Making it as a Journalist

Michelle Johnson, Editor & Journalist

Michelle Johnson

  • Michelle is all about collaboration, the little wins, and resilience – all of which have helped her to climb the ladder in the competitive world of journalism and media. She worked for over six years at HELLO! before her latest role as Director of Editorial at Vantage Media.

“I always wanted to be a journalist, I always wanted to write. But I didn’t like the cutthroat nature of journalism,” said Michelle. But after university graduation, she did what many budding journos do to cut their teeth in a short-course magazine NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course to get experience and develop expertise and she loved it.

Following some time freelancing and a stint of work with local papers, she secured a 6-month placement as the acting editor for West Essex life, a local free distribution mag. It was a trial by fire, but the role put her in good stead for her career-defining position at HELLO! She initially took a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor, and ended up staying with the publication for six and half years, working her way up to an international features writer, before seguewaying into her passion: film.

Michelle Johnson BAFTA
Michelle at the BAFTAs

“There was an opportunity to make more of film, but nobody [at the junkets] was talking to tabloid or print press. So, I campaigned for a video camera and created an in-house film department to get access to A-list actors. Soon we were getting interviews every week. I’ve never been afraid of talking to people, so interviewing seemed natural way of telling stories… Red carpets are fun, not least because people think its super glamourous, but a lot of it is waiting in rain for a celebrity to ignore you!”

After six and a half years, Michelle wanted a new challenge. She took on the role as digital editor of Tempus, a small luxury lifestyle mag. They had no website, app, or digital presence, so it was a great opportunity to take everything she’d learnt and apply it to a niche audience. Tempus found a new publisher in Vantage Media in 2018, where Michelle is now director of editorial and editor of Tempus.

Now her average day at work is all about making sure she’s abreast of what’s going on in the world of luxury lifestyle, planning and coordinating a variety of editorial projects for clients and in house, and working with writers and interviewees. She also has lots of meetings. “Relationships with PR and marketing are crucial. It’s important to work very collaboratively.”
It’s clear collaboration is something she values highly, as she also recalls one of the standout moments in her career as seeing the publication of her first magazine as editor. “To see that come together after working so closely with our creative and sales teams was amazing. The collaboration process was incredible. I felt very lucky.”

For the love of film

There’s no doubt that Michelle is a hard worker, but she also admits that she’s had some luck in landing her role. “The cool thing is I love it, but it’s challenging. In the early part of my career especially, I managed to lilypad between different roles and jobs and met some incredible people.”

She has had some amazing opportunities. She recounts when she had the opportunity to interview Angelina Jolie when she launched her preventing sexual violence initiative. “As a subject matter, it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do an interview on such as serious topic, and her answers were amazing. That was a real privilege. It was cool to do something that could impact someone’s life in print. I’m very interested in charity, so I want to talk to ambassadors and bring attention to deserving causes.”

But it’s not just speaking to superstar A-Listers, she celebrates the day-to-day too. “I talk a lot about the little wins. One of the things I like to do when I’m stressed out or got a lot on my plate is find those tiny wins.”
She isn’t afraid of a challenge and her drive and passion has helped her career, for sure. Michelle is a huge film fan, and thanks to her determination to chase her dream, a large chunk of her career so far has involved watching, writing about, and interviewing the stars of films.

Michelle Johnson
Michelle hosting a panel

When I asked her when she felt most star struck, she struggled to pin down just one person. “I’m a big geek about directors, so when I met Joss Whedon [Director of The Avengers] or Martin Scorsese at the Wolf of Wall Street premier. I was obsessed with Casino, so I asked him questions comparing the two because I think the beats of the films are so similar.

“Ah, and then there was Dame Judi Dench – she’s so nice, but if she doesn’t like your question, she’ll tell you. The vast majority of my interviews have been positive, and both celebrities and press are at a premiere or junket for the same reason, so it’s actually quite hard to be star-struck during these events… Tom Cruise is still the pinnacle of a ‘Hollywood star’, though. When you’re face to face with him it’s a bit surreal. And every co-star will have something nice to say about him. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

How to make it as a journalist

Michelle has three tips for anyone who wants to make it as a journalist:
You have to be resilient: People who go into journalism will likely intern for a long time; you can expect to be doing that 12-18 months. It’s about not giving up and taking every opportunity you can. Even when you feel like a task might be quite boring, it might turn into an opportunity.

Accept and learn from criticism: When you do get the chance to write, take any criticism that comes your way. It’s not about you and what you’ve written. Any red pen teaches you more about the style of your publication. It’s about the collaborative approach. If a young journo sees their writing has been significantly edited, find the Sub Editor and get them to walk you through it. Writing is a collaboration.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself: For example, if you want to be sportswriter, but opportunity comes up at a local paper, take it and you can refine your skills. Your first job is not necessarily what you end up in. Always take the opportunity to learn.

