What’s life like at the editorial helm of one of the UK’s biggest online sports publishers? And what does the new boss look for in new talent?
Speaking to Journo Resources, SPORTbible’s new(ish) Head of Content, Hitesh Ratna shares his biggest bugbears, the puzzle of algorithms, and why old school journalism still wins the day…
What did you always dream of being?
Connected to journalism, nothing. Growing up, I wanted to be a zoologist. It was only much later, almost after I graduated, that that the idea of something in journalism became something I was aware of.
Growing up in an Asian family, the thought of especially working in sport was just was just not a thing – there was no concept of jobs being fun, of being things that you aspire to do. It was just something that pays the bills, you know.
Obviously, my family wanted me to go into accountancy or banking, and when I got my job at FourFourTwo, I told my mom and she asked me how long it would be before I could graduate to working in the same bank as my brother. I had to explain to her that it doesn’t work like that, that I didn’t want to work in a bank.
What triggered the journalism thing?
It was wanting to do something creative but not knowing how to go about doing it.
When I graduated, I wanted to go to work for a creative agency – that never happened. And then I was at a loose end like a lot of lot of students who graduated, and they don’t really know what to do, can’t really get into the job market.
I applied to work experience a number of places and the gigs I got happened to be in magazine journalism. I just I stuck around long enough and became part of the furniture.
What’s a typical day?
The challenge with this particular question is that my typical day right now is probably very different to my typical day in a year’s time because what we’re doing right now is trying to build everything.
Want an insight into the daily lives of more journalists? We’ve got you covered. Check out our interviews with Jess Brammar, Executive Editor of HuffPost UK, Megha Mohan, the BBC’s first Gender and Identity Correspondent, and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Head of Editorial at gal-dem.
My typical day involves overseeing some videos, new stories, being in meetings about commercial briefs, branded content… But they also involve looking at CVs, recruiting for an editor, a senior journalist, two video editors… I spoke to a designer yesterday.
It’s putting in place those building blocks that will allow me to turn this into the world’s biggest social-first sports publisher. Every day is different – everyone’s going to say that, but what I do right now is very different to what I will be doing in a year’s time.
I’m presuming the days are long?
You might be in the office from 9am-6pm or 9am-7pm, but being a social publisher, which is always on, you’re on.
You’re checking your phone first thing when you wake up, last thing before you go to bed, you’re checking on weekends – you’ve always got one eye on things, wherever you are.
What would surprise people about your role?
I think the thing that was the thing that I’ve been surprised by is how much time I spent trying to figure out algorithms now, because it’s not only a crucial part of the job, it is almost the most important part.
Understand what makes a good story and also understand audience behaviour – those two variables still exist. If you can find a good story and then you can also understand what triggers an audience, what hooks them in, that’s fine. But if, in this environment, you don’t understand what the algorithm wants, what the platforms want, then the two things might be a big waste of time. All three things have to work in unison.
“I fell into depression.”@TheRock overcame a broken NFL dream to become the world’s biggest movie star. 👊
— SPORTbible (@sportbible) August 2, 2019
The amount of time I spend looking at a video and looking at its average watch time and then looking at the drop off right after nine seconds, then trying to figure out what happened there…
Trying and understanding why reach is big one week and then it has fallen off a cliff the next (even though we’re doing the same stuff, apparently) and trying to do the same thing for our video. And then trying to do that for our news, trying to do that for our Instagram engagement levels – that is kind of delving into what feels like the dark arts, and it’s going to take a long time to feel like I truly understand it.
And because those algorithms always change as well, you never really feel like catch up. Since I’ve been here Facebook have changed their video algorithm two or three times. It’s been six months and you might have a strategy that is device optimised based on the algorithm that Facebook had outlined in January, and that’s redundant by the time April rolls around. You come up with a new strategy, and six weeks later it is revised again.
What’s the best thing a beginner should do if they want to get your job one day?
I think this one this is one of those that hasn’t really changed between now and print and I’m going to kind of old school journalism. Get yourself out there.
Whatever form of journalism you want to go into, try and start building a portfolio of that type of work. Reach out to people, demonstrate your work. That’s the only way that you’re going to demonstrate what your ability is – by showing that you have an interest in it, you’re enthusiastic about it, that you’re good at it and look, here are some examples of my work.
