20// Trail Running has an issue with Journalism
On the lack of desire for, and difficulties in producing, trail running journalism
It’s been a minute!
Back with an essay. It’s longer than usual, but it contains snippets from three interviews with some of trail running media’s luminaries and it strikes at the heart of one of the core issues in trail running media - what types of coverage do fans of the sport value?
Hope you enjoy,
After the furore over High Lonesome’s stance against UTMB died down, Drew Dawson wrote an article for Trail Runner that gave both sides of the story. Michel Poletti, co-founder of UTMB, gave a brief response to High Lonesome’s position that was in parts expected (It’s hard to make a decision quickly when you’re a global organisation) and revelatory (Michel Poletti hadn’t heard of nonbinary athletes until last year).
The thing is, few people read that piece. The article had less than 2,000 views in January, a tiny number compared to the 71,668 that read about Camille Heron’s training strategy. It’s not just Drew’s in-depth article that had a low readership. According to Zoe Rom, Editor of Trail Runner, the more issue based journalism pieces that give context to the big stories in our sport, that Trail Runner has published a lot of recently, gather “middling traffic at best”. This sentiment was shared by both Amy Clark, Editor of Ultrarunning magazine, and Alberto Jorquara, freelance journalist and general secretary of Pro Trail Runners Association, who both agreed that the sport needs to cover these issues, but there simply wasn’t enough demand to cover the cost of in-depth journalism.
As trail running professionalises and the balance of power becomes increasingly contested between brands, race organisations and athletes, journalism is typically the bulwark that reports on these issues, gives context and finds truth behind the unverified tweetstorms and hot takes. However with few people reading these articles it becomes hard for publications to justify investing in journalism. What does it mean for trail running If our media ecosystem is filled with single perspective media and service-driven articles ahead of issue based journalism?
Amy Clark believes our preference for service journalism (content that’s made to serve an audience need, in running’s case it’s the ‘how to run faster’ genre) stems from Runner’s World. Runner’s World focuses on (and still does) writing articles that readers believed would make them better runners. Whether that was training advice, nutrition or interviews with athletes, the core premise was if you read Runner’s World you will be become a faster runner. It’s the same formula Amy use’s when thinking about what articles to publish “what do I want to give to my readers? What do I want to do? What's my end goal? and that is to inspire them, to educate them, and to keep them motivated to keep running”.
This audience first model had an easy transition into the dawn of ad-driven digital media. Publishers realised that the cheapest way to generate impressions for their advertisers was by catering to typical questions their audience were asking Google, and this time they could see the results in real-time. This meant the audience-first model became the advertiser-first model, under the guise of continuing to support their valued visitors. For over a decade this has been the dominant business model, forever optimising for the Google algorithm hoping that it will pay dividends, even if it means balancing the fate of your publication on another company’s technology.
Meanwhile sports journalism followed a similar pattern, but has begun to be squeezed into a narrower role. The bulk of the sports journalist’s work is to report the what, where and when – the scores and fixtures of the sporting events, with the more experienced reporters delivering the in-depth ‘why’ stories that give context to the sport. As the digital media era revealed the high volume of traffic that event based reporting would deliver, many sports publications began to focus on writing about the fixtures, less about the context.
These changes were partially ad-driven, but also were to accommodate the media consumption habits of sports fans – the majority of sports fans are only interested in the events, not the bigger picture. Only the dedicated want to know the ins-and-outs of a sport. Media organisations then have to balance their output to accommodate the full spectrum of fans – dedicate more resources to the fixtures, some to the context setting pieces.
Along came social media and anyone with a phone became a reporter and athletes became their own media outlets. The growth of podcasting in sports, giving anyone the space to interview athletes, further drove the nail into the sports journalist’s coffin.
As such, sports journalism has consequently been caught in a bind that it is yet to escape. If sports fans know the results instantaneously from social media, there isn’t a need to go to a publication’s website to read about the same results. When athletes are delivering opinions that have more cultural resonance than a news organisation directly to their fans, journalists are no longer needed to be the ‘voice of the athlete’. If the value of a journalist is not to report on events, and few people care about issue-based journalism, what is the value of a sports journalist?
So we come to trail running, whose sports media maturation has been largely driven by passionate individuals rather than large media publications. For a long time, the trail running media ecosystem has been largely single source, non-factchecked media, ranging from athlete blogs to passionate fan podcasts. The sport’s relatively small size has deterred news organisations from covering the sport, outside of the outlandish FKTs and inhuman feats of endurance that cover the ‘amaze me’ section of their weekly content plans. Additionally since the fandom around trail running is small, the audience for the traditional ‘why’ pieces of sports journalism can seem inadequate for most large publications to invest in. Consequently few experienced journalists have ventured into covering the sport, leaving it up to a small number to lead the charge on writing balanced articles about the bigger issues in the sport, even though few people will read it.
