Monday, January 31, 2011

Jason Davis: Transfer Rumors, The Guardian, and New Media's Race to the Bottom

A More Splendid Life takes pride today in welcoming the excellent Match Fit USA's Jason Davis, here to remind you why the dirt won't wash off after today's Transfer Deadline Day mayhem.

Ian Prior’s #guardianfail transgression, claiming an exclusive and then under-delivering with a rumor that even the orthodox Amish consider as common knowledge at this point, crystallizes how dependent the blogging community is on traditional media. As Richard pointed out in his reaction, the Twitter uproar that followed Prior’s “exclusive” occurred in part because The Guardian is one of the few outlets that can be trusted; bloggers whose business is repeating and/or analyzing the story of the day felt betrayed that a bastion of solid reporting like The Guardian would not only trade in un-sourced warmed-over rumor, but that it would build it up in such a cheap and unbecoming way.

Prior’s motivations aside (and it’s likely he just lost sight of the weight Twitter carries despite its immediacy and general light-hearted nature), #guardianfail stands out because it involves one of the few trustworthy Big Media sources left on the scene. The proliferation of rumor-as-news, a byproduct of Internet ubiquity and the disappearance of meaningful deadlines, has spawned a culture that rewards being first and rarely punishes being wrong. Pageviews, unlike newspaper subscriptions, aren’t seriously impacted by questions of integrity. Traffic is king, the audience is virtually unlimited and easily replaceable, and the temptation to take advantage of the minuscule modern attention span is too great. Why worry about what one says today when it will certainly be forgotten by tomorrow?

Prior’s tweeting took The Guardian into muddied waters where less reputable outlets usually wallow. Though they didn’t stoop to spreading a new spurious rumor seemingly conjured out of thin air, the paper created a anticipatory buzz around one everyone had heard, taking advantage of their loyal football readership in the process. An uncharacteristic dip in those muddy waters won’t lessen The Guardian’s prestige in the eyes of most, but the backlash proves something interesting: a good reputation engenders a uniquely visceral reaction from readers when they believe their faith has been betrayed. Being The Guardian, with all that masthead brings with it and the sense of journalistic impunity it conveys, is a doubled-edged sword. Perhaps most troubling, The Guardian’s carnival-barker bait-and-switch act shows that even the standard-bearers are now open to question and aren’t as immune to modern pressures as they might appear. One of the few institutions that remains above the morass voluntarily relegated itself to the status of bait artist. Disturbing, to say the least.

The burden of skepticism is shifting from those gathering the news to those consuming it. Previous generations could assume, with a reasonable measure of certainty, that the stories in their daily paper had been sourced, confirmed, fact-checked and edited before they were deemed worthy of publication. If a broadsheet claimed that a club was interested in a specific player, it was because someone in a position of authority with the club told a reporter directly that it was so. If a transfer was reported, it was because it people with direct knowledge and a stake in the process confirmed it. There was plenty of tabloid sensationalism, but it was clearly understood to be more entertainment than a faithful telling of the news, and hence easily categorized. We knew what was legitimate and what (probably) wasn’t. Our expectations never needed adjustment. We took for granted that we could believe what we read.

Newspapers, in their digital incarnations, are forced to compete with blog collectives, content farms - and to a lesser extent, independent blogs - for readership. Original reporting is at a premium, yet papers find themselves on equal footing with SEO savvy start-ups. Google’s mysterious algorithms don’t discriminate between “traditional” and “new”, nor can they distinguish original reporting from something that is nothing more than a rewrite and a link. As long as it can be “sourced”, parroting news gathered by someone else (who presumably incurs the cost of doing so) is good business in the Internet age. Whether the information is verified happening or baseless rumor has no bearing on the decision to post it. If it will generate traffic, it goes up with little thought.

