Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Long-Winded Post on the Future of Soccer Journalism

Sorry for not posting yesterday, my realish job took precedent, and I was still recovering from an emotional playoff weekend plus news that Real Fucking Salt Lake, those bastards whose goose TFC were supposed to have cooked back in October as Rollins expertly pointed out yesterday, will be playing for the MLS Cup.

When we last saw you on Friday, I'd written to Guardian On-line Sport editor Sean Ingle about filling up the Canada page on the Guardian site with all sorts of newsy goodness. He kindly replied yesterday, indicating that while he's "a big fan of amoresplendidlife" (I mean, really, who isn't?), the Guardian is facing—er, let's say 'financial constraints'— that probably need sorting before he could justify a foreign newspaper loading up on that ever-popular subset of the Premier League news juggernaut, Canadian soccer.

While I have yet to inform Mr. Ingle my request was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, his reply got me thinking: even as various blogs and on-line news hubs laugh gleefully at the downfall of so-called traditional print media, who in their right mind wouldn't want to write about soccer for the Big Paper (on-line or no), or a magazine, or a book? Don't most soccer bloggers secretly consider a career writing for a major news organization with all its resources, access, accreditation and living-ish wages, the ultimate endgame for their online endeavours?

As it stands now, many of the best and most successful soccer bloggers out there are former journalists holding out for a way back to working conditions that might resemble those enjoyed under a previous Real Journo Job. These writers do well on-line because they already know how to report good stories that match the tenor of the moment, and they understand the best story is the one not covered by anyone else.

But even with impeccable reporting under trying circumstances (no money, little access) generating tens of thousands of hits a day, you're never going to generate the sort of revenue that will allow you to realistically dedicate most of your resources to covering the game. The so-called "newspaper model" seems as yet irreplaceable when it comes to affording a living wage for journalists, despite their best efforts. Good journalism isn't the problem, it's out there in abundance (despite David Simon's extended editorial on its decline in the fifth season of The Wire). It's just where once journalism was a career, like coal mining or school teaching, it's now a hobby, like birdwatching.

In the sparring match earlier this month over the future of MLS print coverage between pitchinvasion.net and Fake Sigi, Sig quoted from a lengthy Clay Shirkly article from March of this year, and I have yet to read a more stark summation of current circumstances. The money paragraphs:
Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
In other words, soccer journalism isn't dead, publishing is dead. Publishing used to involve lots of ink and paper, so the means of production were normally owned and operated by capital investors. Good journalists were paid because their product helped sell the newspapers, which in turn attracted advertisers. Or, as Shirkly nicely puts it, "the expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau." Now that publishing has been reduced to the ability to press on the orange or blue "publish post" button, exclusive ownership of the means of production, and the market competitiveness it brought, has gone up in smoke.

Let's be clear for moment; this doesn't just affect wannabe soccer journos, this affects books too, non-fiction and novels alike (check out this Daily Dish post for an idea of what I mean), an entire industry upended, with no profitable model waiting to take its place. And this where Shirkly's article bugs me: while he's right in seeing present circumstances for what they are, he ends the article the way many of these articles tend to, with the realization that the medium for journalists has to be replaced and "who knows what will replace it, only time and innovation will tell!"

This view strikes me as similar to those who argue we shouldn't legislate on climate change because the future (i.e. some magic as-yet-unheard-of-technology-or-innovation) will somehow sort everything out for us. You see this line of thinking everywhere, whether with the global economic crisis ("the creative class will produce jobs of the future!" "behavioural economics will show us the way") or problems at the CSA ("they're bound to shape up once more Canadian teams enter MLS!").

I think most of us think this way perhaps because of vast steps forward in both neuroscience ("I no longer 'feel sad,' my seratonin-uptake inhibitors are at work") and behavioural science ("you will likely default on your credit card payments if you buy a silver skull hood ornament") have degraded the notion of personal agency, the idea that an individual has any power to rise above their nature to change anything. The collective thinking and collaborative authority in the age of the internet means more and more of us are deferring to indefinable notions like "the future" and "science" and "economics" to get us out of any and all pickles ("there must be some guy working on this problem in some room somewhere. I feel safe").

