Thursday, 31 December 2009


This has been an amazing year for the sports media. On the one hand we have seen an astonishing run of compelling stories, and yet on the other it has been achieved against a backdrop of job losses and closures.

The year has been neatly bookmarked by the closure of radio stations - Abbey FM (Barrow) went in January, Central Radio (Preston) in December. In between there has been all manner of downsizing, reorganisation and general cost-cutting, frequently at the expense of journalists' jobs. Experienced staffers have been made redundant or ushered into premature retirement.

Newspapers, radio and TV have all taken a huge hit with the Liverpool Echo and Manchester Evening News both making large numbers redundant. The most spectaular implosion was Setanta UK which collapsed in the summer despite holding a contract to cover Premier League football. Setanta's misfortune was terrible news for sports journalism with both their sports channel and sports news channel disappearing. The company's Irish sports channel survives, albeit with a reduced workforce.

Many commercial radio stations have withdrawn from football commentary because the advertising revenues no longer match the expenditure. This has left the BBC in a strong position, especially in the lower leagues where many clubs are agreeing to let the Beeb mount live commentary for free, reckoning that the exposure and promotion they receive is worth having even if no money changes hands.

A worrying trend for sports journalists is the reduction in freelance fees. My own freelance income has dropped because of the Setanta problem. National and Sunday newspapers have cut back freelance fees to the extent that one of my colleagues, an experienced football writer in the North West, has given up because the pay no longer makes it worthwhile.

The cause of all this is the cataclysmic double-whammy suffered by the media. The digital revolution has made a lot of journalistic content available worldwide free of charge, and simultaneously the global recession has taken a huge chunk out of advertising revenue and general investment.

For young people like the students graduating from our sports journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire the year has been very difficult. Media organisations are more interested in shedding jobs than recruiting. My heart sinks when a reference request arrives for a talented graduate who's been offered a job in a call centre. And yet even in this nightmare landscape our graduates are finding work. One went for a production assistant's post at the broadcasting operation of a big betting company and made such a good impression he was given the job of broadcast manager. Another has landed what he describes as his dream job at a specialist tennis website.

There are jobs out there, but not necessarily in the traditional places.

Meanwhile the opportunities for bright students to make contacts and gain experience have never been better. With no money to splash around, all manner of companies are happy to give work experience. We have students engaged in a terrific variety of exciting projects with football clubs from the Premier League to League Two, rugby union and rugby league clubs and news organisations from the BBC to local papers. I am well aware that this suits a lot of those organisations very well indeed and in an ideal world much of this voluntary work would attract payment, but one thing 2009 has taught us is that the world is very far from ideal.

It will not always be like this. Around the corner we have the BBC's move to Media City in Salford which will create a lot of jobs for sports journalists in the North West. The Olympic Games in 2012 will also require the services of the bright youngsters who are gaining vital experience now. And as the media becomes more savvy at generating income from online activity we can expect to see job opportunities begin to pick up again.

The big thing for sports journalists is that sport itself has never been bigger. Harlequins and the blood capsule, McLaren and the barefaced lies, Renault and the dodgy crash, Manchester City and the managerial regime change - all great stories well reported in 2009, along with reports, debate and opinion about compelling drama on the the pitch, the track, the court and the water.

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