Transcript: Couch Talk 45 with Andrew Miller

Couch Talk Episode 45 (play)

Guest: Andrew Miller

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the former UK chief editor of ESPN Cricinfo and the current editor of the cricketer magazine, Andrew Miller. We will be talking about his move from cricnfo to the cricketer, what he hopes to achieve at the cricketer, the cricketer’s acquisition of the test match sofa amongst other things. Welcome to the show Andrew.

Andrew Miller– Hello! Hi, Subash! How do you do?

SJ– Doing quite well, thanks for being on the show! So, you made the move from ESPNcricinfo to the Cricketer Magazine late last year. ESPNcricinfo being the top single-sport website in the world and among the top sports websites over the world. You were the UK editor there. And, you made the move to The Cricketer, and you are the editor there. Why this career move, and how does it jive with your journalistic career ambitions?

AM– The opportunity came largely out of the blue. I was aware that there were changes at The Cricketer, we had a long collection – The Cricketer and Cricinfo, Wisden as well, we were part of the same stable. The guys used to work in the same offices, and there was  a great connection over the years. It never occurred to me to make a move until I was approached to apply for the job. When I stopped to think about it, I realised that I’d been at Cricinfo for 11 years now, in various capacities. And, [it was] the chance to go from helping build Cricinfo up, not exactly from scratch because an awful lot went on before I was on board, but certainly editorially.

it had reached a point where, frankly, you can’t get much bigger to go to an organization which has been around for 91 years already. It was found in 1921, and has been a part of the fabric of the history of the game. It’s an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I was 34, the right moment to make the move for me, and the right challenges in the right moment in my career.

So, I have got three issues down, and the fourth one goes out on Wednesday. I’m loving every minute. The job is different to Cricinfo as you imagine, the difference is that once I’m really enjoying getting stuck into.

SJ– You mentioned the challenges. What is it that you hope to achieve at The Cricketer? Isn’t a monthly magazine sort of anarchronistic in the days of 24×7 news cycle? What is your vision for The Cricketer and what are some of the aspects of this vision that you consider as your challenges?

AM– You are spot on there! it is crunch time for the print publications in general. So, many people think I’m insane from what is probably the safest boat in a rocky slope in cricket journalism at Cricinfo to a magazine in an industry that a lot of people think is in the wane. But, you know, the challenge is there to turn the magazine into something that not only manages the climb, but also start afresh and say – We’ve been around for nearly a century, and we are not going anywhere away in a hurry. You’ve spoken with Lawrence Booth about these challenges there at The Almanac. The principle is the same across the board. The print media isn’t safe at the moment for various reasons, but it is still respected and a huge part of the history of the game. And it is going to climb under my watch. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to change the pace of the magazine, change the editorial look and feel. We’ve got a big re-design coming up for the next issue. It just takes it back a bit. We aren’t there yet. We’ve got an awful lot that we can give back to cricket. And we’re going to set out and give it a go. If I can be here and make sure t The Cricketer is on for another 100 years, that is my legacy. It is the sort of challenge that I’m really excited to take on.

SJ– I’d love it if you can shed some light on how the perspective of the editor changes? You were the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. How does it change when you are dealing with a monthly magazine?

AM– Basically, when it comes out, there is more time to think. There is a lot of planning. At cricinfo, a lot of it was on the hoof – a lot of reacting, things that happen like breaking news, live match coverage. It is always an instant. There is very little time to really sit down and write. “This is how I’m going to write, this is how I’m going to frame the story.” It is all very much like ‘See ball, hit ball’. Here the plan for 12 months, more or less has been mapped out in terms of the sort or vision that we want over the course of the year,. And, we got plans to do some big features! In the last issue, we did the survey of the best test grounds in the world which came from about 41 of the best travelled journalists and fans in the world to bring the list of lovely places to watch test cricket.

The changing media of the cricket media, sort of addressing twitter, and Test Match Sofa, and even things like the Cricket Couch – how the people have got the opportunity in this day and age to bring the insights, to be a voice outside the traditional media. What this means is, that the traditional media has sort of backed to fit into a different bracket. It doesn’t mean that we shrink by any means, but that we think longer and harder about how to really make a print publication in this day and age. What that really comes out to is getting a better design, and making sure the words on that page sing and not just exist.

