Susannah Butter is a features writer at one of the UK's largest newspapers, the London Evening Standard. A just 23, Susannah has to be one of the youngest (and hardest working - here are just a few of her articles!) full-time professional journalists in the capital. As part of our Reading Activists' In the Loop campaign to share information about how young people can get involved in creative reading and writing things, she stopped by to tell us what life as a journalist is really like and offer some careers advice for young people with an interest in journalism.
What does a day in the life of an Evening Standard journalist look like?
The morning is usually the busiest part of the day because the paper has to go to print by noon. I work on the features pages, which are generally prepared the day before they go out. I get in at 8am and help the editors with any bits of research for future stories they do before their morning conference. I go through all that morning's papers looking for anything that could be a feature idea. Then the features writers have to be on hand to research any last minute changes that have to be made before our pages go to press. At around 10am the features editors meet with the writers, designers and picture editor to discuss what's going to be in the following day's paper and raise any ideas for future editions. There are around 10 editors and writers in the team. After the morning planning I've got the rest of the day to work on what I've been commissioned to do. If I'm doing something for the next day I'll focus on that, sometimes I'm sent out on interviews or to track someone down, or I'll organise future interviews and research and write future pieces. Ideally I will juggle things and manage to do both pieces for the next day's edition and some future planning.
Our features are a mix of things that have been thought of, researched and written in advance, and more urgent, timely pieces with a quick turnaround. The Standard is a reactive paper so I am sometimes sent out on a story that's needed for the next day. It can be scary knowing you have to find lots of information, write around 1,000 words and get ideas for pictures, in just a few hours, and it can involve finding people who you don't know's addresses and going to knock on their door and ask them questions, but it's satisfying when it works. I usually go home at around 5.30 unless I'm working on something for the next day.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about the job?
I like digging out information that hasn't been reported and then presenting it in a way that readers will understand and value. It's great when you see someone reading and enjoying a piece you've written. That means writing it in an engaging way but also helping editors think about how the story will be sold - what will the picture be and how will the headline make people read it. Journalism allows you to meet and talk to a huge range of interesting people and is immensely varied. In one week I might be working on an interview with a singer, a piece about coffee shops paying tax and an investigation into an unsolved murder. I think I'd get bored just working on one thing all the time. My least favourite thing is probably chasing people for answers - this can involve a long chain of people that can lead you to the one person you want to write about. You have to be patient and persistent in politely reminding them what you want and when.
When did you decide you wanted to become a journalist and how did you set about pursuing this goal?
I've always read newspapers and been quite nosy. I did Art, English Literature, French and History A Levels and went on to study History at University College London. I did a bit of student journalism, editing Life and Arts pages for a student newspaper and doing some writing. I went to a careers talk about journalism because I was curious and thought it sounded fun. After I graduated I found a job on a fashion and arts website, and emailed one of the journalists at that careers talk asking for work experience. I squeezed in work experience around my job and really enjoyed it. People continually told me that print journalism is dead, there's no money in it and becoming a journalist now was like becoming a miner in the 1980s. But lots of other jobs are difficult to get into as well so I decided to give it a few years, take it seriously and get as qualified as I could. I got onto the newspaper journalism course at City University, which I would recommend. In an industry that's difficult it's important to learn media law, shorthand and get as much hands-on practice as possible.
What advice would you give to any young people considering a career in journalism?
Read as much as you can and listen to people's conversations. It's great for getting ideas for stories - all life is copy for articles. Think about which articles you like and why, then think about that when you write. Being a good writer is an advantage but in my experience, journalism is as much about that as having ideas and being able to deliver. This means being able to find facts and people, then knowing how to talk to them and what to ask. And being able to do this quickly.
As for finding a job, try to get some work experience to see if you like it. Try your local paper - call them up and ask who to email. Then if you don't get a reply send a follow-up email. Local papers will often give you more to do than at a national paper where they have a huge team of staff. If what you see on work experience hasn't put you off, try to freelance for them. I'd also recommend doing a course so you have as many skills as possible and don't leave picking up important things like media law to chance. Courses are also good for meeting people in the business who may recommend you to future employers. Once you're at a paper work out what they want and how you can deliver it. Journalists and editors are often under a lot of pressure and looking for people to make their lives easier by providing them with facts and story ideas.
When applying to jobs it's crucial to explain your role in getting a story - what you did that's special, whether it's having an idea, finding someone who would speak about their experience, getting an exclusive quote or a great picture that holds a page. Practise explaining exactly what you offer. Are you a sports journalist or are you skilled at finding an exclusive news quote. It helps to have a focus.
How important a role did work experience play in getting you to where you are today?
While I don't think long periods of unpaid work experience where you end up effectively doing someone's job for free are acceptable or fair, a bit of work experience is crucial in journalism. All the journalists that I know who are my age did work experience before getting their job. An employer isn't going to give you a job if they can't see you have ideas and can deliver on them. They are often busy, stressed people so you need to be able to show them and the best way to do this is with examples of where you have done this before. It's impossible to do this without meeting people who will commission your articles through work experience.
Don't expect to be writing front-page stories, or even having your name on any stories at first. At first it's about getting to know people and the system. If they like you they are more likely to give you an interesting task, listen to your ideas or give you advice.
Meanwhile try to glean as much as you can about what editors like and don't like, and how writers talk to people, think of ideas and write them up.
Is there a creative words-based career that you would like to know more about? Get in touch to let us know and we'll see if we can find someone to interview and tell you more.
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If you're aged 11 to 19 years-old and you'd like to write a piece for our website get in touch with Robert Sommerlad.