For current journalists in trail running, such as Albert Jorquara and Zoe Rom, the importance of journalism to the community trumps readership numbers. Albert’s journey into writing more journalistic pieces started when he realised he could bring more value to the culture by better using his storytelling abilities. He used the analogy of a chef entering a new town and wanting to make a contribution to its inhabitants to describe his move from writing about trail running races to issue based pieces. “Imagine that you arrive to a new city and there are no restaurants. You want to help that community and at the beginning, you need to create a fast food restaurant, you know, because there is nothing. So let's start with this, it's simple.” Albert said in a voice note. “But then after some years there are like ten fast food restaurants. So why would you keep doing the same as the others? Why don't you help the community by creating something that is different, and maybe it's better food, even if you don't have many clients”. His writing became less about numbers and more about building the community.
Similarly, Zoe sees journalism’s value as its ability to diversify the voices heard in trail running and provide fans with the opportunity to hear both sides of a story. “I have concerns that sometimes that in our media space there is over representation of single perspective non-factchecked media” Zoe said in an interview “it's pretty dominated by people with a certain identity. And you can say whatever you want. When you're just listening to something, you don't even have time to stop and slow down and fact check…I think that if everything that you're consuming only has one perspective, even if it's like a challenging perspective, I just I have concerns about the sort of media echo chamber that creates”. On the other hand, Zoe believes journalism can bring more balance to the discussion “That kind of reporting is so important for our sport as it grows, and making sure that we have multiple voices and perspectives, and people who disagree, so that we can really show a dynamic conversation and give our readers the information they need to draw their own conclusions about complicated topics and issues.”
Intrinsic in the motivation for journalists in trail running is the need make sure the sport grows with the right values. In our interview Zoe confessed that there is always a pressure to reach certain KPIs on traffic and that if she just wanted to crush on that, she would just ‘write something about Killian or Courtney’ where there is a ‘bottomless appetite’ for that kind of content. It’s quick, easy and meets the needs of a modern digital media company. Whereas even though an article on gender equity in trail running may take several weeks and underperform in traffic, It’s part of Trail Runner’s core values to be writing deeply reported pieces on trail running and Zoe feels there’s an obligation to the community to write about these issues. Albert agreed, mentioning that journalists and the media have a responsibility to uphold certain values and be conscientious about what they write about. Speaking about himself, he was concerned about the consequences of promoting trail running without talking about the values of the sport “I thought that maybe by growing the sport so much I was contributing to some kind of bad future for the sport, because if it grows, but it doesn't grow in the good direction, then we may have a problem. So I could be contributing to something that in the future we could regret”.
Few people would argue against the value of bringing in diverse voices, presenting both sides to a story and upholding the values of a sport, but the issue remains that the majority of trail running’s fan base currently does not invest their time or money into supporting this type of journalism.
However, what the 2,000 people that read Drew’s article on High Lonesome shows, is that there is an audience for journalism in this sport, it’s just not enough people for an ad supported business model. We’re fortunate in trail running that Trailrunner is partly subscription funded, providing Zoe enough resources to currently sustain writing about more than races. Equally, we’re blessed in running to have a mix of independent media companies, Like the Wind for example, that reckons with bigger issues in the sport, whilst retaining some journalistic independence from advertiser’s interests.
At the heart of Drew’s article was a discussion over the preservation of certain values in our sport, of what we should fight for and against. The issues facing sports journalism are bigger than trail running but raise a similar debate to Drew’s piece – what do we value and what does that say about our sport?
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Remember when a magazine arrived in the mail, paid for with your subscription? You're dating yourself if you do.
Then programmatic advertising was a game-changer, turning advertising into the raison-d'etre for online media, calculating ad dollars in milliseconds instead of months for print publications.
But the cost/CPM was astonishingly low, turning journalism into a churn-fest of click-bait.
Then the same digital technology made affiliate marketing the next big thing. So we ended up being force-fed a constant stream of brainless "Gear Our Editors Loved" psuedo-articles.
Now we're realizing subscriptions weren't such a bad idea after all! Because the old saying remains true: You get what you pay for.
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Traditional journalism faces the same challenges. People tune out when we tell "important" stories, and for years, we'd have a bump in viewers at the end of the news, for the fluffy feel good story at the end of the cast. It's sad but it's the way it goes, most people don't really want to know how the sausage is made most of the time, they just want the smiles and good times at the BBQ