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Should the local press covering Newcastle United be doing a better job?

3 years ago

If you’re a journalist covering Newcastle United, you might want to look away now.

There’s something irritating me. It’s not Mike Ashley and his psychedelic handling of the football club. It’s the way in which it is reported on.

Please, stop.

“The inside track”… “behind the scenes”… “we reveal”… “here’s why”… “where the takeover stands” …“EXCLUSIVE!”… all techniques to draw the reader in, but is in fact a euphemism for “this is a story which on closer inspection is all fur coat and no knickers.”

The local press in particular need to offer much more, bluntly. Breaking a story of substance is something which feels like it hasn’t happened in years.

It is not an easy thing to do, so it can only happen if you have solid contacts where the trust is mutual; this is the position where The Chronicle in particular is well positioned to achieve. Results in this area have, for a while, been disappointing. One of their recent exclusives was the series of features with the facilities manager of St James’ who talked at length about what colour scheme the concourse was going to be (‘pewter’ or ‘Northumbrian stone’ or something like that). That Eddie Rutherford was put up for interview smacked of the paper being thrown the smallest of scraps from the club to the extent it was offensive.

The problem is there’s a balance between needing to fill column inches, and having something to say; so when as a journalist you have nothing to say, you have an issue. Take the story published today about Sheikh Khaled having “changed strategy” in the approach to media briefings. Essentially, it’s gone from two emails to a two word statement, implying that the shutters have come down.

Later in the piece it talks about Benitez, and there being “no leaks” around the discussions over a new deal (usually described, on Benitez’s part as a “dignified silence”). The inability to get even the inkling of what direction of traffic the talks with Benitez are going can be seen as nothing but a failure.

However, this perhaps isn’t actually true; in the next paragraph it’s stated that “privately, he [Benitez] is remaining optimistic.” Hold on a minute… is this not the real story, if you’re looking for an update? How do you know this? What has he said? When did he say it? Why is he optimistic? Let’s drill down into this a little more, bottom this intriguing little nugget out… sadly, what is the most interesting part of the piece goes unexplained. Which begs the question – is it true? Or has it just been made up to create the illusion of knowledge?

Incidentally, why is it that Benitez always seems to give interviews to foreign media outlets when he is abroad, for example, in Spain for the Champions League final? That’s certainly one to think on.

So often we read phrases like “unclear” “don’t know” “hasn’t been revealed” and “waiting game” by people who are unable to punch through to get the updates, for one reason or another. To the extent that many publications seem to just produce daily round up of the stories other publications have churned out; reports on other people’s reports, if you will.

What happens when something of note does land on the desk of the local sports press? The email from Shiekh Khaled’s office to The Chronicle is a good case in point. “The Bin Zayed group contacted The Chronicle at 1636 UK time to say…” farted the article. So excited were they to get something of seeming substance that they could not contain their glee, and needed to report every last minute detail (1636 UK time… really?).

So, well done for that exclusive which was delivered wrapped up in a nice little bow. What a platform to build on through expending some of your own virtual shoe leather. But since then, sadly, there’s been very little.

Being a sports journalist is no easy job. This, unlike many other areas of journalism is a discipline where the balance of power lies largely with the subject matters, rather than the journalists. There is little scope to hold to account if you lack the relevant cojones, as should something be said or printed that goes down badly, you can quickly find yourself on the wrong side of the line.

Interviews with players and staff can be refused, and access to the club may be limited. But if none of this is the case anyway, why not come out swinging? And what percentage of the most interesting stories actually comes from the club’s press office anyway? Obviously don’t print rubbish, but be fair, analytical and informed.

Perhaps even channelling a bit of the spirit of 2013 when NCJ media (which includes The Chronicle) was banned from Newcastle United following coverage of a protest march would be in order. It would, if nothing else bring the readership onside.

It’s probably time for a partial disclosure. I’m also a journalist. I don’t work in the print media, I don’t work in sports reporting. I don’t have any vested interest in anything which goes on in this part of the country media-wise unless something requires me to. I don’t have anything against any of the local news outlets, I have never worked for them and do not know anyone who works there.

What I do have in common is the knowledge of how the media works; how to get sources, to establish their trust, to protect them above anything else, should all come crashing down around you. I also know you have to own a story, if at all possible. You must scrutinise everything, hold to account, do your opposition prep on anyone who is telling you anything of interest. Question motivations, bottom things out, but most of all serve your audience to the best of your ability. What I’m saying is, there are many transferable skills in journalism, no matter what your discipline.

It’s not good enough to say “you’ll never get anything out of Mike Ashley’s propaganda machine… it’s a closed shop… no one will ever talk… everyone’s saying no comment” and so on. From one journalist to another I would say this: this is your job, it is your responsibility to deliver and serve your audience who are relying on you. Failure to do so is not an option.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read about “calls” being put in to various press offices, media departments and secretaries (usually Lee Charnley’s, for an interview) only to be told “no”, or “no comment” or perhaps even “they’re in a meeting right now, can they call you back?” (let me tell you, they don’t… ever).

This type of punt is the easiest one to fob off, and the easiest one to make it look like you’re trying to your both audience and your bosses; frankly it is a pretty lazy way of going about things. My experience has taught me that looking a problem the other way up, and so doing things slightly differently, is the best way to get results.

This isn’t the Brexit conundrum, it’s more straightforward than that. Any Chronicle journalist reading this might be thinking “okay, if you’re so smart, how would you do it?” I would tell them to do it how I do my job: establish contact and work your charm to gain the trust of those who will like you enough to open up about the big stories – two of which should be tattooed on your brain for all eternity.

Any journalist who feels hurt or offended by the above will no doubt have a firm rebuttal; and will list myriad reasons as to why their job is difficult, and I accept that. But the ultimate overarching fact is that Newcastle United is a club which is leaving its fans in the dark, and if journalists cannot break through this wall of silence as they should be, then no one can.


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