Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Can Blogs and Bisping change age-old reading habits?

Last week’s guest speaker, Shane Richmond, the Daily Telegraph’s Online Communities Editor, spoke of how his newspaper once enjoyed great popularity amongst students due to its sports coverage.

In spite of the newspaper’s traditional conservative leanings and news agenda, which tend to oppose the politics held by the stereotypical view of a student, the Telegraph’s sports section has consistently won awards due to its comprehensive nature and selection of top writers which Richmond credits as helping to win sales amongst students.

I am sure Telegraph Sport’s popularity amongst students is still true today, but although I appreciate the quality of articles from the likes of Henry Winter, personally I find the general content of the section a little “too straight” for my liking.

Whilst what they do cover in depth is written about very well, I have long noticed that they seem to concentrate only on sports with a traditional popularity in Great Britain – football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, golf, boxing and so on.

I can see the reasons for this – the Telegraph has an older, more mature readership that are likely to favour reading about the sports that have always held media sway – but it doesn’t do it for me.

The Telegraph is not where I’d turn to if I wanted to read about the Philadelphia Phillies’ triumph in Baseball’s World Series, nor is it the place to read about James Wade’s nine dart finish at last week’s Grand Slam of Darts.

In contrast to the Times and the Guardian, who cover such events in innovative ways, Telegraph Sport tends simply to marginalise growing, international and/or less glamorous sports into the news in brief sidebars.

In light of this, I was surprised to hear around this time last year that the Telegraph had become the first broadsheet newspaper to appoint a Mixed Martial Arts correspondent.

Gareth A. Davies, who is also the Telegraph’s boxing writer, took on MMA on top of his portfolio both online and in print form thanks largely to the rise of Lancashire fighter Michael Bisping.

Bisping’s ascent from reality TV stardom has lead to a growing interest in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in which he competes.

The Telegraph's MMA Correspondent Gareth A. Davies interviews British UFC hopeful Michael Bisping on Telegraph TV.

MMA is a combat sport that permits a variety of fighting techniques. It has its critics and has been looked upon with a degree of snobbery and contempt, particularly amongst the boxing fraternity.

Indeed it was once famously described as being akin to “human cockfighting” by John McCain.

Although tabloids such as the Daily Star have covered the UFC for a number of years now, that an established boxing writer working for a newspaper not known for its coverage of supposed ‘minority sports’ is blogging about MMA with regularity in a generally positive, non-cynical manner is quite something.

This shows not only how far MMA has come, but also how new online technology has transformed how editors (both in print and online) view what is newsworthy.

As Davies wrote last November:

But does it?

Whilst clearly there is enough interest in Bisping and MMA for Telegraph Sport to give it a good level of coverage, how has this translated on their user-generated content blog site

A quick search of the site for the terms ‘MMA’ ‘Bisping’ and ‘UFC’ generated just one blog. Similar searches for other ‘minority sports’ also produced low numbers.

That’s not to say that My Telegraph contributors have no interest in blogging about sport – there are plenty of them, over 1,230 at last check.

Thing is, they’re all about sports like football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, golf, boxing and so on.

Perhaps the Telegraph are right to stick rigidly to the sports that they (and their audience) know, whatever I may think.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Ishy’s gonna get Google for news on him.

Last week’s guest speaker, Anthony Mayfield, spoke about how Google has defined web-searching, due to its quickness and – in his words – ‘honesty’ in generating the most popular and relevant results in next to no time.

Google News was mentioned and it was it said that, due to the “key word” nature of “Googling”, the resource would yield its best results from those news sources with intros containing specific words to relevant to the story as opposed to snappy one liners.

After the lecture I took myself off to the Newspaper Room in Bute, and after nearly spitting my tea out over a PC screen, Google News was one of my first ports of call.

You see, this week I can’t bring myself to write this blog without mentioning the biggest story in West Midlands football – the sacking of controversial now-former Walsall winger Ishmel Demontagnac.

Former Walsall winger Ishmel Demontagnac enjoys happier times, but his sacking last week made national headlines.

This is neither the place nor the platform to talk about the whys and wherefores of the situation itself; however I am blogging about the fascinating way in which the story has been covered online.

Getting the news early on Thursday afternoon, I went to Google News to see who had picked up the news – or at least ‘went live’ with it online – first.

