Rows between football clubs and local newspapers are nothing new. But in 2013, I believe we saw a shifting of the sands which will eventually change the way we cover football clubs for the better.
A quick appeal on Twitter earlier this week asking for football clubs which had fallen out with, or banned, their local newspaper, brought a swift selection to choose from.
So what does it all mean? To me, it’s proof that the regional press needs to become a more vocal, independent voice on matters relating to their football club, and less scared of the threat which hangs over many relationships that if the paper steps out of line, privileges will be withdrawn.
The question I would pose in that situation is ‘What special privileges do we get these days?’ In many cases, but by no means all, the answer is not very much. I know of football clubs which stick 11am embargoes on ‘exclusive’ interviews for regional press websites, even though it’s appeared in the print edition at 6am. The five-hour window is normally to give the club website ‘exclusive’ digital content.
The clubs now consider themselves content providers, connecting directly with fans and, in many ways, competing with us. There’s a lot the local media can learn from some of the things clubs do – full coverage of the press conference online within minutes – but there’s also one big thing the club’s can’t hope to compete with us on – our independence, which is valued by fans who criticise when they feel we’re too close to clubs and not speaking out when we should.
Newcastle United, it was recently reported, plan to charge for player interviews – the argument being that if radio and TV pay for NUFC content, ie match coverage – so should the Press. The likelihood of a player saying anything that sells extra papers or drives significant extra online audience via a club-sanctioned interview is slim in my opinion.
I know a reporter who covers a Premier League club who spends more times banned from talking to players and the manager than he does being allowed to speak to them and find out how they plan to win this weekend, how the defender is predicting the striker will score, and how the manager is aiming to go on a long cup run. The result is that his back pages, web chats and breaking web exclusives are agenda-setting, SEO-grabbing, fan-engaging stories which people remember.
And while I often disagree with people who try to proclaim that getting the web right just means making the most of old skills – such as the comparison between breaking news on websites and the old days of multiple editions throughout the morning and early afternoon – there’s no doubt that the old skills of building contacts, knowing the brief inside out and speaking to the audience are critical to the success of future football coverage in the regional press. Clubs may own access to the grounds, but it’s the players prepared to speak out or off the record, the agents with their not for quoting briefings and the good-old fashioned sources within the institutions who can have the most impact.
Looking at the 9 below – some have just fallen out with their club, others have been banned outright while in other cases the paper is balancing keeping the club onside but not at the expense of fans – I’d say the one things which unites them is the fact that they’re now seen as being on the side of the fans. I’d also argue that, as a result, their coverage is better than ever.
We had to start here, didn’t we? The Newcastle Chronicle’s punishment for daring to cover a protest march by fans against owner Mike Ashley was to withdraw media privileges not only for the Chronicle, but the Journal and the Sunday Sun too. I work closely with the team in Newcastle and the response from fans has been superb since the ban.
The Chronicle has, unfairly, been accused of being in NUFC’s back pocket in the past. No-one can argue that is the case now. And here’s the thing – the paper which boasts over 50 pages of NUFC coverage a week still produces over 50 pages of NUFC content a week, to an audience online which has risen sharply since the ban.
And the titles haven’t lost their sense of humour either:
There was a fascinating debate on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement programme about the ban. Two of the national journalists on there recounted stories about how, in the past, The Journal and Chronicle helped save the club at various points in the past. How times change.
2. Rotherham United
In this case, it appears all of that was forgotten when the paper ran a front-page story about a little boy who was unable to be a mascot for a game after the club said they didn’t have a spare kit for him.
All special privileges have been withdrawn, so the paper’s reporter now sits in the crowd.
In an interesting twist, the Rotherham manager, who did write a column for the Advertiser, is now doing so for the Sheffield Star. Star editor James Mitchinson, defending himself on holdthefrontpage, said: “I do not believe it is healthy for such a stand-off to exist between any newspaper and a prominent community organisation. Ultimately, it is said community that suffers.”
I’m not sure I agree with that statement. Surely it depends on how said community organisation is behaving.
3. Coventry City
Now, they are in League One, playing their ‘home’ games 30 miles away from Coventry, while a purpose-built stadium meant for them remains empty following one of the most complex rows football has ever seen.
Boiled down, it’s a row between unpopular owners who feel they were being charged too much to play at the Ricoh Arena, which the club doesn’t own, and which is part owned by Coventry City Council. There are many moving parts to this argument, including a myriad of companies and subsidiaries of companies which have made the club falling into administration devilish to follow.
No football club would ever be happy with this sort of front page, but to me (speaking as the son of a Sky Blue fan) the Telegraph has been more than patient with the goings on at the club, brilliantly summed up in this leader by editor Alun Thorne:
It [the move to the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton] will leave the club – already a shadow of its proud former self – as a sham, a sick joke playing in front of the minority of fans who haven’t been alienated by this shameful soap opera. Coventry City have a home. It is in Coventry, not Northampton. It is called the Ricoh Arena. You may wish they were still at Highfield Road but that is long gone.
ACL have repeated their offer for the club to play at the Ricoh rent free – but paying matchday costs – while they are in administration, so there is another option to Sixfields. There must surely still be a chance to find a compromise.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Ricoh row – and let’s be clear that neither side are faultless – the argument is almost irrelevant. Coventry City must play in Coventry.