The lines have blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. Even legitimate media outlets have joined the ever-growing number of blogs in trading in gossip while hiding behind headlines prefaced with “Report:’ or written as a questions (Joe Player to Club X?) or by creating delineated rumor areas of their websites. As rumors emanating from a singular anonymous or questionable source replicate across the Web, appearing on site after site and blog after blog, they mutate into something else. American midfielder Michael Bradley’s recent move is a perfect example; after his German club confirmed that they had accepted a bid for his services but would not reveal from whom, rumors began to swirl that the club in question was Turkish giant Galatasaray. Rather than simply report what was confirmed, both blogs and traditional outlets, in a mad race to attract visitors hungry for the latest scuttlebutt, capitalized on the rumor by “reporting” that Bradley was headed to Istanbul. When that proved to be an incorrect or premature assumption (he’s going to Aston Villa), it didn’t matter because the responsibility for standing by the information didn’t rest with site or blog repeating it. They simply posted again, providing the new and contradictory information as an “update” to their original “story.” Reporting on a report (or Tweet, or garbled translation) means never having to answer for its veracity.

Most of the gatekeepers have abandoned their posts. The few that remain are being overrun, helpless to slow the onslaught of dubious hearsay that makes its way into the general conversation. Skepticism, which for the professional media means costly man hours contacting sources and confirming details, is a heavy a burden to carry when much of the the competition is free to spin the work of others to its own benefit. What’s important has changed so fundamentally that applying old standards is almost farcical.

Basic economics tells us that supply and demand dictate a market. In the case of the modern Internet-driven transfer rumor mill (and really, the Internet as a whole), an insatiable public demands information for which they don’t directly pay (outside of unique paywall cases like The Times, which, because it cut itself off from the information-sharing Internet culture at large, is marginalized on this front). That makes for a strange system, controlled not by how good the product is as journalism, but by how many people can be enticed into clicking a link. Whether that comes by bellowing “EXCLUSIVE” to build interest or by re-posting every rumor imaginable, the effect is the same: writers forgoing their responsibility, forcing readers forced to suss the reputable from inane with nothing to go on but reputation of the outlet. When even that is open to question, the information isn’t worth the electricity needed to convey it to our screens.

Does that necessarily mean the system is broken? It’s easy to suggest that outlets like The Guardian should be above the hyping and spreading of questionable rumor; more difficult is conceiving or reasons for them to do so beyond an obligation to the paper’s legacy. They should be held to a higher standard, but we shouldn’t be shocked if they, like everyone else, are blown off course by the prevailing winds.

If transfer rumor is entertainment and nothing more, none of this matters. But as long as it is presented as news, and a waiting public consumes it as such, the question of where the burden of skepticism should lie is germane to the further discussion of what role the traditional media will play in the future of news consumption.

Especially when it comes to transfer rumors.

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.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A More Splendid Life goes to a kit launch

It was at the Queen and Beaver pub last night. I don't normally go to these sorts of to-do's, but under present circumstances I thought it would be neat to see a hefty chunk of Canadian soccer mashed into a pub with an open bar. The Umbro Canada kit launch itself was perfunctory—the real critical work was being done on the comments section of this post—and I have to say I was largely indifferent to the designs. It's odd how soccer people, even the most intelligent ones, seem to put so much importance on a soccer shirt. Ours was awful up until yesterday; now it's different and weird and chevrony, which means it will get noticed in the cold, dark Eastern European climes where we will undoubtedly play friendlies against Estonia to prepare for CONCACAF qualification in Jamaica.

Anyway, the evening started with me standing around awkwardly, saying awkward hellos to one or two people, awkwardly shuffling to the open bar, realizing I hadn't had anything to eat for dinner, drinking anyway, awkwardly forcing myself to say to the soccer people I know from TV that "I'm that Twitter guy. Yeah. Yeah that guy," then proceeding to chew their ears off whilst awkwardly splashing my Creemore every which way.

Obviously the elephant in the room was the upcoming Canadian Soccer Association board vote on governance reforms, reforms would go some way to putting actual soccer development experts on the CSA board and lessening the influence of provincial reps with provincial concerns, the broken record of Canadian soccer woe. I talked to a few people about it and the general impression I get is that a lot of currently silent voices in positions of power back the proposed changes, that this previously non-existent pressure from fan groups via forums and websites is genuinely helping to move things along (and scaring people in a goodish way), but that the one thing stopping Canadian soccer from getting its shit together is the same thing that was stopping it from getting its shit together back in the 1940s (I'm serious, if I wasn't lazy I'd find an op-ed from the Toronto Telegraph that you could basically run on CSN today with only one or two changes): petty politics.

