Loss of readers must be a racing certainty

Last week, Peter Corrigan looked at the migration of race cards and results from the pages of The Guardian to the newspaper’s website. Here, the recent Doug Gardner award-winner JOHN SAMUEL shares his concerns

As the sports editor who launched The Guardian‘s racing service in 1970, I share my old friend Peter Corrigan’s concern at the stripping out of its race cards and results from the sports section on most days. Many of the old arguments still prevail.

My prime argument then was “comprehensiveness”. Sir Peter Gibbings led the management fight in its favour. Indeed there was a hard business edge. It cost £52,000 to acquire the staff, cover salaries and expenses and alert the printer to his needs – cards took twice as long to set in soft metal, and 20 to 1 must never be 2 to 1.

The editor, Alastair Hetherington, said, not unreasonably, “I could put a man in Moscow for that.” I remarked that if Richard Baerlein’s tips came up we might be able to afford it. Not long after, they did.

Baerlein, Etonian, breeder, rough knight of the turf, Mosquito pilot to Montgomery, we could share with my old newspaper, The Observer (this long before the two papers were under the same ownership). In truth, a TV campaign featuring the new service netted a 10 per cent increase in readership to 330,000. Opponents claimed that other editorial and design changes probably accounted for it.

John Samuel, left, receives the Doug Gardner Award from the SJA chairman, Barry Newcombe, at last week's British Sports Journalism Awards

Many editorial staff had opposed racing on social and political grounds (even though The Guardian spent more on racing in the mid-19th century than it did on coverage of the American Civil War). Too much for the nobs and lower classes. Too rural in its appeal. Too dependent on betting for a Trust newspaper strongly supported by a morally conscious readership – schoolteachers, doctors, public servants and so on.

Others believed sport too demanding of space at any time. They overlooked the heritage of Manchester, a heartland of top sport.

Since the recent abandonment of the separate sports section at The Guardian, it is not only the race cards that have gone from the newspaper to appear only in the online edition. Business prices likewise have gone on to the internet. As with race cards and results, some of us doubt whether they are readily absorbed using iPads on a jiggling train, and many kinds of Guardian readers must wonder how their pensions are doing.

The current Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, addressing the problems faced by a remorseless decline in newspaper sales, has pluckily asked for reader views, albeit going ahead with changes which include the general integration of sport in the main paper.

Solutions, I feel, lie with us, the newspapermen. Sport is news and always has been. The detail it affords in newspapers is not replicated by television or radio, nor, come to that, by phone or internet. TV itself demands a writer response and criticism.

Sport, unlike politics, doesn’t rest easily with political punditry and opinionation in the evening chair. It is action based. The loss of the race cards and results is a slippery slope. It can lead to a serious loss of detailed reporting, not only in the tiny type.

Does it matter, in your morning paper, that you have only an early report of a US final with Murray and Federer? Or of McIlroy halfway through his final round? Providing you catch up, no. Sports readers in general have worldly perspectives. It is that we should cater for, in the end helping newspapers survive all round. They’ll back you if you back them.


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Thu Apr 19: SJA Annual General Meeting, Fleet Street, 12.30pm. Click here for details.

Thu May 10: SJA Ladbrokes Lunch with former England cricket captain Alec Stewart. Booking details to be announced.

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