Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Twitter, Journalism and the Great Unwashed

Australia's second-best soccer writer, Joe Gorman has generously allowed us to publish his latest piece summarising and reflecting on a mad day on twitter. My name is taken in vain (and probably appropriately so) but as Joe explains . . .

On Sunday, Bonita Mersiades tweeted a link to Australian Football pRSS, a new content-aggregating portal that brings together the best football news from various blogs, club press releases, podcasts and daily newspapers. It's a wonderful service, and I believe it to be responsible for Frank Farina following me on Twitter. If Twitter was around when I was a kid, I'm sure this would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream, and so I remain eternally grateful to Bonita and her "business partner" for their efforts.

Michael Lynch, the senior football writer from The Age, took umbrage to her tweet, mistakenly believing it to be a "cheap shot" at the mainstream media. To his credit, he later corrected himself, but the damage was done. After a few smart-arse responses from this humble keyboard conspiracist, over the next forty-eight hours 220 tweets had shot back and forth between the Fairfax sports writer and the great unwashed who wish his job theirs.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Being a soccer journalist in this country mustn't be a lot of fun sometimes. On the one hand, over-enthusiastic supporters egg you on to write puff pieces and 'promote' the sport, while on the other hand sports editors would rather see articles on how Nick Riewoldt or Benji Marshall like their coffee. And so a lot gets left out. We are fed a fair bit on transfers and player profiles, plenty of match analysis while the A-League is in season, and the occasional piece on the direction of the sport. Then we get Craig Foster telling us how football is going to save the world every Sunday.

Ian Syson, a Melbourne-based academic whose ability for forensic historical research is only matched by his wonderful ability to fall out with everybody he meets, charged Lynch with neglect of the local game. I'm reliably informed by the nation's most under-appreciated football writer, Paul Mavroudis, that this is a ritual slanging match.

Still, Syson's charges, and subsequent spot-fire arguments with Lynch's Fairfax stablemates Ben Cubby and Daniel Oakes got me thinking about the nature of sports writing in this country. As newspapers move away from a local to a national audience, what room is there for journalists to report on local State League football? Can we reasonably expect the handful of full-time soccer journos to do a weekly whip around of semi-professional park kick-abouts? Ian may be right about a fundamental lack of coverage, but the point is that the daily press have long ceased to become newspapers of record. Football coverage is just part of a broader story.

A former lecturer of mine once informed me that "the best journalism is about people, not power." It's a wonderful idea, but one that seems to be inverted when it comes to sports writing. Stories about those at the top sells newspapers. If you want to be informed about what the ordinary person thinks of the direction of those who run the game, you'll have to put down the paper and rock up to your local ground and ask any parent on the sidelines.

Not that there aren't potential stories at State League soccer matches. Last Sunday, former NSL giants Melbourne Knights played South Melbourne in the VPL, while Bonnyrigg White Eagles won a hard fought contest in the cow paddocks of western Sydney against their eternal rivals Sydney United. I was at the game at Edensor Park, which I must say looks resplendent with its new astro-turf fitting, and the match had all the ingredients for the savvy sports journo.

There was the ludicrous 10am kick-off, the over-zealous security guards and a band of boys in blue policing just a few hundred spectators. It was a veritable cook-pot of nationalism, rivalry and penalty shoot-out induced tension. Further south in Sunshine, I'm informed that Andrew Barisić performed a touching goal celebration in memory of his late grandfather in the Knights 2-1 win.

Furthermore, where structural issues are concerned, like the rollout of the National Premier Leagues, surely these are worth covering in the mainstream press. Instead, it's been left to websites to fill the void, most notably Donald Sutherland at MFootball in Victoria and Shaun Mooney at Leopold Method, a website I write for. Four Four Two's Kathy Stone, perhaps the least ego-driven journalist in the country, has done all the legwork for the 'mainstream' football websites, with the major mastheads and The World Game conspicuous in their silence on the issue. It's like 'On The Ball' never existed. Kyle Patterson has certainly forgotten all about it.

The rise of what Greg Jericho calls "the fifth estate" has done much to alter the way in which we receive information about football. And as Michael Lynch has said in his tweets, many of the bloggers write "opinionated, often single-sourced claptrap." However, the fifth estate presents other challenges quite apart from grammar crimes and conspiracy theories. These bloggers are doing Lynch's job, but usually for free, and with wildly varying degrees of competence.

The scarcity of football writers means that blogging has become a crucial source of information. Some of it is utter crap, but sites like Overseas Aussies, The Women's Game and Neos Osmos suit a deceptively simple niche that even the FFA would envy.

Gideon Haigh writes that "in Australia, journalists have held aloof from blogs, when they have not been actively hostile", while Annabel Crabb puts it more simply - "wow, lots of people like to do what we do for nothing. Tell me an industry that wouldn't be freaked out by that."

This issue of hierarchy speaks to the very heart of the issue. Up-and-coming writers routinely whore themselves to websites for little-or-no pay, in turn creating a culture whereby payment becomes a privilege, not a right. But in a cottage industry like the football media, there is always going to be an over-supply of willing writers. And the reserve army of soccer scabs cares little for the longevity of senior sports writers' careers.

Technically speaking, this is a merciless mass of scabs. Chris Corrigan would be salivating at the sight of the soccer bloggers. But what are we supposed to do? Not write in fear of ruining the etiquette of a historically indulgent industry? Freelancers don't make good unionists, especially when that solidarity only serves the very few.

Just as Indian-American political economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that western unions only serve to entrench the advantage of first world labour, bloggers might argue that media alliances and associations only prop up the careers of senior journalists. We're being asked for solidarity in the fight for another man's tenure. But for what? Another profile of Archie Thompson?

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