Jon Birchall | Audience and Content Director for Sport at Reach PLC

Our latest guest is Jon Birchall. Jon is currently the Audience and Content Director for Sport at Reach PLC. We are pleased and thankful to Jon for sharing his experience and insights within his professional career to date.

Tell us about yourself, what you currently do and how did you end up where you are right now?

Hello! My name is Jon Birchall and I’m the Audience and Content Director for Sport at Reach PLC. I oversee our digital sports strategy for brands such as the Mirror, Manchester Evening News and roughly 30 others at both National and Regional levels.

First and foremost I got lucky. I was dreadful in school and had every intention of leaving education at 16 to train to become a chef but was able to sneak into sixth form and again, managed to pull together some A-Levels which allowed me to go to university in Liverpool before tuition fees became grotesquely expensive.

During my time at university I was able to juggle some part-time work and an internship with Goal.com from home. Thanks to working with some incredibly patient editors and colleagues such as Steven Saunders, Rich Parry and Amar Singh, this internship eventually became a full-time reporting role, then sub-editing and eventually via a move to London, I became Deputy Editor for Goal UK. I then moved back up north to work for Manchester United — a dream come true — and then joined Reach to initially lead digital innovation across our Regional titles. We tried to develop our portfolio of brands, transformed the way we work and last summer I took on our National titles as well to become Audience and Content Director.

Long story short, it’s a combination of luck, good timing and some hard work. Trying to learn from good people every step of the way and continuing to do so.

As Audience and Content Director (Sport) at Reach plc, what does a normal week look like for you?

You’ve heard this before but a great joy of working in sports media is that a normal week doesn’t exist. We operate in a 24/7 live news environment, so for our writers and editors it’s very much working minute-to-minute stories whereas for me and my direct team now it’s more looking at the month-to-month trends, planning and strategy.

We have highly-skilled journalists and editors who know how to tell stories brilliantly. Although I try to help in that process, my role is now far more focused on developing how we reach new audiences and engage our existing audiences in new ways across different platforms. Our job is to produce stuff that our readers, viewers and listeners like, care about and want to come back to time and again. So my weeks involve a lot of meetings with the many, many people who make this happen.

Prior to the pandemic I would split my time between London, Liverpool and our many other Regional offices. At the moment I’m spending a lot of time in my office at home except for the occasional meeting. I can’t wait to get back out and about to see our teams again.

What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?

The simple answer is people. Firstly, we have a team of roughly 150 digital sports journalists who work into my team, so making sure they are able to do their jobs to the best of their ability is paramount. We also work closely with many other departments, across editorial, commercial and otherwise, so maintaining those relationships is key. This is something I’d make a point of to anyone who is keen to pursue a career in sports media. There are absolutely loads of great people who make what we do possible.

The other key people I care about are our audiences. For every click, listen or view, there’s a person on the other end of the phone or laptop wanting to read about something they care about — in our case, it’s typically their football club. I think that can be forgotten in the wider conversations around digital content. A lot gets said about publishers ‘chasing clicks’ — I think as a concept that is utterly redundant. For a start it oversimplifies how the majority digital businesses work. It also fails to recognise what sports media is for — to serve our audience and tell stories they care about. So that’s another key focus for me.

The final people who have to be a focus for me and anyone working in this industry are those who, largely, have nothing to do with it. Personally it’s my friends, family and endlessly patient wife. I have a dream job and try to never take it for granted. Having good people around you makes sure that doesn’t change. They’ll also be honest if I have terrible ideas. I need that.

What is the most enjoyable part of your role?

I have already talked about the importance of people so I’ll try not to repeat myself but I honestly couldn’t reasonably list all of unbelievably talented journalists I’ve been lucky enough to work with after just over a decade in the industry. They have challenged me, made me better and been there when I’ve needed them. Paul Macdonald, Peter Staunton, Sam Lyon, James Goldman, David Higgerson, Alison Gow, Alan Edmunds, Ed Walker, Julie Aberdein and my current team. Knowing them is the enjoyable bit.

The other main part is building things which change how we work as a business and an industry and seeing them succeed. We constantly need to evolve. The industry changes at breakneck speed. Trying to stay in front of those changes is exhilarating and seeing other new players in the market is always exciting. Again, always trying to learn.

What is the most difficult part of your role?

Seeing my colleagues receive abuse on social media for things they have written. I adore football. It’s a pathetically important part of my life. I just can’t get my head around how, for some, that love for a club or a player or whatever else turns into an excuse to say the most unpleasant things to people on the internet. Because they are people and it does matter. Grow up.

I notice you often promote vacancies which open up over at Reach plc, which is great. I’m sure you have received many pitches and CVs in the past. In your opinion, what makes a good pitch? Also, any CV tips that our readers can take away from this would be much appreciated!

Pitch your ideas and explain why you are the best person to tell that story. Come with a fully formed idea of what you can bring, explain why it’s original and — this is key — have a clear idea of who it’s for and who would want to read it, listen to it or watch it. Journalism and media is for the people who consume it, not those who make it. So why should it matter to those people who consume it? Explain that clearly and politely and you’re on to a winner.

For CVs it’s a similar thing. What is it that makes you unique? What perspective or skills can you bring that others can’t? Lead with that, rather than what school you went to. If you have a specialism or skill, shout about it. It’s an incredibly busy and diverse market, so focus on the things that make you you. Also, try and keep it to one piece of paper front and back please. Or send a video/audio CV if that shows off your skills.

In short, you are going to be pitching your ideas or yourself to people who care about stories. We want to hear something new and compelling. Be proud of being original. Don’t worry about trying to conform.

What are your thoughts on the freelance market for football content creators, whether that’s writing, design or other forms of content?

I would point to what I said to the previous question, really. It is unbelievably competitive but also incredibly exciting. The industry is now in a place where we can experiment in new ways every day so as an employer we want to hear from people who can help us to do that.

My advice for freelancers would be to really take time to consider the publisher you’re looking to work for. What is their current output like? How can you help to make that better? What are they not doing that you can? Ask questions and be honest about what you’re seeing. A freelancer can be someone who comes and helps to fill a gap on a rota or they can also be someone who challenges perceptions about what could and should be done. The best editors will want to hear those challenges and ideas. They’re the people to work with.

And please never be afraid of seeming pushy when it comes to getting paid for your work. Find out early what the process looks like and chase up if there are problems until you get an answer.

Where do you see your career in the future? Are there any specific objectives you hope to achieve?

I want to work in an industry that becomes more diverse in every sense. I want to work with and learn from more people from a variety of backgrounds. It’s the only way we’ll get better. The industry will continue to change for the better and I want to play my part in making that happen.

We have come a long way since I joined Reach six years ago but we still have plenty to do to get to where we want to be. Me and the team know what that looks like. We’re on track but, as always, there’s lots to be getting on with.

And finally Jon, where can people find you on social media?

I’m @jonbir90 on Twitter. Apologies in advance. And thanks for letting me chat. I’m on jonathan.birchall@reachplc.com if anyone wants some specific advice.

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