They told me to study it, to do a Master’s degree in journalism. Do that, spend a few years at a local newspaper, then a national one, and then, maybe, hopefully—well, probably not—they’ll send you somewhere exciting. That was the way to become a foreign correspondent, they said. Some of these reporters had wanted to go abroad but hadn’t; others had hopped around newspaper offices in London, having spent perhaps a couple of years abroad, but lamented what could have been when I, a starry-eyed twenty-something sought their opinions on how to get away.
Another method, more in the spirit of the adventure I sought, was to fly somewhere and make it work, to go in as a private rather than a commissioned officer. No one would care which school you went to, what you studied, or who your parents were when you pitched stories. It would be the ultimate meritocracy (with many caveats, I’d learn). You’d hop from plane to plane, bump from hotel to hotel, and hustle and learn as you went, scrapping on all fronts, hopefully making enough money to stay safe, covering the stories you want to cover and living the life you want to live.
I was twenty-three years old and in the final year of my Master’s in physics, a subject that has long deeply fascinated me—but I wanted adventure. I wanted to travel the world and make a difference. Of course, physics is a powerful force for making a difference and any breakthrough in it, however tiny, is a gain to humanity, but finishing up university in the gritty northern English city of Manchester, I was far more excited about adventures that involved war, jungles, and diamonds, not so much about spending the next decade confirming the seventh decimal place of an obscure physical constant.
So, I hopped between the student newspaper, the physics department, and the city’s bars and clubs. My Master’s project, with partner Lucy, was a simulation of the heart to model atrial fibrillation. It consisted of short spurts of code-writing and long waits for the code to run. We’d spend the waiting time in nearby bars discussing life, relationships, and how we were going to make things work after university. She was a sounding board when it came to my early journalism with the student paper. Should I name an elderly, multiple sclerosis-inflicted professor I’d found on a list of right-wing extremists even though he wasn’t a vile racist, had joined the British National Party out of curiosity, then left it many years ago? She was one of the best editors I’ve ever had.
Student journalism was fun. A councillor from the ruling Labor party called me up one day, after I’d ask him to comment on a story about him not turning up for a student debate, and shouted, “If you print my name in your article, I’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks.” An investigation I did on inconsistencies in Greater Manchester Police’s crime reporting on the thirty-three crimes committed against students every day was picked up—and bought—by Manchester Evening News. It was the first news outlet to pay me for my work. Fifty dollars. “Take it or leave it,” the news editor said on the phone when I gasped at the low pay. Still, it offered a nice on-ramp to real journalism.
I realized that to get a foot into national and international journalism, I’d have to get to know some journalists. One of the many skills I’d learned from observing my mother growing up was tenacity. It’s how those who don’t start with silver spoons catch up. I cold emailed and cold called—repeatedly until they responded—all the serious British news outlets and asked about interning with them. The Guardian, a left-leaning outlet always keen to help the disadvantaged, was first to bite. They offered me a three-week internship, unpaid, in the summer of 2009—and I couldn’t wait.
I rented a room in the east London suburb of Dalston. It was up-and-coming; in the coming years, it would be cleaned out to make way for pricey organic stores and nudist coffee shops. I’d walk the hour to The Guardian’s bright, sunlit offices near King’s Cross—my first proper newsroom. I sat in on the daily editor’s meeting, an informal affair on colorful sofas, with all the senior staff. And I found my strongest ally in health editor Denis Campbell, a wiry reporter from whom I learned to “shake a fact” as much as possible before printing it.
It was at The Guardian where I first learned about these two options to getting where I wanted to be—the quasi-academic, arduous route, or the throw-yourself-at-it-and-see-what-happens approach. Denis told me to apply for journalism courses, such as those offered by City University in London or Columbia in New York. His argument was that I needed to learn media law, shorthand, and how to write and report; plus, how else would I get myself that all-important network? My impatience, though, was enough to put me off that plan, as well as the cost—not to mention a healthy dose of youthful arrogance. Journalism seemed more vocational. Surely, after teaching myself calculus and code—and years of calculating quantum well energy levels and the warping of spacetime—I could do journalism without formal study?
After those eventful three weeks, I went back up to Manchester and pondered my future with Lucy and other friends.
The next internship, a few months later in January, was with Reuters, just off Fleet Street in London, the storied home of the British press. There I learned what foreign correspondence was really all about. Reuters is a different beast, an outlier in the news industry, something I’d continue to learn through my career. Unlike every other news outlet in the world, Reuters has money and therefore not only correspondents all over the globe but the ability to actually do reporting. They don’t have to sink to relying on sensationalism or opinion in order to draw readers. They sent me to cover Parliament, London Zoo, and, outside in the cold London air of January 2010, to gather quotes for Chief Correspondent Keith Weir’s story on Tony Blair’s interrogation at the Chilcot Inquiry about the war in Iraq. At Reuters, I learned how to write and report, gather quotes, get things right, and get them across concisely. Editor Steve Addison tore through my copy. Not a single person at Reuters suggested I study journalism.
I was only at Reuters a few days but learned a huge amount, “thanks to its staff not treating me as a work experience kid and giving me the chance to work on big stories,” I wrote to a friend at the time. I’d learn far more from the company in the years to come.
Other news outlets weren’t quite so generous. The Independent was further left-of-center than The Guardian and suffered a severe lack of funds that bolstered that credential. During a week-long internship there the following April, I worked without guidance, publishing more but learning less. This wasn’t what I wanted from an internship and I was acutely aware that I was paying for this privilege. A slight resentment, and ultimately my first head-on collision with the news industry, was seeded when an editor refused to reimburse an eight-dollar London Underground ticket for an event I had covered that led page seven.
After I tempestuously billed the newspaper for my time there at minimum wage, the deputy editor called to tell me I was an idiot who’d never make it in journalism, before abruptly hanging up. With some hesitation, I made it public by sharing details of that call and follow-up emails from the editor, in which he reiterated my idiocy, on my website. That’s what journalism was all about, right, holding power to account? A media reporter asked if I thought my actions would harm my future. “Surely a troublemaker is what every journalist should be,” I responded. Private Eye, a British satirical news magazine, pounced on unpaid internship culture in the news industry by telling my story under the headline, “Internshits.” I appeared on a BBC documentary about inequity in entering elite careers that included journalism, law, and fashion.
The Independent’s General Counsel Louise Hayman was confident in her legal case against me and mused that if I were to win, “the fallout … would be enormous, not least in the heart of government where unpaid internships are part of the structure.” Indeed. I’d fired my first shot at the news industry.
A meeting later that year with Jodie Ginsberg, Reuters’ London bureau chief, would set me on the right path. The former foreign correspondent led me to a conference room in the company’s Aldgate office. I was planning to move to London and, well, I didn’t know. She was risk-averse, she said. I frowned inside. I was the opposite and didn’t see that this meeting was going to be fruitful. But then she surprised me.
“You need to go somewhere,” she advised.
“You mean just jump on a plane?”
She saw it as a much smaller gamble than moving to London. She told me how she’d been envious of the freelancers in South Africa, where she’d worked as a Reuters staff correspondent around a decade earlier after herself having studied journalism at City.
I left that meeting with a smile and an about-turn in my mentality; I’d just needed to hear it from someone who’d actually lived it. All Jodie did was confirm my own preference, but that’s exactly what I’d been waiting for. I took the Underground to St Paul’s Cathedral and sat on the steps to take it all in. Down the road was Fleet Street. It perhaps wasn’t quite the journalism I cared for but it felt somewhat symbolic. I walked to Stanfords, the nineteenth-century travel book- and map-store on Longacre, and lost myself there.