A Funeral for A More Splendid Life

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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 Here lies A More Splendid Life, dead at just under five years of age. I owe all my successes to you. Thanks to the hangers on. I am now mired in my full-time gig with theScore, which you can find here.

“It turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, from wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgments like Lords of the Earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid life.” 
J. B. Priestley

On the Guardian Sport Blog redesign

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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A year ago last month, I wrote a six part series for Pitch Invasion called “Football, blogs and newspapers unite?” in which I pushed for a newspaper/blog network as the future of digital sports journalism. Here’s me:

Moreover, many papers are mulling over switching their hard news content over to paid-for smart phone, or iPad-like apps. If that model becomes the basis for most news providers to secure payment-for-content, their shadow WWW sites aren’t going away—and bloggers could help fill in this content gap. A series of blog networks linked to a newspaper main page with several rotating feature posts awarded to bloggers based on editorial merit. Think of it as a kind of like a much-expanded Guardian Favourite Things, split into blogs of a specific type, with rotating sponsors.

The series, which included interviews with Michael Cox and Sean Ingle, made a minor splash when it came out with a write up in WSC magazine (it’s also likely the reason that tiny little AMSL ended up in the Guardian’s 100 blogs to look for last year).

A year later, and the Guardian has an Apple newsreader app, and now, a redesigned sport blog. Sean Ingle:

The partnership involves cross-posting the most interesting, provocative and quirky pieces from our 15-strong network (a figure that will grow in the weeks and months ahead) on our Sportblog, with a link back to the original site, thus showcasing bloggers’ work and hopefully driving more traffic to their sites. It is the intention of the Guardian to move closer to what our editor, Alan Rusbridger, has called an “open model of journalism” which promotes a far greater richness and diversity of content, and this is another confident step on this journey.

I’m not going to presume I had any part in this development (although it would be awesome beyond words if I did), but it’s a fantastic thing for the bloggers involved, which range from the Run of Play to Zonal Marking to Snap Kaka Pop. Though I don’t know much about the financial terms/advertizing scheme (if any),hopefully this will become a model for other newspapers who will in turn snap up their own cadre of talented soccer writers. The future is now, as the cliche goes.

Henry Winter is a blogger

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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The question comes up time and again: “Is there still such a thing as mainstream football media?”

I’ll leave the question aside in a North American context, but there clearly is in some parts of the world, namely England, where the football league’s tussle with the mainstream press over the latter’s reluctance to be monetarily extorted has resulted in some interesting apologetics, most notably from the Telegraph’s Henry Winter.

The argument Winter makes is this: the Football League needs the mainstream press to “fan interest.” I would delight in answering, “actually, football itself did that quite well for the last hundred years or so” but I do agree with him, at least in principle. As I’ve written before, sport isn’t news, in the sense that there is nothing to report on that goes beyond either the match itself, or the highlight reel, or the box score. The bulk of sportswriting published in newspapers is fundamentally interpretative, outside of the odd transfer story scoop. It’s storytelling packaged as news.

Which is also why the insistence of certain sportswriters that they are first and foremost journalists, even though they often rarely report anything remotely resembling news outside of dutifully taking notes at otherwise televised post game press conferences, is the football blogger’s number one pet peeve. David Conn and Matt Scott are sports journalists, at least when they go out and discover something that the reader would not have the time, access or economical resources to find out him or herself, such as FIFA corruption and the like. So are many other reporters who act in a similar mode. But writing an MBM, or a wittily scripted post game match report makes you something else—a sportswriter.

And as many have discovered, you don’t need access, press boxes, and hooked up laptops to be a sportswriter. Which is why Winter’s claim to the importance of press access at the football ground rings hollow. If football clubs, for whatever reason, decided to grant access to club or independent bloggers, in what capacity would the seasoned newspaper sportswriter—not sports journalist—be better at doing his or her job, beyond writing/editing experience?

