THE BIG ISSUE: #26

By STEVE MASCORD

YOUR correspondent first encountered Steve Ricketts some 30 years ago reading this very magazine.

A player had claimed in an earlier article that the Courier-Mail journalist had misquoted him and was “off my Christmas card list”. Steve responded in the letters pages that he could prove the contentious comments had been made and added “the next Chrismas card I get from a player will be the first”.

This made a big impact on a young me, still a teenager and hoping to make a living as a rugby league writer.

It illustrated that a) you don’t get into this line of work to make friends with players and b) people will deny things at times to cover their backsides.

Last Friday, Steve covered his last game of rugby league at Suncorp Stadium after accepting redundancy. There was a mock-up back page of the paper, a tradition in journalism which – sadly – is getting more of an airing right now than ever.

In fact, it seems sometimes there are more of these farewell mock-ups being printed than actual papers.

Last week we also learned that Greg Prichard, most recently of the Sydney Morning Herald, would be riding off into the sunset. Greg was another man who at his peak was extremely competitive, and therefore pushed his rivals to be at their best as well.

Now, normally I wouldn’t be devoting a column to fellow journalists. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t care. But the best-received Big Issue of the year so far, I would say, was about the media and about how closed NRL clubs had become.

Since then, thankfully, we’ve had new media guidelines introduced. These have been good for some sections of the media and at some clubs, while there’ve been teething problems elsewhere.

They’re a step in the right direction.

But there are changes in the way the game is being covered that have nothing to do with clubs and the departure of these two respected reporters highlights some of them.

As newspaper budgets get tighter, reporters don’t travel anymore. A game in Melbourne will be covered exclusively by local reporters. They will either have to write a separate story for the News Limited or Fairfax paper in the city of the visiting team, or a match report focusing on that team will be cobbled together in the office.

The sum result of this is that you find out less than you did before.

In round 23, Warriors coach Brian McClennan said after a heavy loss to North Queensland that he was, basically, bracing himself for the sack.

Because there was not one New Zealand reporter at the game, these comments went grossly under reported. People in New Zealand pretty much never found out about them.

If there’s one thing declining newspapers won’t cover, it’s the decline of newspapers. But these are the facts. Fairfax’s Queensland based sportswriter is not allowed to even write match reports for night games- because live blogs get more hits (yes, that’s how I got a start doing Queensland games for them).

Another development, also a result of belt-tightening, is copy sharing.

Only a year or so back, the Courier-Mail would compete with the Gold Coast Bulletin and the Sydney Morning Herald would go up against the Canberra Times for stories, including rugby league yarns. Now, papers give stories to publications (within the same media group) who used to be their competition.

If reporters aren’t competing with each other for stories, then you find out less. Look at New Zealand, where the only competition in each market is on Sunday and that’s the day that 90 per cent of the ball-tearing yarns are published.

Sure, competition has moved online and breaking things on Twitter is a new battleground – but no-one has figured out how to make money out of that yet.

The departure of Greg and Steve remove another link with the days when every reporter, every day, could rank his performance against his direct rivals in a simple, unambiguous way. I remember Greg saying the week of the 1997 Super League grand final, when he was at the Australian: “I’m running a distant third so far. I’d better pull my finger out.”

I believe journalism will eventually regain its bankability. The internet hasn’t robbed it of its commercial value – putting the first ad on a page 150 years ago did that. A basic component of democracy should not have to rely on advertising – it should have always been a public utility.

But it’s going to take a cataclysmic event – like a patently corrupt government that comes to power because there is no-one left to scrutinise them – for people to realise this and for journalism to be properly funded again.

In the meantime, Steve, where do I send that Christmas card?

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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