Interviewing the Journalists
Wednesday, 24 March 2021
In the latest ‘Perspectives’ lecture hosted virtually by Bolton School Girls’ Division, a panel comprising four Old Girls and a current parent considered the privileges and challenges of a career in journalism and the media.
An audience of Y10 pupils and above as well as teachers, parents and the local community Zoomed in to see Rosalyn Harper, a member of the Head Girls’ Team, introduce the speakers and give a brief overview of journalism. She reflected on how the profession demands hard work, dedication and exceptional ability and intellect.
Kathryn Austin, who left Bolton School in 2019, spoke first. She recalled how she had been interested in current affairs from a young age, creating her own newspaper at the age of 10. She explained how she had written for the School newspaper from Year 8 and how, in her final year, she had become its Editor. Studying A levels in English Language, Politics and History, she had also written her own blog and set up and sold a Sixth Form newsletter, the profits of which went to charity. Kathryn spoke about her Multimedia Journalism degree that she is currently undertaking at the University of Salford’s Media City campus. She explained how it focuses on online and print journalism and of the academic and practical experiences it is giving her, including allowing her to interview lots of interesting people, undertake voice-training classes and learn about crime reporting through attending court cases. She also told how she elected to work towards gaining the industry-recognised National Council for the Training of Journalists’ diploma. Kathryn picked out a highlight of the course as covering the 2019 General Election, when she worked in a newsroom from 8.00pm-8.00am. The experience helped cement her view that she was on the right career path! She advised the audience that if you are curious and interested in people and the world around you, then they should definitely consider journalism. The degree, she said, had certainly made her realise how many doors journalism can open for you. It is a profession, she said, that can be such a power for good and in our current times there is a real need for trustworthy and competent journalism.
Stephanie Gabbatt left Bolton School in 2013 and took a degree in English Literature at the University of York before studying for a Masters degree in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, which trained her to work in both television and radio. Her first job, she recounted, was at a local radio station in Burnley called ‘2BR’ and initially she could not believe she was being paid for something she had been doing as a hobby and for free since she was 16! Despite being overworked and underpaid, the station provided lots of hands-on opportunities including being allowed to cover the Manchester Arena bombing. After that, Stephanie applied for at least 100 jobs at the BBC before she finally secured a post on a small radio station on Guernsey. Again, this was a small venture and she quickly moved up from being a reporter to news reading, presenting programmes and even covering a sports tournament in Gibraltar! Wanting to work in London, she finally secured a job working for the BBC World Service where she creates tv bulletins which, having been translated into 42 different languages, are transmitted across the world on the BBC’s partner stations. However, then Covid hit and she was sent home! She has since been involved in the BBC’s 100 Amazing Women project – she recounted how she came into this managing social media and 10 months later had taken on myriad roles including arranging interviews with the founders of Black Lives Matter, speaking to celebrities and arranging virtual events! Answering the question why you should consider journalism, she asked what other job could give you such a wide range of experiences over such a short period? Whilst she is trained to work in tv and radio, she said she is always learning and is super excited for her future. She told how she enjoys the pressure of having only a few hours to get your head around a story and that even today she had produced a news item on the Israeli elections, something she had not known anything about when she got out of bed! She also felt that it is good that the BBC is spreading its offices across the UK and felt the institution was now more representative than it ever has been. Considering the negatives of the job, she said it is very competitive and that you sometimes need to take low paid jobs to start with!
Amanda Killelea, a Bolton School parent, went to school in Burnley. She professed that, having spent 25 years in journalism, she is living proof that going to a state school does not preclude you from the profession. After undertaking a degree in Economics from the University of Manchester, she was still unsure what to do when her mother persuaded her to try journalism, convincing her that her love of reading and talking would stand her in good stead! Amanda went on to take a Postgrad in Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and loved it. Nothing, she said, beats the buzz of the newsroom when there is a breaking news story, especially when you are working on tomorrow's front page.
