Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 1, 2011

The Guardian Sportsblog – A sort of elegy

'Ello, I wish to register a complaint.

The Guardian Sportsblog is the reason that you’re reading this. Nearly five years ago, I fired up the laptop to read the news over the morning coffee as had become my custom and read this piece about Antony Gormley’s Another Place. Fired by righteous anger and a personal connection, I signed up to comment, found a name (MouthoftheMersey fitted the subject and was a little self-deprecatory, a re-working of the nickname my college tutors gave me, “Gary the Gob”) and posted at 8.23am October 21 2006. A day later, I posted my first comment on a sports article, and I was soon addicted, mainlining the Sportsblog in the office and at home, occasionally – and I’m slightly ashamed to admit this – waiting for the post-midnight hour, when the day’s newspaper articles would appear and I could get a few comments off before bed.

Lee Calvert – now found at Blood and Mud – contacted me via a comment on a piece and asked me to write for his cricket blog, The Googly, even paying me to do so! Also writing there were Nestaquin, Clare A Davies and Carrie Dunn – all of whom had written above or below the line on the SportsBlog. Buoyed by Lee’s energy and direction, Nesta’s typically forthright prose, Clare’s extraordinary ability to find something new to say about cricket’s flavours of the month and Carrie’s professional rigour, The Googly was an education and a pleasure. When Shiny Media pulled the plug, from The Googly’s ashes rose 99.94.

But the SportsBlog did a lot more than that. Like the Over-By-Over coverage (of which I wrote a few weeks ago), the SportsBlog was social as well as journalistic. We may not have known each others’ real names, but those of us who wrote below the line knew a lot about each other – some even got the impression that I liked a Number 8 – and soon there was a healthy banter, a swapping of stories, a worldwide group of people linked by broadband and a love of sport. After Sean Ingle, the SportsBlog’s founding father, ran a Big Blogger competition to allow those of us below the line to try our hand above (it was won by Jonny Jones, JonnyBoy71, still an eloquent and pithy contributor on rugby and a man I’m delighted to count amongst my friends), many of the unsuccessful entrants posted their pieces to Pseudscorner.blogspot.com, the brainchild of James Andrews. Click there to find an extraordinary archive of long-form sportswriting, much of it of the highest quality.

“Pseuds” slowly died (though Clare is still writing there and as readable as ever), the victim of social media (many of us are friends on Facebook) and th inevitability of contributors gaining the skills and knowledge to set up their own blogs or write for others’. Nevertheless, the SportsBlog was still going strong, still producing material above and below the line that demanded to be read. Until the golden goose was slain.

The first knife was wielded by The Guardian’s top brass, who followed the logic of newspaper convergence – the merging of print and online activities. The lads (and some lasses) who understood how online journalism worked (Rob Smyth, Lawrence Booth, Scott Murray, Sean Ingle, Andy Bull, Jonathan Wilson, Carrie Dunn, Georgina Turner) were soon being crowded out by the big name, big paper journos who thought that writing online was just another deadline and the comments unworthy of notice, still less, of response. Sprawling, esoteric, beautiful writing like On Second Thoughts and The Forgotten Story of… and countless other pieces that didn’t fit into a series but needed the freedom that online journalism’s pagination-free environment provided, just faded away, replaced by another Arsenal blog, another “Whither England?” blog, another Liverpool blog. With The Guardian heamorraghing money, newsroom efficiencies bit into rosters and beancounters became clickcounters.

The SportsBlog could even have survived that though, were it not for another related development that has proved to be the second knife, dealing an almost fatal blow. Five years ago (an age in the world of online media) to post below the line, one needed a certain confidence – one had to believe that one had something worth saying, write it in grammatical English and post it knowing that The World could judge you on your thoughts. No more. Hiding behind the pseudonyms that once seemed charming but now promote raging online disinhibition, the banter turned brutal. At first the spite was directed towards the journos, from “Do you get paid for that?” to much worse, and then the commenters turned their trolling on to each other. Those journos that did join in below the line soon stopped writing there, soon stopping reading too. And then many of us who had known the days of gentle banter bailed out, leaving much of the SportsBlog to men (maybe some women) who must surely type with their fists.

