Over the last couple of weeks or so, a debate has been being passed back and forth between football bloggers over both the present and future of what they do. On the one hand, we have seen the introduction of a new news feed service which has angered some that are seeking to make a living from their writing whilst, on the other, the behaviour of an established football website (which could clearly be described as “Mainstream Media”) has seen the scales fall from quite a few eyes on the matter of the ethics of established media sources. It marks the end of a year which has seen increasingly fractious relationships between independent football writers, bloggers, freelance writers and seasoned, experienced journalists, a phenomenon which seems likely to continue to deteriorate still further as more and more people continue to fight for the increasingly meagre-looking scraps that are left for writers of any hue.
The introduction of the Guardian Sports Network kick-started the row last week. The GSN is a loose grouping of bloggers from various sports. These writers are not being paid for what they produce, but then – in contrast with, say, The Huffington Post, which doesn’t pay writers for producing tailor-written content – this is content that is already available on their own websites. They are receiving the benefit of the exposure that The Guardian can offer them in return for copying and pasting articles which already exist and would have been written anyway. The Guardian’s sports editor, Sean Ingle, has already gone on record that the newspaper will pay writers for specially-commissioned articles, and those that are involved – and they include such well-established names as The Run Of Play, The Seventy-Two and Dr John Beech’s Football Management – may well consider that exposure and the possibility of a paid gig in the future is ample compensation for what they are giving up.
This, however, doesn’t tell the full story of how this new site is being treated in the online world. There are, perhaps, two counter-arguments to the above which deserve to be heard out. Firstly, there is the small matter of those that are seeking to make a living from their sports writing. It could certainly be contended that a site such as GSN is, if anything, forcing down the value of independent football writing, in helping to perpetuate a culture in which the words of independent writers are treated as essentially valueless in any way other than through getting “exposure”. It could be argued that The Guardian had an opportunity to support the notion of writers deemed of a sufficiently high quality to appear on their website in the first place – in principle, if not in the sense of allowing them to cast the day jobs to one side to become full-time writers – and that this opportunity has not been taken. Ultimately, though, the choice is between the writers and the newspaper concerned and has been made of their own free will. It may just be the way of the present and the future that words simply aren’t worth what they used to be any more.
Secondly, for those seeking to break through into – for the want of a better word – the “blogosphere”, the GSN is reinforcing a hierarchy that has existed for some time now. There are few names on the GSN bloggers list that are a major surprise, for sure, and the owners of sites that merely want to get themselves recognised may contend that the GSN offers a one-stop shop which will deter those looking for original sports writing from looking too hard elsewhere. Why, for example, go to the trouble of searching out and bookmarking ten or fifteen different football websites when you can just bookmark GSN and get some of the latest from writers such as Brian Phillips or Dr John Beech in one hit? There is plenty enough competition for eyeballs amongst independent football writers and bloggers as things stand. If the GSN turns out to be successful, there may be some that are left wondering whether they will ever receive anything like the attention that they may (or may feel that they) deserve. There has been no subterfuge going on in the arrangement between the GSN and those that have signed up for it
The second issue related to an interview that was undertaken by the independent site Les Rosbifs with the former Nottingham Forest and England manager Steve McClaren. There can be no question that to bag an interview with such a high profile individual was a major coup for a comparatively small, privately run independent site, but any pleasure that the site’s editor, Gavin, may have taken from this started to run a little dry after it became clear that swathes of the interview had been reprinted by the considerably more established website, TeamTalk. While this site mentioned the name of the site from which the interview came from, no was made link was provided to allow readers to see the original source from which it came. This created two significant problems for Les Rosbifs. Search engine optimisation concerns set to one side, there is a moral dilemma to consider, here. Whilst there is no legal line that has been crossed by TeamTalk in this case, whether they should have provided appropriate attribution – through the form of a link to the original interview – is a different, greyer area.
What we can say with a degree of certainty is that TeamTalk has hardly covered itself in glory in terms of the way that it dealt with complaints over the matter on Twitter (“I’d love you to do a day to see how a big organisation works. You’d have a different view by 5pm” was one Tweet sent to Gavin by Michael Holmes, the TeamTalk editor, the other evening). No-one would dispute that this company is within its rights to make comments like this but, in the same sense, we are entitled to criticise them for holding this attitude and if there is one thing that has come through from the last seventy-two hours or so, it is that TeamTalk hasn’t received a great deal of positive feedback as a result of this contre-temps. It is a big enough to website to be able to withstand such criticism, but it can hardly be reasoned that such publicity could be regarded as being positive for them.
Perhaps stories such as these are little more than examples of the cut-throat nature if the professional media. Gavin himself has been left feeling so disillusioned by the events of the last few days that he is now considering giving up his editing altogether. This would be a great shame, since Les Rosbifs has become an excellent website, one which has created its own niche and filled a gap that will not be easily replaced. What is, perhaps, the most troubling about Gavin’s malaise is that he is not the only person feeling the same way at the moment. We recently also lost the excellent Two Footed Tackle (although its long-running podcast will continue and the site’s editor, Chris Nee, has already launched a new site, The Stiles Council) and another stalwart of the scene, Gary Andrews, has also stated his intention to semi-retire from from writing about football.
Perhaps a plurality of football writing was too utopian an ideal. Perhaps money and recognition (or a lack thereof) have such a corrosive influence that the idea of writing about the game for the pure love of it is – or was – naive. Perhaps the echo chamber of social media creates such a suffocating atmosphere that nastiness becomes an inevitability. Whatever the answers to these questions are, that this year should end on such a sour note is disappointing, yet in some ways apt. Just as in the game itself, the world of the football bloggers has had a fractious year and the constant background hum of Twitter only magnifies this. In overall terms, though, none of us are worth so much as a hill of beans. Ninety-nine per cent of football supporters have never heard of ninety-nine per cent of football blogs, and that isn’t a statement made out of any sort of malice – it is merely the way that it is. Ultimately, if we can’t write for the love of writing or for the love of the game itself – and the climate of the last year or so, in several different respects, has come to make this considerably more difficult than it used to be – then there is little point in doing it at all, whether paid or not. Life, ultimately, is too short.
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