Emily Cleary: Five Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Journalist

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There’s a story in everything — When you start out you struggle to find stories, but from a trip to the shops to a day out with the kids, there are news stories everywhere. I was unfortunate enough to contract mumps at the grand old age of 40, but by doing some research into the virus and penning some first-person pieces I carved myself a niche as the go-to commentator and writer on all things mumps, ditto miscarriage. Last year during a cold snap I spotted some icicles that looked like a scene out of Frozen, so I took a photo. Five websites and more than £500 profit later those photos had gone viral.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing journalist Emily Cleary.

Emily Cleary is a veteran news reporter with almost 20 years’ experience in UK and international media. Having interviewed everyone from Tony Blair during his reign as Prime Minister to Paris Hilton at the height of her rule as queen of the socialites, Emily has crossed continents to get the scoop on breaking news. A freelance journalist for the likes of Huffington Post, Yahoo News UK and British papers including The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, Emily is now also a regular guest on BBC Radio debate shows.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Ever since I was a child I had a love of writing. By the time I was ten I was writing my own newspapers for family and friends, and had declared I would be a journalist when I grew up. Having graduated with a BA (Hons) in Philosophy and Literature, I followed a path of public relations and event planning, but could never really settle. It was on an ill-fated date in my early 20s that I bumped into an old schoolfriend. He was shocked I wasn’t now a journalist — he demanded to know why not. I couldn’t really answer. Just two years later that friend had lost his life and I was consumed with grief. His teasing rang through my ears and I decided to leave my well-paid role in event planning and return to college to study journalism. I graduated that summer, got a (very badly paid!) role on a local newspaper, and I haven’t looked back. I firmly believe I was born to be a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to that friend for having reminded me of my childhood dreams.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Ha, there are so many, and lots that can’t be printed without being censored! I remember covering the story of a man who murdered his wife. I broke the story in the UK press and covered the entire court case. By the end of the trial the husband — who was found guilty — had told his defence team to pass on his gratitude that I had covered his trial fairly — “the only journalist I don’t hate”. That was a strange feeling.

Then there was the time, around 12 years ago, I was sent to the Berkshire village of Bucklebury to talk to a young girl called Kate who had split with her boyfriend — (Prince) William. Armed with a notepad and Dictaphone I approached her family home for a friendly chat, but Bucklebury residents look after their own and before I could reach the front door I had been pelted with fresh manure from a passing tractor. Cries of “leave her alone” rang through my ears as I darted for my car. I do hope she doesn’t send me to the tower for that when she becomes Queen…

On a serious note I really have been lucky enough to interview so many fascinating people, and cover some historic and momentous events. I have a million interesting stories, but also many very dull ones that involve sitting outside a celebrity’s house for days on end, or waiting by a stage door in the freezing cold for that ground-breaking hold-the-press quote, only to be ignored or, worse, insulted, by the subject who then scoots off into the night while I’m left to deal with the wrath of a furious editor who has missed the scoop. Luckily journalism has changed a lot since I started, and those jobs are now fewer and much farther between.

Can you share the funniest mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson you learned from it?

It wasn’t exactly a career mistake but a wardrobe malfunction during my early days as a court reporter. I had chosen a very sensible, stern outfit, and rose as the judge entered the room: “All rise”. I had to address the Judge about a reporting restriction and felt I should bow forwards as thanks at the end of my request. As I did my skirt split right in two across my butt. I was mortified. Another misjudgement came when I was working for more! magazine — a snappy UK publication for savvy young women — and was sent to interview Lady Gaga ahead of her first UK tour. The vital question I was instructed to ask was “are you and Kanye getting it on?”, as they had toured the States together that month. So, in front of an audience of several thousand Little Monsters, I drew a deep breath and asked Gaga. “Stupid question!” yelled out someone in the crowd, a yell that drew rapturous applause as well as jeering of me, the insolent reporter. Gaga was very gracious. My embarrassment at with me for days.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As a breaking news reporter the coronavirus has spawned some of most challenging, draining and intense stories of my career. I have interviewed mothers with just months to live, knowing they will not survive lockdown or fulfil any ambitions they dreamed of as a parent. I have analysed reams of government data, dissected thousands of political presentations, and I feel I’m on first name terms with the Director General of the World Health Organization I’ve attended so many covid pressers. Each day brings a new story and a new angle, but each must be treated with sensitivity and absolute accuracy. I feel that’s my duty to the readers and though the press gets a lot of stick about our representation of the facts, I am proud to say I share the facts so that governments across the world are held accountable, and so that the human stories behind this crisis are always heard.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Following my days on Fleet Street I moved to celebrity magazines and was lucky enough to interview some of the biggest stars of the time from film stars to stadium-filling musicians. But I’ve always found the ‘normal’ people the most fascinating and endearing. The woman celebrating her 100th birthday who swears by a G&T every night, the war hero who risked it all, or the refugee who built a new life from the brink of death.