Not all is lost however. If the rare cycling blogs can stay away from Lance Armstrong, they are very well informed below the line; tennis can vary in its coverage above the line, but is often good below; and, showing what we’re missing elsewhere, the County Cricket Live Blog shines like a beacon of splendid writing, good humour and, well, whimsy is the word used, but I prefer the rather more prosaic term collaborative writing. New ventures like The Blizzard seek to capture some of the old Sportsblog’s freedoms – let’s hope there’s a Blizzard for other sports soon too.

So thank you Guardian SportsBlog – like the OBO, you changed my life and I’ll be grateful to my last breath. It wasn’t all your fault that I, and lots of others, have gone and maybe one day you’ll find a way to give us back the feeling we had at 3.00pm or thereabouts towards the end of another stressful day in the office when friends, above and below the line, entertained us so royally. You’re missed.

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Responses

  1. Concur about the County Cricket Live! Blog. I happen to think that it has helped the writers ATL to use their blog contributions to hone their pieces for the small space available for their pieces in the paper (half a page of reports in Saturday’s sports section).

    But thanks to the County Cricket Live! blog, I encountered twitter & have met a wide variety of new people who have enriched my life (I think I’ve been able to do so with them as well).

    • Great to hear that Paul. I can’t always get on to the county cricket blog as often as I would like, but it certainly has captured much of what was good about the old SportsBlog. It’s great fun and well informed and wonderfully orchestrated by Busfield and the talents above the line.

  2. Has any brainy spod written/researched the BTL phenomenon? There must be a lot to be learned about human behaviour from the myriad outpourings, whether pithy or frothy.

    I still check out the Sportblog, but all too often soon leave with a heavier heart. But I enjoyed those early days, the intrigue of the MOAB, the fun late nights at the Other Place round the corner. And if nothing else I’m glad it has plugged me in to pieces like this, or one of Quirk’s great tunes, or the occasionally round robin emails to far-flung-friends

    • Mr Daddy – it was such fun and, in more distant ways, still is even now. The outpouring of passionate writing at pseuds was a spectacular flowering was it not? There’s almost certainly academic writing on blogging, but I bet it’s on what Tony Benn called “ishoos” rather than the Toy Department (ie Sports). Once I can access some academic journals online, I think I’ll find lots of stuff like – http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a787960687.

      I’ve fancied writing a play or novel set in an online newsroom for some time – still haven’t seen one done yet.

  3. I’m an occasional contributor but a constant weekday reader of the county cricket blog, and am always in awe of how it manages to gain so many comments and page views (it is frequently the most viewed page on Guardian Sport according to their own Top 5 lists) without descending into the carnage that any blog on Man U, Arsenal etc will do within 30 comments. As a cricket fan I’d love to pretend that this is because we are inherently more civilized but I don’t think this is really the case, and I don’t have a plausible explanation for it…. However in the meantime I’m going to continue enjoying the oasis, and hope we can hold off the crazies, no matter how popular the blog gets. It serves as a perfect example though of how writers can interact with fans – I asked a fairly inconsequential poser for Parson Hopps last week about an injury for Notts – within half an hour he had been down to the dressing room and found out the answer and posted it for me (and the several other Notts fans on there). What more can you ask than that?

    • I wouldn’t want to ‘keep the crazies away’ so much as to expect & get the best from each and every commenter. Somehow the CC Live! blog does this and it doesn’t happen on other blogs on the site.

    • Hi rufus – I think it it easier for live blogs to garner page views in comparison to static articles (there’s a reason for that on/off button at the top you know) but that’s a technical matter which does not detract from your main point that the CC Live blog is a very pleasant place to be.

      I’d volunteer two reasons for it. Firstly, cricket is not as tribal as football, so the passions are as much for the game as for the club one supports. Even internationally, there’s appreciation for the other players and teams and real regret about the falling fortunes of Pakistan and WI for example. Secondly, the sheer length of cricket matches promotes conversation – the stuff below the line is what one would hear at the match. In a sense, on the football blogs, the stuff below the line is also what one hears at the match.