Meaning this guy won't do this thing because this other guy wants to get voted in again and is angry at this other guy for not backing him on this other thing, blah blah blah. It's fun to know the names and join in the kabuki theatre, but that's what they want. I work in administration so I know administrative politics. The thing we forget is that the people at the centre love it, because politics elevates them from mere functionaries into "power brokers." It affords certain character-types the delusion it's all about them and not the players, the fans, the coaches.

Paradoxically, the one thing that can help end all this political chicanery is to give it credence with a lot of media attention. If this was England, you'd have had News of the World in there last night furiously working an angle (and the supporters groups/trusts would be lucky to even be in the same city block let alone the same pub drinking on the FA's dime). But this is Canada. Soccer operates in a total media vacuum. The CSA could disband tomorrow and they'd be lucky to get a CP wire blurb. As long as this remains the case, people in positions of power can continue to re-arrange the Titanic deck chairs without anyone telling them the way to the life boats. This upcoming vote needs attention in big paper, big TV, big whatever, if only to get the functionaries/power-brokers to do what they know is right.

Similar to the atmosphere at the MLS Cup last year, you get the sense, mashed in between de Vos and Brennan and Lang (swoon!), that the soccer scene here is small. Very, very small. Which ramps up the volume of individual voices. I tend to avoid writing long missives on Canadian soccer (or MLS for that matter) because I'm bad at remembering the names of people who don't score goals. But I will learn these names if it means I never have to write about them again. More important though is for my Big Paper brothers and sisters learn them and write about them too. I know some of you sit in your offices and laugh at me and my struggle to eke out a soccer writing career on occasion. Why not stop making fun of me for a second and do a story on the CSA vote and why it matters for everyone who plays soccer in Canada (and there are a lot of those). The next World Cup is in Brazil for godsake! That means tanning in Copacabana! Work your journalism magic and you could play a small part in helping Canada (and you) get there.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An AMSL Confessional

First, thanks for the responses to Friday's post. Basically we're all in the same boat; we love football so the research bit tends to be less "work" and more "hobby," especially if it involves watching matches, because that is of course why we all jumped on board this ship of fools in the first place.

The writing bit is really about finding that elusive "chunk of time." In the past, I tried the "writing a little whenever I have five minutes at the computer" approach, but it doesn't suit the blog format (at least for me) and a lot of the time whatever I'm writing about becomes irrelevant in a matter of days, if not hours. And my life right now is measured in minutes (whinge, whinge, excuses, excuses).

Anyway, the one common thread in all the responses was this:
"I am positive, however, that the periods of time when motivation eludes me would disappear if I were being paid a sustainable (I use the term loosely, as long as I could pay bills) wage for the work."
"Now if someone would just pay me!"
"I'm aspiring football writer/journalist!"
Yeah. As Jason Davis might put it, perhaps it's time to lift the curtain for a moment. About two years ago, I was coming to the end of a relatively well-paying but secure administrative two-year term position—with benefits—at a local university. Basically, it was an experiment: can I do the office job life? It was great and I liked the people there, but at the end, I decided not to apply for my job when it was offered full-time. I thought, "hey, I'll be a soccer writer and a countertenor! It won't be secure, but it will be my dream come true."

It didn't really work out that way. Unless you are one of those rare souls is so obviously talented that regular soccer writing work knocks on your door, or, alternatively, unless you are one of those rare souls who thinks nothing of working their asses off pitching freelance queries every single day, either without reply or with rejection, or with acceptance and subsequent rewrite requests and/or kill fees, football writing isn't ever really going to pay your bills. I thought I could at least be the latter, but after two years of "I can do this! I CAN DO THIS!," it's clear that I'm not.

So, last August (!), I made the decision to go back and get another secure(ish) full-time office job. Unfortunately, I chose to wait until after the economic crash, so, incidentally, I'm still looking (I naively thought my plentiful CV would make me a shoe-in until I realized EVERYONE wants a secure, boring office job. Richard Florida is clearly an idiot). I know football writing CAN pay though as the last World Cup proved, and I plan to keep doing it, but for reasons in my life right now I don't need to be defined by it. My hope is once I get my real life adult job again, I'll have a bit of time here and there to keep doing it. I will take the rare offers of paid work as they come, of course, but it will be a paid hobby kind of thing. 

