Since the internet was invented a couple of years ago, the classic titles of the British newspaper world have been suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. The nation has changed since those simpler days when people who worked down the mines bought the Mirror, the people who shut them down bought the Telegraph, and people who wanted them turned into internment camps bought the Mail.
But there's one paper which has steadfastly matched its internet game to its newspaper game: the Sunday Sport. As a newspaper, it spent decades on the periphery of the newsstand. It specialised in soft porn and bizarro tales of suburbia that positioned it firmly as an outsider publication. Ironically, of course, these interests should have been tailor made for a transition into internet super-power. (After all, the Mail's internet domination is based on being a kind of bullshit bulletin, oscillating between stories about Kendall Jenner's breasts and people who've swallowed iPhones.) Instead, the Sunday Sport has refused to budge from its position at the fringes of society.
I was recently reminded of the existence of the Sunday Sport by this semi-viral, possibly false story about a schoolboy who threatened to put his sister's kitten in a blender if Santa didn't give him an PS4. Reading through some more of their work, the paper doesn't seem to have changed its editorial style since Jimmy Savile was on Radio One.
Their internet game in particular is a glorious and unequivocally British two fingers up to the idea of SEO, audience engagement, bounce rate and brand awareness. It's worth checking out yourself, but be warned: it could take a while, because their site design is about as user-friendly as a bike without a saddle.
Here's what makes the Sunday Sport's website the weirdest thing on Earth.
LINSEY DAWN MCKENZIE'S COLUMN
Columnists are a big deal in the modern British media landscape. The people who write them have become demagogues, mouthpieces for their over-opinionated readerships, weekly quote-banks for people who genuinely care about intersectionist feminist perspectives on The Hunger Games. The people who write them have either become celebrities since starting their column or were already celebrities before. The Times have Caitlin Moran, the Guardian have David Mitchell and the Mail have Peter Hitchens. The Sunday Sport, however, have Linsey Dawn McKenzie – the also-ran 1990s red-top "stunna" who moved into the world of hardcore porn while Katie Price squatted ITV2 and Melinda Messenger started presenting TV shows with Ian Wright.
Linsey's column is a weird one, veering from controversial pop culture commentary ("I say: good on sexy Cyrus"), saucy TV round-ups ("Amy is spicing up my jungle fantasies") to insightful ruminations on headline stories, like her sensitive handling of the Ian Watkins case: "This sicko should be strung up".
If her writing style seems like she might be phoning it in to some poor intern (are the Sunday Sport allowed to have interns?) from the back of a bus, that's presumably because that's exactly what she does. Try this passage, for example: "People who say what they think are always good – I like people who aren't afraid to speak their minds. But I am not keen on Emmerdale actress Lucy Pargeter or Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington. I think they are a pair of bitches."
Sure, it's easy to laugh at Linsey's column, with its clunky prose and reactionary opinions – and her need for a boobs-out profile shot to fulfil her billing as "Britain's Only Topless Columnist" – but at least she doesn't really see herself as the voice of a generation, like so many broadsheet opinion-merchants do.
MICK LIVESEY'S DOG BLOG
Media outlets are falling over themselves to find the next Jonathan Wilson or Barney Ronay – the writers who can take sport (particularly football) journalism past the old cliches and into a world dominated by stats and alternative commentary. The Sunday Sport is no different. Their star sports writer? Mick Livesey. His passion? Dog racing.
In the tradition of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, Livesey is an embittered, jaded type. His latest blog starts: "Hmmmmmm blogs, I am not so sure about them if I am honest, however I have got in trouble and must deliver a weekly blog, when I have calmed down from doing somersaults over the excitement I shall begin." Which is hardly the kind of writer-to-brand association that most editors are looking for.
I know nothing about Livesey, but whatever the reality, he now exists in my mind as a kind of tragic Oliver Bernard figure for the Romford set. I imagine him as kind of Hunter S Thompson: a writer who drinks too early and submits copy too late, only instead of tailing the Nixon campaign team, he's obsessing about dogs called things like Kick On Scolari and Clydagh Joey.
THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA GAME
If there's any proof of just how weak the Sunday Sport's social media game is, it's probably that the official Twitter account of a Sunday morning Irish radio show also called "Sunday Sport" – which currently boasts around 20,800 followers – has twice as many followers as the paper's official account.
Their policy seems to be "scan a picture from the paper, tweet it and see what happens". And even when a story has as much viral potential as "I'm not THAT Tom Daley" – the story of an ex-National Front member who's been inundated with "gay sex offers" after his famous namesake revealed he was in a relationship with a man – they only get a handful of retweets. Which is actually a bit of a shame.
But just as you're feeling sorry for their tragic inability to keep up with the cynical world of social media, they also do things like tweet at Helen Flanagan's theology student sister to ask her this question:
What silver-tongued Lotharios.
CLASSIC SPORT STUNNAS
Say what you like about the Sunday Sport, it's a publication that understands its heritage. The New Yorker have Truman Capote, Vanity Fair have Tom Wolfe and the Sunday Sport have photos of people who were probably described as "dolly birds" back when their images were first published. Check out the Pulitzers on 'er, eh?
THE BEMUSING DESIGN
Who is Aaliyah Johnson? What is her Sex Diary? Why have they elected to choose a technical message for the preview blurb? Has anyone at the Sunday Sport ever been on the internet before?
IT'S YOUR MISSUS!
There's a strange tradition in this country of men showing off their significant others in newspapers and magazines. My guess is that it's all for the pleasure of roadwork crews and prisoners, who presumably debate whether they would "give them one" or not. The most famous purveyor of this great lineage is of course Readers Wives, which is basically dogging in print form. The Sport's "It's Your Missus" feature isn't exactly Readers Wives, but it does offer a kind of softcore, Carry On... style take on the tradition that you could probably read in a greasy spoon without being arrested.
Great British beauties like Pamela, 37 from Barnsley, and Moira, 24 from Belfast, are presented with their boobs (and with the Sport, it does tend to be "boobs") out in a variety of next-door situations, their bathroom cabinets and Harvey's bedframes just about visible behind the nudity. Beneath this an amazing disclaimer states that one must "make sure you get your Missus's permission before you send it – we will check!" Which is reassuring, even if they don't explain how they'd possibly go about checking such a thing.
GAZZA'S FOOTBALL COLUMN
Sports journalists have often tried to nail the "man down the pub" vibe. The likeable, approachable everyman who'll share a few uncontroversial opinions about Luis Suarez and England youth development over two pints of European lager. However, for their own "man down the pub", the Sport decided to hire Gazza. An ex-footballer who has seen the collapse of his entire life and nearly died several times due to his crippling alcoholism.
Gazza's column is a weird one, partly, because despite its presence on the site's homepage, he hasn't written an instalment since February 2013, and partly because for all its anecdotes about Duncan Ferguson, everyone in the country knows that Gazza is in the midst of a horrible, decades-spanning breakdown. Calling Gazza "the signing they all wanted" is a little disingenuous as, frankly, you imagine that working with him might be a deeply emotional, frustrating and depressing experience. The planet doesn't want to hear what he has to say about Danny Welbeck, the planet wants to see him in some very serious therapy, attempting to turn his life around a long way from the lenses of the media.
As such, Gazza's presence in the Sunday Sport is jarring. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, football's biggest jester writing about football, but really, all he does is enhance this depressing feeling of jaded, broken TFI Friday glamour that pervades the whole site.
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It's easy to laugh at the Sunday Sport, with its terrible web design, lack of social media awareness and tendency for hiring people who can barely talk to pen their op-ed pieces. It's also pretty easy to hate them, considering the whole organisation only really exists to bury the female gender beneath an endless torrent of boobs-out misogyny. But, in this age where everyone with a Tumblr is some kind of internet game William Randolph Hearst, it's also fairly easy to feel sorry for them having been so left behind.
The Sunday Sport might not be a great establishment, it might not even be a good establishment, but it is a reminder of the days when we took ourselves less seriously. Finding its name within a URL is a little like finding a boat-full of Vikings working in the Apple store.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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