Old Citizen John Elmes (1998 – 2005) forges a career in journalism


28 September 2018
 ‘Frenetic, weird, glossy, and problematic,’ is how Old Citizen John Elmes describes his job as Senior Reporter at C21Media, the online entertainment industry publisher. This is his latest role in a flourishing journalism career which has seen him work in the education, sports and general news sectors.

John was already interested in becoming a journalist while at City of London School, an idea that crystallised during a fifth form presentation by teacher, Brian Jones about AS/A2 Level English Language.

“He made the subject sound extremely interesting and worthwhile,” says John, “and painted an attractive image of what being a journalist would be like.”

“By the time I got to university I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t know the best route into the profession, but having written for the student newspaper and heard others talking about journalism careers post-university, it seemed that a postgraduate journalism qualification would be really useful - either a master’s or an NCTJ-accredited course (National Council for the Training of Journalists).”

John left Durham University in the middle of the financial crisis and a year later gained an MA in Journalism from Goldsmith’s College, University of London. It wasn’t an auspicious time to be looking for a first job.

“Entry-level journalism jobs were being taken by people with ten years’ experience,” he says. “Even though a postgrad qualification is not essential – my schoolmate and noted Guardian sports journalist Jacob Steinberg is the best example of this – it was useful in those straitened times.”

John succeeded in securing a position as an unpaid intern on Goal.com, an online football news publisher. This was thanks in part to his news tutor/lecturer at Goldsmiths, an Evening Standard/Independent journalist whose former colleague was an editor at Goal.

“I think any football lover who wants to be a journalist would take a job on a football publication,” says John, “so that helped. But in all honesty, I took whatever I could in those days. Full-time jobs were few and far between and hotly contested. I would’ve worked at pretty much any publication if they paid me.”

After working unpaid on Goal for six months,  John was invited to apply for a subbing role, “which I didn’t get,” he says, “but they wanted to keep me on for writing reports/features. In the end, after saying I had to quit if they weren’t going to pay me, they offered me a paid, part-time features writing role.”

At around the same time, John also gained valuable experience working freelance for The Independent, thanks once again to his tutor.

“I helped out on a couple of shifts on the foreign desk and then made myself indispensable by offering to take whatever shifts they had,” he says. “Fortunately, across the main newspaper, the (then newly) created ‘i’ and the Independent on Sunday, there were enough opportunities for shift work.”

John concedes that as a 24-year-old first-time journalist he was woefully inexperienced although he was given some guidance in both roles.

“Being a journalist on a renowned national newspaper’s main news desk was a thrill if terrifying,” he says. “Goal was great because it gave me vital, early experience of writing online – which is where most journalism has gone – and I got to watch a lot of football.”

John subsequently joined Times Higher Education (THE), working his way up from Editorial Assistant to Junior Reporter and then Reporter on both the print and online versions of the publication.

When I joined THE the print publication was the main output; our website was a relic. It quickly became clear the website would be the driver of readers to our work, so we eventually got a new website and a new focus. What is great about THE though is that it has survived the wholesale migration online. The magazine still has some value in its printed form. It’s also a beautiful publication, so it would be a tragedy if it stops being printed.”

John’s interest in the education sector started at School, where he began reading the daily newspapers regularly.

“I always thought the education stories were the most interesting, the most relevant to me,” he says. “When I did my Master’s, I requested the education beat to try and stoke this curiosity.”

Working at THE proved invaluable for John, who honed his skills as a journalist there.

“I always had a problem with taking the surface-level news line and thinking that was satisfactory for a story. Sometimes it is, most of the time it isn’t. Being at THE helped me dig deeper into subjects. Also, having to interview high-profile academics in the higher education sector – who are invariably more intelligent than you – proved to be a valuable exercise.”

John recalls two of the most challenging articles he wrote during his time with THE:

“The first was a feature about the Cambridge PhD student, Giulio Regeni, who was murdered in Egypt in 2016. Having reported on the vigil outside the Italian embassy in London, I had an idea to write a feature about how his academic life might have panned out. He was a similar age to me and he had already achieved much in his short academic career. I spoke to his tutors from the academic institutions where he studied and some of his close friends to gauge what he was like as an academic and person. It was difficult to ask questions of people still mourning.

“The second was similarly tragic. I wrote a feature about an ethnographer who had written a book about a trauma surgical team in the military hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. The book was graphic and when I interviewed the academic he told me the experience had rocked him emotionally and professionally, so much so he questioned his academic career post and still struggles with his experiences.

“Both of these pieces laid bare just how difficult academia is and what scholars risk for their work. They were fascinating and troubling in equal measure.”

During his stint at THE John also wrote freelance articles for the wine magazine, Decanter. His interest in wine, he says, came from watching an episode of Faking It, “where the beer drinking champion of the US had to con a panel of wine experts he was a master sommelier. It was brilliant TV, firstly, but also made the wine industry seem really attractive.

“Since I was working for THE, much of the wine articles I wrote for Decanter were news stories about new tech and academic wine courses, which were gaining traction. Thus, the Decanter work was a crossover of my higher education day job and my freelance interest. Initially, I got the gig by writing a 10-piece diary detailing the experience of doing a wine course – paid for by Decanter, which was fun, because I got to put myself in the articles – something I don’t often do.”

John’s decision to move away from the education sector into the very different world of entertainment, came after six years on Times Higher Education.

“I felt I needed a change after half a decade in education. Ironically, the last six months of my THE career were my most intriguing and probably produced my best work, but I had already made my mind up. I had no clue what C21 was when I applied for the job, but the job description sounded fascinating. And who wouldn’t want to write about the TV business?” he says.

His new role differs in many ways from his role as Reporter on THE.

 “There is a lot more transmedia work at C21. I do a lot of writing, obviously, but also video interviews, audio reports and podcasts. There’s also much more travel. Though relationships are important everywhere in journalism, they’re pivotal in TV.”

“I’ve written some enjoyable pieces about virtual reality’s potential impact on the TV business, a feature about the TV adaptation of Get Shorty – which involved a set visit to Paramount Studios and interviews with cast and crew, and a piece about regulating tech/digital firms like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook etc. They’ve been great to explore.”

Asked what advice he’d give City of London School boys thinking of pursuing a career in journalism, John says:

“Do as much work experience as you can before you get to, and during, university (if you go down the university route). The more experience you have by the time it comes to starting your career, the stronger position you’ll be in to take a job.

“Don’t worry about specialising early on. I barely did six months of general journalism on a newspaper work before moving to a trade magazine in the education sector. I spent over half my career to date there before moving into TV, so you can hop between areas if you want to change.”