At the Society of Editors seminar in the Midlands on Monday, Liverpool Echo editor Alastair Machray was one of a number of editors to answer the question: “Is sport still important?”
Actually, Ali also answered the question: “How we will make sure we’re important to fans?” as well, because the actual title of the session could be answered in sentences containing one word, or just three letters.
The challenge for the regional media, however, is simple: Lots of people think they can do sport now, and by sport I generally mean professional football. Some do it very well – football clubs for example, and some blogs – others don’t
So where does the regional media fit in? Ali pointed to the fact the Liverpool Echo is the only media to get 30 minutes a day with both Everton boss Roberto Martinez and LFC boss Brendan Rodgers. It’s what sets the Echo’s writers apart from the ‘men in their sheds’ bashing out content on LFC and EFC without ever going to the football ground, let alone grill the manager on what’s happening.
That doesn’t mean if you’re on not on such good terms with the football manager, you’re a man in a shed. Indeed, Ali was at pains to say the Echo isn’t in the pocket of the clubs – fans of both clubs would be very vocal about that if they thought the title was. The Echo appears to be in lucky – and rare – territory: it has clubs which appreciate the importance of the local title, but don’t seek to regulate what it does and doesn’t write.
So Shed Journalist – as I’ll call him or her now – is someone every journalist should avoid being. To me, being a journalistic Shed Man is basically about publishing stuff because you can. I can, therefore I am if you see what I mean. Shed Man does it without connections into a wider community of people who can inform and shape what you do.
There are lots of such sports sites out there, churning out content just for audience, knowing that their success hangs on getting something out on NewsNow at just the right time. The audience is passing through, not coming to you specifically. It feels lonely, a bit like being in a shed, I guess.
Journalism is increasingly about connections with readers and engagement with them too. For the Echo, sports coverage is defined by having the inside track at the football clubs, but the confidence to call things straight when it needs to. At the Newcastle Chronicle, it’s a different picture – the club banned writers from the Newcastle titles over coverage of an anti-owner protest march.
That’s given the Chronicle especially a closer tie with the fan community, and the freedom to write without fear of punishment from the club at a time when most fans want the owner – and increasingly the manager – out.
In Portsmouth, The News was always being threatened with being banned when Pompey were big time. Now they’re not and the paper is more connected to fans than ever before – thanks in part to resurrecting the Saturday Sports Mail and donating 10p a copy to the fans organisation which now runs the club.
The whole point of a shed is to have the ability to lock yourself away from the world if you want to, and that’s the last thing journalists can allow themselves to do, even if some have been prone in the past at doing just that. The ability to connect with people, and make people think of us, is what separates ‘shed journalism’ from real journalism.
There will be some who would construe the idea of shed man as an attempt by me as a professional journalist to belittle the attempts of those who aren’t lucky enough to be paid to be journalists, or who write and don’t see themselves as journalists at all. Honestly, I’m not trying to do that.
I’ve seen hyperlocal sites crop up with active editors who are all over their community, turning some journalists at established brands into ‘shed men’ – at best, not as connected to their communities as the new hyperlocal sites are.
The internet has been a very honest assessor of just how connected the many parts of our newspapers are to the communities they serve. Subjects we would consider essential to a daily newspaper often look a lot different under the microscope of audience analytics.
In the weeks, months and years to come journalism will increasingly be measured by its ability to engage, its ability to make people think ‘If I want to know about this, I have to go there’. That’s the key to success, and it depends on making sure we never become Shed Man. You can get page views and unique users without talking to the audience, the hard work comes from convincing them to find you, not the other way round. And you’re a lot harder to find in the shed.
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PS: Just to be clear, I like sheds, but to make this post work I’ve had to take Ali’s lead. I’d much rather have talked about greenhouses. I have a real problem with them. If you like sheds, I’d point you in the direction of Andrew Wilcox, a colleague of mine who knows all about building communities around sheds.