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Dyson at Large: The importance of attending local football matches

Have you caught up on Britain’s biggest regional publisher’s justification for not attending a long series of scheduled major events it regularly reports on?

Yep, while it sounds a tad counter-intuitive, that’s what David Higgerson – digital editorial strategy director at Trinity Mirror (sorry, still can’t say Reach) – has argued in the last week.

His comments came after Jim Levack, a former regional journalist, made media headlines earlier this month with his vehement reproach of the publisher for not sending reporters to watch Championship-topping Brentford FC at Griffin Park.


Jim’s critique on – a Brentford fanzine – has been well-aired, but here’s a soundbite: “For the first time in the club’s professional league existence there was no local media representation at the game [Brentford 5, Rotherham 1, Saturday 4 August] … a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media …”

Here’s a snippet from David’s riposte on his own blog site last week: “[T]here are many more places to get live match coverage than in the past … [for example] agencies are in the ground, providing copy. It’s never been easier to follow a match … [T]he 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 …”

If you’ve read the above views in full, you’ll probably have an opinion. Before I give you mine, you should know that as a former Trinity Mirror journalist I once worked with, still like and have respect for both Jim and David.

But on this row, I reckon Jim’s comments – while maybe a little over-excited – were mainly right: a newspaper or website surely can’t claim to fully understand and analyse a football club without a reporter regularly attending their matches.

Why not? Because without sharing the most important moments with the fans, and without its own insight on those moments for fans not present, a local newspaper or website lacks credibility and struggles to be authentic.

Most football fans snort – literally – at anyone trying to comment on their club’s latest performance but who wasn’t at the match.

To paraphrase a recent rant I overheard: “You say that [about a match controversy], but were you there? Were you? Er, no, thank you. And I was. I saw it live, real time, not selectively, not in slow motion from above, it was there in front of my eyes.

“It happened 30 metres away from where I was stood. I saw exactly what happened. I felt the reaction of 20,000 people, argued it out and agreed it there on the spot in five seconds flat, witnessed the afters, the players’ faces, heard them screaming – the whole thing. And you didn’t.”

The above type of blast – repeated in passionate conversations around the UK every week of the football season – reminded me of a more moving, 290-odd word description of the importance of the live match tapped out by JB Priestley in Good Companions in 1929, which you can find online here courtesy of popular culture blogger Martin Johnes.

To give you a taste, Priestley wrote that spending a shilling to pass through the turnstile “… turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points … a partisan … elated, downcast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side … thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements, like lords of the earth …”

He added: “Moreover it offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe …”

On tiptoe indeed. Imagine the opinion of an average football fan upon realising that a reporter writing about their team’s latest lows hadn’t even been at the match.

Let’s leave football aside for a moment: what does David’s defence of not having to be at the main scene of the story mean for regional journalism in the wider sense?

Perhaps there’s no need to send reporters to cover important local council meetings, instead relying on what politicians tell us was decided and why.

Or maybe major court cases can be reported with no impartial journalists present, the media instead asking barristers, witnesses or the accused for their post-hearing accounts of what happened.

Apply the same thinking on a global scale: what on earth would history be reporting if  the BBC’s Kate Adie hadn’t been on the spot during the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989?

Does that extreme example turn the argument on its head? Well for me, it’s that basic: serious journalism requires a reporter’s attendance at the main story, and readers would be shocked and disgusted if they found out that wasn’t taking place.

Back to football: the matches played by big local teams are not only among the main local stories, they are events which prompt pages of comment all week, and fans should be able to expect that the media they’re reading were present.

No-one’s saying – as David seems to imply – that reporters are only there to produce traditional match reports: they can and should be using their time at the ground to gather other stories, after-match interviews and fans’ views, off-diary exclusives and interesting data from top contacts and online interaction.

Yes: there are sometimes resource issues, and it’s arguably acceptable for a publisher with local titles in both Leicester and Liverpool – for example – to send one reporter to cover the home and away angles of Leicester City v Everton.

And it’s understandable if a sudden illness or last-minute absence occasionally results in a title having to borrow agency reports for its coverage of a big local match. Very occasionally, mind.

But it’s indefensible for publishers claiming to cover big local clubs to not even plan to send reporters to home matches, and it nullifies any serious claim to an independent view on how the team’s playing.

One more thing: David tries to turn the quarrel into a print versus online, traditional versus modern journalism issue, and I believe that’s disingenuous.

Performing good, thorough journalism has nothing to do with whether you’re reporting for a newspaper, website, radio or TV station: it’s about witnessing the main story whenever possible for your audience, resulting in fair, accurate reports and the ability to tell local readers that you were there.


