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Published October 30th 2018

Interview: James Smurthwaite on Online Journalism and Creating Successful Content for the Mountain Biking Community

We ask former editor of Dirt Magazine James Smurthwaite for his tips on creating incredible content and the skills he thinks the content creators of the future need to survive and excel.

Last time I saw James was probably in our messy student newspaper office in Exeter where we both toiled on the training ground of many a future journalist. Four years later, I’m delighted to hear about the success he’s had covering the field that he loves – mountain biking.

James’s work with Dirt Magazine took him all over the world, meeting athletes and covering adrenaline-fueled events while leading an editorial team based around the UK. He described taking on the role as editor as a dream come true. “To combine your job with something you love is no bad thing,” he says.

I was keen to ask him about his time covering a niche subject and how he built and strengthened a huge community around the magazine. Get ready for some content creation wisdom.

How did you source stories to write about?

James says there was a whole mix of things that provided the team with stories – press releases, events, going to trade shows, sometimes mainstream news, and, importantly, social media.

When it came to all things mountain biking, Dirt had one of the biggest social media followings out there (something we’ll get to later), so people reached out a lot with tips.

Meanwhile, the nature of the mountain biking scene meant that social provided a great access point to the big athletes.

“In this industry the athletes will often wear their hearts on their sleeves. They aren’t always media trained – personality-less and robotic.”

If the athletes have got something to say, they’ll say it on social media. They might complain about a track or announce some news about a new sponsor. James described their social accounts as “an open window to their lives.”

How do you gain traction in an active community?

Mountain biking may seem like a niche interest, but the online community is truly thriving.

Luckily, James says, Dirt was a really early adopter of Facebook and it was much easier to build a following back then, before the harsh-on-publisher algorithms came in.

But when James first started, the team was just posting article links. He was keen to use it to build brand loyalty, too. He started regular social media pieces like “Breakfast Banger” – a daily cool shot of someone riding a mountain bike. People started to contribute their own. He also began posting “30 Second Thursdays” where they’d share a cool clip – often something that the team would re-purpose from other things they’d made.

The things that did best, James says, was the controversial stuff that poked fun at the industry, since the internet is so saturated with mountain biking content.

“When you bring in editorial stance, when you bring in that expertise, you stand out. You’ve got to push that boundary.”

Some things backfired, he said, but it was worth the risk.

How important was video content?

While James had plenty of writing to do and didn’t have a huge amount of formal training, video was an important part of his role. He doesn’t think a lack of education in video held him back, though.

“To get basic video content I honestly don’t think you need teaching. Just put a camera in someone’s face, ask a question and you’re halfway there. It’s more about knowing what to shoot – the news angle, knowing the subject.”

To succeed as a journalist these days you need to know how to shoot video and take a photo, he says. But he insists that knowing what to shoot is most important.

He has iMovie on his phone which makes it easy for him to chop up and combine clips shot on the go, and it’s built to be intuitive.

“Everyone has video skills, even if they don’t know it. If you’ve got a smart phone you’ve got the skills in your pocket.”

What was Dirt Magazine’s stance on branded content?

James says the publisher he worked for was fairly averse to displaying ads, since so many people either had ad blockers or had just learned to tune them out. Instead Dirt Magazine focused on partnerships with brands both on the site and on social media.

“As long as advertorial content is clearly labelled it doesn’t harm anyone and it can be beneficial for the readers too.”

What will the content creators of the future need to survive?

James is a highly qualified journalist. Aside from his degree from Exeter, he’s got a Masters in Magazine Journalism from London’s prestigious City University. When I ask him what skills journalists and content creators will need to get by in the future I wince slightly, expecting him to list off a bunch of expensive sounding skills.

I’m pleasantly surprised. He says that creativity and originality are key, and that experimenting is important. Some of the best (and, he admits, the worst) results they got at Dirt Magazine were from experiments they thought they’d try.

Regardless of the industry you’re creating content for, I think James’s final piece of advice stands strong.

“Do something creative that no one else is doing – that will rise above the noise of the internet.”

Thanks to James for taking the time to chat with us. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

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