Online traffic drive makes Echo readers see Reds

ANTON RIPPON on a dilemma for Liverpool’s city newspaper

One city. Often just one newspaper these days. But two major football clubs.

Liverpool Echo editor and the result of his recent football coverage survey
Liverpool Echo editor Alastair Machray and the result of his recent football coverage survey

How does a newspaper in a football-divided city manage to ensure that you are seen to remain fair and balanced?

Whatever the secret, the Liverpool Echo is finding it particularly difficult to strike that fine line which will please supporters on both the red and blue sides of the Mersey.

Everton fans have accused the newspaper of focusing on how much internet traffic it can generate from Liverpool supporters in the Far East. They claim that a month-long consultation project shows “extraordinary bias” towards the Anfield club.

Echo editor Alastair Machray launched “#TellAli” ahead of a relaunch at the end of this month. Now, following an avalanche of criticism, the paper says that it will look again at the way it covers both Liverpool and Everton.

One Liverpool taxi driver Kevin Edge is an ex-reader of the Echo. He said: “The first thing I do with a newspaper is look at the back page – and there’s too much news about the Reds. I stopped buying the Echo for that reason. I go everywhere with Everton but in the Echo it’s never about how good we are but how bad they were.”

Reader Gary Shaw took an even broader view than just football, telling the Echo: “Your paper is too sensationalist. There is a lack of true investigative journalism. You are more concerned with internet traffic than actually reporting stories that are of interest to our city … the bias towards Liverpool FC is extraordinary.

“You are a local paper for Merseyside. Your concern shouldn’t be how much internet traffic you can pull in from the Far East. Everton FC gets hardly any recognition from the national media. To suffer the same indignity in our own city is unforgivable.”

This isn’t the first time that the Echo has been accused of favouring Liverpool FC. Following a Merseyside derby in May 2013, several Everton supporters wrote to the paper, prompting the headline “Fans’ disgust and dismay at James Pearce’s Merseyside verdict” on the paper’s website. Pearce, a former Liverpool University student who has worked on the Echo’s sports desk for 10 years, is its full-time Liverpool FC reporter,

After this latest raft of criticism, this time aimed not at the reporter himself but at the way the paper is trying to drive internet traffic, editor Machray – a Newcastle United fan, by the way – wrote on the Echo’s website on Sunday: “We have received far more criticism about our football coverage from Everton fans than we have from Liverpool fans. I would like to make it clear that I am actively reviewing the balance of coverage with my sports team.”

Then again, a Liverpool fan signing himself “Peter” said: “Take the muzzle off the sports team and let them get answers from FSG [Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s parent company] about Liverpool. The huge concerns of fans should be addressed by the local paper. You should be fighting for the people buying your paper and not shying away for fear of the club shunning you if you don’t tow the party line. Echo sports pages read more like a match day programme – ie club propaganda.”

Meanwhile, Machray found support from the Liverpool actor, comedian and writer Neil Fitzmaurice, of Phoenix Nights and Peep Show fame, who commented: “I’ve read about a bias towards Liverpool, but I find that ridiculous. I think the Echo treats Everton and Liverpool with real equality. You have ex-pros from both clubs and always have pages devoted to the Blues and Reds.”

Fitzmaurice, a Hillsborough survivor who gave evidence to the Taylor Inquiry, also suggested a way to bring on a new breed of sports journalists: “My eight-year-old son Connor is a good little footballer who plays in the Huyton league and it would be great to have more about grassroots football in the Echo. Kids are so proud that people watch them play football – maybe the Echo could get young reporters and people on work experience to email in scores, reports and round-ups.”

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