Overcoming my identity crisis as a young journalist - why who and what you write doesn’t matter as much as you think
Young journalists are often scared about their writing being used against them later in their career. Qais Hussain writes about he overcame this fear and the reaction he got when he began writing whatever he wanted to.
I became a journalist by mistake – I was a victim of this year’s exam grading algorithm system. I was supposed to have my GCSEs this summer, but they got cancelled. As a result there was huge chaos and during that chaos I published my first ever piece in The Independent about reforming exams, and more importantly about how I wouldn’t be doing those excruciating exams.
As I continued to pitch and write, in particular about my experience of the education system, I realised that most young journalists have a wishlist of the publications they want to write for, based on their perception of a news organisation. When I ask a young person, and by that, I mean anybody under 18, what are the most popular publications, they tend to say The Guardian,The Daily Mail, and The Sun. When I ask an aspiring journalist or a young journalist which of those they would want to write for, the ones I know – including myself – are most likely to say The Guardian.
But the reality of achieving that dream often leaves emerging journalists feeling disappointed and rejected. Last year, at the age of 15, I had a piece accepted by my “admired publication” (aka The Guardian) about the inequality that can occur when teachers mark exams. The piece was never published, mainly because the editor went on leave and the Black Lives Matter took precedent in the news. However, it goes without saying that deeply troubled me. I felt as if I wasn’t good enough, I felt belittled and undermined.
After repeated emails sent to the editor, I took the plucky decision to take the idea elsewhere – within minutes it was commissioned by the i. I learnt a lot from that commission: how edits work, how to invoice, and most importantly I got paid – and a fair fee too! I never used to get paid fairly for my writing until I discovered this amazing spreadsheet by Anna Codrea-Rado – #FreelancerPayGap. It has helped many hundreds of journalists get a fair fee for our work!
Since those early pieces I published in the Independent and the i, I’ve written for The Financial Times, VICE, Metro, The Morning Star, The Socialist Worker, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, and The Times (still not The Guardian!) – and my experiences at each were not always what I thought they might be when I looked at the publication from the outside.
From a young age, I had been told not to read and most certainly not to write for “Murdoch papers”, because “Murdoch” is a taboo word – especially among young liberals – who see it as much of what is wrong with the media and the over-politicisation of it. In fact, the best thing I ever did was write for “Murdoch papers”. Often we feel judged about where our work appears – and that’s if we get a choice – often it’s just great to get a response and a byline. But does it matter if we write for a broadsheet, tabloid or magazine? What does it say about us as people, or our politics if our work appears in certain publications over others?
I recently received some backlash for a piece I wrote in The Sun about how my school had, in my opinion, become a “cesspit of Marxist ideology”. The backlash wasn’t necessarily from my teachers (although they weren’t pleased), but rather it was from senior journalists of established publications. Some editors asked me if I was “taken advantage of” by The Sun; others told me that “The Sun had used me” and went on to heavily criticise my piece. But I can honestly say, the experience writing for The Sun and their team has been phenomenal; unlike other publications, they checked with my parents to get permission for me to write for them (as I’m so young) and even rang me up twice to check on my welfare – now that’s what I call kind and passionate editors. It wasn’t the cut-throat approach you might have expected.
It’s not just been a minefield to work out who to write for to receive the best treatment and chance of success that I’ve grappled with but also not what type of writing I ‘should’ focus on: opinion, feature, long read, cultural or analysis. I know other young journalists who feel the same.
For me the easiest route into journalism has been through first-person or opinion writing – I have done both. It’s where many senior journalists started out too. But again – politics rears its head: I, like many young journalists, am wary about sharing potentially controversial views, scared to express political opinions in case it adversely affects me later in life. At first I steered clear of opinion writing for that reason but it was difficult to land commissions and so I decided to go for a more political approach. I am not going to lie, I often do worry how my pieces will be perceived in 10 years’ time, when society’s (and potentially my own) thoughts change. The possibility of this happening keeps me up at night – especially in our ‘cancel culture’ era.
This is why it makes a huge difference to find supportive editors like those at The Sun. Other amazing editors I’ve worked with are those at The Independent. I’ve developed an incredible relationship with them, especially the features and voices desk. There’s no formality with The Independent, they respect individuality and encourage creativity. During the summer I was commissioned to write features, opinion and news pieces related to the exam fiasco. Being 16 and an “unqualified journalist”, I thought it was incredibly courageous, perhaps optimistic, (or maybe just stupid) to publish so much of what I did write but thankfully everything has worked out well. I would always be in Harriet Hall’s (Lifestyle Editor, The Independent) debt for believing in me.
Now I’ve been writing and pitching for a while I feel like I am starting to find the editors I feel most at home with but this doesn’t mean I believe in a permanent journalistic home necessarily – and I definitely don’t hold the same views about which dream publications to write for.
While sometimes it feels like in order to get started us young print journalists must sell our souls to the highest bidder, my advice is to be courageous and stick to your sense of identity and viewpoint regardless of who you’re pitching to – sometimes it can even be an advantage as you stand out from the crowd because you’re not only pitching to publications that you think share your ‘life view’. One of my biggest achievements was for VICE, about What It’s Like to Support Black Lives Matter as a Teen in a Majority-White Town. The piece is featured on Black Lives Matter’s UK website, and I still get people emailing me about how much they love and respect me for writing it.
My biggest regret, if any, is taking advice from senior journalists who told me what and where I should write. Journalists like this who offer this well-meaning advice have partisan views. They don’t mean any harm but can discourage other journalists from being adventurous and to rule our writing for other organisations or worry about it unnecessarily. While it is imperative to make good relationships with fellow journalists and editors, you shouldn’t let their views influence yours.
Be who you are and say what you feel. My advice is to write whatever you want, for whomever you want, as long as you remain true to yourself; if you do that, you have nothing to worry about.