Gary Neville was spot on regarding the evolution of media through digital

Last Sunday morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Gary Neville would be a participant on The Sunday Supplement alongside host Neil Ashton, Martin Samuel, Henry Winter and Ollie Holt. Since leaving Manchester United, Gary Neville has had an eventful post playing career as a universally acclaimed pundit with Sky Sports and an unsuccessful stint as Valencia’s first team coach, whilst being England’s assistant manager under Roy Hodgson for the past four years.

Neville has always been well worth an interview, even since he took to the field the first time in his debut as a substitue against Torpedo Moscow back in 1992, and speaks his mind fairly. I was looking forward to the discussion of a number of topics, and although most the discussion was around the media and the relationship between players, as opposed to anything United specific, it was an insightful debate throughout – with Neville coming across exceptionally well.

The opening topic is the one that interests me the most, considering it is the field that I work in and a subject that I am passionate about – the evolution and state of media through digital.

The debate…
Everyone that I have spoken to really enjoyed the programme and many were in agreement with Neville’s views on the first subject. It was quite baffling to hear the defensive tone of Ollie Holt when Neville suggested that we are sacrificing “quality over quantity” in terms of content. Holt, and later on Winter, both saw the argument as a criticism towards their profession rather than a comment about an issue that has rocked media to the very core for the past fifteen to twenty years.

The Internet has changed everything and how we consume content is very different to those days in the early 90s before we read a red top in the local cafe before heading out to play football. In 2013, there was a report1 conducted that suggested that 90% of all the world’s data has been produced in the previous two years. With the rise of social media, mobile and connected devices – this isn’t a surprising stat and it inevitable that we see a shift in the amount of content created by publishers – only this time around it isn’t traditional media owners that are controlling the flow of information to readers.

In a very quick overview of how a successful publishers operates today – (1) Unearth a topical news story that will have significant demand through search and social (2) Publish the story first and as quickly as possible [potentially with “more to follow”] (3) Top media sources will feature within Google News, which coincides with growing demand through search (4) Clicks through Google News help to improve the positioning with in web search – so the publisher dominates Google’s page one (5) simultaneously with points (3) + (4) post via social (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) and participate in conversation (6) finish the article and update (7) if story continues to develop, create multiple stories around the same subject. This is a of course a whistle-stop tour of how publishers operate to drive traffic to their stories to increase ad revenue [although this model has hit a bit of a road block – more later].

Lets take a look at a quite simple search term following the eventual debate on Sunday, “Gary Neville”:[Query from Monday 6pm]

Google’s algorithm has evolved enormously over the past ten years and a number of changes made [Google makes on average over 400 changes per calendar year] a few years back that saw the results return ‘more fresher, more recent results'2 With this in mind, think of authoritative media owners like The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail and how they have changed their strategy based upon the traffic opportunity from targeting “News” through Google.

Each newspaper has its own style, historical tone of voice and political motivation – but with both print and digital revenues declining3 – it is no surprise that there is an abundance of content produced due to the way Google’s News algorithm works. Some newspapers, not all, will then resort to publishing stories about “Memphis Depay’s new jacket” or rewrite “Wayne Rooney’s drunken night in” multiple times in order to capitalise on search demand and grab as much declining ad revenue as possible. I was once a consultant to a major British tabloid and had to (amongst delivering a full search strategy for football) provide recommendations on a “celebrity” from The Only Way Is Essex eating a McDonalds at 2am. My dreams of playing alongside Eric Cantona as a naive thirteen year old were well and truly dead.

With the example from Google above (results 1 & 2), this is the repurposing of content from a social media channel (Instagram) of someone in the public eye (in this case Neville) and creating brand new article around the topic. Both The Mirror and The Metro use this strategy within their overall editorial process and will use social listening software (such as BrandWatch or Crimson Hexagon to monitor spikes in social activity (i.e. a number of ‘likes’ against a post or RTs of a tweet). This is an extremely easy way to create content around social activity and again, backs up Neville’s claim over quantity over quantity.

