Lara Prendergast is the Online Editor at The SpectatorLara Prendergast

Theresa May once quipped that one should “never work with animals, children or The Spectator.” Clearly, that is not a sentiment which Lara Prendergast, Spectator’s Online Editor, shares. After co-editing Varsity in 2011, Prendergast worked as a journalist in India for nine months and then at The Telegraph. She “eventually ended up” at The Spectator four years ago. With this in mind, I ask how has editing Varsity has helped her career.

“It’s helped in so many ways! I think it gave me a sense of how much fun journalism can be; it was really fun at Varsity and it’s really fun at The Spectator. It’s easy to forget that and take the whole thing very seriously, but it’s a fundamentally fun, interesting thing to do. Varsity also gave me a sense of the pressure involved when editing something – it’s a huge responsibility – but that it’s ultimately all worth it when you produce a finished newspaper or, as we do, a magazine.”

Prendergast’s current role gives her responsibility over the commissions for Coffee House, Spectator’s daily political blog. Like Varsity’s comment pieces, they are penned by both internal and external writers. “I never really wrote an enormous amount at Varsity,” Prendergast reflects, “I had to write leaders and the occasional Comment piece but I really enjoyed commissioning and editing. It’s the same at The Spectator. There are people like Rod [Liddle] and James [Delingpole], who are really terrific writers, but that’s rather different to what I enjoy.”

Prendergast’s career has coincided with a remarkable transformation in the nature of journalism – namely, its move to the digital sphere. As I point out, the Mail Online is now the most read English-language news website in the world, having been launched fewer than fifteen years ago. I ask her to reflect on how digitalisation has impacted upon her. “When I started at Varsity, we had a website but it was pretty hopeless,” she notes. “Then, when I began my editorship, we totally redesigned the website. That was just at the time when The Tab started.” 

She breaks off, smiling. “I adore The Tab; it’s been great for student journalism. It’s really widened the remit and the access for what people can do.” I glance nervously outside the interview room, to ensure that Millie and Louis haven’t collapsed in horror.

Warming to the theme, Prendergast is very positive both about digital journalism but also the future of print. “I think going digital has given the Spectator a completely new audience; it’s convenient and people can read things on the move. But what’s interesting is that print is doing well too. The newspapers – or rather, some newspapers – are struggling, as a result of changes in advertising. But people still value a print product. For us, having both online and print products works really well, because we can offer different things to different audiences. Digital journalism doesn’t just diminish print, in a zero-sum equation. In fact, I think that The Spectator has done a really good job of straddling the divide.”

"Our readers love to see one writer tear into another; our motto is 'Have better arguments'"

Lara Prendergast

I ask her whether the paid subscription might put some people off. On the contrary, she argues. “The fact that you have to pay for quality is an accepted principle today,” she explains. “Things like Netflix have led the way in that respect. When I was at university, we just, well, pirated things. Obviously, there was iTunes –” she pauses to laugh, “God! You sound like such a dinosaur saying that now!”.

Later on, Prendergast does note some of the disadvantages of digitalised media. She recalls receiving a phone call from a woman who had been banned from commenting on Spectator articles for writing offensive content. “She sounded very polite on the phone, very apologetic.  But I read what she wrote and it was pretty awful.  It’s as if people have different personalities when they get on a keyboard.  And what’s worse is that it’s permanent.  When I edited Varsity, if somebody really wanted to find something I’d written, they’d have to search through the archive.  Now, a Google search can pull up an article, which is stored permanently.”

That said, she points out, the Twitter-sphere has placed a premium on quality. “As the reach of news and comment has broadened, where everybody can comment on everything, all of the time, people have realised just how valuable high quality comment is. I find it exhausting, having people throw their opinions at me on Twitter. You need something punchy and well-written to cut through the debate.”

On that point, I ask how she thinks the national debate has changed during her time at The Spectator. Given that she commissions multiple opinion pieces daily, Prendergast is ideally placed to judge. “I think it’s calmed down,” she says, smiling at my surprised expression. “No, really, it has! The referendum campaign was hugely divisive and, at times, bitterly personal. Then for two months, everybody was like, ‘What on earth’s happening?’ But the debate has – slowly – shifted to the terms of Brexit. And the current campaign has been fairly quiet so far.  Partly that’s because the opinion polls are, for now, so clearly favourable to the Tories. If you think back to this stage in the 2015 campaign, although it feels like a decade ago, the polls were neck-and-neck. We’ll see what happens.”

Turning back to The Spectator, she notes the advantages of working in a veritable hot-house of ideas. “One of the great things about The Spectator is that our writers are allowed to take whatever view they like and openly disagree with each other. I think our readers love to see one writer tear into another; our motto is “Have better arguments”. And having those arguments is really important, because we’re increasingly living in our own echo chambers. Most of my friends voted Remain and couldn’t fathom why the UK voted to leave.” She pauses, before finishing: “That’s actually the most exciting thing right now; the sense that anything could happen”