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Fighting the digital fight for quality sports journalism

Last week the Digital Editors’ Network met at Twitter’s UK headquarters in London to discuss a wide range of issues including the battle to safeguard quality journalism. 

Jon Birchall, Head of Digital Sport for Trinity Mirror Regionals, was there and struck by how little sports journalism formed part of the discussions.

These are his views, written in a personal blog and abridged here.

On  November 3 last year, five days before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an equally improbable victory was taking place in downtown Cleveland on the banks of Lake Erie, 360 miles to the north of Washington DC.

The Chicago Cubs, one of the great American baseball franchises, beat Cleveland Indians to a World Series title, their first in 108 years otherwise clouded in failure. There are two elements of the Chicago Cubs story that fascinate me, with the relationship between both an ideally placed paradox for modern sport and our coverage of it in the media.

The first is that, as an institution, the Cubs are huge. Valued by Forbes at over £2.2 billion and projected by Bloomberg to be worth closer to $4bn in the not-too-distant future They are, for local context, worth more than every English football team other than Manchester United.

The second element is how I actually came to care even slightly about the Chicago Cubs. As the side emerged victorious, as did, slowly, the stories of their fans.

‘There was the grandfather who kept the same can of beer in his fridge for 32 years and refused to open it until a World Series win was secured’

There was 108-year-old Mabel Ball of Northbrooke, Illinois, born two months before the Cubs’ previous World Series win in 1908, who passed away shortly after the victory met by the Chicago Tribune with the headline ‘AT LAST’.

There was the grandfather who kept the same can of beer in his fridge for 32 years and refused to open it until a World Series win was secured. And then there was Dean Moser. Just watch the video and remember why you love sport all over again.

And therein lies the paradox. Does any other facet of life, perhaps except for religion, merge the financial and political might of extremely wealthy businesses with the day to day existence of people around the world as sport can? And don’t we, in the digital age, have a greater platform than ever to reflect that through our journalism?

These questions were on my mind during the Digital Editors Network meeting. There was fascinating and insightful discussion on how publishers, social media platforms and regulators can safeguard quality journalism in the battle not only against fake news, but also through new storytelling techniques, adapting to a new generation of media consumers, diversifying our output and building sustainable revenue models.

I have been struck by how little sports journalism forms part of these discussions in the wider landscape compared to hard news. While broadcasting rights, illegal streaming and similar issues are frequently pored over by industry leaders, sports journalism, and its journalists appear sidelined, yet our principles and objectives remain the same across the newsroom, from newsdesk to sportsdesk, and everything in between.

‘It is simply unsustainable for the most challenging strategic questions of our time to bypass sports journalism. We, as a community, must challenge them head on’

At the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, sport content delivers at least a third of our total audience on any given day. It is simply unsustainable for the most challenging strategic questions of our time to bypass sports journalism. We, as a community, must challenge them head on.

Innovation is one of those key principles if we are to continue building audiences and delivering for them. Podcasting, live streaming on third-party platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and data visualisation are all areas in which digital not only supports sports journalism, but improves it, all the while opening up the potential for incremental revenue streams and new verticals for traditional publishers.

The opportunities for sports journalism to thrive are plentiful. We are not, after all, forced to wait 108 years for a sports story that transcends the typical. Quality journalism is present and required every day of our lives, as the institutions that govern, dictate and profit from the public’s insatiable appetite for sport grow larger and more powerful.

In the last 12 months we have seen football alone touched by tragedy through the Chapecoense plane crash, corruption in the ongoing fallout from malpractice at FIFA and, as uncovered by both remarkable bravery from victims and outstanding journalism, a child sex abuse scandal that goes to the heart of our national game.

Doping in both amateur and professional sport remain an ongoing concern. The dangers of concussion and subsequent chronic traumatic encephalopathy in high-impact, contact sport threatens to be a ticking time bomb for the industry.

And the responsibility of our sporting institutions to tackle issues that harm wider society only grows with their stature. In only the last two month I have written about football’s relationship with mental health and violence against women.

Somewhere over the rainbow…White Hart Lane farewell

That is not to suggest that sport in 2017 is mired in a quagmire of misery, corruption and greed. The impact of sport on our everyday lives is all-encompassing. We as journalists work to reflect the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Only last month my colleague Alasdair Gold, a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan, was present to see White Hart Lane close its doors for the final time after 118 years as home to Spurs. Sat in the famous old press box, he covered a piece of history in N17.

When working with newsrooms, I try to make the point that sport represents a phenomenon in our society. On any given weekend, hundreds of thousands of people travel the length and breadth of the country, spending their own money and investing their time on clubs and players that they love.

What a privilege it is to be at the very heart of that phenomenon. And by taking sports journalism seriously, facing up to the questions facing our industry at large, we’ve never been in a better position to thrive. Just like the Chicago Cubs.

For the full version of the blog, click here

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