What if history doesn't come rushing to the aid the environment, or the global economy, or out-of-work or aspiring soccer journalists? What if "technology" doesn't yield forth her wage-paying fruit, and rather than a "difficult transition period," soccer writing, city council beats, science journalism, whatever, all goes under the purview of hobbyists? I don't have the time to speculate on the consequences, but as Shirkly agrees, they don't exactly look pretty.

I'm writing this because you, soccer blogger, should no longer wait on a newspaper or magazine to "discover you," and pay you a great deal to while away your days covering World Cup after World Cup and writing the next Jonathan Wilson-esque treatise on the 3-4-2-1. It is not likely going to happen even if you're the next Brian Glanville, unless the print industry suddenly goes all Walter E. Hussman Jr. and suddenly saves the day. And don't expect "technology" to start cutting cheques in a few years time either.

Is this after all just a fun little hobby? And if not, what are we all going to do about it? Are traditional pay-for-content models really and truly dead?


Rick said...

Great piece Richard.

ghostfeed said...

"Let me know how your education
Won't help you no how
You're gonna wind up workin' in a gas station
Wind up workin' in a gas station"

Frank Zappa

Duane Rollins said...


It's a self-perpetuating thing in many ways. I need to write and write and write (and talk and talk and talk) to build my "brand," which may or may not pay off down the road. Meanwhile, by providing what I do for free I can be seen as being part of the problem. But, what's the alternative? If I don't write (and talk) all the time then no one knows who I am and there is no chance I'll ever break out (I didn't go to j-school at Ryerson, after all).

I make money at this. Not a lot, but some. Until there is some way to charge small amounts for content easily (like $0.50/month type subs) then it remains a tough slug. Hoping for one of the big boys to discover you is about all you have to hold on to.

Thing is, advertisers still need to advertise. You just have to find a way to convince them that your 1,000 focused readers (or 6,000 iTunes subscribers) a day are more valuable to them then 200,000 distracted readers are at the The Star. It's not an easy sell. The ad industry is still stuck in pre-90s thinking where pure numbers rule the day.

But, I can't stop now. I have too much invested. I have to believe it will work out one day.

See you in Brazil?

Mike Gray said...

Don't think I don't see what you're doing, smart guy. Convince all the bloggers their futures are doomed, so they all quit, ridding yourself of the competition.


Brilliant post, sir.

redduffman said...

How to commodify football journalism in a digital world? Goodness knows.

While business will continue to advertise it is generally accepted that the levels of ad spend will not recover to the extent where commercial media will be able to survive in its current state. That's why Murdoch is erecting a pay wall next year because he knows that even if he was successfull in hoovering up all available ad revenue it would not be enough. Where that leaves quality football journalists like Jonathan Wilson, Tim Vickery and David Conn is uncertain. Where it leaves lone amateur bloggers with big dreams like us is potentially up the creek.

I believe that if bloggers are to make the transition to journalism we need to become professionalised. While we blog with passion, knowledge and insight we must do what we do at least part time in order to generate original content. Most content on football blogs is based on the blogger's perspective on what we already know or can easily find out. Or we turn a spotlight on areas of the game that people may know very little about but is still pretty accessible. A few are able to tap in on professional sources to produce truly original content. However, if I want to actually learn something new about football, I'll buy a copy of World Soccer or read trusted journos online. Should those organs collapse, what will become of those journalists and my knowledge?

The best solution I can think of is to add value to an existing service. ESPN Soccernet recruited a new journalist because their parent company acquire the rights to screen the Premier League in the UK and needed extra manpower to accommodate increased content and traffic. Online bookies employ astro turfers to seed and amateur bloggers with barely related content designed to direct traffic back to the mother ship. I'm not sure how much dignity there is in that sort of work. Aside from that I can't see any other way of earning a living wage from writing about football. Worse, as "proper" journos get laid off, they'll set up their own blogs in a desperate attempt to go it alone which will directly affect the traffic of us amateurs.

Pretty grim stuff eh? Especially when you consider that now more than at any other time, Football needs to be scrutinised and questioned. Football needs independant journalism at a time when manyu of them are in danger of getting laid off.

Just Football said...

You've engendered in me overwhelming feelings of existential angst after reading this piece, and it's only part 1!

Great piece, although the idea that what we are all doing is ultimately pointless is a pretty depressing one to consider!