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Journalist Spotlight | Interview with Jo Litson, Editor at Limelight Magazine

04 April, 2024

Today, Medianet is joined by Jo Litson, Editor of Limelight’s print magazine. Here, Jo recounts her career as an arts writer/journalist, including her time freelancing, and how it led to her current role as Editor.  


JoLitsonCan you tell me a bit about your start as an Arts Writer/Critic and why you chose to establish your career in Australia?

I grew up in England and fell in love with the theatre when I played Miss Prism in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest but when I did a BA Hons in English/Drama at Birmingham University, I quickly realised I wasn’t born to act! 

After graduating, I moved to London and worked front of house in the West End and in the theatre department at the British Actors’ Equity before coming to Australia. In Melbourne, I worked initially as an assistant publicist for Playbox Theatre (before it morphed into the Malthouse Theatre), a box office manager at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and a dresser on a couple of musicals.

Moving to Sydney, I was asked to write a story for a performing arts magazine and loved the whole experience. I thought, “This is what I’m meant to do!” so I gradually built up a career as a freelance arts writer, contributing to numerous publications including The Australian, Limelight, Vogue Australia, The Bulletin and POL Oxygen among others.


As someone who has worked as a Freelance Arts Writer for almost 30 years, what were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? What does career progression look like as a Freelancer?

When I began freelancing, there was vastly more arts coverage in the mainstream media than there is now and I didn’t find it hard to get work. The biggest challenge was to come up with good/unusual story ideas and find the best way to pitch them to editors. Then, of course, you had to come up with the goods as a writer but as my portfolio grew, editors started coming to me and commissioning stories. 

After a couple of decades, things started to change. On the one hand, the internet kicked in and blogs began to proliferate (I had my own for a while). Meanwhile, the newspapers gradually began to reduce their arts coverage and freelancing became harder. When the job as Deputy Editor at Limelight came up in 2016, it felt like a good time for me to apply for something more regular. At that point, I still wrote weekly for The Sunday Telegraph as its arts writer and theatre reviewer on a freelance basis, but that job came to an end due to budget cuts. In 2017, I became the Editor of Limelight, so I no longer freelance.


How does your process for content curation and editing differ from print to digital? What content do you typically include for each medium and how do they differ?

At Limelight, our print subscribers are generally older and a little more conservative than our digital readership, which is reflected in the stories we choose. The timeframes are different, with a two-month copy deadline for the magazine and the editing process for the magazine involves a good deal more time spent subbing and proofing the copy, with a dedicated proofreader working with us for print.

Our print features typically focus on longreads written by expert arts writers, academics and other specialists, exploring classical music, opera, theatre and dance, as well as issues and ideas relating to arts and culture. We include book and film reviews in our print magazine too, and have a column exploring recent recordings, but our live reviews appear online the day after the performance. 

For our digital platform, we focus primarily on news and reviews because of the quick turnaround, though we do run some online features and post some of our magazine content online. Our digital stories are shorter and often explore more cutting-edge work. 

For the first few years, I used to be the Editor of both the magazine and the website, but in January last year we had a restructure and Jason Blake joined us in the new role of Digital Editor, so he now oversees all of our online content and drives our digital expansion, while I focus on editing the print magazine. It was a good move and works very well.


As Limelight is primarily concerned with theatre, opera and recitals, what makes a good review of live performances?

The writing should be lively and give readers a sense of what it was like to be at the event so they can enjoy reading about it even if they can’t be there. For theatre and opera, this means briefly describing the set design, as well as discussing the work itself, the direction and the performances. 

We like to keep our reviews relatively tight, but still include some background information when it’s called for. We have an informed readership, but we are aware that not everyone has the same depth of knowledge, so we take that on board. We also ask our reviewers not to be too academic, but to use a style that would sound natural if read aloud, and to vary the rhythm which helps keep people engaged.


How has the Australian arts community’s attitudes toward live performances changed/been influenced by the proliferation of digital content?

During the COVID lockdowns, digital arts content proliferated more than ever, which helped take work to a broader audience. There is now a great deal of streaming and content created specifically for online. 

That said, nothing will replace the excitement of gathering for a live performance. The challenge right now is that rising costs are making some live performances extremely expensive.

COVID also changed our attitudes towards going out and many arts organisations are finding that people are booking late in the day rather than months ahead. But rest assured that live shows are here to stay!


What distinguishes Limelight from other publications and what else do you hope for the publication to achieve in the future?

Limelight is one of the very few publications in Australia dedicated to covering music, arts and culture nationally; it’s a real champion of the arts! No one else runs as many live reviews as us. 

The magazine began in 1976 and has nearly folded a couple of times, but it survives today, thanks to our publishers Bruce Watson and the late Robert Veel, as well as our tiny team of staff who are all passionate about supporting the arts. I believe we offer entertaining, informed arts journalism. I hope we can keep building our subscription base, whether people choose print with digital, or just digital.


And lastly, what do you look for in content pitching?

We receive hundreds of emails, so pitches should be concise, telling us in a nutshell the story they are suggesting and why. If we want more information, we’ll ask. 

Before pitching, people should have a good look at Limelight. You’d be amazed how many stories are pitched to us that have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of content we cover.

Medianet is the ultimate PR platform connecting you with media contacts and outlets to get your story told.

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