Fri, September 20, 2013

Olympic race to be UK newspaper champs

By THANE BURNETT, QMI Agency


Newspapers in London are in tough competition to grab as many eyeballs as possible during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

LONDON - The toughest competition in this city is not being fought in any Olympic venue.

It's taking place on crowded street corners, using ink, paper sideburns and barks of 'Get your big paper heeeeeeerrrrreeeeee!'

Even without the London newspaper hawkers, we're reminded often that there's never been a media event as well covered as these Games -- an impressive claim that can pretty much be made during every worldwide happening now.

And you can't toss a javelin in London without skewing three chubby international sports columnists lining up for a pint.

But it's the British press, rocked by an ongoing scandal involving phone hacking and dirty tricks, which sees this as something close to life and death for their mastheads.

To fight a fresh and all-out circulation war, they've hired current and former Olympic champions and have assembled an army of journalists.

The Daily Telegraph alone has brought together a team of more than 200 reporters and photographers and even has Ethiopian long distant runner Haile Gebrselassie on the payroll.

If you think the Canadian media is tough on our Olympic team, the flagship UK 'red-top' tabloid Sun counted every second until Team Great Britain won its first gold medal.

By the way, it came 4 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes and 27 seconds after the Games were declared open.

On Wednesday, the British Sun, along with sister-paper Mirror, offered readers golden paper sideburns they could cut out and wear. The adornments were in support of UK cycling hero, Bradley Wiggins.

The tape-on whiskers must have brought good luck, as he won Britain's second gold here, with the Sun quickly deciding in a headline: "Brad'll Do Nicely!"

The humour and headlines of the British press are legendary, but they mask a tough craft that was born on these streets.

Many London journalists take pride in being to the right of pirates when it comes to fair trade in getting a story, and are still amazingly influential within their country once those headlines reach the masses.

I've been in the news business for almost 30 years -- in combative markets across Canada.

Decades ago and long before cell phones, during major events close to deadline, it wasn't uncommon for the mouthpieces to go missing from the nearest bank of public pay phones -- all but the one you were using to get your story back to your newsroom.

And the Toronto Sun famously created a false front page during an early press run, to throw off the rival paper across town from what the real story was. It was an exclusive interview with shamed Canadian Olympic runner, Ben Johnson.

Another trade-legend involves a Canadian journalist who -- showing nerves of steel -- simply walked into a competing newsroom and walked away with an exclusive photo from under their noses.

But we Canadian journalists have often seemed guileless and provincial compared with the reporting tactics of some of our British counterparts.

Which is now a good thing.

Caught up in an ongoing public inquiry and scandal that has cost them pride, papers and readers, Britain's Fleet Street news barons now see today's Olympics as their best chance for headlines beyond tomorrow.

Thane.burnett@sunmedia.ca

@thaneburnett