In an age of declining newspaper sales, did The Guardian “scoop” itself by running the exclusive story of Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button’s move to McLaren on its website last Friday night?
The multi-million pound move of new Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button from Brawn to rivals McLaren has been headline news on the sports pages all week.
But the “story behind the story” of the racing driver’s team switch offers equal fascination for sports journalists, with an insight into the conflicting demands of today’s various “media platforms” – newspapers and their websites.
At a time when newspapers are battling to keep every paying customer that they can, yet continue to offer their content free on the internet, some might question why The Guardian – which as a group is making losses of more than Â£80,000 every day – decided to run its exclusive on Button not in last Saturday’s paper, but give it away on its website on the Friday evening, early enough for the BBC and all their Fleet Street rivals to follow up in their Saturday editions.
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On Friday, The Guardian‘s veteran F1 reporter Alan Henry, who has impeccable sources at McLaren, filed that Button had made a secret visit to the team’s factory in Surrey with a view to becoming Lewis Hamilton’s team mate.
Presciently, Henry wrote: “A contract could be signed as early as next week if terms can be finalised, creating the first team with two world champions competing alongside each other since Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were team-mates at McLaren in 1989.”
There had not been a whiff of the development anywhere – in the papers, on the internet or on the airwaves. Only The Guardian – and, as it transpired the next day, the Daily Mail‘s Jonathan McEvoy – were on to the story.
Yet by 6.30pm on Friday, Henry’s world exclusive was up on The Guardian‘s website, along with a comment piece by their correspondent, Maurice Hamilton, handing the rest of the media the story on a plate before The Guardian itself had even been printed.
The newspaper edition carried the report buried on page 13 of its Saturday sports pull-out.
It is a story that has kept the F1 headlines flowing all this week, with Button’s Â£18 million deal to join McLaren announced Monday.
But did The Guardian scoop itself on Friday night by running the story on its website? Ben Clissitt, Guardian News Media’s head of sport, says not.
“We have an integrated sports desk now, and we have put an awful lot of stories online first,” Clissitt told sportsjournalists.co.uk, “because that’s where people get their news first now.
“On the Friday night, we were sure that there were other outlets close to running with the story – the motorsport websites are excellent. So what we did preserved our exclusive.”
Clissitt explains that because of Donald McRae’s exclusive interview with Caster Semenya, Friday “was not a normal day for us”, with the piece about the controversial South African runner dominating the “front of the book”.
Asked why his desk had not held the Button story even for a a couple of extra hours before running it on their website, thus thwarting rival newspapers the following day, Clissitt said that “is an outdated model”.
“You can never really tell what might happen,” Clissitt said, “but if we’d held it for the newspaper in the morning, I don’t think it would have held as an exclusive. The way in which you get people to engage with newspapers today is a much more complex process.”
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