Monday, 25 April 2011

Life after editing

Derek Holmes, right, receives the NS's Newspaper
 of the Year award from Joanna Lumley in 2006

I was saddened to see that Derek Holmes has left as editor of Newsquest's Oxford weeklies after 20 years with the division. Despite carrying the burden of being a Manchester United fan, he always struck me as an excellent journalist and editor. I helped him with the redesign of the Oxford Times in 2006. The OT went on to win the NS's Newspaper of the Year that year and, ever gracious, Derek took the time to drop me a note which said: "One of the key things the judges pointed to was the redesign that you did for us. Thanks once again for what you did. The paper is looking great, and I know that played a very important part in us winning this award." In our busy and pressurised industry, it is understandably rare for editors to make such an effort. If there is consolation for Derek, his departure is clearly nothing to do with his ability or performance. As the business changes radically over the next year, there will be other good people who will leave too. And although it seems like the sky has fallen in at the time, there really is life after editing. It is 18 years since I left the editor's chair at The Northern Echo. Since then my career has been every bit as stimulating and rewarding - and I am certainly not alone in this. Below is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for the Press Gazette. It is, perhaps, as relevant now as it was then. 

Life after editing
When I took my advanced driving test the instructor kept asking me: “If that bus or lorry came at you now, what would your escape route be?” It is a question that may be relevant to many of today’s editors. Editing is probably the pinnacle of your career. If you are doing it right, your time and energy will be devoted to setting and communicating a vision. So it is hardly surprising that few new editors give any thought to what happens next. But what if it doesn’t work out? What if you burn out? Even if you love every minute, can you really expect to be still there in 15 years? Some editors – Peter Barron at The Northern Echo, Chris Bright at Jersey - have been in situ for more than a decade. But nowadays editors more often leave with the same regularity as football managers. And being talented and hard-working is no guarantee. Dozens of editors have been fired for financial reasons, because their faces no longer fitted or because they were “too difficult”. So here are some tips to help you be prepared for the ten-ton truck that comes out of nowhere:
i) The next job should be one you really want. Keep a constant eye on the market – not just media jobs. Your skills in communication, technology, strategy, leadership and man-management are transferable to most industries.
ii) Keep your skills up to date. How good are you (honestly) at web-building, video, PR, strategy, public speaking and page planning?
iii) If the axe falls don’t be tempted to take the first bolthole that comes along. Don’t undersell yourself. Would you have applied for this job if you were still editor? If not, it is probably the wrong move. Buy time through freelancing and short-term contracts.
iv) Call in your contacts. You will have met people in publishing, business, education and politics who could benefit from your know-how. Tell them how.
v) Look abroad. English publications, particularly in the Middle East and India, are often on the look-out for UK executives.
vi) Set up your own business. Many ex-editors run successful PR, training and consultancy companies. Gareth Weekes, whose editorship at the Daily Echo in Bournemouth, came to an abrupt end 13 years ago, now runs Deep South Media with seven other journalists. He describes them as hacks who have become entrepreneurs. Weekes says: “Apart from missing my newsroom colleagues and the adrenalin rush of running a newspaper, losing my editorship was an entirely positive experience.
“The skills journalists take for granted are highly marketable. Organisations are willing to pay for good communicators. They have a respect for our direct style of writing, and our knack of asking the right questions.
“I still smart when I remember how I was wrenched out of the editor's chair. But nobody should do that job for too long and these days I get another kind of buzz. Building a business is every bit as creative as being an editor.”
Of course in these troubled times, all of this is much harder. Perhaps your best bet is to catch up with the things you have been putting off – travelling, learning new skills, decorating the spare bedroom – until it blows over. To do this you need a financial cushion. So one last tip: When you sign the editor’s contract make it as difficult as possible for them to get rid of you. I know one editor who moved his family from London, bought a house - and then got the bullet. When he checked his contract he was entitled to just three months’ money.  It might seem like an odd thing to do when taking over a high-powered and exciting job … but it’s never too early to start thinking about your exit.

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