Episode 42 is an interview Adam Sills. Adam is Head of Sport at The Telegraph, leading their coverage across all platforms and disciplines.
Adam joined The Telegraph in 2010 as Sports Editor of the daily paper before his promotion to head up the department five years ago. He has overseen its transformation into a digital-first, progressive team, most recently founding and launching the Telegraph Women’s Sport initiative.
He supports Southampton and runs his son’s football team, with family and exercise his priorities outside work.
We talk about what makes a powerful story, how he measures success and what it’s like to be the first paper to commit significant resource to women’s sport coverage.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 7.5.19 – Ep 42. Adam Sills
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Today I’m at The Telegraph newspaper interviewing their head of sport, Adam Sills, who leads the newspaper’s coverage across all platforms and disciplines. Adam joined The Telegraph in 2010 as sports editor of the daily paper before his promotion to head of the department five years ago. He’s overseen its transformation into a digital first progressive team, most recently founding and launching The Telegraph’s women’s sport initiative. We talk about what makes a powerful story, how he measures success and what it’s like to be the first paper to commit significant resource to women’s sport coverage.
I started by asking him to describe what he does.
R: What I kind of do is to run the editorial part of the sport’s team at The Telegraph which involves probably around 30 to 40 per cent journalism and about 60 per cent management. So that’s changed quite a lot from my previous role as sport’s editor where I was editing the newspaper on a daily basis. So I oversee all our different platforms, I commission, I edit, I speak to senior management a lot about strategy and I deal with our senior writers and our columnists and the kind of bigger picture stuff that allows others to get on with the day to day.
I: What part of your job do you wish you were doing more of and less of?
R: Well when I first moved to become head of sport which was five years now I came from a position where I was deciding on a day to day basis what was in the paper, how we were going to present it in doing each edition live which was a real adrenalin buzz, it was really exciting, it was very challenging and at that time I wasn’t really ready to give that up. But then again the opportunity to become head of your department doesn’t come up very often either. So I was quite reluctant at first about giving up the editing of the daily paper, but once I started doing this job and learning all the different parts of it that I needed to be an expert in I realised I couldn’t keep doing that. I still do it occasionally to fill in for people at a weekend or whatever.
I: What made you make that step? You said you were quite reluctant. What sort of forced you or tipped you over the line?
R: Yes. I think it was a really interesting time for the company and the thing about The Telegraph is that it’s constantly evolving and constantly changing and actually in quite big contrast to where I was previously at The Guardian where things were very solid and static and not much changed happened, things evolved quite slowly and at the time when I was acting up as head of sport when my boss had been taken off to do external well internal/external projects about around strategy and digital first, it was a time when there were a lot of questions being asked about how we changed as a company to reflect the different ways our readers were consuming our content, how we tried to begin to catch up with others who had been doing this for a lot longer. So it forced me to learn an awful lot about digital publishing which I didn’t know at that point having simply been editing a newspaper. I’d obviously been involved in digital stuff particular more so at The Guardian actually and then when I came here was involved in some of the decisions around it. But not in a very proactive way so it forced me to learn an awful lot about digital publishing which I realised back then was the way forward and actually if I wanted to progress my career and if I wanted to help the sport’s department progress and keep ahead of the game and keep modern and keep reflecting what we were doing, sorry how our readers were behaving then having that knowledge and having people around me who were far better at it than me, but who could actually implement some of the stuff that I wanted to do was actually quite exciting. So the main reason was because I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth and this was a promotion, it was a proper, proper step forward in my career, but it was also proved to be with hindsight a really good opportunity to expand my knowledge and skill set and prepare myself for the way journalism was changing and continues to change.
I: When you say that you had to learn a lot about the digital publishing, what does that mean? What did you have to get your head around?
R: I think I had to get my head around things like social media, things like SEO, a lot more data driven journalism, so how you can tell what people are reading and it’s very exciting digital publishing because you can tell so much closer to the newspaper what people are actually reading, what they’re interested in, who’s reading it. But there were some brilliant people and remain some brilliant people in my department who are what are called digital natives who have been doing this stuff all their career. So to them it’s second nature, whereas for me yes I had a Twitter account and stuff but I didn’t really know how social media could be used in journalism or how best to use it and SEO was something I knew very, very little about, but which was at that time in particular but remains really, really important to find readers. But digital publishing is a whole lot more than that and it’s about how you produce an article, it’s about how you present an article. It’s about when you publish an article, it’s about how you promote something and I think what was really interesting was something which we’ve been doing for several years now is to think very differently from newspaper publishing where your hierarchy of stories in a newspaper may well not be the same hierarchy as on your website for example. So something that a digital readership may really want to read may not be something that you would splash the newspaper with and vice versa as well. So the type of audiences we have for both products are different and we publish things in a way that reflects those different audiences.
