When I Grow Up… I want to be an Arts Journalist

Eleanor Turney is a freelance writer and editor who also dabbles in arts marketing. She is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, writes regularly for The Stage and The Guardian, and is currently working for the British Council, Cloud Dance Festival and the Poetry Society.

What does being the managing editor for ‘A Younger Theatre’ involve?

I work with the Artistic Director, Jake, to plan the overall trajectory of AYT, and I handle all of the day-to-day editorial work. This includes commissioning regular bloggers, one-off guest blogs, featuelres, interviews etc., as well as editing all of these plus all of the reviews. Someone else co-ordinates the reviews team, as it’s a big job, but everything that appears on the site has been edited by me.

I also work with Jake on strategy for boosting our readership; on things like SEO, marketing, sponsorship and advertising rates (although, again, someone else runs the marketing side of things); on plans for the future; on managing the other AYT staff. We’re running our first festival next year, which will be a celebration of emerging theatre companies, so there’s a fair number of planning, meetings and funding applications to do at the moment, too.

“I went into the arts because I did an English degree and knew that I’d be a terrible teacher”

Why did you decide to go into the arts as a career?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, really. I did an English degree and knew that I’d be a terrible teacher, which is what everyone seems to expect you to do with an English degree. I set up a magazine at university with some friends and discovered that I really liked editing as well as writing.

When I started job-hunting in my third year, I basically applied for anything called Editorial Assistant or Assistant Editor until I was offered a job – some dozens of applications later. It happened to be arts-based rather than another facet of publishing, and I’ve not left the sector since. I started reviewing theatre around that time, too, and from that my work in theatre and the arts has evolved.

What was the first job you had after university?

I worked on the editorial staff of a small magazine called ArtsProfessional, which was aimed at arts managers rather than artists. I worked with a wonderful editor, Catherine Rose, who taught me a huge amount, and learnt a lot about how the arts sector works in terms of funding, politics and management.

“Some weeks or months I’m so busy I work seven days a week, and others I worry about paying the rent”.

What are the benefits and limitations of being a freelance journalist?

There are lots of both! I don’t think freelancing suits everyone… The benefits are that once you get to a certain point you can pick your clients, you get to write stuff that interests you, you make your own hours. The downsides are that it’s not steady work, it takes a long time to build up a name for yourself, it can take a long time to get paid, and you have to be self-motivated.

It’s also a ‘feast or famine’ kind of life – some weeks or months I’m so busy I work seven days a week, and others are terrifyingly quiet and I worry about paying the rent. You have to be able to plan ahead and to be OK with that uncertainty.

Do you have any words of wisdom when it comes to writing reviews?

Try and offer an honest response to what you’ve seen. Criticism is, of course, subjective, so all you can do is try to give as truthful a response as possible. It’s not an easy thing to do well, so read other people, too – people like Dan Hutton, Catherine Love, Natasha Tripney – who write intelligent, considered criticism.

 “Why is print still seen as a benchmark of quality?”

Is arts journalism becoming a solely online profession? Should our students forget the possibility of ever being publishing in a printed paper?

Pretty much. I think the more important question, though, is to ask why people still feel the need to be published in print? Why is it still seen as a benchmark of quality? So long as it’s a reputable site and has an editor responsible for the quality of its output, online magazines and newspapers are likely to have much bigger readerships.

Yes, it’s nice to have something you can hold in your hands – and show your Grandma – but more people are likely to read your stuff online. Just don’t ever, ever read the comments…

“I’m not sure how much practical use the degree itself is for a career in arts marketing or journalism.”

How far can a non-vocational degree, like History or English, help you pursue a career in arts journalism or arts marketing?

That’s a tricky question. I needed my degree to get my first job, certainly, but I’ve never been asked about it since. I’m pretty sure that it was my extra-curricular activities (running the creative writing society, helping to edit a magazine) that got me my first job, not my actual degree, and now it’s the experience I’ve got since graduating that takes pride of place on my CV.

However, an essay-based degree should help you learn how to write better, which is obviously useful, although essay-writing and journalism are quite different skills.

I think employers like to see that you’ve got a degree because it shows a certain amount of discipline and intelligence, but I’m not sure how much practical use the degree itself is for a career in arts marketing or journalism, or indeed how much difference it makes what your degree is in. You need to demonstrate an aptitude and desire for the job in question, I think, not expect to follow a certain path, unless you study medicine or something.

“I’d advise only doing a post-grad course if it’s something you actively want to do, not because you think it will help you get a job”.

Do you need a First to be an arts journalist?

Nope! You need to be able to write, but being able to write and being good at passing exams are not necessarily the same thing.

Do you advice students to take a post-grad course in journalism or Arts Marketing?

Not unless it’s something they particularly want to do, no. I don’t have an MA – I started an Arts Management MA (which covered marketing) as part of my first job, but had no desire to pursue it after finishing the first module. I felt I learned more by working than I did in the academic setting at that point, and, five years on, I haven’t felt any need to return to academia.

They are another way of demonstrating that you have certain skills, but I don’t think they are essential by any means. Some journalism jobs require you to have specific journalism training, but most don’t. I’d advise only doing a post-grad course if it’s something you actively want to do, not because you think it will help you get a job.

What are the three most important skills for an arts journalist to have?

You need to be able to write, and write at speed. If you’re being paid, say, £150 for a feature, that’s a pretty decent day rate if you write it in a day or a half day. If it takes you a week, you don’t even want to try and work out the hourly rate…

You need to have lots of ideas for features, opinion pieces, blogs etc., so that you’ve always got things to pitch to editors. Finally, you have to be good at hitting deadlines and word counts. If you miss a deadline or ignore a work count, people won’t commission you again.

“It’s impossible to work in any sector without forming connections and making friends, but it can complicate things”.

Do you recommend someone interested in arts journalism to get some hands-on-experience in the arts? i.e work with a theatre company?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because every journalist is different and every theatre company/arts organisation is different. I definitely think it’s useful to know what it’s like to work for an arts organisation and to understand how they’re run, how they’re funded etc., but that could come from talking to people rather than necessarily being employed by one.

The problem with gaining hands-on experience in this way is that you form a personal connection and this can make it difficult to be objective. How would you feel if the nice theatre company that you did admin for was the focus of an investigative piece about, say, misuse of funding?

It’s impossible to work in any sector without forming connections and making friends, but it can complicate things. So, I guess I’d say be careful about where your boundaries lie and be very wary of conflicts of interest. My marketing work is confined to the literature and dance sectors, for example, to keep me freer to write about theatre in an unbiased way.

“If you’re not OK with rejection then this is not the job for you”.

What kind of person/personal attributes does it take to be successful in your business (arts journalism and arts marketing)?

Well, an interest in the arts is pretty important – that means reading lots, going to lots of shows/concerts/exhibitions, keeping up with debates and trends. I’d say it’s important to have a thick skin. Even the best journalists get rejected by editors all the time; editors are busy and pushed for space, so good ideas often don’t get picked up.

If you’re not OK with rejection (or just being ignored) then this is not the job for you. You need to enjoy talking to people and meeting new people. It’s not easy to be very shy and make the connections you need to build up a network. You also can’t be afraid of hard work, or have a great desire to be rich!

Eve Wersocki Morris

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Photograph given with permission of Eleanor Turney

Header Image: Mark Ramsay



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