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

The Boat Race Press Launch of 1880. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

19 December 2017

In yesterday’s post on HTBS, Göran R Buckhorn wrote about the decline of the coverage on rowing both in the printed and digital media. Gone are the days when the larger newspapers had special rowing correspondents, who gave the readers the inside scoop of the crews. Nowadays, the content in the sport section of a newspaper seems to be ruled by how many readers a special sport has online, an approach which is backed up by the paper’s advertisement department. However, in a speech in November, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian and The Observer, observed that papers online are losing ground, as a bulk of online advertising is now going to Google and Facebook.

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?

Not everyone replied, but some did and here is what they wrote (the writers’ backgrounds in parentheses):

Robert Treharne Jones
(Robert Treharne Jones started writing about rowing while still a medical student in London – he became assistant editor of Rowing magazine, and went on to publish his own regional magazine Rowing in the West, before being appointed news editor of Regatta magazine. But it was while working as a general practitioner (GP; medical doctor) in Devon, in the mid-1980s that he started working as a stringer for the national press. In the 1990s, Treharne Jones offered his services to Irish Cork Examiner and later to the Irish Independent’, as he wrote, ‘they spoke English’. He also did broadcasting for RTE Radio. However, it stopped after the Beijing Olympics ‘where Ireland seriously underperformed and the press lost interest.’ Nevertheless, it all changed following the O’Donovan brothers’ success in Rio in 2016 and Treharne Jones has been working for the Irish Independent since the Rio Games at every major international this season, including all three World Cups, the World Juniors, the Under-23s and the World Championships in Florida. Treharne Jones, who is responsible for Press and Publicity at Leander Club in Henley, is known as ‘The Voice of Rowing’ commentating rowing events across the globe, including World Rowing Championships and Olympic regattas.)

First some historical context: I used to share a room at Leander with the late George Moody, who was not only a Henley Steward of advanced years (almost 100 when he died in 2012) but also a newspaper magnate in his own right, having inherited the family firm in the West Midlands. He would take up residence at Leander on the Monday of the week preceding the regatta, and spend his days form-spotting on the towpath, which would have been fine had not most crews long given up the idea of arriving in Henley quite so early. Because of my press credentials, he would bend my ear on a regular basis, asking why the national dailies no longer devoted column inches to the training habits of all the competing crews at Henley. I had to tell him that the world had moved on, that the man on the top of the Clapham omnibus was no longer interested (if he ever was) in the fact that the Oxford Brookes
second eight had done a piece from Fawley to the finish and improved their cover. What the press now wanted was a story, centred on individuals, and since our sport has been dubbed the ultimate team sport, named individuals were hard to come by. Thankfully that began to change as Sir Steve became a household name through the 1990s, so the sports desk at the Daily Mail, who I wrote for at the time, made it clear that my piece should, wherever possible, begin ‘Olympic champion Steve Redgrave…’

Now writing for the Irish Independent, understandably the paper is less interested in the minutiae of style and much more focused on the post-race quotes from the athletes, but for me this renewed interest seems to mirror what was happening in Britain twenty years ago following the public’s awareness of Sir Steve as a personality.

Otherwise, I suspect we are now in a different age once again, and the newspaper itself is in a state of a decline. This view was confirmed to me by the communications people at British Rowing when they pointed out the age demographics of their membership, backed up by data on the high proportion of that age group who never pick up a paper. Instead, they read their news online, often in a series of sound-bites, without any real scope for an objective analysis of the issues. Everything these days has to be so immediate, and many regattas now post their results, as they happen, on Twitter, rather than the official website. This has more immediacy, to suit the target audience but the readers have to be fairly savvy, so they know how to interpret something like ‘W Club 4+ 1->F, Nxt6Fast->R: 1)LEA 6:29.0, 2)TRC 6:38.5, 3)CAB 6:39.6, 4)WRC 6:45.6, 5)VRC 6:47.1, 6)VRC 6:54.2, 7)GRO 6:59.7’.

The net result is that the national heavyweight press no longer have their own specialist correspondents, apart from Rachel Quarrell at the Telegraph. She bemoans the fact that she rarely gets any words in the printed version, and coverage is restricted to the major events such as Henley or the Boat Races. Even then, she has very few words, as her paper prefers to commission a big name, usually an Olympic medallist, to write a colour piece around the event.

