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Let the Games begin

A central part of the Guardian’s coverage of last summer’s Olympics was its Tokyo 2020 daily briefing. Getting the tone right, managing the information flow and generally justifying a place in readers’ inboxes were all challenges, writes editor Martin Belam.

By Martin Belam

Let the Games begin

The Olympic movement likes to describe itself as the greatest show on earth, but last year’s belated and Covid-affected Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics had an uphill battle to capture the world’s attention in the midst of a pandemic. It also made covering the Games a different experience for journalists and publishers. Those who still got accredited and went to Japan found themselves shuffled from hotel to venue and back again, with no chance to soak up the Olympic atmosphere on the ground. And more than perhaps any Olympics before, organisations delivered a lot of their coverage remotely.

One of the elements of the Guardian’s coverage of Tokyo 2020 was a daily briefing email which was also published each day as a digest on the website. The idea was that readers could sign up for a daily digest of all that was important, and get that delivered via email each day, along with a guide to the major things to watch the next day.

Tone is so important in a newsletter. People aren’t coming to you. You are going to them.

Tone is the secret to a newsletter gold medal

Tone is so important in a newsletter. People aren’t coming to you. You are going to them. In the space where they probably get their work messages, and their ticket offers and the confirmation of their online grocery shop and the place where their kid emails them some attachment of something that desperately needed printing off for homework two hours previously. It isn’t your space, it is theirs.

We set out a template for each newsletter so that readers would know what to expect. A chatty intro would sum up the main events of the day, and then was an opportunity to showcase some of the Guardian’s best sports writing of the day with a series of links. We highlighted great photography, including picking a newsletter picture of the day. We then had sections covering the Olympic efforts of athletes from the UK, US and Australia, three territories where the Guardian has a strong presence, and also a section summing up what had happened for “the hosts and beyond”. The newsletter was rounded out each day with a schedule of the highlights of the next day, the medal table, a bit of chit-chat, and a great quote from one of the athletes, usually addressing the main story of the day.

Trying to make it chatty, accessible, but also informative meant a ton of preparation.

Get the balance right

It isn’t just a matter of getting the tone right in terms of being personable and readable, you also need to think about how you are covering the more serious aspects of the Games. With the medal table in the newsletter, partly as a very online schtick, and partly for not wanting to include text in graphics that might not be zoomable in all email clients, I built the medal table each day out of emojis, using the flags for each nation. I took to using a blank white square and describing the athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee’s medal haul as “Not Russia” in the table.

It was, on the one hand, a humorous stab at how ineffectual a punishment not having your flag or national anthem at the Games was. But I also made sure to always put the flippant references to Not Russia into context, by making sure again and again, I linked out to stories explaining why Russia was being punished for serious breaches of the expected drugs testing protocols in sport.

And there were days when the stories weren’t funny at all. The mental health of athletes came into focus as a topic, and there were also incidents involving allegations of racism and the abuse of animals that needed to be treated as serious news.

There was also the ever-present threat of a major Covid outbreak among the athletes or that the situation in Japan with the novel coronavirus would rapidly worsen. We wanted an enjoyable light-hearted but informative read every day, but sometimes events dictate the necessary tone. And trying to make it chatty, accessible, but also informative meant a ton of preparation.

Newsletters need content plans

You can’t just rock up every day and write from scratch, and preparation is always especially key when you know you have an arduous and unrelenting schedule ahead of you. During the Olympics, athletes have to get their performance to peak at just the right time. If you are covering the Games, then the right time is every single day for the best part of three weeks. But there is a lot that you can prepare in advance. There are some events – like the men’s and women’s 100m sprint finals – that you know are top draws. So you can write a lot of the “things to watch” copy in advance.

Particularly important with the Paralympics, as well, was to read and digest the guides to all the sports and the different categories for athletes in advance, and work out how to explain them. The Paralympics have some great unique but not well-known sports. If you are trying to provide a route through a busy and sometimes confusing schedule, you need to be totally on top of your game.

However, one of the advantages of it being a daily newsletter, rather than a print guide issued weeks in advance, is that you can react to developing stories. Favourites get injured, underdogs have their day. So many words were written in advance of the Games that would have pin-pointed events featuring Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka as the appointment-to-view moments. But that turned out not to be the story at all.

One thing that I ensured I had up my sleeve, for the Paralympics in particular, was I was lucky enough to get the chance to do Zoom calls before the Games started with Stef Reid and Kadeena Cox. That meant I had some exclusive content that I could run on the days before they were due to compete. But I had a rough sketch of what the chatty bits of the newsletter were going to cover each day, unless events overtook my plans.

When planning for a newsletter, you need to think about what you are going to do when it goes wrong and you make a mistake.

Things are going to go wrong

One of the disadvantages of it being a daily newsletter though, is actually, it is rather more like a print product than I am personally used to on the web. Send it out with a mistake in it, and that mistake sits in every inbox. So, when planning for a newsletter, you need to think about what you are going to do when it goes wrong and you make a mistake. I opted to treat mistakes in the Tokyo newsletters with self-deprecating humour:

“I was keen not to run a regular errata column here, but it has been drawn to my attention by [a named reader] via email that yesterday I located Bermuda in the Caribbean. Despite my best efforts overnight to arrange to have the island towed there, I have to confirm that it is very much located in the North Atlantic Ocean. I blame Barry Manilow.”

That’s not a tone you could take with all topics or all mistakes, but I think it is important again to acknowledge that if you are going to be in people’s personal email space, then you need to be personal and personable with them.

Building a community of readers is important for a successful newsletter, and takes effort.

Building a community around newsletters

But it also wasn’t an accident that I named and gave credit to the first (of several) readers to point out my error. Building a community of readers is important for a successful newsletter, and takes effort. We decided that each newsletter would have a call-out near the end, asking readers a specific question or questions, and then the next day I would feature some of the response.

I often think about web publishing in radio terms, and this felt to me like the radio host offering a bit of a phone-in. I feel like, obviously for the readers whose points I picked up on, they got to see their names in their own inbox, sent by the Guardian. And that, hopefully, showed people that it was worth writing in. I also, and I appreciate this isn’t practical for all volumes of correspondence, tried to reply personally to everybody who emailed in, even if it was just a short “Thanks for your email – totally agree with you about the horses – hope you enjoy the rest of the Olympics” type affair.

There was also a selfish reason to get the readers involved. There is always so much action and so much news around an Olympics. On the busiest day of the summer Games, there are 34 gold medals awarded. We had a target word count of 2,000 words. If you wanted to mention every gold medallist, and who came in second and third in each event, that would give you about 19 words per medallist. Clearly something has to give. But having asked readers very early on to name the events they were interested in, or the athletes they were most looking forward to seeing performing, I had a mental list of people to look out for when they made the news to make sure I included.

6,000 miles away

There’s a fundamental question about remote working here as well. The time zones in Tokyo meant I could sometimes watch the start of the action late in the evening in the UK – marathons and triathlons tended to start around 11pm or midnight – and then get up early and start watching the sport again from 5am or 6am. It made for long days, but vitally, because of Covid, it was just a complete given that I would be doing everything from home, which maybe would not have been the case in previous years.

The Olympics are long when you are working on it every day. There was one Thursday near the end when I have to confess, I could barely bring myself to switch on the television. It turns out that you can have too much of a good sporting thing. By the time you read this, I will probably be in the midst of covering the Winter Olympics and Paralympics from Beijing from a similar distance. Maybe I’ll get to do Paris 2024 in person.

You can read each of the Guardian’s Tokyo daily briefings here.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.