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  • August 22, 2018 at 9:21 am

    Steve, Reach newspapers already ignore local council meetings, preferring to serve up the tripe of press releases – often unedited.
    They already get their news ‘second-hand’ and unchecked from social media.
    We see regurgitation everywhere – and one reporter on this site talked of being a hard worked journalist knocking out 90 stories a day. Just not like you and I knocked out stories back ‘in the day’, when we rang people, went out and chased the truth.
    At one Reach title, I know of, the press officer of the local rugby club – a big noise for many – writes match reports for the local paper. And gets a byline.
    Cost-cutting to make profits for shareholders has taken the focus away from good, basic news coverage and if Dave Higgerson’s advice is that you can get coverage of anything elsewhere, well it seems that Reach’s audience have well and truly got that message.
    Saddened Journo indeed.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 10:18 am

    The age of the journalist as content harvester it’s depressing…I know football does well for web traffic, but if the newspapers clearly aren’t interested in giving it proper coverage to save a few quid people will go to alternative outlets, the club themselves, Sky Sports, fanzines or forums – and they’ll deserve to lose the traffic.

    David’s argument seems to be that those sources are out there already and competing with the paper, but if you give up – people will definitely go to those sources and you’ll see a drop off in traffic to the poorly written match reports and analysis. Having a reporter at the game is absolutely key.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 10:23 am

    One unedited sports report in my JP paper never mentioned what sport it was and there was no hint of the score until 500 rambling words later. Needless to say it was sent in, free of charge. I go to local football matches of senior standard and there is never a reporter there from my local paper. It is is obvious that all that happens is they send in their own highly-biased report or some hack scrambles a few quotes from the manager.
    People I see regularly at games say how much they miss a neutral report they can discuss. Since a lot of local papers do not even have their own sports editor, let alone reporters, thousands of football fans can kiss goodbye to personal coverage.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    There’s a lot I agree with here from Steve. In an ideal world, we’d have someone in every press box, home and away, every weekend. But what do you do if being in the press box, in certain circumstances, seems to make no difference to readers, and you can’t build a large enough audience to sustain the way you do things?

    That’s where we found ourselves with coverage of some clubs in London, so we have chosen to focus on clubs where we can build big and loyal audiences quickly, while trying to find new ways to cover other clubs where the demand isn’t as great.

    In the case of Brentford, like other Championship clubs in the Capital, we will keep experimenting to find ways to attract enough readers to justify putting more and more time on these clubs.

    It’s easy to say what we should do, what we must do, what our obligations to the community are, but if you can’t do it in a sustainable way, you have to either find another way of doing it, or stop doing it altogether.

    As for turning it into a print v digital quarrel, not sure where that comes from. I do think there’s an abundance of proof that newsrooms which embraced listening to readers meaningfully (often digitally, but not exclusively) are in a better place now with a larger digital audience, which in turn sustains more staff.

    To that end, it’s always fun to hark back to the good old days, but perhaps it would also be good to ask ‘what would we have done differently?’ At some point in the past, independent fan sites, blogs, digital start ups etc were given the space to grow, or to eat our lunch, to use a phrase I often hear.

    I think it’s important to ask that question so we don’t make the same mistakes again.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    I’m sure DH will be along shortly to tell us that more people are visiting their sites and statistics tell us they are returning more and staying for longer. Funny that with all the information he is willing to supply us in terms of traffic figures and data analysis he will never answer the actual bare bone question continuously asked of him in relation to how does this equate to revenue and will it support the business. He also never answers the question of how much more resources have been put in to attain these figures. Let’s be honest. In a world where people have watched Charlie biting his brothers finger 863 Million times none of the above is a mark of quality.

    Just because a job can be done on the cheap and people will look at it means nothing. Imagine if you actually engaged your audience and gave them something different as opposed to rehashing the same old same old. Could you both make a difference now you have eyes on you and also increase traffic and advertising revenue further? Nah lets just carry on on the cheap.

    For the record if DH ever spent some time reading the comments on some of his companies FB offerings he would see some of the comments from Joe Public lambasting the quality of what they are seeing from their on the seen reports and poor articles. After one such report following a murder in West London I shared it with him and asked for his opinion on the reporter who you couldn’t hear, who’s ear piece and camera kept falling out and other such amazing production skills. Unfortunately he didn’t comment but Get west London kept it on there homepage for days.

    I like DH and many others on here am a family man and I truly fear life for my children growing up without a strong local press on the ground where it matters making a difference. If you think that is mellow dramatic then I challenge you to come in to West London and see some of the things happening in regards to planning, health care etc now there is no one left to challenge anything.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Hello formerloyalfollower. I’m sorry if I didn’t respond to you, I don’t remember ever seeing what you’re talking about. What I would say is that it’s easy to pick out things which haven’t worked, but what about the tens of thousands of stories a month which are published, much as they always have been, and which are read and shared by readers? (I also haven’t seen @saddenjourno’s reporter who he claims says they write 90 stories a day).

    I share your concerns about the future, and the fact that things do go unchecked in our communities, although hopefully the local democracy reporter scheme is helping massively there.

    I do read a lot of the comments on our Facebook pages, and know what people say. But I also see the data which you ridicule, but which shows that we are getting a lot of things right when it comes to reaching more people, more often. In terms of volume, the complaints are tiny compared to the people reached, but they are also very public.