And I think more and more this is likely the ideal. This is already what singing countertenor has become for me. I wrestled for years over whether I would become a full-time singer, and then just sort of settled in a pattern of reliable, non-travel intensive choral work. Singing is now a paid hobby, although that doesn't mean I don't treat it with utmost professionalism. And that's what I really want from the football, and that's also why I fundamentally disagree with the first quote up there. Anything you're paid to do, even if you love it, is a job. All jobs go through ebbs and flows of crushing grind work verses "holy shit I can't believe I'm paid to do this." I think a lot of football bloggers circling around, waiting for their moment to arrive, might be more careful for what they wish for. Anyway, enough of that bullshit, curtain closed.

If you'd like to read something I wrote that's actually about soccer, my CSN column is up.      

UPDATE: Um, just so you all know, this doesn't mean I'm not writing here anymore. I cannot stress this enough, A More Splendid Life will die when I do. Or when the Internet asplodes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What is your football blogging routine?

Reading through the growing number of regularly updated football blogs, I'm always amazed at the work-rate and dedication of their authors. I can barely keep up most days with the updates in my RSS reader, and the stuff I read tends to be consistently detailed, well-written and insightful.

A More Splendid Life hasn't ever quite met that standard, for a number of reasons. While I've opened the floor on several different occasions to other great writers, for the most part this is a one man show. Also writing about soccer, as I imagine is the case with most bloggers, isn't just a matter of sitting down for an hour here and there banging out thousands of perfectly-ordered words either. You have to read the news, research, watch matches, and finally sit down to bang out an epic piece on the ornate goal-post decorations of Timbuktu or some such thing, I don't know. This is of course before editing. 

This week, I haven't updated much at all. While I tend to rise with the rooster each morning, I have to answer emails and other bits before I can open up my blogger dashboard and tippy-type. During the day, I work a very boring administrative job from 9-5 that affords me no long swathes of dead time in front of a computer. I'm married (nuff said). And I'm also a freelance musician. I have, not for the first time in my life, bitten off more than I can chew. I don't even know the last time I managed to watch two full halfs of a football match, let alone sift through all my favourite blogs on a lazy Sunday. 

So I'm opening up the floor. When and for how long do you blog each day, or each week? What are your research habits? When do you find time to watch games, read the Guardian, or record podcasts in between your regular job, or are you one of those magical people that manages to scrape some sort of living in part off blogging? For obvious reasons, you can (and possibly should) leave your comments anonymously. Or, alternatively, you can send me an email. I'd like to collate the responses to give veteran or new soccer writers a poorly constructed guide of some sort, or at least give them encouragement that they're not alone in struggling to maintain a standard of quality.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Me on Canadian Soccer News

A manifesto on the importance of paying attention to football media. As the first commenter astutely noted, it doesn't "say a whole lot," but it lays the groundwork for what's to come: a regular CSN media column.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Footballers and the public intimacy of Twitter

Jonathan over at Just-Football wrote a post yesterday reacting to the recent Twitter "gaffes" of Liverpool players Glen Johnson and Ryan Babel, who got in trouble for tweeting their honest, if tactless and ill-advised, opinions on the game they're paid a great deal of money to play. He ends his post with a question: "Should players have free reign to say what they like on social networking sites like Twitter? Or, in light of the recent spate of comments, do they need to be a little bit more responsible regarding what they tweet?"

Football is, if anything, a sport prone to wild hypocrisy, and the holier-than-thou attitudes of journalists and bloggers on the way footballers are using social media is just one thread in that giant, smelly web. To begin though, I should make my opinion on Twitter clear. Sometimes it feels like the album cover of Sergeant Pepper, with fans, journalists, bloggers and footballers all wedged together in a stifling pub, trying to carry on ten conversations at once at the speed of typing/texting. In Pub Twitter, the veneer of professional boundaries is gone; the lowly blogger/IT professional in Detroit is able to inform a Times of London sports journalist on his or her opinion about a recent newspaper op-ed, and often get an interesting, if curtailed, response. Everything is exposed, out in the open. We learn in real time as match report writers madly delete and retype stories in light of extra time goals. We read about the pre-game training techniques of players at the same time we read of their traveling fans' troubles on the M1.

