The Rule of a ‘Click’: The End of Writing on Rowing? – Part I

The press launch during 2016 Tideway Week. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

18 December 2017

Many of the national papers use sport as a big selling point. The Times and the Telegraph both push their Monday papers on the sport content, and when they tie a big sporting name or a top journalist into a contract, they are very quick to promote this as a real advantage of the newspaper. For although sport is a very visual occupation, and thus in theory much better suited to television, people everywhere still want to be able to read at leisure and at their own pace about their chosen sports. Watching sport on television involves viewing the action and listening to the comments at someone else’s prearranged pace. Newspapers can be read slowly or glanced at quickly; they can be read anywhere – on the train, in the bath, at work or at home.

[- – -]

The national daily newspapers aim to cover the topical stories, matches and interviews in great depth and with great authority. Although many people thought that the arrival of televised sport, and all the instant access to sporting information which channels like Sky offered, would diminish the role of newspapers, this has not happened. Indeed, it has made newspapers realise how much sharper, more original and more exciting they have to be to capture the imagination of their readers – so that it has in fact made the whole marketplace more vibrant. Newspaper editors continue to acknowledge the massive role that they play in disseminating sport information, and they work hard to recruit the most popular sports journalists and the best photographers, and to give as much space as they can afford to the subject.

Alison Kervin in Sports Writing (A&C, London 1997), pages 55-56.

HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn writes:

Is sports writing in newspapers dying?

It is in America, according to Kevin Draper in an article in the sport section of The New York Times on 23 October. One of the reasons for this is The Athletic, which is a digital sport news outlet founded in January 2016 by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann in Chicago. The Athletic is hiring sports writers left and right and almost two years after it was launched, the website is already, Draper writes, ‘one of the biggest sports media companies in the country.’ It is the website’s goal to be the local sports page for every city in the USA, Mather said in the article. From The Athletic’s office in San Francisco, he self-confidently told The New York Times:

We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.

Right now, The Athletic has full coverage in eight North American cities (Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis) and covers Canadian ice hockey in eight more areas. Of course, ‘full coverage’ means the typical American big national sports: basketball, college (American) football and baseball. For an annual fee of $60 (£45.90; €51.65), you can subscribe to this sports website and app to get first-class coverage in these sports by renowned sports writers, who are experts in their field – and, what is appealing for many readers, the news comes without advertisements.

How is it possible that The Athletic has managed to rise with such speed in such a short time and attract so many good writers? It seems the business model has been attractive for investors, who have pumped several million dollars into the company. According to The New York Times article, The Athletic was planning to grow slowly but the dire economic situation at sports media companies last spring and summer changed the scene. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, Vice Sports and Vocativ fired dozens of gifted sports journalists, who were sucked up by The Athletic. ‘I’d say it’s probably the largest talent displacement in sports media ever,’ Hansmann told The New York Times.

Sports writers in other media companies saw the writing on the wall, and working under stress with an uncertain future, many of them jumped ship to join The Athletic, which now has a 65 editorial strong team – and counting. The company has not released how many subscribers it has at the moment, but Mather/Hansmann are hoping that tens of thousands, if not millions, of sports fans will cough up $60 per year for the privilege to read and watch The Athletic online.

It is going to be interesting to see how the two-year-old website will do in the future and if the sports sections in the printed newspapers will survive.

While The Athletic and the other big sports news media companies – whether it is in print or on a digital platform – will continue to cover the major sports, what will happen to the minor sports? How will these sports, including rowing, be covered in the future? There do exist special rowing magazines published by private companies – to mention some, Rowing News, Row360 and Roei! – and by a few national federations, though the latter is becoming less and less frequent, as federations dump their publications in times of budget cuts. So, sadly, rowing magazines published by federations in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden are no more, leaving Rowing & Regatta, put out by British Rowing, as the one that springs to mind – and the trilingual Swiss Rowing, published by the Swiss Rowing Federation.

For some years back, everything is pointing in a downward spiral situation where less and less is being written about rowing in the newspapers on both sides of the pond. It is now several years ago since The New York Times had a reporter covering rowing. Not that the paper used a lot of ink for the annual Harvard–Yale Race or any of the larger rowing regattas in the USA. (Aahh, those were the days, in the 1880s, when said paper printed articles on ‘The Race’ that covered the whole front page!) But then nearly 10 years ago, all rowing coverage suddenly stopped appearing in The New York Times.