Now, this isn’t a full on criticism – the way Google (more on Google later) and the consumer have evolved (focus on Snapchat, BuzzFeed and in the future Virtual Reality) means that media owners (so the press) also have to evolve too. No longer can a transfer story be reported on and the published the following day in a morning paper. As soon as a transfer story happens, fans rush to Sky Sports news, whilst opening their phone and checking Twitter for instant news, before then moving to their tablet to check The Guardian’s app for live updates.

No longer is the fan a one device/publication native – football fans are now cross channel, cross device and are bombarded by information. Some see this as an exciting future, whereas others see this as danger to how future generations will consume and process information (users born after 1995 are reported to have an eight second attention span4 – so a platform like Snapchat [which some argue is a better reflection of how we communicate in real life with moments, which are disappear -rather than being reminded of a drunken stag do five years ago on Facebook every couple of months] sums up how information will be processed.

The user (I refer to “user” over “fan” due to the fact that football is a global business and news that is reported isn’t just of interest to traditional football fans) is at the centre of this change and shift, with newspaper sales plummeting (see next section) and a constant need for gossip (“the sidebar of shame” is now a muttered every morning at 09:15 up and down the country) – the way that information is researched and requested has shifted immensely. For the next example, which is a powerful one, I would like to focus on the demand for the current Manchester United captain – Wayne Rooney.

I am a fan of Rooney, despite the obvious decline of his powers at the age of 31, and always have been. His fantastic hattrick against Fenerbahce set the tone for the explosive career United’s number ten would have. The wonderful goals (Newcastle at home 2005), the trophies (two European cups and five Premier League titles) and the bad times (transfer request, broken metatarsal) are all part of the Wayne Rooney story – but what in the last twelve years have been the most in demand? Check Google Trends below:

Searches around “Wayne Rooney” peaked in September of 2010, which was due to a story published by The Mirror on Rooney “cheating on his wife with a prostitute”. The story was well documented, however – for all the brilliance of Wayne Rooney, there were more searches for his name around this period than the bicycle kick against Manchester City a few months later, that volley against Newcastle in 2005 or even winning the PFA Player of the Year award in 2009/10.

Focusing on The Daily Mail (I would use The Mirror, but they had a different website strategy at the time – with being an independent entity), the publication produced 41 stories in September 2010 compared to the 21 stories produced in February 2011 despite the fact Rooney only played three games in September 2010 and we witnessed that wonder strike against Manchester City in the February of 2011. The general rule is – more demand equals more stories equals more clicks equals more ad revenue.

The journalists sat around the table with Neville are all respected professionals, who have seen the industry change drastically since they first rolled up to Fleet Street. Henry Winter, who I have followed from his days at The Telegraph, FourFourTwo and now The Times – is an exceptional journalist. He writes about interesting topics and I enjoy his contributions on The Sunday Supplement – but even his embrace of social media took some time. Winter’s first few years on Twitter could be described as a man sitting in small room shouting random statements out of a window. The experienced journalist opted not to follow anyone nor respond to followers. As the importance of social media emerged, Winter’s approach obviously changed and began engaging. Sometimes the obvious things aren’t that clear cut at first and its takes time to see the evolution in full.

Digital media evolution…

Firstly, I would like to state that the quality of journalism hasn’t declined – in fact, I would suggest that it has got even better over the past few years. However, this quality is often lost in a myriad of content available to readers across multiple devices. Excluding the panel – the likes of Daniel Taylor, Mark Ogden and James Ducker are constantly producing thought provoking pieces and their content is consumed across both print and digital by the public. Having said that, newspaper sales are plummeting year on year due to the rise of digital over the past fifteen years:

Screenshot showing the decline in Newspaper sales since 2000

This shift has been so drastic, it forced The Independent to move to a digital only publication – selling its final copy in March of this year. The paper has taken an early step to what many offline publications will eventually do and move to a digital only setup. As much as I do love to sit down with the Sunday papers over a coffee, it is the same argument that Uber give to taxi drivers learning the knowledge – “What is the need for this in the era of technology?”. The Uber argument is an extremely sensitive one – and one that requires a great level of debate to fully grasp the argument son both sides – but ultimately, a new business model based on technology has shaken a traditional model to the very core. Ethical or not – Uber is now a way of life for many.

