The Illustrated Possibilities for Good American Soccer Writing in the Internet Age
Do we want to read “interesting and entertaining stories well told” about soccer? I presume the answer to that is pretty obvious: hell yes. This is the same presumption that J Hutcherson at US Soccer Players ends a very interesting piece about the state of American soccer writing with:
I’m going to start the new year by making an assumption. Most of us have probably read enough live-blogs, ‘takes’ on other people’s reporting, baseless speculation, and lists. To put it as simply as possible, the internet is doing us no favors.
Here’s the thing, and I’m making it soccer-specific. I can only hope that anyone trying to run a soccer site gets what I’m describing and would prefer a different model.
Think of it like this. How many writers and editors working from multiple locations would it take to really cover every single issue that arises during the 24-hour Worldwide soccer news cycle? 30? 50? Approaching a hundred experts getting paid for their time? Yet we’re operating with the expectation that all sites should be general. Even specialty sites fall for it, looking for ways to extend rather than deepen.
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Right now, the web doesn’t think much of those that go against the idea of multiple posts every single day. Forget about taking time, there’s an audience to serve.
Short or long form, it becomes about churn. The more the better, and a site’s numbers will prove the point. That has very little to do with building an audience of real people genuinely interested in what a site covers.
Getting past the idea that there’s a ‘have to’ and replacing it with a ‘want to’ would cure a lot of this immediately. Narrow the focus, commit the resources, and see what happens.
I’m not going to go to MLSnet for international soccer news. I’m not going to visit The Guardian for their MLS coverage. I’m not checking any soccer site for happening bands, fashion advice, or the latest in pop culture. I don’t have the patience for writers that want to make everything a joke or a crisis. No thanks to anybody confusing ‘long form’ with ‘bad editing.’ Spare me the instant expert.
What I want to read is simple in theory: interesting and entertaining stories well told. I’m going to assume I’m not the only one.
You’re certainly not, J (of course, to plead guilty, we here spit out multiple posts a day and our remit is as broad as the global game, though we only occasionally offer fashion advice).
There are several sites telling good stories in the manner that I think J would appreciate: the point here isn’t to name names on who does and who doesn’t, but it’s no secret the respect yours truly has for the likes of the Global Game, Run of Play, This Is American Soccer, and a few others.
But there’s no doubt they are buried under an avalanche of poorly written, repetitive or speculative pieces regurgitating the same stories with little original insight. Sadly, professionals are often even more guilty than amateurs of this in American soccer writing. Newspaper coverage is unlikely to improve in this economy and era for the printed press; the amateur blogs do not make enough money to allow the good writers the luxury to really research and write original pieces often enough; the freelance writers pop off one good story in ten, showing at times they have the talent, but too rarely the necessary editorial oversight or motivation. Too often, as J says, we are simply in churn, counting pageviews for pennies.
The question, then: are there any models developing that might give us more “interesting and entertaining stories well told” in the future?
Official, or Pravda, Journalism
Let us start with the least obvious possibility: that MLS itself will tell us these stories. We speculated a few months ago that MLS teams would go down the route of some other American sports teams and vastly increase their in-house content production to fill the void caused by the lack of coverage of their teams in the local and national press: the death of the newspaper beat writer bodes ill for deep coverage of MLS teams. This appears to be exactly what is happening, judging by a comment left by Chris Schlosser of MLS on J Hutcherson’s piece:
Very interesting column, I am in the middle of relaunching MLSnet.com. For the 2010 season you will have an entirely new site on both the national and local level. We started local with the realization that fans are fans of a club first and a league second (if at all). Each local club will have independent editorial control over their site, every club is in the process of hiring dedicated local writers and content producers to cover each club and the soccer scene in each city. This local coverage will be suplimented with a new national editorial team, the national team will provide coverage of national stories, the league and analysis of what is happening in and around MLS and soccer in the US. We have a ton of work between now and March to put all of the pieces in place but are excited about the prospects for 2010.
This can, of course, be done very well or very badly, as we commented before: we will simply have to wait and see what happens. MLS has already launched its MLS Insider blog under the guidance of Shawn Francis (see the interesting comments to our post about that hire by MLS), but as of right now, it’s too early too tell what this aggressive in-house effort will mean for the Truth in American soccer media. It is, however, at least one model that will give numerous writers payment and attention to allow them to write deep, locally driven pieces: albeit, in that awkward situation of being paid by your subject to cover it.