Michael Socolow
(Michael Socolow worked as an Assignment Editor for CNN in the Los Angeles bureau, and as an Information Manager for the Host Broadcast Organizations at the Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney Olympic Games. Socolow teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, and he is the author of Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics. With a Ph.D. from Georgetown under his belt, he is a specialist in radio and broadcasting history and rowed for Columbia University and the King’s Crown Rowing Association.)

The problem rowing has is the network age is over. There was a time (I write about it in Six Minutes in Berlin) when CBS and NBC actually fought over exclusive rights to the Poughkeepsie Regatta. It wasn’t just famous newspaper editors and reporters (Paul Gallico, the highest-paid sportswriter in the 1920s for the New York Daily News rowed for Columbia), who had connections to rowing – people all around the United States who’d never seen an oar followed the sport. But such concentration in media is basically over in a world with thousands of channels of entertainment.

My advice is to figure out a way to present, package, and produce rowing that would draw in the average fan. For example: the audience for curling (except in Scandinavia and Canada) is tiny. Every four years, NBC Sports does profiles on the U.S. curling team for the Olympics – they personalize the competitions, build narratives, create suspense and tension, and then pull the viewer along. Making lesser-known sports compelling across all media – video, audio, print, images – is not easy. There’s a formula for it: think Roone Arledge and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” which, in the 1970s, made Lumberjack competitions surprisingly popular. Rowing needs that kind of careful structuring as a program or viewing experience. But, as I write in Six Minutes in Berlin, rowing’s emphasis on anonymity and cooperative teamwork works against this a bit. It’s a sport that – literally – prizes silence.

Ultimately, I think all the ingredients, such as personal connection, suspense and narrative tension, etc., to turn regattas like the IRA Regatta, Harvard-Yale and Henley into popular programming exist. It’s just a matter of involving people, who understand effective media production and distribution, and collaborating with advertisers and developing media partnerships.

Daniel Spring – aka ‘fatsculler’
(Daniel Spring started out his rowing writing ‘career’ by posting articles on various web forums, then began writing guest posts on a couple of sites. He launched his own blog, Fatsculler’s Rowing Blog, in 2013 largely to write previews of major international rowing events. Spring has also written a few articles for Rowing & Regatta and Row360 magazines. Just now, he wrote, ‘I write for my blog, mainly because it means I’m not responsible to any editor and have full control over my content, plus the only deadlines I have to meet are my own.’).

People (me included) rely on digital content for information, but very few are willing to pay for the privilege. I sometimes get frustrated with rowing coverage in print media as it has a tendency to be inaccurate – with the exception of Rachel Quarrell in the Telegraph). There is an increasing reliance on specialist sources (like HTBS, Row2K, etc) to provide information to fans. The problem is it relies on committed enthusiasts to put content out there and (in my case at least) for free.

Koss Termorshuizen
(Four years ago when the Dutch Rowing Federation stopped publishing their rowing magazine of many years for financial reasons, Koss Termorshuizen and a small group of enthusiastic rowers with some writing experience founded a new bimonthly rowing magazine, Roei!. Termorshuizen, who had written three books about three rivers in the Netherlands and had been the editor of his rowing club’s printed magazine for eight years, became the ‘chief editor’ of Roei!.)

When a sufficient number of rowers welcomed our idea of a new rowing magazine, we launched it without hesitation. Now going into our fifth year, we have 1,700 subscribers (out of 35,000 rowers in the country). It could be much better, but the magazine is healthy. With our magazine, we try to cover the whole rowing world, that is, each level, and apart from ‘rowing’ also coastal, gigs and such. We receive no funding from the federation or any other organisations. As Roei! is bimonthly and printed, we rarely print any ‘hot news. That part of the rowing news is covered by a website, nlroei.nl, mainly writing about top-level rowing. Further, the Dutch Rowing Federation has its own website, roeien.nl, with which they try to keep in touch with the rowers in the country.

In the press, now and then, there is some attention to our sport. It is not much, and it depends on journalists who happen to be familiar with rowing. Those interested in sport will view Eurosport on TV. I think that is an important channel to communicate about rowing. Rowing is a steadily growing sport in the Netherlands. Word-of-mouth advertising appears to be the most effective way to communicate the positive feelings that we have about the sport.

