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

Tideway Week 2015. The press launch carries mostly photographers, though it has print journalists Chris Dodd and Rachel Quarrell perching on the stern. Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

 20 December 2017

On 18 December, Göran R Buckhorn wrote about the decline of the coverage on rowing both in the printed and digital media on HTBS. Gone are the days when the larger newspapers had special rowing correspondents, who gave the readers the inside scoop on 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.

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?

Eight of them replied and their answers were published yesterday on HTBS.

Today, Rachel Quarrell, rowing correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, is having her say:

Rachel Quarrell
(Rachel Quarrell started the Rowing Service information website in 1994 and continued until it became economically unviable in 2010. She wrote for the Independent newspaper from 2001 to 2002, Regatta Magazine in the 1990s and 2000s, co-founded and edited the RowingVoice, and has been the Telegraph’s rowing correspondent since 2002. She writes regular features, blogs and reports for ROW360 magazine despite a day job as a chemistry lecturer at the University of Oxford.)

The problem is not that rowing coverage has fallen, it’s that all sports news coverage has fallen for all except the headline sports. We should really admit that the world of sports journalism has radically changed. Long gone are the days when newspapers used to expect to cover between 10-20 regular sports well depending on the season, when a routine ‘what’s going on’ column was requested, and reports sent on the day’s action from all international events. For more than 100 years rowing was in this category in the UK, U.S., Italy and Germany, along, I’m sure, with others. It was predominantly a sport of rich people originally, and we benefited from that by rowing being expected to be written about whenever it was happening.

But that all changed in the early 2000s as the pressure to justify pages hit hard. Sports now fall into three newspaper categories (the terms are mine, not editors):

1. Headliners: sports such as football (footie in the UK/Europe, football in the U.S., Aussie Rules down under); rugby in New Zealand and Australia, cricket in Australia, baseball in U.S. – you get the idea. Formula One is in quite a lot of countries. Sports appear to be tightly bound up with a nation’s view of itself as a competitive beast. These are reported in endless (some would say nauseating) detail at every level: international, national, regional, and often club. Major events require the publication of multiple articles giving action-by-action resumés of what happened last night, and the top athletes are celebrities of various levels. These sports have seen their coverage dramatically increase, sucking up the space other sports have lost, and requiring news, features, gossip and massive amounts of social media interaction. They make a vast amount of advertising money for the publications and their existence dictates many editorial decisions which dramatically impact on other sports.

2. Mixed: sports that appear to be headliners for short seasons, but the rest of the time fall into relative obscurity. In the UK, this includes horse-racing (except during the Grand National and Gold Cup), tennis (except during Wimbledon), cricket (except during Ashes or world series), cycling (except during the Tour de France) and, if I’m honest, also rugby, golf, sailing, athletics, etc. For most of the year, they attract the odd feature, the odd bit of news, which in the Telegraph is restricted to 200-400 words per article, which may not make it into all editions, unless the news is world-shattering like a well-known athlete or coach being done for drugs or something criminal. For the rest of the time, they are minor and unimportant, and do not necessarily get reported. The weekly/monthly flow of news on what is happening has largely dried up for them, unless the sports editor has a particular fondness for them. Features on these are really quite common: an in-depth piece on the character, background and personality of a top athlete goes well into newspapers, and thus becomes perfect feature fodder. However, that doesn’t amount to covering the sport, only one person in it, and 99% of a feature is person-based, not sport-based.

3. Marginal: sports which are deeply unimportant to newspapers unless something big happens. Canoeing fits into this category in the UK – it’s likely to make headlines when someone wins Olympic gold, but not otherwise – but there are many others too. They have no big events seen as crucial, so there’s no reason to pull them up a level. Again, they attract the odd feature when someone has an interesting background: if you see a canoeing feature once a year or so, you probably think the newspaper covers it adequately. Many of these are Olympic/Paralympic sports, and many do attract more coverage during the actual Olympics. But not otherwise. We are now perilously close to this in rowing, even in the UK where the Boat Race is our brief headlining event each year.

