Buzzfeed tennis scoop shakes up serious media

Game set match: Novak Djokovic says he refused £110,000 to lose a match ten years ago. © PA

Tennis has become the third sport to be rocked by corruption scandals in the last eight months. The title behind the revelations? Buzzfeed. Is this the new face of journalism?

On Sunday night, as tennis champions arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open, a story broke that shook the sport to its core. After a joint investigation, Buzzfeed and the BBC revealed leaked files with evidence that some top-50-ranked players have been deliberately losing games to help gamblers win bets.

Mark Phillips, who investigated ‘match fixing’ in 2008, said he had handed his evidence to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) ‘with a nice pink bow on top’. Nothing happened. Now the details have finally come to light, after Buzzfeed News spent 15 months analysing betting data. Its journalists found 15 players who ‘regularly’ lost matches they ought to have won.

The 9,000-word story is a major scoop for the formidable investigation team at Buzzfeed News, who worked alongside the world’s oldest broadcasting corporation, the BBC. For years, Buzzfeed has been both beloved and berated for seemingly endless listicles with titles such as ‘21 dogs named Bob’. But lately its more ‘serious’ journalism team has expanded rapidly.

The website is now a key player among a fierce media debate. First, free online news slashed newspaper sales. Then irritating adverts online led to a huge rise in ad blockers, costing publishers around $22bn a year. Investigative journalism is an important tool which can expose corruption — but many news companies are struggling to find a way to pay writers for work which takes months to get right.

Buzzfeed offers one solution: sponsored posts which blend in with other articles. This earns enough to fund a global team of around 700 people, creating news which can be serious or silly. Founder Jonah Peretti compared it to a Parisian cafe: ‘You have people sitting at a table reading philosophical text, a religious text, or a newspaper, and sometimes they stop to pet a dog that walks by.’

Grand Slam

Important journalism should not be funded by lists of cats, say more old-school journalists. The BBC is one the UK’s most trusted sources because it is paid for through license fees. It answers to the people, not advertisers who may try to influence its decisions. The same can be said for subscription websites, where readers contribute directly to profits, and can stop paying if they don’t like what they see. It is a more honest, direct approach.

But this is helplessly old-fashioned, reply others. Most people simply do not want to buy news that they can get elsewhere — particularly young people who are used to the internet. Buzzfeed has grown up and found a way around problems that crippled older institutions; its audience of 200 million speaks for itself. We should welcome the contributions it is making in the media world.

You Decide

  1. In 30 years, where will you get your news: the BBC or Buzzfeed?
  2. Can corruption ever be driven out of sport?

Activities

  1. Buzzfeed is famous for its lists. Write down five important questions about match fixing in tennis that you think need to be answered.
  2. Research another piece of investigative journalism that exposed corruption, and create a presentation explaining why it mattered.

Some People Say...

“Objective journalism... is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Hunter S. Thompson

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are we talking about the journalists instead of the news?
If the allegations are true then the implications for tennis are huge. But sometimes it’s good to step back and think about where the news we read comes from. Journalists have a big responsibility — they help to shape what we know, and how we think about it. But they are part of an industry too, and it’s always worth thinking about how these important industries work.
Erm — don’t you have a bit of a vested interest in this?
Well spotted! All of The Day’s stories, including this one, aim for objectivity — but we are a news website too. So in case you were wondering: The Day has no advertising and relies on subscriptions. But we are a little different from other sites because our subscribers are mostly schools, not individuals.

Word Watch

Australian Open
The tournament is the first of four ‘Grand Slams’ held every year. It is followed by the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.
Betting data
26,000 professional matches were analysed from 2009 to 2015. Buzzfeed looked for games where the odds shifted against the better player because of a large number of bets. This implied that gamblers knew something the bookies did not.
Listicles
A portmanteau of ‘list’ and ‘article’. Of course, they are not all animals: readers were comforted yesterday by ‘9 Things It’s Still OK To Love Now That Tennis Is Ruined’. Admittedly, number four was ‘golden retrievers’.
$22bn
From a report by Adobe and PageFair on the 12 months leading up to June 2015.
Sponsored
This is called ‘native advertising’. Buzzfeed staff help companies to write in their distinctive style. The companies pay to appear alongside other articles, and include links to their own sites.
Influence
Buzzfeed came under fire last year for deleting posts which were critical of its advertisers, despite claiming to have a ‘strict’ separation of advertising and editorial.