So how do you solve a problem like the transfer window?

Jack Butland: Will he stay or will he go? It wasn’t even a question unless you watched Sky Sports News

If you were to compile a list of quick ways to send daily unique audience figures through the roof, putting up spurious transfer rumours would be up there with tales of UFOs, topless pictures of David Beckham or exclusives about One Direction*.

Indeed, around three or four years ago, a number of regional newspaper websites suddenly experienced huge growth on the back of transfer rumours concerning clubs they had no interest in or a reputation for covering.

Harmless fun? If you’re only concerned with your unique user figures, maybe. But if you’re more worried – as you should be – with penetration into local marketplace (after all, the commercial teams are selling to local audiences) and audience engagement – pages per user, frequency of return visits, comments on articles – then joining the football transfer bunfight isn’t going to do you much good.

I know plenty of journalists who would happily see the transfer window shut for good. What they’d replace it with varies – but for many, particularly regional, football reporters, the transfer window is a no-win situation. If a made-up rumour gains traction and you’re not reporting it, you look behind the pack.  And, with clubs locking down access to information more than ever before, making a point of dismissing a rumour which turns out to be true be a dangerous past-time.

Sadly, very few people remember who started the rumour which was wrong – but they do remember the club reporter who said a rumour was wrong when it turned out to be right.

There are ways around it, of course. The websites I work with in my day job at Trinity Mirror include the titles which are the main local media for Manchester United, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Swansea, Fulham, Chelsea and so on – all clubs which have hundreds of sites pumping out rumours which attract traffic through NewsNow – and hundreds of sites which feed of the content we produce and are often very slow to credit the source.

Sensible rumour mills have worked very well for where rumours are collated and then sifted through by a sports writer who actually knows how his or her club works. Providing a couple of sentences of sensible analysis on the likelihood of something being true or not, without giving a 100% ‘I’ll bare my arse in…’ answer helps build trust and loyalty to a writer among the online sports audience.

Regular web chats with the writers also help because they can identify the rumours which are gaining traction – and lead to a good discussion about club priorities.

Perhaps most crucial, however, is getting across the point that each article or update produced for a regional news website doesn’t have to be the confirmed first draft of history. If a trusted media outlet starts running a story we haven’t confirmed, adopting an honest approach in reporting what is being reported by that outlet while making the point you are chasing up your sources shows a level of respect to toward the information-seeking football fan which others don’t display.

Ignoring it entirely is a dangerous game – you might be happy that you’re always right, but the danger is that you look out-of-date … and that’s a sure fire way to become irrelevant online quickly.

For regional sites – the only places to have full-time writers covering specific clubs – the transfer window has the potential to be the time when our credentials as the authority sources for information on clubs can be cemented. But to do that, there needs to be a more open approach to sharing information and thoughts.

That approach is all the more relevant when you look at how Sky Sports News covers transfer deadline day. SSN has made its name for being bold, brash and tabloid – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But this Tweet should worry any journalist:

On Andy’s Twitter account, he also makes the point that Everton knew nothing about it, and neither did the agent. Now, there will be people at this point who say that football clubs always say that during transfers – but they don’t. They tend to just keep quiet. And knowing Andy – he’s an ex Birmingham Mail sports reporter who was one of the first journalists I worked with to fully grasp the potential of social media for his craft, hence why Birmingham City is now so good at it – he wouldn’t go on Twitter to create a cover-up.

Interestingly, Sky Sports News radio stopped running the rumour when told by both clubs it wasn’t true. SSN got the manager on TV at 11pm to deny a rumour which no-one had heard apart from Sky Sports News?

Respected local broadcaster Tom Ross argues that’s why the transfer window should be closed for good. I disagree. It’s not for Sky Sports News to worry about unsettling a player or distracting a manager late at night. They, like all journalists, need to strike the balance between entertaining and informing. Sticking with a story which had been dismissed as nonsense perhaps isn’t the way to do that.

But it does crystalise the value of the regional news site, with more in-depth knowledge of a club than anyone else, during the transfer window. Get close to the fans. Tell them what you know and what you don’t know. What you think might happen and what you don’t think could. That’s how to stand apart in the transfer window.

Ultimately, that’s the way to reign in the silliness of the transfer window.

*Insert name of latest boyband


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