Believe in yourself. Journalism is a competitive industry with lots of people looking to make their mark. Self-belief and confidence are essential if you want to succeed. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for opportunities even if you don’t meet all the qualifying criteria. You never know, something more suited to you might come up at the same company.
As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Ansell Elfer, BA (Hons), Dip.
Emily is an NCTJ-qualified journalist currently serving as Editor of Autism Parenting Magazine. Previously, Emily worked as a local news reporter, Deputy Editor of Toy World Magazine and Group Editor of three food magazines. She is also Director of Elfan Media Ltd where she has worked on content for clients including International Women’s Day, Where Women Work and Farmers Guardian.
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?
Reading, writing and performance have always been my passions. As a child I rarely played with toys, instead, I could be found with my nose in a book, writing poetry, or directing (and starring in!) my own plays. In short, my heart was always in storytelling, imagination and narrative. As I grew up and started thinking about my future career, I knew writing would be a part of it. I firmly believe it’s best to pursue a job that centers on your interests and strengths and, for me, that turned out to be journalism. As a journalist and editor I am writing and creating every day but I am telling the stories of real people, sharing news and insight with readers.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Some of my favorites have been “roving reporter” pieces where I’ve gone behind the scenes at a company or organization. These were feature-style articles rather than news. Early on in my career, I became a firefighter for the day at my local fire station where I had the opportunity to wear the uniform, try out the breathing equipment and join the firefighters on some home visits. I was also a chef for the day in the kitchen of a major department store, and I even spent a day working in a London butcher’s shop where I was tasked with butchering a pig carcass. It’s these quirky, human-interest pieces I enjoy most. As I became more senior I also had opportunities to travel abroad for stories. My favorite trips include covering the Cannes Lions Festival in France and being invited on a press tour of Ontario, Canada, by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Can you share the funniest mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson you learned from it?
I don’t have any particularly funny mistakes, but I certainly learned a few lessons at the start of my career. I remember spelling the surname of an interviewee incorrectly when I worked in local news and having to apologize to him after we had gone to press. At the time, I was mortified and worried I would lose my job! I know now that I panicked and the result wasn’t too bad but it also taught me to ask interviewees to spell their names out to me rather than taking a guess. Nowadays, I tend to do more online interviews and a quick Google search usually pulls up the person’s LinkedIn page or website for an extra spell-check!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now, my focus is on all things autism! As a journalist for a niche publication, I’m constantly reading and learning about the magazine’s sector and building contacts. The most exciting project for the magazine at the moment is our free Autism Parenting Summit which takes place twice each year. This virtual conference is our opportunity to branch out into the events space and offer more video interviews and interactive content for the autism community.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
As a local news reporter, I had the pleasure of meeting people from all walks of life, each with their own unique stories. I loved getting to know people in the local community — from centenarians celebrating their big birthdays to local dignitaries. Without a doubt though, the biggest highlight was seeing the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry cut the opening ribbon at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter.
In my current role, I was extremely honored to meet Dr. Temple Grandin over Zoom and interview her for the Autism Parenting Summit. For anyone not familiar with Dr. Grandin, she is an American scientist and animal behaviorist who is on the autism spectrum. She was nonverbal until she was nearly four years old and now does a lot of advocacy work to help others in the autism community. She is a true inspiration.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?
Journalism is a competitive, fast-paced industry. It’s so important to network, keep abreast of current affairs, and be ready to seek out new angles. I would also recommend training in shorthand. I achieved the Gold Standard in Teeline Shorthand as part of my NCTJ diploma and I have found it useful throughout my career — relying on voice recordings is dangerous as you never know when technology might fail you!
You should also be open to opportunities outside your original plan. For example, I never considered working in B2B or niche publications but I found some great opportunities in these sectors. I partly credit moving into niche media for helping me land senior roles early in my career. I was working in my first editor position at the age of 26 while many of my peers were junior reporters in the mainstream press. As a journalist, you can become an expert in any sector — from toys to food, to autism — if you know how to spot a great story and you’re willing to put time into learning from experts in the industry.
What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?
If you have lost your thirst for stories and your passion for the work, it might be time to change things up. Don’t be afraid to seek new opportunities at different publications, websites, or media platforms and to explore different forms of journalism. Keep adding to your book of contacts (finding a good story is often about who you know rather than what you know), keep training and building skills in new areas (such as SEO, photography and design), and you never know what new opportunities might arise. At the same time, it’s important to allow yourself space for your own well-being — try not to allow work to bleed into all your evenings and weekends. I know from previous experience that checking your emails on your phone at all hours of the day isn’t healthy.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As a journalist, I have been able to share stories of public interest, celebrate people’s successes, and warn people about crime or issues of concern in their communities.