We’ve only gone and won the PPA cover of the year award. Thanks to everyone who voted. Very much appreciated. pic.twitter.com/8lstKDurI7
— Hitesh Ratna (@HiteshRatna) June 30, 2016
It hasn’t ever been easier to go and showcase your own stuff because you can build your own channels. Once you build your own channels, whether that’s on YouTube or on Instagram or Facebook, you can then demonstrate to potential employers that this is my skill set, this is my tone of voice.
In that way, your own curated content is becoming like the modern equivalent of a CV. A single pager demonstrating all your work just doesn’t really cut it anymore. If and when we’re looking for young hires, one of the standard industry practices is to look at their social feed – not to snoop, but to see if the stuff that they produce for their personal Instagram reflects the sort of stuff that a potential video editor might produce for us.
What do you look for in a job application?
We still ask for a CV and covering letter. But to be honest they are there to let us know that the basics are covered, that you have the basic skills – whether that’s the technical expertise in certain programs or whether you have any kind of prior experience that’s relevant.
Want the inside scoop on what your CV should be looking like? Here’s our deep-dive (with before and after sliders) on how you can make your application actually stand out. And here’s another, from an editor with experience of hiring people.
But the actual showcasing of your work – we kind of want to see it in action, in its natural habit, if you will. On a website or on YouTube or wherever it might be – that’s almost a living, breathing, 3D version of a CV and a covering letter.
How do you spot a future superstar?
Ideas. This is one thing that hasn’t changed, and I don’t think I ever will.
It’s all about ideas, and it is one of the things that feels not like a dying art, but it’s a lost art because we are in this kind of culture of content aggregation and content curation, and so what is lost is the kind of the rigour needed to kind of come up with original concepts.
Sure, everything is an adaptation of something that’s been done before. But the coming up with fresh takes on things, that, generally, I find is lacking.
When I speak to someone who is full of ideas, I can tell they can go far, because whether they’re a video editor or a writer or a social editor, whatever it is, if you can come to a meeting or a job interview and you have ideas, then the rest you can build on top of.
Bad habits for hacks to avoid?
My biggest bugbear when it comes to young journalists is how quickly they want to get ahead.
Young up-and-coming journalists, and I can see where they are coming from, feel like they want to move as quickly as the industry’s moving. They want to be fast-tracked to wherever they want to go, and [feel] that their career should be fast-tracked. I get that sentiment; I get that’s just the way this generation likes to operate at that speed.
On the hunt for ideas for stories? Aubrey Allegretti details how to get the scoops – even when you don’t have any contacts yet. Need more inspiration? How about our bucket list for student journalists?
But what happens when a whole generation want to move their careers at warp speed is that you lose the skills that take time to develop. If it takes it takes two or three years to really hone your skills in whatever direction you want to take them, but you want to be fast-tracked into a roll into a role where you’re overseeing two or three other people, have you have you really honed those skills to be in that position or will you still be learning on the job, when you’re then also having to manage as well?
You need to understand the value of being good at something, to be really good at something, before you move on.
Journalism in the next three to five years – do the 30 second version.
I think it’s just going to get more fragmented. The idea is key and storytelling is essential – they will never change, they will be the crux of everything, forever. But how you tell that story, with the rise of social media, with the rise of different platforms, the nature of storytelling will become increasingly fragmented.
We currently have content that goes out on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. But within those platforms you have to chop that content up. So, you might be putting content out on Facebook for the Newsfeed, for Facebook Watch – that might be one-minute videos, three-minute videos.
And then on Instagram you have the news feed, and within the feed you have carousel stories potentially, and it goes on and on and on – and we haven’t even launched our Snapchat or Tik Tok channels yet.
And so, as a single publisher, [for] a single channel within this kind of umbrella publisher. we will have content going across five, six, seven platforms. And on each platform, you have to have content that might be chopped up in three or four different ways.
Everything will become increasingly fragmented and everyone will become a niche storyteller. If you’re a video editor, you might be telling stories for an Instagram only audience and that’s your job.
You may be able to transfer that to one other short form video platform, but then someone else will be a journalist telling engaging stories but doing it in a totally different way for a different platform for a slightly different audience.