SUMMER… full of repeats. We even got the same League Cup draw. Anyway, in that spirit here’s one I did earlier on the twitter tittle tattle and electronic pub-talk that is the annoying white noise that deafen and distracts us through the close season.
It’s from almost exactly two year’s ago when the rumour mill – a cocktail of fiction, wishful thinking and guesswork that rushes in to fill the news vacuum – was in full swing.
Only the names have changed, the rest remains valid I think. And it will give you all something new to talk about. I am genuinely interested in readers views on this corrosive trend inside the football bubble that reflects badly on society as a whole.
THIS time last year I was on the receiving end of a strange and angry phone-call from a reader who demanded to know why the Gazette hadn’t covered the story of Boro’s bid for Robert Koren. Everyone was talking about it. It had been in all the other papers. It was in your rival rag. It was all over the internet – it was even on Sky Sports! Was it because the Gazette was just a rubbish newspaper and had missed out on the big scoop of the day?
We didn’t carry the story because it wasn’t true I said. “That doesn’t matter!” he snapped back in a very instructive phrase that laid out the demarcation lines of the stand off .
That phrase – “it doesn’t matter” – reflects an emerging gulf in perspective. On one side there are sniffy misty-eyed old school pedants who see the role of newspapers as trying to sift fact from fiction and to cut through the competing agendas of interested parties to present the best possible representation of the truth at any given point.
And on the other hand there are those out there who don’t really care too much about veracity and who think the press and other media should just uncritically churn out the unsubstantiated meme of the moment irrespective of any basis in reality. I mean, its only a bit of fun.
Some – many? – have grown impatient with the slow and piecemeal assembly of something approximating a disappointing truth and would rather feast on fast food speculation. They see the rumourmill as a form of info-tainment that we should feed by trumpeting tittle-tattle . And if the Gazette is not joining in the Chinese Whispers we are inept killjoys. By not giving credence to gossip we are letting the fans down. That’s pathetic writing Vickers. Can’t you link us to to some decent players? Now! Booooo.
As I said to the caller, yes, we had heard the chatter and, yes, we understood the simplistic two-plus-two-equals five calculations and watched the cut-and-paste chain of rumour replicated by the gossip-bot websites. And yes, we had seen it then used as a throw away paragraph to pad out those hard to fill tabloid acres in the nationals during a quiet summer. These rumours gather whispered weight in the pubs and clubs and on messageboards until they acquire their own gravity of ‘truth’.
And yes, it would have been very easy for us to slap such a story on the back page (it would save us a lot of time and effort and give us an easy hit during our fallow month) and then presumably the irate caller would have been delighted that his local paper had used a morale boosting story with no substance because it gave an illusion of activity.
But we did what journalists are supposed to do: we tried to establish the truth. BORING. Maybe. But that’s how we work. We made the phone calls and spoke to the manager and the chief executive and the chairman and they all said emphatically there was nothing in the story. It was just paper talk. So we dismissed the link with a curt paragraph on the end of that day’s Boro story. We acknowledged the ripple in the Borosphere but said there was nothing in it. And we were right. That is not me being sanctimonious, just explaining the methodology. Most local papers are the same. It is what separates us from the websites that just churn out .unfiltered gossip.
We had that situation a few times last summer. The Gazette was slagged off routinely as being out of touch on messageboards and on phone-ins and by people – many of them our readers – in real life too because we didn’t deliver the “news” , that we didn’t follow the tide of rumour or get sucked into what was clearly a tune being played by an agent to drum up interest and I personally took quite a bit of flak on twitter for being “miles behind the story.” We were being blasted because we had somehow missed Boro’s imminent “bid” to sign, among others. Luciano Becchio, Martin Cranie, Ricardo Fuller and Gary Liddle, Boo. Come on Gazette. Get your finger out!
But are any of those at the club now? The rubbish old fashioned Gazette checked those stories out and poured cold water on them. Because they weren’t true. That’s what we do: We ask questions and try to get as close to the truth as we can at the point of the deadline. BORING! I’m sorry. And while all that tedious verification stuff was happening we missed all those BIG stories.
But we were first to bring you the news that Boro were signing Jonathan Woodgate, Stuart Parnaby, Jayson Leutwiler and George Friend. And we were just behind Sky Sports News on Mustapha Carayol – they went live with it while our story was on the page but hadn’t been printed yet. That’s old fashioned dead tree publishing for you. That’s a sickener but it is part of the game. Grant Leadbitter came out in the Daily Mail via the Ipswich local paper.Hands up, we were behind on that one. You may not think those players, those stories are hugely impressive or bums on seats in a quiet summer. But they were true.