Twitter has beaten out its web 2.0 rivals in that it has achieved a unique kind of public intimacy between strangers divided by class, profession, nation, or club. It would be fashionable, and incorrect, to say it's a "false" intimacy. All intimacy is in some sense false, considering I can never really know what anyone else is truly thinking unless I jump in their head, Being John Malkovich-styles. False intimacy on Twitter more resembles those celebrity accounts that only convey bland, 140-character snippets of PR and promotion. Accounts like these tend to be left out of the conversation altogether. Twitter doesn't really work if you're not at least attempting to appear honest. And honesty can often be professionally inconvenient.

Onto the hypocrisy bit. As football fans and journalists, we have extremely complex expectations for players. As a fan, when I watch Aston Villa I still expect something akin to loyalty from the players, even though in the back of my mind I'm aware their relationship with the club is entirely professional and that they are classified in the EU as "entertainment workers" for tax and visa purposes. This might be what movie critics would call the "suspension of disbelief." Although it's not quite that, because players do in fact love the clubs they play for, even though those clubs pay them enormous sums of money that players' representatives have legally bargained for on their behalf. This is no different from the artist who loves to sing but expects to get paid a living wage for their talent. Some fans are aware of this distinction but choose to ignore it, expecting total, honest club loyalty from their own highly-paid players even as they beg the manager to pay out the highest sums possible to "buy more talent." We want players to be both club supporters and disinterested professionals at the same time, like the way we expect players to hate referees on the pitch but avoid any and all criticism of them in the post-game interview.

The problem is many players aren't aware of our often-contradictory expectations.  Ryan Babel was called "unprofessional" for crudely insinuating via Twitter that Howard Webb always favours Manchester United at Old Trafford, even though it is routine for players to mouth the words "fuck off" at referees throughout England during matches, often for utterly uncontroversial decisions. Glen Johnson also received quite a Tweet-lashing from angry journalists after his vicious personal attack on Paul Merson, as if a player routinely exposed to vicious fan vitriol should be an expert in avoiding ad hominem criticism. We expect him to respond to Merson's criticism with Oscar Wilde-like wit and reserve, rather than in the language that greets Johnson from the stands on a weekly basis.

The inability of footballers to live up to our complex expectations is in many ways why, prior to Twitter, celebrity players' interaction with the media and fans was highly controlled. Gone are the days when you'd see your club's star midfielder settling in for a Sunday roast at the pub after the game; now, he's busy paying a ghostwriter to pen a favourable memoir at age 26. The intimate nature of Twitter however has sprung a leak in that tightly-sealed perimeter, and the FA and clubs are now constantly busy plugging holes. One solution would be for players to stay off Twitter altogether, and go back to the false veneer of professional silence. That would certainly solve the problem, but would make Twitter all the less revealing and interesting. Much better, and much less likely, would be for all of us to let Twitter remain a neutral zone for honest professional venting, much as it is now, with the @ reply serving as the yardstick of accountability. Our obsession with the notion that anything said publicly must be subject to rigorous and unrealistic professional standards means that, for now, players are best going back into their shells.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Enlarging the talent pool: In Bed with Maradona

Before I get labeled another Guardianista, back-slapping sycophant for writing this post, I should say I find In Bed with Maradona deeply annoying. Not the site itself, but the site's need to constantly self-promote along the lines of tweeting things like "We got four hundred billion hits today on our piece on underground cockatoo football in Djibouti, we must be doing something right, or at least so says our buddies at a certain AC Jimbo employing newspaper formerly based in Manchester!!!" (I know that's over 140 characters).

So that's me being mean. On to the nice. In Bed with Maradona is a fantastic website. Its mandate is to cover what you wish more English-language newspapers would cover if they had the dosh and drive, and it allows anyone with a bit of a track record writing on the football to hop in and do it. By way of example, the lead stories on the IBWM mainpage as of writing include FC Nantes in crisis, transexuality in football, and an article on the current state of the game in once-mighty Hungary. And that's all just a fraction of all the good stuff up at the mo. IBWM is the British answer to the Tom Dunmore's once-mighty Pitch Invasion (which again makes the site's "revolutionary" claims a bit grating. Oh yes, nice nice!).

