How I became a newspaper editor in my twenties

Samantha Harman lives in Oxford and is editor of the Oxford Mail, Oxford Times, Limited Edition magazine and associated titles. Here she shares how she became a journalist and her advice for those looking to get into the newspaper industry.

Oxford Mail Editor Samantha Harman. Picture by Ed Nix
Oxford Mail Editor Samantha Harman. Picture by Ed Nix

For some reason, I always wanted to be a journalist. Low pay, long hours – yep, sign me up.

I loved writing and storytelling and (these were the days before everything centred around the internet), I remember reading the local paper in utter fascination as a kid. 

Wanting to make a difference

I grew up in a pretty poor area and I didn’t know anyone in the journalism industry. I didn’t know anyone who’d been to university and didn’t really see anyone like me heading up a newspaper. 

But perhaps that’s why I wanted to be a journalist.

I saw the injustices and the lives of ‘real people’ every day and I wanted to make a difference in the world. 

My parents were amazing, and hard-working, and told me I could achieve anything I really wanted if I worked hard enough. 

Work hard

And that’s my first piece of advice for any young girl who has a dream – you’ve got to be willing to graft for it. 

It’s corny, but you’ve got to have that fire in your belly. You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing so it’s not just a job.

A job could give you X amount of money and strict nine to five hours, but it’s just a job, and you’re clock-watching. 

This isn’t a job – it’s a vocation – and often I’ll look at the clock and think ‘how is that the time?!’

Time flies when you’re having fun! 

You don’t really care about the long hours, because you love it – you’re making a difference and it’s all you ever wanted to do. 

Believe in yourself

My second piece of advice is; believe in yourself (without being arrogant). 

I won’t bore you with too many anecdotes, but people will have misconceptions about you, or they might tell you that you ‘can’t’ do something because of where you come from/what you look like/the obstacles you have to overcome.

I’ve been told I’d never move off the council estate, I was too young to do X job, I can’t do it X way because it’s always been done Y way, and I’ve been mistaken for the junior when I’m the manager (it happens to a lot of young women I know in senior jobs).

But take it all in your stride and stay humble. 

I literally cleaned toilets on my journey here – if that won’t keep you humble, nothing will! (And no one can ever say you don’t know a hard day’s work!) 

The only person you have to convince that you can do something is yourself. Go for it. 

My career as a journalist

A brief history of my career to date. 

I started as a trainee reporter after taking the NCTJ qualification (if you’re serious about journalism, look into it). After 18 months I took my senior exams and then became a chief reporter, before becoming deputy editor.

In 2017, I took over a group of newspapers and magazines in Berks/Bucks, and last year won editor of the year and became the editor of the Oxfordshire titles. 

And it’s been incredible. 

Sure, sometimes I’m pulling my hair out, or trying to stop myself from throwing my computer at the wall. 

But on the whole − what a job. 

Being an advocate

I’ve met the Queen and celebrities, I’ve presented at glitzy ceremonies, I’ve done shifts with the emergency services and been to murder trials and massive events. 

But the most important thing I’ve done is make a difference. 

If you want to become a journalist because you want your own column and you like your own voice − this isn’t the job for you. 

Because this job isn’t about you.

It’s about all the people you can help; it’s about open justice and being the advocate for those who have nowhere left to turn. 

Do you want to be a journalist?

I think the industry has diversified a lot since I got into it, thankfully. I’m really keen on getting people from diverse backgrounds in the industry. How can you report properly on an area if you aren’t reflective of the community? 

We now have several initiatives (apprenticeships, Facebook Community Reporters), which mean that people who might not otherwise be able to get into journalism, can. 

If you want to get into journalism, here are a few things you can do:

Look into the NCTJ 

It’s still the benchmark standard for young reporters and means editors know you know your stuff.

Read everything 

If you say you’re keen to do journalism, do you actually read the news? You’d be surprised! 

Get out there and give it a go! 

I actually lost count of the number of work experience placements I did – papers, magazines, radio, TV. None of them were paid (hence the toilet cleaning on the side). But it’s the best way to know which kind of newsroom is the one for you. And I made valuable contacts, and ended up getting paid work out of it. 

Don’t blanket email everyone with a ‘To whom it may concern’; tailor your email to the editor, or news editor. Mention a story from their paper/programme/site you’ve enjoyed − maybe even offer a story from the patch you’ve found yourself. 

Come armed with stories

And once you’re on work experience, make the most of it.

Newsrooms are hectic places, the newsdesk won’t have time to baby you. Go in armed with some ideas of your own, don’t wait to be spoon-fed. Make a point of introducing yourself to everybody (even the editor, even if she seems busy and extremely sassy, like me).

Read more: How I got a foot in the media door and you can too

This is how I got my first journalism job

Working at the BBC: how I landed a job on the Politics Show

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