Keeping rowing above this marginal level in the Telegraph takes me ringing in about 30 times a year to suggest short news pieces when something is worth reporting. Of those only a small handful are taken, and a few more commissioned (and then submitted) but then dropped when something more interesting comes along. I have more chance if rowing news comes in early in the day and not on a Saturday. But hell, it’s hard work even persuading them to take pieces on Henley Women’s Regatta, GB Rowing final trials, and the Heads. It’s just not interesting enough to most readers, even as a Sport in Brief snippet.

Interestingly, very successful individuals can pull a sport into the ‘mixed’ category out of the ‘marginal’ one, briefly. But it’s ephemeral and wholly based around them. Examples in the UK would have included ice-skaters Torvill and Dean, Mo Farah (distance running is not usually important even in athletics), Jessica Ennis-Hill (ditto heptathlon), diver Tom Daley and well-known boxers. They attract the news items, the extra features, the social media reaction. Their sport does not, and their sport’s general competitive action is not written about. As soon as they retire, their sport drops down the scale back into obscurity.

I was first hired by The Independent as their rowing correspondent in 2001 when Hugh Matheson, their regular, retired. One of the reasons why I moved to the Telegraph in 2002, when head-hunted after the untimely death of Geoffrey Page a few days after that year’s Boat Race, was that the Indy was already showing signs of needing to move rowing, once a regular sport in the old terms, into the ‘mixed’ category. They were asking why they needed to publish an article every day on the Boat Race crews in the week before the event, when the general reading public was just as interested after seeing solely a preview piece on the Race morning.

The Telegraph, still at that point, wanted something every couple of weeks during the summer, and I was expected to write a daily news report for them from all top international events, including world cups. Eventually that dropped away, as the other papers let their correspondents go, and now rowing publishing in the Telegraph is solely about mentioning one or two top races a year of which, in the UK, the Boat Race and Henley Royal Regatta are the only guaranteed events, and even then the paper no longer wants extensive previews, just what happened on the day in as little detail as they think the readers will let them get away with. Features about rowers are put into the papers a couple of times a year, a way to ‘cover’ the sport without expending great resources or needing a specialist (which is why I don’t generally get asked to write them). The pressure is huge to use existing staffer feature writers, not freelancers, as their time and effort is already paid for.

The ‘regular’ category no longer exists, and rowing will never be a ‘headliner’ – in the UK, it is ‘mixed’ with the threat of becoming ‘marginal’ if interest in the Boat Race drops away. I don’t have a solution about how to get more rowing action news in print, except that if all the rowers around the world were willing to pay for what they read about their sport, we would have more well-informed news reporting on it. The print press may never pick up our kind of sport again, but we could support rowing writing better by making it something which will put at least some food on the table. Alas, most rowing readers prefer to catch up from press releases and video clips on official websites, from blogs, from free coverage, which in many cases is not edited and does not hold to proper standards of journalism. Readers don’t like paying, as Chris Dodd and I found out with the RowingVoice and as other rowing magazines are discovering now. Some revenue can be made from advertising, but while paid subscriptions remain low, magazines will never do much more than break-even – advertisers want to know how many copies are being sold.

I do not think there is a viable way out of the predicament – and we should be focusing on maintaining our status in the mixed category. Being seen as important once a year is better than once every four years.

G.R.B.: The last thing on this matter has not been said. HTBS will come back to this question later. In the meantime, readers of HTBS are welcome to leave comments, or send HTBS editor an e-mail with your thoughts, at gbuckhorn – at – gmail – dot – com.

6 comments

  1. Interesting piece by Rachel Quarrell. She writes as a professional journalist and I was prepared to pay for Rowing Voice but nothing came of it. However, her reference to ‘free coverage, which in many cases is not edited and does not hold to proper standards of journalism’ comes as a gratuitous side swipe to sites such as HTBS, its editor and many of its contributors.
    The advent of the internet has thrown the whole world of media up in the air ,both print and broadcasting , and we are fortunate as consumers of rowing information in an age that,to quote Wilde , ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing ‘ to have HTBS.
    YouTube with its coverage , among other sports, of HRR and FISA Regattas, is another beneficial example of this fall out. How long it will last is anyone’s guess but sites such as HTBS should be lauded not criticised.

  2. I was not intending to swipe at HTBS. At all. HTBS is a highly honourable exception to the worrying tendency not to bother about journalistic accuracy, and Goran and his writers edit and report with great care. They also include a great deal of character, opinion, research and perspective in their writing, so they add full value to the bare facts.