The lusted after elixir for publishers from your smallest local newspaper to Rupert Murdoch, the return of the pay wall around content to fund journalism as the old dead trees model dies continues to rear its head, with the forthcoming Apple Tablet the latest wet dream of magazine publishers to resurrect their format and business model in the digital era. Our discussion of the possibilities for paid content recently came from a proposal by American Soccer News that this model could work in a niche are like American soccer. To reiterate:
American Soccer News offers a different solution: an old one, a discredited one in general parlance, but one that does intrigue me: paid content, via a dedicated, high-quality start-up site.
The idea is to have dedicated coverage for each Major League Soccer team. This is an area that has historically been underserved (at best) or completely ignored (at worst) by local newspapers. And yet the demand for news is certainly there. Just take the Philadelphia Union, the newest MLS team to begin play next season. The team has already sold 6,000 season tickets (as of six months ago!) yet does not have a single dedicated beat reporter from a major newspaper or wire service. That’s at least 6,000 individuals who are left wanting for news about their team.
ASN concludes that this would best be started at a single team, with a $200,000 start-up cost for staff and expenses, which could be funded by a monthly fee of $5-10 range by around “3,000 subscriptions”, commenting ”That’s significantly less than the amount of people who put down season ticket deposits for the Philadelphia Union.”
Could this work? The only way we will find out is if someone has the balls to smack down $100k+ to find out. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and the future of paid content on the internet remains doubtful: the Free is not easily defeated.
Not as trendy as it once was as a model for the future of journalism, but we have seen some green shoots for citizen journalism in American soccer this year. Several bloggers have produced some excellent reporting in the areas often too little covered by the mainstream outlets: the lower leagues, this offseason more interesting than ever, thanks to the fantastically bitter battle between the USL and NASL to earn US Soccer Federation recognition as Division II leagues. Particularly passionate but well sourced work has come from Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer and Kartik Krishnaiyer at his various outlets.
Unfortunately, the good citizens are hurt by the bad citizens. For every good piece on the USL/NASL crisis, there have been three poor ones by bloggers and even paid professional writers with speculative theories that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Birch Society publication in terms of their grounding in fact. Certain sites — you know who they are — suck up a lot of page views despite their lack of quality, and hurt the reputation of the soccer blogosphere as a whole; this makes it hard for the good citizen journalists to be noticed, respected and make any money.
An Incomplete Future
I do not know which, if any, of the above possibilities might aid the development of good soccer writing. But perhaps it is wise to remember how young the soccer media is here; sure, the sport has a long history in America, but it has hardly been a steady rise likely to prompt regular, established media coverage.
As we know, the mainstream sports media largely ignores American soccer: there are few opportunities here for a budding Tim Vickery, David Conn or Gabrielle Marcotti.
Still, once upon a time in England, the mainstream media did not ignore football so much as it was openly hostile to it (The Sunday Times in 1985, after Heysel: football is a “slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums”). Fans responded through self-published fanzines, and eventually, much higher quality football writing developed out of this. From When Saturday Comes came Fever Pitch (in a roundabout way). This was crucial to the rehabilitation of football in cultural consciousness in England (along with many other factors, but this point should not be missed).
Fans turned around the medium of print that had been used to disparage them into something to build the discourse of the sport positively from the ground up. Whatever the particular and peculiar circumstances of all this, the fact is it essentially took one hundred years of professional football before “interesting and entertaining stories” were regularly written about the sport in England. There were some exceptions to this prior to the fanzine explosion, but as few as far between as the good writing is today in American soccer.
We are of course writing in a new medium that is still inventing its own rules about how content is paid for and appreciated. J Hutcherson wrote in the column we began with that “the internet is doing us no favors,” and independent soccer media ventures earlier this decade did not end well. But I will deliberately take J the wrong way here and say let us not blame the medium; the internet offers us an opportunity to do ourselves a big favour with the ability to write, learn about and appreciate the world of soccer in so many deep and unique ways not possible before, and to share this with each other.
We do need to find a way to ensure the churn and chatter does not overwhelm our ability to think and reflect, and for original voices to emerge and be heard — and paid for. Whether it is one of the models mentioned above, or something new, remains to be discovered, but the passion and talent I see out there despite the obstacles makes me think it will come.
Image credits: Regurgitated, by love-my-dog on Flickr; Pravda, by Clashmaker on Flickr; Paid Content, by Stefan on Flickr; Citizen Journalism, by The Blackbird on Flickr; Zines, by artnoose on Flickr.