Sports journalism in 2008: cheaper, but not better?

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: In the penultimate “chapter” on the developments in sports journalism in the 60 years of the SJA, the Association’s Secretary, STEVEN DOWNES, reviews recent changes in our business, including the many job cuts in 2008

The past year has been a terrific one for sport. But the 60th year of the Sports Journalists’ Association has also been a terrible one for sports journalists in Britain as, week by week, news has seeped out of further job losses from the sports desks of even the biggest selling nationals, while at regional and local level, entire titles have been axed.

The paradox is that, while newspaper managements cut back on staff in all departments, the appetite and demand for sports coverage has never been greater. But we journalists are often ill-served by managements, some who appear to have abandoned the desire to generate good and original journalism, while at the same time have failed to discover ways, even after nearly a decade of the web, to ‘monetise’ their new, online sports services.

In the midst of a global economic crisis, our business is meanwhile going through the growing pains of a technological transformation as significant as the invention of the printing press itself.

Sports reports and news, printed on paper, coped with the advent of ‘new media’ throughout the 20th century, from the first radio broadcasts. The arrival of television saw newspaper sports desks adapt the way in which they covered events. But no new technology ever forced newspapers to the brink of self-destruction in quite the same way that the internet seems to be doing.

A quarter of a century ago, when Eddy Shah tried to shake-up Fleet Street with his shaky-vision colour presses at the launch of the Today newspaper, and opened the way for Murdoch’s move to Wapping, the jobs to go then were in the composing rooms and printing halls. We hacks struggled to learn to use Atex and Tandys. Sub-editors, we were told, would do the work of three, maybe four people. By degree, the readers received ever-growing morning papers, stuffed full of ad-rich supplements and extra sections, the apogee being the weekly door-stop that is the Sunday Times.

‘Not better, just cheaper’
Even back then, as the first edition deadlines were brought forward, some sage old-timer working on Tom Clarke’s sports desk made the wise observation that, “New technology won’t make for better newspapers, just cheaper papers.”

And so we arrive at today, where the content of many newspapers is so cheap that it is given away, freely, not just with freesheets that have undermined sister titles’ circulations but also via the internet. The problem is that our newspaper managements have been incapable of working out how to make their ‘web editions’ pay. In the absence of significant income to replace the lost circulations and ad revenues, their solution has been to hack away at ‘costs’, which usually means staff.

Thus we have the situation at the Telegraph in the past few months where around 70 experienced and long-serving newspaper casual production staff were told that their services would no longer be required. In October, the management ‘created’ 40 new jobs, to be staffed mainly by fresh-faced first-jobbers to load written, audio and video content on to the 24/7 website in the wonderful new ‘spoke and hub’ newsroom in Victoria.

Yet by December, the Telegraph was announcing another round of 50 job cuts, including some of their newbie cut-and-pasters.

The callousness involved in some of the departures of longer established staff (those on more than 20 grand a year, and with pension entitlements) was horrendous: one sportswriter discovered he had been axed when someone in a support back-office rang him to ask for the return of his laptop and mobile phone. In one week alone at the end of November, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph sports departments lost golf and athletics correspondents, both of whom had been working at the company for more than a decade, plus six other staff.

It is not just at Victoria where the axe is swinging. In Glasgow, all 250 staff at the Herald group have been ‘invited’ to re-apply for 210 jobs. In the past couple of months at the Express group, sub-editors have been made redundant as their reporters have taken on direct entry of their copy into pages. The calculation that the saving in staff costs will outweigh potential libel bills has been made elsewhere, too: one national Sunday title no longer has a lawyer on call on Saturdays.

On the writing front, the coverage of ‘non-essential’ sports (which tends to mean anything other than football) is gradually being abandoned. When I started in this business, every national daily and Sunday paper had an athletics correspondent. Now, seemingly, they almost all have the same athletics correspondent. The past 18 months, through an Olympic year and with London staging the 2012 Games, track and field specialists at the Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily and the Sunday Herald, the Observer and the Evening Standard have all been either pensioned off or been told that they are redundant.

Take snooker as another example: even PA is not bothering to staff most tournaments any longer, cutting its freelance agreements in favour of someone on the desk in Yorkshire writing off the results and reports based on the governing body’s website.