Cricinfo was brilliant and I just loved every minute of it. but, at the same time, when you craft your words for hours and hours and end on a flat web-page, it is not the same as you craft it one a feature across all five different pages, with the right pictures anchored, and all the nuances of print, you can actually print a magazine. That is really fun. Still nothing like it. i was a freelancer for Cricinfo before I became an editor. I can still say that there is nothing quite like seeing things in print. I still believe the print has a long way to go, especially in this day and age when the intake is endless. A lot of people do actually like reading to the end of the book and closing the book and say “I’ve done everything I can with this.” Whereas, on the internet, you can go on the website, and 7 hours later, you are still clicking on something to go somewhere else. There is no way to stop. It is quite nice to pick up a magazine and slam it shut. It is satisfying, I find.

SJ– I understand your viewpoints from the perspective of the writer, and to an extent of the fans. but still, you are in the business of making money. Right? That has to come from the readership. The fact that you have a 30 day turn-around, how do you try to stay relevant? For example, in an unrelated note, when the Mervyn Westfield story came around, I saw one of your tweets say about the Spidey Sense. You were taking an educated, or you had other information. You had written he story for a magazine. So, how do you deal with such things?

AM– The Mervyn Westfield case, in particular, I used Spidey Sense in a totally different context, a few listeners will recognize that in about a bit. That case, we took a punt on that, we recognized that whatever the result, the rational focus is going to be on Essex, and I think we were spot-on in that. People started looking at Essex in a very scant light, all of a sudden. And so, we decided to go back to the basics and go to the first bloke at Essex who blew the whistle on this –Don Topley. So, we teed up a feature with him. When he cast his aspersions on a series of matters, he was not taken particularly seriously. He was  treated pretty shabbily by the authorities and his peers in the game. And, cast to the margins. He was pretty reluctant to speak hence forth. So we took a punt there. we took our team there, we convinced him that we were in for all the right reasons and then we got a piece out of it. Actually, we took the story forward. It was a punt. It was, an educated guess, as it happened, when the result came out, they were in the spotlight and we had the story that fitted. So, we were lucky with the timing of that one.

It is more often than not as a case of not chasing the game. It is a case of doing something different. The re-design is going to be much less looking back at what happened and much more of looking forward to what’s happening or looking differently. We’ve a brand new set looking into the mechanics of the game. We are asking James Andersen how he bowls a bouncer, how he sets the field for a bouncer. And again, matching it up with good graphics, illustrating what he is saying. Little things like that, combining the access to the players that we can get and demystifying the game that is actually pretty complicated. That is where our future lies in just taking a different look. Cricket is a long drawn-out sport, and there is always a different angle to look at it. Just like The Wisden has its place in looking back and being the authoritative voice once in a year, we can have a scant view on what’s happening in the game.

SJ– You mentioned the access to the players. I want to ask you about how the new media has changed the role of a cricket journalist. Only a few years ago access to the players, for the fans, did not exist. The journalists had to cultivate their access and their assets, and were the conduits of information from the players to the fans. Now, with the social media, the traditional journalist is being side-tracked. You have cricketers providing unfiltered access via Facebook, twitter, or websites. Do the cricket journalists begrudge that? How has this changed the job of a cricket journalist and scope of cricket journalism?

AM– There are two ways to look at this. On one hand, like you said, there is a lot more access for fans via twitter and the other means. In the meantime, with due respect, sometimes, the stuff that comes out on twitter like Steven Davies saying “Chicken and bacon sandwiches are perfect for his train journey”, that is not going to really give you massive insight. So, the same principles apply. You get a player in the public eye. You talk to them, you ask questions that people want to know. It is possible to an extent over twitter, but equally, when you face someone and look them into the eye and ask a straight question, it is not the same as when you are one a keyboard and typing out. And, they have got a chance to edit what they think, and you can’t see the nuances that go into what they are thinking.

You round up Kevin Pietersen, for instance. There will be a little clues that you pick up from the way he says, face to face in a interview, that we are forming a part of our narrative. You can take the visual ticks, and all the rest and weave them into this narrative of a player. To be honest, I don’t think a lot’s changed in that respect. It still requires a trust of a magazine with the reputation of The Cricketer, or The Times, or any publication to get access to players and let them believe us, this reputable organization, and not feel like going to get stitched up here and be honest with the opinion.  You always have one or two guys who freely open up to all sorts of different avenues. But, I still think there is that place for established journalists, journalists with instincts to whom players respond to, something you can’t do on twitter.

SJ– The concept of breaking news, such as, somebody getting selected or dropped, or something major happening, is broken directly on twitter bypassing the journalists. The reason why I’m asking this is, has the role of the journalists changed and have the people been forced to change their habits on how they cover cricket?

