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British Journalists Have a Lousy Deal, and the Fans Suffer for It

press clipping British Journalists Have a Lousy Deal, and the Fans Suffer for It

I once read about a British sports journalist’s amazement at the access that American sportswriters had.  The British writer was visiting Chicago and asked to tag along with the Sun Times reporter who covered the Bulls.  First, he went to a Bulls practice, and after the practice was over, the Chicago reporter ambled up to Scottie Pipen and Phil Jackson and asked a few questions.  Then they went to the game, and afterward walked straight into the Bulls’ locker room.  There, the Sun Times scribe spent five minutes with Michael Jordan getting his thoughts on the game while Jordan dressed.  He asked Jackson a few more questions, and then went upstairs to the office that the Bulls provide to reporters so he could finish writing his story.

Does that sound amazing to you?  To Americans used to reading their daily sports section, it sounds as remarkable as finding popcorn in a movie theater.  To the Brit, it was flabbergasting.  The writer explained that he could go an entire season without once being able to ask a major soccer star a question.  Outside of a manager’s weekly news conference and the quotes that are broadcast in the banal two-minute interview that happens after a game, he rarely has the opportunity to talk directly to the star players he covers, let alone the ability to get their insights after each game.

American sports journalists have a simple arrangement with the teams they cover.  Journalists are allowed in the locker room after the games and can ask as many questions as they want.  If a baseball relief pitcher blows an important game and is in no mood to talk, they are still obligated to answer questions until the reporters have the quotes and insights they need.  In exchange, sports reports have to report the news.  Like any other journalist, they have to source their stories, provide context to their reporting, and cannot make up falsehoods just to increase their readership.

As a consequence, American sports consumers have access to an amazing amount of behind the scenes information and insights.  An American sports fan can read stories about far more than what happens on the field – stories about how the personalities interact, how the team prepares, and how the organization may be planning for the future.

British sports fans are comparatively left out in the cold.  Teams control strict access to the players, who in turn will sell the rights to a few interviews a year to one of the major papers in England.  Daily sports journalists are left in the stands, watching the same game as the rest of us, and forced to write up an article with no more information than what the rest of us have already seen with our own eyes.

Before last week’s North London Derby, Tottenham’s Robbie Keane was one of the few personalities from either Spurs or Arsenal to answer a question about the game to a reporter.  His trite comments about how Spurs may have the deeper team were regurgitated by every major London paper for several days.  Compare that to a rather ordinary article on the LA Galaxy – Chivas game that appeared in the New York Times.  The article quoted four different players along with Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, and gave the reader a detailed sense of the level of admiration and conflict between the two teams.

Because the British reporters have so little access, they end up writing a lot of stories that have little relationship with the truth.  This is especially true when the transfer window is open, and articles pop up full of tripe detailing how every star player is headed out the door and around the bend.  Without access, sources or official quotes, journalists have no choice but to report rumors as fact in order to fill their copy space.  From the reader’s perspective, they can either read these fictions or chuck the whole sports section in the trash.

This has created a vicious cycle between the British press and the teams.  In the absence of access to their subject matter, the journalists write all manners of compost, so the teams do not take the press  seriously.  They see no reason to work with the writers to give them access, so the writers are forced to fill their fishwrapper with even more guano.

I personally experienced this last week while I was researching my article on how Arsenal scouts for future players.  I came across the story of Danny Karbassiyoon, the only American who has ever scored for the Arsenal senior team (see him receive the pass from Fabregas and slot it home against Man City in this clip).  After a knee injury destroyed his career, Karbassiyoon became Arsenal’s full-time scout in North America.  Sounds like an interesting guy with a lot to say to American fans of the EPL!  When I e-mailed the Arsenal press office asking for an interview for a podcast, despite Arsenal’s desire to reach out to American audiences, I was summarily turned down.  They simply could not be bothered.

The mystery of all of this is that, with a ravenous press population eager to promote their product and a worldwide audience ready to consume every nuance and tidbit, why do teams deny access with such militancy?  As Americans learn more about how wonderful a game soccer is, perhaps the Brits can learn something from Americans about how to better market their product.

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8 Responses to British Journalists Have a Lousy Deal, and the Fans Suffer for It

  1. The Gaffer says:

    Excellent article Eric. The Brits definitely have a different perspective on journalism than the Americans do. If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read Chuck Culpepper’s book entitled “Up Pompey” in the UK and renamed to “Bloody Confused” in the US. As a veteran US journalist, he has many interesting stories to relate about what American sports are like for an American journalist, and how the Premier League (the league itself) was more refreshing for him.

    I feel your frustration with the Arsenal press office not being helpful. I have so many similar stories to tell about people in the UK being unhelpful regarding interview requests. But thankfully there are many there too who see the wisdom in allowing such interviews.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  2. Peter says:

    Thank god, somebody has finally written about the banal articles we are forced to endure in the sports pages every day. If you read more than a couple of these papers you soon realise that all the articles are the same. All the supposed quotes are the same (although quite why footballers bother is beyond me, they must feel it’s beneath millionaires like themselves to talk to the press and give normal people insights into the club).

