Starting Out As A Journalist


Simon Smith bagged a job on a national paper after a stint in China, ‘proper’ training and freelancing…

The email from the Daily Mail read: “I’m delighted to tell you that you have been selected for the trainee sub-editor programme.”

I was in shock. It was the email I’d been waiting for since graduating with a journalism master’s degree 18 months earlier.

When I read the first line of that email, I knew that keeping on going after 50 plus rejections had paid off.

Having failed to become a full-time poet by 18, I went to university to study something lucrative with something creative: fashion. Three years went by with most of my efforts put into writing for short story and poetry pamphlets.

After a year at Waterstones, managing the poetry and literary criticism section, I was even more determined to make it as a writer. Journalism did not feature.

I wasn’t until I moved to Guangzhou in China with a job offer from a growing English language publication – the largest expat magazine in the country – that I found my love of journalism.

I’d never worked in journalism and had been hired off the back of my work experience at regional newspapers.

My first story was reviewing a new seafood restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. When I arrived, I was escorted to the 100th floor. At a table overlooking the city, the head chef, restaurant manager and headwaiter greeted me. It was a surreal introduction to the industry.

A three-month probation period turned into three years. During that time, I immersed myself in Cantonese culture, reviewing traditional Chinese medicine techniques, organising interviews with general consuls of embassies, buttering up high-ranking government officials for phone interviews and composing questions to be put to touring celebrities ranging from Elton John to Keith Richards.

One afternoon saw me jumping on the bullet train to neighbouring Shenzhen to interview Boy George who was DJing in the city. Over a bottle of Tsingtao beer, I wrote down ten questions, which would go toward a front cover feature.

In 2014, I wanted to put what I’d learnt to use back home and prove myself in UK publications. I knew I needed “proper” training and that meant news writing, shorthand, interviewing and feature writing to a professional standard. This was provided by Sheffield University where I got an MA in journalism.

A turning point came when I was allocated a patch and asked to find original news stories. I set up an interview with David Blunkett about the lack of community hubs for unemployed people.

The Sheffield Star accepted a two-page feature on a local falconer I’d written as part of the assignment. A piece I wrote for a well-known business firm took six months of correspondence.

With cuts in journalism, it’s been tough to survive freelancing. But this has only made me more determined to work at one of the biggest papers in the country.

After graduating, I put everything into pitching, freelancing and marketing myself. I built an SEO (search engine optimization) friendly website and ramped up my presence on social media. This led to a number of freelance opportunities.

Highlights included being commissioned for pieces by The Spectator, Vice, the Manchester Evening News and Press Gazette. My work culminated in me being shortlisted for a new talent award from the Professional Publishers Association.

The process of getting into the Daily Mail involved a day-long assessment along with seven other candidates. We’d apparently been whittled down from 1,000 applicants. We were each given a short exam to test our spelling, knowledge of current affairs and editing skills. Next there was a group assessment, where we’d each have to give our opinions on different pages of that day’s paper.

After another rigorous editing exam, I was grilled one on one by some of journalism’s leading figures.

I know that my time at the Daily Mail will be a challenge but it’s one that I’m excited to take on.

First published for the Oct/Nov 2017 edition of The Journalist