We spoke to Editor-in-Chief Laurence Mozafari (@laurencemozafari) about his role at Digital Spy, the UK's biggest TV and movies website, described as ‘by fans, for fans’. Laurence talks about how the TV and movies brand survived the pandemic when shows and shoots were delayed or cancelled, and how Digital Spy achieved awards success. These are extracts from our conversation:
As someone who has spun a lot of plates in your career (news, features, video, social media content, podcasts) what advice can you give on multitasking as a journalist?
I think being a journalist always involves a bit of multitasking ... but I think especially digitally there's so much more that you need to do. During my career, to kind of breakthrough, I just took on more and more - there were lots of opportunities when I was training at university to do audio and video, but I just kind of learned a bit of everything to get my first break, which was great. That's definitely the kind of person I am – I'm always looking to add more strings to my bow, and but what I would say is that once you've been able to do lots of stuff, and you can do lots of stuff, it's then really hard to focus back down. To other multitaskers I'd suggest having a focus, an overall focus or long-term goal in mind. It's really easy to be a Jack of all trades as such, but I think having an overall mission and speciality is really good to go along with it, so you've got an overall trajectory you’re trying to head for.
When I was training they used to say have a specialism, but I was coming into a recession … [you should] also be able to do anything because you might need to take any opportunity … There's no one solution I think, but having a couple of specialisms and niches and that flexibility to be able to pivot into interrelated things is always good. Because then it stands you in good stead for your future career.
"To other multitaskers I'd suggest having a focus, an overall focus or long-term goal in mind. It's really easy to be a Jack of all trades as such, but I think having an overall mission and speciality is really good to go along with it."
I've gone from men's magazines to women’s magazines to a gender-neutral product that's just around entertainment, so I think having that flexibility with an audience or topic area can only stand you in good stead.
Aspiring and early career journalists might feel overwhelmed at the variety of digital expertise they are expected to have. Should they be worried if they haven't started their own podcast yet?
I definitely wouldn't worry if you haven't started doing podcasts unless that's something you really particularly want to do – if you want to be a podcaster or want to move into radio, and you think that might help you get to that stage. There is a lot of stuff you can do with digital, for sure. I don’t know if new people are expected to know everything, I think they're definitely expected to be really adept at it and be maybe able to pick it up much more quickly and ... be engaged with it ... I work with all sorts of journalists, some much further into their careers, and if they've got the willingness to embrace it and the aptitude then that's all we need sometimes.
"I think it's the era of Brand You, and if you've got really good work, you need to make it visible and really easy to find."
The main thing I would say is that I'd strongly recommend promoting and displaying your best work online. I think it's the era of Brand You, and if you've got really good work, you need to make it visible and really easy to find. I'd [also] recommend having your own content strand ... whether that’s a viral Twitter feed or … really good TikTok videos … it’s something over which you have complete ownership that can lead to more opportunities for yourself. It gives you your very own audience. You can take [that audience] with you and translate your content to your biggest platform no matter where you're working – that's probably a more tangible way of looking at it.
On the history of Digital Spy:
I don't feel like I have a legacy brand... Digital Spy’s got a really rich digital history... we had our 20th birthday back in 2019. But then equally we've got titles at Hearst UK, like Good Housekeeping that’re like 100 years old - so compared to them, we're just the baby really. And in terms of digital, it is really, really rare to have a publication that's been going that long and ... doing better than ever, and I think that's one of the greater success stories of Digital Spy, that it's flourishing.
But [we’ve kept] the core values of Digital Spy of being fast on entertainment news and being across everything TV and movies, really focusing on the core pillars along with soaps.
I think that we kept that loyal audience that comes to us consistently. We've had research that’s said ‘if I read it on Digital Spy, I know it's true’ and we've got a lot of respect and trust and authority within that area, and that doesn't come overnight. And that's something we have earned across two decades. I think we've really tried to maintain that.
Social really developed and came to the fore during those 20 years in a completely different way ... it's about taking those core brand values ... to the new platforms … [without] losing sight of them.
Earlier this year you won brand of the year at the campaign publishing awards – what do you think was partly behind this?
When I became editor, I think a big thing I really wanted to happen on Digital Spy was to make it a brand. I think it's always been known as a website, and I think there are massive pluses and some challenges that come along with that. But I think one of the biggest things that was a big part of that win was our response to COVID. Everyone’s had a really tough couple of years - with us the challenge was particularly around TV and movie productions, lots of them went off air ... so what does a TV and movies website do when there are hardly any TV and movies?
