Football, Blogs, and Newspapers Unite? Part One

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When I was a precocious thirteen year-old, my favourite part of the morning was grabbing my dad’s Toronto Star on the front stoop, taking it inside and laying it flat out on my kitchen table, and opening it up on the editorial page. There, I would find the Letters to the Editor, featuring rebuttals, corrections, and general complaints about recent articles posted by staff journalists and columnists. I always found the letters more interesting than the carefully prepared screeds they were attacking, and was fascinated that the newspaper would devote an entire page to reader dissent. I even sent a few letters in myself, and some were printed, much to my astonishment.

For the longest time, this is how I followed the news. Not by reading the A1 articles, but rather the opinions of the unwashed who read and reacted to them. I don’t want to call Letters to the Editor page “proto-blogging,” but I think the model is relevant to how contemporary blogging worked for a long time. Once the internet came along, many of the same souls who wrote angry missives on misguided op-eds started to write full-length blog posts with links provided to the offending articles, and early blogging took its cues from this antagonistic relationship. Bloggers were always going on about the corporate-owned Mainstream Media, pointing out the inherent biases in newspaper coverage, ripping X, Y, and Z columnists whilst at the same time trying to prove as they were equal or better. Digital media proponents like Clay Shirky built their careers on the notion that “New Media” and traditional newspapers were in fundamental conflict with only one eventual winner, the “citizen journalist”, because the only thing separating the letter-writer and the print journalist was the printing press which the internet made accessible to everyone.

This antagonism was rampant in sports blogging as well, and football was no exception. You still see elements of it today: the raging diatribes against London bias against northern clubs, or against North American newspapers for not featuring more soccer coverage; the relentless criticism of the dour state of televised football punditry; Henry Winter and his gang of unruly critics. For many football bloggers, old media is and forever will be the enemy.

Yet over a decade of independent blogging later, many of us have taken a deep collective breath and realized a few things. First, that newspapers—in both print and on-line form—still have the resources required to provide up-to-the-minute news, and as such are still the number one source for most bloggers when it comes to sourcing story information (as we’ve seen during the current Wayne Rooney/United saga). Second, that bloggers provide something that newspapers and magazines can’t—geographic reach, intricate tactical breakdowns of several different league matches at once, regional football history, and in North America, comprehensive and frequently-updated coverage of the goings on of various MLS, NASL clubs.  The two might not overlap, or be locked in a death struggle, but might even be able to compliment each other somehow.

It’s certainly possible that blogs are blogs and print pubs are print pubs, and while they might do each other some good, the relationship won’t or shouldn’t go past links and page-views. But my own view is that blogs and print media might be vital for co-survival, and even could thrive together on-line. And I think football journalism, for reasons I’ll be getting into tomorrow, will lead the way in giving us a sense of what an on-line partnership between established journos and independent bloggers might look like.

I know that I and others have covered this topic in the past, and that it is familiar ground to many of you. Nonetheless, I think there are several reasons why now’s the time to take a long look at the future of football blogging. First, I think the phenomenon of burnt out bloggers in football is becoming more of a problem. A recent Fake Sigi post declaring “dead”, and subsequent reaction on Jason Davis’ Match Fit USA raise some interesting questions about the financial pitfalls of independent football writing (something I’ll be looking at in more detail later). There is a sense that the centre will no longer hold in its current form for many un- or low-paid soccer writers.

Second, some of older pay models for on-line writers have definitely failed or are likely to become irrelevant. I think we now know the Rupert Murdoch pay-wall at the Times of London has failed. It fundamentally undercuts the power of the web, which is interconnectivity, open comments from readers, interaction (and other $5 buzzwords!). Equally outdated is the Huffington Post “shlock writing plus a zillion intrusive banner-ads” method (although exactly why this model is dead will be discussed in more details in a future post). I think on-line advertising will have to fundamentally change in form, and I think football journalism/blogging can provide a good model for what that might look like.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at why football (and not, say, water polo) journalism is a prime candidate for traditional media/blogging partnerships, and then we’ll take it from there.

Richard Whittall also writes A More Splendid Life.

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