Sunday, July 14, 2024

How a young sports news site published a crucial scoop that brought down Rubiales – Reuters Institute


Luis Rubiales and several players of the Spanish national team, including Jenni Hermoso, during a reception on 22 August with the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. REUTERS/Juan Medina 
Soon after Spain won the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the celebration turned into outrage when Spanish Football Federation chief Luis Rubiales kissed Spanish player Jenni Hermoso on the lips without her consent. 
Prompted by criticism in Spain and beyond, Rubiales recorded a non-apology apology during a stopover in Doha. His team also put out a statement from Hermoso saying the kiss had been consensual and shouldn’t distract from the team’s victory. 
But those were not Hermoso’s words. Rubiales’ team had made them up. 
Spaniards learnt about the coverup from Natalia Torrente, an experienced football reporter from sports news site Relevo. She revealed two crucial things: that Hermoso never said the words in the statement and that she refrained from helping Rubiales, who pressed her to appear in the video in which he apologised. Torrente’s exclusive story put further pressure on the Spanish football chief, who was suspended by FIFA in late August and resigned from his position two weeks later. 
It was not the first scoop of Relevo, but it was a crucial one, and it felt like a coming of age for this sports news site with a young newsroom and an innovative strategy. From its launch in the spring of 2022, Relevo has covered women’s sports much more extensively than any other news brand in Spain. A good example is the Women’s World Cup, where they sent two full-time journalists while other Spanish newspapers sent none. 
Relevo’s Football Editor is a woman, Sandra Riquelme, and she leads a team with other talented female reporters such as Mayca Jiménez, Nagore Domínguez and Natalia Torrente
“The Spanish Football Federation sent us those quotes from Hermoso, and we pasted them on our WhatsApp chat,” says Riquelme, who spent a month covering the World Cup along with her colleague Jiménez. “It was five in the morning in Australia so we were exhausted and went to sleep. But my colleague Natalia Torrente wondered whether these were really quotes from the player. So she spoke to several sources and published that astonishing piece.”
Would Rubiales have resigned if that piece hadn’t been published? “I would say the piece changed everything,” she says. “Many people saw how the Spanish Football Federation really worked and how serious this issue was: the fake quotes, the way Rubiales pressured a victim of sexual abuse… It was such a turning point.”
Relevo has never been so popular as it is right now. In August, its website got more than 13 million pageviews (it got 8,4 million in July) and its social channels reached more than one million followers, with much more engagement than other sports outlets in Spain. 
The coverage of the Rubiales scandal has transformed this young sports news site into the go-to source for women’s football in a country where this discipline is becoming increasingly popular on the heels of the success of the Spanish national team.   
“Sports newspapers in Spain have never put any attention to women, so we saw an opportunity,” says Óscar Campillo, who founded Relevo in early 2022 and is now its editor-in-chief. “We hired the right people, and put resources into covering women’s football and other women’s sports. Now readers and footballers see that we are not faking it. We covered women’s football way before Spain won the World Cup and we’ll keep covering it now that it’s even more popular.” 
Relevo is a project launched by Vocento, a big Spanish media group which owns national newspaper ABC and several local titles. Unlike most media groups in Spain, Vocento didn’t own a sports newspaper. So, it saw Relevo as a cheap way to compete with established sports news brands such as Marca and As
It was textbook low-end disruption – a smaller newsroom, a mobile-first operation and a crystal-clear value proposition: a website with no clickbait and a strong focus on women and Gen-Z audiences, two segments largely ignored by most news organisations in Spain.
This focus shaped the design of Relevo’s product: a mobile-first website with touches of pink and three different tabs for short posts, sports scores and long-form stories. 
This strategy also informed hiring decisions: most journalists at Relevo are under 40 and women account for 30% of the newsroom, a percentage unusually high for a sports news outlet.
“You often hear that young journalists are lazy and only care about making money or being famous. But that’s not true! I found so many brilliant young journalists when creating the team,” Campillo says. 
Relevo’s newsroom is a mixture of younger social natives and older colleagues who were seduced by the promise of doing things differently. “Sports journalism shouldn’t be frivolous or inaccurate. Our first goal was to hire great reporters,” says Capillo, who has ensured journalists, developers and business people share the same office to avoid silos and encourage communication across teams.  
Relevo’s coverage often focuses on sportspeople overlooked by other publications. “We try to break news and to go deep I don’t want an interview with Messi for the sake of it. I only want it if he says something relevant,” says Campillo, who explains that Relevo has broken quite a few important news stories about Rafa Nadal, Marco Asensio and Rafa Benítez.
Unlike other sports outlets in Spain, Relevo doesn’t publish models’ pictures or clickbait headlines. This decision inevitably results in lower traffic. But it’s a deliberate choice and one that has paid off in terms of building a powerful brand. 
As an example, Campillo mentions Shakira revenge song against Gerard Piqué, her former husband. “I would say Relevo is the only Spanish outlet that didn’t publish a single piece about that,” he says. “We debated this briefly in the newsroom and I asked our editors: ‘Does Shakira play for any sports team? If she doesn’t, it’s not a news story.’”
This is a view shared by José Luis Rojas Torrijos, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Sevilla and the author of this book on sports journalism. “Spanish sports newspapers inflate traffic by publishing all sorts of clickbait,” he says. “Relevo is trying a very different play, with an attractive layout and a relentless focus on young audiences. It’s also smart to cater to women, a segment who’ve always felt excluded from a sports coverage that’s often been sexist and focused on men.” 
For the first five months, Relevo didn’t even have a website. It launched in May 2022 on social media, with a clear focus on audiences under 40 and the goal of creating a thriving community around sports. 
