Why the only future for football reporting is a ‘fan first’ future

On the day after Sir Tom Finney, the Preston North End legend and a player widely regarded as one of the gentlemen of the game, died BBC Radio Five Live broadcast its Saturday sports coverage from Deepdale, the home of North End.

It was a touching tribute to one of the greats of the game who earned his reputation in a different era of football. That point was summed up when the story about a transfer which never happened was discussed on air.

Sir Tom was wanted by Palermo, the Sicilian side, in 1952 and reports suggested they were prepared to offer Preston £30,000 for his signature, pay Sir Tom much more than he was earning in Preston, throw in a villa and pay for travel between Italy and Preston for his family.

The story goes that then-chairman Nat Buck quashed the deal, saying: “If tha’ doesn’t play for us, tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.” On hearing the story, Five Live presenter Mark Pougatch made the point: “So different from today, it was a time when the administrators ran football.”

Yet in an era when player power clearly does have the upper hand in football, certainly in the top two leagues, journalists and local media can often find themselves at the mercy of excessive demands and expectations of football club administrators in guise of media management. That, in turn, runs the risk of damaging the most important relationship of all: Our relationship with fans.

From insisting all player interview requests go through the club or only making the manager available for one interview a week, to insisting that all news is broken on the club site first and or placing digital embargoes on content which don’t apply to print to ensure the clubs have online exclusives, the demands from many football clubs are little short of draconian.

Sometimes a change of manager brings a change in policy – that’s certainly the experience of several football journalists I know. Other times, however, it’s part of a wider policy driven by the senior management of a club who see independent media as a publishing/broadcasting rival in the digital age, or who believe that independent media is no longer required now they can talk directly to fans.

When times are good at a club, this perhaps isn’t such an issue – when times are bad, it can become very testing. Threats about removing privileges or giving ‘rivals’ supposed better treatment come thick and fast. The challenge for local media then is to decide who they are providing coverage for.

Twenty years or so ago, maybe this didn’t happen so much, I don’t know. Football, in many ways, was in another different era. Certainly, without the internet and the proliferation of fans forums out there, it was often harder to get a sense of how dissatisfied football fans were. The ‘manager out’ protests would still happen, but getting a sense of how well thought of the striker/manager/owner was (or wasn’t) across a sizeable cross-section of fans was harder.

That cross-section of opinion is also far more readily available for anyone wanting to find out what people think of a local news organisation’s coverage of a football club. We’ve always had letters to the editor, but forums and blogs take this sharing of opinions to a new level. Herd mentality can exaggerate true feelings, but at the same time can create an unfair perception of coverage from a local news organisation. The fact people care enough to comment on what we do when they perhaps wouldn’t do the same for A N Other sports site is both a frustration and a privilege – they care enough to expect us to speak for them.

The David Moyes excuse generator

So with football clubs on one side wanting to set the agenda, rules and terms of engagement to meet their priorities on one side, and fans expecting us to call a spade a spade and champion their views on the other, where should a regional news brands loyalties lie? For me, we now need to enter the age of ‘fan first sports journalism.’  We shouldn’t seek to aggravate clubs for the sake of it, but nor should we be afraid of saying what we think.

I’m sure Manchester United would have preferred it if the Evening News hadn’t launched its David Moyes excuse generator as the club lurched from (relative) crisis to (relative) disaster. Yet for the MEN, it sent a clear message to fans: We know how you’re feeling, we share your pain, we know the excuses are getting ridiculous. The audience metrics for the MEN’s United coverage have gone through the roof, and stayed there.

The Newcastle Chronicle’s ban from St James’ Park has been met with widespread appreciation of the brand’s efforts by fans

The Newcastle Chronicle’s ban from Newcastle United has been very well documented and in a city where there are very strong opinions towards the ownership of the club, the Chronicle has superbly walked a tightrope of supporting fans views while at the same time championing the team and its successes. Audiences to NUFC content have never been higher, and started a steep descent upwards once the ban was announced and when it became clear the brand wasn’t going to back down.

In Coventry, the front page here a is just the latest part of a loud, vocal campaign by the Coventry Telegraph to get CCFC back to the city. Due to a dispute between the club’s owners and the stadium owner’s, CCFC played their games last season in Northampton. The front page of the Coventry Telegraph on Thursday, supported by a travelling billboard with fans faces on it. It’s a brilliant example of UGC, powered by digital activities, making a statement: The local brand is behind the fans.

It’s not just local news organisations that find themselves sometimes being shackled by the clubs. Aston Villa, the Birmingham Mail reporter this week, have insisted all fan clubs must sign up to a new charter which the fan groups claim would ban them from being critical of Villa on social media.

The Coventry Telegraph's brilliant protest front page

The Coventry Telegraph’s brilliant protest front page

Of course, there are many clubs where the relationship is a harmonious one, and long may that continue. But if that relationship comes under threat, the fans need to be foremost in our minds. “Manager promises to win this weekend” may be a line a club wants to see on the back page, but “What Town need to do to win this weekend” will be of far more interest, and remembered for much longer.

So, is football still an administrator’s game? On one hand, this is surely the era of player power, as demonstrated by the volume of agent-inspired transfer rumours which dominate the Press during the summer. But on the other hand, the administrators can still wield an awful lot of power – and indeed, want to – over media coverage … if the media allows them too.

Football fans make football clubs. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s also true. They need to be every regional sports journalist’s first, second and third priority. If football clubs don’t like that and put privileges, access and so on, on the line, then so be it. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. Football fans have long memories, and we need to be part of their everyday life to thrive in the future.

 

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