The first “official” source to hit the ground running was the Express & Star, with their initial piece hitting the net at 11.26am – around half an hour after unofficial club fansite UpTheSaddlers had uploaded the story, prompted by news reports on local radio station BBC WM.

In contrast, the BBC uploaded an item onto their website (interestingly as a leading article on the BBC England news pages, rather than one primarily for the sport section) at 12.11 – a piece that has since been updated to include further quotes from the club, and a news report from Thursday evening’s Midlands Today TV news bulletin.

The Birmingham Mail put their first report on this news up early in the afternoon, not long before the Express & Star uploaded a more considered article citing Walsall manager Jimmy Mullen’s thoughts at 2.20pm.

As the day developed, the nationals got into the act. Those that covered the story in detail tended to put their own spin on it, for the benefit of a wider audience.

The Daily Mail, through their ex-Express & Star reporter Neil Moxley, spoke of how “Walsall have taken a stand against football’s bad boys” quoting at length former Saddlers manager Paul Merson.

Over at The Times, after initially publishing curt details, Peter Lansley wrote about the story leading with the perspective of PFA boss Gordon Taylor.

Today, as you can see from the screenshot above, it is the two Times articles that come out as the top two results through Google News’ search engine optimisation.

They are listed ahead of the Express & Star, BBC, Birmingham Mail and all of the other sources who broke the news ahead of them. The Daily Mail is only beaten by the BBC from that list.

This goes to show that it’s not just being first with the news that counts – but by getting the best, most interesting take on the story it can leave a more lasting impression.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Learning from the Legendinho

A theme that has been stressed in our two most recent Online Journalism sessions is the importance of using blogging as a tool to understand and connect with your audience.

Last week’s guest speaker Adam Timworth spoke about how he finds blogs to be at their best when an enthusiastic writer finds a niche, and blogs regularly on a range of topics within the subject.

Talk of this turned my mind to one such writer who does all of the above with great success.

One of my favourite journalists is Tim Vickery, a sports writer who has been reporting on football in South America since 1994.

In the 14 years he’s spent in Brazil, Tim has become arguably the foremost English-speaking voice on South American football - to the point where he is regularly called upon as a panellist in studio debates about the game on mainstream Brazilian television.

Whilst I first became familiar with Tim through his work in World Soccer magazine, where amongst other things he is known for his observant, descriptive player profiles; in recent years I have begun to follow the content he writes for online audiences.

Currently Tim writes three internet-only columns, a weekly piece for the BBC Sport website, and fortnightly articles for the CNN Sports Illustrated and Australia’s SBS The World Game sites.

Tim has been writing his Monday BBC column since 2004, and as a regular reader I was interested to see that in August his columns were integrated into the wider BBC Football blog network.

From this...

...To this.

But although the format of Tim Vickery's articles changed, that didn't mean the content had to.

Although what the BBC did here was nothing new – indeed Tim’s SBS columns have taken blog form since the beginning of 2008 – it did strike me as being an excellent way of getting instant interaction from readers and measuring exactly how popular Tim’s niche is.

After a slow start in blog form, Tim has built an audience of contributors and tends to get 50 to 100 comments on each one (barring those on Diego Maradona which are predictably more popular).

The tone of the feedback sent is generally complimentary; at times even reverent (to the point that he’s been given the nickname ‘The Legendinho!’).

That Tim is willing to speak to his audience, not just on radio phone-ins and in responding to mail, but – unlike many other bloggers – through actually replying to posts on his blog regularly must attribute to the popularity he enjoys amongst the audience he plays too.

Not only is Tim happy to talk, but he is willing to listen too.

A good example of this came back in September, when on a blog about Paraguay’s World Cup qualifying success, numerous readers noticed that the ‘Readers Questions’ section – over the years a consistent feature at the end of his articles – was missing.

Two weeks later and they were returned to their usual place.

By keeping the Readers Questions section, Tim is able give a detailed answer to a specific query in a more lasting form, rather than just a quick reply soon to be buried amongst a myriad of other comments.

Not only does this say that, to a good blogger at least, what the audience thinks counts; it also goes to show that whilst new ideas and technology may bring improvements, it doesn’t necessarily mean the new must supersede things we already have that work well as they are.