The Football League probably figured this out, and realized their product is worth much more to major press organizations then the other way around, particularly when it comes to the non-Premier League. If I want to read about Rochdale, or Stevenage, or Brighton and Hove Albion, I’m not going to bother checking the Daily Mail or the Guardian. No, I go to anyone of several fan blogs, or to all purpose blogs like Twohundredpercent or European Football Weekends, or even the Swiss Ramble.

Winter’s claim that smaller clubs will go to seasoned journalists to write their programme notes doesn’t surprise me as many football clubs are run by idiots. Why go to Patrick Barclay for your match day notes when you could get a much more interesting, involved, younger and eager writer who knows more about the team to do it for you, for less money?

Ditto for club promotion. Smart football clubs will know by now that courting major newspapers for the odd article is an investment-heavy, return-light strategy that won’t get bums in seats for the long term (the only actual work major newspapers tend do within the lower leagues is restricted is write about how awful their owners are). Much better to work on those grassroots supporters, the younger ones who have the time, money, and energy (and have fewer relegation memories).

All this is to say that while the sports journalism trade is as relevant and important as ever, the sportswriting trade is open to anyone with a love of football, a pair of eyes, and the ability to build an audience. The real fear for the Henry Winter’s of the world is that, with their access revoked, their readers (and editors) will figure it out sooner than later.

On careerism in the incestuously small Canadian soccer journalism scene

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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The Canadian soccer writing landscape has exploded over the last few years. It almost feels redundant to write this, but the number of Canadian soccer sources now available on the web is truly remarkable.

I don’t want to get in a long-winded breakdown of the “history” of online soccer coverage in Canada, but suffice it to say, before the internet there were one or two newspaper reporters who owned the soccer beat, and even then, coverage was sparse. Outside of a few specialty magazines, that was about it.
Then came the birth of Toronto FC in 2007, and with it a slew of Canadian amateur blogs. A handful wanted to take soccer writing in a personalized, Bill Simmons-esque direction. Others wanted to use blogging as a way to jump the not-always-merit-based print journalism queue. The result was a few sites with plenty of first person, primary source reporting which evolved into blogs like Canadian Soccer News and RedNation.

In the early days however, there was a lot of distrust between bloggers and mainstream soccer reporters. First, football bloggers weren’t journalists, at least at the start. They were opinion generators, working off the primary source work of their equivalents in the journalism world. But the quality on offer from some the amateur’ soccer bloggers called into question the credentials of full-time newspaper sports journalists, some of whom had, quite frankly, been phoning in an inadequate product for years. It turns out access to a locker-room does not always make a great journalist. The result: some journalists dismissed bloggers as pajama-clad poseurs, and some bloggers dismissed journalists as careerist hacks.

Now, the soccer blogging landscape has evolved to the point where it’s not unrealistic for a talented, hard-working soccer writer, regardless of who they know or if they went to journalism school, to get a wide audience, popularity, and with it (if they’re really lucky) some money, too. Sometimes the breadth of that soccer audience comes as a surprise and breeds panic; bloggers feel they must tame their criticisms, either of influential sources or fellow colleagues, in order to get ahead of an increasingly crowded field.

The risk of course is that the things that made these “outside” voices popular in the first place—freedom to express their opinions about soccer, including publicly disagreeing with more established football journalists—will disappear.

In a perfect world, football writers should be able to disagree with more established writers without the need to protect their careers, so long as they don’t resort to ad hominem attacks. However in the incestuously small Canadian soccer scene, the reality is a lot of bloggers don’t want to rock the boat, so they either diplomatically skirt direct criticism of their colleagues with “they’re a great writer, but,” or don’t bother voicing their honest opinion at all. Fear of career repercussions for up-and-coming soccer writers isn’t completely crazy either; I know of at least one who’s lost work for being a bit too outspoken at more than one publication.

That said, I think it’s far more insidious for a soccer writer to worry about their career rather than write what they think, even if it what they think isn’t popular, or directly criticizes a contemporary who might be able to give them a job one day.

