Here’s why local sports journalism is more relevant than ever in the digital age

Local newspapers were the primary source — and often the only source — of daily sports news for local teams for decades.

But in a digital age where fans have wall-to-wall coverage through TV, online brands and instant discussion bringing fans together on forums and blogs, how does the local sports journalist stand out from the crowd?

Jon Birchall, head of digital sport at Reach, says the answer lies with being ‘fan first’:

You could walk down Fletcher Street now and never know.

You would never know that for over a century, this row of Victorian terraces led you to Wilderspool, home of Warrington Rugby League Football Club. And nor would you know of the afternoons when up to 30,000 people crammed into the stands, a second home to generations of families who grew up in my hometown.

You would never know about the day in 1940 when Warrington played Broughton Rangers as German bombs fell on factories on the other side of town, incorrectly thinking they were targeting the wire industry which gave the team its nickname.

Or when Wilderspool fell silent in 1993, days after an IRA attack killed two children in the town centre, a couple of minutes up the road from the ground with an atmosphere so ferocious, it was nicknamed as The Zoo by opposition players.

You would never know any of this walking down Fletcher Street now because the stadium has long disappeared. In 2004, my season ticket on the Fletcher Street End at Wilderspool moved to a new ground one mile north, crossing the Mersey and next to a vast, sprawling Tesco on the site of the old Tetley’s brewery. It was a move that reflects a wider trend of investment in the town, as new communities and high-end housing gravitate towards the M62, where huge haulage and distribution companies such as Amazon have set up home, making the most of the town’s ideally placed spot between Manchester and Liverpool.

And what remains of the historic old ground? Well, not very much at all. Now demolished, only wasteland remains, while the development opportunity promised to local residents remains just that.

Stadiums, like the clubs who occupy them and the towns and cities they occupy, are fluid, ever-changing beasts. Where one season can bring elation, the next brings relegation. For coaches and players, trigger-happy owners and the transfer window can ensure that the relationships with any one place can be all too brief. Much like journalism in 2018, there can be no standing still in professional sport.

And yet, there have and always will be two constants — the fans and the regional press who cover these institutions.

Sports journalism thrives in any newsroom where the brand treats its sports clubs for what they are — a fundamental cornerstone of the town, city or region they are in. There aren’t many phenomena which will so readily bring thousands of people to any one place week in, week out in the same way a local football club can, for example. Nor can many businesses have as significant an impact on the local economy.

When Aston Villa were relegated in 2016, 500 redundancies soon followed, and with it 500 families, no doubt almost all from Birmingham, saw their lives changed there and then. For all the lavish indulgence we see in professional sport these days, let’s never forget that these clubs are often living, breathing reflections of the places we live, on the best days and on the hardest. The Birmingham Mail was there to tell those stories, long after the Sky cameras had packed up for the summer.

The constant state of flux in Sports media only serves to make our job — namely that of understanding our audiences and the stories they care about — even more vital than ever before.

When once it was the Saturday evening Football Pink or back page of the Monday daily where fans got the latest on their clubs, now we compete with social platforms showing goals within seconds of them hitting the back of the net, club media bolstered by heavy internal investment and digital fan media such as The Anfield Wrap or Stoke City’s Oatcake fanzine. Across the Atlantic, dedicated heavily-localised Sports Media such as the subscription-led The Athletic are taking advantage of an industry still juggling with the existential question of how best to make journalism pay.

Such is the pace of change in Sport media that even broadcasting behemoths are looking to consolidate around core audiences. New digital streaming services have led to ESPN losing 10,000 paid-for subscribers a day in the US as sports fans look for a better deal. It was only last week that Sky Sports lost its rights to show La Liga matches from next season, unwilling to pay the £18 million a year in rights fees. Amazon, Facebook and Netflix are all understood to be keeping a close eye on Premier League TV rights when they next go to tender, with the league’s executive chairman Richard Scudamore having opened the door to Silicon Valley’s giants. Sport, let’s remember, offers brand-safe advertising potential in abundance. Meanwhile, the US’s 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act which effectively outlaws sports gambling across the country, could soon be repealed in the Supreme Court, opening up eye-watering revenue streams in sports media.

It is all too easy to get lost in these dizzying figures. Our job as local sports journalists fundamentally remains the same — tell the stories that matter to our fans in a way that will have the greatest possible impact. Thankfully, with an extensive suite of audience metrics and analytics at our disposal, we’re in a better position than ever to know what those stories are and where our supporters are reading and watching. Running parallel on social media, we have a constant dialogue with our readers, as well as Q&As with our correspondents.

At Reach, we call it a fan-first approach to covering sport. It is the supporters, after all, who dictate the agenda. Their hopes and their frustrations, so often entwined with our own, are the true story of any sports club. Professional teams may often seem to exist in another world to our own, but they are never in a vacuum. It is the fans, who build their weekends around the match or who debate which players should stay and go, that are the lightning rod for any story. We stand right there with them, trying where we can to close the gap between what’s happening in the boardroom or changing room with the people in the stands.

It is this laser-focus on individual clubs and players that gives us an immeasurable advantage over national publishers and broadcasters, who simply cannot begin to cover our patches with the same depth and expertise as us in the local press. We are present and we are relevant, 365 days a year.

And so here we are, stronger than we have ever been, critical custodians of our clubs. Telling the stories you would never know.



The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

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