Anyway, with such a good debut (yes, you're great, please don't include another blurb on your blurb page, nice nice nice!), it was interesting to read the always-great European Football Weekend's interview with IBWM editor Jeff this past week. The interview should have anyone interested in the future of football journalism as a provider of meals and rent shaking in their collective trainers. First of all, the current incarnation of IBWM, while excellent, is according to its editor just the beginning. Said Jeff to Danny Last:
Right now IBWM is 1% of what I want it to be. We have some amazing things lined up for 2011 and we will continue to do things differently with moves into new directions, so keep watching. I really want to create something that reflects what a truly beautiful game this is. Football is a religion and I want IBWM to celebrate that. There are a myriad of stories created each week and I want to look at all levels and emotions of the game. Articles, analysis, opinion, films, photography, artwork, music, poetry, multi-layered and interwoven, all with the common theme of football set out across a website that looks and feels like nothing else.
This is exciting and ambitious. This is what we all want a soccer blog, hell, a soccer news site to be. And, considering the scope of these plans, it's certain Jeff plans to make a decent buck while doing it. Right? RIGHT? Oh, wait, Jeff's still talking:
If you get involved in this malarkey with the sole intent of making cash then you'll be disappointed. It would be great to make a living from running a website, but you have to be realistic, it should be something you care about rather than a means to an end. I'm talking to different people about developing the website further, but I've no interest in coating IBWM with irrelevant ads or pop ups, so we're unlikely to ever get rich from that! I'm more interested in ensuring that our writers get the opportunity of paid work and this is something that we always push when we talk to other media outlets.
Some might argue IBWM and similar high quality alt football news sites are directly undercutting the higher-paying media organizations these sites are supposed to attract as "payment" for their contributors. The attention the site is getting from established soccer journos seems to blow Jeff's mind, which I guess betrays a large amount of respect for the better quarters of established print football media in the UK and elsewhere. But good writing is good writing, and interesting stories are interesting stories. My rhetorical punching bag Barney Ronay might get the comparatively big bucks, but he's on equal footing (pun not intended) with a host of other writers toiling away out of love and the rest of it.

Or perhaps the great soccer writing gangbang that is the current blogosphere might help everyone out equally. In the interview Danny Last mentions Iain MacIntosh's hope that the soccer blogosphere will provide a "talent pool" for interested newspapers. I've experienced a bit of this myself with some unsolicited freelance work during the World Cup (I'm not a freelance writer because I hate querying strange editors; once I get over that fear you can kiss this blog goodbye, cheapskates!), so it's not a total fantasy. Blogging sometimes yields financial rewards in addition to the other ones.

But with more and more quality sites coming out of the wordwork, and with more and more of them getting respect from major media outlets, we've started down a road that I don't see ending with bloggers getting plum journo jobs at newspapers around the world. I see Clay Shirky's vision of print journalism as an independent hobby. Which is actually fine with me, so long as my countertenor voice doesn't give out over the next twenty years. But with all hobbies, it's a problem of perserverence (something you might remember from my Pitch Invasion media series). The question is how long IBWM will last. Let's hope for IBWM's many admirers, me included, that Jeff takes the lessons of Pitch Invasion to heart and doesn't get too involved with other exciting projects three to five years from now.

North American online newspaper soccer coverage: Conclusion

I wanted this series to be much longer and more extensive, but the more newspapers I perused, the more it became apparent that reviewing more of them would be redundant (although the National Post soccer page looks pretty cool, and their Eric guy is doing a bang up job, it wasn't worth a precious post). The East Coast Canadian papers have no soccer coverage at all, except for one or two local stories tucked away where you can't find them.

I suppose the sorry state of soccer coverage in online newspapers is a reflection of the shit creek they happen to be up right now sans paddle, financially speaking. The coverage from television network sites tends to be much better, but of course they have an incentive there to draw in readers to eventually turn on the TV and watch games—one reason why has some of the best TFC coverage around. What incentive do newspapers have to spend resources on a sport that a lot of Canadians and Americans apparently don't think or care a whole lot for, even though there is a good chance they would if it was taken a little more seriously by the aging sportswriter hacks that plague this continent?

I don't have a nifty answer for that, except you might ask just what the hell a newspaper is for anymore at all. We've already heard a lot about how online newspapers tend to all print the same news stories, and reading through the soccer pages, that's obviously the number one reason why many of them shouldn't even bother existing. Okay, so you don't have the money to pay for reporters to drum up local news stories on every sport from basketball to track and field to water polo. Why not outsource coverage to an interested blogger for a smaller, hobbyist wage? He or she could go out and cover a local beat; perhaps a full-match report on some peewee Timbits Tiny Tots Cup final in Brampton or something.