I was extremely lucky to be at a talk a few years ago by Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, regarding the state of print journalist and what his paper was doing to capture readers whilst maintaining its original tone of voice and continuing to stand for its values. The broadening out to the US cost some serious cash, whilst the adaptation of the paper into an digital format for tablets was going well. However, with the rise of publishers like BuzzFeed, Mashable and The Lad Bible, not to mention bloggers, traditional media need to try and compete for ad revenue.

The rise of bloggers or “influencers” as some media folk refer to them as is sometimes seen as a triumph for the little guy over the powerhouses. Others see influencers as having no credibility to discuss a specific subject and generally dismiss their offering. Michael Wolff, the veteran US author, put summed it up with “it isn’t politics that is being expressed here, it’s youth, all the more vigorously because social media means there is no longer a publishing hurdle maintained by the older gatekeepers.

I speak about this blog in a little more detail further down, but the first point [a triumph for the little guy] is extremely valid here. Take a look at the following screenshot taken from Google just over four years ago for the search term “Champions League draw 2012” [yes, we are going back a little bit for Champions League football!]:

Yes, a tiny blog was positioning first in Google for a very topical high demand search term (the draw was at that precise moment) beating the likes of The Guardian, and even UEFA. I may have not have had the fancy technology that UEFA had at their disposal [and interactive graphic with club logos that was updating constantly], nor was I offering a webcam to dance off against Sepp Blatter’s awkward Granddad dancing – I simply had a blog and an update button to provide instant updates as I saw them live on the TV. That is it. The website went down towards the end due to all the traffic that was being sent – but this is just a single aspect of why traditional newspapers have shifted their strategy to more content over quality content. The Robin van Persie story had a similar result.

Some papers do not even have a relationship with their digital counter part. The Mail and The Mail Online are seen as two separate entities, with the editor and chief of the former, Paul Dacre, labelling the website “”. This is obvious in either publications style, with the paper playing on the reader’s fears and encouraging hate, whilst the digital versions throws a bit of that in with some boobs on the right hand sidebar. The Mail Online converts a ridiculous amount of traffic from Google and is the most successful – in terms of traffic – in the UK [around 375 million users in November5according to SimilarWeb].

But at what price? The website that many describe as “their guilty pleasure” often looks to post content as quickly as it can [resulting grammatical errors and spelling mistakes] in order to achieve a top position in Google, with the anticipation of a high search demand. In some instances, they have stories lined up – even if they’re not true – to ensure that they obtain that traffic to fuel ad revenue. Take the case of the Amanda Knox trial – there are two outcomes; guilty or not guilty. The Mail Online decided to publish both stories, just to ensure that capture that traffic. True or not? Doesn’t matter – we’ll redirect the untrue URL afterwards to the correct one. There have been many inaccurate reports in newspapers – even before we were all on the world wide web – however, the speed that incorrect and fake [more on that later] news appears is rapid and spiralling out of control.

I was a consultant for a number of years to major footballing publication and helped to successful grow traffic through search, social and referral by positioning the brand as an expert that understands what fans want to read about. It was a great time as social hadn’t taken off at all and there was a great opportunity to start both Twitter and Facebook accounts into an unsaturated football market. The shift from offline to a digital focus was quite a rapid expansion, but I’m proud of the work that was carried out [improved traffic by over 900% in year one] whilst continuing to maintain the brand’s identify – not to simply chase the next big thing.

Although we have witnessed, and will continue to do so for many years to come, a significant shift – it really should be seen as an exciting revolution. The explosion of digital really does enrich our lives and connects us to moments that you would never have known existed twenty years ago. Whether it be Felix Baumgartner’s skydive with Red Bull or whether following Cristiano Ronaldo on Twitter or even close to home, real quality goals from Sunday League via Grass Roots Goals via Instagram. We are now connecting to more people than ever before.