Mike Haggerty
(Mike Haggerty first started writing for the Sunday Standard, which was launched as a sister paper to The Herald in Glasgow in 1979. The Standard closed down a few years later by which time Haggerty’s major outlet was The Herald. He has worked for other daily newspapers, among them The Scotsman, the Daily Record and the Irish Independent. He has also worked for Sunday newspapers, including Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Post, Sunday Times Scotland, Sunday Times and Observer Scotland. Haggerty has broadcast for BBC and worked for agencies, Associated Press [its Henley Regatta correspondent for more than 20 years], Canadian Press, Press Association, Reuters and Glasgow Sports Agency. He has also put pen to paper working for some rowing magazines, Rowing, Regatta and US Rowing, and websites The RowingVoice, Scottish Rowing, British Rowing and World Rowing. Haggerty was a co-founder of and Secretary for The British Association of Rowing Journalists, BARJ).

As I’m currently reporting for the World Curling Federation at their final Olympic Qualification Event in Pilsen, the Czech Republic, I cannot concentrate on HTBS’s request too much, I’m afraid. However, having personally been a victim of the publicity changes around our sport, (which is how it goes, I suppose – I’ve had a great kick of the ball), I have one thought: the current arrangements (including HTBS) could be described as preaching to the choir. You’ve got to be already involved in the sport to find out about the specialist websites or receive the Rowing & Regatta magazine. This is not a criticism, it’s just that none of the current specialist website set-ups have the ability to reach beyond the sport to those not yet involved.

Per Ekström
(After having contributed articles on a regular basis to the Swedish Rowing Association’s publication Rodd, Per Ekström, and Göran Buckhorn, took over the magazine in 1990, renaming it Svensk Rodd and published it as a quarterly. In 2000, when Buckhorn moved to the USA, Ekström continued to publish Svensk Rodd, now alone at the helm – though Buckhorn continued to write articles from across the pond. The magazine ceased to exist as a quarterly in 2014, when the Swedish Rowing Association cut the funding.)

Despite that the Swedish Rowing Association decided to kill off the organisation’s publication Svensk Rodd in December 2014, I produced three more issues, as annuals, during a three-year period. However, since March 2017, this excellent magazine – if I may say so myself as the former Editor-in-Chief – is no more. Since March, the rowing news is supposed to be presented on the Swedish Rowing Association’s home page. However, during spring, summer and autumn this year, only shorter messages have been posted. Short notes are also to be found on the association’s Facebook page. As a result of Swedish newspapers more or less total lack of interest in the sport of rowing, at larger rowing events, it’s the team’s head coach or assistant coaches who feed reports to the newspapers.

Mike Rowbottom
(Mike Rowbottom was a sports writer and columnist for The Independent from 1992 to 2008. Since then he has been freelance, writing regularly for insidethegames.biz as well as federations such as the IAAF and European Athletics. He has also contributed articles and reports to British Rowing’s Rowing & Regatta.)

It is not so much a question of reaching those interested in the sport of rowing. Those interested in rowing will seek out the news themselves. It is a question of reaching those who are quite interested in the sport, or even those who are not interested – yet. While I wrote for The Independent, I was doing rowing features on Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell, Foster, Greg Searle… Olympic gold, either won or in prospect, will always find column inches in national print (or national digital). The same is true, but to a lesser extent, in terms of world gold.

The sport needs to remind British newspapers – if this is the field to which we are addressing ourselves – that it is stuffed full of articulate, athletic individuals who, given half a chance, will turn out be richly interesting subjects. Katherine Grainger has been an obvious and enduring example, as has Anna Watkins. As has Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. But there are so many others. I think there is a lot more that could be done to further the stories of female rowers in particular, as I sense a change in the climate – in some papers – in terms of respecting and covering women’s sports, or women in sport.

I’ve been freelance since 2008 but working regularly since then for insidethegames.biz, a site which has grown exponentially in the last nine years. Our point of view at insidethegames is an international one, with a special interest in sports politics, which means that those rowers who take an engaged and intelligent view of their sport – probably a very high proportion compared to many other sports – are likely to be of interest. For instance, Mark Hunter has been a great contact in terms of getting feedback over World Rowing and IOC pressure regarding lightweight rowing. Andrew Triggs Hodge is another natural spokesman from the boat, as it were.

