Where have all the athletics writers gone?

JASON HENDERSON, chairman of the British Athletics Writers’ Association, laments the decline in the numbers covering the sport

The past year has been an unsettling time for athletics writers. There have been so many job cuts, it is no exaggeration to describe the scenario as “carnage”.

I bumped into John Goodbody in December and he said the state of British athletics writing – the quantity of writers and articles – is at an all-time low. Mel Watman said it is a shame that this is the end of an era when national newspapers had specialist athletics writers.

I hardly need to repeat here that since David Powell’s move from The Times to freelancing, we have seen the following long-time athletics writers leave their jobs: Mike Rowbottom at the Independent, Tom Knight at the Telegraph and Ian Chadband at the Evening Standard (although Ian has thankfully re-emerged at the Telegraph).

After many years of sterling service, Duncan Mackay no longer writes for the Guardian and Observer. Neil Wilson has taken extended break from the Daily Mail, although he intends to return this summer to cover athletics until at least 2012. Doug Gillon has endured a period of redundancies at the Herald.

The erosion of athletics coverage has been happening for years, but the job losses over the past few months have been quite disturbing. There are many reasons: the credit crunch, the decline in popularity of athletics and the struggle of newspapers to keep readers who are increasingly getting their news online.

Despite this, it is still amazing given that the London Olympics are imminent. With track and field the premier Olympic sport, you would think newspapers would be trying to improve their athletics coverage, not eradicate it.

Exclusive reports by specialist correspondents are being replaced by agency material or words taken from websites. Professional writers are gradually being replaced in the press stands by media staff from governing bodies who believe they are helping publicise the sport by churning out free words and pictures, but are actually dissuading sports editors from sending their troops to the event.

It has been sad to watch all this unfold during my decade-plus at Athletics Weekly. One of my early events was the Great South Run in Portsmouth, where Tom, Duncan, Tim Hutchings and others were on a lead vehicle watching Liz McColgan. Nowadays, much bigger events like the world Cross-country championships are bereft of writers.

The recent world cross staged in Jordan attracted barely any coverage in the nationals. Even last year’s event on home soil in Edinburgh was poorly attended by the British press corps, as some sports editors sent their specialist athletics scribes to cover cycling in Manchester or MotoGP in Spain.

Big events that are part of the fabric of British athletics – such as the national cross-country – are not on anyone’s radar any more. The English schools’ cross-country championships used to attract a couple of broadsheets during the late 1990s – but not these days. The healthy number of writers for the European indoors in Turin was largely due to Dwain Chambers’ presence.

All of this is great for AW. We have athletes to ourselves at many meetings and our reports are exclusive. But I am hardly doing somersaults. I find the entire scenario very sad and, rather than sitting here pontificating over potential solutions, I recommend the topic is raised at this year’s BAWA AGM. Otherwise a dying breed could soon become extinct.

In search of sports level playing field

This is taken from the BAWA’s latest newsletter. For more information about the British Athletics Writers’ Association, visit their landing page here

More on sports journalism job cuts:

Lovejoy job “at risk” at Sunday Times

Redundancy round “complete” at Herald group

Mair and Knight leave Telegraph; Buckley goes from Obs

Express to cut more than 70 jobs

NUJ chapel protest at Independent‘s sports cuts

Click here for Press Gazette’s graph of industry job losses

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