AM– Yes. Absolutely. Certainly, when it comes to live coverage, if you see the website lately, we’ve done a real re-vamp for this season. We’ve gone to just that live rolling ball, every spit-and-cough posted as it happens. Previously it was diligent reports on things that already happened. What we ended up with on our website is, lots of very, very good journalistic pieces that actually were dead by nature. That was the end of the story, you got to the end of the story and you have nowhere else to go. In our revamped site, it is much like the live action coming up, much like the over by over or blow by blow of cricinfo or Guardian etc.

Again, instant analysis. You are right, it has changed. The age of internet has forced people to speed up and have reactive stories. When it happens, you have to be ready with a post and get there first. I’ve done that. i’ve been with cricifo for long. I started out there in 2000, long before internet really had taken off. To see the various gradual steps that has gone that route, it’s kind of reinforced into me that there is only so many levels you can break down the news into. You have big long pieces, to shortened pieces to tiny bullet points on twitter to get the point across. But, where do you go from there? In my opinion, you go back to the start, do a big fat proper magazine article, out of the snippets that you’ve been putting together. Everything, as long as you put snippets together, in a way that work better and tell us stories that has been to the rolling news blog, that makes a huge lot of sense. It means long form journalism has its place in this twitter age.

SJ– Absolutely! We have a dominant cricket news site, a premium content site, and there are plenty of players. The Cricketer magazine is predominantly for English audience. You have other magazines that try to do what you are doing, so you have competition in that area. How do you see cricket news and opinion media evolve from here? What is the role of The Cricketer in all this? Also, how do you try to distinguish yourself from your competition?

AM– I’ll answer the second question first. The distinguishing feature are what we did for 91 years. We have this lineage that goes back to Chris Martin Jenkins, Pelham Warner, some of the greatest of the bygone days have contributed to what The Cricketer is now. It means that when we do a historical piece on The Cricketer, it doesn’t look like we are just dipping our toes for the sake of it, but we are actually immersed in the history of the game as it is. It belongs there.. That’s how we still maintain our relevance in the competitive market place. We’ve been there for so long, as long as we roll with the punches, as long as we accept that there are moments in the evolution of the magazine and cricket, where frankly you have to accept that the way things were done before, it cannot be done henceforth. As long as you are alert to those moments, you stay relevant. That’s my how my challenge as the editor is.

I’m certainly immersed in the ways of the new media. I’ve gone into number of battles that I’ve fought. So, the rigidity of the old style newspaper mentality on tour in particular when frankly, cricinfo could’ve stuck up every single story and scooped everyone. It was trying to respect the history and tradition and the diligence that goes into proper journalistic pull-outs. I’m defending values that I spent long times chiselling away at. Poached on game-keeper, in that respect. Sometimes, that is precisely the type of person you need for those moments in time.

SJ– The first order of business once you took up the position at The Cricketer was to buy out the Test Match Sofa. I did an interview with Daniel Norcross also about this. I want to hear your views on having Jonathan Agnew, who is a stake holder in The Cricketer, as well as with the Test Match Special. Isn’t there an inherent conflict of interest? I’m sure you’ve had a chat with Agnew on this. So, if you can give a window into his thoughts as well.

AM– I’ll speak for myself. I’ll give the reasoning behind the purchase. I agree, there is a certain conflict there, but at the same time there is a less of a conflict there than what you think. The sort of thing about Test Match Sofa, it has to make a noise to be noticed. The name they chose instantly chimed with Test Match Special. It was never about rubbing people out the wrong way, but just to be noticed. That’s the way you want to be noticed. Jarrod Kimber, he got noticed in a similar sort of manner. We have a big piece in the last issue of The Cricketer. So, if they have not seen it yet, Jonathan Liew wrote it, it is a dissection of the reasoning behind the purchase [of Test Match Sofa]. It was an acceptance from my mind. I’m whole heartedly backing the reasoning behind it.

We have a very loyal and great subscriber base at the cricketer. We have had loyalty to the magazine that dates back to generations. Grandfather bought their sons, they bought their sons the magazines. This seems to be passed on down the line. It is not so much about the people who have always purchased The Cricketer, it is about the people who have never been. People who sometimes feel cricket is very, very hard to get into, and here is where twitter, the instant access to players have changed the pattern. Not just players, it is instant access to commentators and pundits. And this is where Test Match Sofa is a real game changer. The use of twitter, the ability to interact with guys as they are reporting on the game and suggest stats and briefly discuss or point out something bleedingluy obvious that has been missed, and make these guys sitting in their armchairs at home to really be a part of the narrative of the game. I think that is brilliant. There are issues that go beyond the lab, but somewhere eventually this is good for the sport. This increases access to the sport.

