The Sweeper: Sweeping Up Something New for the Weekend

As Tom has already explained, Pitch Invasion is currently regenerating in a good, Doctor Who sort of way—think of a stiff, cauliflower-haired Jon Pertwee shape-shifting into the adorably insane Tom Baker.  The Sweeper, like little K9, will be changing too.  As you have may have noticed, the daily Sweepers have gone, and so it seems a bit insulting to your intelligence to chuck together the weekend news with no mention of the week’s happening.

So over the next few weeks leading into the World Cup, I will be compiling the week’s news and articles of note, and make an attempt at some sort of hamfisted synthesis to give the week’s soccer news the shiny illusion of meaning.  Because I trust most of you know how to use an RSS Feed, this is not going to be an exercise in finding something that looks interesting, glancing at it for forty-five seconds and then chucking up a link with a bullet point.  Besides, Bob over at already actually finds and reads captivating articles from around the globe in their entirety, writes pithy summaries on them, and presents them with eye-catching photographs.  The last thing the Interwebs needs is duplication of work, and Bob’s work is excellent.

Seeing as we’re embarking on a new direction, now would be a good a time to look at why we do what we do here at Pitch Invasion.  A well-worn topic in North American soccer writing circles, Tom Meagher returned this week to the subject of the future of soccer journalism in America in the age of the Internet in an excellent two-part series.  Meagher is pleased with the flurry of online American soccer writing, although he is worried about the lack of basic journalistic practices, like rigorous fact-checking and avoidance of conflict of interest.  Meagher writes:

It’s been great to see the level of engagement by so many regular fans, but I still find myself yearning for more. I want deeper reporting, better writing and smarter analysis. I want it all packaged in an attractive design, and I want more of it every day. I daydream about a soccer publication that embodies some of the best values of newspaper journalism infused with all the potential of the digital realm.

Meagher points to the chaotic amateur nature of online blogging as part of the problem.  Who has the time (or access for that matter) to schedule day-time interviews with MLS team personnel or players, do their own fact-checking, strive for clear unbiased reporting, and do so in a new and interesting way, with only the prospect of a couple of hundred bucks a month from on-line ad revenue as motivation?

Unlike the rest of the world, most of what is written about soccer in North America is done online by poorly paid hobbyists without editorial direction, without professional fact-checkers, deadlines or accreditation.  Those were the luxuries of the bygone age of the newspaper publishing, an industry that used to own the only print press in town thereby forcing you to buy the whole paper, soccerless sports section and all, to subsidize the boring-but-important long-form journalism.  This is the kind of journalism that Internet zealots like Clay Shirkly have long declared dead and buried in the age of the universally accessible, million-fold online printing press.

But as the Atlantic’s James Fallows discovers in an absolute must-read article this week, there are some people, particularly at Google, who do not share Shirkly’s blood-lust for old print media.  They are more inclined to use words like “transition” in favour of “extinction”.  In fact, they are enthusiastic about the future of online news gathering for several reasons which are best read in the article.  Fallows is quick to mention these are not all-encompassing solutions, nor do they necessarily mean that ten years from now all these great online soccer writers will be paid a living wage and given the resources to cover soccer as disinterested journalists.  But they do indicate there is real potential in the coming years for more of what both Tom Meagher and Fake Sigi want: in the latter’s words, “the need for more critical questioning of those in power from the whole spectrum of internet soccer coverage in America.”

Yet is that all the vastness of American Internet soccer coverage has to offer? At one point in Fallows’ piece, he asks Google News developer Krishna Bharat to tell him what he had learned from traditional news publishers.  The response deserves full reprint here:

[Bharat] hesitated for a minute, as if wanting to be very careful about making a potentially offensive point. Then he said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

When American writers talk about online soccer coverage, they usually frame the discussion as follows: North American print journos don’t cover soccer, so it’s up to the Internet to do it instead.  But should that mean independent bloggers should attempt to imitate their contemporaries in print?  I’m going to go out on a limb here, but there are very few mainstream print sports writers, for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, hell, most North American newspapers (outside of the Globe’ and Mail’s Stephen Brunt) that I’d want covering soccer. The American author Richard Ford, speaking through his epic character Frank Bascombe in his book The Sportswriter, nails the vapidity of that genre well:  “If there’s another thing that sportswriting teaches you, it is that there are no transcendent themes in life. In all cases things are here and they’re over, and that has to be enough.”  I’m going to be a bit insulting here, but that’s how Ives Galarcep and Grant Wahl write: like traditional, ethical (at times), news-gathering American sports writers who dispense facts in a pithy way and then walk away. When’s the last time you came back to reread an Ives weekend MLS roundup?  Or one of Steve Goff’s link-a-thons?

Yet there are Run of Play post-game reports I return to again and again.  This week, Fredorrarci wrote one the most masterful pieces I have ever read on the importance of players in football.  Dan Loney is incapable of writing a boring summary at Big Soccer (even if it sometimes grates).  Fake Sigi’s screeds are always worth a couple of looks back, and you’re here right now because you know Tom Dunmore is one of the most capable soccer writers on the planet.  Were always told about the disposable nature of blogs, but everything ever published online is there forever, and the good writers know it.

This sort of sports writing isn’t native only to the Internet (When Saturday Comes has led the way in transcendent soccer writing for years), nor as the Guardian has ably demonstrated is it native to amateur writers alone, but the Internet nourishes it among independent writers like no other medium.  I write this so that we’re careful about what we mean when talk about journalistic writing on soccer.  Like Bharat observed, we don’t want to all produce solid, objectively clean match reports on DC United v. Seattle.  We need more of what Stephen Wells did in Philadelphia up to his death, what sometime soccer author John Doyle mentioned to me about his approach writing about the game, more writers willing to step outside the stadium with eyes wide open, observant to what’s happening outside the field of play.  As Fallows’ concludes. it’s the risk-takers that will be rewarded as the print news industry transforms in the next ten years.  Risk-taking doesn’t mean playing hard and fast with the facts or casting old fashioned journalistic integrity aside; it means regarding journalistic integrity one of many tools in writing a better story.  American soccer could provide the perfect staging ground for those who dare to seek those stories out in their own communities.

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