Media search consultant’s viewpoint: empathy and understanding are the key to editorial success

This article first appeared in Press Gazette

In the fourteen years I have been a headhunter and media search consultant, I have been lucky to have worked across an astonishing range of titles and products: from Horse & Hound to The Financial Times, from heat to AOL. We have recruited journalists for Reuters in Russia, Euromoney in the US, and, toughest of all, Saga in Folkestone. Bella, Men’s Health, The Jewish Chronicle; all boast current editors recruited by us.

In previous columns, I have talked at length about the skills you need to develop your careers, and given tips on how to get through interviews. But I don’t think that I have touched on the real values that make a successful journalist: passion, endless intellectual curiosity, and the empathy that leads to a deep understanding of your audience.

It is, in fact, impossible to take one of these three away. Intellectual understanding and audience knowledge amount to nothing if you can’t develop a passion for the subject. And while passion and reader familiarity will carry you a little way, without the desire to continually reassess the product and demand better of yourself, you will soon run out of steam.

But there is often a feeling that you have to be your audience. Certainly, with Morgan Rees at Men’s Health, this has been enormously important: Morgan, who has enjoyed 16 consecutive ABC rises, is a great magazine editor who worked on Maxim and GQ.  But he was also a serious athlete and keen kick-boxer, which helps (and makes for quiet editorial meetings).

On the other hand, Gill Hudson – now editor of Reader’s Digest – was the launch editor of Maxim. Quietly spoken, intensely smart, family-man Phil Hilton launched Nuts. John Dale is far from the target audience of Take-a-Break. Examples abound throughout newspapers, magazines and broadcasting.

What makes your readers tick?

So how do these people keep hitting the right notes for audiences apparently alien to them? This is where intellectual curiosity and audience knowledge feed the passion: understand your reader, and you will not patronise them; understand what they care about, and you will deliver content that matters. And if you are passionate in reflecting their world views, you will succeed.

Most people, when they first dream about being a journalist, imagine that they will be war correspondents, sports writers, or newsreaders. Of course, most become sub editors, or write about grain milling, or work on titles that they would never have chosen to read before. The skill of the trade is finding the same passion, curiosity, empathy and understanding in every role.