Freelance Journalist

September 19, 2019 (Updated )

What’s life like at the digital helm of one of the UK’s most innovative women’s magazines? And what advice does the editor have for aspiring writers?

Speaking to Journo Resources, Stylist magazine’s Digital Executive Editor Felicity Thistlethwaite talks SEO, story-telling and how to use social media to your advantage…

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What did you always dream of doing?

That’s a difficult one, because I don’t particularly remember dreaming of being anything. My dad is a graphic designer and my sister works in fashion.

When I was doing my GCSEs, I veered towards fashion, but my skills didn’t lie there. When I was 16, I came down to London and did work experience at The Sunday Times and at Grazia.

I also did some really good work experience at my local paper, the Leicester Mercury, which cemented the idea of journalism as a career path in my mind. What engaged me was talking to people: finding out what people’s stories were, who they really were and… just listening to people.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to stories, and re-telling stories is definitely a hobby. That, and the thrill of breaking news – that’s never died for me, that adrenaline rush of bringing in an exclusive.

The Stylist website, where Felicity is responsible for digital strategy. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

What does a typical day look like?

I work quite early shifts, which is typical because digital is never off: your job is never finished. My alarm goes off at 6am and has done for the last 10 years. I leave home at 7am, and I’m in the office for 8am. I don’t start until 8.30am, but I like to check out the news, read on the tube, and listen to podcasts.

As soon as I get in, I’m checking the figures – cross-checking the numbers with the day before and month-on-month, and our annual target. We have a news meeting every morning which the website editor leads, and we discuss the stories for the day. That’s the most regular part of the job.

Want an insight into the daily lives of more journalists? We’ve got bloomin’ loads of them. Why not see what a senior reporter at MirrorOnline gets up too? Or how about Amy Cooper, Head of Content at Bauer? Or the ground-breaking Megha Mohan, the BBC’s first Gender and Identity Correspondent?

Really, we’re on call to do anything at any time, and that’s definitely the best bit: it’s so reactive. You’re trying to find the stories, you’re talking to people, you’re meeting people. It’s brilliant.

My job doesn’t involve that much reporting anymore – I’m creating strategy, or I’m in meetings about planning and content.

Mainly I’m discussing SEO and optimising content, which is something I didn’t learn at Uni but has become a huge part of my life. You can create incredible content, but if no one can find it to read it, it’s pointless.

What would surprise people about your role?

I think what would surprise people is it’s a lot more analytical than you think – we’re making data-led decisions. That can be really tricky, especially when you’re playing with algorithms because they don’t play by the rules.

There are no rules. And if there are any rules, they can change at the drop of a hat – and no one tells you.

You really have to keep abreast of all the latest updates across social and search. Optimisation has been a game-changer in terms of digital. It’s a very analytical role, and the trick is harnessing the creativity of the journalists around it.

I have many, many spreadsheets… Google Sheets is my friend, and that’s one the best skills you can learn. You’ll need to know more about them than you think.

What’s the best thing beginners can do if they hope to land your job one day?

The spark that I see in the best people is being proactive and taking every opportunity that comes your way. What really surprises me is how many people back away from an opportunity – whether that’s because they don’t feel confident or because they lack experience. You have to carve your own path; you can’t wait for someone to give it to you.

If you need to sit at home with a Google Sheet or an Excel spreadsheet to learn how it works, so you’re ready for work experience in two weeks, do it. If you need to go to your local newspaper and cut your teeth reporting on golden wedding anniversaries, do it. All I can say is take every opportunity, because that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Stylist is a weekly magazine for smart, successful women. (Image Credit: Supplied)

What do you look for in a job application?

I would start with experience and enthusiasm. They’re the perfect combination. You can have one without the other, but you will struggle.

Flexibility’s a really good attribute. I’ll never forget my first year working for the MailOnline when they told me I was working the Christmas Day shift. I was really miffed about that. But my dad said, it’s one day – just do it. You take it on the chin.

Obviously that doesn’t apply to everything, but when there’s an opportunity to learn something, a valuable opportunity, then I think it’s really worthwhile.

How important is a CV or a covering letter – how important is your portfolio? Do you actually look at application letters?

Absolutely. A CV’s really, really important. But what lets a lot of people down is their social media.

I’m going to look at your CV, and you can carve out a picture of yourself in your cover letter – but if I Google you, which I definitely will, and you don’t have a social media presence, that’s already a question mark for me. Or if you say something questionable on your social media, that’s also a question mark for me.

Want the inside scoop on what your CV should be looking like? Here’s our deep-dive (with before and after sliders) on how you can make your application actually stand out. And here’s another, from an editor with experience of hiring people.

It’s about understanding that, if you’re a digital journalist, you should have a digital presence that all interlinks.

But that doesn’t mean you have to have 3000 followers. I think I have 200 on my Instagram account. It’s about being visible in a world that you want to be part of, using your voice to do good.

If you’ve got a newcomer in the office, how do you spot a superstar?

There are two parts to spotting a potential superstar. The first is the enthusiasm. But the great thing about digital is that it can become quite clear if someone has written something and the audience is enjoying it and engaging with it, because there’s a measurement for that.

With digital, there are ways of monitoring success, and finding out whether someone has a tone that resonates with the audience. You can tell in the numbers if people particularly enjoy an article, or if you write really engaging headlines that bring people in.

And, actually, it’s not just about a basic page view number. If you can keep users on the page for a long time, that’s brilliant, they’re totally engaged. Or returning users: if you can bring back 90 per cent user rate, that’s a wow.

I think that maybe for the people who are less confident, this gives them a way of shining. It’s right there in front of you.

What about bad habits? What should young journalists avoid?

The most important thing is not to be complacent. Nothing is going to be handed to you on a plate. And it’s important is to always be thorough. First impressions are really important, and it’s difficult to change someone’s mind after a first impression.

On the hunt for ideas for stories? Aubrey Allegretti details how to get the scoops – even when you don’t have any contacts yet. Need more inspiration? How about our bucket list for student journalists?

If you’re trying to make a good first impression with a piece of work you’ve handed in, always read your copy three times. If there are mistakes, you risk being thought of as slapdash. That’s not something you want.

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We currently have content that goes out on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. But within those platforms you have to chop that content up.

Where will journalism in the next three to five years?

I’ve been in digital journalism for 10 years now. We’re moving away from fast, rehashed news – people are more au fait with the world of clickbait.

I think by 2025, digital audiences will be incredibly loyal to brands, because brands are going to build up a devoted readership. Those people will return to websites to consume their news because they trust them.

That’s really important these days – it’s about quality and trust.

Featured Image Credit: Felicity Thistlethwaite / Supplied