Interview

ELECTRONIC MEDIA CANNOT COMPETE WITH THE THRILL OF A BACK PAGE EXCLUSIVE

Sunday Mirror sports editor DAVID WALKER on how the internet is affecting newspapers

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

IN THE very old days spectators were told the half-time scores from other games when someone placed numbers along the touchline of one side of a ground. By “A” – say, Arsenal v Chelsea – the numbers “1” and “1” or whatever were placed, the key to the letters in the programme.

In the not quite so old days supporters would wait at a station for the Saturday Pink Un or Green Un to arrive an hour after the final whistle. These papers were essential reading, not just for the results and up-to-date league tables, but for a report on matches played that afternoon and football columns. The demise of the Saturday 3pm kick-off and the continuing technological advance of new media have seen the downfall of these papers – the Birmingham Mail’s Sports Argus, which used to be the biggest selling Saturday sports paper in England, ceased publication in May 2006.

These days fans are aware of goals, red cards, results…everything…courtesy of Planet Internet which has, in many respects, proved to be a football writer’s best friend though progress too often comes at a price.

David Walker, the sports editor of the Sunday Mirror, spoke to footballwriters.co.uk, his views personal and not necessarily those of Trinity Mirror, about the effect of the internet on the more traditional world of newspapers. The times, definitely, are a-changing and Walker said: “Just about every local paper in every city or town ran a Saturday evening special. They were a vital part of the journey home for fans. For journalists, they were an integral part of any paper’s output. That whole market was huge and it has been wiped out.

“The next issue was the power of a closed-shop union regarding the minimum salaries in some national newspapers.”

When Walker started on his first national paper in 1982 his salary was £16,900. That equates to £51,000 now, and there are many football writers who would love to earn, let alone start on, that wage.

“Salaries have gone down and so has the number of people being employed in the industry, yet the work-load has increased with the biggest development being reporters having to write across the board, from newspapers to the electronic media.”

While the older generation remains faithful to buying a daily and Sunday newspaper, the growing influence of the internet has seen sales of national papers drop by 16 per cent over the last five years, three per cent more than the European average.

A recent survey claimed that in the UK only 18 per cent of the total population read a daily newspaper compared with 53 per cent in Germany, 21 per cent in France and nearly 70 per cent in Norway and Switzerland.

“People in their twenties are not the avid newspaper buyers their parents are,” said Walker. “They get their media fix in a different way, not least the free access to most newspapers’ web sites. The one hope I have is how good some of the apps are looking, particularly newspaper apps which are based on the design of a page, with advertising and content which makes it the nearest the old school will get to the actual feel of a newspaper on a screen.”

The internet does not affect Walker’s weekly plans for the Sunday Mirror sports pages though the football writers are expected to contribute opinion columns for mirrorfootball.com and help with breaking sports news stories.

The desire for newspapers to break stories on their web sites rather than holding them for the following morning’s paper is a progression that particularly worries football writers who are responsible for the majority of back page stories.

Walker said: “Are they protecting stories for the newspaper or, as is increasingly the case, putting them on line to get as many hits as possible for the site? The Daily Telegraph were one of the first to break a good story on-line with the row between Kevin Pietersen and [England head coach] Peter Moore about the England captaincy. They put the story on their site around tea-time which meant every other paper could pick it up.”

Fleet Street had previously been very protective of exclusive stories at the front and the back of the paper. A big transfer scoop would be kept out of the first edition and held for the last edition so no one else could lift it. The ultimate satisfaction for a reporter has always been to pick up his paper and see an exclusive story that is immediately followed up by all parts of the media. The new generation, weaned on electronic media, have a different time schedule, rather than wait for the morning’s paper they often try to beat rivals by minutes by putting a story on line first.

“If we have a really big story we’d still try to make it so people would have to buy the paper to read it,” said Walker. “For me, breaking an accurate story in a newspaper remains the greatest thrill, be it football, news or politics. A newspaper’s greatest strength is to publish a really good exclusive story. Perhaps reporters in their Twenties may have a different view.”

But should newspapers give away for free on line what is in their print editions? The Mail Online has become the world’s biggest newspaper website with one recent month’s figures showing 90,309,252 unique browsers. The BBC’s web site has an estimated world audience of 150 million unique monthly browsers.

News International led the way in the UK with a paywall. ABC figures in 2012 for The Times were 393,187 and 955,248 for The Sunday Times. Combined with 130,751 digital subscribers, it meant a total paid audience of 523,938 for The Times. The Sunday Times had 126,989 digital subscribers and a total paid audience of 1,082,237. Obviously the on-line subscriptions makes money for NI even though the figures are minimal compared to the free sites.

On-line advertising yields far less revenue than that for newspapers and we have yet to see how significant profits can be made from electronic media.

Walker said: “The game used to be that newspapers had a cover charge for the newspaper, advertising was sold, the circulation was known and you could work out your revenue per day. For their web sites, newspapers are looking for sponsors, advertising…but can they protect material that is behind the paywall? Can others copy what is on a site and pass it on?”

Despite the emphasis being placed on the internet Walker does not see a time when a newspaper will have their own football correspondent writing exclusively for the web site. “That would be pigeon-holing a writer which is not what newspapers want. They prefer journalists to write for the paper and the net, which from an accounting viewpoint is staffing as many areas as possible with the fewest number of people.”

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