With football news now ubiquitous, local coverage has had to adapt to remain relevant. The well documented pressures on local newspapers have taken their toll on the sports desks, with fewer roles available for budding football journalists to make their name in the industry.
That being said, sports coverage, particularly in football, generates more than its fair share of online clicks and the back pages are often just as important as the front when it comes to shifting print editions. For local reporters, the challenge is to meet the demands of an evolving industry.
“Live blogging is the big thing at the moment, a completely new skill set in terms of tools and writing styles,” says Pete Smith from The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent. “Reporters need to be heard and seen as well as read and two-way dialogue with readers is encouraged.
“Some changes have been driven by more available stats about what kind of articles are more popular. A case in point being that an on-the-whistle match report has morphed into a quick read with bullet points.”
Further pressures on local journalism come from the clubs themselves. Stories of a club’s hierarchy taking exception to the local press are commonplace and, unlike mainstream outlets, it seems they are a lot more likely to be denied access. Last year the Coventry Telegraph was banned from pre-match press conferences after urging the club’s directors to ‘sell up and go’ following years of decline.
This summer a Gazette reporter in Middlesbrough was denied access to new Boro manager Garry Monk without explanation. For clubs under pressure, it’s easier to bar smaller publications that don’t have national readership and are prepared to put the teams they cover under scrutiny. That is, after all, one of the main roles of local news.
Ben Wills works for Total Sport Swindon and covers Swindon Town, a club with a history of frosty relations with the local press. “The Swindon advertiser has been banned from asking questions to the club’s staff on a few occasions in recent years so there’s a sense, with Swindon Town especially perhaps, that you are always one article or one dodgy post-match question away from a ban,” he explains.
Contending with the opinions of supporters, who often feel reporting is either too harsh or too lenient, can also cause problems. But as the Independent’s Merseyside reporter Simon Hughes told The Set Pieces last year: “If you’ve got to do something on a professional level you can’t let partisanship bias what you do, because people will see through it straight away. Football fans are smart, contrary to the traditional perception of them. Quite quickly the worship of the club and the players goes away.”
Local journalists have tread even more of a fine line when it comes to covering clubs with famously unpopular owners. William Watt, formerly of the Blackpool Gazzette and now Head of Communications at Fleetwood Town, has spoken about the challenges of covering Blackpool during a turbulent period in their history: “So far we haven’t been the victim of any legal problems, and I think that’s because we’ve been ultra-cautious.”
While being denied access can be disastrous for some publications, experienced journalists can get by with a thick skin.
“My colleague has reported on every Stoke game since 1999 and I think he has been banned or shunned by every manager at some point or another,” Pete Smith adds. “He takes it far less personally than I would and in the end, usually, they see sense.”
Finding an audience can also be a difficult challenge when covering clubs in the Premier League, given the abundance of online news and opinion. But in areas like Stoke-on-Trent, local coverage remains an essential part of fans’ media diet. “It’s no secret there are daily and monthly targets,” says Smith, “but it has been other sports which have probably been more vulnerable due to the pressure to produce more football content with fewer staff on the sports desk.”
Social media has diverted eyes away from the back pages, but mastering Twitter and Facebook can be a significant advantage for newspapers ever-more reliant on website hits.
“For a website, social media is crucial,” says Ben Wills. “Papers might be able to carry on their business without social media as people just buy the paper through loyalty and habit and, especially at a club like Swindon, the paper is one of very few outlets that actually covers them.”
The media landscape may have changed irrevocably, but newspapers and journalists are adapting to the challenges of covering football in 2017. For many that means re-invention and becoming more digitally savvy, but the central aim is to remain the authoritative voice on football in the local area.
Though the major publishers monopolise the way we consume football, local papers – often staffed by fans of the club they cover – still compete to offer more insight and analysis than national outlets.