Last week in Madonna do Campiglio, Fernando Alonso made some interesting remarks about social media and it got me thinking about the whole question of how the sport is reported in the modern age, and by whom. The rise of “citizen journalism” has led to a blurring of the lines between traditional trained and experienced journalists and amateurs who are able to publish their work, because the Internet has no restrictions. Some view this a democratic thing, others as a danger because it has undermined the credibility of all news sources. One will often hear F1 people complaining about incorrect stories “on the Internet”. The description clearly means that they do not trust Internet news sources. For some this is why they have started to use Twitter, in order to take out the middle men and go directly to the fans.
“What I like is that now nothing is written about me, about my private life,” Fernando Alonso said last week. “Last year I was on holiday at home at the end of the year. I was in Italy and then in Russia and afterwards in Brazil and I talked about that without any problems. In previous years, without Twitter they might have said I was on the Moon with an elephant or in Kenya with Obama, they used to say all kinds of things. That was worse. Now there are no more inventions or fantasies.”
Fans can hear what Alonso has to say, but at the same time removing the media from the equation means that there is no-one to question what Fernando tells them, or to put his comments into perspective. The fans have a lot more chance of being led astray as a result if they believe those who seek to put out a false picture of themselves.
Journalists are there to filter the story into what they believe the truth to be. Those who do not question what they are being told quickly become propaganda tools and can thus be put into the same bracket as press officers, who are paid to say what the team wants them to say. Some journalists give up their independence because it is worth their while financially; some because they feel important being able to talk to key people, and thus do not dare to question what they are told. Whatever the case they become puppets. In the old days these kind of journalists were weeded out quickly. Word got around about them, but today there are outlets that keep them in the public eye. So it is increasingly difficult for fans to know who to trust. There are dozens and dozens of websites trying to give the impression that they are really involved in the F1 business, when in reality they are run by wannabes who cannot even imagine being able to get FIA accreditation, let alone earn enough money to afford to go to the races.
An additional problem is that the laws of copyright do not protect facts and ideas and so the unethical can use the work of others without needing to do anything more than change a few words here and there to avoid any legal questions. And with systems such as Google Translator, there are no longer any language divisions. No-one is safe from the news-trawlers and repackagers. They may cite some sources, to make things look better, but as they have no real understanding of how the business works and no contacts with the teams there is never any verification, nor even the attempt at it.
There are even operations nowadays that trawl the global media and repackage stories and create a news feed that is then sold to wannabe F1 websites and, increasingly, to professional organisations as well, because they do not wish to spend money to send journalists to races and do not really care if the cheap content is good or not. The people doing this claim that their information is trustworthy, but they have no idea whether it is or not and they tend to interpret things wrongly because they do not have any insider understanding of the sport. They cannot be sued because of the laws of copyright, but they are hated in the F1 paddock as teams often have to waste time and energy denying stories that are not true or interpretations that are wrong.
It is fairly easy to catch out the news trawlers by including statistics that are deliberately wrong in order to create “a barium meal” which highlights the copying, but because there is no copyright protection for facts, all one can really say is that these people are unethical.
The overall result of this is that the quality of news is weakening in every sphere. Proper journalists find that their editors will cut their budgets to save money, while freelances will struggle to pay the vast overheads of being where the action is. This favours the big organisations that have the money to send reporters to events, and it is their work that is being scalped by the news-trawlers.
The only people who can really benefit from the current situation are those who have strong and trusted brands and who know how to turn this into the money they need to keep their businesses afloat. It is certainly not easy to do that, but the power of the Internet is quite amazing. This morning, pottering about with the analytical stats on the blog, I stumbled upon a breakdown of readership int he last 24 hours. It was no surprise to see this dominated by the British, followed by the US, Australia, Canada, Holland, France, Germany, New Zealand, India and Ireland. It was interesting to see that the blog has almost as many Russian readers as it does Spaniards and it was surprising to see interest in places like Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines. There were readers also in Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Albania, Bosnia, Oman, Iceland, Peru and even wildly exotic places such as the Cayman Islands, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Botswana, Cambodia, Montenegro, Gibraltar, Myanmar, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Paraguay, Guam and San Marino. It is good to know also that one is feeding the passion of F1 fans in Panama, Fiji, Sudan, the Åland Islands, Namibia and Mozambique. There may not be many of them, but they are out there!
Formula 1 is a niche market and while the TV viewing figures always sound really impressive, the number of people with more than a passing interest in the sport is much smaller than one would think. The sport has a very long way to go to even begin to compete with the big Twitter followings, headed these days by singer Lady Gaga with 32.9 million, followed by Justin Bieber (32.8 million) and Katy Perry (31 million). President Barack Obama ranks only fifth with 25.6 million. Hollywood stars do not get more than around five million followers while the best race driver I can find is Rubens Barrichello, who has 1.8 million Twitter followers. Fernando Alonso is the leader in the current F1 crowd with 1.4 million followers, chased by Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, each with 1.3 million and it is interesting to compare this to the big names in the United States. NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr has 1.4 million “likes” on Facebook, but only 167,000 followers on Twitter because the account is not really active. By comparison Danica Patrick has only 288,000 “likes” on Facebook, but a whopping 689,000 followers on Twitter, although this is only slightly more than Juan Pablo Montoya. Danica’s following is about the same as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon combined, despite the pair having won nine NASCAR Cup titles between them.
The highest rated IndyCar driver is Dario Franchitti, with 83,700 Twitter followers, while Michael Andretti (83,000) and Helio Castroneves (77,000) are not far behind. Last year’s champion Ryan Hunter Reay can claim only 28,000.
Some Formula 1 journalists have more followers than the leading IndyCar drivers.