Mark Shenton : Careers Interview

What inspired you to work in journalism – was it a field that you fell into or were you always interested in writing and reviewing?

I always wanted to be a critic, but of course the foolish thing about trying to be a critic is that there are very few jobs available, certainly when I started you only had the national newspaper. Now of course there are many more opportunities for people to write – but even fewer opportunities to get paid to do it.

So how did you navigate your way through such a competitive industry to become a critic?

 I left University and got my first job working for a West End advertising agency called the Dewynters, who handled West End and Broadway theatre productions and I ran their publishing department, editing their theatre programmes and souvenir brochures. From there, after three years, I went to the Press Association (PA) in Victoria as their managing editor of the Arts and Entertainment Listing section, and subsequently I also took charge of the finance department and the TV listings department.

 What made you want to specify in theatre?

 I always wanted to do theatre, it was always my passion, from the time I was 14 or 15 I fell in love with the theatre, so theatre was always the ultimate aim. But actually trying to get a job in it is incredibly difficult.

I understand you studied law at Cambridge – what subjects would you recommend for students who want to go into journalism?

 There’s no specific degree I don’t think. I chose law rather than English, which would have been the natural fit really because I felt that everybody would have an English degree, which was me being naïve and unknowing I suppose. I assumed that everybody would have an English degree and a Law degree might be more practical. In fact, a Cambridge Law degree isn’t practical at all and didn’t really teach me much. But, of course Cambridge teaches you a lot because of the very theatrical environment, there’s lots of theatre shows and student journalism happening. So really you want to be somewhere where there’s lots of theatre happening. I mean, London would be a perfect place to be, as there’s much theatre here, but you can find theatre anywhere.

So I just wanted to touch on your dismissal from the Sunday Express – how did your view of the industry change?

 The nasty incident. Yes, well after eleven and a half years. Well you know what, journalism is a ruthless, cut-throat industry, we know that. What I learnt was just how uniquely hypocritical parts of it are. The world knows that already and thanks to Leveson (enquiry) there’s been lots of cause for newspapers to reign themselves in a bit. But clearly, in the case of the Sunday Express there is a parallel morality going on. On the one hand the publisher, or the proprietor shall we say makes a fortune from pornography. On the other hand, his editors discover photographs that are more than fifteen years old, of me, online, that I didn’t put there and fire me for it. It was a remarkable story, but you know what, I held them to public account in employment tribunal. The tribunal found against me, but on a sort of technicality because I wasn’t employed, I was freelance only, therefore I had zero rights. So although the tribunal said they acted unfairly in dismissing me, they couldn’t hold them to account for it.

So how do you feel your writing style has changed since writing more for the internet rather than the paper?

 I’ve always done that, that’s never changed, I’ve always written for the internet. Because one job does not pay you enough to live on anymore in the environment we live in now. So I’ve always juggled many jobs, and alongside the Sunday Express I’ve always written for The Stage, and before that for What’s on Stage and I’ve also written for other websites around the world including Playbill which I continue to do. So, I think you need to be very versatile and adaptable for different outlets. There are times when I write three or four reviews for the same show and each one has to be in a different style, so there is no set style for any one publication.

How do you think the role of the critic has changed already or will change in a few years’ time?

 My doomsday feeling is that there will be no paid critics left within a few years, there will be no salary positions. That’s probably a bit too extreme, there’ll be probably one or two critical positions in existence but I think the day of the professional critic is probably numbered. The problem is that every single person is a critic as long as they have access to a Twitter or Facebook account, so everybody has an opinion and everybody is free to express it. That’s a good thing because we want democratisation of opinion, but on the other hand the expert view is going to be lost. I think those of us who are experts will continue to offer our views on other platforms and hopefully we’ll still be read. But I don’t think we’ll be paid for it.

There is quite a lot of fear for students who want to become journalists as they are studying at University and already people are telling us that Journalism is a dying industry. So what other similar careers would you recommend?

I think the big one seems to be, a lot of journalists who leave journalism either seem to be going into corporate journalism. As in in-house copywriting and PR, publicity jobs because obviously those are transferable skills. Who knows how it will play out – I mean we, journalists do have great skills and I think we will be able to adapt to a different environment- and really we’ll have to.

 Regarding careers advice – how can they gain experience or approach newspapers or other publishing companies? What do you think the best method?

 Well there is no right way to approach them because everybody will be banging on the doors of newspapers and editors, so get used to rejection, you’ll probably not hear back from most of them, it’ll be shouting into a void that doesn’t answer most of the time. It has to be based on luck, but also because you can’t get someone to employ you, absolutely tweet and set up your own personal blog and get your voice out that way. And if it’s worth listening to, somebody will hopefully hear it.

And in regards to people who don’t necessarily have Twitter accounts or blogs already, do you think it’s too late for them or are there other hobbies that they can pursue that aren’t dictated by an online presence?

It’s never too late, I mean there’s always room for more – I mean the million dollar question is how do you build up traffic? – and there’s no easy answer to it. I think, for example @Westendproducer, which is a fantastic comic Twitter account about theatre, he went from zero to around fifty thousand followers in a very short time by having something compelling to say. If you’ve got something to say people will start to hear you.


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