Christian May on how PR career prepared him to take editorship of City AM at 28

When Institute of Directors head of communications Christian May was invited to meet City AM's owners shortly after the general election, he thought he was being sounded out for the job of political editor.

One month later, though, the 28-year-old was named editor of the free London daily.

May's appointment was notable for the fact that, although he completed a broadcast journalism MA in 2013, he had never had a full-time journalism job before. The Guido Fawkes website called the appointment "canny", The Guardian pointed to May's previous work at a "controversial Tory affiliate" and one Fleet Street City editor described the move as "absurd".

"It’s not perhaps as common as people going from journalism to PR," says May, who started his new job at the end of August.

"I have to say, it wasn’t necessarily a career plan that was well-thought through in my mind. The opportunity to come to City AM was presented to me, I thought about it long and hard.

“I wouldn’t say I had to be talked into it, but I certainly had to understand what the proprietors had in mind when they made the offer to me, when they put their idea to me…

“And, not to be complacent only a month in, but I understand now – having done it for a few weeks – what they meant when they said, on the 14th of May, I think: ‘We want you to be the editor.’ Which was a bolt out of the blue, to say the least.”

Move into journalism

After completing his masters at City University, May was seeking video work for political websites when the IoD offered him a job in the summer of 2013.

Early this year, May was approached by a friend who told him the owners of City AM were looking for a political editor and asked whether she could recommend him. "I thought, well, that’s interesting, why not? It could lead to an interesting conversation if nothing else."

In May, he had "completely forgotten" about the potential job when he was contacted by one of the newspaper's co-owners, Jens Torpe. "So I went for lunch with Jens on Fleet Street and we had a really nice conversation. I hadn’t met him before but I warmed to him immediately, and we had a great conversation about the election and the business environment, economics and the paper and media, et cetera.”

No job offer was made, but Torpe asked May if he was free the following evening for dinner with his co-owner Lawson Muncaster. "And so the following night we went for Chinese, the three of us, in the City. And again we had this great conversation about the paper itself and the big issues that I considered to be alive in politics and business generally, policy debates.

“But towards the end of that, still nothing specific had been discussed and so I had to say that, in the absence of really understanding what I was doing there, perhaps the best thing to do was say: ‘Let’s stay in touch.’

"And to my amazement they said: ‘Well, would it help if we spelt out the role that we want you to do?’ And I said: ‘Well, yes, that would be useful.’ And they said: ‘Well, we want you to be the editor.’

“And they may as well have said: ‘We want you to man the first flight to Mars.’ It was quite a moment. And not a conversation that one would forget in a hurry. And so after that moment we then had several more hours of conversation where they explained quite how long they’d been thinking about it and quite how much thought they’d put into it.”

Mixed reception

On 1 June, The Guardian reported that City AM editor David Hellier – a financial journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including nearly a decade at City AM – had resigned from his role eight months after succeeding Allister Heath, who is now deputy editor of the Telegraph. The Financial Times reported that Hellier was "ousted".

Later that morning, May was announced as his successor. The news was greeted with the following tweet from The Sun's then City editor Simon English, who now works for The Times:

The Guardian, meanwhile, ran a story highlighting the fact May was a director at a “controversial Tory affiliate”, the Young Britons’ Foundation.

May did receive support from Guido Fawkes – whose then deputy editor Harry Cole is a “great friend” of May – which described the move as “canny”, reporting that May had “written hundreds of pro-business op-eds under other people’s by-line”.

While May acknowledges the move from PR to journalism is not a particularly well-travelled route, he is keen to emphasise the distinction between his previous jobs and other PR work.

He was trained in public relations at Media Intelligence Partners, which is run by Nick Wood, who May describes as a "great Fleet Street veteran". Wood worked at The Times and Daily Express before being made press secretary and media director of the Conservative Party. He founded MIP in 2004.

May says Wood "taught me everything I know about communications – and taught it to me through the eyes of a journalist".

"So the little operation he ran in Westminster that I worked for was run like a newsroom. All of our clients were in the news agenda: they were political, they were think tanks, they were engaged in policy work." MIP, he says, also did “a lot of news brokering, guest editing” and he made his “beer money by flogging stories to the diaries”.

May says it was more of the same at the IoD: “I hadn’t ever really thought about my time at the IoD in this term since starting here, but now I can look back at what I did at the IoD and it’s not a stretch to say that I essentially edited it for two years in terms of our policy positions, what we did, how we did it, who we spoke to, what our agenda was, what our campaigns were."

He adds: “There are plenty of people whose career in public relations is about – not to be disrespectful – but tacking quotes onto the end of other people’s stories and trying to get your client a bit of airtime. And that’s admirable, but it’s never what’s interested me.”

City AM

May was given a pay rise to join City AM “probably in recognition of the fact that I now work until about 1am everyday” and is enjoying the task so far.

"It is completely relentless and I really can’t express how much I enjoy that," he says. "It’s almost like constant renewal every single day. On Tuesday no one’s going to pat you on the back about Monday’s because you’re thinking about Wednesday’s paper."

City AM has around 60 staff, says May, around half of whom are in editorial.

In August, the newspaper had a free circulation just short of 100,000 a day and the website claims to attract more than 1m unique users a day. Asked if he would consider introducing a paid model for the title's website, May says: "It's certainly something we'll have to consider." City AM also publishes a number of magazines.

In 2013, according to its annual report, City AM Limited recorded a turnover of £9.05m and an operating profit of £271,263. The report noted: "Print advertising remains the dominant revenue stream."

Is City AM, as a free newspaper dependent on advertisers, more vulnerable to commercial pressures than other newspapers?

"I haven’t encountered any such influence," says May. "I think in terms of advertisers, the paper’s in a very robust position – because we know a lot about our readers, we know who they are, we know where they come from, we know where they’re likely to work, and we know frankly what they’re likely to earn, which is about three times the average salary in the UK.

"So advertisers like that sort of certainty, and they have that relationship with the paper. I think that commercially the paper is a success story, and it’s doing very well."

May describes City AM as a "pro-business paper" that "really understands its readership". But what is the newspaper's role in the City of London? Is it there to be a cheerleader or hold the Square Mile to account?

May says: "The answer is that we should, and we do and always have, struck exactly the right balance between celebrating the extraordinary success and unique character of London as a whole but of the City in particular. But also to challenge it. And to be a critical friend is probably the best way to put it."

City AM competes as a free newspaper in London with magazines such as Time Out, Stylist and Shortlist, as well as the London Evening Standard and Metro.

Asked whether he considers Metro a rival, May says: “Before I came into this job I used to – well, maybe I haven’t even changed my mind – but I used to think that whether or not you picked up Metro or City AM on the Tube would often depend on how hung-over you were."

May deflects his answer towards the Financial Times, instead. "I think perhaps it’s a little much for the commute. I think you can read the FT on your commute if your commute involves being driven into the City from the gin and Jag belt. And I think if you’ve got 20 minutes on the District Line then City AM is for you.”

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