Like all good books The Old Man and the Sea can be read on a number of levels and the themes are as timely now as they were when it was written by Ernest Hemingway in 1951.
It is the story of an experienced, i.e. old, fisherman called Santiago who manages to catch a hefty marlin after an 84-day barren stretch has left him with the label of a “salao”, someone with luck of the worst kind. In order to break his maritime drought, he heads out into the Gulf Stream in search of a big haul.
Once he secures the fish, Santiago has to wait a few days before he can reel it in close enough to kill it then sets it on the side of his skiff so he can take it home and to the marketplace. However, the blood in the water draws sharks in and despite fending a number of them off the protagonist is dismayed to see that they have managed to strip his catch down to the bare bones—with only the backbone, tail and head left.
Exhausted by the trip, the old fisherman falls asleep in his shack while the local fishermen measure the marlin, which turns out to be 5.5m long and is now a facsimile of what was a massive catch. Santiago’s luck had turned for the better then back to the worst, but the size of the skeleton he brings in speak to the size of his catch, earning him admiration and sympathy in equal measure.
It has been given religious and other overtones yet the good thing about this story is that it can be applied to other things and in other ways. More on that later.
The word “churnalism” (also known as McJournalism, the practice of rewriting press releases or using ‘pre-packaged material’) popped up in the Nick Davies book Flat Earth News in 2009. A few years later it was popping up in the broadsheets on a regular basis as the landscape of newspapers started to change due to the advent of the digital age.
As news became 24 hours a day, seven days a week an implosion began. More news should mean more jobs—right?—yet according to figures released by the American Society of News Editors in 2009 there were 47,000 journalists in employment in 1980, 57,000 in 1990 and 46,700 by 2008—a clear regression to the earlier figure and with 10,300 jobs lost between 2007 and 2008 alone [C/O The Observer September 13, 2009].
New publishing methods had boosted the industry’s efficiency only for the technological advances to harm its quality due to the number of digital platforms and saturation. By 2008, an estimated 80% of newspaper content was made up of churnalism, with some fearing that serious journalism was in a deep, steep recline with things set to only get worse.
Fast forward to 2014, there was some clear evidence that the decline was going to get worse and that the Daily Mail would help it accelerate due to the kind of journalism that formed their Mail Online arm as well as the fact that if someone published a scoop or exclusive online it could easily be pasted and précised elsewhere. It wasn’t new, as The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade wrote that “copy theft” was around in the 1960s [The Guardian June 23, 2014].
Ironically, it was The Sun who led the charge against what the Mail Online had started to do, arguing that the site heavily relied on rewriting stories from other sources as well as saturating us with non-stories about celebrities that relied heavily on photos to mask the fact that there was little text and even less substance. Still, the Mail had done its job and became the ‘one-stop shop for casual news browsers’ with a turnover of 172, 000, 000 unique browsers in May 2014.
There were rules, though, as any use of another paper’s story had to be attributed properly, early and clearly with a hyperlink to the original piece prominent; a practice we see in boxing reporting, when done right.
The figures continue to make uncomfortable reading for those in the print trade as sales and ad revenues continued to drop. In 2016, the Daily Mail & General Trust issued a notice to shareholders after their newspapers pitched a collective drop of 29% in profits, with a 13% dip in advertising revenue a key factor. By this point, over a third of the Daily Mail’s ad revenue was coming in via their website. Even success stories had a grey lining as those who published profits now had smaller margins despite having skeleton staffs.
What happens in a wider context also goes on in boxing, and at a pace. Back in February 2014, a series of gales forced some employers to send their employees home for the day. My workplace took this precaution yet I hadn’t planned to be home for the best part of the day and hadn’t lined anything up. By mid-afternoon, I was so bored out of my nut that I decided to phone IBF President Darly F. Peoples for an update on the negotiations between Carl Froch and George Groves, who were negotiating a rematch following the contentious ending to their first encounter.
Lightning struck in the midst of that day’s storms as Peoples confirmed that the fight was on, terms were agreed and he was happy to go on record with that. So far so good, it was just a case of typing it up, sending it through to BoxingScene and setting up a Tweet so it could go out as soon as it went live.
The only snag was that Eddie Hearn, the man charged with putting the fight together, contacted me to say that nothing had been finalised, but we decided to go based on the word of the IBF, who were probably ITK over the whole thing—adding a brief quote from Hearn as a courtesy. A rival publication went all-in with the official word, later deleting the article, but the job was done and we all know what happened next, Froch knocked Groves out at Wembley Stadium in front of 80,000 fans yet rarely mentions it.
It was a nice day’s work. A clean one as it wasn’t based on a Tweet or online rumours. It was also one of the increasingly few times that a major, independently sourced story was that clean due to the relentless churn of social media and online sources. It had already reached the point where you had to just hope you could jump on something quickly and either follow it up or grab reaction quotes.
To return to the Old Man and the Sea, most modern boxing news stories are like the huge marlin in question. It is very hard to get one home intact so, in some cases, you just have to get in the bare bones and hope for the best. Much like Santiago and, like him, without the rewards that come from reeling one in intact.