      I was fortunate to have a press pass (from Channel Five) for last summer, so mixed about in the media centres of Lord’s, The Oval, Trent Bridge and Edgbaston. The journois there were unfailingly polite and engaged me, whom they did not know, in conversation as if I were Richie (just behind me at Trent Bridge) or any other of the names that you read every day in the papers. Though there were times when there was work to be done and conversation paused (my format of “Final Over of the Day” allowed me to write whenever I fancied it… handy) the press box atmosphere was not unlike that which we find at CC Live. It is to Selvey’s, Hopps’ and Marks’ credit that, under the orchestration of Mr Busfield, they have brought that knowledge, decency and wit to the virtual world.

  4. A very well judged piece, Gary. I’d also agree with Paul. I don’t think the county blogs’ aim should be to ‘keep the crazies away’. There have been some pretty bad tempered blogs of late (not the CC ones), involving both Indian and English cricket fans, for example. Thanks to the CC blog there’s been a lot of discussion on both sides and in Lord Selvey’s last blog it seemed like people were falling over each other trying to make sure it was kept polite.

    • Two Lancky’s agreeing with me, I hope Aussie is reading this and taking note!

    • Yes Phil and Paul – I’m anti-moderating off comments except for the most extreme language or ideas. But contributors have to police themselves and realise when it’s getting boring or overly-nasty. Politeness and its close cousin, decency, matter in day-to-day stuff – there’s a time and place for passions to be aroused.

  5. Lovely piece, Gary. Shame I came aboard too late (via this*. The framing of the Seaman gag was what truly bought me) and, since I only ever read football blogs, only got to witness the brainless vitriol (plus the odd gem): in fact, I changed my moniker to PhilipPodolsky to evade the whole online anonymity thing

    *http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2009/jul/27/on-second-thoughts-luis-figo-goal

    • Philip – you’re rare in writing under your own name (as I am in using an actual photo – another tongue-in-cheek riposte to bloggers’ description as “people scribbling in their bedrooms” used by some MSM types). I hope you can find time to read back through the archive of some OSTs and JoSes from the time before you joined as there is some lovely stuff. Some of Mike Brearley’s cricket blogs were excellent too. Just stay away from the Russell Brand football blogs – yes he wrote (or rather dictated to his PA) a piece every Saturday morning – and I disn’t care for Marina Hyde’s stuff either, though she has her fans.

      • OK Gary, you asked for it. My Avatar is now going to be an actual photo of myself.

        May God have mercy on your souls.

        • Paul – it’s always good to have you around!

      • Actually Marina Hyde counts me among her fans, yet I can recall nothing of her football writing, which must speak volumes (I do remember many of her pieces on celeb culture, and with great fondndess). For RB I have 0 patience, I just hope his remake of Drop Dead Fred (a Rik Mayall film I love) never gets done

        Right now I’m pretty invested in The Fiver though. The old ones seem to have withstood the test of time and it is going strong still. One of my favourite things to read online alongside Madame Hyde, Hipster Runoff, Twitter’s @TheBigSam etc

  6. A fantastic piece, thanks Gary.

    • Wouldn’t have been the same without you Sir!

  7. This is a great piece, and don’t worry, you’re not the only sad person who sits up past midnight, refreshing the Cricket page every thirty seconds to see if a new blog’s come up – I’m sure there are plenty more of us out there . . .

    I think you’re right, though, the blogs do tend to police themselves, usually effectively. There is such a community spirit below the line that it often feels like you’re among friends, and as such, you keep the peace as you would if you were having the discussion in the pub (complete with the legendary mandarin brandy). It is a lovely thing to chat and learn and share with people whose names I don’t know, and who I wouldn’t know if I fell over them in the street, and also, in a way, it’s a great luxury to be able to interact with the proper writes above the line, and know if you ask a serious question, you’ll get a proper answer. We are so lucky to have such splendid, sociable above-the-line commentators, and such fantastic writers (I’m a little bit in love with Andy Bull’s writing), and never mind how sad it may seem, the cricket blogs are a very modern sort of social event. Look forward to it every day.

