It’s the question I fear most at dinner parties. After ten minutes of pumping out some of my most glittering celebrity anecdotes to avoid interrogation over the media’s more problematic corners, someone will inevitably say: “So, what’s your plan? Where do you want to end up?”
With my friends’ careers, this question is easy. In finance, consulting, marketing and the civil service, there is a clear route to the top, signposted by “bands” and “pay grades” (oh how journalists wilt with jealousy when a friend mentions something being “above their pay grade”). But in journalism, sometimes it can feel like the only thing in front of you is a tiny little raft, heading who knows where, with the air whistling out from each corner. Journalists don’t really do “five year plans” – we’re more about escape routes.
In my twenties, this didn’t really bother me. One of the most exciting aspects of working in such a chaotic, sociable industry is that opportunities can land on your lap when you least expect them: as Dorian Lynskey told me in my last post, his first job at Mixmag came after he made an editor laugh in a nightclub, while many writers have had ghostwriting or biography book deals after getting on with a celebrity during an interview. My podcast was born after my then-colleague Kathleen and I got drunk in a bar, and a mid-afternoon Tweet was what inspired this newsletter.
My boyfriend has always encouraged me to be a little strategic with my career, and to think about the future. “You know, not everything you do can be a passion project”, he would say. I would bat him away, guiltily, with a speel on how that’s now how the creative industries worked, it was all about timing and “getting your name out there”.
This is all well and good when you’re living with your parents or too young and foolish to think properly about a mortgage, but approaching 30, dressing up unpaid work as a passion project doesn’t sound so sexy. There’s only so much free work you can do for your “personal brand” before your personal brand leaves you broke, and only so many side hustles you can juggle before your main hustle falls down. I’m lucky enough to be working for a newspaper that is genuinely doing well, but can I bank my entire career on a single title, when I may have another 40 years of work ahead of me? Is it even possible to build a “career” in today’s shifting journalistic landscape?
It’s a question I started thinking about the other week as I got stuck into fashion journalist Amy Odell’s biography of 72-year-old American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and was struck by how strategic her career approach seemed compared to mine. Granted, she was privileged, received inheritance money from her grandfather, and her father was a well-known newspaper editor who helped secure her her first job (what, journalism, nepotistic?). And yes, she has a highly controversial reputation (which Odell has actually been criticised for trying to gloss over). But whatever your opinion on Wintour, there is no denying she had a plan, and an iron will to execute it.
As a teen, every Sunday she would apparently read no less than eight newspapers, and in the evenings would go to the trendiest London nightclub to conduct field research on celebrity who’s who, drinking just a soft drink and leaving by 11 30pm so she could be fresh for fashion school the next day. Rising the ranks at Harpers & Queens, then Viva and New York magazine, she was meticulous about her personal brand: the precise bob that would remain almost unchanged for several decades, and the sunglasses that never came off (and apparently have nothing to do with her eyesight).
Her eyes, in fact, were glued to one position in particular: editor of American Vogue. And so sure was she that the job would one day be hers, that when she met its editor Grace Mirabella for an interview, and Mirabella asked what job she would like, Wintour replied: “Yours.” Apparently, that concluded the interview. The audacity!
When, at 33 years old, Wintour became American Vogue’s creative director after befriending Condé Nast’s editorial director and chairman, Alex Liberman and Si Newhouse, it was what Odell describes as a “cunning move” to be as close to the editorship as possible. Odell credits Wintour’s personal brand: “She had spent more than half her life developing a personal brand – the hair, the sunglasses, the polished designer wardrobe, moving through the world like the star of her own never-ending photo shoot”. It was also at this point, writes Odell, that Wintour started taking home dummy copies of the magazine and writing comments in the margins, to make “mental notes of what she would change once she was in command”.
Finally, she was offered her first big job at Vogue in 1985: editor in chief of British Vogue. But she was only there for a year. When she then defected to become editor of a flailing House and Garden in 1987 to pull it back from the brink – a seemingly strange choice for the fashion editor – it turned out to be a practise run for the top job: American Vogue, which she duly got in 1988. Now, Wintour is global director of Vogue, and artistic director of Condé Nast.
Reading the book was both inspiring and deflating. Unlike so many of us in journalism today, Anna Wintour had her whole career mapped out. But could she have done the same as a twenty something today?
Interestingly, when I shared my thoughts with two younger journalists over drinks, I was surprised by their reaction: one of nonchalance, rather than shared existential angst. Along with one telling me young people don’t wear bras anymore (successfully making me feel about 101 years old), both challenged me on my idea of a “career”. They made fun of our industry’s obsession with ‘personal brands’ and needing Twitter to be successful (neither of them used social media). One said she had given up on writing, and was happier than she’d ever been working a completely unexpected job in TV production that actually paid well and allowed her to have fun. The other told me she was no longer interested in the media’s fetishisation of productivity and was simply doing her job in the hours that were expected of her and living her life like a normal person in the hours that weren’t.
The same feelings are echoed in Alexandra Jones’s recent piece for Elle UK about prioritising enjoyment over productivity. At 22 she had been offered a potential book deal while working at a publishing house, but never wrote the sample 10,000 words asked of her, deciding to spend her twenties making memories with her friends instead. “I was almost always broke and sometimes hated the mundanity of what I did so much that it reduced me to tears, and yet, even as I yearned for something else (more money, more creative freedom), I couldn’t sacrifice the hours I spent with my friends to make it happen.” Ten years later, she doesn’t regret a thing (and is working on some fiction once more). After reading it, I casually asked my younger sister what her arty friends felt about “ambition”. “Er, it’s not a thing”, she replied, without looking up from her book.