Amanda explained how she worked her way up through local newspapers, including the Lancashire Telegraph and the Manchester Evening News, where she was the News Editor. When her children were born she went freelance for the flexibility it afforded and wrote articles for The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Sun and numerous women’s magazines before becoming a Northern features writer at The Daily Mirror. She told the audience that life as a journalist is never dull and that you do not know what you are going to be working on - or where - from one day to the next. It is definitely not a nine ‘til five job – she said you can end up working on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day - but the rewards are immense. She told of travelling the world, interviewing film stars and pop stars and politicians, of being a regular on the sets of Coronation Street and Strictly and of chasing the Prime Minister down the street with a colleague dressed in the Mirror’s chicken outfit. She informed the audience that you have to be prepared to do all sorts of things! But, she said, the best stories are of extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people. At times, she told the audience, you have to be tough, when covering events such as the Manchester Arena bombings or the Grenfell Tower tragedy. She recalled talking to mums who had lost sons in the Iraq war and how it is important to listen carefully and to show real empathy. There are also times, she said, when you have to ask difficult questions on behalf of readers. She briefly recapped how over the 25 years she has been in the industry it has changed, recalling how you once did research via past editions of newspapers, or in the library or using the Encyclopaedia Brittanica or by knocking on people’s doors and then calling your stories into head office via telephone boxes. In today’s world of 24 hour news you can no longer take your time with a story and this means journalists’ skillsets have expanded. Amanda told how, despite the inevitability of the digital side of journalism growing, the basic tenets of the profession remain. It is a journalist’s job to remain impartial and to report the facts accurately, letting people make up their own minds. Despite the sometimes long hours and deadlines that have to be met, she said there is no finer feeling than when you help to change someone’s life for the better. She cited the Mirror’s campaign to ensure we all become organ donors when we die unless we specifically choose not to. She also recalled the story of Amy, a 3 year old girl who needed a bone marrow transplant to cure her leukemia and through the Mirror’s campaign, a donor was found. Her advice to young people was that you have to be a religious consumer of news in its many formats and in order to kick-start your career you have to try and get work experience on a local newspaper or write your own stories and blogs.
Kate McGeown (Class of 1994), another Old Girl, was unsure what to do when she left the University of Oxford with a Human Sciences degree but told how she had written for Isis magazine and the Cherwell magazine whilst a student. A postgrad course at City University was useful for providing her with contacts and, because of her science background, she got her first job working for a BBC programme called ‘Tomorrow’s World’. She quickly realised that it was international news that interested her and she moved to BBC News and then the World Service before working on the BBC website and becoming their Asia Editor. She recalled how she got her break during a disaster when she covered the Asian tsunami in 2004-05 and how went on to set up the BBC’s Asia office for the website. She recalled how she ended up working in Bangkok for three years and in the Philippines as a tv, radio and website reporter for another four years. Like the other panellists, she confirmed how it is very unusual for a journalist these days to do just one thing. She told how writing was her original passion but that she now has a love of radio too, although it is tv work that pays the bills! Whilst she absolutely loved being a foreign correspondent, she went slightly leftfield to rein in the travelling when she had children and undertook a variety of jobs including giving media training to UN officials and NGOs in Turkey before working in Nigeria helping deliver health messaging via the radio. Kate revealed how she now works in Comms with the Department for International Development but given it has recently merged with the Foreign Office, she awaits to see what will come next! She hopes she will be able to work remotely from Jerusalem where she currently lives with her husband. Whilst the job can be tough, stressful, underpaid and has kept her up all night, Kate said there is nothing like it in the world! She concurred that it is often one extreme to another. She recalled going undercover in Burma and standing on a tank travelling into Bangkok as she reported live for the BBC on a coup in Thailand. She told of interviewing Presidents, the Head of the World Bank, celebrities and recommended the profession to anyone interested in how the world works. She said that five years ago, she would have said the future of journalism looked bleak but now she would say that people are realising that they need to pay for quality news and that there is a massive future for journalism. Her last words were, if you are interested, go for it!
