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 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.