Press coverage for the 1914 Harvard-Yale Race. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

The Harvard–Yale Race (it’s actually four races these days, for Varsity, 2nd Varsity and 3rd Varsity, and a ‘combination boat’ race the evening before the ‘big races’) has now become an interest only for the ‘local’ newspapers, which are close to Yale (New Haven) and Harvard (Cambridge/Boston) or where the event is being held (the Thames River, New London). Every June, reports on The Race can be read in The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New Haven Register, Yale Daily News (the oldest college paper in the U.S.), Hartford Courant (the largest paper in Connecticut and the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country) and The Day of New London. While these newspapers publish reports of the races the day after the event, anyone interested in an in-depth analysis of the crews before the races can desperately look for it in these papers and come up short-handed.

To take another example how bad it is: few American newspapers outside of Florida wrote about the World Rowing Championships in Sarasota-Bradenton a few months ago. I doubt that the lack of American gold medals was the reason why the domestic press didn’t write about these championships.

Sadly, the American trend is now also the one in Great Britain. A few years ago, you could still be certain that the major British newspapers had special rowing correspondents. The Times, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian/The Observer and The Independent covered the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, Henley Royal Regatta, Head of the River, and, now and then, even the Wingfield Sculls and the Doggett’s Race – but the rowing correspondents are no more, with one exception.

It was different in the 1960s, when the press box for ‘the gentlemen of the press’ (then only a male occupation) at regattas was packed with scribbling rowing journalists – see the second half of a previously published HTBS article about this here. And how things have changed in sports writing during the last 20 years is clearly seen in the quote which starts this article, a quote by Alison Kervin from her book Sports Writing.

Chris Dodd, a witness to 45 University Boat Races. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

One of the correspondents who has covered rowing since the beginning of the 1970s is Chris Dodd. He first wrote for The Guardian and then for The Independent and is now a freelance writer. Dodd belonged to a famous group of rowing correspondents, among them, Dickie Burnell, Geoffrey Page and Jim Railton, who passed away in August. Dodd is the only one left of the old guard.

‘Until the 1980s, newspapers covered sport with special corrs, and rowing, being old, had a good start more than 120 years ago with all the pro-racing and amateur pioneering,’ Chris Dodd told HTBS. ‘The only special correspondent left in Britain, practically, is Rachael Quarrell. There is quite a lot of local paper coverage still, but print is in death throes.’ Though hopefully, Dodd added, ‘Like proper books, it may return.’

The Telegraph stand was a feature outside of the Henley Stewards’ Enclosure until 2017 when it was replaced by a coffee stall. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

Rachael Quarrell took over as rowing correspondent at The Daily Telegraph when Geoffrey Page died in 2002. Quarrell and Dodd founded the RowingVoice, a digital rowing blog-twitter-magazine, in 2006. So besides writing for the RowingVoice, Quarrell wrote rowing articles for The Daily Telegraph and all seemed to be well. However, in September 2015 (though a bulk of what she wrote then, she had scribbled down already in September 2014), Quarrell published an alarming article on RowingVoice. Among other things, she wrote that there is a new way

in which the print media, TV, radio and online-only sites are measuring interest in sports and thus how much coverage they should get. Of course, it’s based on the internet because that is how the younger generations, the ones the advertisers are most interested in catching before their habits form, mostly engage with sports news now.

Chris Dodd and Rachel Quarrell, in the press launch 2015. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

Quarrell remarked that media companies need social media reactions from the readers. In the ‘old days,’ she wrote, ‘coverage of a sport depended on how many Letters to the Editor it tended to provoke.’ Then it became phone calls, then e-mails and, now in the digital age when the readers go online to get the news, ‘likes’, ‘favourites’, ‘thumb-ups’ and comments. The executives in the media companies need ‘measurable statistics’ how many readers have actually read an article, looked at a photograph or watched a video online to show the advertisement department. This is a sign that the balance of power has moved from the editorial desk to the ad desk, where the advertising revenue is said to save the paper. However, last month, on 16 November, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian and The Observer, observed in a speech that the newspapers online are now losing ground, as ‘digital journalism produced by many news organisations had become “less and less meaningful” because the bulk of online advertising now went to Google and Facebook.’

In her September 2015 article on RowingVoice, Quarrell wrote that the best way to show a reaction is to make a comment on the article that proves that you have read the piece – or by retweeting or sharing it on Facebook or other social media.

