Monday, August 8, 2011

Henry Winter is a blogger

The question comes up time and again: "Is there still such a thing as mainstream football media?"

I'll leave the question aside in a North American context, but there clearly is in some parts of the world, namely England, where the football league's tussle with the mainstream press over the latter's reluctance to be monetarily extorted has resulted in some interesting apologetics, most notably from the Telegraph's Henry Winter.

The argument Winter makes is this: the Football League needs the mainstream press to "fan interest." I would delight in answering, "actually, football itself did that quite well for the last hundred years or so" but I do agree with him, at least in principle. As I've written before, sport isn't news, in the sense that there is nothing to report on that goes beyond either the match itself, or the highlight reel, or the box score. The bulk of sportswriting published in newspapers is fundamentally interpretative, outside of the odd transfer story scoop. It's storytelling packaged as news.

Which is also why the insistence of certain sportswriters that they are first and foremost journalists, even though they often rarely report anything remotely resembling news outside of dutifully taking notes at otherwise televised post game press conferences, is the football blogger's number one pet peeve. David Conn and Matt Scott are sports journalists, at least when they go out and discover something that the reader would not have the time, access or economical resources to find out him or herself, such as FIFA corruption and the like. So are many other reporters who act in a similar mode. But writing an MBM, or a wittily scripted post game match report makes you something else—a sportswriter.

And as many have discovered, you don't need access, press boxes, and hooked up laptops to be a sportswriter. Which is why Winter's claim to the importance of press access at the football ground rings hollow. If football clubs, for whatever reason, decided to grant access to club or independent bloggers, in what capacity would the seasoned newspaper sportswriter—not sports journalist—be better at doing his or her job, beyond writing/editing experience?

The Football League probably figured this out, and realized their product is worth much more to major press organizations then the other way around, particularly when it comes to the non-Premier League. If I want to read about Rochdale, or Stevenage, or Brighton and Hove Albion, I'm not going to bother checking the Daily Mail or the Guardian. No, I go to anyone of several fan blogs, or to all purpose blogs like Twohundredpercent or European Football Weekends, or even the Swiss Ramble.

Winter's claim that smaller clubs will go to seasoned journalists to write their programme notes doesn't surprise me as many football clubs are run by idiots. Why go to Patrick Barclay for your match day notes when you could get a much more interesting, involved, younger and eager writer who knows more about the team to do it for you, for less money?

Ditto for club promotion. Smart football clubs will know by now that courting major newspapers for the odd article is an investment-heavy, return-light strategy that won't get bums in seats for the long term (the only actual work major newspapers tend do within the lower leagues is restricted is write about how awful their owners are). Much better to work on those grassroots supporters, the younger ones who have the time, money, and energy (and have fewer relegation memories).

All this is to say that while the sports journalism trade is as relevant and important as ever, the sportswriting trade is open to anyone with a love of football, a pair of eyes, and the ability to build an audience. The real fear for the Henry Winter's of the world is that, with their access revoked, their readers (and editors) will figure it out sooner than later.