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Football Writing Today

I am a football writer, but I am football reader too. I demand fresh information. I want it now. I want it in abundance. Coming up to a match, I scour the net for preview. Is player X still injured? Did player Y travel with the team? Did player Z’s red card get overturned?  An hour before kick-off, I’m “handcuffed” to my laptop hitting the refresh button again and again until the starting elevens finally emerge through the haze. After a match, I search for confirmation: was I the only one who saw the offside call was ridiculous, the penalty was nonesense, the goal was imagined?

The amount of information streaming through the devices in our laps and in our palms is unheralded. In the age of the blogosphere it is hard to keep up with everything flying past our screens at pace. As old editing traditions are often discarded to keep up with the speed of the blogosphere, readers become editors, sifting out the valuable information from the flood of superfluity.

This morning in my daily caffiene-driven news hunt, I searched for updates on Xabi Alonso’s impending move to Real Madrid. Half the headlines suggested it was a sure thing. Half told me the deal was about to collapse. There was plenty of material up. But only when Liverpool posted the official news on their official site later in the day could I confirm he was leaving.

Amidst a web search, we are often plagued by too much information. The specific details we seek are buried under a heap of semi-relevant material. But just as often we’ll find a slew of pertinent articles on the our topic… only to find they are all based on the same small thing.

Yesterday, I wanted to write an piece about David Beckham’s upcoming appearance with Arnold Schwarzenegger in an advertisement for California tourism. I was going to talk about what this means for Beckham. Is he trying to prove his loyalty to California amidst speculation of a move back to Italy? Is he just trying to make a few extra bucks so Posh can buy that diamond-encrusted yoga mat? Is he trying to get his foot in the door for a future career as an action movie star? Is he preparing for a future gubernatorial bid in the state of California?

Problem is: every article I found on the Bex/Arnie ad campaign stemmed from the same quote from The Sun. Everybody wanted to get something up on the topic, but nobody had anything new to say. Essentially the same article was posted a dozen times in a dozen different places with slightly different wording. I decided not to add to the heap of rushed articles based on little information from a famously unreliably source.

Granted, the transfer season might be the worst time for hungry readers. Writers have less to write about but no less demand for information so it’s easy to dwell on whisps of transfer rumors and allow the tiniest of hint of a new development spark a full article. The less there is to talk about means readers are likely to see the same story rehashed again and again.

But look at the audience: football readers. We want to know and we want to know now. If you don’t have something to tell us: come up with something quick!

Football readers demand instant gratification.

But this is nothing new.

According to David Goldblatt (and I’ll probably be citing his book The Ball is Round in my articles for months since the thing is 900 pages long and will take me ages to read—a nice counterweight to the speedy reading/writing I’m talking about), the great demand for written coverage in the late-nineteenth century quickly gave rise to the sporting dailies and soon would inspire rapid coverage of the matches:

“Special Saturday-evening editions were printed on coloured paper – and thus known as Pink ‘Uns and Green ‘Uns – at such extraordinary speed that you could pick one up on the way home from the game. The whole report from the game would have been dictated move by move down the phone as the game developed, ready to go to press on the final whistle.”

Our demand for the instant update is nothing new, but the technology that brings it to us has evolved to the point where we are now updated before the match, throughout the match, right after the match and every hour until the next match.

I don’t want you to think I’m complaining. This new era is exciting. The pace of things makes it like a good football match. The viewer tries to see where the movement is going like a spectator watching a counter-attack unfold. But it can be overwhelming as well.

When I started writing regular nonfiction, I tried to figure out how I fit into the relentlessness of the new online journalism. I read an article last November in The Atlantic that was a great help in steering my thinking: “Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan speaks of the blogosphere as a broadcast. When we think of this ever-moving media as a typed out radio feed, it makes more sense than comparing it to the slower-moving printed word. Bloggers broadcast their opinions and reactions almost as they happen. Like live gameday commentary in text form. Sullivan says:

“For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”

And while many online journalists still keep toward the traditional side of article writing, we cannot deny that blogging, with all its pace and spontaneity, has had a huge influence on the digital writing arena. The deadline might not always be now, but it’s much sooner than tomorrow.

I myself prefer to hug the middle between traditional slower-paced writing and the high-speed blog. I still scrawl out my initial ideas in a notebook (how analog is that?) and I still try to give myself time for revision (although, writing about five times a week keeps a sometimes painful limit on this). Some days I wish I had someone editing my work (especially the days I go back and find that blatant mistake hanging in the hair like a fart at a wedding), but mostly I enjoy that I can say what I want and transmit my thoughts at the click of a button.

Finding that space in the middle is key to the future of the medium. Online correspondents of all types would do well to maintain the considered thoughfulness of old school writing as they embrace the pace and need for endless current material that blogging demands.

The pace of football writing is not going to slow down. The floodgates have been opened wide and there is no going back. The trick will be to find away to integrate the more considered pieces and not have them get lost in the shuffle. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I’m determined to keep looking for the answer. I know it won’t pop up on the first click at my favorite search engine.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. The Gaffer

    August 4, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Great article Ethan.

    To me, blogging is a lot more of a eye-opening experience than writing for traditional print newspapers (I’ve done both). For print newspapers, you would never get a sense for how many people read your story or what they thought about it. With blogging — and comments — you can get instant feedback within minutes. Plus your post can be read by thousands or tens of thousands of people around the world.

    The hardest part for me is coming up with new and original topics. After blogging almost daily for 3.5 years, it’s getting harder and harder to be unique — although ideas still develop (usually when I’m driving in my car). Plus, I’m grateful to have a team of fellow EPL Talk writers who come up with their own original topics.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  2. Phil McThomas

    August 4, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Sorry for the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully relevant.

    I’m developing a site that will help fans work through the clutter of football news and find what they’re looking for with the least amount of fuss.

    http://cleverfootball.com

    The site is pretty new and I’m adding features every couple of weeks. It will expand A LOT over the next month or so. There’s a mailing list on the site to sign-up to get notified when there’s new features, and there’s a feedback form if you want to let me know what you’d like to see.

    Thanks.

  3. Gaz

    August 4, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Great points but you can be part of the solution for one of those problems by writing an article about the real deal with Alonso (with an actual citation from the club’s web site now). 🙂

    Seriously though, I do appreciate EPL Talk for trying to sift through the crap for me and summarizing. I do want all the information right here, right now, as you insinuate, however, I’m lazy. What can I say?

    🙂

    • Ethan Armstrong

      August 5, 2009 at 12:11 pm

      Gaz,

      I just put up my take on the Xabi move. As with the things I said in the above piece, I wanted a day to write something more considered. There’s not much up on the LFC site about it. One article saying that Xabi was leaving. One saying they’ve been planning on a replacement.

      Thanks for reading,

      Ethan

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