Measurable statistics means ‘clicks’ in the hundreds, not only a couple. Just look how many comments an article about a football (soccer) match has after being up on the web for a day. It doesn’t even help to be a well-recognised writer within your sport – for rowing: read Rachael Quarrell, who finds it harder to get her articles published in print in The Daily Telegraph or on the newspaper’s digital platform. While the newspaper still published her articles about the Boat Races between Oxford’s and Cambridge’s men and women, rarely anything is published about the crews’ trials or weigh-ins.

In these times, when social media is at everyone’s fingertips, the decline of rowing coverage in the printed and digital media can to a certain degree be explained by a ‘new’ professionalism from organisations like FISA, British Rowing, USRowing and regatta organisations, which provide information and arrange PR, according to Chris Dodd. World rowing regattas, where the governing body of rowing, FISA, has a stake, are now televised via FISA’s website or YouTube with ex-rowers as accomplished and knowledgeable commentators.

The Press Box at Henley Royal Regatta. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

A fine example that we are already in a new era when it comes to rowing coverage and what is mentioned above is the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta. Who has not followed Henley Royal in front of a computer, where you can watch breathtaking drone footage of every race? Among the commentators are ex-world and Olympic champion rowers like Katherine Grainger, Matthew Pinsent, Martin Cross and other experts, who are analysing the crews’ racing when they go down the Henley course. Thousands and thousands of comments from viewers around the world are rattling in while the races are shown on YouTube. Who needs to read about these events in a day-old newspaper when you sat at home – where ever you were located in the world – and followed the races ‘live’? Well, followed them on social media, that is.

The same organisation professionalism can be found at the presentation on social media of the annual Boat Races between the men and women of Oxford and Cambridge. Many millions of people around the world are following the races live on TV and social media. In no other country in the world will we find any rowing events that equal Henley Royal or The Boat Races and the coverage of these regattas.

Press conference for the 2012 Boat Race. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

But there are other regattas and rowing events to report on. Are these left to be covered by local papers and a few rowing bloggers, who try to spread the word on the sport to an unknown amount of readers in cyberspace?

BARJ Prize that is no longer awarded: Journalist of the Year. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

A sign of the ‘decline’ can also be seen in the diminishing interest in BARJ, the British Association of Rowing Journalists, which was founded in 1994. ‘The intentions of BARJ were to increase coverage of rowing in the press and to improve the working conditions for the rowing journalists,’ Robert Treharne Jones, who is in charge of Press and Publicity at Leander Club, told HTBS.

Chris Dodd, the organisation’s last chairman, wrote to HTBS that there are a number of reasons why BARJ had difficulty finding new members: ‘regattas have become much better at providing information and organising PR; FISA, USRowing, British Rowing, etc have, for better or worse, become professionalised; new “media types” are less inclined to guild or join a “trade union” organisation; balance of power moved away from print to electronic media; and newspapers generally declined, photographers multiplied.’

Treharne Jones said, ‘We disbanded BARJ a few years ago, because most of our requests had been addressed, but we recognised the changing world which was making it that much harder to grow coverage in a digital world,’ adding, ‘We had hoped that younger people would have come along to pick up the reins and move the organisation in a direction that mirrored the 21st century, but so far that hasn’t happened, and I suspect it never will.’

So is ‘rowing coverage’ in the media in a severe situation? HTBS contacted some rowing writers to ask them the question:

In these days, when the coverage of rowing as a sport is in decline in the printed and digital media, how is the news on regattas and rowing events going to reach those interested in the sport?

Read what they answered in tomorrow’s post on HTBS.

3 comments

  1. Great article, illustrating performance sport is part of the entertainment industry
    However sport is more than entertainment.
    It is part of the local community inspiring volunteering and commitment to others, education of youngsters in social skills.
    We take for granted the impact of local sport on their community, is this where we need journalists in local or traditional media celebrating the impact of sport on local communities well being?
    Is it perhaps a different style of journalism we need?

  2. A great article Goran. I “grew up”, in rowing terms at least, reading Geoff Page and Chris Dodd and their wonderful coverage of the Boat Race, and to a lesser degree the Henley Boat Races. I would eagerly read all of the papers in the JCR to devour all of their columns!

  3. I have made an update in this article. The Swiss Rowing Federation is actually publishing a trilingual magazine, Swiss Rowing, which was pointed out to me by Paul Castle ~ thank you, Paul

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