I don’t actually think young creatives are becoming ambitionless exactly, but I do think the romanticisation of a career as something that defines you and which everything feeds out of is no longer so compelling. Creatives used to look down on ‘9 to 5ers’ and ‘living for the weekend’ and I don’t see the same snobbery now.
People are reassessing their priorities. Partly, I think this is an obvious reaction to the pandemic, during which people began to reevaluate their time after realising how precious and fleeting life could be. But also I think this is a recalibration following the creative industries’ extreme productivity culture and journalists needing to market themselves as their own product. As Alexandra says in her piece:
“We were being encouraged to turn every thought we had, meal we ate or book we read into a commodity, which we could exchange for a new kind of currency: influence,” she writes. “That process of commodification blurred the boundaries between leisure and work. Things we’d previously done just because they made us feel good were now an opportunity to bolster a personal brand. All that framing and curating of our experiences, though, turned everything into work – even play.”
I am too much of a neurotic, workaholic millennial to totally stop caring about my career, but I am trying not to define myself by it, and to find a better balance. This week I turned down a ‘prestige’ project that yes, would have been cool to announce on Twitter and would ‘help my personal brand’. But it would have required three days work for £150 and — while I spent two days deliberating over it — I eventually turned it down. I’d rather put those hours into something more lucrative, even if it doesn’t sound as good on Twitter, or simply phone my parents for a chat.
I am also trying to be a little more sensible. Annoyingly my boyfriend was right, not everything can be a passion project – sometimes the boring job is better for your pension and that’s the bottom line. And, a little more strategic. I am trying to stop romanticising creative chaos as something that is inherent to journalism. The media is going through an enormous transition period, and those welcoming industry change rather than clinging on to the golden past will come out on top.
For instance, it’s interesting how big time editors are now ditching glossy magazines for Substack newsletters instead, (former Empire editor Terri White and former You editor Jo Elvin, who actually wrote a very good newsletter on learning not to be defined by her job), or to work for the company itself, as former Elle editor Farrah Storr has in her new role of Head of Writer Partnerships. You can make big money on Substack: Bari Weiss, who used to write opinion for the New York Times, confirmed revenues of over $800,000 a year in 2021, with 14,000 subscribers paying her $5 a month.
Other experienced editors have gone to head up editorial or cultural curation at places like Soho House, the AllBright and TikTok. The journalists I know with the most career options open to them have been savvy enough to learn how to work in video and audio, meaning they can write, host or produce podcasts and documentaries inside newspapers as well as for platforms such as Spotify and podcast production businesses. (It’s why I would always advise younger journalists to study Broadcast over magazine journalism, if they are going to study journalism at all.) Meanwhile many writers I know have stopped seeing copy writing or brand work as a plug for fallow writing months and instead found projects they are really inspired by instead.
What is reassuring is that the snobbery and purism that used to permeate our industry, about what kind of job constituted “proper journalism” has been replaced with a more survivalist (and sensible) attitude. A couple of years ago, I would have defined my career in terms of my writing, and been embarrassed by anything that didn’t feel like “pure” journalism, whereas now, I am trying to think more laterally.
Hardest of all however, is trying to define myself less by my work. In one of Anne Helen Peterson’s excellent newsletters, a reader asked the community: “What, outside of employment, gives you a sense of purpose, meaning, or fulfilment in your life? How do you separate your identity/self-worth from paid work inside our capitalist system?”
I couldn’t believe how difficult I found it to answer. Perhaps I need to figure that out before I write up a five-year plan.
Thanks for reading Pass The Aux! If you work in the media, I would really love to know how you feel about building a career in 2022: is a journalism ‘career’ actually possible? And does it matter either way? Either post a comment below, or DM me on Twitter @eleanorhalls1 or on email email@example.com. I’d love to make my follow-up post a round-up of other people’s thoughts and experiences.
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To make my extremely irregular posts a little more regular, and to avoid making these newsletters 5000-words long, I will be putting my cultural picks into its own separate post (incoming).
Very interesting read. I have never had an (x) year plan. My goal has always been to be the go-to person when an international publication/media house needs someone to report on an issue in Ghana. I said that during an interview for a full-time gig in March 2021 and still got the job. Left that job later for a different one and currently freelancing full time.
I started working at 25 after a Masters in English Literature and post graduate diploma in English journalism. In my first job in English language journalism in India, I was made to feel I don't know the language at all. I left the toxic place soon. I have changed more jobs than my friends in my 6 years of "career" because I could never keep up with the crazy back-breaking hours. Had I stayed in India, I was headed towards corporate communication because journalism wasn't paying the bills anymore. After two breakdowns, getting diagnosed with anxiety disorder and PCOS, and other health issues, and moving thousands of miles to a new country and finding myself unemployable as I stare at 31 while being back to where I was at 25, I have had to reevaluate. I chose to do an NCTJ course because as an immigrant I want the industry rubber stamp, but I still want to pick a communications role than a journalistic one. Those skills transfer after all. I have worked without a plan most of my life but I can't keep doing that. Need to be able to afford healthcare, real estate and care for my parents (I'm South Asian and this is expected of me). I have cats to pay for and maybe adopt a child in the future. Everything costs more money than a journalism job can give.