At the company I work for, we have a website called Football.London. We launched it at the start of 2017. We consider it a success. It’s profitable, growing rapidly and drawing in a loyal audience. It also tries to be different, and mix what we know works elsewhere in the country with new ideas. In short, we think it’s a success.
But success drawn from trying to be different often comes with criticism. And football.london is no exception.
While on holiday, I read that a former journalist at the company, and ardent Brentford fan, had taken issue with the fact that there was no local media in the press box for Championship side Brentford’s opening day fixture against Rotherham.
Jim Levack lamented on Brentford fan site Beesotted:
It’s a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media, but also a tragedy for the club and its fans at a time when the side’s potential has never been greater.
Trinity Mirror, owners of the Chronicle for which I was proud to work for almost two decades, have pulled the plug on anything worthwhile journalistically… and it breaks my heart.
The company, now well advanced down the insulting and loyalty losing clickbait route, are far from the only guilty party though as cost cutting and clickbait copy take precedence. And I’m sure – in fact I know – their journalists are as frustrated as I am by the cuts.
I’m a great believer in accountability and genuinely feel that had there been a strong local media presence in Kensington, the views of the families living in Grenfell Tower whose pleas for help fell on deaf ears would have been picked up and taken higher.
Football clearly isn’t as important as life and death despite what Shankly once said, but it’s a terrible shame that the once vital local reporter no longer exists at Griffin Park.
That’s right, a new football website, employing 16 people with more to come, which is profitable, and which didn’t exist 18 months ago, is somehow painted as an example of lack of investment in the regional press.
The Grenfell line – which also overlooks the fact Kensington and Chelsea Council threatened legal action against the bloggers who did raise concerns about the tower block, thus suggesting they did know about the concerns but were more interested in closing discussion down – ensured the blog post became news first on Press Gazette, which highlighted the ‘lack of investment’ claim, and then the next day on the Hold the front page, which rightly spotted something to feed its grumpy commenters with.
So what’s the background to football.london? Is it all about taking cost out and providing clickbait, as Levack suggests? The fact I’m writing this blog suggests not, so here goes:
Lets start with the quality of content argument which is described above as the ‘insulting and loyalty losing clickbait route.’ Which is a lovely soundbite, but not backed up by any data. It’s an assumption, masquerading as fact, because, you know, why let facts get in the way….
If you look at metrics – the things those who shout clickbait often deride, largely because it proves their arguments to be inaccurate – the websites I get to see in action have never had more loyal visitors. And football.london is no exception.
Direct visitors to the site are the fastest growing type of visitor, and on average they visit 64 times a month.
Loyal visitors – those visiting at least every other day – are growing twice as fast as new visitors. Sign ups to newsletters are rising sharply, and traffic from social, which invariably now rewards loyalty to a site when deciding what to show you, thanks to algorithm changes, continues to rise in 2018, bucking an industry trend.
Average engaged time per article is rising, and the site delivers dozens of stories a month which we define as high impact – reaching more than 5,000 people and engaging them for more than a minute. And these include many, many news stories.
When journalists shout ‘clickbait’ they often mean ‘it’s not the way I like it.’ But all the engagement metrics show readers do. And with readers comes sustainability. To get the readers we need, we’ve had to change the way football is covered, and that’s the source of Levack’s discontent.
How did we get here? And why?
We launched it at the start of last year in the belief there was a gap in the market for coverage of London football clubs in the style titles such as the Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News and Birmingham Live (as it is now) provide. That’s coverage which blends our traditional strengths with a modern approach of putting the fans at the centre of our coverage.
Our London and South East titles are, in the main, weekly titles, and as such didn’t have the resource, and in some cases, long-held reputation, for covering clubs the way the Nottingham Post (now Nottinghamshire Live) does say Forest and County. We felt taking the clubs off individual sites and putting them in one football place would work well.
So we set about building a team. Some were new hires, some were transfers from elsewhere in the business. All bought into our aims: To be a new voice, doing different stuff, as well as giving fans what they wanted. Clubs which relied on (very good) freelance cover now had staff writers, and the team overall was flexible enough to investigate goings on at other clubs too. We thought that would work.
