Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to be a successful soccer writer on the Internet*

I've spent the morning reading a few bookmarked articles on the AOL/Huffington Post takeover in the New York Times, specifically on whether the Huffington Post makes its money "on the backs" of unpaid bloggers. If you believe the answer is "yes," I'd recommend reading through Nate Silver's HuffPo page-view breakdown from last week. After some expert speculative number-crunching, the conclusion Silver reaches seems beyond obvious to me: if you choose to write for a massive web-hub like the Huffington Post, rather than taking the time to start-up your own blog with one of countless blog publishing software platforms available on the web, don't be surprised if you end up posting a lot of stuff that never gets read, paid for, or leads anywhere except more ignored articles on HuffPo.

Most of the "web is killing writers' livelihoods" rants come predictably from the old guard—established journos at money-losing newspapers who are still under the illusion that written content has intrinsic monetary value. Like a lot of people, journalists confuse "use-value," i.e. the original, well-written and newsworthy article, with "market value," once measured in print advertisement dollars and now determined by the more economically unforgiving page-views. I've written about this before so I don't want to have to break it down again, but because publishing no longer requires a capital-heavy investment (the print press) which paid for itself by giving individual publishers an inherently large market share, the value of written content per se in the internet age has taken a nose dive. Magazines and newspapers now compete with a vast, free and self-published behemoth with millions of unpaid content producers, who sometimes aren't even aware they're producing content at all.

This doesn't however mean the end of soccer writing as a career for the aspiring sports journalist.

Here's why.

In the old days, if you wanted to be a sports writer, you hustled. Maybe that meant starting out as an intern at a newspaper or magazine, doing a fifty-word side-bar blurb once every six months in between fetching the entire editorial staff coffee every morning. Or maybe it involved hours of researching stories and sending out queries with self-addressed envelopes from your basement with a one in ten success rate, if you were lucky. The stories themselves were of course tailored to whichever publication you wanted to write for, and if you were smart, would reflect the general editorial tone of the magazine or paper. After a while, if a certain publisher liked you, you got hired on full-time as staff. If you were a shitty researcher, interviewer, fact-checker, and writer, you wouldn't get very far. It was, as far as meritocracies go, pretty equitable.

But ultimately, the bar to entry was high, and labour-intensive. There was no time for taking risks, putting yourself in the articles, or trying a few off-handed thought experiments. If you were too stuck on one particular niche, you wouldn't get a lot of work as a writer. Spots in print publications were very limited and you had to work your ass off to match your vision with the editor to get those spots.

Today with the Interwebinet, you can basically skip the whole "impress the editors by proving your a great journo" hustle and jump right in to writing whatever you bloody well want to write about in soccer in whatever style or format or focus. This is however by no means a guarantee of success with readers. For example,

  • If you're a shitty writer, no one will read you. 
  • If you're not a shitty writer but you want to write Premier League match-reports for your own self-published blog, not very many people will read you unless your match reports are truly something special. 
  • If you're a good writer but you decide to start out by writing for someone else's soccer blog and not take the time to create your own, you've made it all the more difficult for readers to notice you. 
  • If you spam other blogs with comments, not because you have something to say and want to say it because you're a normal person, but because you read on some shitty blog about blogging that told you to do that to "get links", you've got the soccer blogging equivalent of the plague. 
  • If you use twitter not as a means of communicating but as a means of spamming for your site, you have the soccer blogging equivalent of malaria. 
  • If you view any social media as a means of "building relationships" rather than having fun and meeting like-minded people who love football, well, you're transparent. 
  • If you view the blogosphere as a career ladder rather than a community, you're wearing a scarlet letter. 
  • If you expect to make money from soccer blogging, well, you're delusional.

In other words, the bar to success in soccer writing is still pretty high. But what's important now isn't proving your journalistic and editorial chops to total strangers via clippings from community newspapers—it's honestly loving soccer, thinking about soccer a lot, reading about soccer a lot, wanting to think of new and better ways to write about soccer, and wanting to connect with other people who love to write about soccer too. In other words, the bar to success in soccer writing now is honesty. You can smell a fake from a mile away on the internet. If you're in this because you want to be "discovered," well, that's fine. But if that's your sole motivation, rather than offering something for your readers about the Beautiful Game that you love and want to share, well, it's going to be obvious. And you'll get passed over as just another aspiring soccer journalist, rather than an active soccer writer.

Ultimately, success in soccer writing comes from the same place it's always come from: doing the work. But while "the work" to get paid/respected for what you do is still very very hard, it's much more fun. Watch a lot of games. Read a lot of op-eds, or books, or bad player memoirs. Think about why you love the game. Watch games twice. Learn more about tactics, watch old clips of Sindelar on youtube, consume art, read non-soccer related things, be self-deprecating about your team, be funny, swear, link to things you like and say why you like them, talk to other writers like a normal person and not a "networker." Say yes a lot to things you think will let you do more of the above. And don't ever expect a paycheque unless you think you're being used and not appreciated.

Simple, right?

*the title should in no way lead the reader to assume a presumption of success on AMSL's part.

