When I was starting out at Autosport nearly 30 years ago, we used to have local correspondents at most major events. There were some far-flung races at which this was impossible, so we would ring up those who had taken part and cobble together stories about what had happened. These were often published under the name of Jurgen Stiftschraube, which in German means George Stud bolt, an invented journalist. He’s still around occasionally and even today has his own Facebook page. If you look at his list of friends you will see who was in on the secret…
That was a necessary evil, but we still tried to maintain normal journalistic rules of having reliable sources and verifying stories.
These days such rules seem to be a thing of the past.
It annoys me that fans of Formula 1 who want to know more about the sport are faced by a wall of Internet clutter that makes it absolutely impossible for newcomers to know who to trust. Where do you go to guarantee that the information you are getting is from people who are experts in the business?
You can go to any bar and find someone who says that they know about F1 and will lecture you on the subject, but from where does that information come? How many of the sources of information have real connections to the sport?
Inevitably one has to rely on brand names: the BBC, AFP, Reuters, Sky and so on. These are relatively safe, but there is still no guarantee that you will learn more from them than what you see on TV. If you want to go beneath the surface a little it is hard to do. There are a number of long-established specialist F1 magazines in countries with F1 traditions. These are good for feature material, but are generally out of date before they are published, such is the turnover of news these days. Some also run websites and these are pretty solid, although even these have to rely on Jurgens from time to time, although they are not going to tell you that…
The first place most people will look these days is Google and when you do that first website that will come up is http://www.formula1.com. That might seem like a sensible place to start. There is some news, some feature material and lots of information. However, this is not really a media website. It is owned and operated by the Formula One group and so it must be seen as more of a PR resource, in much the same way as one might view the websites of the F1 teams, the Grands Prix or the FIA.
The second hit I got when I tried Google was http://www.F1news.com, which I had never heard of. It turned out to be a website that collects news written by other websites such as Sky Sports, ESPN F1 and Autosport.
The Google results give you a hint of the kind of coverage you will get almost everywhere. There are those with no access to anyone, which revamp content produced by others, and there are some that are manipulated by interested parties to get out the messages that they want F1 fans to hear.
The secret of the F1 media is that it is like a pond. If you drop a stone in the middle, the waves will radiate outwards. The middle is made up the relatively small group of reporters, most of them English. The vast majority of F1 websites have no access at all to the F1 paddock and they are simply part of the ripples on the F1 pond, taking the story from the centre and spreading it.
Being a face that F1 people recognise is vital for getting the best information. Those who ring up teams and ask questions will rarely, if ever, get past the PR people. As a result of this most websites do not bother with any journalistic norms. They just write things that they pick up elsewhere on the Internet.
Always be aware that some of the people involved in online F1 coverage are liars and fantasists, even if they have large sections on their websites telling you how good they are. Do not be taken in by names. How do you know that a website called Pitpass actually has access to a pit pass, or that a magazine named The Paddock has access in the F1 paddock? Be wary of anyone who claims to be “inside” Formula 1.
You will find endless numbers of outlets with names that suggest that they are involved with the sport, but how do you know which of these really has access to the right people in the sport? How do you know which are independent and which are PR operations rather than real news outlets?
Websites have all matter of puff about they are the best this and the best that and they swear blind that they are objective, but how do you know that is true? Anyone can write that sort of stuff on a website. Some people are so desperate to be part of the F1 circus that they will allow themselves to be used (knowingly or otherwise) as propaganda tools by manipulative folk in the centre of F1. I have known many cases when even proper magazines have given teams “editing rights” for their stories.
This happens even with some of the most established names in the business. The live race feed of one very well known racing magazine, for example, is written by two people who I have never heard of and I am entirely sure that they do not come to races on a regular basis. Thus one must assume that they provide this content from home, using TV and online information only.
And just because someone is high up in the Google rankings does not mean that they have people on the inside. These things can be manipulated.
The only way one can be sure that people are actually regular attendees is when they post pictures and write blog items about being there. Thus, it is fair to say that blogs are more likely to be trustworthy than straight news websites.