Most of the stuff we read online is pure churnalism or rewritten press releases pumped out to ensure that sites don’t have dead space. It’s not solely down to lazy or poor writing, either, as the promotional war of the not-so-shrinking roses between Hearn and Frank Warren a few years ago saw a further closing of the wagons within promotional firms, who went from corroborating a day or two in advance, with some provisos, to striving to ensure that they were first with their own news.
This is not a surprise, promoters love a sneaky press release, pre-announcement of an announcement, a surprise opponent and press conference. The poetics of space in a presser underlines this, the promoters sit front and centre with the rest of the particulars sat to either side waiting for their turn to speak. The same goes for fights, too, as they sit in the centre of the side of the ring that has the most camera time. It is a similar layout we see in a Church or a Mosque, with the altar or Sacred Relic situated centrally along with the priest or Imamm.
This desire to regulate the flow of information—some of it quite sensitive—is understandable, but it has led to a decline in boxing news journalism in recent times, which in turn impacts on numbers, as proper news stories always do good numbers, and boxing writing in general.
The explosion of sites seems to have settled down to the point where you can name the decent boxing sites on one hand. Interviews, though, are becoming bland and too many new writers are sticking to the Square One of opinion pieces. The great and not-so-great ‘I think’ pieces that used to be a way into getting interviews but have now become the norm.
The lack of money has always been a problem, too often you get emails that say ‘Here is my first article, when do I get paid?’. The lack of paid work and access to the Holy Land of print articles is a choker—who wants to work for free?—so the situation is unlikely to improve without a sea change in how things are done. In short, far fewer writers stay the course year in and year.
It means that it is harder to practice long-form or “slow journalism” and for it to prosper and grow, especially now ad revenue is down and ad-blocker use is up, with some sites aiming to combat this by blocking users who have Adblock Plus or another app enabled on their browsers. Plus the emphasis is on the “If it bleeds it leads” approach of using negative stories and commentary to create controversy and drive sales. You sometimes have to push out four or five news briefs (or even double that) to every one interview or researched piece, and they do not do as well as the briefs, in the main, or negative pieces of work.
Indeed, The Guardian was criticised by a paid up member for not having a ‘good news section’, which led to the launch of the Half Full series of positive articles for their members [The Guardian August 12, 201]. Over 29 pieces the section has amassed over 1,000,000 views, but while healthy that number is not explosive. It seems that, in the main, it is still a case of “Bad news is still good news”.
Towards the end of my time at BoxingScene, I worked with Elliot Foster, who is now their U.K. Editor, and, as a trained journalist, Elliot wants to hang in there in the hope of progressing to a paid role via boxing. Last year, Elliot spotted a photo of a notice to put on an outdoor event that had been tacked to a fence at the ground of Everton FC. With rumours of a fight between Tony Bellew and Ilunga Makubu hanging in the air, “Fozzy” grabbed the image, fired through an article and it went up.
It caused consternation and a few phone calls. At the time I was annoyed as Sky Sports put something up shortly afterwards with quotes from those involved. My argument was that we should have held fire for the quotes, but I could also see why we had to pull the trigger due to the fact that the information, or at least a hint of it, was out there. It was one of a few things that we disagreed on during our time at ‘Scene. For a while, ‘Scene was beating major publications to the point where we would get annoyed if a major outlet beat us to certain things and/or quotes.
One thing Elliot and I did, and still do, agree on is that the news beat has become so tough that newshounds have no choice to but to pull and publish Tweets. A Tweet-based story is not a story, it is a grim necessity in that line of work—the equivalent of having to have a sh*t in some bushes after getting caught short. We’ve all done it, we just don’t want to be seen to be doing it.
It’s a Hobson’s choice, one that probably is going to get tougher as more outlets adopt the Daily Mail Online approach. Last week, Foster told me that regional titles are also feeling the pressure. A few years ago, a local publication was a good way to get into print if you attend a small hall show, with some writers submitting to them and earning a bit of petrol or travel money.
This was never my cup of tea as I knew that this was a hobby that I had taken up due to the fact I had such a sedate professional life. For me, writing for local papers would have been immoral as it was akin to stealing from the likes of North West legend Andy Whittle, who is a master at carving up shows between different outlets.
With this route now also starting to close to those who seriously want a career as a journalist the future looks a bit bleak and, to be blunt, uniform—lots of people with nothing to say who say it in a bland, generic way.
Still, hope springs eternal that someone will snare a huge marlin—preferably a worldwide exclusive, complete with quotes—and bring it home intact, maybe even repeating the trick, yet it is going to a long slog and one that has little rewards outside the experience of covering fights and being involved in the sport. For now, we have to be content with the bare bones more often than not.
However, if the stories continue to be popcorn farts, and interviews with people who would talk to a shoe if it had a recording device attached to it are sold as “Exclusives”, then the promoters will have cornered the news market whilst ensuring that some sites cannot survive and therefore closing down potential places of promotion. It is all very counter-productive, but that’s boxing for you—the sport has been collapsing in on itself from Day Dot, and it shows no sign of stopping.