Kathryn Knight left Bolton School in 1989 having had a ‘fabulously happy time’. In many ways, she said, she has to thank the school for her career. As Head Girl she recalled how she had given a Vote of Thanks at Prizegiving to the guest speaker, the Literary Editor of The Times, who she kept in contact with afterwards. Having completed a Literature degree at Oxford, he tipped her off about a job coming up on The Diary at The Times; this came as quite a relief to her as she was, at the time, applying for lots of journalistic jobs whilst selling men’s shirts at Debenhams in Bolton. She recalled how the job was meant to be a graduate traineeship but essentially was about ‘seat of your pants learning’. She recalled being terrified for two years but built up her confidence when she covered a front page corporate manslaughter story. After leaving The Times, she moved into feature writing on other papers and revealed an eclectic range of jobs she had been involved with, everything from celebrities interviews to human interest interviews to stories from around the world. She recalled going to China to report on bear-baiting and to the US to write about the two potential First Ladies, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, spending three weeks shuttling between Phoenix, Washington and Chicago. Kathryn told how she went freelance 12 years ago for the flexibility.
Her life, she said, had become less international but was still very varied, with everything from human interest interviews and investigations to visiting film sets and interviewing the actors. She felt in many ways that the basics of journalism have not changed. She said it is still about talking to people, writing persuasive copy and fact checking but agreed with the other panellists that the world has changed. She recalled having to knock on someone’s door once to dictate a story back to head office via a landline. Technology, she said, has definitely altered the landscape and has given a platform to the voiceless whilst sending print media sales plummeting. Despite this, she said print media and the websites that go with them still have a hugely important role to play; they can still entertain, inform, bring people to account and accelerate change in government policies. As evidence, she cited The Daily Mail helping curtail the overuse of plastic bags by supermarkets and the highlighting of the Windrush scandal, which was exposed by The Guardian. She felt she could hardly dare speculate where journalism will go next and said it is important to be flexible and that having experience across multimedia is going to be very important. She predicted that the insecurity in the profession is likely to remain and possibly increase. She speculated that it might be that journalism becomes part of a portfolio career. Addressing those considering a career in the field, she said an old boss once advised her that employers are not looking for people that want to be journalists but people that are journalists, in other words people that are already writing, perhaps for local magazines or their own blogs. Overall, she said, journalism is still a fantastic career - not the easiest to get into and sustain but rewarding and enormous fun if you can.
The well-received presentations generated a variety of questions. University student Kathryn Austin talked about what surprises she had found on her course, saying nothing could have prepared her for it. She said that people underestimate what goes into a journalistic career and spoke about the many things involved with making audio and video recordings and all the fine detail such as style guides and making sure photos are credited properly. She had also come to realise that journalism can take you into other fields and had been considering a possible Law conversion course.
Assessing which skill had been the most useful throughout their career, Amanda Killelea felt it was shorthand. Make sure, she told the audience, to get your 100 words a minute shorthand! She even recounted how it can be used as evidence in court if needs be! She said that listening and reacting are important skills and you should not forget to have a good photographer alongside you as a good picture can be as powerful as the words.
The panel was asked if being female had hindered their careers. Kate McGeown said that things are getting better but that there was some truth to women journalists quietly leaving the BBC in their forties – she was one – and that a glass ceiling does still exist. She could not recall any problems when she was young and said that actually being female in some countries is the only way you will get to speak to women of that country. Kathryn Knight said she was not always taken seriously as a young blond reporter but it did sometimes work in her favour; she believed it to largely be an egalitarian profession. Amanda Killelea agreed, pointing out that the Editors of the Daily Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and The Sunday People are all women. Stephanie, as the youngest working journalist on the panel, said it was not something she had encountered and that working for the World Service she had found lots of women’s forums and groups and that she feels very supported in her career.
The evening drew to a close with Rosalyn Harper offering a Vote of Thanks and Mrs James advising that the next Perspectives lecture will focus on the fashion industry and will take place on Monday 10th of May.
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