    Many other free sources don’t properly edit or fact-check, which works most of the time, but then comes an occasional cropper with heinous errors, or even worse, errors which are not corrected and thus become the new facts even when they are false, and are propagated around the Net. This is a shame because it undermines all journalism and leads to the situation we are now in, where ‘fake news’ is able to flourish in an environment where nobody feels ashamed about errors any more, so we can’t tell genuine errors from deliberately planted falsehoods and both are used as ‘sources’ for future writing.

    The second category of free source which undermines rowing journalism is the huge amount of free output from official bodies, which though of course interesting, has led directly to the situation we are in with newspapers. What’s the point of paying a specialist journalist to go to an event and produce a nuanced detailed report, if the national or international governing body is chucking thousands of words directly at the interested insiders, for free. No wonder people have stopped reading about rowing news in print or complaining when their newspaper doesn’t include it. The cost of sending a newspaper reporter to the worlds or Olympics is great: air fare, hotel and meals, possibly some land travel, and then paying for each article. These have to be covered because if they aren’t, the journalist is being exploited and losing other opportunities to earn a living. Skills cost. Editors who see that very similar-looking coverage is being thrown out for free online (and often sent to them directly as a press release) don’t see the point of trying to add their own version. However, the official sources are different from genuine journalism. PR-written articles never criticise anyone, they hide complicated issues (e.g. wind fairness, water purity, weather problems, political hiccups) and if something is controversial, they’ll offer only a very anodyne version of the news.

    [NGB/FISA/HRR Video is slightly different, as it offers a contrasting and much more direct experience of a rowing event. And not least because more viewers for those leads directly to more interest from sponsors and that leads in turn to interest from advertisers in supporting newspaper pages with that sport on. Also, having watched something live online is a great incentive to want to read a journalist’s version of it the next day and compare it to what you thought of the event – an offshoot of the water-cooler effect. The Telegraph increased the coverage of HRR which they asked me to provide after the live video began, and are very interested when it is syndicated to the red button/BT Sport etc. But I am hugely thankful that HRR don’t yet think it worthwhile to use unpaid volunteers to write lengthy newspaper-style reports of racing which people can get for free. If they do one day begin that, it will wholly kill the HRR press box forever.]

    I note with interest that both British Rowing and FISA have lately trimmed down the amount of full reportage they publish during or immediately after a day’s racing: that is a good way of supporting print journalists, because then there is a reason for a reader to pay for the newspaper etc reports. The bare facts are great items for an official organisation to publish: that encourages further interest and reading, but more puts them into the position of competing directly against the journalists they are supposedly trying to encourage.

    Going back to HTBS, which as I said I think doesn’t come into these worrying categories, its only issue is that however good, it is still free. No wonder nobody rings the Telegraph editor to complain any more when I can’t get a Doggett’s report into the paper: anyone who is really interested is reading Tim Koch’s report online. You can’t have both: you can’t have lengthy free reporting and expect a subscriber/purchaser-based media output to be supported in a sport which doesn’t create advertising revenue. Alas that is where we have already got to, and so it’s probably better that HTBS does put up a full report on this niche event than that nobody does. Particularly for the historical archives, which is HTBS’ especial interest. The fragility this creates though is that in perhaps several decades time, if Goran stops wanting to do all this for free, and his other contributors lose interest, what will happen? Eventually all free unsupported sources eventually fall because people move on or can no longer spend time doing it, and quite often that leaves a gap which can’t be filled because the national press has totally fallen out of the habit of finding the subject interesting.

    Personally I generally try to report for free online now only when it’s a loss leader, connected to something commercial, e.g. the rowing blogs I have done for Row360 from the Olympics and Rio. I hope people have enjoyed them, but I would also encourage those who have, to subscribe to Row360. Or if not, at least to pay for some kind of rowing journalism, somewhere around the world. Please support those who put time and effort into trying to capture a rowing moment in words for you.

