I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Eleanor Halls is associate culture editor and music editor of The Telegraph. She’s also co-host of the excellent podcast Straight Up and author of the Pass the Aux newsletter, both of which often focus on the journalism world in one way or another. In this excerpt from our interview, Eleanor talks about where music journalism is headed.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
After applying to every job under the sun (Aldi’s grad scheme, Foxtons, AMV, the Civil Service) and getting unanimously rejected, I decided to give journalism a go. It was always what I’d been drawn to but I was put off by how badly paid I knew the industry to be, and all of my friends had already snapped up shiny jobs in the city. After securing a few work experience placements at The Independent, The Times and Vogue, I got a three-month, unpaid internship at a local magazine.
But a week into the placement, I had been offered a dream, PAID, six-month internship at British GQ, which I’d applied to as an enormous shot in the dark, hungover one hot afternoon after coming back from a festival. I think I must have still been drunk or I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to send it off, assuming that no mens’ fashion mag would want to hire a 22-year-old woman. But, I got an interview and then the job, so left the local placement (which I hated anyway) to start as GQ‘s features assistant, and the only woman on the features desk!
I started off writing 300-word pieces for the Details front section, about everything from books and film to Shearling jackets, before landing my first big profile with Stormzy right at the start of his career (which became my first coverline). I realised I loved interviewing more than anything, as it allowed me to scamper around London meeting amazing people at exciting locations, rather than sitting down at a desk all day long. Then I got into interviewing on video, which tended to be majority musicians, which is I suppose how I started focussing on music journalism more specifically. It was never really about the music for me—I can’t say I’ve always been a music nerd—but the people and the sub-cultures. I wanted to talk and support people who were different from me, and who would introduce me and the readers to new ideas, new places, new sounds.
After three years at GQ, during which time I was promoted to staff writer and then senior staff writer, I got a job at The Telegraph as a Commissioning Editor across Culture (print and online). Now I’m the Culture desk’s Associate Editor and Music Editor, where I no longer write as much, spending my days sourcing new writers and thinking up ideas, before commissioning them out and then editing the pieces coming in. We may have up to ten pieces coming in every single day so it’s busy!
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
GQ is where I learned to write. I had one editor in particular who was utterly ruthless with his edits, and while countless rewrites and ripped up drafts led to some excruciating moments of extreme self-doubt (and many tears in the toilets), it formed me as the writer I am today. I’m extremely lucky to have had such a hands-on and meticulous editor, as I’m not sure juniors are always afforded so much time, particularly at newspapers where the pace is simply too fast and nobody wants to talk to the intern. And I don’t think many editors are particularly generous when it comes to editing freelancers—they’ll often do it without telling them why, because they have so little time to go through the piece with them and wait for second or even third drafts.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
At the Telegraph we work shifts: 9-5, 11-7 or 7-3. I do two or three 7-3 shifts a week, and on those days it will consist of scouring all the papers/websites to make sure we have covered all the right pieces lined up for the day, before pitching them to the Editor of the paper at conference. Once our ideas are approved, I spend the rest of the day commissioning them out and editing pieces that come in, as well as attending several other news conferences and ideas meetings that happen throughout the day. Otherwise, my time is spent organising music reviews, interviews, and forward planning.
What does your media diet look like?
American culture journalism is second to none, so I like to read Vulture, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate and The New York Times. In the mornings I’ll also read all the tabloids, as that’s where much of the Showbiz news comes from that I need to stay abreast of at The Telegraph. I’ll make sure to read the UK supplements at the weekend, to get a measure of the competition!
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years?
At GQ, I rarely posted about my work and never tried to find a journalism community online—I guess I was still figuring out what I was doing, and also suffering from imposter syndrome. But in the past two years I’ve become very aware of how important ‘personal brands’ are for journalists who want to add a layer of security to their jobs.
Redundancies are common, so you need to make sure you have something secure to fall back on: a personal brand for instance, which can be so useful for freelance work and brand opportunities. While it can be draining, anxiety inducing and sometimes a little cringe, self-promotion across social media is very important, as is trying to carve out a niche for yourself.
How do you organize your work?
I am one of those people that writes countless to-do lists but never looks at them. I tend to work on whatever is gripping me with the most panic in that moment—so, the fastest approaching deadline. I am a bit of a workaholic, so I spend some time most evenings and weekends working on various side projects such as my Pass the Aux newsletter and my podcast Straight Up. That said I’m also quite sociable and go out four times a week too, so I often find that between seeing friends and working I have very little time left just to be with my own thoughts and relax. It’s something I am working on!
Where do you see music journalism headed?
I think we need to have honest conversations about the role of music journalism and whether much of it still has any value. I worry that music journalism—interviews and reviews—is becoming PR to some musicians. Most journalists are freelance and don’t have the support of editors or publishers, and reply on publicists for talent access so they can get work. It’s no wonder they often feel too intimidated by an artist and their team to write what they really think.
Having been on the receiving end of angry PRs, I would be terrified of having to deal with them without the support I get being on staff. But this means that more and more music journalism I read comes across as if it were written by a breathless fan rather than a journalist. I get it, they want the artist to like—and crucially, share—their work, but we need to be honest with ourselves about whether this is actually journalism.
That’s not to say that I want writers to write sniping takedowns of artists—absolutely not, unkind journalism is totally unnecessary. But I don’t really see the point of a piece that simply presents the artist in the artist’s own terms, as they present themselves on Instagram. Why would you need a journalist for that? I think the majority of fans and music lovers appreciate researched, insightful, fair and honest journalism. But I think stan culture on Twitter has distorted that reality.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
More women writing music reviews, particularly beyond pop music. And more writers from ethnic minorities. American journalism seems much more diverse to me, we need to follow suit.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
Writers opening interviews or pieces with a robotic run-through of an artist’s accolades and statistics. Boring! Start with a story....
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
If you don’t know how to write, copy the style of someone who can, until you figure it out.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
Fascinated by Pinkpantheress after she blew up on TikTok—so little is known about her too…
What’s your favorite part of all this?
Feeling inspired by some of the people I interview whose lives are so wonderfully different to mine. A brilliant interview can completely renergise me and my passion for this profession.
What was the best track / video or film / book you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
I have the worst memory ever and genuinely can’t remember anything beyond the week I’m in. I watched Olivia Colman’s new film The Lost Daughter recently and it was the first portrayal of ‘unnatural motherhood’ I have seen on screen. It was very disturbing, but also refreshingly honest—I am sure countless women have felt like they shouldn’t have become a mother. But the taboo means they don’t get any support.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
This piece on how the MeToo movement had been felt at my old university—Oxford—was special to me because it was the first piece I wrote that didn’t require any editing, and in which I felt I had found my voice.
**Anything you want to plug?
I would love to plug my journalism newsletter Pass The Aux, which I launched after realising so few women pitched to me at The Telegraph, particularly about music. I wanted to create a little community of writers by sharing my own experiences that might be helpful to them, and the experiences of other writers I admire. Plus lots of advice and tips around everything from pitching to making money!
Also, my podcast, Straight Up, co-hosted by me and my friend and fellow music journo Kathleen Johnston, which delves into the behind the scenes worlds of different stars across pop culture, chatting about everything from the price of fame to their weirdest internet obsession. We’ve had everyone from Maya Jama to London Grammar. We also just did a bonus episode all about the behind-the-scenes of celeb journalism, busting myths and sharing many a mortifying anecdote!
Did you enjoy this interview? You can support this newsletter by subscribing here. Among other things, you’ll get full access to all 400+ interviews I’ve done as part of the newsletter. I’ve talked with writers and editors from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and many more.