Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guardian Fail? Twitter bites the football media hand that feeds them

This has been a big week in football media, obviously. Richard Keys and Andy Gray were fired from/pressured to resign from Sky Sports for sexist comments about female linespersons caught on tape. I don't want to speak much more to the hypocrisy of traditional football media's open-mouthed shock reaction to sexism within its own ranks, an institution that has largely been completely dismissive of women's soccer (to the detriment of the development of the sport in England, as well as an echo of the sad legacy of the FA's relationship with women's football—see Dick, Kerr's Ladies).  Jennifer Doyle's excellent piece today says it all.

What I want to talk about is Twitter. Again, I know. Like I mentioned the other day, I think of Twitter as a crowded pub that fosters a unique kind of public intimacy. It also works as an intelligent news feed complete with reader commentary. I usually miss big news as it breaks on Twitter, but this week I caught the big stories as they happened, first Gray's and Keys' sexist recording and then the Sky co-hosts' subsequent firings/resignations, in all cases via the Guardian first.

Even though Twitter is often described as another nail in the print media's coffin, it isn't fundamentally a media game changer. Rather, it does in minutes what used to take days when blogs were the only show in town: foment public opinion. That opinion was thankfully in near-universal condemnation of Gray and Keys (and mostly skipped over the question of ethical third party recording) which, granted, may speak more to my selected slice of Twitter than public opinion at large.

People laugh at Twitter describing itself as a "microblogging" site, but it is in fact a microblogosphere. It's a speedy version of the already decade-old relationship between news sites and blogs, which works like this: a newspaper or wire service breaks a big news story, and bloggers react. As the blogs push forward the "debate", producing ready-made talking points for each relevant point of view, old media picks them up and recycles them as its own, making bloggers feel like they're the ones who've driven the story. All the while, they take for granted that it was crusty old media that did the grunt work which sparked the chaos in the first place.

Consider the Guardian Tweet that put Twitter in overdrive this week:

Simple, although presumably sources were contacted before Guardian Sport could go ahead and put this out, knowing the reaction it would cause. The details of the firing later emerged in reports from a wide variety of news sources shared by countless Twitter accounts, but the early tweets like this, predominantly from trad news sources, were the spark. Less than an hour later, bloggers tweeted blog posts they'd written in response to the news in which Gray was rightly condemned. This was what Richard Keys' was possibly referring to when he spoke (ridiculously) of "dark forces" during his farcical talkSPORT interview days later: a rampant and active blogosphere pissed off with sexist pricks in football's top media jobs. But this opinion-making was rooted in the boring news-gathering grunt work of reporting the news. And that news, as banal and destined for wide release as it was, was broke by old media.

That's what makes the business of Ian Prior's #guardianfail so interesting. After stoking the Twitter media fires all day today about a Guardian exclusive, Prior emerged to tell the world that Inter might be interested in Gareth Bale in the summer. Within an hour, a campaign kicked off to unfollow the seasoned Guardian writer on Twitter, in addition to unfollowing @guardian_sport. "We expect better," the bloggers cried. How could Ian Prior be allowed manipulate Twitter on the back of some half-arsed "exclusive" that everyone already knew about? The dog was slapped by the hand that fed it.

The incident put the current relationship between blogs and traditional media into relief. A football blogosphere so intent on figuring out the next thing to write on waited in vain for a newspaper writer to break story that turned out to be utter shite, and chose to blame the news gatherer without a question of its dependence thereon. When the normally high-quality news-gathering work from which we reap free benefits failed us, it tampered with a relationship bloggers have been taking for granted for years now.

I write this not in praise or defense of the Guardian in this, but rather to exhort football bloggers to perhaps challenge themselves in seeking out something beyond the big media pile-on story of the day. I think this alternative approach explains some of the continued success of the blogs covering the more out-of-the-way stories in football, like, European Football Weekends, In Bed with Maradona, the Inside Minnesota Soccer, Match Fit USA, Fake Sigi, From a Left Wing, Run of Play, and a fantastic new blog I discovered this week, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

This doesn't mean I think we should abandon traditional football media altogether; like I wrote above, it provides an integral service many of us in the football blogging world take for granted, and in the case of Gray and Keys', can provoke important debate. Yet as football bloggers we have a choice about how we shape that debate, over whether we simply ape a pre-fabricated, canned reaction to the same old same old, or probe a new, perhaps previously ignored perspective on a recurring issue. If we're going to be taken seriously, as I think bloggers are beginning to be by Big Paper, we can't simply blame the media when they fail and take them for granted when they succeed. We must have a greater stake in seeking out the news for ourselves, whether it resides somewhere hidden between the lines in the big headline story of the day, or somewhere unseen and completely out of the way, like in our very own backyard.


