How Much Are Football Journalists Needed Nowadays?

It was a worrying week for the football press-pack last week. All their worst fears came true when attempts to update an eight-year old agreement and agree what rights reporters, photographers and the like would have to cover Premiership and Football League matches this season broke down. Disagreements sprung up around the new methods of in-match reporting such as live photos, tweets etc. Thus, no journalists or photographers were allowed into matches to report on proceedings.

Left with no matches to report on, and out of ideas on how to re-spin Cesc Fabregas transfer news, they wrote instead on the horror of not being able to attend matches. Replete with a picture of him looking suitably disgusted, Henry Winter was FORCED to pay £25 to watch Nottingham Forest play, and the sporting world held its breath.

Winter and others (such as Sam Wallace at the Independent), argued that this was bad news for all fans of football. Winter argued that “newspapers, whether in print, online or via Twitter, keep fanning the flames of supporters’ interest in clubs.”

“On Sunday morning they will turn to their newspapers for a neutral’s verdict to find an absence of match reports.

“…the report is part of the match-day experience, fans’ reading up on the game, agreeing or disagreeing. I could spend an hour or more a day dealing with tweets, emails and letters sparked by a report of the previous night’s match.”

Sam Wallace said:

“But without us, and the other members of our dysfunctional press family, who is left? The answer is, the clubs’ own media. I have nothing against the website and TV personnel of our clubs, many of whom started life on our side of the fence and are very capable journalists. But are we sure the clubs are going to strive to give us the real, inside, uncomfortable story on their organisations?”

“…..I fear that my industry is getting elbowed out of the way by certain wealthy clubs who dislike not being in total control. I fear that some of these young men and women may end up in a ghastly PR-version of journalism where their questions are restricted.”

“…..I do not believe any football fan thinks that the clubs’ curtailing of press freedom is something to be celebrated.”

Thankfully a deal was struck just in time for the start of the Premier League, a brand that cannot be damaged at any time, or else the world would shift on its axis.

And this was good news for all concerned. Yes?

As already mentioned, when the ban kicked in it covered the Championship and below. But for fans of non-Premier league teams, the question is this? Was there a huge chasm in your life last weekend, a sense that something was missing, that you weren’t as up-to-date and educated with the goings-on of your football team? Or was it business as usual? Probably the latter.

When I was very young, before the days of Premiership football, live steaming, Super Sundays and message boards, I relied on newspaper match reports. Their words shaped much of how I thought about teams and players. Only when I became a regular attendee did I realised what drivel was being written.

Ok, not drivel – but I realised that people were seeing games very differently to how I was, and the match reports were nothing more than opinion pieces much of the time. Many a time you can watch a match with a friend and see things in a totally different way. Your man of the match is someone your friend thought was terrible. Even with 100 slow-mos and multiple angles you’ll still get wildly different opinions on whether an incident was a penalty, or a red card or a dive.

The most reliable of match reports was often the Football Pink, because it was a match report that simply reported what had happened, rather than trying to crowbar in a particular angle or agenda, and without some sub-editor’s misleading headline. On the downside, it did have a tendency to suddenly end after 67 minutes.

In the modern world of access-all-areas, how much do we need match reports? I never read them as one way or the other I will have seen the match, and so don’t need someone else to summarise it for me, but that’s just a personal choice. Sunday papers are known to sell better during the football season, so it seems their coverage is important to many. You may have seen a match, but when your new signing has scored a hat trick on his debut, you may want to read every match report possible. But if you support a small, lower-league club, there will be little of interest in  antional newspaper anyway.

But Winter’s theory that fans’ interests in their clubs is kept burning brightly by the press is laughable in the extreme. I, like millions of others, have supported my team for decades, and I managed to do it just fine without having to read newspapers to gee me up.

The problem journalists have is that their reputation is besmirched by the minority. Fans have become tired by lies, false rumours, sensationalizing of minor events, and perceived agendas and injustices. This used to be the style of the tabloids alone, but is is depressing how many broadsheet reporters have been reduced to spreading tittle-tattle and speculation. In the world of 24-hour news, there is not enough proper news to go around. When under 20% of transfer rumours turn out to be true, then it is hard to believe anything you read.

According to journalists, Wesley Sneijder has joined Manchester United five times, the first time being over a month ago. He has joined Manchester City twice. He has snubbed City twice too, United have ended their interest three times, terms have been agreed four times, and a fee agreed five times. Nasri signed for Manchester City three weeks ago, but then he was staying at Arsenal, this all coming after United had closed in on his signing, then he has since signed again four times, and the latest news is he will sign again once more later this week (for City).

Sam Wallace is probably right in saying the recent dispute is fuelled partly by the desire of clubs to have more control on the release of information, and more power in deciding what stays behind closed doors. The new tradition of players to tweet information will only have increased their paranoia. But the newspapers do not help themselves by writing critically of clubs – often it is deserved of course, but it is no surprise trust breaks down with clubs.

And journalists alone do not have access to breaking news. Twitter will break any story instantly, with or without journalists, and will spread malicious rumours in much the same way. The age of instant news has also put great doubt over the newspapers themselves. Exclusives are no longer the domain of the morning paper, as by then most people will already know the story. Add to this that agents and the truthful “in-the-knowers” can keep fans up to date with transfer stories, and that plenty of normal fans have an inside line to clubs, and what are reporters providing that’s unique? What’s more, quality bloggers like the Swiss Ramble have no constraints on space, and no deadlines.

Even Joey Barton, in a week of tweeting Nietzsche, the musings of Wittgenstein and calling Brian Woolnough a nugget, found time to say that the press won’t exist in ten years’ time. Wishful thinking on his behalf, but you can see the logic of his point.

What football journalists do have is contacts and access to areas we normal fans don’t (Old Trafford excepted). They get interviews with players and managers, get briefed on stories and get into press conferences. They have plenty of worth in what they can tell us. With experience comes relationships with those in the game, which bring sinsight and information that might not otherwise be known.
And many write excellently of course, such as Martin Samuel, Daniel Taylor or the financial investigations of David Conn. Quality football “writers” are plentiful (see also Jonathan Wilson). But this is more about the need for reporters rather than writers.

Times have changed, and the way news is reported has entered a new era that has made many old methods redundant. Newspapers have faced difficult times for decades, and the football journalists are no different, as they are no longer the sole bearers of news. Increasingly they know that times have changed, and have looked to branch out, be it appearing on radio shows, podcasts, or nibbling on a croissant on the Sunday Supplement panel. There will always be a role for sports reporting in newspapers in this country, but in future, it may well be less about exclusives and more about fulfilling a much broader media role. The competiiton for them is now huge, but they still have a vital role to play.