    Finally, Mr Bailey (presumably L or R, one of our kind subscribers?) thank you very much indeed for your willing support of the Rowing Voice all those years ago. We did not have the advertising and publishing connections to do it properly online in a way which generated any ad revenue, and I’m so sorry we couldn’t keep it going. We were terrifically grateful to all our subscribers, but in the end there weren’t quite enough of them. We worked out that we were getting about £1 revenue for each 10 hours we spent on producing it – that’s 10p an hour between myself and Chris. Even as a hobby (an immensely time-heavy one) it wasn’t quite sustainable, however much fun we had and hoped our readers also had seeing the result.

    Rachel Q.

    • Rachel Q, thanks for your fulsome reply. It will be interesting to read Goran’s comments, if any. Incidentally, I was the L. In the Rowing Voice subscription list. Regards & Merry Christmas.

  3. These blogs trumped, very worthily, one portion of a series that I have been working on for HTBS titled “Hear the Boat Sigh”, a lament regarding not just the lack of coverage of current rowing events, but the lack of interest in rowing history generally, which, inter alia, contributed to the eviction of the US National Rowing Hall of Fame from its quarters at Mystic Seaport and has the River & Rowing Museum looking at ways to strengthen that source of support. I am a wee bit surprised that row2k, which I suspect is the leading, at least in terms of eyeballs, source of rowing information for US readers, has not been commented on more. Obviously the “news aggregation” model, being largely parasitic (although there is some input from row2k staff) does not support a lot of independent in-depth coverage, but it is another online channel, funded by a combination of advertising and voluntary reader contributions, that may largely satisfy the appetite of most consumers of rowing news, thus further undermining whatever demand there might otherwise be for the sort of coverage that Rachel describes. It would bear mentioning, for the record, that, before row2k came on the scene, and mooted the utility of this undertaking, Ted English (a distant relative of Ned Hanlan and Eddie Durnan of late 19th and early 20th century Canadian rowing fame), set a precedent for row2k by single-handedly collecting hard copy print news articles about rowing from several sources around the English-speaking world, and painstakingly cutting and pasting them into a format that was then photocopied and distributed to certain aficionados (I know that Chris Dodd was in the distribution, and, unless it was before her time, Rachel Quarrel may have been as well). I believe that I have a complete run, taking up a couple feet of shelf space, and constituting a unique set of coverage of rowing print press over the years that Ted did it. And he did it for free, or, more accurately, at his own not-inconsiderable expense of copying and mailing the editions to his readers. I regard it as an invaluable resource for rowing history, but will it find a place in any library, or even on anyone else’s bookshelves when I pass it on? Does anyone care enough to preserve this stuff? This question applies much more broadly to the extraordinary legacy of artifacts, archives, print materials and memorabilia that has been left to us as the fascinating legacy of the first modern sport. We will see, but I am not terribly optimistic …

  4. Row2k is a mix of loss-leader free material, donations (wish we could get those in the UK but the culture of giving is very different), and paid-for items such as advertising, shopping, pictures. It pays its professional contributors and is like any other commercial operation. Ed’s done a brilliant job: he started it a few years after my information service but has managed to monetise his version enough and thoroughly deserves the plaudits. In the US it might undermine the need for public rowing journalism but I doubt it – and since it pays pro writers it helps keep their activities going. Being able to go to an event because Row2k (or any other outlet) has asked for a report allows us to suggest commissions to other publications, and piece together enough to cover expenses and time.

  5. Agree completely with you, Rachel, that Row2k is an invaluable source, and I did not mean in any way to disparage it. I use it, I donate money to it, I’ve been interviewed by it and Ed has published material I’ve submitted to it. I only intended to suggest that its very scope and useful online presence would tend to obviate / moot / fill the void of / act as a largely satisfactory substitute for (I had perhaps infelicitously used the word undermine) any demand that might exist for print coverage, which was, I thought, the issue under the microscope. We are very fortunate to have row2k, but its very success would, I suspect, scare off any would-be print publisher who thought they could make a go of it by paying rowing journalists to do in-depth and knowledgable hard copy coverage of the sport. And your point about the unreliability of we enthusiastic amateurs is well taken. Not everyone is as well informed or as committed as Tim Koch or Goran Buckhorn, and I’m not aware of a younger cohort stepping in to take up the pen … just as there is no one in sight to succeed the cadre of now-sexagenarians who have carried the rowing history / collecting /museum flame for the last few decades.

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