    K :)

    • Ms Glyph – It’s lovely to find you here. That’s really the heart of the matter for me – the Sportsblog at its best is a really wonderful gift to those who “get it” but it’s often not at its best these days (with the exception of CC live!) That it was so good so soon after its invention reminds me of a comment about Toy Story – “The first 3D animation and they go and make their Citizen Kane”. The earlyish days of the Sportsblog were always going to be a hard act to follow.

  8. Well, first shock was discovering that your first ever comment was Oct 21 2006, and that mine – just researched – was Oct 24 2006. There I’d been, always thinking that you were a “founding father” in comparison to a JCL like me!

    A good article, which just adds to a general end-of-an-era feel around the place these days. For different reasons – and I’m only really talking about the cricket site, as I too have more or less deserted the football blogs – your OBO piece, a, unfounded rumour (born I think out of a misunderstanding) that Rob was leaving, the end of a successful Ashes blog, Busfield going to pastures new and the growth of the whole shebang to almost unmanageable size.
    That’s the essence of my point really, as things we love grow due to their success, they cease to be ours as much, and belong to a wider group of users that we cannot identify with as wholeheartedly. It’s happened to the football, and the cricket would logically be the next sport to get too big for we happy few.
    I’m rambling now, but do you know who the sociologist/ management guru was who talked about the maximum number of people that can belong to a group, company department, society, etc, before it gets too big? I think he/she said the maximum number was about 50, any more and our brains find it too unwieldy to keep up with everyone.

    • Hi Rooto – I think it was about 80, but I know what you mean. I think it’s not so much the size of the group as its composition, particularly its culture (for want of a better word). If those shared values are tolerant, respectful and generous, the spirit of the group can flourish as it expands. But once the voices of intolerance etc grow too loud and too insistent to be ignored, it’s just too much like hard work to resist it.

      Smyth seemed a bit fed up at the end of Saturday’s MBM, but he’s been fed up before and come back – let’s hope the end of the football season (when STOP FOOTBALL actually happens) perks him up a bit. There’s nobody quite gets OBOs, MBMs or writes online like him.

  9. Nothing of note to add (albeit the supposed uncouthness of we Australians has nothing on the sentiments fueling your football blogs) but felt compelled to add my voice to the chorus. Excellent piece Toots.

    • Thanks japal. I hardly think an Englishman can allude to any uncouthness on the part of any other nationality – though I still enjoy re-runs of Barry McKenzie.

  10. Excellent post. Thanks, Gary !

    I started following The Guardian online from the 2005 Ashes, during which time I was lucky to be living in England. I have never commented there, but spent countless hours reading the comments for most of the blog posts. And I think I have been reading and commenting here at 99.94 shortly after Nesta rolled it out.

    Over the last 3-4 years, I have come to rely on Cricinfo for just the stats, the scores and the ball by ball commentary now and then, but for informed analysis, good banter, and love of the game, I depend solely on blogs such as 99.94 and/or The Guardian sports blog. Surprised to read that such a popular channel is being phased out.

    This post of yours, with links to some lovely pages of cricket writing – is worth saving offline.And I am going to do just that :)

    • Thanks for the kind words Kumar – we always welcome your comments at 99.94!

      The SportsBlog at The Guardian is not being phased out – expanded if anything. My lament is not for its passing, but for its changing from a community characterised by insight, humnour and mutual respect to one in which those qualities are seen much less frequently – though more often on the cricket blogs than anywhere else.

  11. Nice piece, and I agree with the sentiments. A relative newcomer, having commented at first as bohsfan, then under my own name, then as gg and now my own name again, I find I can’t even bring myself to read the CC blogs any more. Somehow, this last cricket WC was the end for me; suddenly, the cricket blogs became tribal, too.

    • Thanks gg.

