OXFORD MEDIA SOCIETY
While studying at Oxford, Ethan edited both the Oxford Review of Books and Cherwell alongside writing his own blog. On graduating he took up an internship at The Economist.
How did you use your time at Oxford to make you more hireable? What skills should students focus on developing to stand out from the crowd?
Writing. All of the journalists I admire know writing is the foundation of their trade.
At university I made use of the student newspapers and magazines. They tend to be easy-going places where you can quickly train yourself up, both by writing your own stuff and editing the words of others. The best people in student journalism go in because they want to get better at something, whether it be writing, design, or data – don’t join a paper to rack up CV points. Even if you don’t feel able to get stuck into student journalism, the optimistic news for everyone is that you don’t need a newspaper or magazine behind you to practice writing, just a pen and paper.
I discovered after graduation that the publications I most wanted to work for hired largely on the basis of writing ability. My current employer has a blind recruitment process for editorial roles, whereby a submitted article is read before the CV. That seems a very fair way of doing it.
How confident did you feel about careers when you graduated? Is it fine to feel a little uncertain?
Not certain at all, and I am suspicious of all those who are (unless of course they have a job lined up before finals). In the summer after exams, I returned to my family home, set up a makeshift office in the corner of my bedroom, and began to come up with ideas for articles, with the hope of getting commissions at various places. The thought of an internship in journalism was far out of my mind; I assumed they were unaffordable and reserved for the well-off. Then, through a friend, I discovered a bunch of paid internships. Importantly they had tenures that were long-enough to rent in London; you can’t find much shorter than a six-month lease in the capital, so a three-month posting, even when paid, is often out of the question for those who don’t have friends with spare rooms.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Late last year I interviewed Armando Iannucci for The Economist’s sister magazine of longform journalism, 1843. I’ve long been a fan of his TV work, but when I sat down with him we spent nearly two hours chatting about Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic poem. Iannucci tried to write a PhD on Milton in his 20s (at Oxford, coincidentally), so I tried to get to the bottom of that – how it shaped his career etc etc. The profile was published in March this year.
And though not a career highlight per se, The Economist puts on great staff parties which is always important!
What does your average 9-5 look like / is it 9-5?
Luckily we work 10-6, so before the day begins I can fit in a little morning exercise, a nice breakfast, or some extra time in bed.
My day varies across the week. After coffee, admin and tying up any loose ends that may have unravelled over the weekend, Monday begins with our editorial meeting, which runs from 11.15am into the afternoon. There the editor chairs an open discussion of the coming week’s paper. First section editors sketch out their lead stories, and the editor makes sure everything fits together thematically, while avoiding unnecessary overlaps in coverage. Then comes the main body of the meeting: leader pitches. This is where journalists set out their arguments on the big issues of the week – the most robust arguments go at the front of the paper, as ‘leaders’. Once a journalist has pitched their leader, everyone else piles in with questions, corrections, and other lines of interrogations. The room is full of strong views, which can make for an intimidating environment, but the paper has a proud culture of open discussion: everyone is encouraged to join the debate, from veteran reporters to new interns. For me the meeting is followed by a heavy round of fact-checking, usually of five to seven articles before close of day. We’re one of the few British papers that fact-checks our stuff, and I try to be as assiduous as possible — even if editors don’t catch mistakes, readers always will! Though Monday afternoon can be a bit of an information overload, it provides great ammunition for pub quizzes. I also enjoy forensic email exchanges with journalists about how many issues of the Chronicle of Current Events were published, or whether Teddy Roosevelt travelled on horseback in Wyoming or the Dakotas.
The paper goes to press on a Thursday morning, so Tuesday and Wednesday rush by in anticipation of that deadline – my work involves proofing our pages, going through changes in copy with the section editor, paying writers, and setting up the list of stories for the next week’s issue. I get a little downtime on Thursdays for pitching and writing stories for the paper, its online culture blog ‘Prospero and its sister magazine, 1843. I also help write a culture briefing for The Economist’s morning Espresso app, and put out tweets publicising new pieces in our section. On Friday we have another, shorter editorial meeting, reflecting on the issue that has just closed. Section editors give some idea of what will go in the next issue, though events moving fast over the weekend can change their plans by Monday.
Greatest professional achievement?
I don’t feel I have achieved a great deal at 21 — I hope that growth of experience and the passage of time will bring opportunities. But to have a paid job in journalism is I suppose something of an achievement now. At university I helped research a book, and got a credit in the preface. My mum keeps a copy, signed by the authors, on fairly public display at home – I suppose that would be her answer.
Where would you like to be in 5 years time?
Where I currently am, if they’ll have me.
Favourite book you’ve read recently? My favourite book I’ve read recently has to be L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. My bookshelf is becoming worryingly full of books from or about turn-of-the-century England. For something more contemporary, I enjoyed Craig Brown’s inventive biography of The Beatles, One, Two, Three, Four. I recommended the book to a few people, who all seem to have enjoyed it.
Favourite podcast? Like many people I’m no longer commuting, so my podcast consumption has declined. However I’ve been catching up with Revolutions, Mike Duncan’s history podcast. It covers, in depth, many of the important flashpoints I studied in my history degree, from the English Civil War to the Haitian revolution. A bit of nostalgia took hold. It’s a very thorough project. I hear Duncan is writing a book about the Marquis de Lafayette, which I look forward to reading.
Favourite film or series? I recently watched Rory’s Way, a film about an ageing Scotsman from the Hebrides who visits his estranged family in San Francisco. Brian Cox gives a poignant central performance – the best I’ve seen from him.
Most uplifting news? Some uplifting news? Well I’ve just heard the Hay Festival is going digital, meaning for the first time I can ‘attend’, if only through my laptop.