Why football writers shouldn’t fear being banned by football clubs

One of my favourite new phrases is ‘in-house journalist.’ As in: “We’re Swindon Town, we have an in-house journalist so we don’t need to talk to the local paper anymore.”

I like it because it is such an outrageous nonsense. If being a journalist really is just the ability to string a sentence together and making a shorthand note of what the manager wants to say, then something is very, very wrong.

Journalism should be, in my opinion, be defined as the pursuit of informing the reader in accurate, unrestricted way. Is it a craft, a professional or a trade? I don’t know, but hopefully the definition I’ve just outlined transcends that argument anyway.

So in that sense, anyone in the employ of a football club may have a journalism qualification, they may even have had many years working in a newsroom, and they may well still be using the same skills as journalists, but they aren’t committing acts of journalism. I know many fine journalists who have moved into PR – be it football clubs or other parts of that industry – but none would openly say they are now replacing the role of the local journalist.

Put simply, their role is to be club first. A sports journalist’s role is to be fan first. Not in the sense of being told what to do by fans, but always putting fans first in their work. Informing fans, debating with fans, reporting all sides for fans. The same argument should apply when the National Union of Journalists next decides to speak out in favour of council newspapers. That’s not journalism either – it’s PR on behalf of a public body, and not journalism. 

In recent years, it’s become increasingly hard to be a fan-first sports journalist and maintain good relationships with a football club. That’s mainly because many clubs are desperate to control the flow of information out of their club, and the prospect of a ban for writing something the manager/PR person/chairman/other vested interest didn’t agree with seems to loom large at most clubs.

But it’s often because football clubs believe they are increasingly competing with the local Press for the attention of football fans. In one sense they are, but data I’ve seen recently on search clicks from football terms shows increasingly, it’s the news brand which wins in the battle for the attention of football fans. Why? Because fans know that news brands are independent.

So I don’t think a ban is something to be feared by football writers. Of course, it will make life harder, but does it actually make what the fans read weaker? I’d argue in many cases, it’s the opposite – it makes it better.

I know a former club writer who found himself out of favour with successive managers (and one PR officer) at the club he covered, so much so he was banned from talking to the manager.

When we dug into what the ban meant, it turned out to mean very little – anything of any worth the manager was saying was punted straight out on the club website anyway, and being banned from talking to the manager just meant the writer didn’t have to worry about an earbashing for any perfectly balanced, but perhaps critical, coverage of tactics, player performance or team style. It gave him the freedom to be fan first.

There are times when a ban can perhaps even be a blessing. While it’s remarkable that Blackpool FC – a club which seems to have spent the last year at loggerheads with fans – feels it can afford to cut off relations with the local Blackpool Gazette, surely it gives the Gazette the chance to demonstrate its independence from the club. As any club writer will tell you, fans don’t hesitate to say you’re in the club’s pocket the moment they feel you aren’t being as critical as they want you to be.

Being banned doesn’t mean going native with the angry fans – but it does reinforce the point which shouldn’t need to be made: that you’re objective.

And it’s that objectivity which will resonate with fans far longer than any ban, any managerial term and any blow-out with the PLC board. As any sports writer knows, it’s easy to build a following online writing about football – but far harder to build up a reputation for being reliable, accurate and an authority. But once you have, it’s something fans value, something fans trust.

Fan first sport coverage is something we’ve built into our newsrooms over the last few years. It changes the way newsrooms cover football, changes the relationship with fans and, without exception, drives loyalty and engagement with local football fans through the roof.

And those fans aren’t stupid. They won’t be fooled by club PR articles that the manager believes good fortune is just around the corner, or that the striker hopes to score this weekend. That such stories still grace the back pages of some newspapers is perhaps testament to the more damaging side of the relationship when football clubs limit access and journalists still need to fill the same amount of space.

The question I would pose in such situations is: “How much does a journalist need the football club when the football club gives nothing back anyway?” In a world of live streams, footballers on social media and football club websites trying ever so hard to look like news organisations, the challenge for journalists is to make themselves indispensable for fans in a way no-one else can be.

And in the case of ‘in-house journalists,’ the differential is the ability to be independent, to be fan first in thinking. Because without fans, we don’t have readers.

This isn’t an argument in favour of being banned from football clubs. The best scenario is for football club and local newsroom to co-exist, to respect each other, and for the Football Association and Premier League to force football clubs to respect the media – and what they do for the game – in the same way the NFL does with franchises in America.

But what all sides must understand is that the journalist’s primary duty is to serve fans. And that last point has never been so obvious as it is in a world of digital news. 

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