Here's why mentoring in journalism is so important
PressPad’s Nicola Slawson has been a journalist for seven years but said that the nepotism she saw whilst studying for her MA in journalism left her with a sour taste. She realised the importance of finding a mentor and once she was settled in the industry became a mentor herself. Here Nicola breaks down the importance of mentoring.
When I first decided I wanted to try and realise my greatest ambition to be a journalist, I didn’t know anyone who was a journalist and I had no idea how to break in. Without trying to sound too much like Sadiq Khan (who infamously regularly reminded voters during his mayoral campaign that he was the son of a bus driver), I’m the daughter of a mechanic and a nurse and from a rural county. I had never lived in London before. Journalism felt unpenetrable.
After doing an internship at a small indie publication, I applied for the Scott Trust Bursary and was lucky enough to be successful which meant I was soon studying on the newspaper MA programme at City University, which is considered by many to be the best journalism school in the country. It was there that I realised how rife nepotism is in journalism. It wasn’t just that there were relatives of top journalists and editors on my course – and there were plenty of those – but also so many of them knew each other from various private schools and prestigious universities or because their older siblings had dated each other 10 years ago.
Lots of them actually came from the same university, a Russell Group university in the north of England, and it was during my first week that I found out there was a tradition for graduates of this university to help those younger than them get a place on the City journalism course. They would outline exactly what to expect from the interview process which meant when we were all asked to go out into Islington and “find a story”, the graduates from this Uni already knew it was going to be one of the tasks and had come prepared. I had wondered at the time why none of them mirrored the sheer look of terror on my own face. These same people would also be helped by the graduates to get work experience or shifts at the publications they were now working at themselves – or of course, they would just ask their older sister or someone even more senior like their dad or uncle. I felt quite bitter that nobody had come before me to help give me a leg up and that I had to do it all by myself.
I soon realised that actually I didn’t need to do it by myself because there were other people who were willing to help me after they read my work or realised how passionate I was to break in. Most of these were senior people at the Guardian who I met while on work experience as part of the Scott Trust Bursary. One in particular, Denis Campbell who is the Guardian’s health policy editor, became my mentor and would regularly take me for lunch in the work canteen and ask me about stories I was working on and jobs I was applying for and what I wanted to do in my career. He also helped me get commissions, told me about jobs, gave me references and also gave me some hard truths when I needed to hear them.
But I also still considered the editors who helped me in the first months to be my mentors too even though I had never formally asked them because even though we wouldn’t meet regularly, they would also inquire about my career or offer to put me in touch with another editor. All these little acts of kindness added up and I went from trying to break in to being a bonafide journalist. My approach to mentoring has become “got to catch them all” and I honestly believe in having as many formal or informal mentors as you want. I love that I now have a female mentor at a totally different newspaper who can help me more broadly but equally I would love to find a mentor who does exactly the kind of journalism I want to do so I can follow in their footsteps.
There are many different ways to get a mentor. You can get one through one of the journalism schemes (see below), you can get one through a workplace programme, you can ask someone who you already know or you can either email your favourite journalist, take a punt and ask if they will mentor you. Some people even take to Twitter and ask if anyone wants to mentor them in an open call-out. You never know. Someone awesome might say yes.
Not all mentoring experiences will be successful and you might have to just cut your losses and move on to trying to find someone who is a better fit. But there are definitely things you can do to help make the experience more positive.
Finally, because of the experience I had at my journalism school and because of how much I have been helped by people just a few steps ahead of me, I really believe that we can all be mentors and we should all be helping pull up other people (especially those from non-elite backgrounds) up behind us. If you have just graduated from university, can you find a scheme that will enable you to help someone who has just started? Or can you volunteer to act as a mentor at your old school or Sixth Form college? I am now a mentor for a young journalist through Second Source and have several other young journalists who sometimes call me or email me on an ad hoc basis for advice so I have a similar approach to mentoring as I do to being mentored.
I will leave you with the words of Michelle Obama:
“All of us are mentors. You’re mentors right here and now. And one of the things I’ve always done throughout my life, I have always found that person, that group of people that I was going to reach my hand out and help bring them along with me.”
Here are some useful articles all about mentoring:
Dear men: why you shouldn’t be afraid to mentor female colleagues like me by Holly Peacock-Godwin
The most feminist thing you can do at work by Viv GroskopHow mentors can help accelerate journalism careers
A full list of all the mentor schemes and what the deadlines are on the amazing JournoResources website.
Michelle Obama – Becoming
Watch the full masterclass here: