Football journalism is in a funny place. There is good content and filler. But writing about football often arouses contempt…
When I tell people I’m a writer, their eyes often light up.
“Oh yeah? What are you writing?” they ask.
Sometimes I say that I write mystery novels and published 17 novels. Everyone loves it and I get asked more questions. It’s cool to write novels.
Sometimes I say I write about football. And my God, you can see their enthusiasm wane immediately. It’s not cool to write about football.
Writing about football makes you kind of an outcast in polite society, because people who don’t like football think everything about it is boring, stupid and rude. And people who love football hate the football press and they look at you with anything from suspicion to antagonism or contempt.
When I assure them that no, I’m not writing for a tabloid, it seems to unfreeze people a bit, but their aversion to the football press is often very pronounced.
What do real football journalists think of this widespread antipathy towards them? Is it right?
For writers who produce insightful, carefully researched and elaborated pieces on an important issue, it must be infuriating to be lumped in with those whose job it is to pen 272 words about a potential transfer to Manchester United which will absolutely never happen but which , more importantly, could get United fans clicking on it within the next hour. Nothing more than a gap filler – cheap hash for a voracious grinder, until the algorithm frees it in the dark.
With access to players tightly controlled by the club’s public relations and press teams, with players trained to say words that don’t mean much, and with many players widely and naturally suspicious of a press with a long history of taking everything they say out of context and spinning it into an antagonistic story, football journalism must be tough business in 2022.
But everyone has to work for a living and even if you went to journalism school and had ambitions to be the next Norman Mailer, when the editor says you have to write 218 words about something someone tweeted about a footballer’s haircut, you’ve got to do it. It may be superficial and horrible, but it’s not your fault, you didn’t create this world, even though you are responsible for perpetuating it. But does he really have much of a future?
The football press has an insatiable demand for content to generate advertising revenue through clicks, so even when there is no story, there must be a story. Now that they can no longer rely on revenue from newspaper sales and rely, like all of us, on advertising revenue, the quality of writing seems to matter less than it ever has. summer ; traffic numbers are everything. It can be low or without eyebrows. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. But like the once grand hotel that is now faded, threadbare and falling apart, reduced to hosting discount coach parties, the glory days are long gone.
If there’s more money in stupid, then stupid we’ll get it. But whether a lower-end drive makes more money is up for debate. This may be one of the reasons why so many newspapers are losing money.
The Press Gazette revealed that “News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun headlines, reported a pre-tax loss of £201m on sales of £324m for the year to the end of June. 2020”.
How long those losses last depends on how long owners like Rupert Murdoch are willing to cushion the losses in their media empire. With The Sun alone losing something around £60-90million a year and with profits that seem unseen in the future unless things change drastically, it doesn’t seem sustainable on normal reading economy. Sports departments are just one of the areas that will need to be cut.
The Guardian, however, increased its revenue and made a modest profit of £3 million, attracting record readership: over two billion unique browsers and nearly 20 billion page views.
I pay £30 a month to the Guardian. This is not a subscription but a donation to pay for what I read. That’s about equal to buying a newspaper every day. Is this the future? Free websites funded by a mix of reader donations and advertising.
I enjoy the Guardian and am used to paying to consume things I like, so I volunteer to pay the Guardian to read their content, even though I don’t have to. Is it really old-fashioned or really modern? How many people would do the same to read tabloid websites? If the response isn’t many, that surely reflects its value to readers.
So what is the future of football journalism? Will it be serious, thoughtful writing, or will it be the literary equivalent of Neil Custis dancing on TikTok in a sequined leather thong?
A bigger question is, is this kind of daily football journalism still necessary? Many fans simply don’t trust what journalists post and have ignored them, preferring other sources. Or they read them only to bread them. You can get just as much information from numerous fan-made websites and podcasts, many of which are at least as articulate and expressive as their Fleet Street counterparts.
Trade magazines and periodicals go further and further than any newspaper ever will. Smart work is always in demand. Investigative reporting is very important. A detailed cultural analysis of the game, as well as a detailed tactical dissection, is also very much. Radical thinking, critical thinking, and new ways of looking at the game and the world it’s played in, yes, we need all of that. But the space filled with 397 words out of four replies to something Gary Neville tweeted. No.
Having a phalanx of reporters regurgitating all the same press conference words also seems like a gargantuan waste of pay, especially if the presser is streamed live or archived on YouTube. Other anachronistic things like withholding articles for the Sunday or Monday papers seem like they belong in the smoky halls of yesteryear.
Match reports also seem like a very 20th century thing. All the information is online on the club’s website, at hundreds of different points of sale. All statistics are available in real time. You no longer need the “boys” to report the facts.
So what’s left for these newspapers? Hot tackles the question of the day: opinion. Sure, but it’s all available elsewhere, in multiple offerings, by people who don’t need to make a profit. The level of knowledge and detail about club fan media produced will never be matched by a Fleet Street journalist.
For what it’s worth, the future looks bright for those who write the best stuff, simply because it looks like enough people like me will pay to read David Squires, David Conn, Jonathan Liew, Suzie Wrack, Barney Ronay and Jonathan Wilson et al, in doing so, recognizing the direct relationship between consumption, payment and quality. But for low-end newspapers, tasked with filling unlimited space with football words to attract clicks, those must be dark days.
Sometimes looking at their websites and no doubt the newspapers themselves is like looking back in time. They seem anachronistic, clinging to an identity formed when they were more important but now often forced into the bondage of mundane nonsense and utter rubbish by the desperate need for money, reduced from Fleet Street giant to bottom feeder, using the social media to provide themselves with content.
Does anyone think that in 10 years a lot of it will still exist? While not impossible, it seems unlikely. The fact that few will miss most is perhaps the most telling thing of all. Maybe when most of it is gone, telling someone you’re a football writer will be more palatable.