By Jason McKeown
The newspaper industry is going through tough times. Readership of national papers is dwindling fast, and at a local level the pattern is similar. Apparently, the Telegraph & Argus’ circulation is down to just 20,000 – not great for a district of some 500,000 people. Over recent months, some T&A staff members have sadly been made redundant.
Everyone knows the cause of the print industry’s decline. It’s certainly not the case that people no longer care about the news. It’s that whole internet thing, which is now where most of us go to find out what’s happening in the world.
The T&A has embraced this trend, and for all its lost paper sales it has no doubt seen a progressive increase in website traffic over recent years. But although online advertising revenue will go some way towards making up for the fact people now expect to have free online access to the news, it is still a challenge for old school news journalism to operate in the new world.
And nowhere is that more obvious than the coverage of Bradford City during the close season. It is ironic that at a time where more people will be looking towards the T&A to deliver Bradford City news, the newspaper has a continual problem finding stuff to say. Every morning a story is be added to the site, and most City fans reading it are hoping it contains news of summer signings. That it invariably doesn’t sparks great frustration.
The backlash is usually directed towards the club for not signing players fast enough, but the paper often faces it too. “What a complete non-story” will usually crop up somewhere in the reader comments, on days when, well, the T&A don’t have much of a story. Accusations that the paper is too close to the club, and scared to upset it, have been levelled at the T&A for many, many years. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception the paper holds back from printing what they actually know. Or worse still, that they can’t be bothered to dig and find out what’s happening.
The James Hanson saga was an obvious example of rising tensions between readers and the editorial staff. Whilst journalists who cover Millwall began to regularly tweet James Hanson updates, and even publish back page stories claiming the striker was very close to signing for the Lions, the T&A remained largely silent on the matter.
Read the press in London, and it was seemingly a done deal that Hanson was off. But in Yorkshire the subject was largely avoided in the local press. Not for the first time, what fans were talking about between themselves was a completely different topic to the ones they could read about in the T&A.
From my own part, I was able to speak to a couple of well-placed sources and pour cold water over the widespread belief that Hanson was going. I’d like to pretend that I can take credit for changing the direction of this saga; but in reality the Millwall local journos probably found out at a similar time to me that talks between the London club and player were no longer progressing, and that both Phil Parkinson and James Hanson wanted to continue working together. Finally last Friday, the T&A was able to report roughly the same.
In a sense the T&A can feel vindicated that it didn’t get involved in the tabloid hysteria and mislead its readers in the way that its London equivalent evidently did. On Thursday, the T&A’s sports editor, Blake Richardson tweeted, “T&A accused of lagging behind. Do you want hearsay or truth. Appears some ‘Twit’-ter users want the former.” But from readers/City fans there remained a sense of frustration that if the T&A were really in the know about Hanson, they could have put the story to bed much sooner. The coverage of the Paladini saga followed a very similar narrative.
Blake Richardson must be thankful that Rugby League is a summer sport, as it means that one of the two major professional teams in Bradford is playing at all times of the year. But there are these times where one of City or the Bulls is in the off season, and for an editorial point of view the gaps created are clearly very challenging to fill.
The T&A, mainly through Simon Parker, know more about the inner goings on at Valley Parade than you or I ever will. They will have a good idea of who Phil Parkinson is targeting and how close he is to getting them. They would no doubt love to be reporting on every transfer negotiation they are privy too, but if they did their relationship with the club wouldn’t last for long. You can criticise the paper but more than anything it’s a sign of the commercial pressures they face.
The T&A is a business and Bradford City is an important part of that. Without a direct line to people at the club, their coverage would suffer and the business with it. Stories of other local papers enduring bans from the club they report on, over recent times, show that this scenario does indeed happen. Simon Parker is a brilliant writer in my opinion, but he would struggle if he burned his bridges with the club just to get a good headline.
Of course, the club need the T&A too. The publicity they routinely receive from the paper is massive and would cost a fortune to replicate through advertising. The ongoing promotions of the #149 season ticket campaign are a great example of the benefits of City working closely with the T&A.
The club no doubt has a great relationship with Simon Parker because of the coverage he can provide them. And in return, Parker will invariably get to hear the inside news and be first with the scoops. It means sometimes sitting on a story and occasionally being beaten by others; but when someone like ourselves does get their first (eg the signing of Aaron Mclean) the T&A will still have quotes from the key people involved and are able to share a direct insight.
The problem that the T&A faces, however, is that there simply isn’t enough stuff happening at Bradford City for there to be riveting daily updates. We are a League One club, where even during the season very little of interest occurs in-between games.
Right now people are on holiday, player talks are slow moving, there are no games to report on. And so to fill their daily requirements, we get interviews with backroom staff that are of limited interest to readers, and not-so-subtle promotions for the season ticket campaign. Nowhere does the T&A’s struggle to find things to write about look worse than when Simon Parker tells the world of Twitter he is on holiday; but for more than a week later, daily news stories are published that were written by him. Clearly Parker produced them before he went away, but waiting to run with them means they feel like filler content saved up for quiet news days, rather than news.
And that’s the dilemma the paper faces. In truth, they probably shouldn’t publish daily news stories in terms of actually having anything to say to us. But that is not what we, the hungry-for-news-supporters, want. Nor is it good for the T&A’s business. They could move away from news reports to writing more opinion pieces, but doing so would mean they have to be more critical (otherwise, why do opinions?) and then risk upsetting people they have to speak to daily. They couldn’t write like WOAP does. They certainly couldn’t write about psychopaths!
So instead they have little choice but to run insightful interviews with the contacts at the club they have, whilst waiting to be able to report on new signings such as Josh Morris. And it run will these filler stories knowing that readers will get upset and have a go, because they are desperate to hear of news that simply doesn’t exist. It is a thankless task, and the stick they receive for it can be very unfair.
If there’s a better way, I’m sure the T&A would love to hear it. Dwindling circulation figures could even depend on it.