Now, as Editor of Autism Parenting Magazine, I’m able to play a part in helping and supporting special needs families all over the world. The main focus of my role is managing the content for both the magazine and the blog, commissioning writers, and ensuring we have articles from doctors, therapists, parents, and people on the spectrum which answer our readers’ toughest questions.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
It’s been more than 10 years since I started my career but I still get such a buzz from seeing my by-line online or on a printed page! I seem to have a natural drive for this industry and inbuilt dedication for the job.
However, in my current role, I’m even more driven by hearing from our readers. When I receive an email from a parent sharing how the magazine has helped their child, it makes all the hard work of my team truly worthwhile.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
It’s so hard to pick just one, but Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz by Olga Lengyel has always stuck with me — partly because my husband’s family has a personal connection to Olga’s story, and partly because I think it’s so important to remember the tragedies different communities experienced during the Holocaust and Second World War. I also really enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon which takes a heartwarming look at the world through the eyes of a teenager on the autism spectrum. I love the way this book builds awareness of autism while also engaging readers in an exciting adventure.
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.
- Believe in yourself. Journalism is a competitive industry with lots of people looking to make their mark. Self-belief and confidence are essential if you want to succeed. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for opportunities even if you don’t meet all the qualifying criteria. You never know, something more suited to you might come up at the same company.
You can further your self-belief and confidence by completing work experience and internships or starting your own blog. This hands-on experience will also provide you with a portfolio of cuttings and a strong resume, which is key to securing an entry-level journalism role (isn’t it ironic entry-level almost always requires experience?). Before I secured my first paid role I’d already completed a handful of work experience placements and been published in the local and national press, so I felt super confident — just make sure you don’t do this for too long.
- Be prepared to be a “jack of all trades”. As a journalist these days, you’re not only responsible for the words, you’re also often expected to act as a photographer, image editor, video editor, and even get involved in layout and design. The level of multi-tasking you’ll be required to do often depends on the size of the publication you work for, but the more willing and capable you are, the more likely you are to succeed in the media. When I was a local news reporter I always had a huge camera around my neck when out “on patch” and I had little clue how to operate it!
- Keep training and building skills. Following on from my previous tip, I highly recommend completing short courses in photography, video editing, image editing, and learning about programs such as Photoshop and InDesign. It’s also essential you keep on top of media law (especially copyright and defamation) and, of course, SEO is now a vital skill for all online writers.
If you don’t have funds to spare, search for free online training or check out some YouTube videos. There are also many advice-style blogs you can benefit from reading. The more skilled you are in multimedia production, the more job opportunities in journalism will be open to you.
- Build contacts. Almost everyone you meet through work or in everyday life could be a potential source for a story or even a new job! Be warm, friendly and engaging, and make sure you keep people’s contact details. I opt for an old-fashioned little black book but you might prefer to work with a spreadsheet or an online program. You’d be surprised how often a contact you made for one story could be your source for another — often years down the line. If I ever lose a business card before taking down the details I get so frustrated with myself!
- Be honest and true to yourself. Remember your job is to report the truth. There is a huge difference between creating a catchy headline or finding an interesting angle, and distorting the facts or finding a story inappropriately. If something doesn’t feel right in your gut, follow that instinct. There might be times in your career when a boss, colleague, or contact tries to talk you into running an article that doesn’t feel right. Always trust yourself. I’ve only felt myself being pushed into a story once in my career, but I wish I’d been more assertive at the time. This advice is especially important as poor journalism can result in legal issues.
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. 🙂
Wow, that’s quite a question! I would love to make healthcare free for everyone around the world. In the UK where I’m based, we are lucky to have the National Health Service (NHS) which means everyone has access to a doctor and most surgery is free/covered by taxes. The service has its issues and is far from perfect, but it’s also lifesaving. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for people without this privilege to fund treatment for themselves and their loved ones. If we could create a global health service where everyone could be supported, how amazing would that be?
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 feel I should say something more profound here, but I’m a massive fan of the sitcom Friends. I find the show a huge comfort when I just need to relax and switch off for a while. I often have episodes playing in the background when I’m pottering around the house and I could probably recite the script for most episodes! I would love to meet Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe is my favorite character. I think Lisa comes over very down-to-earth and good fun in her interviews, too! Perhaps she could invite Regina Phalange along to join us?
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!