Careers in journalism: what have I learned in fifteen years as a media headhunter?

This article first appeared in Press Gazette

Last month marked fifteen years since I became a media headhunter. Much of that time has been concerned with careers in journalism. Which begs the question: what, if anything, have I learned in that time? Here are some things I didn’t know back in 1996:

  1. Journalism is not a career for wastrels. You can make money – and good money – as a journalist if you work hard, focus your career, and develop expertise in the right areas. (If I had known this in 1996, I would never have become a headhunter at all.)
  2. Despite that, there are plenty of wastrels in journalism. Avoid them. Learn instead from the driven, smart journalists – of whom there are also plenty.
  3. It is partly what you know and partly who you know. Making good contacts is important for your career; but if you haven’t got the basics right, goodwill will run out pretty quickly (unless you are Johann Hari).
  4. Journalism will survive and thrive through all the changes in media; journalists just need to equip themselves with the tools to create content in the new environments.
  5. Getting your CV right is really, really important.
  6. Journalism is not all about purity and living in an ivory tower. It is affected by real-life economics, and journalists have to be commercially astute. This doesn’t mean “selling copy”; it does mean working with the commercial side of the business as required.
  7. Editors are pretty human – mostly.
  8. Publishers and proprietors are pretty human. Often.
  9. Advertising sales people aren’t. They can’t afford to be.
  10. It is perfectly possible to mess up great businesses and publications by poor management.
  11. The media industry, as a whole, is very bad at knowing when to stop flogging a dead asset and to shoot the poor bloody thing.
  12. That thing they always said about treating people well on your way up because you might need them on your way back down is really true. I can think of a number of people who struggle to get work because they burned so many bridges in the past.
Image of newspapers

Image of newspapers courtesy of Birdfarm (Flickr)

If this looks like a pretty poor return in wisdom gained for fifteen years’ hard work, I apologise; I’m a slow learner. Who knows? By 2026 I may have learned something useful.