In total, including all nationalities, there are only around 300 FIA F1 permanent pass holders. There are a couple of hundred others at each race, who are accredited for the one event by the local sanctioning body. To get a “hard card” one needs to have attended the majority of the races the previous season. And that costs money.
A lot of the people with hard cards are employed by one specific publication, such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and so on. They do not need to do much more than one story a day during race weekends and most have other jobs to do, reporting on other sports, notably football.
The country with the highest number of hard cards is the UK. This is because English is the world’s most widely used language, with over 1.8 billion users worldwide, and because F1 has long been a sport linked to the UK. Between 15 and 20 percent of the real F1 journalists are British. In terms of English-speakers there is just one fulltime American. No regular Australians. Canadians tends to be occasionals. There is a South African, who is based in Europe.
The rest of the F1 media is very Euro-centric, with Italians, Spanish, Germans and French making up most of the group. Outside Europe the biggest involvement is Brazilian, followed by the Japanese. There are a few regular Russians, occasional Chinese and a spattering of others. India and the Middle East have very little active involvement. Outlets in these countries tend to rewrite stories from the Internet, although one or two do the right thing and employ freelances.
There are not many websites in the world that pay. Newspapers and magazines are struggling and so it is not at all easy for freelance journalists to pay their way to travel the world to every F1 race. A few do it because they have access to private money but most are hardworking individuals who were trained on the specialist magazines and grew out of them.
The knock-on effect of this is that web content about F1 is far more likely to come from someone NOT involved in the sport, than it is from one of the insiders. A large percentage of the world’s F1 websites are either scavengers or are supplied by scavengers, who are trying to profit from the work of others by repackaging stories that they find on the Internet. They dress them up differently and sell the news to websites that cannot afford to get better content. These bottom-feeders rely on the relatively small number of real news sources on the inside in F1 and they often use automatic translation technology to read stories in other languages.
The most widespread of these organizations is a business called Global Motorsport Media, which is headquartered in Adelaide, Australia. GMM says that it sources content “not only from the traditional and specialist English-language media, but also from any part of the world with a media interest in the sport”. It claims that its content is “trusted and enjoyed by a truly global audience”.
A quick, but not exhaustive, survey reveals that a lot of websites use GMM, among them grandprix.com, motorsport.com, speedTV.com, autoweek.com, f1today.net, worldcarfans.com, motorsport.nextgen-auto.com, f1orbit.com, Inautonews.com, auto123.com, yallaf1.com, flagworld.com, gptoday.com and others. This means that you see the same story all over the place, but does that mean it is a real story?
GMM delivers “between 8 and 25 unique Formula 1 news articles for publication” per day.
The word “unique” is, of course, the crux of the matter. Facts and ideas are free from copyright so there is nothing to stop anyone anywhere taking a news story and rewriting it, without needing to get the permission of the author. If you don’t rewrite there are copyright questions but this is a legal minefield of vagueness.
Legal issues aside, one must always remember that regurgitating the ideas one has trawled up from somewhere else does not mean you understand the subject matter and how such a thing came to happen. There is therefore a much higher likelihood of misunderstandings, without the scavenger even realizing that they have done it. The major problem is that scavengers don’t necessarily know anything about the sport. I asked the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix if they have ever issued a Formula 1 pass to GMM, or to the man who runs it. They both said that they do not have records of any such person or organization. In the last few years several teams have asked me if I know anything about the company, because they have been unhappy about stories that have been written, so it would seem that there are few if any direct dealings.
Despite this, the company continues to sell its feeds to websites that need “wallpaper” to fill their web pages on a daily basis and it is cheaper and easier to use a scavenger rather than employing someone to scavenge for them.
None of them can afford to send representatives to Grands Prix on a regular basis (if at all).
One could argue that anyone can do the same and that if F1 freelancers sat down and did what GMM does they could take over the market. This is true, but there is also the question of time. If one is a travelling F1 journalist one cannot sit in one place all day and trawl. There are other things to be done. The stay-at-home brigade have a big advantage in this respect.
When all is said and done, F1 fans will get the media they deserve. If you know how the system operates and want to know more you will be able to find a better understanding of the sport and why things are happening. Websites survive on the number of people who view their pages.
In the end, it is your choice.