Hyperlocal it up, in other words. In addition to that, the paper could give them free reign to do blogger Goff type stuff, and include longer editorials and the like. A lot of North Americans are already doing this for a pittance on their own; can't be too difficult to give them a moneyed incentive to do more of it and better? Because what other reason does anyone have to visit your newspaper online unless they're offering something they can't find anywhere else on the web? And you can't get more exclusive than solid local sports coverage.

In fact, a lot of local Toronto newspapers lost their chance for that when launched last year. Now there's even less of a reason for anyone interested in soccer to independently decide to visit or Obviously there are complicated union issues to resolve with this type of set up, but meanwhile Rome is burning, and papers are left hoping their print editions will be enough to sustain them in the coming years. I'll just conclude snippily and say, if the status quo continues, the papers should save their hosting/domain fees and dump huge portions of their online sites. Don't bother if you're not even going to try.

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.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

North American online newspaper soccer coverage: The Winnipeg Free Press

Now for something completely different: the Winnipeg Free Press. Twitter people should know the newspaper through reading Jerrad Peters' column there via his profile link. When I first decided to review the WFP's soccer page, I assumed Peters would be front and centre. Instead, I was momentarily confused by this headline: "Deadline day a bust for soccer powers", thinking that I had just woke up after a three and a half week snooze, until I noticed it was dated September 1st, 2010. Have a look. Seriously.

This is what I mean when I talk about inept soccer coverage by North American newspapers. The Winnipeg Free Press is a small regional newspaper with very limited resources, publishing at a time when the newspaper business is getting its ass kicked by everything, and there are no notable professional soccer teams playing in Winnipeg Manitoba. Fine. But Jerrad Peters, a Canadian writer, has written a fucking book about soccer, a book that I've managed to locate in every major Chapters-Indigo outlet including one in Moncton, New Brunswick, and yet his soccer column appears, inexplicably, in the "Opinion" section of the paper.

Not only that, but you wouldn't be able to find Peters unless you deliberately searched for him. So the WFP has a dedicated soccer columnist who watches as many games if not more than many of his European equivalents (check his Twitter timeline), a published author, and he is completely missing from the soccer page. In his place are wire stories from six fucking months ago. Maybe Peters' was recently let go or something and hasn't told us yet, because I feel like I must be missing something obvious here. I have no more words for this until someone tell me what gives.

Monday, January 3, 2011

North American online newspaper soccer coverage: The New York Times

Leaping across the border, today we look at the New York Times online Soccer page. Sustainable or no, the Times has the sort of resources newspapers like the Globe and Mail can only dream about. But the difference here is one of degree, not of philosophy.

As with the Globe, the mainpage is littered with Reuters and AP wire reports, although the layout is much more attractive and the news more up-to-date. The stories are also more interesting if a little obvious to the non-hardcore, for example this piece on the negative effect Europe is having on Argentinean club football (hardly a recent development). Meanwhile the league results widget is out of date and the multimedia slideshows are stuck on South Africa 2010, which are again understandable if regrettable resources issues.

Better is the ubiquity of Rob Hughes, a real life NY Times writer whose in-house stories, while not exactly reliant on primary source reporting, mix in well with the match reports. Again, the Eee Pee El is overly represented here, but there is a nice bit of periphery like Hughes' report on the "softness" of the Old Firm derby in light of the anniversary of the Ibrox stadium disaster.

And then there's the NY Times' "Goal!" blog, which includes a number of other voices in addition to Hughes including the excellent Jack Bell.  Newspaper blogs serve a good purpose—they give the paper a bit of traction with scatterbrained hardcore soccer readers, something they can quickly add to an RSS reader and move on. The downside is the inconsistency of the blog entries; an update on the USMNT is welcome, but is nestled in next to an unnecessary Christmastime state of the union in the Premier League. It's also hard to fault other North American papers for not featuring independent blogs, considering the cost.  

In all this is a good soccer page, although there is little to distinguish what's on offer here from the rest of the football blogosphere. Again, the idea seems to be that the page is meant for idly curious Times' readers and, with the exception of the blog, not for the unwashed masses arriving from across the web. There's nothing on soccer on the Times' page you'd read because you couldn't find it elsewhere—for example, no smaller, out-of-the-way stories from across America that would be an interesting gap to fill in the non-MLS winter months, stories that that the New York Times traditionally does well. So in the end it's really just the Globe again with an NY Times budget.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

North American online newspaper soccer coverage: The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail is a good place to begin this series because their soccer page illustrates the core problem with online newspaper coverage of football in North America (actually, the soccer page speaks to the problem with online newspapers full stop, but we'll get to that later).

