I once realised that every job or significant opportunity I’d had in journalism started with a conversation in the pub. Sometimes it was straightforward: I was out and, three pints in, someone in the room mentioned a position I would be good for. Most of the time, it was more convoluted.
In 2013 I was drunk and went to cheerfully say hello to a stranger I’d recently followed on Twitter, because that was still something we did back then. Several years down the line, that encounter changed the path of my career. I’ll spare you the details of what happened between those two points. What’s important here is that I have never, to the best of my recollection, got media work in the way that people get work in other industries. Mostly, I’ve just been in the right place at the right time.
To be clear, I am essentially the opposite of a “nepo baby”, the term du jour for scions of old hacks who, we are told, are a blight on Fleet Street. I moved to Britain at 17 without knowing a single soul in the country, aside from a boy I’d snogged at a festival and who then refused my Facebook friend request. I went to a university so unremarkable that, to this day, one of our most famous alumni remains Jihadi John. The chip on my shoulder should be visible from Mars but really, it’s all been luck. I’m good at luck.
I don’t mean this as an odd mistranslation; I believe that while serendipity cannot be forced, it can definitely be lent a hand. If you want to find yourself in the right place at the right time, it helps to always be somewhere doing something. That was my life in my early twenties: I went to every single event or gathering I was invited to, spoke to everyone who wanted to speak to me and everyone who looked like they’d speak to anyone. I circled journalism like a shark, getting to the stragglers, pouncing whenever it looked like it could be worth it. It worked; it was great.
In those years, I remember reading bitter accounts of Fleet Street’s cosy club of posh men and Oxford grads, allegedly hostile to anyone who wasn’t well heeled and connected. I didn’t get it. Sure, some people clearly were playing on easy mode, but in all of life some people have it easier than others. As I saw it, we all lived in pokey flatshares and swung from newspaper shifts to newspaper shifts, getting too drunk on Tuesday nights and trying to make the best of our meagre paychecks. It was a fun bonding experience and felt nearly meritocratic. Any of us could win, we just had to keep playing.
I still stand by this now, a decade in. I’m sure that having the sort of family which means that an internship is only a lunch or a phone call away helps. I’m not obtuse. I’m just not convinced that it really is such an advantage that it explains all of the media’s ills. With enough motivation, anyone can get their foot in the door. Staying in the room is what’s harder. That’s also where it gets complicated.
Though some people take off early on, reaching cruising altitude usually takes some time. You’ve got to move from job to job, newsroom to newsroom, beat to beat, figure out what you like, figure out what you’re good at, figure out which editors like you and which don’t. You can toil for years in obscurity then write a feature or film a documentary that will propel you to the sort of success no one can take away from you. It’s non-linear and there is no recipe that’ll work for everyone.
Everyone can, in theory, keep trying, but some things will help. Of course, some level of nepotism may be useful, but it’s only a small part of the equation. If, say, your family has enough money to get you a flat or even a sizeable deposit, you’ll be free to keep trying for longer than others.
If your partner earns considerably more money than you do, you’ll be able to take three months off work and write a book, in the hope that it will be your big break. Hell, if you’re sleeping with someone who’s got it figured out, they should be able to offer you professional advice and contacts you wouldn’t get otherwise.
If you did a prestigious journalism course, chances are that at least one of your peers will be in a position to hire you, and it is likely that they will want to work with people they know and trust. If your best friend happens to be rich, they may well have a spare room you can stay in while you figure out what you should be doing. If, if, if, if.
If you don’t have any of those, you’re still allowed to play. It is simply more likely that you’ll end up taking dull but secure jobs because you need the money, when you know they won’t lead to anything great. You may give an ambitious project a go but, if it doesn’t work, that’ll be the end of it. It’s like a slot machine: everyone’s welcome to have a go, but some people run out of coins faster than others.
Journalism isn’t rotten because of the occasional bout of nepotism, but because it’s a trade based on luck, and gambling is by definition unequal. “When the fun stops, stop”, say the ads, and the same probably applies to the media, and the arts, and other fields in the cultural and creative industries. Luck can be engineered but it takes time and effort. Not everyone can afford those for very long.
[See also: What does Evgeny Lebedev want?]