On the 20th anniversary of the Hungerford massacre I visited the town and talked to the survivors, including neighbours of the now infamous Michael Ryan who took to the streets of the quiet town, shooting people at close range, including his own mother. I sat in Ryan’s neighbours’ homes as survivors detailed events of that tragic day. They shared memories and sadness, and I felt honoured to be covering the story of a community that mourned and then healed together.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?

Grow a thick skin and never give up. Develop your own style but learn how to write for every demographic, and look for the story in everything. Being a journalist isn’t half as glamorous or high paying as people expect, but it is incredibly rewarding.

Unless you’re well-known or expert enough to be writing commentary, never forget that you are not the news. People don’t care what you do, or think, they care about the facts and your job is to present them — to journalise them. The emergence of blogging — blogs never even existed when I became a journalist — has given too may people the belief that other people are interested in what they think. On the whole, they’re not. Do your research, read as much as you can, and focus on the facts. Everything else will come in time if you work for it.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

As a reporter on a national daily it is nigh-on impossible not to burn out at some point. Long hours, demanding shifts and often tragic stories can put a burden on your whole life. I lived and breathed news when I was an agency reporter, but I am fortunate to be able to pick and choose assignments more now that I have the experience. I would say just set yourself a day a week when you will not work. Employee support is much more of a focus now than it was when I started out. Employers have a duty of care and there is more support if you are feeling over-burdened. However, journalism is not always a sensitive industry — it may not be fair but you need to acknowledge this if you want to succeed.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to think I have done a lot of good with stories I have written and by bringing issues to the public eye. By covering stories of charity work, individuals making their mark, and campaigns for equality, I have raised awareness and helped people further causes that are important to them. The press is much maligned but the industry does a lot of good. Without newspapers, and now news sites, horrors would not be exposed, governments would not be held to account, ordinary people doing extraordinary things would not be championed. I’m part of that and I am proud..

I have also written about deeply personal issues, including miscarriage and grieving for a parent. Although it is not easy to bare your soul to strangers, and trolling is sadly inevitable, I have received messages from strangers saying my reading my stories gave them solace or enabled them to ask for the help they so desperately needed. These messages always bring a tear to my eye and remind me why I do what I do.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

A love of writing, a passion for news, and a determination to good and make a mark on the world, however small. I read years ago ‘Choose a job you love and you will never do a day’s work in your life’, and while there are days I just want to curl up in a ball and forget what I’ve been covering, I feel proud that I have written it.

When I started our I worked for a local paper and my Dad would be the first in the shop every Friday to proudly place the paper on the counter and say ‘My daughter wrote that’. My parents may not have always approved of my career choices — I have veered into dubious grounds for tabloids on more than one occasion — but they always supported me. My father died five years ago but every little victory and every new achievement is marked with wistful pride and the knowledge he would have been right there at the front of the newsagents, telling the poor man behind the counter all about me (and telling anyone else who would listen too!). My mum is always the first to tune in when I’m on the radio and still reads everything I write, letting me know her thoughts and encouraging me.

I guess what drives me now is hoping that my children will be as proud of my career when they grow up and really understand what I do.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My husband always jokes that I’d read the back of a toilet roll wrapper if no other literature was around, I live and breathe reading and writing, but there are a few books that have had a huge impact on my life.

