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April 28, 2020updated 07 Nov 2023 5:49am

Sports journalists share fears Covid-19 cuts could be permanent as industry weakened

By Freddy Mayhew

Among journalists, those covering sport have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus (Covid-19) as matches and tournaments have been cancelled under measures to slow its spread.

The Olympic Games and the Wimbledon tennis championship, due to take place in summer, have both been suspended. Ten Formula 1 races have been cancelled so far and the football Premier League is still on hold.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty over when sport will return.

This has left sports journalists with less to do and many have been furloughed as a result, with PA alone putting 44 on paid leave. In total more than 2,000 news industry employees have been furloughed.

Reach, which owns the Mirror, Express and Star titles, has put some 940 staff on furlough, of which a proportion are sports journalists. Staff were told in an email from chief executive Jim Mullen on 6 April.

‘Our department has been hit hardest’

A furloughed sports journalist on a Reach national title told Press Gazette: “Of the early morning emails I’ve received in my time as a journalist, Jim Mullen’s message on Monday at 7am will live long in the memory.”

They said that although the “writing was on the wall” when Mullen emailed the Friday before about taking “responsible decisions”, the decision to furlough ten per cent of staff had been nonetheless been unexpected.

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“I think everyone appreciates and realises the completely surreal world we are now living in, but after Mullen and [chief financial officer] Simon Fuller recently received £300,000 in bonuses and share options worth £1.18m and the company has £20m sitting in the bank, you can’t help but feel angry.

“With no sport, our department has been hit hardest and it doesn’t appear as though competitions will return any time soon.

“The back pages have been slimmed down and the online content is threadbare. We all fear that despite the positive messages, Reach wouldn’t hesitate to cut staff.”

They said prior to being furloughed that finding stories had been “tricky” as sports clubs and PRs have been less willing to put people up for interview, with high-profile exclusives off the table.

Reach, along with other news publishers, has seen an uplift in traffic during the pandemic. A spokesperson said football content on the Mirror Online had continued to be well-read despite matches being suspended.

Freelancer: ‘It’s frustrating being a sports fan myself’

A freelance sports journalist who has previously worked on local newspapers and in comms for a football club told Press Gazette the outbreak had had a “major effect” on their ability to get work.

“There isn’t much freelance work and publishers are protecting their own rather than looking after freelancers” they said.

The move to shut down mass gatherings under measures to slow the spread of coronavirus meant match reporting work came to a swift end.

With sport having been cancelled, “sports journalists are having to try and be a little bit more creative and think outside the box in terms of content”, the freelancer said.

“I think some places are getting by with less coverage – cutting pagination down for sport to cope with the lack of it.”

Looking ahead, they said they did not think sports events would return in full until the end of the year, at the earliest. “It has mucked up the sporting calendar, but we just have to deal with it as best we can.”

“It’s frustrating being a sports fan myself, not being able to talk about sport.”

They predicted that sports journalism would be “slightly weaker” when matches and tournaments do return, however.

“I imagine newspapers will get used to working with fewer pages and less sports content – if that’s cost effective for them it may carry on along those lines.”

‘Chance to show off what The Athletic does best’

The Athletic is a dedicated sports news outlet which launched in the UK in August last year after first establishing itself in the US.

It proudly boasts that it has “no ads or clickbait”, relying entirely on investment and subscriptions for its revenue, which means it is sheltered from the advertising downturn currently hitting publishers.

Press Gazette understands that none of its UK staff have been furloughed and the business remains healthy at this time.

Although its core trade has been interrupted by the temporary ban on sport it has continued to publish, with a new section on nostalgia alongside insider takes, reviews of players and stories on the impact of coronavirus on sport.

The Athletic normally charges £4.99 a month for subscriptions, but is offering a limited deal at £2.99 in the UK and 90 days free in the US.

A journalist at The Athletic UK told Press Gazette: “It’s different, clearly, now that we don’t have the usual weekly rhythms to work around.

“But it has also been an opportunity to be creative – to try different things and look for stories off the beaten path.

“It’s a tough time for a lot of people, yet football can still provide escapism and it is our job to remain interesting and engaging even in the absence of actual matches.

“That’s a challenge – it’s also a chance to show off what The Athletic does best.”

Picture: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

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