Journalist Jon Connell reveals the risks he’s taken during his career

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Jon Connell has spent his working life mainly as a journalist and editor before launching his own news business (Picture: Supplied/Metro.co.uk)

Digital news digest editor, Jon Connell, 69, sold up the family home to launch his new venture in a bid to take news into the future.

Here, as we chatted about the way he crept into Fleet Street and gave up his job as a deputy editor on one of its most famous broadsheets, he reveals how he started his first publication, The Week, from a converted mews garage and his new digital project, The Knowledge, which he hopes will transform the way we look at what is going on in our world.

Journalists often say they’ll leave jobs to launch a business – but you actually did!

Looking back, it was sheer madness. I had a four-year-old and another on the way, and I threw in a good job as deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph to plunge into the unknown and launch a magazine. It was a huge risk.

The idea for The Week came in 1994 after my father died. I was in Scotland, staying with my mother, and I went for a long walk and thought about how people, especially women, were getting busier and busier.

I thought there was scope for a weekly digest of the news – though one with a bit of personality. When I went back to London, I realised the only way I was going to get the idea off the ground was by leaving my job.

It meant giving up the perks, selling my house in London and moving to the countryside.

That sounds terrifying…

I don’t remember sleepless nights but the hardest part was trying to raise the money. I would traipse into London from my new home in Wiltshire to see venture capitalists who weren’t actually that adventurous.

I was after a million quid but in the end went ahead with a fraction of that, half of it raised from friends and family with my wife Alexandra and I doing the rest ourselves.

And what did you get right?

The Week was launched in May 1995. We were right to do it on subscription, print it on not very expensive paper and use mail-outs.

I made a mistake by hiring a fancy designer who came up with a design I didn’t like. Then finally I found one who’d worked on milk cartons and he came up with the simple but effective scheme of using red as an alternative colour.

When our first copies went to press, I drove to the printers in Bicester and waited for the first copies. I put them in my car, drove to London and handed them out to a group of friends I’d gathered together at the Cobden Club in Fulham, asking them to send magazines to everyone they knew.

I hoped for hundreds of subscribers but I think we got about six. It wasn’t a great start.

Your first office was a garage…

It was one room in Junction Mews, W2 – a converted garage about 30ft long and 15ft across that had four or five desks.

If we had a meeting, we’d have to have it outside, but luckily it was a hot summer. Being near Paddington meant I could walk from the station, something I’ve continued to this day, keeping offices close to Paddington, where I commute into.

The former garage didn’t cost much to rent. The one thing you don’t need when you start a business is a fancy office.

You just need somewhere you can meet people and chat.

Flora Connell, aka Fyah of One Eleven, performs on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2020. It was Flora who told her father the service had to be daily (Picture: Gus Stewart/Redferns)

The idea for your latest digital venture The Knowledge came after chats with your daughter…

I talked to my daughter Flora when we were together in lockdown at our family home in Wiltshire. She and her band One Eleven had been part of the last performance at the Royal Albert Hall before it closed in the pandemic.

She’s 32 and was insistent that if I wanted a new digital news service to attract young readers, it had to be daily.

She also argued rightly that today’s young generation are much more internationally minded and want world events delivered through an app, a website and a newsletter, in small, digestible chunks.

What’s different about The Knowledge?

Surveys show the two things readers get fed up with are the sheer length of stuff and the endless diet of gloom and doom.

I think journalists tend to be a gloomy bunch so we’re looking to cover the serious stories but also to season it with lighter, brighter anecdotes, jokes and quotes.



Top tip about starting a new business

‘So many small businesses don’t start because people overthink them and drive themselves mad with focus groups and endless research. Hire good people and just get on with it’

Mistakes, you’ve made a few?

It’s always a better idea, of course, to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than your own.

I was far too casual about the business side in the early days, and worried too much about editorial and not enough about sales. In fact, I wasn’t very good at business when I started – most journalists aren’t – and realised I always need someone close to me who thinks about numbers.

My tip to any budding entrepreneur is: if you’re not good at numbers, find someone who is.

You started as a journalism trainee…

I did the Thomson organisation training course in Newcastle in 1975 for four months then started as a local reporter at The Press and Journal in Aberdeen.

I met some journalists from The Sunday Times on a trip to London and they told me there was a job as chief sub-editor of business news, so I went across from the pub to meet the managing editor of business news, who said,

‘You know nothing about business and nothing about subbing but I suppose we could get you some freelance work. I went back to Aberdeen, where my editor said, ‘Maybe you should get something in writing. So I wrote in and got a reply saying: ‘Dear Mr Connell, there are no jobs in journalism at The Sunday Times.’



The facts: What it’s like to work as a journalist

Salary: I started on the Sunday Times on £2,000 a year. Trainee journalists today can expect around £23,000.

Regular hours? Office hours are normal but you’re always reading, listening, watching, so it’s never-ending, really.

Short and sweet advice: There’s a good quote from Thomas Edison: when you think you’ve exhausted all the possibilities, remember this, you haven’t.

But you need to take risks and I’d decided I was moving to London, so I left Aberdeen and trotted off to The Sunday Times, where I sort of crept in and wrote stuff when it was quiet.

After a six-week investigation in Blackpool where I broke a story before The Observer, I was given a staff job on £2,000 a year. So my gamble had paid off.

John Connell is founder and editor of digital news digest service, The Knowledge

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