Where have all the racing journalists gone?
With writers being laid off, we could help by giving newspapers some top-class midweek sport
Early last month, I attended the racing writers’ annual lunch in London. A couple of decades ago, it was a tremendous booze-up, and it took days to get home. Those shenanigans were a distant memory as I scanned the room trying to identify the writers among their guests. But many have gone; some to their grave, but most to the dole queue.
The memory of that disappointment was rudely awakened when a friend rang me, incandescent with rage. The target of his wrath was another newspaper axing its racing correspondent.
What was revealed to me in that conversation was that most generally intelligent, welleducated individuals between the age of 40 and 60 that I know do not have a clue as to what damage the internet is doing to trusted media outlets that they have always taken for granted.
The tech giants take 87 per cent of our digital advertising revenue, which means other publishers have to share the remainder to sustain journalism. That equates to around £2billion of advertising lost by the newspaper industry over the past decade, according to a Department for Culture, Media and Sport report last April.
One could argue that what comes around, goes around; that modern technology is bound to change the landscape. But the landscape should be a level playing field, and it is not.
Newspapers may not always get their facts completely right, but they do have to carry the significant financial burden of trying to do so. Not so the tech giants, who carry out the function of being publishers and yet accept none of the responsibilities; they seem to invest next to nothing in journalism and, worse still, effectively steal it. And they facilitate the spread of fake news and propaganda on their platforms that are funded directly, according to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, by advertising revenues.
So, every time they swallow up advertising revenue from newspapers, do not be surprised that those publications have to cut costs and employ fewer journalists. The loss of golf and racing correspondents is just the beginning, so my friends need to prepare themselves for the day when their trusted newspaper no longer appears in print at all.
Unfortunately, to halt this decline, racing has done little to preserve its presence on the sports pages. Cramming all its best races outside the few midweek festivals into Saturday fixtures means that, Monday to Friday, newspapers have precious little top-class action to stir the heart rates of sports editors.
This point was well articulated by Julian Muscat last week; another first-class journalist who now finds refuge on the pages of the specialist Racing Post, rather than a generic national newspaper.
An obvious solution to stem the loss of racing’s traction would be to move one top-quality fixture from every Saturday to a Wednesday.
Fans could factor a midweek trip to the races into their diaries and newspapers would have something to publish on Wednesdays and Thursdays other than a threadbare glance forwards to the weekend.
Such an undertaking is not as easy as it sounds – racecourses tend to race when it suits them, not the sport in general. But there are central financial pulleys and levers that can be deployed.
For the racecourses, moving a big fixture will initially feel like a backward step, as far as attracting racegoers is concerned. So, the industry probably has to back it financially. After all, a standout Wednesday fixture of high quality will surely attract more betting turnover than it would do when swamped by similar meetings on a Saturday. Why not start with the Derby going back to Wednesday?
However, as is so often the case with racing, the problem is not a lack of good ideas, but the antagonism that prevents all parties pulling together.
In the limelight: A Wednesday Derby at Epsom would have the stage to itself