    Lets not forget that the real point in all this, is that every game you go to, every game you hear about is a perfect example of hard-working, longtime fans who save their hard-earned money to watch their favourite footballers on TV and yet the footballers, who are worshipped like Gods can’t even be bothered to connect with the fans on any social level.

    You can blame the silence of players on three main parties:
    Firstly the chairman and his board of directors who know jack-shit about football and will happily sell away a clubs history for a few bob, see Mike Ashley. These chairmen need to show the fans that all is well within the team and they are functioning well and no problems are there for the fans to see.

    The second party which is the manager and his staff will also feel the same as the chairman, don’t give the fans cause for concern, don;t get distracted from the game and remember two things, footballers are played to pay, not express opinions and the second is “less is more”, the less you say, the better off you are.

    And finally we come to the third party, the footballers themselves. Lets just face facts, there are no characters in football anymore, no bubbly, friendly personalities, no tough guys, and no youthfuil spirits. Nope, they are all pissing in the same pot. And why should they need to talk to the press if they don’t have to, why put themselves out? A lousy state of affairs in journalism will continue because we will continue paying more and more money to see players who will soon be paid £500,000 a week or who knows maybe a million pounds a week is fair, ask the americans who pay Beckham to swan off the Milan.

    Point made, me thinks!

    • The Gaffer says:

      Not to get nerdy with numbers, but I will, I read hundreds of these repetitive articles each week as I sift through the stories to find (1) articles that are of interest to EPL Talk readers — which I share on my Twitter account at http://www.twitter.com/epltalk and (2) articles that give me ideas of what to write for EPL Talk (not to copy, but they often give me story ideas).

      Looking at my Google Reader stats, I subscribe to 335 different RSS feeds. In the last 30 days, I’ve read 23,794 articles (well, I scanned through most of them; can’t read them all). And out of those 23,794, I shared 331 of them on the Twitter account.

      That means that only 1.39% of the articles were worth sharing.

      That’s a pretty horrible return rate. So yes, I can testify that there’s a lot of garbage stories out there. Trust me! :)

      Cheers,
      The Gaffer

  3. villafandan says:

    fascinating post.

    personally, without being a journalist myself, i’d say it’s as much about cultural differences as it is the field of journalism, possibly more so. ultimately, you could probably trace it back to the two country’s approach or attitude towards privacy. in the UK, privacy is revered and demanded while in America there seems little expectation or desire for privacy. or certainly not to the same level.

    take the proliferation of American footballers using Twitter and are genuinely engaging, not only with their 1,000′s of followers, but also with each other. it’s like witnessing their conversations behind the scenes and gives an insight not seen before. compare that with British players Tweeting. consider Phil Brown’s reaction to Jozy’s innocuous apology for his tardiness.

    that type of attitude is bound to be pervasive though all disciplines and i agree that we as fans and media consumers are poorer for it. as you say, it also allows a great deal of scope for filling the void straight from the writer’s imagination at times. so in that sense, it’s entirely counter productive trying to control the flow of information.

    the internet makes the world a smaller place and it’s bound to knock the barriers down…. eventually. just glance around your younger friends and relatives on facebook and compare their willingness to let the world see what they’re doing with your own approach to the platform.

    i’m sure they’ll get there eventually, but wouldn’t it be great for a club or two to take the lead. if demonstrable benefits can be found, the rest will soon follow.

  4. Martin says:

    Sure the American sports press may have more access and the ability to get more quotes from athletes. Of course, 99.9% of the athletes quotes come straight from the cliche-o-matic (we’re just taking it one game at a time, we did our best, they’re a great team, my teammates played well, we just executed the game plan, etc.), so what’s the real benefit of the extra access? There’s a similar dearth of personalities and actual interesting interviews/quotes with American athletes as well, with the rare exception (say a Charles Barkley or Terrell Owens).

    But the far more likely quote and interview will be with athlete cliche quote-bots like Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Peyton Manning, etc., that have nothing interesting to say to the press. Post-game news conferences are 99.99% of the time absolutely painfully boring to watch or listen to. Sure we get more access, but there’s rarely anything substantive or interesting that comes from it.

    • The Guvnah says:

      College football players are refreshing to listen to. They havent all learned the cliches and more often than not, spout off telling quotes. Of course, you’ve got to endure the obligatory “God Bless” at the end.

  5. Rob says:

    Great article, but Martin also hit on the downfalls of having so much access. Really true and important (or stupid and shocking) quotes make their rounds in the media and eventually everyone has heard it. But do I really care as an American sports fan about what a certain player on the team I support says after the game? To an extent, not at all. Its the same stuff day in and day out it seems, and I can tell you that if they only did interviews every five games (I’m thinking NHL wise), what the captain of the team says would be much more interesting.

  6. ronvelig says:

    Maybe the way that the media is organised in the States on a much more regional basis means that coverage is much more focussed on each team, and therefore more in depth. Most media agencies in the UK cover the entire country or one of it’s constituents (Wales, Scotland, N Ireland, England) and therefore don’t have the facilities to cover football in the way that they maybe should. Local Newspapers do cover their local teams, but due to the low sales they are more likely to want to give their clubs an easy ride.

    I long gave up taking any notice of most of the rumours floating about in the tabloids

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