Relevo didn’t join every social network. When they launched, they focused on Twitch and TikTok, as they were popular platforms amongst younger audiences. They also created accounts on Instagram and Twitter, which they perceived as important for women and older news junkies, respectively. But they decided to stay out of Facebook and YouTube, despite both being dominant platforms for news in Spain. 
This soft launch allowed Relevo to fine-tune its voice in each of these platforms and grow an audience organically for its first few months. By the time it debuted its website in October, Relevo had half a million followers on social media. It reached one million in August 2023. 
“Unlike most news organisations, we decided to create specific content for every platform, and not use social media to bring traffic to our own website,” says communities editor Fermín Elizari, who designed and executed this innovative social media strategy. 
Before launch, the team conducted online surveys and in-depth interviews with Relevo’s target audience. “We used this data to create marketing personas for every social network,” Elizari says. “For example, on Twitter we focused on a Millennial male news junkie, and began posting threads with lots of tidbits. On Instagram, on a woman in her thirties who is more interested in sports stories than in scores. On TikTok we focused on a Gen-Z female reader. Our Twitch channel is mostly for men of that age.” 
This is a mindset shared by everyone at Relevo’s newsroom. “Any time we publish something we think: will this kind of person be interested in this particular story? This exercise is very helpful to know your audience, and I haven’t seen it in other newsrooms,” says Riquelme, Relevo’s Football Editor.  
Every platform requires a different language and different formats. On TikTok and Instagram they post news explainers, interviews, more humorous content and viral videos. On Twitch they’ve attracted a huge audience with live-streamed programmes around the transfer deadline. 
“It’s worked very well because Twitch is about being live and breaking news,” Elizari says. “It’s also a tribute to the talent of our host, Diego Campoy, who was already creating content on his own social channels before we hired him.”
Relevo’s social media team is made of 12 people, and it includes editors, designers, content creators and a data analyst. Journalists work on two shifts covering from early morning to midnight and create most posts on their smartphones. 
From the beginning, the editors at Relevo set up a rule: if a journalist publishes a scoop or a big news story, it’s not him or her who explains it on Twitch, Instagram or TikTok but the colleagues who are fluent in the vocabulary of those platforms.
An exception was Relevo’s recent scoop on Rubiales. Its author, Natalia Torrente, was featured on Relevo’s Twitch as well as on several programmes across Spanish TV.
Torrente’s editor, Sandra Riquelme, says Relevo’s excellent coverage of the affair was only possible because the team had built a strong relationship with women footballers throughout the years. 
“We’ve always been in contact with the players and our coverage has always been respectful,” says Riquelme, who once dreamed about being a footballer herself. “As a result, they see Relevo as a safe place. They know we care about what they think. They know they can trust us.”
Is employing more women reporters than other outlets a competitive advantage? “I would say so,” Riquelme says. “Perhaps women journalists pay attention to things men don’t notice. Sports journalism has historically been full of men. So women players and women journalists definitely identify with each other, and this may help.”
Relevo’s newsroom is still growing, with a few data journalists joining the team very soon. Editor-in-chief Campillo says the outlet now employs 77 people, including 55 full-time journalists. Relevo’s projected cost for 2023 is €8 million and its revenue, €2.5 million, with 80% coming from advertising and 20% from events, and no plans to set up a paywall. 
So, despite its growth, Relevo will still lose money at the end of this year. But its 5-year business plan expects the news site to be profitable in early 2026 and it’s on track to reach that goal. 
Campillo explains they are getting lots of revenue from brands which pay to sponsor free events and to reach its big social media audience. They are also experimenting with other revenue streams. For example, they are partnering with La Liga for its official fantasy football game and organising their own sports tournaments. “They came to us because they want to reach a younger audience,” Campillo says. 
Sports journalism in Spain is still dominated by radio stations and by big legacy newspapers such as Marca, As, Sports and El Mundo Deportivo. Will Relevo be able to compete with them? 
“A big audience doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue,” says Professor Rojas Torrijos, who wrote this long piece about the outlet in October last year. “Relevo’s strategy is a smart one as it’s reaching audiences clearly underserved. It’s also building an innovative business and has the support of a big editorial group, and this is very helpful in terms of planning for the long term.”
A sizeable part of Relevo’s revenue comes from publishing branded content on its social media channels. This has created a few dilemmas and an ongoing conversation about standards that involves the newsroom and the advertising team. 
“We separate any news coverage from branded content,” Elizari says. “Our branded content formats are very different from our news formats, and we are transparent about any sponsorships. For example, our journalists in the World Cup wore ‘VISA with Relevo’ sweatshirts in some of their video appearances. VISA didn’t have any say in our coverage, so we thought that was fine.” 
With Rubiales now out of the picture, many Spaniards hope the scandal helps bring about systemic change in sports and society. After Rubiales’ kiss, many women have used the hashtag #SeAcabó to share their own stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment on social media. 
Riquelme thinks sports journalism has also changed in the light of the scandal and hopes this change doesn’t go away. 
“I would say that 90% of the reporters who’ve covered this issue are women,” she says. “Now our colleagues have realised that we can also deal with sources, publish scoops and work under pressure. It makes me so sad that we’ve had to go through this nasty episode to prove this and to see that our world champions were right when they complained about their workplace conditions.”
Riquelme would like to think this episode will also transform Spanish society too. “We’ve seen a huge impact in journalism, in government, in companies,” she says. “I would like to think this was a turning point for the perception we have about women, and about women’s football too.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece said Relevo’s projected revenue for 2023 was €8 million, and not €2.5 million as it is. 
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