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How The Telegraph discovered the future of football journalism via Twitter
When Project Babb launched in the run-up to this year’s World Cup, it became the home of alternative, irreverent football journalism. The…
When Project Babb launched in the run-up to this year’s World Cup, it became the home of alternative, irreverent football journalism. The site was created by The Telegraph as a stream of sharable stories written by and for fans who love football and live on the internet. I met with Thom Gibbs, deputy digital sport editor at The Telegraph and head of the Project Babb team, to discuss how football has become the sport of the internet age.
By Sorcha Daly, Associate, Wilson Fletcher
When Project Babb launched in the run-up to this year’s World Cup, it became the home of alternative, irreverent football journalism. The site was created by The Telegraph as a stream of sharable stories written by and for fans who love football and live on the internet. Having been a huge success during the World Cup, Babb was extended and now runs throughout the football season as the destination for anyone looking for a sideways glance at the sport. I met with Thom Gibbs, deputy digital sport editor at The Telegraph and head of the Project Babb team, to discuss how football has become the sport of the internet age.
Can you tell me how Babb came about?
A big part of the genesis of the idea was wanting to do something that wasn’t traditionally ‘Telegraph’.We have a challenge common to a lot of big traditional news organisations which is that our readership is ageing and we want to attract new readers who might not have considered us before, and open ourselves up to new audiences on the web. Babb allows us to do things in a very different way tonally than we had done before. We recruited through Twitter and we were up and running about five or six weeks before the World Cup. It was originally planned to run just for the World Cup, but we’ve extended it and it’s still a huge success today.
It’s interesting that you recruited through Twitter. How did you go about that?
We tweeted to say we were launching an exciting new football project through our Telegraph and personal accounts and asked our journalists with big followings to do the same. The three people we ended up recruiting were all people with followings of their own on Twitter, who were familiar to me by what they were doing online. None of them are journalists, which is what we wanted. We have people from a Twitter background and a comedy writing background, which is very unusual for the Telegraph
There seems to be an appetite for more writing that’s about the nuts and bolts of football matches. What we’ve found to be really successful are pieces about tactics, when we try and deconstruct a game and give a mix of actual analysis with humour.
How much has your day-to-day job changed now that you’re writing for a digital audience?
The main difference about working on Babb is that we’re not a news source — we deliberately set that out from the beginning. Getting away from that responsibility to report day-to-day news allows you to cast your net wider and think about doing things in a different way. It gives you license to spend a lot more time on topics that wouldn’t be a priority for the main site. Video games is a good example of that — not something that would get covered much on the main site but quite a key, popular thing for Babb because we have a younger audience and it works well within our format of lots of pictures, gifs and things like that, which are more at home on Babb than the main site.
What about the writing style itself?
The overall tone is different because of the context of Babb — the design is quite brash, it’s very lightweight, and it was important that as a new thing, we gave it a personality. We worked hard on our tone and we were very keen not to stray into banter land, but at the same time not to be too uptight or po-faced. It’s quite casual and informal but it has a bit of an edge to it. I always like it when it reads like a forum, when you’re not just communicating with bon mots but might also use a gif or a funny unrelated picture from The Simpsons or something.
Beyond Babb, what would you say are the trends in the way that people talk about football and football journalism?
It’s unrecognisable to the way it was even ten years ago because of the internet. I read an interesting piece about American sport that said that in the age of the radio, baseball was the big sport because it’s quite slow and translated well to the radio, but when TVs came in, Americans turned to American Football more and more. Now that you can watch any football league at any time in quite understandable chunks very easily online, football, soccer, is getting bigger in America. It’s this internet-age sport, in a way that wasn’t possible ten years ago.
People can have a reasonable opinion about Atlético Madrid’s second-choice left-back because of the way that football is covered now, not only through increased coverage on Sky for Champions League nights, but also because you can stream anything you like. There are constant battles to shut that down but the people who want to seek it out have the access to it. So it means that, say, at The World Cup in 2002 there were people coming onto the scene that even if you knew about football you didn’t necessarily know about — like El Hadji Diouf against France in the opening game when everyone was like ‘who is this guy? But there isn’t really that element of surprise any more about football. People emerged at the World Cup this year, but they were already quite familiar characters like James Rodriguez, and that’s largely because of the internet.