      The County Cricket Live Blog is usually a haven from the tribal elements – it’s worth checking into now and again to see if it’s to your taste. Your comments always add much to the debate.

      • Too kind, toots, too kind. Just now I’m actually more excited by the prospect of a few decent cricket matches here in Ireland this summer than any blog :-)

        • Why wouldn’t you be gg – the Irish boys deserve to play cricket of a very decent standard and the Irish fans deserve to see it. The ICC, on the other hand…

          • One of the really amazing things here over the last year or so (Morgan for England followed by the WC) has been listening to Irish radio and TV sports reporters coming to terms with the language of cricket. Also, we have a minister for sport in the new government whose only known sporting background is schools cricket. Changed times indeed. I’ve only waited ~50 years for this to happen.

    • The CC Live! Blog only gets tribal during the Roses matches ;)

      • Understandably so, Dirk.

  12. Interesting piece, Gary/MOM/TT. You make good points about how priorities change with integration and how online communities grow and morph.

    But I think you may have confused Kumar with your headline choice – which may, I think, be slightly overegging the situation. Sure SportsBlog has changed. But it will also continue to change. The nature of the net – and of society – is that these things do not stand still.

    There are vast tracts of the SportsBlog where the readers continue to know and interact with each other. Both rugby codes, for instance, have many of the attributes that you ascribe to County Cricket Live! (which is also my favourite blog). And both rugby codes have more blogs than they used to have. And they are not just newspaper pieces put online, but are instead specially created blog formats.

    And, while some members of the below-the-line community sometimes forget their manners or behave in a less-than-sociable manner, it is partially up to the rest of the community – and the writers – to foster the community spirit.

    I could go on and on, but, then, I would say all of this, given that I am the Guardian’s Sports Blogs Editor….

    • Hi Steve – great to have you commenting here.

      Yes – the headline is rather grandiose (but at least I avoided the word requiem!) The SportsBlog does feel lost, if not dead, to those of us who were around in 2006 and a bit after that. And change, of course, is inevitable, but one hopes for the better, even if that phrase is value-laden and subjective. I did used to look at CIF blogs and think – how does anyone stand to reads that! The SportsBlog is nowhere near that level of keyboard-mashing anger, but it’s more like CiF than the SportsBlog of the early days.

      I tried to give examples of other sports where the Sportsblog retains much of its spirit, but the rugby ones I seldom read – I like the games, but I don’t understand the rules and don’t know enough to appreciate the comments (though I remember writing that Danny Cipriani was faker!!) I’ll check them out before Quins play in Cardiff.

      Not sure that the community can police itself without a critical mass of respectful individuals and without their being prepared to put a lot in – I don’t know whether those two conditions are present at the moment and Lord alone knows what’ll happen in there’s another Gomes type incident in the Man Utd – Chelsea game this weekend.

      I know you’ll have had a lot more to say and I know you do a fine job – especially on the cricket (but I would say that). Perhaps – because I know you have nothing else to do… – you might pen a State of the Nation type piece as a State of the SportsBlog type piece over at The Guardian, especially as it’ll be a quiet summer pre-Olympics, no big football tournament etc.

      Best wishes to you and all working with you – with a particular word for Andy who’s Spin stuff is a worthy successor to that column’s previous writer – high praise indeed.

  13. Steve,

    You say it’s partially up to the writers to foster the community spirit. Yet I made a big effort to do that over a number of years on the football site – usually in my own time – and the only result has been often vicious abuse and an almighty crisis of confidence/motivation that has basically ruined my career. That might seem hyperbolic, but I can assure you it is not, and part of me is extremely resentful of that fact.

    I appreciate a lot of your points, and I also appreciate this specific point is in no way your fault, but the policing of these communities is hopelessly inadequate. In fact, I would say it’s disgraceful.

    Ultimately this is none of my business, but I just give wanted to give a writer’s perspective on what has happened over the last few years. I do think that, in 20 years’ time, we will look back on this phase of placing traffic figures over editorial integrity and wonder what the hell we were doing. By then, however, it’ll be too late.