Photo: Annie Mole.


Graham said...

Excellent piece Richard, and I'm sure you'll appreciate the irony of me spamming this around on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

I think anyone that doesn't know all this by himself won't get much further than he's at the moment.

Lord Bob said...

I wish I had a related post on my soccer blog so I could post a link to it without any commentary in an attempt to be ironic/scrounge off your readership.

Grant said...

Nice one Richard. You've got me thinking.

Having worked in both old and new media I think there is something to be said about needing to please an editor and tailoring your work to an audience. It makes you a better writer.

Unless you're truly magical it's almost impossible to just write whatever you want and have people flock to your work.

Paul67 said...

Enjoyed that, Richard.

I think good writing helps, especially when so many are just finding new ways to write "boo", but honest, sincere stuff, flows better than anything.

Anonymous said...

Good piece Richard. But is "honesty" really the only barrier to entry? You're talking about a huge investment of time that not everyone can afford to make because they've got to make a living somehow & that means devoting much of their productive energy to paid work. So the withering of paid journalism creates an economic barrier to entry. Only those who can afford to spend great chunks of time on what is effectively a leisure pursuit need apply. Kind of like the good old days of amateur sports, before professionalism allowed the proles to come out of the factory and join the students and princes on the field.

canadiangeordie said...

Another excellent article.

You just convinced me to delete my blog as I'm transparent, delusional and the equivalent of malaria.

Maybe I'll start a podcast

Danielle W said...

Very good and interesting piece. I was worried for a minute before I read it that I would be told I'm doing it all wrong, but seems like I'm doing it right! I was a writer anyway, and started writing about football simply because I love it and love writing about it.

In the end, it's not about making money, but writing and discussing football just for the pure joy. Like you said, every real fan can see through certain blogs, and hopefully others come along that really click and have something interesting to say. I love the interaction and feedback from the footballing community and above else, I just love football.

Corey said...

95% spot on, but here's where I disagree. In consecutive bullet points you say:

"If you view any social media as a means of "building relationships" rather than having fun and meeting like-minded people who love football, well, you're transparent."

"If you view the blogosphere as a career ladder rather than a community, you're wearing a scarlet letter."

Building relationships is part of building community. Oh, and you can do both and have fun and meet like-minded people. Oh, and you don't have to stick to a single approach. Some days I'll rant with no real purpose other than to have fun. Other days I've solidified relationships that have led to discussions about business ideas and collaborations.

Your earlier semi-defense of #GuardianFail demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of social media. Case in point, the above-mentioned bullet point says "blogosphere." Twitter may be a micro-blogosphere for some (indeed, it is where bloggers peddle their work), but it's also a news delivery device.

Ultimately, each person has his/her own motives and objectives in using it, but I think it's a mistake for journalists to be so casual with "news" just because it's on Twitter. Most top-notch guys (Grant Wahl, Ives, Sid Lowe, etc.) do a great job of balancing the serious and the playful/fun side.

That's all. I read the HuffPost article a few days ago and was pleasantly surprised to see someone in the soccer world made the connection and wrote this.

Adam said...

All good food for thought. But the $64,000 question remains (or rather the minimum NUJ word-rate question): how do you get paid?

It's come to a pretty pass when the industry is hoping Murdoch's paywall succeeds (shades of Wapping in the UK), but the point is clear. Good journalism costs time, resources and therefore money. Giving it away for nothing ultimately means we all end up with two fifths of sweet FA. You can love the game as much as anyone but that wont feed the family.

Chris Ballard said...

Good piece, even though I'm probably one of those people who should "take the time to create your own". I write occasionally for a blog but I don't have the time or the motivation to do it 'full-time' (plus there are already too many people writing about the US soccer market). I don't expect to ever make any money out of it, and although it would of course be nice if ESPN emailed me with a firm offer to write for them, I don't see it happening any time soon. It's enough for me that, for example, a recent blog piece of mine resulted in 85 comments - most of them heaping opprobrium upon me.

What really annoys me is that some of the older newspapers have stopped writing worthy soccer 'articles' in favour of blog-type pieces that don't bring up anything new or interesting, and instead be designed to boost a pageview count to wave at potential advertisers. Yes, I'm looking at you,

ursus arctos said...

Richard, as someone who tried to "make it the old way" in the Paleozoic Era (1983), I can only applaud the accuracy and wisdom of this post.

As I said on Twitter, Truer Words Have Yet to be Written for Free.


Elliott said...

So I have malaria, the plague, and want to be noticed? I can live with that.

Excellent points Ricardo - also, Brian's success at slate, that ZM fellow on guardian/soccernet, and Brooks getting picked up by Yahoo show that blogging can be a great stepping stone to a paid gig.

Still, I suspect that you make millions off AMSL, you hide the true secret to successful soccer writing (writing about soccer writing a-ha!), and these articles are decoys to get the tax man off your rump.

ursus arctos said...

This is of course true, as Whitall is running the world's largest content farm on the side, while a doppelganger rages at the Canadian FA and sings Baroque opera.

It takes real talent to pull that kind of thing off.