The Simon Thomas interview: Tweeting, talking – and hitting daily targets for ‘clicks’

Walesonline journalist Simon Thomas at the Walesonline offices in Cardiff
Walesonline journalist Simon Thomas at the Walesonline offices in Cardiff

In part two of our interview with Simon Thomas of Walesonline, one of the most experienced and respected sports journalists in the country, we hear how Simon exploits social media and what his main piece of advice would be to those aspiring to do his job. Simon also tells us what it’s like to work under the pressure of hitting daily page-view targets for every story he writes.

By Delme Parfitt

TAKE a look at the twitter timeline of any journalist with a reasonably prominent profile and it won’t be long before you discover something has been posted in their direction that you wouldn’t have wanted to receive yourself.

Simon Thomas knows the feeling. Eight years, 230,000 tweets, 22,000 likes and almost 28,000 followers – that’s his footprint on a social media platform now critical to sports journalists. In fact, in a lot of cases it’s altered their entire approach to the job.

The level of usage and interaction, of course, varies according to the individual. But Simon is never far away from the little blue bird no matter what the time of day. That’s his choice. That’s what works for him.

So just what should aspiring sports journalists be getting out of twitter, and just as importantly, putting back in?

“Using twitter was very much a conscious decision because I realised the industry was changing,” he explained.

“It is so important to get a social media presence and I found that twitter is the one that suited me, probably because I’m someone who likes to talk about rugby to anybody who will talk to me about it!

“The key to it is engaging with people and keeping a cool head because journalists aren’t always the most popular people.

“But if you put yourself in the public domain you’re going to come in for criticism and you have to rise above it.

“It’s about building up a profile so that people see you as someone they can come to with a question, or with information, and know that you’ll handle it well.

“I would say now that 90% of my stories come from contacts I have built on social media.”

While social media is critical in the digital era, Simon stressed that those seeking to enter his profession must be prepared to communicate in the old fashioned way.

It’s still good to talk, he says. In fact, it’s essential if a young sports journalist is ever going to make an impact.

He explained: “Sometimes you go to press conferences and you get quite bog standard quotes that don’t make for very interesting pieces these days – though we used to fill newspapers with them!

Simon at his desk in Media Wales

“But if you spend another hour talking to people and building a rapport – at matches as well – it counts for so much.

“Talk to other journalists, to club officials, get yourself known and gain confidence in just speaking to people.

“More and more youngsters who come into sports journalism now find it quite challenging simply to pick up a phone and speak to people.

“Society has changed. People communicate via social media and text more and more.

“Our newsroom is a quieter place than it once was, only the old heads like me can be heard chattering away on the phone.

“You accept that, but sometimes there is no substitute for picking up a phone.”

While ‘chattering away on the phone’ can be invaluable, the digital era has brought requirements and pressures for journalists that could never have been imagined even a decade ago.

Most obvious among them is the need for every story to be well read by an online audience, with modern day web analytics able to provide pinpoint data about the popularity – or otherwise – of what has been written.

In the world of free internet content, clicks are king. The more you get, the more attractive you become to advertisers who have never been willing to part with the kind of cash for digital exposure they once did to get their messages across in print.

It has, Simon concedes, demanded a change of outlook. Yet he is keen to underline that nobody wanting to follow in his path should be put off by what has become very much a target-driven newsroom culture.

“All you used to be able to see was the overall sales figures for the newspapers, we had no data to show the interest in particular stories,” he said.

“Now we have a screen in the newsroom that shows us at any given time how many people are reading each article we write.

“You cannot get away from it; if you’ve written something that nobody is reading you must ask yourself whether you have used your time well.

“Personally I don’t mind, because what it’s done for me is made me think about every story I do and say to myself ‘yes this interests me, but will it interest our audience?’

“I just find that the stories I feel I’ve put most effort into and written well are almost always the stories that do well for page views.

“You can put that down to experience and I am aware that young journalists entering the industry don’t have such a clear of idea of what will and won’t work, and may feel pressurised.

“I would say to them not to worry about it because as long as you are doing the job well, the targets will take care of themselves.

“It isn’t rocket science. If you ask me what journalism is about, I’d say it’s about telling people things they don’t know in a clear, lucid and concise manner. If you want what you write to be read, make it readable.”

Don’t miss the final part of our interview with Simon tomorrow, when he tells us the story of how he survived a battle with cancer, and the impact it has had on his career.