In England, the long running problem about Sky, whose money has been brilliant to the game, but the loss of free-to-air television and the impact that it has had on kids like myself when I was 11. Why I came into cricket is not because of any interest from my family. I did play cricket at school, but my family weren’t cricket tragic. But school is not all day long. On holidays, you switch on television at 11 in the morning, and it is cricket! And now, you turn it off again. Or, you think, there must be something to it, it is the same scene for five days running and I got to get to know this, else I can’t watch it for five days. I was self-taught by watching on BBC-1 and have it influence me. There is that need to reconnect with people who might otherwise never give any time of the day. This summer, in England, in 2012, coming up very soon the best possible match-up between the two great fast bowling teams, England and South Africa ,due to Euro 2012 and the Olympics has been pushed to the margins on both ends. Cricket is going to struggle to make itself heard over the other sports this summer. If you have grass roots movement that allows people to enjoy the bandwagon, speech on behalf of every cricket lover directly into something that is being broadcast not just in UK but also all over the world , that has to be a good thing!

SJ– Certainly! I love The Sofa. But, how does it jive with the overall goal of The Cricketer. I understand that it gives you live content, between your publication, the monthly output. Why did you go after The Sofa?

AM– Yes. Coming to the subscriber base- the people who traditional bought the cricketer, are a traditional demographic. They are probably not necessarily young, but not ancient, so to say! The Test Match Sofa demographic is a lot younger. And they have a lot of women commentators, who are very popular on The Sofa. And, it appeals to the young, and across the board. There are a certain people who never buy The Cricketer and always listen to the Test Match Sofa, and there are certain people who always buy The Cricketer and never listen to the Test Match Sofa. Both of those are in our stable. And suddenly, we are in a position to double our audience on both fronts. It is a natural fit, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of building a business, which frankly, is what we have to do. Magazines can’t afford to just sit and wait for a boom of subscribers. We got to attract new people. I think this is the best way of doing so.

SJ– One final question. Your primary readership is in England. Recently, we’ve seen even Wisden start operation in India- Wisden India. Majority of your readership for cricket is outside England. Is there any plan to tap into the market?

AM– Not in as many words, I wouldn’t imagine. Just to take you back, my first job in cricket was effectively Wisden. It was Wisden Online, the parent organization, which had Wisden Asia in its stable and as well. Basically, I worked in . But, of course, Wisden, soon after I joined had bought Cricinfo, and it was also soon realised that  a lot of the noise, a lot of the best punditry and a lot of the best writers and a lot of them with interest were certainly coming out of India. It’s hard to actually now comprehend how slow cricket was to realise that the market was no longer in England. Even as recently as 2000 when I first worked for Wisden and photocopies endless pagess of Wisden Almanac, It was actually a realisation that the biggest market for cricket was India. It was only Rahul Bhattacharya, Sambit Bal, Dileep Premachandran and people like that who were a part of our stable in in India, suddenly bespoke noises in their own right. There is a realisation that the game has changed. became Cricinfo. Cricinfo became ESPNcricinfo, it became a part of ESPN, and Wisden became its own things. Now, Wisden is going back to where it was 10 years ago, and realising that there is a big market in Asia to tap in to. It may be tough to get back on board the bandwagon in that same way, because in many ways, they let it pass when they sold off cricinfo.

In essence, best [for us] is not going to be chasing the market in that way. Our priority will remain in England and English cricket because of our fan-base. But also, it will mean that there are different ways to put your point across. If we have a broad editorial outlook, anchored in English cricket, but isn’t afraid to acknowledge key events elsewhere- like Sachin Tendulkar, case in point, as and when he retires. Which presumably will be sooner rather than later, I would imagine it would be written about in the entire magazine and the internet as well. There are some players, especially in a game like cricket where there are only 10 test nations and only a handful of them are viable in this day and age, the big names are global names. If you are an Englishman, you can still acknowledge that the greatest names in the sport aren’t English. There are means for us to maintain our English base and be able to appeal to a broad outlook.

SJ– On that note, Andrew, thanks a lot for coming on the show! It was an absolute pleasure talking to you, mate!

AM– It was my pleasure, Subash.

SJ: Thanks.

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman