My route into reporting came by way of a masters in journalism at what was then the London College of Printing, part of the London Institute. This was a traditional course which encouraged work experience stints at regional and local titles. At the time journalism jobs were tight. It was 2001, so just after the big dotcom crash and 9/11. To improve my chances of securing a permanent job in journalism I decided to exploit the one thing I thought I had that hopefully many others didn’t: my Polish background.
I landed a job at an english language paper in Warsaw at a publication called the Warsaw Business Journal, and it was there I cut my teeth as a cub reporter. This was grass roots journalism at its finest. Days involved cold calling sector specialists, hunting for stories, trends or information snippets that might be of interest to foreign investors. We didn’t have a Reuters or a Bloomberg terminal, so all our stories had to be home grown, initiated by news items in local polish press, from sources or diary events. We gathered information the hard way. Burning shoe leather, dragging ourselves to press conference or meetings, or alternatively slamming the phones using our shared contact book. Cold calling was an every day phenomenon and I remember always having a neck ache when leaving work (for some reason headsets just weren’t a thing).
Phoning was always the first port of call because email was still relatively rare, and there was certainly no such thing as email access on a phone. Other challenges included the fact that corporations didn’t necessarily have websites. We received press releases, or invitations to events as much by post and fax as we did electronically.
Being bilingual I was able to conduct interviews in Polish whilst simultaneously translating for my notes, which saved resources. Quote checking was allowed only if there was fear of something being lost in translation. But since there were no instant translation devices, most of the time there wasn’t much time for that sort of thing.
The rhythm of the newsroom was entirely influenced by the weekly production cycle, which included the whole experience of putting the publication to bed. From memory, this mainly involved hanging around and smoking until the editor was fully satisfied with the final edition and had no more questions. (Who didn’t smoke in those days?)
The dynamics were similar in my second job, which was another english language publication but this time in Baku Azerbaijan, called the Caspian Business News. Despite having always dreamed of being a war correspondent, by this time I had started to dedicate myself to finance and economics. In my mind everyone wanted to be a general news reporter, meaning those jobs were scarce. But finance, for some reason, was deemed unglamorous and boring with many more vacancies. I thought to myself if I could hone my business reporting skills, I could always migrate to general news and hopefully work anywhere. A finance journalist can always do general news, but the same can’t be said of a general news reporter doing finance.
I spent two years working abroad gaining experience in this way, building a clippings book which I hoped would reflect my range and land me a job at a major title in the UK. I was interested in everything that made the world tick: oil, commodities, international loans, central banks, money and finance. And to show I could operate in challenging circumstances I attempted to gain freelance commissions as well, which saw me treading off solo to Kabul Afghanistan with no official title support. Not something the 38-year old me would recommend.
In the long run the foreign experience was worth it. Upon return to London and after a stint working for the internal magazine of BP to recoup costs I qualified for the much coveted Reuters graduate trainee course. This was a one-year course and probably the most notable experience of my journalistic career. I had always dreamed of being a Reuters correspondent so to be appointed to the one of seven positions available, meant literally everything to me.
Reuters was an entirely different world, however. It was professional with what seemed to me then endless resources. There was the plush office on Gray’s Inn road (with a smoking balcony, naturally). The expansive correspondent network. The expenses budget. A library and fact-checking department. And of course “The terminal”. But there was also, most significantly in my mind, its commitment to its code of conduct.
So-called “jollies” were — within limit — quite normal at small shoestring operations like the ones I’d worked at but I was now privy to extended debates and conversations on the ethics of accepting specific corporate invitations. This impressed me greatly. To me this is what journalism was supposed to be about. Neutrality and the capacity to resist corporate attempts to bias you. If we were to go on trips, it was part of the conduct code that Reuters would pay our own way. It was in this way that Reuters agreed for me to go on a trip with Shell to an offshore platform in the North Sea.
It’s on that last front that things are now changing quickly. Expensing even a modest lunch with sources who aren’t comfortable talking over email can be a challenge, let alone getting funding to join a corporation on your own terms at one of their business sites.
Speaking to contacts on neutral terms, however, is critical if impartial content is to be produced. Yet journalists today are increasingly having to subsidise their own news gathering activities. The risk of that is obvious. Journalists will have to find other funding means to cover the differential. That will either reduce journalism to an elitist profession, available only to those who come from family wealth, or one which is entirely influenced and subsidised by corporations.
In today’s world it is not uncommon for highly followed journalists on social media to receive kickback offers from corporations for referring to their products. I know this happens, it’s happened to me. Luckily for me, I work for a news organisation which still has the capacity to fund neutral journalism and vigorously enforces its ethical charter.
Izabella Kaminska is a writer, commentator and blogger for the Financial Times and its blog FT Alphaville.