July 5, 2019 (Updated )
At university, when I was working on the student paper, I thought journalism meant writing for The Guardian or Cosmopolitan. For a graduate with little money and no contacts, that mountain looked impossible to climb. After all, there are thousands of graduates every year and it seemed like we were all chasing the same path.
Instead, my career started at a trade magazine. In a turbulent media world of lay-offs and stagnant wages, I’m actually really glad I wasn’t propelled into the consumer press straight after graduation. Here’s why.
A Whole New World Of Publications That Will *Actually* Employ You
We’ll use any excuse to crack out the Disney songs.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I discovered the world of trade magazines and B2B publications. I’d just turned down a place at City University because I couldn’t afford it and instead went to do a 12-week diploma with what was called the Press and Media Association, now merged with PA.
The goal was to teach us fast and get us a job. At the end of the course, I had an interview with Construction News, but I worried the building industry was on the decline just a couple years after the credit crunch. My interview at Meat Trades Journal went well, but I was on the cusp of going vegetarian. So when I got a job with New Model Adviser magazine, I decided finance was the right path for me.
I didn’t know anything about finance, although thanks to an internship at a hedge fund magazine I knew that ‘UCITS’ stood for the Undertakings for Collective Investments in Transferable Securities (yeah, we had to look it up too – ed). After my first phone interview with a fund manager – I had prepared by just looking at the fact sheet for his fund and didn’t really understand any of it – he apparently turned to his PR person and said, “She’s really new, isn’t she?”
It’s Sink Or Swim – So You’ll Learn Quick
I had to learn quickly. I was given a spreadsheet of contacts and told to call them, introduce myself and, ideally, get news. On the Friday of my first week, I was sent to an industry conference, one which I now know is extremely niche and technical, even within finance.
Most of the content washed over me, yet something about ‘vertically integrated firms’ caught my attention – maybe because the speaker was a senior person and used the future tense (e.g. we will do this, or we’re looking at that). My editors got excited and somehow I landed the main splash in the magazine. I felt like a celebrity at the after-work drinks. But it was beginner’s luck. In my year and a half there, it was the easiest splash I got.
I kept up my shorthand, and within weeks we were being trained to produce and host video interviews. I learnt how to upload copy into our content management system (CMS), how to dial into a group phone call (still impossible), and how to pitch my stories or convince my editor to interview someone in a way that would make them say yes.
I learnt how to network, how to enter a conference room full of mostly older, white men and barge into their conversations. I learnt how to wheedle my contacts for the facts I needed without being too pushy, and I learnt never to cross the angry press woman at the Financial Conduct Authority.
The Art Of Sticking To Deadlines
As a weekly magazine, the deadlines gave us a solid structure to work around. Monday and Tuesday were interviewing and writing up features. Wednesday to Friday was a mix of features and news. The news meeting was at 10am on a Thursday morning – where we were expected to come up with five exclusive leads. This was the reason I started going for lunchtime jogs around Westminster, just to relieve the stress.
Those leads had to be solid, and hold from Thursday until Monday, when the mag came out. There were only about half a dozen news slots, and at least three reporters, yet the bar was so high for what was real news that I was happy if I landed just one of them.
Then there was press day. Every Friday the atmosphere in the office was tense. Our editor drank Red Bull and smoked e-cigarettes at his desk. I had the occasional KitKat or Nutella toast. The subs would come round with the proofs and the editor would write all over them in red pen, exactly the way I’d seen people work at a national. Except we were a bit nicer to each other. Around 8 or 9pm, when the magazine was ready to go to print, we all went for a drink.
The weekly structure is just as intense and relentless as a daily. If you’d messed up one week, you had the luxury of knowing you could come back on Monday and try again. Yet if you’d been crowned news hound of that week, your victory had been scrubbed by Sunday evening. I learnt that you were only as good, in our editors’ eyes, as your last story.
The Perks. Blimey, The Perks.
But man, if we worked hard then we played hard, too. Spa days, fancy restaurants, wine and whiskey tastings, a speed boat down the Thames, the box at Lord’s cricket ground, a Beyonce concert (in the corporate box), pigeon clay shooting with 200-year-old rifles, a ride on a Harley Davidson, a trip to the Henley regatta.
A private tour of Westminster. Private dinners at the top of the Gherkin, and in the London Transport Museum. OK, I’ll stop showing off. Well, this is finance after all.
Building A Niche Is Invaluable
As mentioned, a niche can be handy. That niche could be anything, from understanding how electrical engineers fix fridges in factories to learning to decipher earnings reports from retailers.
It’s definitely come in handy for me. In a world where everyone knows everything, it’s amazing how few people (and how few women especially) know much about finance and investment. That niche has paid rent and bills and holidays. It’s taken me to Florida, Amsterdam… and Brighton.
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Since being a staff writer for The Independent in New York and then going freelance, finance hasn’t meant that I don’t write about other things. I’ve written everything from theatre reviews to covering Donald Trump rallies. But finance does mean I always have something to fall back on, and that’s been particularly useful when I needed extra cash as a freelancer.
There have been several points so far in my career where I thought I might move on from finance. But, money aside, it seems like a waste. I’ve built up so much knowledge, including taking exams on the subject, and my skills are increasingly in demand. Instead, I’ve learnt to combine what I love – women’s rights – with finance, carving out my own space over time.
As many of us know, there is no one way to build a career in journalism or anywhere else. But a trade magazine is arguably the quickest route to the coalface; it’s a raw and intense experience where you learn to prove yourself and to compete.
I had to wade through complicated documents, raise my hand at conferences, and schmooze like a pro. I still remember discovering a Ponzi scheme and informing a semi-retired postman that he’d most likely lost all his money.
Trade mags have a serious responsibility to their audience, often an industry or small community, and if you make a mistake it matters. You guard your contacts and your stories like a WWF wrestler. And you build an expertise you can rely on for years to come.
It’s also a springboard for other exciting chapters. For me, that was covering the presidential election in New York. It doesn’t get much better than that.