A slow start
We were right – eventually. The site had a slow start, partly because we didn’t just want to do more of the same, or just be reliant on one source for traffic. We focused on the big Premier League clubs and fans responded. Full transcripts of press conferences, Facebook Live Q and As and a commitment to covering the news around sport were just a few of the things which found favour with fans.
The audience built up over time and during this year, we have been able to more than double the staff on Football.London, again a blend of internal transfers and new hires as we moved lower league clubs (and newly promoted Fulham) plus Crystal Palace, which we’d kept on the Croydon Advertiser for a bit longer, over to Football.London.
But it was also clear that in some cases, the audiences being attracted to stories about some of the clubs we ‘traditionally’ covered weren’t sustainable.
So far so good, so why are we not staffing every game in the Championship as standard? There are several reasons.
Change for good reason
The first is that as Levack points out, there are many more places to get live match coverage than in the past. As Levack points out, agencies are in the ground, providing copy. It’s never been easier to follow a match.
Behind this, the current business model around digital journalism centres on display advertising. Therefore, we need to generate page views. Because the sites I work with do carry a significant number of adverts, which can irritate readers at times, we need to work harder to make sure our content is memorable for the right reasons. So, to create a sustainable, viable future of Football.London, we focus on creating content lots of people want to read, and which lots of people will enjoy. That means being smart with data.
So is time better spent duplicating the efforts of agencies and other websites, or trying something different and focusing resources where the audiences are greater? We believe the latter – and it’s that approach which is behind Football.London’s growth. Inspired by data.
At this point, I thought I’d find myself writing that it’s sad that we’ve had to change decades-old ways of covering sport because of the internet, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure we should be sad.
Because maybe the problem isn’t that we’ve changed they way we cover football … but that we didn’t change soon enough. Why is it that newspapers which had near monopolies on local football club coverage didn’t replicate that monopoly online? Is it because local journalism preferred to keep on doing what it had always done as online news grew, and fan sites, club blogs and digital sports sites were faster to recognise fans actually wanted something different? I think so.
In many ways, the change in approach has been 20 years in the making. If we hadn’t sought to protect newspapers in the face of digital news consumption, but instead embraced the digital consumption, we could now be in a very different place. And all too often, those shouting clickbait and fanning the flames of criticism about what happens now, do so without asking: “How did we get here?” The answer, frequently, would be: Because we helped give our relationship with readers to people who were better at listening to readers.
Or maybe, just maybe, this was always going to happen anyway.
Because the idea that being sat in the press box is an indicator of ability to uncover big stories at a football club, or show real passion in coverage, has been debunked time and again by blogs and digital-only football sites for years. Good contacts, good knowledge, a good eye for a story, and a good ear for your audience – that’s what drives good digital journalism.
Of course, that’s not to say being sat in the press box is a bad thing. Far from it, but you have to respect readers and what they want. Being in the press box doesn’t guarantee you an audience online, if it ever really did in print.
The site hasn’t given up on Brentford, or any other club. We’ll keep experimenting with ideas to bring in more audiences to clubs outside the Premier League, so we can look to hire more people. We will keep improving what we do, but it won’t involve adopting the good old days model of sports journalism – because fans have voted with their feet on that front.
On a very basic point of fact, not being sat in the Brentford press box does not equate to a ‘lack of investment in local and regional media.’
Football.London’s success means we employ more people at a regional level on London sport than for quite a long time. And in a way which is sustainable, because audience = revenue in a way it never has done before. By putting journalists where local audiences are, local journalism can thrive. Because we’re supporting local journalism which readers support too by reading it.
Above all else, Football.London is built on the principle that you have to combine good digital storytelling skills with journalism’s traditional skills – a commitment to accurate, balanced reporting and analysis. It’s a shame the same commitment to accuracy isn’t shared by those who seek to do down things they don’t like.
Both Press Gazette and Holdthefrontpage know that negative stories about digital journalism shift page views, which is perhaps ironic. Even when it involves one of regional journalism’s most positive success stories.
Football.London is a journalistic success story, if you choose to follow the facts.