Fast forward a year and we are going through exactly the same arguments again. E-mails and tweets and a couple of phone calls have asked why we haven’t gone big on the Sylvan Ebanks Blake story. Because we checked it out and there isn’t one. We’ve asked. It is just his agent throwing a few club names around to the Midlands press to drum up interest. Boro insist there has been no contact at all with the player. So we have written that. We have been asked angrily how we missed the Javier Acuna story. Because there isn’t one. Mogga said he had never heard of him let alone made an approach. So we have written that. Robbie Keane? Afonso Alves? Seriously?
That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes get a story wrong. We do. Everyone does. Sometimes we miss a story completely because it happens too quickly to fit into our old fashioned print schedule or because we haven’t been able to check with the manager (although we can catch up quickly on-line as soon as we firm things up).
Sometimes we fall for the smoke and mirrors of an agent generated story that seem to have substance “from the other end” with details apparently leaking out via the other club (although we always try to check with the local paper)
Sometimes we go with story that we are not quite happy with because most of the bits seem to fall into place and we haven’t been able to quite verify the final piece. Sometimes you have to make a judgement call and you hope you get most of those right. Once or twice in the past we have been misled by a player, or by a manager or people within the club. We’ve even been hoaxed. Not on my watch I hasten to add. But it has happened to far bigger papers than us. But we always try to check.
I should add that when we get a story wrong, personally I am absolutely gutted. Seriously. Gutted. Some reporters can shrug it off and dismiss it as tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers but if we get a big story wrong on the back page I feel physically sick. It is a major blow to our integrity and credibility. And for a local paper that is our stock in trade.
And yes, there is even an argument that we should actually report rumours. People – readers – are talking about them, passing them on and swapping them in a game of tittle-tattle Top Trumps They are part of the zeitgeist . So maybe we should carry them. On-line. Clearly marked. Firewalled from our own work. Maybe. The market may decide that.
Meanwhile, to the point of all this, I’ve just come back from a big national brainstorming session on using digital, data, on-line and social networks in sports journalism.(It was great, wait until you see what I’m going to hit you with next season now I’ve got some bells and whistles.to play with on our new system.)
Among the data thrown into the workshops and the debate was a disturbing report from a focus group of young cyber-savvy media students, the hacks of the future. They echoed the sentiments of that original phone-call: they don’t care if transfer stories are true or not, they just want them out there quickly. They want the buzz of being the first among their mates to pick them up and tweet them. It is a race to regurgitate.
The kudos of being an early part of the ripple of rumour through cyberspace was rated as more important to them than the story actually being true. In fact, they would rather clock up a couple of dozen quickfire retweets for something they knew or suspected strongly to be completely false than wait a while to get the story a bit later but correct. Second is nowhere. Even if it is the truth. There is no virtual credibility in that.
That’s deeply worrying. These are the people who will shape the agenda of papers and websites in years to come. And presumably – alarmingly – a similar mindset runs through their fellow trainees who will shape the front pages as well as the back.
And hey, they will probably all do well. They will no doubt have successful careers. They appear to be in tune with the times. They know that a virtual lie is twice round the world before the truth has booted up and see that not as a cautionary note but as a guide to working. They appear to think that is an acceptable, even desirable, landscape for ‘journalism’ to work in. And there is certainly an audience there.
There is now a large section of the football population that swallow – and pass on – every flimsy rumour without question. In fact, with a hint of glee. There is kudos for passing it on first. They want a fast flow of disposable gossip rather than any thing as stodgy and slow as old fashioned fact. They want to be entertained with a constantly buzzing virtual grapevine rather than face the tumbleweed horror of a few news-free cold turkey empty week of nothing on the yellow scrolling banner of breaking news. Or cricket.
I know the desire is there for activity. For action. And nature abhors a vacuum. With no news there is an innate drive to speculate and drift into daydreams and wishful thinking and indulge in a little Fantasy Football, assembling imaginary teams of transfers from the free agents and to seize on every scrap of unsubstantiated gossip.
And there is a fear that all the other teams are signing players and stealing a march. You know that because you see all the links and swoops and weighing up bids going on in cyberspace. But you can’t expect the Gazette to play to the gallery and serve up stories based on electronic pub talk. No matter what people think and say, we don’t “just make it up to sell papers”.
But feel free to call up and tell us the truth doesn’t matter.
Oooh… 999. Exciting isn’t it?