George Eaton, deputy editor of The New Statesman, talks to Lucy Skoulding about breaking into the profession and why, now more than ever, we need skilled journalists to advance the truth and shape the debate.
George began his journalism career at Warwick University in 2005, where he was studying for a history and politics degree. He caught the journalism bug while working as opinion editor and columnist on the university’s newspaper, The Boar. After graduating in 2008, he went to work for politicshome.com for a few months, which he said gave him “a crash course in digital journalism and some experience of reporting in Westminster.”
Later that year, he wrote to the current editor of The New Statesman, Jason Cowley, who has recently celebrated a decade in the job, and asked him if he could write book reviews for the magazine. At the time the magazine happened to be hiring graduates and so, a few interviews later in March 2009, George was brought on as a staff writer. Since then he has worked in a few roles across the magazine, including editor of politics blog, The Staggers, political editor of the magazine, and then his current role, which he moved to at the end of 2018.
“The New Statesman was always a title I wanted to write for,” George explained, “I always liked the idea of writing for a magazine which would go into more depth than newspapers. It’s a great combination to have the weekly print edition as well as the website where I can write quicker pieces.
“The writers who influenced me when I was younger were people like Camus and George Orwell, the latter of who wrote for The New Statesman. They exemplify the values that the publication at its best has to offer, including internationalism, egalitarianism, a commitment to truth and justice, and intellectual rigour. These are the things I’ve always aspired to uphold through journalism.”
The power of digital
When asked about the importance of social media, George said it “helps huge amounts, I’m a very active tweeter.
“For any journalist, the best advice is to do lots of [social media] and think what might make you stand out from the crowd. There are a huge number of voices competing for attention at any one time, so decide what your niche is. Is it your expertise in a particular policy area, is it your flair for argument, do you like doing long investigations, or are you more of an editor who is good at spotting talented writers?
“You shouldn’t put yourself in a box too early on, but I definitely think if you can find some sort of niche it helps. We recently appointed a new economics editor and she’s only 25 but has made quite a name for herself in her field.
“Twitter is incredibly useful in helping me think about subjects to write about but you also need to be reading widely. Try to understand your opponents’ arguments and think about what you can learn from them.”
— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) March 27, 2019
Working at The New Statesman
George explained that his desire to work for The New Statesman started because he has always been on the political left and, like The Spectator is seen as the weekly right title, The New Statesman is the weekly left alternative.
“One thing we’ve done under Jason’s leadership is avoid being seen simply as the Labour party journal, but to try to be more sceptical and unpredictable in our politics, though the magazine’s political values remain unchanged. Our aim is to understand and explain the defining trends in the UK and more broadly.
“This is one reason I’ve stayed so long. I feel really loyal to the magazine, it has a great history.”
When asked about his typical week, George described his different roles, including editing and commissioning for the magazine as well as continuing to write for print and online.
“On Monday mornings we have our editorial meetings, which is where we finalise the main pieces going into the magazine and anything that happened over the weekend as well as finalising details like the cover image. Tuesday is press day, so during the day we go through the final editing process. Then on a Wednesday we start looking ahead to the next issue and the issue we have just worked on is ready for us to view on a Thursday, so we will spend that day reflecting on the previous issue and working on the next. Then Friday involves me editing pieces for my section of the magazine, Observations.
“Obviously all the time you’re reacting to current events, by publishing news pieces and working on features which are sometimes months in the making. But it’s important to not only be reacting; a weekly title needs to have an element of what a monthly brings in terms of extra depth and more ambitious journalism which adds value and does something different to competitors.”
Why pursue a journalism career?
All jobs have their ups and downs. George said his favourite part of his job is “the chance to interview so many interesting people. Also, the fact that publishers send you books for free to write about seems like a deal that’s way too good to be true!
“The most challenging part is reacting to events incredibly quickly. If there’s a major cabinet resignation, for example, you must quickly think: how do we respond to this, what is our angle, who are the writers we need to commission?
“However, I always see it as a privilege to have an outlet for important views and to share the ideas that need to be heard. It gives you a great sense of purpose, covering something like Brexit. We get to carry out investigations as well as publish important economic and geopolitical analyses.
“As a journalist the chance to shape the debate, have an influence and air uncomfortable truths is second to none.”
The challenges of today’s media
Distrust in the media is, to an extent, not a new issue. But with the rise of social media and with it the phenomenon of fake news, the cynicism is rife.
“In some ways, I think it’s entirely justified,” George said, “It’s unsurprising when you have journalists who hack phones and titles who have lied about issues like immigration. It’s to be expected that people are sceptical of any information they are receiving, but what you don’t want is for these feelings to be so strong, people start to not trust anything they read.
“A challenge for journalism is the rise of social media and the fact it allows false information to spread like wildfire. I think it’s an important time for trusted, credible titles to remain relevant and prominent. Journalists must win the trust back they have lost. It’s not enough to lecture the public, you need to earn that trust and have a degree of mutual respect and I think one benefit of social media is that if something is wrong, audiences have a platform to call this out.”
How to break into the industry
At the end of the interview, George shared one piece of advice for all those trying to break in to the journalism industry.
“You have to love it if you want to do it. If you’re in two minds as to whether journalism is for you, then it probably isn’t. I don’t think it’s something you should do simply because you think it would be an interesting job or because it will pay the bills. If you really want to be a journalist you won’t actually have to think too much about how you try and break in because you will be so focused on breaking in, hopefully, eventually you’ll get there.
“Use the tools that young journalists now have to get noticed, though don’t obsess over them. Yes tweet, but also focus on reading writers you admire and think ‘how can I emulate them? What do they do that makes them so compelling to read?’.
“Also, decide what your ambition is. If you’re a journalist, of course it’s nice to have a public profile and have people listen to you but it’s also about advancing the truth and upholding the values that journalism at it’s best always has. It’s a great calling and it’s a great adventure to be part of.
“So do it if you love it and remember that you are standing on the shoulder of giants. Remember all those who have made journalism such an enduring feature of British and global culture.”