Jonn Elledge is the online editor for the New Statesman and editor of CityMetric. Pi Politics Editor Claude Lynch interviews him to gain insight into Twitter as the “media’s common room”, the ways getting into journalism is changing, and his status as a low-level political meme.
When I meet Jonn, having sent him multiple pitches before but never seen him in person, I’m struck by how tall he is. I’m also struck by his tasteful shirt. But this is beside the point, beyond the blindingly obvious first question I have to ask him, (aspiring) journalist to journalist: how did he discover that it was what he wanted to do?
“I don’t know if I ever did! When I was a student I did a lot of writing in different sense – I did a lot of student sketch shows, wrote a few terrible plays, had the idea of being a novelist; but I also became deputy editor of the student paper. I think I had this idea that people have been having down the ages, of going into journalism because it’s writing”. Elledge left university “without a clear idea” of what he wanted to do and worked in the trade press for several years, injecting fun into education policy, somehow. Later, things started picking up because “the people I was pitching to started to know who I was, from Twitter I think”. When the New Statesman’s urban-focused sister site CityMetric was “handed down from on high”, Jonn was given the reins. Now, 5 years on, he more or less runs the NS website. But he offers a cogent criticism of this long form anecdote: “The problem with ever getting anyone to tell you about what a path into journalism is, I don’t think any of them are really replicable. It’s always so contingent and there’s so many decisions there that I made, rightly or wrongly. Also, the world I graduated into is very different to yours”. I concur; it doesn’t exist anymore. “Yeah. Even though the internet was a thing, newspapers were vaguely aware of it but they didn’t really feel under any pressure to deal with it yet”.
Now I’m thinking about social media, and its impact on how people get into journalism. Does Elledge think that getting “well-known” is how you get in the paper nowadays? He asserts that social media has made things easier, for better or worse. “Twitter is a hellscape, but it’s the media’s common room. If you were someone who wants to break into that, now it’s possible to see how it’s done, in a way which was very difficult before social media”. But for Jonn, this is risky. “It does allow people to build a reputation based on hot takes. There are people nowadays who’ve become very well known for their writing at a very young age, but there’s a value to having been forced to do the basics for a while”. Like what you use when you take a warp pipe in Mario, I think. I make the mistake of saying this out loud. The interview moves on.
Elledge was once resentful for being stuck in the trade press, repeating, “no, you wouldn’t have heard of them” when people asked his job at parties. Now he appreciates it; the edits he faced before making it at the NS allowed him to become a better writer. “Success coming too young does have a downside – some people just crash and burn, or make mistakes. But the flip-side of this is that you can now hear a lot more diverse voices”. It used to be that journalism would be dominated by voice of privilege; “now there are people with platforms who can say they’ve been stuffed by the housing crisis and the post-crash economy”.
Pitching and freelancing, is more painless nowadays, especially for students. It’s just a case of finding the email address and sending the pitch. But Elledge worries that this can lead to the creation of media personalities built on shaky foundations, political figures without practice: “There’s people who ask why these figures haven’t denounced the latest thing from their faction. Why do they have to be involved? It’s a weird dynamic; people expect you to take positions on things.”
Does he find himself having to take up certain positions? He doesn’t think so. “I’m a professional loudmouth, I don’t really have any power or anything”. Is that so true? He does have a meme page, and his “build more bloody houses” quote, is a stalwart in the YIMBY crowd. Perhaps not: “Don’t mistake the fact that a few hundred people on the internet have running jokes about me for actual fame or influence or anything”. While he no longer feels as though his writing falls into a vacuum, he doesn’t wish to become some political figurehead for the housing crisis. But what if it comes with the territory? Don’t journalists like Elledge measure how well they’re doing by how hot people think their takes are? “It depends what you think the job is. I sometimes worry about the fact that I’m not doing as much proper reporting as I feel I should. Writing a funny hot take isn’t challenging, if it’s something you do regularly. But going out and breaking stories or learning about how stuff works is far more intellectually challenging, and because it’s harder to get people to click on that stuff, it’s far more satisfying when they do.”
Elledge is happy to acknowledge his good luck: “It’s a great privilege to be able to go: “hey internet, I’ve got an opinion!”, and have people read it, because there were many years when that wasn’t true for me”. However, he accepts that there’s still a disconnect between the social value of news stories and their readership: “There are more clicks, and therefore more ad revenue, in hot takes. You look at the cost of generating these things against their likely income, and that’s why a lot of publications do a lot of hot takes”. It all comes down to engagement: “it’s the button they can press that will get them the audience. I’ve done plenty of it too, I’m sure: you realise that if you press a particular button, like “god, if only housing were cheaper”, or “wouldn’t it be good if we stopped Brexit”. Whether social media or actual media, they’re both a reflection of human nature”. When editing, Elledge tries to mix more informal content with serious investigative pieces, to give readers a more balanced diet. However, he tends to write in a casual style. Does that simply play better nowadays? “I’ve discovered that people respond well to an institution speaking with a human voice. You have to be careful with that, because it can get you into an enormous amount of trouble if you do it wrong. But I could literally see there were better pickups on tweets that were clearly coming from a person, instead of just ‘this is a headline, produced by a magazine’”. While some of Elledge’s material is more serious, he tries to keep his style consistent: “I still try and make it chatty and accessible, but it’s not just ‘lol what have those twats done now’”.
The last phrase gets me thinking about the typical remark you hear on social media. Nowadays, many people, writers especially, are abstaining from Twitter for mental health reasons. Does Elledge see that as a problem, when Twitter is so ingrained in becoming a journalist? “I think it’s sad that people feel the need to withdraw, but it’s probably understandable. Occasionally I’ll find people – I don’t know who they are but they hate my guts – I think, “what have I done to upset you so much”, but that’s a rarity. It’s a function of privilege, being a white bloke on the cusp of middle age. I’m still having a good time, and it’s been such a huge part of my transition from writing obscure stuff in obscure magazines to getting to write silly stuff that I have an affection for. But if you look at the mentions of any of our female journalists, particularly the ones that express a lot of opinions, you see that women get it a hundred times worse than men ever do. I know a few women who have mentions set to followers only, and I can totally see why. But it can be difficult to resist the urge to check what people are saying about you; if you know that every day, there’s this box where people are abusing you, it must be difficult psychologically”.
Again, he knows he’s lucky to not face the discrimination of some of his peers. “My experience of writing on the internet has been much more positive than negative, but that’s in large part because I’m a bloke and I write about nerdy stuff a lot of the time. Generally, ‘train Twitter’ is quite nice”. If meeting Elledge is testament to anything, it’s that any good journalist should always remember where they’ve come from – and where they’ve still got to go: “It’s important to be self aware, and keep in mind what you don’t know”.