I’ve been called “stupid” by people I’ve later had drinks with in the past, and vice versa. If you’re going to write about a sport people care about so passionately, you’re going to come across people who don’t like what you have to say, or how you say it. This is not the end of the world.

I think it’s fair to disagree with one another and do so emphatically; if we’re scared if hurting our careers by keeping our opinions to ourselves, we do our readers a grave disservice. Moreover, we’re doing Canadian soccer a disservice. Antithesis is the path to synthesis when it’s both constructive and honest. Granted, that’s a hard balance to find, and I’ve not been able to find it in the past, particularly on my Twitter feed. But if we’re going to take on the challenges our sport faces seriously, we need to be able to give our honest opinion, to call bullshit when we see it, to recognize that having a name does not make you immune to fair criticism, and that lively, contentious debate about football in this country will do more for the cause than softball interviews and posts that are diplomatic to a fault.

Canadian soccer’s annus horribilis

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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In honour of the royal visitors Kate and whoseewotsits, this has been an annus horribilis for Canadian soccer.

Our two MLS franchises are stumbling through their respective league seasons. The Canadian national teams crashed in out in the group stages of the U17 World Cup, the Gold Cup, and after today’s 4-0 loss to France, almost certainly the Women’s World Cup in Germany. And the same stuff gets written by soccer bloggers and journos (a lot by yours truly) on the ever present need for “change.” And then we get to the next tournament and the scenery looks exactly the same.

Of course there are many voices in the Canadian soccer media world calling for calm, describing how this game is a one-off and doesn’t reflect the Carolina Morace era. I’m inclined to agree. Trying to pinpoint specific blame for a one-game loss in a major tournament is a fool’s errand, but the pattern of false starts at major international tournaments is a pattern impossible to dismiss.

We are missing something. What that “something” is is anyone’s guess. I personally think it’s the swagger of a country that’s had its moments. Canada has qualified for a FIFA World Cup, sure. We won a Gold Cup, okay. We scored 17 goals and let in 0 during the women’s CONCACAF qualifying tournament. But these feel like hype-laden exceptions, the kind of exceptions that fuel the delusion that we’re getting somewhere when we’re actually grinding our gears, maniacally convincing ourselves we’re not.

You get that “something” by taking football seriously, from the ground up. We’re slowly moving in that direction with incremental CSA reform, but it will be sometime before we’re there, in clear evidence at the highest level.

My own belief is that the status quo however will be hard, if not impossible, to change. Normally when we shit the bed in large global sports tournaments, we hem and haw and write letters to the editor, get our MPs to write up private members bills and voila: we get an own the podium-like athlete funding mechanism. But with football, no one will care. Stephen Brunt will pen an articulate, soul-searching column, and no one outside of football, save the hardcore sports people, will bat an eye.

This to me is the problem, a problem we’ve known for ages (and I’m speaking in terms of one hundred years, here).

Fabregas to Barca is a singularity

This post is by Richard Whittall from A More Splendid Life

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I have this vision of reporters sitting around sports desks in the UK, drawing straws for who has to go cover the Febregas to Barcelona story. Sympathetic colleagues offer the unlucky reporter promises of after-work pints, and the editor reminds everyone there that if you get this beat for one day, you won’t have to cover it again for at least a month.

Although all transfer stories are horrible, some come with at least a little give. Sunderland’s (possibly) 13 million pound bid for Connor Wickham at least has the “overpriced English players” thing going for it. But the Fabregas story is a journalistic black hole. All of the implications for Barcelona and Arsenal were explored ad nauseam last season when this same deal aired out for months in the British press. We know the story. All that’s left is an amount, and an ETD.

And yet reporters have to cover it, it will get top billing in every sports section and website, and will receive the most hits from salivating morons (yes, morons). So for all you journo-wannabe soccer writers, just be aware your job will entail lots and lots shit-shovelling like this.