So, being creative in our approach to that and still having incredible traffic success and some best evers in some areas despite that, was a really, really big part of that win. I think the other thing was the launch of new franchises. So we launched Rainbow Crew, which was devised by our Deputy TV Editor David Opie, which champions queer talent in front of and behind the camera. And we also launched Screen Sisters, which is kind of a similar franchise that's championing women that work in telly, in front of and behind the camera. We had a franchise Watch This which was recommending the best TV and movies to watch each week ... that became a Snapchat show which ran for about two months.
"... what does a TV and movies website do when there are hardly any TV and movies?"
We pivoted our newsletter to like a ‘Watch This’ format and we launched a dedicated Watch This Facebook group, which I think is just approaching about 5000 users now. Another one that we launched was Digital Spy Rising, which championed the 30 Black British Stars of Tomorrow. Digital Spy has always been really focused on the diversity and representation of our content, especially LGBTQ+, we really tried to holistically look across everything and make sure that we were being really thorough on that front and consistently and forensically looking at our output in terms of diversity.
There was a really big focus on our newsletter and our e-commerce output. We did a huge audience survey about how we could most support the readership during COVID, what could Digital Spy do? We took lots of those learnings and applied it to content and had to pivot on lots of fronts.
So there was all of that plus a really big PR push with Calum [Forbes, PR & Comms Manager] and we've had some of the biggest PR wins we've ever had in the history of the brand. I think it really took Digital Spy to another level along with the launch of the magazine – to be more than just the website and exist on lots of different platforms and firing on all cylinders. It's the first time Digital Spy’s ever won the Brand of the Year Award and we had some really stiff competition, you know we managed to beat Women's Health and the Evening Standard - so super, super chuffed. It's really nice to see all of that work pay off, with that kind of award, and hopefully it will continue.
What advice do you have for PRs pitching to Digital Spy?
It's a lot of the same advice we normally give out - exclusives are key as they are for lots of brands, but I think specifically because we're a predominantly digital product and it's the fact that there's no such thing as a UK exclusive on the Internet ... everyone can access the Internet everywhere - so it doesn't quite work.
[In terms of] access for interviews … time that's just for the Digital Spy brand is obviously ideal for that, and the longest amount of time possible, plus time for video shoots and images where you can. Access is really, really key.
The third thing is just really knowing the site, as it is with any brand you’re pitching. TV, movies and soaps are our core pillars so if you're pitching around that you are on the right track. We cover tech and gaming through our e-commerce focus, and there's definitely pitches to be made there. Fitness or food … is probably going to be harder to land on the site, than it is if it's TV, movies or soaps.
What are your future plans for the site?
I think there's lots of stuff that we want to focus on, and I won't be able to go into lots of detail, but [we are] continuing to improve and interrogate the diversity of our output in terms of ethnicity and LGBTQ representation, disability, neurodiversity … we're really trying to dig into the features in the news that we cover, how we cover them and who covers them. I also think memberships is a really interesting thing we want to explore more in the future.
I think expanding our e-commerce strategy and establishing more of the franchises that I've touched on, making it really 360 - live on lots of platforms, but also establishing new ones … bringing new audiences to the brand, and evolving our digital magazine proposition.
There're so many different things that we can focus on as ever. Going back to the first thing that you asked - it's like ‘what's the few things you can do really, really well?’ I think it's better to do a few things really well and be known for them very effectively, than be a bit diluted across lots of different platforms.
And you know, we joined TikTok in the last couple years and there's a lot more we could do on that front. I think it's better to do a few things really well and be known for them very effectively, than be a bit diluted across lots of different platforms.
You mentioned a diversity of output, diversity of the team. Do you think more flexible working, more work from home opportunities can aid that diversity in terms of location and working hours?
I think, as an industry, if you've got the option to give people jobs in different areas of the country and work flexibly, then that's going to open up your talent pool and I think in theory people could be based in more affordable areas of the country and work from home and stuff like that.
It can be a worry sometimes if you’re super junior coming into the industry, you've never worked in an office before ... I think there are some things that are lost from not having that mentorship and not being there in person. So neither is a perfect solution is what I'd say.
But certainly, being able to, as we’re doing now, hop on this interview and do it virtually, two years ago we’d probably need to do it in person or over the phone and that that can restrict you a bit more.
It definitely opens up things but I think there's still something definitely to be said for in-person interaction, in-person mentorship. But yeah, I think as an industry, hopefully it can be embraced more, but I think there are lots of challenges that come along with it as well.
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