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Journalism is the one job you're warned against: you'll never make it, and you'll never make money. But sometimes it's harder to pull in the opposite direction
I’m often asked by aspiring journalists: why did you decide against a Masters at City? The truth is I didn’t decide, I was rejected.
When I think back to my last year at university I can still feel that thrill of competitive excitement: many friends had received offers for training contracts or been accepted onto graduate schemes. We were getting fraught and jealous with one another – applying for the same thing, already divvying up who would live with who as soon as we moved to London.
A day hardly went by without a coveted internship or a job offer being shared on our WhatsApp groups or whispered about over drinks. We tried to be happy for each other but really we weren’t. We were all terrified of being the last one left, with nothing to show for our last three years and nothing to look forward to.
I’d become swept up in the panic, throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck: The Civil Service fast stream and Magic Circle law firms, executive roles in advertising with whimsical application processes. I read numerical reasoning guides in bed and The Law Gazette over breakfast, furiously typing out cover letters to Whom it May Concern.
Meanwhile journalism became an embarrassing little hobby compared to the slick, sturdy roles my friends were securing in the city. I scuttled off to theatre reviews and wrote essays about film for my student paper, and sometimes re-read a blog from my year abroad in Paris - the first time I felt that addictive flush of knowing people were reading a piece of writing with my name at the top.
I ended up applying for a journalism masters even though I’d been warned against it. Journalists told me to stay well away – the redundancy rounds and bad pay weren’t worth the byline – while my poor parents were terrified I’d end up leeching off them forever. But then the rejection letters piled in from the law firms and the civil service, and I thought, well, at least I know I can write.
My rejection from City came on a cold Thursday afternoon in March. I was getting dressed up for one of the very last parties before we all bunkered down for finals. I remember sitting at my desk in a black dress and dressing gown, finishing the footnotes to an essay when the email came through.
It was packaged up in the most humiliating administration error that still, five years on, excavating my dusty hotmail account, makes me break into a light sweat and my heart speeds up. The first email told me my written application – for which I’d interviewed the veteran broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald – had been successful. Would I like to come in on April 7th for the final stage? Yes, thank you, I replied immediately, already messaging friends to come to my room early for pre-drinks because, finally, I had good news!
But then a new email came in. “This email has been recalled,” it said. Then: “Dear Eleanor, I am very sorry but this was sent to you in error and you have not been selected to attend an interview.”
I was in denial, or possibly too arrogant to imagine this email had actually been meant for me. Or that the email actually meant what it said. “Dear Rachel,” I wrote. “But does that mean I am still in the application process?” Rachel didn’t reply – she simply sent me the formal rejection email I was meant to have received in the first place.
I became incredibly low after that. Journalism had been my pipe dream, but it was also the one area in my life I had never doubted. University had been difficult: I’d had unbearable cystic acne that left me wearing a scarf indoors and terrified to leave my room, my boyfriend had moved to Switzerland and my tutor hated me, constantly calling into question why I was there in the first place.
‘Disgraceful’, she scrawled in the margins of my work, while, during one particularly memorable meeting, she told me that I was like a footballer who, no matter how much cheering I received from the sidelines, would never get the ball. After spending a minute trying to understand why on earth she was using a football analogy about my French degree, I fled the room crying.
Utterly desperate for a job following my finals, I began applying to things so ludicrously out of sync with my qualifications and interests that I can’t believe my parents didn’t stage an intervention. I applied to Foxtons because of the company car, despite failing my driving test on an automatic with six majors, and got to the third round of the Aldi graduate scheme to be a shop floor manager. I even applied to do a PGCE, though my one year of teaching in Paris had ended in disgrace after my supervisor found me showing the kids what I thought would be a perfectly innocent video of the “10 worst jobs in the world”, but which, on slide six, had the example “Animal Masturbator”, with a visual.
The turning point came after I got to the interview round at advertising firm AMV, having sent them a video presentation – which, horrifyingly, is still on YouTube, and I don’t have the log-in to remove it – of why the Economist campaigns were second to none. I had never read the Economist, but I thought the interview was going brilliantly. I remember feeling so at ease I even accepted a biscuit from my interviewer, munching it happily thinking that my new office in Southwark was wonderfully close to Padella.
“You know,” said my interviewer, with that tinkling laugh women do when they can’t stand the sight of you. “You’ve asked so many questions during this interview, it rather feels like you’ve been interviewing me.”
A rejection email came the following week. The next morning, I logged into WordPress, and I started writing.
This week in links:
I’ve been reading: a fascinating Guardian long-read by George Reynolds on how frozen ice became big business. We pay £1 for a bag of product designed to melt into nothing: what gives? Read it here.
I’ve been writing: about how dispiriting it is to see that Spotify’s top five most-listened to artists in the world are all male. What’s worse is that for once it’s not just the industry’s fault: this is simply what we, as music fans, seem to be consuming. Can it really be that The Weeknd and Juice WRLD (who died last year) are more popular than any of our living pop queens including Taylor, Ariana, Gaga or Dua? Or have I just been living in a bubble? Read my thoughts here. I’d also love to hear yours!
I’ve been commissioning: two brand new writers who got in touch with me after my Twitter call out with pretty perfect pitches: well-explained, unique, yet tied to national talking points and the news agenda.
And Tina Edwards lifted the lid on what it’s like to be a DJ in a pandemic. 2020 was meant to be her breakthrough year, and she ended up making her Boiler Room debut from her in-laws’ Devonshire garden. Read it here. Follow Tina here.
I’ve been listening: to 18-year-old Kamal, whose soft RnB is like The Weeknd meets Post Malone and whose fans include rapper Dave and Billie Eilish. Listen to his song about the party.
Let me know what you think of PassTheAux – sending any suggestions or questions for next time – by dropping me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org