Being axed from the Sunday Times after 23 years felt like an out-of-body experience for Eleanor Mills but a year on she says she wouldn’t go back. “At the time, one of my old bosses said the redundancy would be the best thing that ever happened to me and I wanted to hit him; but he was right. Change is difficult but it is also energising and exciting; I love being a founder at 50.”
Eleanor is speaking to Women in Journalism to insist there’s plenty of rewarding work still to be had for anyone facing job insecurity – or who just fancies a change. Eleanor’s already bounced back as a digital media founder and bagged an exclusive with one of the world’s most famous women in the process. And she’s now offering one Women in Journalism member a commission in this latest instalment of Editor Under the Spotlight.
Here, as well as detailing what she’s looking to commission, she shares her career path and offers her advice for thriving in the business – no matter what your age or what gets thrown at you.
Eleanor’s career trajectory had been the stuff of journalists’ dreams – from trade mag to a host of stellar roles on Fleet Street.
She started out on Tank World in the late 80s, “the world’s premier bulk liquid transportation publication” where Andy Burnham was her editor (she helped him get a start in politics by introducing him to Tessa Jowell, her step-mother).
Tiring of writing about tank containers under the M4 in Brentford, she got a researcher job at The Observer, working as a ‘fixer’ for legendary interviewer Andrew Billen. By the tender age of 23 she’d had two cover stories for the magazine – one of them titled ‘What Do Teenagers Know?’, drawing on her youth and applying an adolescent lens to current affairs that proved a hit with readers.
Then the ‘unimaginable’ happened, she says. She was headhunted by the Telegraph to be deputy features editor: “I was only 26 and they paid me nearly three times my then salary, so I bought myself a sports car.”
Soon came promotion to features editor, the youngest ever in the Telegraph’s history. And that ultimately led her to the doors of The Sunday Times, where over the next two decades she was lead interviewer, Editor of News Review, Focus Editor, a columnist and finally award-winning editor of the Sunday Times magazine and editorial director across the Sunday Times.
Scoop after scoop followed. When she penned an expose of sex on tour in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal that ran on the day of his return to masters golf in Augusta in 2010, it shot straight to the top of the Drudge Report to become one of the most-read stories in the world that day. Her Broadwater Farm campaign which highlighted the plight of kids who dreaded the summer holidays because they were confined to damp flats on a crime-ridden London housing estate raised £350,000 to fund activities and trips for them. The Christmas Appeal that followed raised a further £2million for Britain’s poorest children.
“I always made that extra phone call, or took that extra meeting to get the best line possible”
“I’d always been good at what I do – and successful. I always made that extra phone call, or took that extra meeting to get the best line possible,” she says. “And I always thought that if you worked really hard, and did really well at your job, all would be well. So the re-shuffle when the new Editor came in and I was out was a big shock.”
Eleanor has written candidly about the emotional impact it had in order to help others who have been through something similar start a new chapter. “It wasn’t just my living but my life. I’d poured love and energy into my work; the job’s needs trumping almost everything,” she wrote. But now just a few months on, she has bounced back in typical fashion. In June, she bagged an exclusive with Facebook supremo Sheryl Sandberg, who gladly endorsed Eleanor’s new digital media start-up Noon (www.noon.org.uk). The platform is dedicated to mid-life women “who have been rendered invisible by the mainstream media for decades,” says Eleanor. “It’s a place to share and support each other.”
She describes Noon as a campaign around the way women vanish as they get older, the point where ageism meets sexism. “For me, this is the last bastion of feminism, creating new narratives about the latter stages of women’s lives which have been ignored for too long.”
And it’s where Eleanor is now focusing her journalistic efforts. While old, pale, male editors have long shied away from older women’s sex lives, Eleanor’s team is jumping straight in. She commissioned Kiki Alderon to write about visiting a sex club after her divorce. It begins: “The room was dim and the bum of one man was going up and down at an impressively fast cadence as he plunged into a young blonde woman with her legs in the air.” Definitely not the typical content that graces the pages of more traditional publications for the older lady.
Changing the conversation
“It really matters,” says Eleanor. “We’ve had an incredible outpouring from all these women who feel really unseen. And I think there’s a real opportunity here to change the conversation. Women don’t cease to exist when they hit 40. They thrive. My demographic is starting businesses, going back to university, making the most of this stage of their lives but we hardly ever see that reflected in the way they are written about. Noon is changing that.”
Eleanor firmly believes the future of media is going to be all about specialisms. “The media companies of the future are going to be made from people who really know and serve their niche.
“Newspapers are in a death spiral – there’s no money in the system and the craft is slowly disappearing. Every time I turn around, two more people that I know have been made redundant.”
“The media companies of the future are going to be made from people who really know and serve their niche”
As a Founder of her new digital platform, Eleanor has had to learn a host of new skills fast. “I can use Streamyard to live-stream digital interviews, build pages on my website (badly), I have to run my own calendar. When you run your own business there is no tech or accounts department, it’s just you and your laptop. To begin with it was scary but then strangely empowering.
“I’ve had to learn all sorts of things and have different kinds of business conversations. I am so grateful to the commercial department at News UK who taught me so much when I was Editorial Director of The Sunday Times. I could never have launched Noon without the skills they taught me. And now I think it’s exciting to do something new in your 50s. It’s great to choose your team and I love not having to run stuff past anyone and not having to get the male lens on everything that I do.”
Making a stand
Eleanor also made the headlines herself earlier this year when she resigned from the Society of Editors. “I’m proud that I resigned over its denial of structural racism. I’ve always tried to be a journalist who stood for something. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Eleanor, who was chair of Women in Journalism from 2014 until earlier this year says she is also proud of how WiJ has championed greater diversity in media.
“Research we commissioned last summer showed there were no black journalists writing on the front pages of the UK press in the immediate aftermath of Black Lives Matter. We’re repeating that research this year under Alison Phillips’ leadership and I’m working with the WiJ team on a new campaign that will work with publishers to make their leadership teams more representative of their employees and create more senior roles for women and individuals from minority groups.
“For me, that’s the whole point of being a journalist. It’s not about personal glory. It’s about believing in things and then using the platform you have to try to make a difference.”
Eleanor is inviting Women in Journalism members who have never previously written for her or Noon before to pitch “amazing stories of transformation of women aged 40 plus” in return for a £200 fee. Email your ideas to email@example.com by Friday 29 October with the month your WiJ direct debit goes out – or confirmation of joining for new members.