One aspect that wasn’t discussed in great detail, although was mentioned, is the importance of headlines. A digital headline can often be misleading and is simply constructed to entice the user to click and be send through to the article. “Manchester United sign a new superstar striker from abroad…” as Dong Fangzhuo pulls up at Carrington. We see it all the time for injuries, repurposing of content from social media and of course – the transfer story.

Newspapers have quality journalists at the heart of their strategy. Good journalists know managers and agents and can look to publish an Exclusive. The rise of digital has seen the rise of ITKs – so your average Joe that has zero connections to any clubs, but speaks on social media like they are an authority within the world of football. If you predict enough (from reading newspaper gossip columns) – sooner or later, you might get one out of ten right. Some of these accounts/publishers have amassed a ridiculous amount of, somewhat naive, followers – simply by spouting nonsense. This is surely a fundamental issue as to why newspapers need to remain that authoritative tone of voice, rather than to simply chase anything that will drive traffic to the assets?

Technology & concepts…
The following is a quick overview of technology and concepts that relate to a number of points raised in this article.
Google – The game changer. The brand that media mogul Rupert Murdoch once labeled a “parasite” is ridiculously quick to index articles and return within the SERPs (search engine results pages). The Google News vertical is separate to the classic web search and a newspaper’s strategy relies on visibility and clicks through here.

So the next time Jose Mourinho looks to break the bank on a big money name and you turn to Google for an update – keep this in mind who is visible there! Google is constantly evolving and rolling out new features, for example in 2015 they reintroduced a Twitter feed within the results, whilst in the past year we’ve seen AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) become a critical part of Google’s offering and another example of a feature that forces publishers to embrace or be left behind.

Ad Blockers – Ad blockers rocked the advertising world to the very core and the technology is here to stay. With 24% 6 of UK users embracing the software, it is a serious problem for a publisher’s business model that relies on selling ads. Many publishers are even asking users to switch off their Ad blocking software or to whitelist the publication7 The IBT has communicated quite firmly to users that the content provided is free due to the ad revenue that is made from traffic, so users are asked to allow ads to run. The IBT isn’t the only publication doing this.

Mobile – The rise of mobile continues, with many of us changing our behaviour and consuming our news via a smaller screen. Google has even now moved to a mobile indexing8 – which means that a brand’s mobile offering will be seen as the primary content over desktop. There are also now far more searches conducted in Google via mobile globally than on desktop.

Fake News – Is an enormous problem, not just in football. After United drew 1-1 with Everton there was a vast amount of criticism towards Marouane Fellaini for giving away a penalty late in the game. One of the “banter” style millennial platform’s posted a image with a quote about the Belgian by former United captain, which read along the lines of “An injured Schweinsteiger is better than a fit Fellaini”. I have never seen a clip of this statement, nor could I find anything from a legitimate publication reporting it. Still, it was topical, resonated with the barrage of ill feeling toward him and received a load of likes! So a win for the publication!

Google and Facebook are actively looking to legitimise news by calling out fake sources.

Filter bubbles- A filter bubble is a concept to describe how users are only exposed to certain sources (or news), which contributes to how they view the world (through personalisation as well as initial choice). This can be applied to politics or football, but the thinking is that with the rise of social media – the younger generation is becoming increasingly isolated in views by only following people with similar views to them or to be served up with news catered for them (so personalisation).

Forbes journalist strategy – Forbes isn’t the only publication that is basing their model on journalists being paid based upon the traffic they drive to the website9 In this digital age, the model makes sense to adopt – but it again encourages journalists to be as quick as they can to post stories inline with demand. This also contributes to the quantity of content argument as more traffic pays the wages.

The blog…

So, to this blog. The Stretty Rant or – whatever you prefer – was started in November 2006, two days after United beat Portsmouth 3-0 at Old Trafford. I can honestly state, hand on heart, that the original purpose, created by myself and The Mancunian Red, was to have the “ultimate United resource” – consisting of opinion pieces, statistics, history, chants, a forum and a collection of results/scorers. Over the ten years, the website has been able to touch upon all features listed, with many being discarded over the years. To putit simply, it takes an enormous amount of dedication and resource to be able to deliver against all of this.