The first book that made me cry was Anne of Green Gables, the first book I fell in love with was Wuthering Heights, but the novel that had the biggest effect on me was Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The way Faulks writes, the complexities of emotions in the characters, the sheer horror of the First World War, it’s such a moving and life-changing work. Everyone should read Faulks. He’s a journalist, a storyteller, a living legend of our time. His contribution to literature can never be overrated. He has produced so many masterpieces, but Birdsong is just genius. Perfection.

Ok wonderful. Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You will lose friends — It’s a sad truth that when you become a journalist some people’s perceptions of you will change. You’ll meet someone and be greeted with one of two phrases — either ‘I’ve got a great story for you’ before they proceed to bore you with a parking dispute or the like, or ‘Well I’d better not say any more’ because they think you’re going to use anything they say for your next story. If the latter is true, or even if not — you have just written something that they don’t agree with — they may disappear from your life. Conversely some people will seek you out as a friend purely because you may be of use to them. When you’re not, they ditch you. The life of a journalist be very fickle.
  2. Work, work, work and you will get where you want to be — I don’t think I ever realised how hard I would have to work to get to a position on national newspapers. At one point I was working 20 hours a day — a day shift on my local newspaper day job then a night shift at The Sun until 3am, arriving home at 4am and up for work again by 7 o’clock that morning. I entered journalism through the traditional route — unpaid work for my local paper, NCTJ (National Certificate for the Training of Journalists) then minimum wage at a local paper doing more hours than were legal. The development of blogs and the web has saturated the world of media, but to work for a national newspaper the traditional route is still the most efficient. You are trained in law, government and shorthand, and most respected outlets will require this from a trainee news reporter — unless you’re related to the editor. Work for that qualification and you’ll be on the right path. I know people who enjoyed, but wasted, three years studying journalism at university. You don’t need a degree in journalism to become a journalist. If you want to pursue the route of further education pick a subject that will support your writing or your academic knowledge.
  3. Shorthand is really hard to learn but so worthwhile — “But I can use my phone to record interviews,” I hear you cry. Well yes you can, but if you want to be a news reporter you will find yourself in a court one day and you can’t use your phone there. And what if your phone dies? What if you press the wrong button? What if you accidentally wipe that exclusive interview? Taking shorthand notes is a way of life for a news reporter — you can write at 100 words a minute and nobody knows what you’re putting on that piece of paper (I often use shorthand to intimidate insurance sales people who worry what I’m noting down as they recite their rehearsed spiel!).
  4. There’s a story in everything — When you start out you struggle to find stories, but from a trip to the shops to a day out with the kids, there are news stories everywhere. I was unfortunate enough to contract mumps at the grand old age of 40, but by doing some research into the virus and penning some first-person pieces I carved myself a niche as the go-to commentator and writer on all things mumps, ditto miscarriage. Last year during a cold snap I spotted some icicles that looked like a scene out of Frozen, so I took a photo. Five websites and more than £500 profit later those photos had gone viral.
  5. Networking is everything — My first job in a national newspaper came as a result of a chat with a local cabby who happened to know a reporter at News of the World. I broke the story of a man who murdered his wife and drove her body to France after a neighbour of his I had met at a council meeting tipped me off. Council meetings, press conferences, D-list celeb events and product launches may all seem dull and something that has to be endured, but the people you meet can become your sources for great stories. Be kind, be chatty, and always take an interest. And most importantly — be wise about how you treat people on the way up, you never know when you may need them on the way down!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Is it too cheesy just to ask people to be kind? I think kindness and honesty could be the key to happiness. I don’t want to start a movement with hashtags or slogans, I just wish people would read the news, realise how bloody cruel some people can be, and make a conscious decision to be good.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have been a fan of the band a-ha since I was six years old, and I was lucky enough to interview my heroes about ten years ago — the greatest day of my life (don’t tell my husband that!). However, the following week I drank rather too much wine at one of their concerts at London’s Albert Hall and wound up embarrassing myself trying to re-befriend (and possibly snog!) them after. I’d like to take them for breakfast to apologise!

But outside of my misguided attempts at wooing my icons, I would say Sebastian Faulks, Bernadine Evaristo, Joanne Harris or Ian McEwen — they are all such incredible writers with such rich back catalogues — an authors’ breakfast would be my utopia.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Chat to me on Twitter @journobird. I love a Tweet chat and can always learn something from people I meet on there.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Emily Cleary: Five Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Journalist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.