Can Fleet Street make the most of the first World Cup of the Twitter age? David Bevan takes a look at the challenge facing newspaper journalists in South Africa.
The Twitter revolution gathers pace. Even Clive Tyldesley tweets now, although that particular sign-up may become a regret as millions follow England’s progress, or otherwise, in the World Cup. Ah yes, the World Cup. The forthcoming tournament will be the 19th to be held, but the first to take place in the age of Twitter.
As we hurtle inexorably towards the big kick off, various bloggers – some of Backpage Football’s finest included – are putting the finishing touches to their World Cup previews, ensuring that there is little excuse to remain ill-informed about that daring Chilean formation and the wider tactical innovations that may be on display.
We truly are living through the age of information, which shows no signs of slowing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We have been able to quickly learn online of events happening on the other side of the world for a little while now. Over the past year or two, Twitter has accelerated this process to the point of virtual immediacy.
Events as disparate as the leaders’ debates ahead of the UK General Election, the devastating recent shootings in Cumbria and even the Eurovision Song Contest have been afforded their own real-time social commentary by the masses.
Depending on who you follow, a major event can often be enriched with the aid of Twitter. Sometimes, though, there is no enrichment to be had. There was obviously nothing that could be said to improve the mood during and after Derrick Bird’s deadly rampage along the Cumbrian coast.
That does not mean that the occasional, wildly distasteful joke did not pop up on Google’s scrolling Twitter search, but the tragic events did highlight the usefulness of social media in getting important messages out to a wide audience at extremely short notice.
This immediacy is something that will be utilised by many journalists in South Africa over the next five weeks. Increasing numbers of the Fleet Street elite are turning to Twitter, as perfectly summarised this week by When Saturday Comes.
What, then, will this add to our enjoyment of the World Cup? On the evidence of the coverage of England’s warmup friendlies, not a gigantic amount. The constant challenge to every journalist is to craft a unique take on proceedings, especially difficult in the case of a World Cup game involving England when the whole country is watching the same game as those in the press box.
So far, we have been treated to breaking news regarding injuries accumulated by England squad members. The problem with this, in Twitter terms, is that the second person to relay the information may as well be the last – the modern-day equivalent of printing a story that appeared as an exclusive the day before in a rival newspaper. Pistols at dawn and all that. As long as it is accurate, the first shot will be the only one that counts.
There have been other, far more promising developments in the world of football coverage recently, not least the rise in popularity of Zonal Marking, a blog dedicated to formations, tactics and player positioning. To call Zonal Marking a blog is almost to do it a disservice, in fact. It is a trail-blazing website in its own right, which has been rightly recognised for its interesting insight and sheer depth of coverage by many journalists. Zonal Marking’s reflections on the World Cup promise to make for fascinating reading.
Everyone in the world thinks they have a book in them. Most seem convinced that everyone else wants to read it. The internet has given a mouthpiece to those of us dissuaded from pursuing journalism and writing as a profession.
And football is rather popular, as it happens. We all think we know best about the game we all love so much. The tricky thing is to be original. To be different. To stand out from the crowd. To offer something that cannot be read elsewhere, thus elevating ourselves above the masses as we all clamour to be heard.
Many journalists, still adapting to this brave new world where the reader can bite back, will soon learn of the need to bring something new to the party. Some offer a lot, with the likes of Iain Macintosh using the platform effectively to engage with prolific bloggers, but many offer little. There will surely be further inventive uses of Twitter in the near future which will promote new ways of thinking about football, existing examples of which include the Norwegian scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen and the anonymous power behind Zonal Marking.
It will not be enough to emblazon a bio with the fact of employment by a national newspaper and wait for the followers to roll in. There is a tidal wave of change affecting the way we read and learn about football. Behind the laptops at games across South Africa, those who pull clear of the pack will emerge as victorious as the World Cup winners themselves.