7 June ~ In the latest issue of WSC, Mark Segal looks at how the use of Twitter has changed football reporting.
In the early part of the last decade when I was running the football service on Teletext we struck a deal with a national sports agency to provide us with news tip-offs from the training grounds of Premier League clubs. We weren't looking for the big stories which would be splashed across the next morning's papers, more nuggets of information which we knew fans would be interested in receiving immediately such as injury updates, weekend team news and reaction to transfer speculation.
Once the call came we not only wrote up the stories for our pages on ITV, but also sent them out via text message to our subscribers. We weren't getting rich on the idea but it certainly proved popular. These days such a service would be obsolete due to the invention of free social media tools, but the idea that fans want to know every last piece of information about their club still stands and Twitter is now the place to find it.
Across Twitter there are a number of national newspaper journalists doing the job that we used to do with our SMS messages. Whether it's John Cross of the Daily Mirror talking about Arsenal or the Guardian's Daniel Taylor writing about Manchester City, the reporters are giving their Twitter followers an insight into their club both from the training ground and from matches. But that's not all. They are also striking up a conversation with the fans. Not only does this allow supporters to comment on stories but, more importantly, it also makes the journalist more accountable for what they write.
Before social media created a two-way conversation on the internet, a journalist would only have had their editor and probably the manager of the club they reported on to answer to. They could print stories knowing they would not be asked to justify them to the ordinary football fan. But it's different now for those who have chosen to set up Twitter accounts. They are pulled up on any factual errors in their stories, asked to reveal their sources and generally badgered by their followers.
They often get abuse, told they can't write and get sucked into arguments. So you have to wonder why they choose to do it. One of the highest profile journalists on Twitter I've spoken to accepts there are pitfalls and dangers but also says it's a great way of taking the temperature of a club's fans. You get to understand how they feel about certain players and managers, and what they believe are their biggest issues and concerns.
Of course, journalists should probably know this kind of thing but you can sometimes get caught up in the bubble of press conferences and talking to colleagues, and not realise what the real problems are. It's also a good way of testing out theories before you commit them to print. And on Twitter you're not just getting a second opinion but possibly the opinions of thousands of other people.
There's also the ego factor as well. Most journalists are keen to push their profile and Twitter is another avenue open to those who are not quite important enough to review the papers on Sky Sports News or appear on the Monday Night Club on Radio 5 Live.
And that's where the dream of being able to talk to and put straight your favourite tabloid writer goes astray – most of them don't Tweet. In an ideal world, some of the big beasts of Fleet Street would use Twitter and open themselves up to examination. Henry Winter of the Telegraph is the highest profile football writer on Twitter but he never follows or replies to anyone and is often criticised for it (check out his spoof feed @Harry_Summer).
But there also is silence from the other chief football writers. Perhaps many of them do not understand Twitter or perhaps they do understand, which is why they choose to stay away. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are set to get a massive boost from this summer's World Cup with fans across the world connecting with each other throughout the tournament.
Journalists who are on Twitter will be providing a useful service – it's just a shame more of them are not joining in.