Horrible homogenisation
The ‘not better, just cheaper’ modus is everywhere that you look, as the national titles have ever-more space to fill in their virtual worlds, yet attempt to do so with ever-fewer staff.

The end result is a horrible homogenisation of sports coverage – greater routine, unchecked and unaltered use of agency copy, not just for websites, but in the pages of newspapers, too. One eager freelance supplies his specialist copy, virtually unaltered, to six national titles. Why do we even need different newspapers if the sports article in The Sun is just the same as in the Express, Telegraph and the BBC website?

Another insidious danger lies is in the increasing level of ‘commercial support’ for sports coverage in our newspapers and on our websites. We are so inured now to the sponsorship of sporting events and the idea of budget cuts for our sports desks, we barely notice when an event sponsor pays for the coverage of their event in our newspapers.

In an article in the British Journalism Review, journalism professor Raymond Boyle wrote:

“In the increasingly overtly commercial world of media sport, largely anodyne interviews in the sports, features or magazine pages of the print media often appear to be adverts for a range of endorsed products.

“Secure an interview with Michael Owen, but make sure some explicit references to the sponsor organising access, such as Tissot watches, appears in the piece. Within these constraints even the most experienced of journalist can struggle to turn a turgid PR-staged interview into anything remotely insightful.”

Extend this to the provision of free copy on a sports event, brought to you by a sponsor, for the local and regional press.

How many regional newspaper groups sent a reporter or photographer to the Beijing Olympics this summer? Few will have needed to, since one major sponsor of a leading Olympic sport bought and paid for a couple of journalists from one enterprising agency to travel to China and file carefully targeted reports on all Britain’s Beijing competitors.

All that the hard-pressed sports editors on more than 60 regional newspapers needed to do was to include a note with each of the 1,000-or-so pieces of uncritical, unquestioning content filed by the agency that it was “supported by” the sponsor.

Objectivity anyone? While this practice is not only misleading our newspapers’ readership, homogenising the sports coverage, it also has the effect of reducing the opportunities of work for sports journalists generally – both regional newspaper staffers chomping at the bit for their chance to work at a “big event”, and individual freelancers.

This is another self-destructive practice that also ought to concern the advertising directors of the various newspaper groups. The sponsor involved has spent £50m over six years for its association with the sport. Yet all those 60 regional and local newspapers managed to carry repeated name checks for that sponsor, or even their logo, without receiving a penny in advertising. No wonder revenues are down.

While there is cheap copy from journalists, though, another danger to real sports journalism is cheaper still: the online equivalent of the ranting radio phone-in.

Harold Evans, the doyen of British newspaper editors, once railed against the cult of the photo-bylined comment column, saying, “In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out”. Now, management has discovered it is also cheaper to let someone else sound off.

‘User-generated content’ has been the mantra of management-inspired web jockeys for the past 18 months or more, in some crusade to provide “a platform” for the public’s views and comments on their websites, rarely touched by anything resembling journalism.

Tom Humphries, in his thought-provoking Locker Room column in the Irish Times, last week suggested that newspapers have “surrendered to the blog culture”.

“Sport is the most pliant area of the newly-occupied media territories and the good old sports commentating industry lies supine on the floor while anybody with text capability or emails gets on air or in print, not with inside dope but with their own opinions.”

Humphries’ fear is that “page after page of jerked-out opinion buttressed by unchecked facts” will soon be the only form of sports coverage available to any of us. If newspapers and website managements continue to cut sports journalists’ jobs in 2009 as they did in 2008, he could be horribly right.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association

For more Tales from the Toy Department, including articles by Hugh McIlvanney, John Arlott, David Hunn, John Rodda and Monte Fresco, just click here

More on sports desk job cuts:

All Herald staff made redundant
Chadband among casualties in Derry Street
Express to cut more than 70 jobs
Harry Harris to leave Express
Sports desk at centre of Telegraph concern
Brighton’s weekly sports paper to close
NUJ chapel protest at Independent‘s sports cuts

Click here to see a timeline of journalism job losses

VOTE NOW for your Sports Broadcaster and Sports Programme of 2008. SJA members should click here for a prompt list and information on voting