I: What’s a high performing story for you?
R: It’s changed a lot. I mean this is the other thing that’s been really interesting about the last few years is that for several years a high performing article is something which got millions of page views and that was how we were judged which is where SEO came in and how we were preparing around big events which was where the massive live audiences were for example. So we actually have the record for the number of page views for a live blog in the whole company which was when Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao and we had some 32 million page views for a live blog which is sort of beserk. Anyway, what the company has realised and how our strategy has changed is that having huge numbers is fantastic and looks great but actually the value to us as a company is very, very limited because digital advertising hasn’t caught up with print advertising or yielded the same revenues. So as a company we’ve evolved into a strategy where we try to find out much more about our readers and enhance their experiences and serve them with content and ads which relate to what they read. So for a couple of years registrations have been a very important part of what we do, so I don’t know what the current percentage is. It’s probably around 15/20 per cent of articles have a registration wall in front of them which means you have to provide us with your e-mail address to be able to read it. Then we also have subscription strategy where again 20/25 per cent of the articles on the website are premium which means that you have to take out a subscription or a free trial for a subscription to be able to read them. So what now constitutes success from an article from my point of view in quite simple terms is the number of subscriptions it generates. Now that doesn’t mean that other things can be successful and actually our women support initially initiative is something where at the moment everything we publish is open because we’re looking to build an audience, we’re looking to build a community, we’re looking to build an identity of the brand. So that is almost like a side project from the overall company strategy. But it’s great in its own right but also in time we will also have a registration and subscription strategy around the women’s support platform. So what constitutes success from a digital article has changed a lot over the years, but the beauty of it is you can tell instantly whether something is successful or not.
I: So if you know what the audience is looking for.
I: How does content, how do you find that content for your audience?
R: So some of it is in how you format something. So there are certain types of articles which do particularly well for subscriptions as a general rule. I mean none of this is scientific if it was we would be sitting here sitting very pretty. I mean a lot of it is instinct to be perfectly honest. We’re very experienced in the sport world, all of my team have been doing their jobs for quite a long time and so they have a very good instinct and eye for what our readership wants to read about a particular event. I mean the beauty of sport is that we have an incredibly full diary where as a baseline for what we do we are constantly served up with events which we know our readers are interested in and so to preview and report on and review those events is second nature really.
I: Interesting, you’ve recently started with a sport platform which is a new area. So instinct as to what your readers would be interested in in seeing this is about trying to generate a new audience. How does something like that come about?
R: Yes, I mean it’s much more of a playground I would say in the women’s sport area because the beauty of it is that we are the first commit significant resource to women’s sport coverage. Thus it is a gap in the market, so we are able to try loads of different stuff which we may not try in other sports or we may know doesn’t work in other sports and across different platforms.
I: I love the idea of playground by the way.
R: Yes, yes, it’s fun and as we’ve just added some reports and so we can be a bit more flexible about what we’re doing. I think again part of the women’s sport initiative is around coverage of women’s sport which actually doesn’t differ significantly from how we would cover a men’s sport or sport in general. But what we’ve started to look at is video in particular, using Instagram, using other platforms to publish content which helps grow that knowledge and audience that isn’t necessarily coming to our website to look at or read or to the print section. So it’s really exciting actually because we don’t know what works or what doesn’t work but actually it doesn’t really matter at the moment. So we’re sort of finding out by trying lots of different things and again what constitutes success on the women’s sport channel at the moment is it being interesting, engaging content. There isn’t much more to it than that to be perfectly honest, because we haven’t set ourselves targets around it as things stand because we don’t know what they should be and actually we see this as a long term growth area, but we have been really encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.
I: It’s a very interesting point that we hadn’t set targets around it yet. I suppose they’ll get a point where you will start setting targets around. Have you given yourself a time scale by in six months, a year, two years you’ll have a clear idea of what’s going on?
R: No, not really. I’m very relaxed about it because we have, so from a current perspective, subscriptions as is no secret are our main priority and the main thing we want to generate from publishing we are doing that well in other areas and the women’s sport initiative just wasn’t part of those targets around those areas because it’s a new thing it’s important that we have open content to grow that and grow the identity and I think that as we go along I think the quality of it and the audience for it will allow us to generate subscriptions, registrations, strategy of some form, but it may look quite different to what we’re doing in other areas of sport. It may be by the end of this year it may be next year. I don’t know and I’m very relaxed about that because I see this as something quite different and the company does as well. So it’s not an issue from that point of view.
R: Yes absolutely, yes.
I: Playing with something.
I: As you are head of sport here, I’m interested to find out what you see as the point of sport? What’s sport for?
