From A.I. to Gen Z – and Gen Alpha! Sports journalism’s future assessed at SJA event

Panel discussion explores changing face of sports media industry and looks to the future; SJA President-elect Darren Lewis joined by Mark Alford, Laura Williamson, James Toney and Mayowa Quadri for conversation chaired by Karthi Gnanasegaram; Q&A with attendees followed by networking drinks…

By Jon Holmes

Looking back to 2008, via the SJA archives, the topics du jour in sports journalism included the prospect of paywalls and what some new-fangled thing called Facebook might offer.

Fifteen years on, neither of those got much of a mention on Thursday night as the Association staged a forward-thinking panel discussion event at Woburn House in London.

Technology was a central theme, though, and being able to identify “opportunities and threats” – a phrase used by panellist James Toney – in that area could end up determining how fit for the future the industry really is.

A bumper crowd came to listen to the conversation and take part in a lively Q&A, as well as benefit from networking. Many were members of the free-to-join SJA Academy, which is open to anyone aged 16 or over who is not currently employed in a journalism role.

Broadcaster Karthi Gnanasegaram, recently returned from the US Open, was on hosting duties and began by introducing the SJA’s new President-elect Darren Lewis in what was his first official Association event since being appointed in July.

Joining Lewis and Sportsbeat managing editor Toney on the panel were Sky Sports News director Mark Alford, The Athletic’s deputy editor Laura Williamson, and the Head of Brand at VERSUS, Mayowa Quadri. 

The chat kicked off with Lewis reflecting on his new role and his desire to be both approachable and visible. “Seeing someone in this position that I could contact would mean a lot to me,” said the Assistant Editor of the Mirror.

Continuing to highlight pathways and pipelines into the industry was vital, added Williamson, who spoke about the success of targeted talent ID days at The Athletic in recent months.

Shifting gears, the panel members were asked to give their thoughts on one of the big pre-event talking points – the implementation of A.I. and how it might affect newsrooms.

The ability of generative A.I. to retrieve existing information was appealing, said Alford, but the limitations were clear. “It can’t do original journalism – it can find stuff, but it can’t find out stuff,” he stressed.

Toney’s view was that as a delivery option for snappy text driven by data, such as an on-the-whistle match report that has a short shelf-life, A.I. could prove a useful companion for sports journalists, freeing them up to do more detailed analysis.

As always, the audience will ultimately decide what content they want to consume and in what format. The viewing habits of Gen Z – with many from that demographic preferring to watch the recent Sidemen Charity Match over England’s World Cup qualifier against Ukraine – were considered as a growing force for change.

Quadri mentioned how events such as YouTuber boxing were increasingly lucrative in terms of controlling ticket sales as well as streaming revenue, and that the ongoing narratives were ripe for content creators.

Does having so many eyeballs on the Sidemen potentially harm the Premier League? Alford doubted that. The strong magnetic pull of elite club football is still attracting younger audiences, it’s just that social media algorithms are now aggregating what gets through to them.

They’re invested in the moment, too. “Live sport on TV is certainly not dead, even if other forms of live TV are dying,” he said.

The competition for attention between sports is fierce. “British Athletics say that when events are free to air, there’s much more interest,” remarked Toney.

Questions from the floor ranged from how fan influencers are helping to shape output from traditional broadcasters; whether senior leaders in sports media show enough responsibility for bringing about social change; and why the industry is largely failing to deliver on coverage of disability sport and the recruitment of people with disabilities.

The bottom line – will sports journalism be able to sufficiently finance itself in the future? In response to that question, Williamson cited subscription podcasts as an example of how people will pay for specialist content if it’s of a high enough standard.

An optimistic note on which to conclude came from Quadri, urging those in attendance to accept that “if you can’t get in the building, build your own house.” Not having specific sports media qualifications doesn’t mean you can’t get noticed.

For those who are going down the further education route, Toney emphasised that the NCTJ offering is no longer ‘one size fits all’ – and Lewis said he would always recommend giving yourself “every advantage” in the race to get the job you really want.

The evening concluded with applause for the panellists, and more discussion alongside networking drinks.

The SJA extends its thanks to Karthi, our five speakers, our hosts at Woburn House, S2F Events, and all those who attended. 

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Earlier in the week, the SJA convened a group of industry leaders to discuss the British Sports Journalism Awards and offer suggestions on how the event might develop.

In his Report issued at the AGM in April, chair Ashley Broadley acknowledged the discourse around the last edition of the Awards concerning under-represented groups on shortlists and vowed that changes would be made as a result.

The SJA has undertaken detailed research and analysis of its own Awards as well as how the wider media industry recognises and rewards excellence.

Some of the learnings from that work were shared with the group on Monday, with those present offering their suggestions on how to ensure the Awards are accessible to all and remain relevant. 

The SJA is continuing to collate feedback ahead of the opening of entries later in the year for the next edition of the Awards. Thank you to all involved.

The SJA is interested in your sports media industry news and views. Keen to reach an engaged audience, including over 70,000 followers across social media? We welcome your enquiries – contact us here. We also offer advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

For information on how to apply as a Full or Associate Member of the SJA, plus details of our free-to-enter SJA Academy, click here.