long ago, when a newspaper might even run a spoof back page splash to save their big exclusive story for later editions and to prevent rivals from lifting the big, breaking news. That rarely happens now.

JS: The essence of the job hasn’t changed but the way the job is executed and delivered has changed beyond recognition.

Everyone is on Twitter, for a start, which means interaction with readers, as well as the opportunity to push what you have written to a wider audience.

There is probably more accountability. If a journalist oversteps the mark, he or she is soon made very aware of it.

Deadlines are different too. As well as the traditional print journalism deadlines, there is now a requirement to service online’s voracious 24-hour appetite. In the “old days”, if a high-profile manager was sacked then print journalists would be looking at the next morning’s paper to tell the story or deliver their verdicts. They still have to do that, but they also have the added pressure of providing rolling news, too.

Has twitter changed the way football news is reported?

Why do you think this is?

JS: Completely.

Most clubs use Twitter (and Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc) to push out their “news” while many footballers use social media to comment on results, contentious decisions or as a marketing tool. For instance a player may be sent off during a match, does not comment to the press as he comes through the mixed zone, yet goes straight to Twitter to air his views.

This makes Twitter a viable source of stories, and no one can accuse the press of making up the quotes.

DW: Yes, it has changed things. The key reason being that sports stars are communicating via Twitter and expressing their views that are picked up by mainstream media outlets.

The only caveat to add to this is that the media outlets have to ensure the tweets are genuine. There are a lot of bogus sites misrepresenting famous sportsmen and women.

Do you think that the football exclusive is now a thing of the past?

DW: No. There are still massive stories that can be broken as exclusives. The debate now is whether you hold them for the newspaper version or get them online as quickly as possible.

JS: There will always be exclusives. Once upon a time it tended to be in print, on the back of an evening, morning or national newspaper.

If there is a guarantee that the story will hold until the next day, most newspapers would still prefer to reveal it in print first (The Guardian is the exception to that and will break a story online first).

However, if there is any chance that a story will not hold, then the exclusive story will go online, and links publicised on Twitter/NewsNow etc to drive traffic to the newspaper site.

With the increase of in-house journalists at football clubs, and platforms such as Twitter, do football journalists still have a role to play as a gatekeeper of football news? Why?

Janine Self, right, and David Walker at the SJA's recent lunch with boxer George Groves (centre)
Janine Self, right, and David Walker at the SJA’s recent lunch with boxer George Groves (centre)

DW: Absolutely. Football clubs employ journalists as part of their PR teams so they can control the news coming out of their club. There are issues of wrong-doing and debate within any club, association or governing body. One of the duties of an independent press is to expose that wrong-doing.

I remember working for a sports desk where we proved the FA were paying cash for votes and it brought down the then FA chairman. There is no way any other football body would have launched that investigation. The late Joe Melling, of the Mail on Sunday, deservedly won Sports Reporter of the Year in the SJA Awards for that body of work.

JS:Pravda journalists”, those who are paid by the club and must, therefore, follow the party line, are wonderful providers of facts, stats and “feel-good” stories. But if a player rejects a contract, or there’s a training ground bust-up, or the manager is about to get sacked, or a player is about to be signed, then you need independent journalists.

Many clubs ban journalists for truthful stories, suggesting heavy censorship of their in-house employees.

Where would you personally go to find the latest football news?

JS: It depends where I am, what time of day it is, whether I’m looking for scores or headlines or just checking up. It could be Sky Sports ticker tape, it could be BBC’s rolling news, it could be Twitter, it could be NewsNow, which then points me in the direction of the online source, or it could be the Premier League, Football League or UEFA apps on my phone. I also still read papers, too, but probably more for reportage, analysis and features.

DW: The same places I’ve always gone. It is still down to personal contacts and knowing people who will help you. For instance, show me a football reporter who has a Premier League chairman, a top manager and a leading England international player all actively passing on intelligence about stories and I’m sure he will be acknowledged as one of the best in their trade at the moment.

When it comes to getting stories, contacts are the key.

Where do you think football journalism will be in four years time?

Blogs by fans and clubs' own PR machines can't replace independent journalism from newspapers and broadcasters, say Janine Self and David Walker
Blogs by fans and clubs’ own PR machines can’t replace independent journalism from newspapers and broadcasters, say Janine Self and David Walker

DW: I think we’ll see more of the drift towards multimedia platforms that we’re already seeing. I think we may well see more newspapers following the example of the London Evening Standard and becoming free sheets, driving revenue from their advertising.

JS: Social media and the digital age is the way forward.

Journalists will have to be able to operate across multi-platforms. Look at the rise of Vine, for instance. Journalists who are tweeting team news now could well be using Vine.

Newspapers will continue to decline in circulation but their brand name will remain strong. Yet the core remains the same – to report on football and football stories and get it out there.

What role does a football journalist have online, if millions of fans are effectively doing the same for free in blogs and fanzines?

JS: Fans with typewriters, or laptops, are not football journalists.

They provide a forum for discussion, some of them are good writers, some are very knowledgable and provide a niche service for other fans. But they rarely actually talk to football players, managers or agents. They have no real idea what’s going on and would not have the contacts to find out . They are also, by the nature of the word, “fans”: biased.

If a football journalist writes a story saying Star Player of Team A wants to leave (because he has told you so, but you can’t write that), then stand by for a torrent of abuse and accusations of being a “lazy journalist”. Write a story saying Team A want to nick Team B’s Star Player and play both Star Players, and Team A fans decide they love you after all. Now it’s Team B fans who hate you. It is all knee-jerk.

Journalists are not fans with typewriters (generally). They watch, they judge, and they might have to say something uncomplimentary about someone they privately like or admire. Ditto they might have to say something nice about someone they dislike.

They speak to people in the game, in some cases form close friendships, and they have a relationship with clubs and country.

The top football journalists have thousands of Twitter followers, which suggests their voice continues to carry weight and people want to interact with them.

DW: I think the best football journalists are regarded with respect by the vast majority of fans. The supporters want to know of the reporter’s inside track and personal views – often beyond what they write in their newspaper columns.

The journalists do need to retain a balance between sharing information and avoiding hostile confrontation with some fans who can’t bear any criticism of their clubs.


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