    In terms of revenue and resource, we know the cost of producing what we do for digital, and the revenue we produce, broken in terms of locally sold revenue, nationally sold revenue and the brokered revenue which is guaranteed to rise as page views do. I’m not going to share it here because we’re a plc, but we’re in a far better place in terms of employing journalists as a result of focusing on audience growth and by trying to reach new people than if we hadn’t. And we’d be in an even better place if we’d actually embraced things sooner, too.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    Reporters of the local Reach-owned newspaper in my local area have taken to asking Twitter about the laws and regulations of football. Two of the three major clubs on their patch have big financial issues going on – yet there has been no analysis, no insight, nothing. Almost like they would prefer to Retweet specialist bloggers who do their research. And the final nail was perhaps seeing this particular paper running a story that had appeared in a rival newspaper – even attributing that story to their rivals.

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  • August 22, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    It’s catching Sports writer. Saw a story in the dreadful Metro that was lifted from the Sun and attributed to it. What happened to professional pride?

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  • August 23, 2018 at 8:18 am

    It seems, Paperboy, that Dave Higgerson had taken to publicly mocking our comments on social media. Talk about missing the point. Professional pride used to be using contacts and valued sources to find exclusives and stories nobody else had.

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  • August 23, 2018 at 10:17 am

    By the way Dave, Brentford were in sparkling form at Villa last night. A team worth watching.

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  • August 23, 2018 at 10:19 am

    Are Brentford the main football club (or one of them) in any newspaper covered by Reach or are they basically perceived as a fringe club? Sorry, don’t know the London area very well in terms of local newspapers.

    Wonder if Reach will change their stance if Brentford go on to seriously challenge for promotion this season…

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  • August 23, 2018 at 10:27 am

    @ david higgerson. Thank you for the reply.

    Please understand that I am not in the camp that believe’s that digital is the wrong way to go. In fact I was telling anyone who would listen from 2004 onwards in TMS that you need to get on this now and be a leader in this field and be ahead of the curve. I’ve championed the same sentiments over the years to all the big publishers having had contracts with them all.

    I will only speak for Get West London in these sentiments and tell you that the live on the seen video I asked you to comment on via twitter is not an exception to the rule. They are all that bad and how they get past an editor is beyond me. How can a company as large as your’s not invest a few £100 pounds in giving your people proper camera’s and mic’s yet a child on Youtube puts together HD high quality sound and vision videos via his pocket money?

    As I have said and you agree without a strong media there is a level of accountability not being sort from the local government to explain what they are doing anymore. For instance’s they have granted another 9000 houses to be built in an area that is already gridlocked and has the A+E department at the local hospital being closed down but what do we get from GWL? An article saying planning permission granted what’s your opinions?!? Instead of chasing a story and hounding down as journalists should do it’s being used as clickbait for numbers and this is not the exception judging by the comments from all over the country on here.

    I have an issue with your statistics because once local media becomes a means to improve KPI’s we are all doomed. I want all your figures to go through the roof. I want online media to be a success and secure futures for journalists. But I really don’t see it being based on what local media should be anymore when a large percentage, and it is a large percentage, of articles are solely put out to inflame and get a reaction to create numbers.

    If I’m wrong I’ll accept it. But judging from comments on here from people up and down the country I’d say it’s pretty accurate. I’m also speaking as an outsider now who went on to much bigger things so my opinion is based on what the public tell me and what I see. Which bearing in mind I see hundreds of people a week from many walks of life up and down the country I would tell you the consensus is pretty negative I’m afraid. I think you are lost as just another feed on peoples walls that they click on but it’s not something they actively seek to look at as most of them say the first thing they do is open the BBC app of a morning even for local news where as in my opinion you should be leading the field on a daily basis at local level at least.

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  • August 23, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. Especially David Higgerson, who’s generous with his time, reflection and openness – not many like him in the higher echelons of the regional press. On that note, while not everyone agrees with David, I’d like to make an appeal to keep this debate on the subject, and not to get too personal. If we do that, the likes of David won’t bother next time. If we keep it level-headed, at least there’s a chance to discuss, inform and – who knows – perhaps influence. By the way, David’s now posted a new blog resulting from this one …
    It’s worth a read…

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  • August 23, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    For me, as a non-journalist I’d have to ask of my particular local paper (to be fair not a reach paper although I bet it could be asked of a few newspapers) – they don’t turn up to my local teams football games, they don’t turn up to major events, they aren’t based in the town, they don’t employ anybody from the town and the website is full of news about other areas – what is left then that is ‘local’ about them?

    Why should I bother supporting them as a consumer?

    Any campaigns they’d run to ‘keep jobs in the town’ would also be farcical.

    If I can’t see my local newspaper physically supporting or committing to my local area – and if all they plan to do is aggregate and harvest content in turn, I won’t support them.

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  • August 24, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    Can we snort at bloggers writing about things they haven’t been involved in for how many years?

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