The Gaffer said...


"I think this alternative approach explains some of the continued success of the blogs covering the more out-of-the-way stories in football"

...I guess it depends what you consider "continued success." Whether you measure that by number of readers, quality of content, amount of user interaction from the readers in the form of comments or the number of pageviews the articles or site gets.

Or do you measure "continued success" by being included on The Guardian's 100 best football blogs list at ?? Only 4 of the 9 you mention are listed there. The top 100 list is by no means the bible, but it is quite authoritative.

On EPL Talk, I take the stories that my readers want to read about (Grays/Keys/etc) and then add my own opinion to them so there is original content to it. In this week's example, I also contacted EA Sports to find out what impact the Gray sacking was going to have on FIFA 12 and reported on that.

The Gaffer

James M. Dorsey said...

Richard, Thanks for your gracious comment about my Middle East soccer blog.

Perhaps it is because I am in my core a traditional hack that it strikes me that the strength of the traditional media remains the fact that it still is expected to apply rigorous standards of reporting and can be held accountable for that.
Your example of The Guardian speaks to that.

It seems further to me that blogs more often than not operate on the model of The Observer in its heyday when it worked on the principle of the "scoop of interpretation."

Much has been said about the traditional media struggling to come to grips with radical technology change. In effect, one problem, I think, is that traditional media have yet to come to grips with the fact that because of the likes of Twitter and bloggers opinion is formed often before the the facts and what they mean has been established.

At the end of the day, and I can only speak for myself, I instinctively still trust selected traditional media for the facts. I have in recent years however expanded that circles to include specific bloggers and twitters whose work I have followed for a significant period of time and whose reliability I trust and respect. It is however a relatively small and select group.

It is up to bloggers to clearly define what they are. If they are sources of news they will need to apply equally rigorous standards. That may be a tall order given the need for resources to do so. If they are exclusively opinion makers that rely on the traditional media for their news they by definition accept an inherent risk of not having verified the story themselves.

New technology has expanded the media landscape. To some degrees, the roles of the players are still in flux.

Riccardo Troiani said...

Hi mate, nice regardsw from italy (rome). I invite you on my soccer blog "STADIO GOAL" ( If you like join it on twitter (i am your follower!)...have a good day

Richard Whittall said...

Gaffer - James Dart's list is also a good example of what I'm talking about. I'm very humbled to have been included on it, but it is in some sense arbitrary and reflects a focus considered of some worth to a more UK-focused audience.

The reaction by some writers though as if this was a list of the best football bloggers around again gives too much credit to the Guardian. Even my blurb noted I was included almost in spite of my MLS coverage. There are many bloggers who operate completely outside the scope of Europe and the Premier League that are among the best blogs I know, and I mentioned some of those in the post. The fact that they didn't appear on a newspaper approved reading list means nothing to me.

Again, it's an example of an unacknowledged inferiority complex among some football writers with regard to their relationship to certain flagship newspapers.

James - I agree that bloggers won't ever be able to match the firepower of that fully operational battlestation, i.e. the full-time sports news desk. But we can make phonecalls, and send emails. We can go to local matches, and we can do online archival research. You stick within your means and you can do quite a lot. As for rigorous standards, well, that depends on the writer, unfortunately. But like I've always maintained, no one outside of a very limited, biased audience is going to read your blog if it makes shit up or relies on hysteria to make its point.

James M. Dorsey said...

Richard, I fully agree, but as you know its a skill set one needs to acquire through experience over time. Making phone calls, witnessing etc. is indeed important, but its inquisitive, probing questioning, ensuring multiple sourcing and being held to standards. As bloggers, we have no editors who ask us probing questions, see in a story what we don't see. Granted blogging will never have the infrastructure, which makes it more incumbent on more serious bloggers to attempt as best as possible to adhere to standards. I agree bloggers like traditional journalists are as good as their last story. I guess, at the bottom line, what I am trying to say is that we should take the best of traditional media to the degree possible and shed the bad. One thought: bloggers have tremendous networks, they can utilize that.

Damon said...

A piece of work illustrative of the point in the piece itself. Clumsy sentence but you get the gist, I hope. A jolly good read.