Against a backdrop of a 10-point deduction because of administration, the club is doing rather well in League One, a fact reflected daily in the Coventry Telegraph.
4. Nottingham Forest
For all the complaints and criticisms thrown at the Daily Mail, it still remains one of the papers I have to read every day for one reason: Charles Sales’ column. It’s through him that I’ve heard a lot about the trials and tribulations facing Nottingham Forest these days. The foreign owners have so far yet to deliver the untold millions others predicted when they took over, and the club goes through managers at a rate of knots.
Billy Davies, the man who took my club, Preston, to the brink of promotion to the Premiership, is back for his second stint in charge and is coming across as rather erratic these days. His press conferences at Preston were always entertaining, if sometimes difficult to get a decent line from, depending on his mood.
But he appears an angry man at the moment, judging by his angry spat with a freelance photographer who was working for the Nottingham Post at the club’s game at Millwall. Davies had a problem with the photographer’s behaviour, something which incensed the Post, who leapt to his defence.
No ban for the paper or photographer, just a very curious incident which leaves you wondering ‘what next’?
5. Cardiff City
So it takes something remarkable for the local paper to run a front page like this less than half way into the season, yet you could argue the paper had little choice – things have been so utterly bonkers at the club under owner Vincent Tan.
Having navigated the tricky waters of the new owner changing the club’s colours, and increasingly erratic behaviour from the owner, the Echo made the view of fans very clear with this strong front page, a brilliant combination of print design and social media engagement combining to set the agenda.
6. Hull City (Tigers)
Not even Vincent Tan has changed the name of the football club in Cardiff, but that’s what the newish owners of Hull City want to do.
The story was broken by the Hull Daily Mail (left) with the follow up (right) the next day explaining just what fans thought about it.
The paper’s leader column sat on the fence somewhat on day two, saying time would tell if a name change will bring in extra revenue.
And it’s been giving the fans a fair share of their coverage ever since, while at the same time putting across the views of the club. It’s a polarising debate which the Mail has remained in the middle of, and one which passed a point of no return when the owner said it was fine for City fans ti sing ‘City til we die’ so long as they ‘died soon.’ Ouch.
7. Blackburn Rovers
Think I’m running out of ideas because I’m including a front page from 2011 here? Not a bit of it. Back in 2011, the Lancashire Telegraph caused a stir with this front page calling on Steve Keen to go from the club. Things picked up at the club, they gathered a few more points but were still relegated. The Telegraph had been proved right – it was going to take more than a rub of the green to improve things at Blackburn.
Fast forward two years and Rovers are still in the Championship, and still struggling. 20 years after lifting the Premier League trophy at Anfield on one of the most dramatic season finales ever, and things are bleak at Ewood. The Telegraph has continued to be a critical voice of the club, standing alongside fans throughout but also being fair.
The reason for including Rovers on this list is because of the unique way they’re still setting the agenda. Often, when a paper takes a stand against a football club, it’s done under the brand’s name, or maybe through the news pages, to try and build a firewall from the sports desk, who need to speak to the club day in, day out. Sometimes, that’s not enough, as the Newcastle situation shows.
But the Telegraph recently ran a two-page spread authored by Rovers reporter Paul Wheelock – and billed as an appeal by Wheelock on the back page – calling for the club to start talking to fans as the debts continue to mount up. Someone needs to speak up for the fans when the owners are on a different continent, and in Blackburn, it’s the Lancashire Telegraph.
8. Port Vale
BANNED: For asking a perfectly legitimate question on behalf of Port Vale fans and our readers. Yes, on Saturday our widely respected Port Vale reporter Michael Baggaley was refused access to the Press Box at Vale Park and so paid to get into the ground and sat in the stand with fans – a laptop on his knee. So reported the Stoke Sentinel.
Now, I did that once as a reporter covering PNE – not because I was banned, but because the press box at Walsall was too full for us all. Luckily, the Walsall fans are a good lot. But that’s not the point here.
That first paragraph is how the Stoke Sentinel broke news of being banned from Port Vale in October. As the paper said later on, it was being banned just years after helping to save it. Sound familiar?
The reason, like Rotherham’s reason for banning its newspaper, was remarkable – the club took offence at stories about a delay in the arrival of third-change shirts (Third change shirts! In League One!) which fans had paid for at the start of the season but which still hadn’t shown up.
The ban was resolved after a couple of weeks, and it emerged in talks between the paper and the club that the club’s chairman was still angry at stories written over the summer which used what he believed was ‘confidential’ information. Match reports like this certainly helped make a point:
9. Crawley Town
Yes, even Crawley Town, a club whose story is the stuff of Roy of the Rovers legend in terms of their climb up the leagues in recent years, aren’t immune to making life difficult for the Press. In fact, few clubs have made it so personal.
Manager Richie Barker banned players from speaking to Crawley News reporter Kaylee Seckington, after he took against two stories written in March this year. It was the headlines which offended, neither of which Kaylee had written.
The News took the fact Barker would talk to other reporters but not Seckington as an attempt to make the paper switch reporters covering the club – something the paper refused to do.
Nine months on and take a look at the page on the left. Seckington’s name is still there, but the only mention of Barker is in reference to a player complaining about his style of play. Barker left Crawley after a bad run in late November.
All of which is a reminder that managers, players and owners tend to come and go, the fans and the papers are the ones around for good.