THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Ian Plenderleith raises the difficulties faced in creating a football blog that is both successful and commercially viable

Why would anyone work for free? One major plot in the internet’s rollercoaster storyline has been the rebirth of amateur media and its consequent claim to be taken seriously. In terms of football journalism, this has meant an emerging forum for that perennially seething vocal mass, the fans. The initial resistance by the mainstream newspapers to that untamed articulation of frustration and discontent has given way to a partially welcoming embrace.

Blogs and Twitter feeds from both club and international fans are now reaching wider audiences thanks to projects like the Guardian’s Fan Network during the World Cup or its Football League Blog (though the Telegraph seems to have abandoned a similar scheme). In the current economy, you can guarantee that any remuneration is minimal to non-existent, but everybody wins. The paper reaps free content and the writers reach a wider audience, perhaps hoping for better offers down the line. Or looked at another way, a left-leaning paper exploits writers by shamelessly ignoring National Union of Journalist guidelines on minimum rates, and the free freelancers post minimally edited, sub-standard work while hampering legitimate hacks from making a living wage.

Meanwhile, blogging trends have seen the thousands of sites that were clamouring for attention five years ago largely disappear from view – some may still be around, but few readers are interested. At the same time, focus on the few worthwhile, genuinely independent blogs has proven to be a self-regulating quality filter, with reports of the death of half-decent prose at the hands of a Twitter-fixated generation of cyber-morons greatly exaggerated. The question for the best survivors is: having built a good reputation, is it worth all the time and effort to keep providing thoughtful, original content without making significant money?

Jason Davis of Match Fit USA outlined his blog’s dilemma. Realistic enough to see there was no chance of paid work in US soccer journalism, he found few feasible alternatives. He rejected the path of diluting the quality of his site by creating big-name, sensationalist headlines to garner more page hits. He could rely on adverts, but these generate notoriously low click-through revenue at all but the hugest of sites. Or he could erect a paywall, a risky move unless you have a large and loyal readership with the means and the will to keep reading.

Finally, like those Guardian bloggers, he could sign up with a collective, like US blog network SB Nation, which is “fine for some because it guarantees a small return through the power of the brand; unfortunately, it also means a loss of true independence”. SB Nation covers all sports with the unconvincing moniker “pro quality, fan perspective”. A sift through its soccer articles reveals the predictable truth: poor quality, bland perspective.
 
Pitch Invasion’s Richard Whittall analysed the situation in a six-part epic headlined Football, Blogs and Newspapers (well worth reading in full) and tentatively saw a future model whereby mainstream media would collaborate with specialised, independent sites that could offer something beyond a newspaper’s regular content. This would be fuelled by the “voracious” appetite of a huge global audience in “a massive area of news” (that is, football around the world) that can not be covered by a single media organisation due its own restrictions of time and money. “Good independent soccer blogs tend to attract particular kinds of readers in good numbers,” wrote Whittall, “and if these bloggers are attached to a major traditional outlet, it puts the power of the paper’s brand behind them. It increases reader trust, strengthens the ‘weak ties’ endemic on the web, and provides a trusted filter for football information, which is what online papers tend to do anyway.”

Whittall spoke to Michael Cox, creator of the excellent Zonal Marking, who landed a weekly spot at the Guardian on the strength of his tactical breakdowns of individual games. Cox was sanguine about the Guardian hook-up, saying that the ZM site was still “my main task”. He supposed that the future of his site would eventually depend on its ability to be financially self-sustaining, but for now he considered the site an end in itself. Remember that internet founding principle? Free content born of love and passion?

Love, however, undergoes its sternest test in hard times, and passion can be depleted by repetition, familiarity and the landlord’s demand for rent. Zonal Marking states that: “Profit was far from the main intention when launching ZM, but the more profitable it is, the more comprehensive coverage will be.”

And while Billy Fan may still only take 20 minutes to fire off a rant for his blog or webzine about the deficiencies of the manager, the board, the back four and the groundsman too, it takes up much more time and energy to watch games carefully, break them down tactically and then write about them persuasively several times a week. Cox needs clothing, food, a roof and a laptop too.

Pitch Invasion, which just a year ago won a WSC Gold Award, among several other accolades, has suffered from a depletion of content since the World Cup, with founder Tom Dunmore concentrating on writing a book, running the Chicago Fire Independent Supporters’ Association and contributing to the largely dreadful US site Big Soccer (for the money). He conceded that PI is “not a successful business, nor was it ever meant to earn full-time income for anyone. At the end of the day, I’d rather run nothing on it than run low-quality crap.”

Put another way, the key for the best independent sites will be to uphold editorial standards and attain financial viability before the inevitable onset of burnout. If Whittall’s model has any credence, that may require a change in attitude among the traditional papers to view partnerships as a collaboration, not a source of free labour.

From WSC 286 December 2010

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