IT IS COMMON practice in the media to do retreads of old stories and dress them up as brand spanking new exclusives so let’s get a bit more mileage out of my musings on McClaren, spin and new media issues touched on yesterday and a few of the barbed comments in reply.
First let me make it clear that the point of ‘Cautious Mac Shuts Up Shop For Scribes’ was to explain, not complain. The Gazette Sports Massive get asked constantly about things that were said or weren’t said by the club and why they – and we – don’t just “tell the truth.”
But truth is relative. One man’s greatest manager ever is another man’s toothsome numpty. And for many, unless the opinions in the press reflect exactly their own ingrained perspective then they are clearly either part of a systematic sycophantic snowjob or part of a dark conspiracy to unseat the manager.
For my own part I am very supportive of the entire Gibson project to reposition Boro as an established top flight side with realistic European ambitions but I reserve the right of offer constructive criticism over any or all aspects of both the everyday operations of the club and some short to medium term strategic decisions.
That means that over the years I have received hate mail from both sides of the Boro fans divide. I have been derided as a pro-Mac ra-ra who is in the clubs’ pocket and who just wants to have his ginger babies, and I have been branded a boo-boy knocker trying to get the boss sacked. Sometimes over the same article.
Truth is also artificially constrained by the law and by what people who know the facts are willing to say in public. We have all heard stories about player X having a fight with player Y or how player Z called a team meeting to challenge the manager’s tactics but unless someone produces video phone footage and a good quality audio recording of either then ‘the truth’ remains that player X has a slight hamstring tweak and player Z backs the boss to the hilt and is sure we can play our way out of this little blip which is entirely down to injuries.
While those on the extremes of the supporting spectrum demand we print their opinions as fact, ‘truth’ in football is defined by what is said in public. Michael Owen wants to play for Newcastle. Yakubu is happy with the rotation policy. Joe Cole is delighted Chelsea have signed Ballack. Ruud van Nistlerooy wants to see out his contract at Old Trafford. Of course those are all truths. There are quotes to back them up.
Quotes are gold-dust in the media. They can support any publicly stated position adopted by a club for short term political and economic reasons, no matter how ludicrous. They are a precious commodity. That is why they are so tightly controlled. It is like Orwellian double think. If it is said, then it is true. It has always been true.
Once players spoke freely to the press because they were happy to get the exposure and because they are rampant egotists who want to tell you how great they are. Now they only speak from a carefully prepared script and often with the sponsors name plastered on the wall behind them. That is not something specific to Boro. It is a pernicious part of an industry that jealously guards it’s assets and it’s branding.
There was a time when we just went to Ayresome or Hurworth and asked a player whatever question we wanted, the one pertinent to the story, the one YOU would have asked. Now it is tightly controlled. Interviews have to be pre-arranged and often a press officer sits in and although there is no sinister coughing when awkward questions are asked their very presence is an inhibiting factor.
And, crucially, because there are so many media organisations eager to fill page after page and endless hours of satellite and radio bandwidth, clubs lump them all in together. Everyone sits in the same press conference and gets the same quotes so they go away and write the same story. That restriction on the free-flow of information does the public a massive disservice. There is no broad range of opinion and analysis. You get what you are given.
That is why on any given day the nationals all have the same ‘exclusive’ line. After a press conference they actually all get in a little huddle and decide there and then what line and what quotes they will use on what day. This line for tomorrow, that one for Saturday’s match preview and the other one for the Sunday. It is a slap in the face for anyone expecting free-thinking and insight from the fourth estate.
The reality is that club spin machines try to control the flow of information to protect their brand and the nationals and broadcasters connive in that because it makes their job easy. It doesnt make our job at the Gazette easy though, mainly because while the nationals are happy with any old throwaway line so long as they all get it together, we are not. Like the readers we are immersed in Boro culture, have an emotional investment and see far deeper significance in stories. We ask different questions. We want to take it further, analyse deeper and peel away the layers of trivia to get to the heart of the story. Sometimes it seems we are swimming against the tide of dumbed down soundbite coverage.
After yesterday’s blog piece Mark wrote:
Aww diddums, did Mr mcclaren not talk to you. Give me one good reason why he should. For years the Gazette has been losing the battle against the internet and the nationals for exclusives and the same will happen when Venables/Mogga/whoever takes over next.
Dealing with the second point first, in some ways what he says is true. We ARE in a battle against mass media now. A decade ago the nationals barely mentioned Boro and network TV almost never while now it is wall it wall coverage. But surely it is a question of demanding quality rather than quantity. Most of the national ‘exclusives’ are without substance and many are loaded with invective and tired stereotypical jibes while the internet is a feeding frenzy of cut-and-paste rumourmongers running wild. Our job at the Gazette now is to scythe through the smoke and mirrors of electronic immediacy and flimsy mass circulation guesswork that so many see as ‘the truth’.
That means we have to offer more. More thoughtful and perceptive writing over a broader spectrum of issues and and more views and opinions that engage with Teessiders in the way that the nationals with their indifference and often antipathy never can. It also means we have to acknowledge and debunk the ill-founded cyber-gossip. Yes, new media present a major challenge for us but one we are well placed to meet because we offer knowledge and passion and skills that outweigh the need to simply prop up an easy headline or get it first but get it wrong.
And as for the first point, why should McClaren, or any manager, speak to us? Well, it is not about speaking to us but about speaking directly to the Teesside public. The Gazette is read by almost 200,000 people every day, far more than any of the nationals on our patch, and it is the one publication that will give a precious platform that allows the club to communicate directly with the people who really matter, the Boro fans.
The Gazette back page is the single most important instrument through which Boro can shape public perceptions, quosh speculation, verify the facts, spread its message and answer the big questions about the issues of the day. To ignore its potential is folly. The relationship should be symbiotic, not adversarial.