The home page looks nice enough, but there is almost no original content apart from a generic "Globe staff" by-line attached to a few articles and a La Liga piece from the excellent Paul Attfield dated December 22nd. Almost everything here comes via the Associated Press with heavy focus on the "English Premier League." Below the main headline articles—some of which are several days old—the soccer news is categorized by region: Toronto FC, MLS, then Europe. Some of the articles in these categories date from the end of November. In almost every case, these news articles are wire reports no longer than a few paragraphs consisting of one or two sentences. While the tag line of the site boasts "post game analysis," you'd be hard-pressed to find any examples. Resident tactical man Paul James, who writes the online column "James on Soccer," last published an article on October 3rd.

The first argument you could make in defense of what is by any objective measure an impoverished soccer page is the Globe has limited resources and soccer just isn't popular enough in Canada to justify original online content. Hockey is Canada's national sport, and it is what readers come to expect from Canadian papers. In any case, staff writers have to be paid a certain amount (they're unionized), so it's not as if the Globe can hire a few eager, soccer-loving interns to give the page a unique outlook or chase after out-of-the-way regional stories. And at least the soccer news here is more up-to-date than the NHL news at the Guardian, which features news articles from June 2009.

The second argument is that the Globe soccer page is clearly not meant for  soccerphiles but rather for the regular Globe reader, who might want to catch up on what's going on in English soccer after guffawing at the latest Margaret Wente piece they were forced to read online after their paper got stolen off the front porch. This philosophy follows the old model in which the online newspaper is a sort of bonus to the paper edition instead of a unique outlet in its own right. If you're a soccer nerd, you're not going to go to your local Canadian daily for the latest news.

I would counter and say that with two more Canadian MLS teams coming down the pipe, the notion that soccer isn't popular enough to warrant the resources required to generate original content will lose traction in the coming years. Still, you can see where the Globe is coming from. Why huff and puff and spend money on covering soccer when interested readers can get it in better detail with better analysis from a plethora of English-language news outlets overseas? Unfortunately, this buys into the idea that newspapers simply follow the devices and desires of their readers, rather than crafting them. It underestimates the power of print media to shape our cultural expectations of sport. I'll be touching more on this theme as the series continues...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Series for a New Year

I've written a lot on this blog about the woeful state of most newspaper soccer coverage, particularly in North America, but I've generally treated it as a fact of life like the rising of the sun and the running of the deer. This practice is, ironically, a glaring example of bad football journalism. Mea culpa. Thankfully it's a new year, which is as good a time as any to test this widely-held assumption by critiquing the soccer coverage in Canadian and American newspapers, one-by-one.

While the timing isn't exactly auspicious—MLS doesn't kick off until March—there are enough off-season antics what with De Rosario's time of trial at Celtic and Beckham's bizarre move to Tottenham to get a good sense of how our major newspaper outlets are doing. For example, is there an over-reliance on the AP wire? Is there one "soccer" guy in the newsroom who just sort of does what he wants in the form of a blog? Are there interesting or unique angles not offered by competitors? Good coverage of women's football? Allowance for long-form stories? That sort of thing.

For a few reasons, this inquiry will be entirely based on online newspaper coverage. First, soccer journalism is now almost entirely web-based; while we are a passionate bunch, there aren't enough of us to justify the cost of ink and paper. Second, I don't have the means to go down and pick up a paper copy of the LA Times. I'm also going to be sticking to the big hitters, with only a hint of regional bias (I have to include the Toronto Star, not least because it is one of the most widely circulated papers in the country). And I'm going to keep things bloggy: no categories or ratings systems or obnoxious Fisking. These are going to read more like film reviews than madlibs. If you have any cracking suggestions outside the obvious, feel free to let me know.

The series will "kick off"(yup) with a review tomorrow of the soccer coverage within Canada's favourite "national" newspaper, the Globe and Mail. Prepare to have your feelings slightly hurt or your confidence infinitesimally bolstered, proper journos.