They who shout loudest: an onlooker with a megaphone at the Tour de France, 2013. Photo: Getty
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Social media is important for journos but let’s keep things in proportion

A tiny online minority has a disproportionately loud voice. It is important to remember the weak correlation between the things we know some readers think and what readers, in totality, really think. 

Journalists now face constant temptation by numbers. Each piece offers a tantalising glimpse of their popularity: how many comments, Facebook likes and tweets does it garner? The illness is neediness, the prescription is data and the (flawed) assumption is that numbers correlate with what matters.

In December 2012, the Guardian revealed two facts about its online community. In isolation, neither sounds particularly surprising. However, taken together, they explain how misleading it is crudely to measure online interaction. First, the newspaper website’s audited audience for the previous month was 70.5 million unique users. Second, the paper revealed that its site “publishes around 600,000 comments a month, with 2,600 people posting more than 40 comments a month”.

Martin Belam, digital editor at the Trinity Mirror group, crunched the numbers and made a startling calculation. If 2,600 people post at least 40 comments each, then their total must be more than 104,000, which means that a maximum of 496,000 comments are written by everyone else. In other words, at least 20 per cent of the comments on the website each month come from just 0.0037 per cent of the Guardian’s declared monthly audience.

A tiny minority has a disproportionately loud voice. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But it is important to remember the weak correlation between the things we know some readers think and what readers, in totality, really think. If we fail to distinguish between the two, a peculiar kind of distortion seeps into the news.

While covering a controversial news story, journalists will often use social media to monitor how their readers (in reality, a tiny minority of their readers) think they are handling the events. This is what happened during the sacking of Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team. It was no surprise that a significant number of social media users violently opposed Pietersen’s removal. That is understandable: he is the most thrilling and talented player of his generation. There is a danger, however, especially as journalists cultivate the number and satisfaction of their social media devotees, that the followers will begin to lead.

Yet Pietersen’s vociferous Twitter advocates, who cling to the idea that his sacking was the result of a bizarre Machiavellian plot, are not representative of the entire community of England fans. Far from it. For every tweeter who stabs the word “Disgrace!” into his smartphone, a thousand other cricket fans could quietly be saying, “It’s perfectly understandable,” over the breakfast table without anyone noticing. We never hear the whole national conversation, merely the shouting outside the bar at closing time.

When I used to write a weekly newspaper column, the sports editor told me that fans of one particular football club were highly disciplined in hounding critical journalists. I criticised anyway and awoke to find a series of organised threads under my column, submitted minutes after the piece had been posted, exactly as my editor had predicted.

It is often assumed that the quantifiable nature of digital media encourages sensationalism. It is true that a misleading headline or simplistic argument can generate a temporary (and easily measured) fuss. But a parallel trend runs alongside web-orientated populism: the timidity of not wanting to offend a tiny minority of readers who are keen to express their outrage. Populism and fearfulness, in their different ways, are both manifestations of the same herd mentality.

Let me make the counter-argument. The vast majority of readers do not comment on articles or write to journalists using Twitter. Instead, these people read, consider the arguments and reach their own conclusions, without leaving much of a digital footprint. That it is extremely difficult – impossible, even – to decipher what they believe does not mean they do not exist. Indeed, they are often exactly the people who may consider changing their minds. The silent majority, sceptical and open to new arguments, is the very audience journalists should try to reach.

I have many reasons to be grateful to social media. Readers frequently direct me to articles and resources that help me to develop my ideas. Social media has enhanced my life and, I hope, my work. But gratefulness does not blind me to another truth: however many people comment on articles or attend literary festivals and book signings, I will never meet or hear from the vast majority of my readers. They will continue to judge, weigh and assess – without me ever hearing their conclusions. All of this is a modern version of the problem identified by Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

In a different context, as a professional cricketer, I witnessed how that fallacy crept into management thinking. During a tedious, overcomplicated fitness test, a pioneering cricket coach took me aside. “I practically invented all this and now look!” he lamented. “When I encouraged fitness testing, it was because fitness was a clear means of improving performance. Now coaches do so much of it because it’s easy.” His point was that improving technique requires great judgement and skill, yet it can’t be measured or counted. Improving bodies, on the other hand, can be captured on a spreadsheet. Dodging the harder challenges, managers found more things to measure, congratulating themselves on “proven and scientific progress” as they did so.

Writers are now adjusting to hearing much more from their readers. That is to be celebrated and encouraged, not to be feared or pandered to – still less counted. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era