I think the internet has diversified the conversations you can have about football as well. You especially see it on Twitter. There are groups of people for whom the main way of engaging with football is by abusing other fans, there are people who really know their tactics, there’s a subset of people who just relate to it through playing video games, then there’s a sort of decreasing importance in people who actually go and watch the games. There are lots of different strata of people now enjoying football in lots of different ways and it’s only made easier for them by the internet.
Which footballer from history do you wish could be around now, at their peak, active on Twitter?
As a kid I would’ve loved to have read the tweets of Les Ferdinand just because he was my hero, although I don’t think they would have been particularly interesting. I think Garrincha would be quite good value. I’d have to look up exactly how many different children he had with how many different women.
Which football event from history would you love to have covered on Babb?
One of the things that’s surprised us doing Babb is that there seems to be an appetite for more writing that’s about the nuts and bolts of football matches. There is plenty of news and reports of games, but apart from the slightly nerdy tactical blogs which are delightful and informative but a little bit impenetrable at times, what we’ve found to be really successful are pieces about tactics, when we try and deconstruct a game and give a mix of actual analysis with humour. One game from recent history that really sticks out was the 8–2 a few years ago, when Manchester United beat Arsenal. It was just this wonderful shambles. I think football is at it’s most exciting when you see scores like that on your phone having not been watching the game, and you think ‘what on earth has happened there?’.
How important do you think data will be for the future of football journalism?
Quite important. I think at the moment, as people get savvier about it, it’s a way to settle arguments a lot of the time. I think we’re seeing very gentle infant steps in trying to deploy it in journalism. I think we’re still at a stage where a lot of people aren’t really realising that you need to pick out your stats carefully to best make your point. There are a few people doing that really well — we have Jonathan Liew here who does ‘Investigates’ every week where he does some research himself and also gets data from Opta to make a proper case for something. Sean Ingle from The Guardian also does really savvy stuff with stats, but in both of their cases it’s about picking out very specific things to make a broader point.
I’m a little bit reticent about people who are trying to model football the way that Nate Silver did on FiveThirtyEight, proclaiming that Brazil would win the World Cup. This might be proved to be really naive in 20 years, but I just think football is too unpredictable to process in the same way that you can with lots of American sports. Baseball is incredibly complicated and a lot can happen, but it consists of maybe about 50 repeated actions again and again and again. The chances of weird stuff happening with football are so much greater. I think people writing about it need to be careful about putting too much faith in data at times because there are quite big intangibles at work within football as well. When a team is having a bad run it’s so hard to know and pinpoint at times what’s going wrong, and data will often tell you a story and help tell you it in a different way, but as it stands it doesn’t really get to the heart of why certain things are happening. It’s incredibly useful for putting something concrete behind what you feel and what you’ve observed, but has a long way to go in how that’s being deployed.
Football just has a habit of odd stuff happening, like Pepe Reina letting in a goal at Sunderland for Liverpool because the ball hit a beach ball that had been thrown onto the pitch. Cricket is a supremely psychological sport, but with football you can have a brilliant player come into a team and it just not work for them. Diego Forlan was very highly regarded when he came to Manchester United, but he was a bit of a joke here and then left and went on to have an incredible career. There are just such odd intangibles going on in football that I think a certain amount of space has to be taken up by addressing that chaos in football that perhaps isn’t evident in another sport like tennis, where you’re dealing with individuals and a set of things you do again and again.
I wonder what you’re trying to capture really, when you take this big chaotic thing, as you describe the football match. What is it that good journalism can sum up and deliver and package? Is it making sense of this chaotic game?
I think sometimes you need someone to hold your hand through the chaos — we have Henry Winter here who is just the absolute best in the business for match reports of eventful games. He sees so much and he gets so much in. For every major eventful game he’ll somehow weave in what the crowd was singing, and he’ll pick out players that you didn’t even notice then you’ll see it again and think yes, that was just really well observed. There are people who can spot things that you might miss, even if you’ve been watching football for 25 years, and that’s a real talent. There’s also a way to express that which actually benefits the reader and also doesn’t alienate them by making it inaccessible which is a challenge. Part of the job of journalism is to inform, and part of that for us on Babb is about being aware of a much wider set of competitions, games, leagues and YouTube channels than our readers have time to see and choosing the very best of that, then packaging it in a way that makes it accessible for people.