Football journalism and press boxes part 2: The quest for sustainable local journalism

It’s taken two weeks, a lot of hot air (from me included) to get to a place where we can have a sensible debate about how to make football journalism work in the digital age.

What started with a disgruntled journalist’s claims of clickbait, low-quality content and the linking of not covering Brentford to not being on the ground ahead of the Grenfell tragedy, has matured into a debate into a sensible discussion, assuming you don’t spend too much time on holdthefrontpage.

Here’s what triggered Jim Levack’s disquiet: Reach, the company I work for, has changed the way it covers football in London over the last two years. This has resulted in the launch of the rapidly-growing Football.London site, which focuses on Premier League clubs but has also begun to cover Championship clubs and those in other leagues in more depth. 

As a result, coverage of clubs traditionally associated with Reach’s weekly London titles has moved to Our aim is deliver large enough audiences through the mass-reach Premier League clubs to be able to sustain full coverage of clubs with smaller fanbases.

Sadly, at the same time, it was clear the way we covered Brentford – Jim’s club – wasn’t sustainable because the audience needed wasn’t there. So we’re trying to find new ways to cover a club whose fans weren’t turning to us in large enough numbers to maintain the status quo.

I can see where Jim’s frustrations come from, even if his analysis of digital journalism is somewhat off the mark. If you value something, and it’s taken away, it makes you cross.

It is a microcosm of the challenge facing the industry: When our belief in what’s important meets business reality, what do you do?

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The story behind Football.London that was just waiting to be told

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 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 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:

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That precious thing when journalism helps to save lives

March 6, 2018 should have been my Dad’s 69th birthday. I say should have, because he died, several hours after my Mum had too, last September. It’s safe to say it’s a day I won’t forget.

The thumping on the front door was the first sign something was wrong. My daughters were in the bath, the doorbell it turns out wasn’t working, and I suspect the police officers at the door had been trying to get my attention for a while.

While my youngsters made the most of the sudden break from the bath-time routine to play noisily upstairs, the two incredibly caring officers gave me perhaps the worst news I’ve ever received. As a journalist, I’ve sat with people in the days after they’ve received terrible news (and far worse news in many respects) about a loved one and wondered how on earth they were coping. Over the next few days I was to learn how they do it: You just cope. And it helps massively when you having an amazingly supportive wife, too.

In hindsight, the next few days were a bit of a blur. There is a process which so many of you reading this will have been through, where every professional involved knows their part, and for me it was relatively smooth. Speaking to the coroner, speaking to doctors, speaking to nurses, speaking to the register office, speaking to the duty undertakers (I had no idea such a rota existed) and to a vicar who gave us such strength by listening, advising but never preaching.

Then there are the phone calls you have to make. To family, to friends, to my parents’ friends, there is no easy way of asking your Dad’s best mate to pull over on a dual carriageway several hundred miles away because you’re worried how he’s going to take the news and you’d rather he was stationary when he heard.

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The BBC’s analysis of local journalism’s troubles never once mentioned revenue or online audiences. Why?

The prospect of the challenges facing local media being the subject of a six-minute feature on Radio 4’s PM programme is something which should be celebrated.

A chance for a sensible analysis of an industry facing huge upheaval, but still fighting to provide a useful public service to an audience which remains to be convinced it needs that service at all, by an organisation which prides itself on accuracy and impartiality.

So what on earth went wrong with Alice Hutton’s report on the PM programme about the regional press this week, and the follow-up article online which was not only one-sided, but horrendously inaccurate too?

The choice of journalist for this piece was perhaps a surprise, from an organisation which has reportedly banned journalists who express an opinion on equal pay within the BBC from reporting on equal pay at the BBC. Hutton has made it clear in the past her view of those running the regional press:
chewing limbs

alice hutton 2

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Facebook and journalism: After the storm, the challenge remains remarkably simple (but at the same time, very challenging)


Oh no, another blog about ‘what Facebook’s latest change means for journalism.’ Hopefully, though I’m offering something new in what follows.

That, hopefully, is because I have the benefit of writing three weeks after Facebook unleashed a fresh wave of stormy weather on the media by seemingly backing away from news. And video, for that matter, but more on that later. It’s argument went: “It’s good for people to talk to each other, rather than having long, passive experiences on Facebook with brands.”

A week later, it said news would still be important, just not as important, and it would rely to an extent on public perception of brands to determine which to prioritise. Like many journalists, I believe that’s a recipe for boosting news sites which play to people’s prejudices and emotions for attention, rather than start from a point delivering useful news, information and, indeed, journalism. But more power to the people.

Then came the local news announcement, promising prioritisation for local news in feeds, based, from what I understand, on an assessment of what’s local to where you live, whether you follow that brand or whether friends are sharing links from that brand. It’s more power to the people.

It’s like Facebook realises it is in the customer service industry or something. And maybe that’s the biggest lesson for journalism here. If we want the public to value important journalism, we can’t rely on others to join the dots for us.

Those whinging, moaning publishers

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When national goes local, and the other way round too…


Every week, millions of people rely on their local newspapers and websites to keep them informed of what is happening in their area. When seen together, they can paint a picture of life in the UK in a way no other collection of stories can. Life is local – and this is a look at the front pages which stood out over the last seven days

Listening to 5Live on Monday morning, I clearly wasn’t alone in thinking the Carillion story would be one which ultimately ended up with a last-minute rescue, followed by much political finger-pointing.

When the news broke just before 7am that the firm had liquidated itself, there was a gasp in the studio. The news agenda was rewritten at a stroke, and the political debate for the week formed.

But what was obvious quickly was that a firm employing tens of thousands of people would also be a huge influencer of the local economy in the towns and cities where it was based, so it was no surprise that it dominated Tuesday’s front pages, not least in Wolverhampton, where the company had an HQ.

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Life is Local: Erm, maybe the NHS is in crisis


Every week, millions of people rely on their local newspapers and websites to keep them informed of what is happening in their area. When seen together, they can paint a picture of life in the UK in a way no other collection of stories can. Life is local – and this is a look at the front pages which stood out over the last seven days

The New Year began with what is rapidly becoming a tradition – problems. in the NHS as winter prompted a rise in demand. Who’d have thunk it? The government’s decision to tell hospitals they could cancel all non-urgent operations in January prompted accusations of the NHS being in crisis.

“Oh no,” replied the government. “It’s not a crisis, because we planned for this to happen.”

But if it looks like a crisis, smells like a crisis, is felt to be a crisis by those involved, is it a crisis? Certainly a crisis-like problem made it on to the front pages of regional papers across the UK this week:

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