Let’s start at the beginning with education, where did you take your undergrad and why did you choose that degree?
I studied English Literature at the University of Sheffield. It was a different case when I first started university, there weren’t the journalism degrees there are now. I based my decision on the quality of the student media and student newspapers at different Universities.
What role did you have in student media?
I worked on sports news on student radio and was part of the sports editorial team in the newspaper, but eventually realised I was more interested in the print side. Eventually, the sports team slimmed down and my workload increased. It was actually in my second year at the student media awards where our university newspaper was the runner-up to The Courier.
Would you consider student media to be an important part of the University experience, and how important would you say it was in your career?
Student media was incredibly important and invaluable to my career. Being involved while at university is one of the best positions you can put yourself in. The experience makes you a jack of all trades, the headlines, the writing, the editing, it really does prepare you.
After your degree and with your experience in student media, how did you find the transition to starting your career?
The first thing was being faced with writing vs reporting. I launched a music magazine partnering with the Hard Rock Hell music festival – HRH Magazine. I got to enjoy both the reporting and editorial that came with the magazine.
What would you say your biggest challenge was career-wise?
Overall, anyone going into this industry needs to have thick skin. I think I would have struggled much more at this time with social media being more present. You need to be prepared for people to tear into your writing. I’d have Alan Shearer ringing up complaining about a piece about rumours circulating about a teammate of his – admittedly he was right – but the industry can just be ruthless. There’s also the case of people not liking the fact you’re a journalist or asking questions, I used to do the death knock in my first few years.
With that preparation, because the industry is so unpredictable, do you find a thrill in the adrenaline?
I think you have to. There was a time when the HMS Newcastle was coming in, I got a call at 5 am. Next thing I’m on a fishing boat going out and then boarding the boat, no safety equipment, about a handful of people knowing what I’m doing in the middle of the North Sea. Then after interviewing those on the boat, I had to race back to the office to draft the article up to meet the deadline. You’d walk into the office having no idea what’s going to happen, and as you get older it’s nice to have a structure and plan, but the unpredictable is great too.
You then went on in 2015 to co-found your own company, paperclip.it, how did that venture occur?
I met my current partner through covering basketball, he was one of the basketball players and I also managed his band at the time. I cover the PR side of the company.
How do you find PR and journalism overlap?
Local news and media have been stripped away nowadays to a skeleton staff. When I first started, PR could barely get competition in, but now a lot of journalists are doubling up on both trades. Even as a lecturer at Northumbria teaching media management, the basic concepts of PR were the foundations of the teaching.
Going on from how staff are a lot more stretched now, how much has the industry changed from when you first started?
The first thing to say is that for trainee journalism, there are still a lot of entry-level positions, simply because it is the cheap option. It is senior roles that are being stripped away, which is not necessarily bad as there are bigger opportunities initially. When I started there were a lot of specialists, you’d have your crime reporters, politics, local affairs, and as a general you couldn’t touch them. It was so competitive when I first started, now, it is the opposite, a small pool of multiple people covering things with few specialists. With fewer though, it’s a lot more office based, and you don’t have the time for hands-on stories. I would have whole days to get stories and write them, but now with the internet, there is no time.
Would you say the internet has had a poisoning effect on journalism?
You have to look at what readers want, but even with that, it’s a chicken or egg thing. The Daily Mail and their readers want bullet points, show biz, scandal, reality TV, or that’s what the readers think they want. I still believe traditional local audiences want local news. Finding a way of making it all financially viable and persuading the reader for quality and depth over scandal is another story though. I’m in the stages of introducing a weekly subscription paper, hopefully to fill the gap in the market for holding to account and quality journalism. It’s something I have genuine excitement for.
It’s amazing to have that excitement for the future, looking back, what was the piece that you would love to be remembered with, or your proudest piece?
It would have to be when I was working for an agency that covers for a national newspaper, and when their North East football writer couldn’t do his job or was double booked, I would fill in. There was a period when they didn’t have one so through the agency, I performed that role and did a piece with Nobby Solano – a Peruvian international who had two spells at Newcastle. Nobby’s story was so inspiring, he was getting the bus for an hour to train and wasn't your typically entitled Premier League star, he had to claw for everything he had. His views on politics dated back to the Spanish Invasion, he was incredibly smart, and also trained as a trumpet player. Doing a centre spread with a footballer was different, but it worked. Nobby didn’t care about a BMW, just the opportunity. I’d have to say it’s my proudest piece.
Now for those who are hoping to begin a career in journalism, and an industry that was entirely different when they began their degree to finishing it, what pieces of advice would you give?
Definitely get involved in your student media, it’s the most important first step. The value of The Courier will be amazing for the future. University radio stations as well are an amazing experience. Also, get in touch with people. If you’re into sports get in touch with local clubs, communicate, and get your name out there. Approach the clubs and media managers, offer and volunteer. Newcastle Eagles' women’s team really need cover on a voluntary basis, it's not done by The Chronicle or a big franchise, that’d be a great opportunity. Get in touch with venues for music writers, the venues will snap you up. Having your own blog or website is a game changer too, it’s like an online CV.
One last question before we wrap up, if you could have dinner with one dead, one alive, and one fictional person, who would they be?
Dead would have to be Eddie Vanhale, a footballer I really wish I could have seen play. Alive... probably Joel Embiid, a basketballer for the Philadelphia 76ers, he has an amazing story and reminds me of Nobby. He grew up in Africa and is a big guy so was naturally swept into basketball, but he’s had a lot of injuries along the way. For fictional I would be Obi-Wan Kenobi, I love Star Wars.
Simon will be appearing on the 'Getting paid: Turning your passion into your profession' panel, at 5pm on 1st March, hosted at King's Gate, Room L1.20.