R: Sport should be at the centre of an awful lot more than it is currently. It’s hugely important to society. It is hugely important for a release, it’s entertainment, it is a diversion for everything else that’s happening, hugely important from a health perspective and why successive governments haven’t grasped this and seen sport for what it is has always really frustrated me which is part of why we’ve started a campaign around school sports. But it plays to peoples’ passions and loyalties and people love their football team or they love watching tennis because it makes them feel good. It makes them feel it’s stirs something in them and I’m no different. So when I was growing up I played a lot of sport, I watched a lot of sport. I used to enjoy reading about sport which led to becoming a sports journalist. But it stirs things in you which other things don’t. I’m sure there are people for whom the arts do similar things, but the beauty of sport is that it gets you moving, it gets your brain going, it gets you thinking about things. It provokes debate, you have opinions about it and you care about it. But actually at the end of the day it’s not that important. If you use sports journalism as a sort of means to get away from everything else then great. You may well read it because you’re fascinated by all the different sports and teams that we write about and if it inspires you to play some more sport then all the better and I certainly think that what we’re trying to do with our school sports campaign may become an even more important part of what we’re trying to do as journalists which is to enact social change when others are massively failing to do so.
I: Sport is obviously a massive … well it is your work life. Is sport in your life beyond work?
R: Yes, quite tragically really. Yes, well my sporting career has evolved from being a reasonable footballer and tennis player to someone who then had a family and kids who became a very lapsed sportsperson to marrying someone who does a lot of triathlons and half marathons and stuff. So inspired to take up running and did a half marathon when I was 30 and then did my first half marathon since thing 14 years later a few weeks ago. So I kind of … and did it in a quicker time as well. So from a personal point of view I’ve kept well I’ve managed to regain my fitness which is good. My kids all play sport and I run my son’s under 11 football team every week which is fun, frustrating but fun. So yes sport is a big part of my life outside of work as well and I will watch sport for fun as well as for work purposes as well, so yes.
I: This podcast is about performance, it’s about people’s different views on what they see as success being. What’s success to you?
R: It’s lots of different things really, but fundamentally if we are producing content which our readers are enjoying and being informed by and which is keeping them reading the paper or the website or the app or our newsletters or listening to our podcasts then that is success from a professional point of view. It’s not much more complicated than that. There are obviously lots and lots of day to day things which constitute success or not, have we made the right decision from a newspaper point of view what we’re leading with or how we’re covering something. Have I managed to solve someone’s problem, one of our employees? Have I performed well in a senior meeting around strategy? Do I feel like I’m running the department in the best way I can and having a happy and productive team while also delivering on senior level editorial and broader commitments internally and also being a person that people externally relate to and can turn to when they want to speak to someone about sport or The Telegraph? So it’s quite a broad role which I found increasingly appealing as I’ve worked my way through it.
I: Beyond the role.
I: What is success for you?
I: Is it very [overspeaking 00:20:47]?
R: Yes, well it’s …
I: [overspeaking 00:20:47] Progressing within your career or?
R: No, I’ve sort of happily managed to progress, my career has progressed quite regularly and so I’ve very rarely got to a stage where I was frustrated in a role. It was the end of my time at The Guardian and so that was very good timing when I was approached to join The Telegraph. But from a personal point of view it’s related to family really and the healthiness and happiness of the family and the amount of time that I’m able to give them when I’m not working. Life isn’t complicated, it’s work and family really and friends when I can fit them in yes.
I: Do you feel successful?
R: Yes. I think I’m certainly not someone to blow my own trumpet at all but I think I’ve achieved a great deal in my career so far. I suppose when I think about what I might do next which is not something I have any great desire to move on from this particular role, there is a question about where would I go certainly from a journalistic point of view from being head of sport at The Telegraph which you could argue is the pinnacle of sports journalism. So yes I do feel successful in that regard, but equally will constantly be challenging myself.
I: Looking for the next.
R: Looking for the next sort of writer way to improve personally and professionally.
I: I’m just going to wrap things up with some quick fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
R: I had Special K.
I: Did you? Favourite piece of kit and you can define kit however you want to.
R: My new Southampton football kit.
I: Sporting hero.
R: Matt La Tissier.
R: Because he’s the greatest footballer Southampton have ever had and he was someone who when I was growing up constantly saved Southampton from relegation and was scoring brilliant goals in the process.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport.
R: It’s sort of clichéd to say the family but it is but beyond that I would say music. So listening and I’m very … when I was a teenager sort of 20s I would go to a lot of concerts and listen to a lot of music and my playlist hasn’t changed a great deal since.
I: Still opportunity to go to some concerts.
R: I went to a couple last year yes but they were all bands from the early ‘90s who have reformed to take my money, but very enjoyable nonetheless.
I: Fantastic and the last question, best performance enhancer?
R: Praise from people you respect.
I: Well thank you very much for talking today.
R: It’s a pleasure, it’s been enjoyable, thank you.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a questionandperformance.com.
[End of transcript]
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