In the past three years, due to major lifestyle changes, I have personally found it extremely difficult to deliver against my own expectations of timely quality content – in this rapid fire digital world. I always wanted to try and do a least a single quality opinion piece (this article has taken me nearly five days to construct!) on a topic of interest from that week, whether it be a tactical article, a nostalgic piece or anything do going on in and about the club (for example – the safe standing debate). With the way things have evolved, which is what I believe Gary Neville was referring to, is that you need to publish your thoughts as quickly as possible – otherwise some other publication will beat you to it and encourage debate on that platform. More eyeballs, more ad revenue. I’m not complaining, this is just an observation of what is going on in front of us – but I do not have the editorial process in place to be able to compete.

You may argue, why would you want to compete? – i.e. repurposing a piece of content from Gary Neville’s Instagram of him secretly filming Jamie Carragher – which is a valid point. This isn’t the type of “news” or discussion that I would want to promote, although – I’m sure you’ll find some examples of posts like this over the years. The purpose of the blog isn’t to make money (obviously with the low levels of posts we do!), it is simply a platform to allow reds to discuss important issues, chants or read about legends of Old Trafford.

For me, the blog is priceless in terms of what it has given back. To be able to write about Eric Cantona, to speak with other knowledgeable reds about the legacy left by Sir Alex Ferguson and covering ridiculous moments – like Cristiano Ronaldo’s freekick against Portsmouth.

The highlight though was when we were asked to play at Old Trafford in 2013 alongside Denis Irwin and Andy Cole against a team consisting of Dion Dublin and, ironically, Gary Neville. How can any red not feel that this is the pinnacle? To line up in a stadium you could only dream about playing at alongside two treble winners and actually get on the scoresheet? This is, for me personally, a measure of success and happiness from something that was started as a resource for United fans.

Now, you will see other bloggers/influencers (whatever you want to call them) that are a little bit up their own arse, love the attention and will simply post for a reaction – either good or bad. This type of approach has never interested me and I steer clear of any publication where you can quite clearly see another agenda (i.e. self promotion). There are numerous opportunities available to a website owner from Facebook Live to Podcasts/vodcasts to Apple News to Snapchat. In my day job – I would be recommending this (if applicable) to brands that I work with – but for the blog? Don’t worry – you won’t see me presenting a vodcast commenting on the previous game in my pants anytime soon.

I feel it is important to state the original purpose of the blog as it wasn’t to jump on the digital bandwagon to try and capitalise on the growing demand. You will have seen blogging networks that setup around the same time that have now grown into enormous beasts. Maybe naively, the purpose of the blog is still not make money (sure, we get offers and run some ads) – but I would prefer to see an interesting debate, which sadly has been lacking in recent seasons (due to lifestyle shift). However, this view will be in the minority and, as highlighted earlier on this article – publishers will be using social listening to identify key stories that could drive demand through social/search – regardless of the integrity of the story. Why research for a few weeks (with exclusive interviews) into how Anthony Martial arrived at Old Trafford, and scored that wonder goal, from a small southern suburb of Paris rather than focus on his private life and breakup of his young marriage. More content equals more hits equals more ad revenue.

The future poses more and more problems to newspapers and traditional media owners and although some (The Telegraph for example) are offering a premium service for users to consume quality content over what is readily available through Google/Facebook. It is debatable how long this type of offering will last. We see the issues Sky Sports and BT (fans are switching off the TV10 are having with the likes of free, if illegal, services such as Kodi and if users are able to find premium content elsewhere, then why bother signing up to pay at all? Brands are spending more and more money with Google/Facebook (WPP – the biggest advertising agency in the world – have spent “in excess of $7bn” this year11 rather than with the like of The Guardian, The Independent and The Sun. This is the world of today and only we as the consumer of content make a difference.

Gary Neville was correct – there is too much content that sacrifices quality. However, quality content is still being produced – but might not be as visible, due to the volumes, as it should be.

Footnotes   [ + ]

5. according to SimilarWeb

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