Getting rowing into British national press will always be, predominantly, a matter of personality pieces, unless the Olympics are imminent. In terms of local press – fighting back significantly in some areas, but often no more than a passive, sponge-like entity – there is always leverage in the local boy/girl. More personal connections need to be made to make regatta results relevant.

Bryan Kitch
(Bryan Kitch is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, AFAR, GOOD Magazine, Huckberry Journal, Edutopia, and Row360. He regularly contributes to ROWING Magazine and is the creator and editor of RowingRelated, RR.)

There are three ways in which rowing news will continue to reach its target audience, and even (at times) reach outside the rowing community:

First, rowing federations, alongside FISA, must continue to improve their media offerings. FISA has done a great job of expanding their video coverage in recent years, and their results database is an excellent resource. Rowing federations should do their best to offer the same at the national level – having a consistent results platform as well as a database of historical results is a must, and (without getting into specifics) it’s all too uncommon.

Second, the established players in rowing media have a reach within the rowing community that insulates them from some of the problems that face mainstream publishers. That is, if you own your niche, then you’re not necessarily subject to the issues that pay-per-click and CPM advertising present to more general news sources. So, they’re likely not going anywhere.

Lastly, passionate amateurs and social media help to connect the rowing community, and that’s something I’ve enjoyed both as a contributing writer to Rowing News, as well as through RowingRelated (RR) in all its forms. Rowers are a very engaged lot, and keen to know accurate information, as well as guard against inaccuracies.

Though there are many reasons to have misgivings about social media, within the context of our sport it has certainly linked the rowing community more closely together, and, mirroring the mainstream, social media has become one of the primary sources for rowing news. (We ran a quick Twitter poll at RR earlier this year, and – forgiving the obvious built-in bias of the platform – the results were striking: 80% of respondents said they got their rowing news from social media, versus just 14% from websites, 4% from email newsletters, and 2% from magazines. This certainly wasn’t a deep-dive into consumer research, but perhaps offers a little window into a news cycle that is smartphone-driven, even in rowing.)

In my view, those that understand how to harness the power of point no. 3 – and properly package it – will have the greatest success looking into the future.

G.R.B.: In tomorrow’s post, Rachel Quarrell of The Daily Telegraph will give HTBS readers an inside look how it is to be the last rowing correspondent for a British newspaper.

One comment

  1. Great stuff from everyone. As a reminder of how things were, below is an extract from my postscript to Chris Dodd’s obituary of The Times Rowing Correspondent, Jim Railton:

    (In his career on The Times, Railton had) 1,519 reports published between 10 February 1970 and 2 March 1990, most with a word count usually around 500, sometimes more, sometimes less. In his first year on The Times, he had 84 pieces published. As an indication of the depth and width of the coverage that The Times allowed Jim, I have compiled a summary of his Times reports for that first year, 1970.

    February – March: The Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race (twenty reports).
    February: Head of the River Race.
    April: Youth Rowing, National Squad Coaching, Scullers Head.
    May: Wingfield Sculls, The North Sea Regatta, Ostend (two reports), The Oxford Summer Eights (four reports).
    June and July: Henley (ten reports).
    June: Reading Regatta, Marlow Regatta.
    July: Doggett’s Coat and Badge, Lucerne Regatta (two reports), The Youth Rowing Championships, The Bosbann Regatta, Amsterdam (two reports), The National Rowing Championships.
    July – September: World Rowing Championships (fifteen reports).
    September: The National Squad.
    October: A marathon row, Cambridge University Light Fours (five reports), Oxford University Coxless Fours (three reports).
    November: ARA Council meeting, Head of the River Fours (two reports).
    December: Oxford Boat Race Trials (two reports), University of London Trials, Cambridge Boat Race Trials, The Nile Boat Race, Egypt (two reports).

    By Jim’s last full year on the paper, 1989, his annual article count was down to 62, an indication of things to come perhaps, but still a long way from the sad current situation (though perhaps not even the most hardened ‘HTBS Type’ would now argue that a national newspaper should publish five days of reports of 400 words each on the Cambridge University Light Fours).

    The full obituary is here: https://heartheboatsing.com/2017/08/23/jim-railton-insight-constructive-criticism-and-coruscating-prose/

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