Tell me why … nobody seems to care whether what they read is true?

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In the second instalment of a new weekly Monday column, Tell Me Why, the Independent’s brilliant man in the north-west, Ian Herbert, asks whether readers actually care any more whether what they are reading is true. In a world of churnalism, SEO-dictated content and made-up nonsense that becomes ‘fact’ by dint of being re-Tweeted enough times, what exactly do discerning readers of sports journalism want? And does it matter?

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By Ian Herbert

3 December 2012

The division between fact and fiction has been on my mind for weeks, ever since I wrote about a spoof, invented character called Duncan Jenkins who masqueraded as a breathless, hopeless wannabe journalist.

The character was so excellent – correction: his creator Sean Cummins, was so excellent – that goal.com enlisted him to write about this summer’s Euros.

“I am still perspiring to be a full time journo, so my coverage hinges entirely on whether my mam will let me watch the match on telly,” he wrote. Then found people responding wholeheartedly and earnestly with his football analysis, and slating his grammar.

But Duncan is only the start of it. Out here in the virtual world, where all the content is free and page views are king for the purveyors of information and for the advertisers they seek, some people are getting extremely focussed on eyeballs.

If ‘The 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes of All Time’ amasses 1.4 million views, then why not offer more of the same? What about ’25 Wardrobe Malfunctions in Sport’ or ‘The 20 Biggest Criers in Sport’. They’re all out there on Bleacher Report and no-one’s pulling a face. Certainly not Turner Broadcasting, who in August bought the website for an estimated $200m.

Bleacher, which floods the internet with 800 articles a day, written by 2,000 contributors, attracted 14.2m users in August. It is one of the three most viewed sports websites in the United States and that has enabled it to pocket a reported $40m advertising revenue a year.

Its modus operandi is explained in a devastatingly – terrifyingly – good piece by Joe Eskenazi of San Francisco Weekly, which examines how Bleacher harnesses the energies of thousands of young sports nuts and wannabe journalists (real wannabes, not invented ones) to churn stuff for them.

A lot of the writing’s rubbish but that doesn’t matter. It’s all about getting those pieces right to the top of Google’s search engines and Bleacher’s assiduous use of search engine optimisation (SEO) enables them to do that.

The company employs an entire analytics team, scouring reams and reams of data to establish who wants to reads what and when. It’s made-to-order news, written on subjects people are searching for. Or, “reverse engineering content,” as Eskenazi calls it.

A former editor of the site tells him: “The analytics team basically says, ‘Hey, we think this is going to be trending – these eight to 10 terms will be trending in the next couple of days. We say thank you and we as editors come up with the headlines and pass those onto the writers to write the content.”

The data crunchers also calculate the best time to post certain stories. The headline is king and it clearly doesn’t matter what lies within.

Take Bleacher’s ‘Four things we learned about Manchester United at the Madejski Stadium’ – written with the site’s ubiquitous ‘Slideshow’ format. The four lessons were 1. Nicky Shorey’s set pieces were good. 2. Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand weren’t good enough. 3. United have two good strikers 4. Hal-Robson Kanu has potential.

Disappointed? Don’t worry – before you’ve had time to feel let down you’re being linked through to another slideshow on ‘Every Premier League team’s most electrifying player.’

Bleacher declined to answer Eskenazi’s questions and though they launched a wordy counter-attack after his piece had been published, very little factual evidence was produced to counter his claims.

Duncan Jenkins: Ledge

It’s clear that a vast percentage of Bleacher’s writers are unpaid, just as Eskenazi said they were. And Bleacher actually had to amend its counter-attack to admit that Eskenazi was right when he said you get a free sweatshirt when you reach Bleacher ‘Chief Writer’ status. You don’t get a Bleacher hoodie until you’re a Featured Columnist. I got a mug off The Independent, once.

As their website shows, Bleacher don’t break news – they just pounce on other people’s news and make stories and slideshows out of it, often delivering a twist which sends it flying across that narrow line from fact into fiction. Like this morning: “Ferguson touts Mourinho as Man United material.” Ferguson has actually just told ITV4 that Jose Mourinho could manage anywhere.

Bleacher tells us he has “hinted to the press that he would like Jose Mourinho to succeed him at Old Trafford.” But who cares about artistic licence?

With 3,200 reads and rising on the Ferguson piece, Bleacher aren’t complaining. The lie is half way around the world before the truth can get its clothes on, as the saying goes. This is why Ferguson will no longer speak to any media without the TV cameras rolling. He thinks his words will be distorted. And they will.

Sometimes you don’t even have to speak to be misrepresented. Take the case of Rafa Benitez, who, after becoming Chelsea manager, was widely quoted as having said this in 2007: “Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players. Every manager wants to coach a big team. But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool. No matter what.”

Benitez was Liverpool manager in 2007, so how could he have called them his ‘former club’ back then? Because the quote was fabricated.

This website established that the source of it was a 15-year-old tweeter from the Czech Republic who was a fan of Benitez, felt betrayed by his appointment at Chelsea and decided to cause him some trouble. The lad’s Twitter photo is still a cartoon of his hero Benitez.

Challenged on how he tweeted the quotes, he came clean. “I feel like I did something real bad. Wow,” he tweeted.

When the quotes were put to Benitez he replied: “I don’t remember some of the comments. But I will say, if I said this or that, you have to analyse the context.”

Which was generous of him, considering he never said the thing in the first place.

It’s not all bad. There’s evidence that readers do want more and that they’re looking for something to break them out of the slough of nonsense. The Independent’s ‘most viewed’ list last week showed the following for my colleague Jack Pitt-Brooke’s great piece on Saints’ Rickie Lambert and Norwich’s Grant Holt, who once played for Rochdale together.

Tom English’s piece about Anthony Stokes, in this weekend’s Scotland on Sunday, transcends all this garbage.

But the space for that kind of stuff is about to diminish exponentially, once again. Next month encroaches, the window will swing open and you have to expect that it will be bedlam. Everyone wants the transfer stories. They power you up the ‘most read’ and Twitter rankings.

It seems logical to work on the lines that they actually need to be genuinely possible before reporting them, rather than say that Cristiano’s coming back. That strategy wouldn’t please Bleacher, who are presently reporting “Arsenal transfer news Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wilfried Zaha and Edin Dzeko.”

So what do you say? Time to go for Bleacher analytics and accept that a five per cent chance of a signing happening is good enough to print? Is water-cooler fodder what actually counts? There are very many people who would say that the truth of such stories just doesn’t matter. Fact or fiction? Earth or la-la land? Who knows.

Duncan’s not the only perspiring journalist out here.

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Ian Herbert is a sports correspondent for The Independent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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