Caught in the net: online presses right Button

To file or not to file? Publish online or offline? Even in this digital age, NORMAN GILLER maintains the need for sports journalists to get the story first

As an old hack looking in from the outside, I often wonder how today’s reporters find the right balance between serving their newspaper and its website. It was easy in my day to know the deadlines to which to work and when to get the playtime in. Now, it seems there is not an hour in the day when you can relax.

Webmasters are increasingly calling the tune as the 24/7 mentality of “breaking news” takes over from the more sedate next-day exclusive that was the driving force in old Fleet Street times.

The Guardian decision to hand Alan Henry’s “Button visits McLaren” scoop to the world on their website before tucking it away inside their paper was a clear indication that newsprint is losing the battle.

On the surface, this seemed a calamitous yet comical case of The Guardian managing to scoop themselves on their own website. Any journalist from my generation would have splashed it in the newspaper before featuring it on the web.

Some comedian cracked that The Guardian had pushed the wrong Button, with the story sent off to the web rather than the printer. Henry — with a lot of mileage behind him as a well-established F1 reporter — had a 22-carat scoop wrecked between the stools of newspaper and website.

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For Alan, it must have been frustrating. We old newspapermen like to see our stories in the newspapers. It is what makes our ink-veined blood pump.

But I bow to the explanation given by Guardian sports chief Ben Clissitt. He is in there where the bullets are flying, while I am gathering moss down in dozy, delightful Dorset. I am sure Ben knows best.

It is a bit like watching the Afghanistan war from afar. Back here it is easy to say “Bring our boys home”. But the Generals know what they’re doing. Don’t they?

I wonder how many cock-ups there have been, and will be, as the newspapers and websites try to settle down to a shotgun marriage that will never be happy. Who takes priority on breaking news? If you are the reporter with the story, where would you most like to see it first displayed — on screen or the old-fashioned way in the newspaper?

It reminds me of chasing deadlines and headlines in the summertime of my reporting career, and in particular an evening in Rome in September 1970 when Arsenal went to war with Lazio in what was then the Fairs Cup.

Following the after-match banquet — during which players swapped insults rather than toasts — the new-to-the-road Jeff Powell and I decided to walk off our heavy intake of vino by strolling the two miles back to our hotel. Jeff had filed his match comments to the Mail and I had put mine over to the Express. There were no websites to satisfy, no mobile phones to interrupt us, and we were in a liquid-induced peace as we tackled a couple of the Seven Hills in the moonlight. It was so tranquil and romantic that I think we almost got close to holding hands.

Jeff and I had set off on our walk immediately the banquet finished, and we reached the hotel way past midnight, just as the Arsenal team coach pulled up. We were, to say the least, surprised — gobsmacked, even — when the usually impeccably turned out players got off the coach with shirts ripped and some with blood stains on their blazers.

Peter Storey, George Graham and Frank McLintock took turns telling us how they had got involved in a head-butting, fist-flailing brawl on the pavement outside the banquet with the Lazio players. Even “Gentleman Bertie” Mee, their pint-sized manager, had played a fighting role, and had impressed his players with some ABA-style left jabs and hooks.

Jeff and I dived for the hotel phones in the pre-STD days and managed to garble stories to the late-stop copytakers. Both Jeff and I were rewarded with the magic words: “We are replating the front page”, not a phrase anyone will have heard for many a year.

We had been in fear that we had lost out to the other reporters, who had stayed behind at the banquet venue and might have witnessed the fighting. As we relaxed after putting over our stories, the rest of the Press brigade arrived back at our hotel. The look on their faces when we told them we had filed was both painful and priceless.

“But we decided not to,” my late, great mate Harry Miller of the Daily Mirror told me in a panic. “We did not want to drop you in it and the last editions had gone to press.”

It was one of the most heart-warming yet unprofessional things I had ever heard. Talk about esprit de corps, but completely the wrong decision.

They all went into catch-up mode, but it was too late and the only papers that carried the stories in the London editions were the Mail and Express. And Jeff and I were the only reporters who did not witness the fracas.

Moral of the story: File your story first, worry about your colleagues second.

It is dog eat dog out there. Ask Alan Henry.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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