    • I’ve read a lot of journalism in my time – WSC, Private Eye, New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Cricketer, cycling mags, New Statesman, Spectator, Marxism Today, Vanity Fair, Economist, tons of newspapers and now tons online (those are the mags I have subscribed to, often for years even decades – I’ve read plenty more).

      But I know I’ve read more written by Rob Smyth than any other journo and I have been enlightened, amused and engaged by every word. It’s been, and continues to be, a pleasure Sir.

      • When do you get time to read all that stuff?

        • Lou – In pre-internet days, one just read the stuff. No comments, no blogging, no tweeting. I read most of this stuff in the 45 minutes or so in bed before sleep, drinking plenty of water to keep the next morning’s hangover at bay.

  14. Guardian was the only newspaper I bought when I stayed in London for a year. Started checking it out for the Literature section online when I returned to India and that eventually led to the Sports Section, which is staple diet for me now. Rob and Andy have been my favourite writers. I follow OBO though oftentimes I do not understand enough of the banter when it veers towards British Popular Culture – for the sheer pleasure of the style of writing, the self-effacing classical British humour at its best. I do wish that Rob Smyth shares The Spin duties, though. I think potential is being wasted there

    • Hi kaminey – Rob is a master of self-effacing humour which is, as you write, classically British and a favourite style of mine too.

  15. I think I spend more time below the line than above the line to be honest. The Guardian’s coverage is just immense.

  16. Hi Gary, As a semi original contributor (it was the autumn of 2006, but I can’t remember my password to check), I think the blog was great for about a year after I joined. No doubt, if I’d have joined a year later, i’d have thought they were great until about 2008, but there you go. It’s funny, reading Rob Smyth’s message there, I feel a bit ashamed of myself. I don’t remember ever particularly having a go at Rob, but I can remember heaping a bit of derision on Paul Wilson, Richard Williams and Paul Hayward, people who I maintain to this day know nothing about football, really (ok, they’ve watched lots of it, written about it all their lives, but they don’t seem to really understand it, and resemble the typical English approach to writing about football (about the personalities, not the big picture, as if Rooney or Gerrard or whoever do not play the way they play because of the structure the manager and other players have put around them).

    So, in retrospect, you are dead right that it is the blog only writers who were/are great, and the paper writer who are by and large less suited to the medium – quelle surprise I suppose. They are plenty of examples that prove me wrong, Marina Hyde for example, but there you go! However, all of these people had the gumption to make a career out of writing, which I didn’t, and reading Symth talk about the effect it had on him, well numptys like me shouldn’t really be doing that to people, just because they are rude about Rafa Benitez (but still, why is that man treated like a buffoon? and why did no-one pick up on the whole owners are mental, Purslow’s a snake thing before the day they were sold? (except David Conn)). I digress.

    Anyway, the other thing you say, about internet warriors, it is horrible there now on the football blogs, hardly any different to 606 (the worst insult, if I can rememebr!), but the other sports blogs are still worth reading above and below, as is the Doctor Who one (the geek in me). To digress again, the culture blogs which go, “I think this slightly contrary thing, but maybe some people thing this slightly more conformist thing, so, readers, what do you think” are the worst kind of online only artiles.

    Right, this is now an entirely unstructures and pointless post, but you know, that was kind of the beauty of sportsblog for me. Someone will read this (probably just Gary, but still), and frankly my wife pulls me up for not making sense, and the I have to display some sort of sentience for the people who work for me, so it is a privelege to be able to write my thoughts down for some like minded soul(s). I drifted away because you know, I have to work and stuff, and no-one picked me up as an unrecognised genius on sportblog or pseuds, but whenever offy comments on a conversation I am having with my wife on facebook, or I get a random email from Marcela (ok, these things have happened just once each), I think that maybe my time wasn’t entirely wasted posting on sportsblog.

    Comment is Free, mind you.

  17. Also, I’m a bit disappointed there is no blog up yet about the ridiculous but brilliant test match today. The county cricket one doesn’t count, I think.

  18. A name from the past Kokomo – and very welcome here. Nice to hear from you again Sir.


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