Michelle Johnson’s mentors:

Marie Dawson – taught Michelle on her NCTJ course. She’s an author who worked in UK and New York, published a book, then went on to teach budding journalists. “She had the most amazing stories about her freelance career both in London and New York, and was always happy to share advice to help you pull out the real heart of your features.”
Linda Newman – another NCTJ mentor, who recommended Michelle her first editor role at West Essex Life. “Linda is an editor, writer and teacher who is super positive about magazines, full of brilliant stories and insight and always really fun to be around. She’s the biggest champion for her students.”
Juliet Herd – former International Managing Editor at Hello! “I started at Hello! as Juliet’s assistant and so learnt a lot about the practicalities of working for international magazines at high pace and quick turnarounds.”
Amanda Nevill – former CEO of the BFI. Michelle interviewed her a few times, including when she was leaving the BFI after 17 years, when she told Michelle inspiring stories about her about leadership and being a CEO as a woman.

Early in her career, Michelle was focused on print, before she moved over to video for her film work. But she is astutely aware of the importance to move with the times and embrace digital. In her role at Tempus, she created the daily news website that the publication now has and was able to flex and push her digital skills in the process, including playing with analytics.

The front cover of Tempus, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio

“Many journalists think [SEO] takes away creativity, whereas I’m of the opinion that it’s just another facet of your creativity. In fact, news writing itself is almost algorithmic, it’s the basis of what SEO is now. You wouldn’t write a Q&A in the same style as a long form piece, so why would you write an online piece in the same way as a print piece? It’s all about adapting to your media.” Flexibility and a willingness to learn have obviously contributed to her success.

Working with women in media

The role of media is so important, but also at a unique turning point at the moment, as Michelle highlights. “You have leaders of countries accusing CNN of ‘fake news’. It fascinates me… Whether the media we consume is aspirational, escapism, current affairs, it’s all essential.”

Michelle Johnson Iron Throne
Michelle on the Iron Throne

She has a real love for magazines as a medium, thanks to the huge variety you can get in one publication. But she’s enjoying the challenge of shifting to digital. “People talking about the golden age of newspapers, but I also love being in the industry at this sometimes-difficult time; we see new things happening all the time. Who’d have thought social media manager would ever be a job? It’s amazing seeing the industrial changes in real time.”

Reflecting on the gender balance in her industry, she recognises that magazines, in particular, have a lot of women in leadership roles, and for the majority of her career she has worked mostly with women. “I’ve felt very supported as a woman in my industry, but I’ve internalised certain things… You can start to paint a picture of how to assert yourself more kindly and more authentically.

“I think I’ve got a work persona; you’ve got to have tough skin if you’re going to put your work out there. I’ve had a few ‘Silly little girl’ comments from online commenters when I wrote for the Guardian as young journo. That filled me with absolute fear. But you get over it quickly and find that resilience. We have so many amazing women breaking barriers in every part of our industry: war reporters, content creators, editors… it’s really inspiring to see.”When asked if she’s experienced any sexism in her industry, she says she’s experienced a healthy dose of mansplaining – particularly in the world of film. But for the vast majority, no, she has not.

“Journalism is seen as a middle-class profession, so I had more doubts about my class than my gender. I was worried I would stick out like a sore thumb, but you learn to adapt very quickly. I don’t think I’m easily intimidated.”
But what she does admit she’s struggled with is asking for a promotion or pay rise. It’s important to know your worth, she says.

“In general, I feel women could be served better by knowing how to negotiate… And we could all do with trusting ourselves a bit more. Certainly, I don’t remember being taught about business or leadership in school, but I don’t know why. I think this is why I’ve become interested in leadership as a concept – what makes a someone a great leader, an innate leader?”

It’s a great question. But as the editor of a successful magazine, and a firm believer in determination and collaboration, it looks like Michelle is on her way to becoming a great leader, herself.

Follow Michelle on Twitter, @chelleajohnson to see what she what films she’s watching, how work is going, and how she’s handling life in lockdown!

Quick-fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Night owl.

Sweet or savoury food? Savoury.

Summer or Winter? Winter

All-time favourite film? Impossible question! Interview with a Vampire.

All-time favourite music album? Any 80s compilation album (currently obsessed with the ‘You spin me right round, baby…’ playlist by Audrey Mathena on Spotify).

Biggest weakness? Wine

Where do you feel most at peace? At home

Drink of choice? A Sauvignon Blanc

Favourite holiday destination? The last place I went to was Belize and it was amazing! We went trekking in a rainforest and had a Maya temple site to ourselves due to lack of tourism. It’s a must-visit.

Your favourite female icon? There are too many to count! Once I learn of someone I find inspirational – whether it’s Emma Thompson, Hillary Clinton, Ava DuVernay, Papusza – I just learn everything I can. Currently I’m recommending Naomi Alderman, because I’m STILL obsessed with her novel The Power since reading it last year. Plus, I found out she wrote the Zombies, Run! Game, which has been a lifesaver to me during lockdown.