Entry Two...April 2013
Some thoughts before I started:
I started work as Sports Editor of the Mail on Sunday at the beginning of April 2013. We'd had a glorious summer of sport the year before, with the Olympic Games captivating the nation and enticing normally sane people to rejoice as muscly bodies in lycra jumped, threw, ran, dived and somersaulted their way to victory. There was a warmth and pleasantness to life. No lives were saved, no important political decisions were made. We weren't celebrating something vitally important like the end of the slave trade, but - somehow - it was all so uplifting that it gained its own importance. Seb Coe was no Abraham Lincoln, but his stunningly successful organisation of an Olympic Games full of drama, colour, excitement and joy made everyone happy. And however cynical one is about these things, it's got to be a good thing to make everyone happy.
Allied to the happiness engendered by the summer Games of 2012 were three important factors... first, the notion of hard work being rewarded...winners being celebrated. There'd been an underlying feeling that reality tv and the notion of instant celebrity had created a nation with no sense of the value of hard work...no understanding of 'winning'. Everything had become a race for the bottom...vulgarity triumphed. If you wanted it enough, you got it. The Olympics was different...sure, these athletes 'wanted it'...they wanted it so much they were willing to train hard every day and push themselves to the point of exhaustion to 'get it'. Turning up at opening nights & perfume launches was out...hard work was in. It wasn't about what you wore on your body but what you did with your body. Those who worked the hardest gave themselves the best chance of success.
Secondly, the glory of the Games was amplified by the fact that it was all so healthy... fitness and strength were being celebrated. We weren't talking about whether models were too skinny, children were obese, or whether stomache stapling or stomache bypass was the best way to lose weight. The Olympics was a celebration of fitness, strength and skill. Sales of bikes rose after the Games, as did attendances at swimming pools and purchases of trainers. That, it seems, is a rather more positive impact than celebrities frequently have. Getting a certain haircut, tattoo or handbag because you see your favourite celebrity with it won't change your life. If we all worked to be as fit as Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah our lives would be better. Buying the same shoes as the girl off Big Brother will change nothing...other than give you crippling debt (and possibly cripplingly painful feet).
The third factor was that women shone at the 2012 Games. There were women competing from every nation for the first time, and many of the stars of the Games were female. Two British women in particular defined female involvement at the Games - punchy Nicola Adams, winning the first ever women's Olympic boxing competition, and Jessica Ennis muscling her way to victory in the heptathlon.
If you had a daughter, you didn't want her to be on x-factor, dressed in sequins and performing for Simon Cowell...hoping to win his favour, you wanted her to be Jessica Ennis - dressed in a tracksuit and needing to win no one’s favour - she was the best. Period.
I mention the role of women at the Olympics not to make any sort of feminist point, but simply to point out that women make up over 50% of the population. They're not some minority group. The truth is that you have to engage men AND women to have a truly international event.
So, we'd had a fantastic summer of sport. But the really interesting thing, as the Olympics, and then the Paralympics, ended, was that there was still a load of great sport out there on the horizon. The Olympics ended and people fell into a minor depression, as if there'd never be any sport again...I felt like shaking them - there's sport every week, all the time. Of course, it was wonderful to have been spoon-fed lots of it every day...to wake up, lie on the sofa and let it all wash over you without needing to work out what time Rory McIlroy teed off, the match started or Wimbledon began. You didn't need to know what time anything started or finished...it was all there - in great colour before you - seamlessly moving from weightlifting to synchronised swimming to gymnastics and boxing. If you just sat there, you would see it all.
But the thing is - normal, everyday sport is just as fantastic. The Olympic Games was the opening of a curtain onto the world of sport... the scene was set...the heroes and villains had been introduced and we'd been given a glimpse of the sort of plotlines on offer. Now it was time to watch the play fully unfold. There were tennis tournaments every few months, World Championships in athletics and gymnastics, then there was football, rugby, cricket and golf. It was all there - every day - sport was everywhere - and the Olympics had opened many people's eyes to it.
So...I turned up as the incoming sports editor of a national newspaper with all this on my mind...how could we create the world of sport in 24 pages in a way that made sport as simple to access as those two weeks in the summer when it was all there - laid out like a feast before the nation.
There were things we needed to do: nothing is worth reading without narrative and characterisation - we needed to present all the characters (through interviews, question and answer columns and features), and we needed stories - we needed to tell people things they didn't know in ways that would beguile and entrance them. We wanted great, unusual stories. We wanted to surprise people. At the same time, we wanted to make sure we kept up our reputation as being a newspaper of record, including all the results, strong, definitive match reports and incisive game analysis. We wanted to cover all sports - not just football - but there's no question that football had to be covered well...it's the most read section of the sports pages by a long, long way - we had to do it justice. I also wanted brighter, more creative pictures, and to start some campaigns and investigations - it simply wasn't fair that drug takers were holding other athletes to ransom...they were ruining sport, as were those involved in cricket corruption - we needed to expose them, we needed to back clean athletes and by doing so we would be backing sport.
We also needed humour - that's always important, as well as strong views and a few articles with different slants. We needed to do everything - to be full of the glamour and excitement of sport and challenging of the problems in sport. We needed to be in-depth and incisive, but also thorough and far-reaching...full of issues and personalities, but also full of fun. Could we make the sports pages as exciting, heart-stopping and emotion-tugging as sport itself? Could we tackle the serious issues and hold sports officials to account while being fun, lively and enjoyable to read? And how could we do it every week, in just 24 pages? How could we make it brighter and better while acknowledging that - with around four million readers a week - we don't want to alienate any readers currently with us.
Could it be done? Should we try to do everything? Should I try to do everything straight away? There were no answers...only questions. Luckily, I had a fantastic team of people waiting for me in the office on my first day...