In My Opinion: Martin Boyle: The media lessons to be learned from the Vancouver Olympics

“WE have never known it so tough.” That was perhaps the strongest message from journalists across the globe as the 2010 Winter Olympics drew to close in Vancouver on Sunday.

Sports reporters converged on the west coast Canadian city for two weeks of thrills, spills, heartache and success, and there was an overwhelming feeling that the spiralling demands of delivering instant, high-quality journalism across an ever-widening array of platforms has made this one of the toughest times ever for quality sports journalism.

Jason Stallman, deputy sports editor and Olympics co-ordinator, has worked with the New York Times since 2003, and said papers, even with a global reputation, are finding it a massive challenge.

He said: “Of course there’s always a race to get the story out there, and newspapers have to act more and more like agencies all the time. But the real challenge for us is to make sure that quality doesn’t suffer – it’s what we’re known for. Sometimes we’ll accept that we might be beaten to the story but we’ll never compromise on the quality.

“We’ll have one guy writing the in-depth story, spending time putting it together, and another guy working on the shorter versions for online and other platforms. That way we can still get the news out there without having to compromise overall quality.”

And tackling the challenge of trying to haul a profit from online news, Stallman said: “The system we’re going with will be a metered system. That might mean that you’re in Scotland and have a passing interest in something we’re covering. You’ll be able to come in, have a look at a set number of pages then leave, but for people who are more regular browsers and who want regular access to things that would cost money to buy in print there will be a charge.”

Yahoo! Sport was one of the biggest stories of the Olympics, with their reporters rapidly gaining a reputation for being faster than anyone else, a pressure that most outlets confessed they were increasingly having to battle.

Indeed, journalists and presenters across print, online, radio and television in Vancouver revealed that the challenges faced by Scotland’s media are familiar stories across the globe.

Reduced staff, the conundrum of free internet access versus news generation, and the challenge of juggling multiple platforms are all familiar stories – with most reporters finding that they were attempting to juggle print copy, running takes for online presentation, Twitter or Facebook updates, post-match interviews, video and audio pieces, blogs and reader interaction.

For the Winter Olympics, a string of Vancouver venues, as well as events at Cypress Mountain (an hour away) and Whistler (two hours away), were all serviced by specialised media zones, with the Main Media Centre on the wharf of Canada Place in downtown Vancouver at their heart.

Events are increasingly being run to make them attractive to television audiences and to attract media attention, with many reporters commenting on palpable changes, including the introduction of board and ski cross, to provide dramatic, ‘instant gratification’ events which appeal to a new, younger audience.

The inspirational 2-0 win the other evening for Canada over their USA counterparts in the women’s ice hockey final illustrated this media-savvy strategy well. Up-to-the-minute information was made available on the Olympics’ own media web portal and a sea of helpers also brought round stats and information sheets with impressive regularity.

Indeed, Britain’s sporting PR people, particularly in the world of football, could learn a lot from the open, helpful and accommodating approach most journalists encountered in Vancouver.

Daily press conferences at the Main Media Centre ensured up-to-date information, quotes, and picture and video opportunities. The Mixed Zones at each venue meant that waiting reporters could choose the interview they were after – far more attractive than having all outlets spoon-fed one interview.

While the system has been around for a while at major events, it does make for a wider range of stories than the ‘one man for the Sundays, one man for the Mondays’ approach so favoured at many Scottish events.

It was a sensible move, for instance, to make the Canadian men’s ice hockey team available in the mixed zone for interview during the final of the women’s ice hockey.

And as the world’s sporting media attention begin to turn their spotlight towards London 2012 then Glasgow 2014, both cities face the challenge of managing an army of journalists from around the globe – a huge logistical exercise.

It will be fascinating to see what the media landscape looks like for London and Glasgow. If Beijing was the Internet Olympics and Vancouver is increasingly being seen as the Social Networking Olympics, we are sure to see yet further radical change in the reporting of sports as the UK becomes the focus.

However, it looks certain that there will be a continued split – with consumers finding it ever easier to get faster, cheaper news while reporters find it ever tougher to provide the quality of content that they hope to deliver.

Martin Boyle is a senior lecturer in journalism at Cardonald College, Glasgow. He has been in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, researching for a PhD: ‘New Media and the Changing Face of Sports Journalism, Vancouver 2010 – Glasgow 2014′.

Read his blog, here.