Thursday, January 6, 2011

North American online newspaper soccer coverage: The Washington Post

I think by now (if you are in fact still reading, which if you are at this point it could count as charity work—Ontario high school students in need of community service hours, take note) you are probably aware of several stultifying patterns in the way North American newspapers present their online soccer coverage. First, they tend to rely heavily on AP, CP, Reuters for providing news content. Second, they have a total and utter disregard for the newsworthiness of said content (Spain won the World Cup last July? You don't say!), just so long as it fills up the entire page. Third, there is a complete and total lack of any local or non-mainstream soccer coverage at all levels, outside of major changes in MLS team rosters once in a while and the retirements of Kara Lang/Kristine Lilly. And fourth, if there is original content, it is generated via one or two dedicated soccer voices attached to the newspaper.

In some papers, those voices tend to be much more visible in the print edition than online, as I found out is the case with Jerrad Peters column in the Winnipeg Free Press after my little rant on Tuesday. In others, as with the NY Times Goal! blog or Steve Goff at the Washington Post, they essentially are the online soccer page. That's a good thing—with blogs you get regularly posted bits of analysis written by a human being, not another dry facsimile copy of an AP report on the weekend action in the Premier League.

The downside of newspaper blogs from a publisher's perspective is that on the web, they look and read exactly the same as any other blog. As the excellent blogger Joanne McNeil posted the other day with regard to newspaper blogs:
Apart from the New York Times and The Atlantic, many of these blogs are unremarkable. And readership reflects this. Whenever I go to a newspaper website I’m always surprised at how many in-house blogs exist, but few seem to attract more than a hundred or so RSS subscribers.
I actually keep forgetting Goff is attached to the Washington Post. He is a stand-alone journalist who does excellent news-gathering work on American soccer. What he doesn't do are voicey, longer form, storytelling posts. It would be out of character for Goff to write an in-depth state of the union type piece on the direction of MLS. Why would he? He's a newspaper man, and he's giving us the news. In any case, that's what the fans want, if not the casual reader. But while Goff is great, his but one of many voices providing this sort of news coverage online. He doesn't add much in the way of brand value to the Post.

The reason why this series sucks is because all of this is really obvious. Newspapers have to cover as much as they can on a budget that has been vastly undercut by digital media diluting the value of newspaper ad space. Soccer has as much regard in some North American newsrooms as backgammon, so no editor is going to care that the soccer page is littered with AP stories from August 2010. Canadians or Americans don't care about soccer all that much, so why bother wasting money sending out reporters to cover it? Better to have one Goff-type telling you what time the games are on this afternoon, and where Gooch Onyewu is headed next.

This is a pretty poor view of the power and importance of print media in shaping our perception of the world, and is part of the reason many online readers are abandoning newspapers altogether. Under this view, storytelling doesn't drive readership. Instead, editors try to imitate market researchers. Canadians love hockey, so we get hockey news. America loves gridiron, so pile on the Brett Favre sexting crap but write it as coldly as you can. Newspapers confuse this approach with objectivity, forgetting that picking and choosing what appears in the paper is itself an act of editorial intrusion.

Newspapers didn't always operate this way. Reading through the Globe or Toronto Telegraph archives for some of my soccer history posts, I noticed how writers were in love with the idea of news as spectacle. The whole notion of dry, Economist-style data pill news articles didn't exist yet; they were more interested in storytelling—the more grandiose, the better—to beat out their rivals. Nowadays, that's regarded as bad journalism; newspapers should stick to the facts and do so as disinterestedly as possible. Leave it to the magazines with their longer column space to do the personal, point-of-view storytelling.

Besides the fact this notion of news "objectivity" is a mirage, the web has completely undercut the bullet-point style of journalism that lingers in North America. With Major League Soccer in particular, many bloggers now have the same primary source access as their journalist peers. I'm much more likely to get up-to-the-minute Canadian soccer updates from Canadian Soccer News as I am from the Globe and Mail. And pajama bloggers will gather that news as a hobby, with a fraction of the compensation given to unionized reporters.

Again, this is really "duh" type of stuff covered ad infinitum by fucking everyone. But newspapers here still don't get it, and the soccer pages are the clearest sign they don't. Well then, what (if anything) can newspapers do to stand apart in a chaotic online sea of everything? I'll look at that in the next and (mercifully) final installment of this series.


Riccardo Troiani said...

Hi mate, would you like to make an exchange of links? visit and let me know if you are agree with me...thanks...

Jason Davis said...

Oh, Riccardo. Of all sites, you had to choose Richards. And on a day when he curses multiple times in a post. Once is common, multiples is don't-mess-with-the-countertenor territory.

Anyway, you're right that Goff IS the Post's soccer page. As for looking/reading like any other blog, I'm not sure that's true with Goff. That Washington Post masthead is hard to ignore. I have no idea what his RSS subscriber numbers are, but I imagine the traffic at Soccer Insider is considerable.

It would be nice for the Post to round-out their online soccer coverage with a storytelling voice (a regular one anyway - they do occasionally have "fan perspectives" and soccer missives from non-soccer Post staff); Goff is actually pretty good at it when he does it, but he's bread and butter is clearly the day-to-day newsgathering. On which 90% of the American soccer blogs in existence rely on a daily basis.

Lord Bob said...

Mr. Troiani:, surely.



Richard Whittall said...

I don't mean Goff isn't good, I just mean if you put him in an RSS feed, he bleeds red like the rest of us, a far cry from the days when Gay Talese held us all in check as we quivered in our bedrooms, day-dreaming about one day writing about the Yankees.

Anyway Jason, your third para hits the nail on the head; it's a question of the culture of sportswriting here, methinks.

Riccardo - how about you write me a guest post on Italian football instead, in Italian? Then we'll talk link exchange.