“A humanism to every specialism”: Donna Ferguson at Cambridge University Women in Media

Jungmin Seo 4 November 2019
Image Credit: Cambridge University Women in Media via Facebook

General Interviews Editor Jungmin Seo had the chance to report on Cambridge University Women in Media Society’s Freelance Journalism: A Workshop with Donna Ferguson event on Monday 28th October 2019.

You might not expect “Went for a massage and there was a dog there” – a seemingly ordinary, and yet bizarrely specific observation – to feature on the ‘How to find a News-Story’ list at a workshop led by eight-time award-winning freelance journalist, Donna Ferguson.

But it does: the article itself was published in The Guardian in May 2016, with the playful headline “Paws for Thought: Why allowing dogs in the office is a good idea” (available to read here). It perfectly encapsulates Ferguson’s own advice to her audience of 50 budding reporters at the first Cambridge University Women in Media Society’s event this academic year: “Remember to talk and listen to people, keeping your eyes and ears open to every journalistic opportunity”.

During her two-hour talk, Donna Ferguson revealed how her career as a veteran freelance writer for The Guardian, The Observer, The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times emerged from a series of events – sometimes planned, sometimes not – following her internship at PR Week. As an English undergraduate at Cambridge, she always knew that she wanted to write, but was unsure as to what form this would take.

Image Credit: Cambridge University Women in Media via Facebook

Despite admitting quite frankly that “journalism is a really daunting industry to try to get into”, her presentation was characterised by an encouraging warmth and a heartfelt optimism. Although she spoke about feeling “out of the loop” since her year off on maternity leave, which resulted in her having to leave her editorship at Lovemoney, she made the reassuring and somewhat surprising statement that “My career took off after I got pregnant”. She raised the dilemma that many working-women face with a refreshing realism: “I didn’t want to work full time and not see my daughter growing up. That’s the wonderful thing about freelance; it fits around your time”.

“I didn’t want to work full time and not see my daughter growing up…”

That said, this supposed freedom can be deceptive. Ferguson analysed her past 100 articles, and discovered that over half of them were commissioned by the editor. In other words, she can’t always write about what she wants to. “Don’t feel disheartened if your own ideas don’t get commissioned. You have to overcome that fear of rejection”. But she also recognises the need to be open-minded: “There’s two types of people who become journalists. There are people who are interested in certain subjects, and people who want to write, who don’t care what it’s about, as long as they have the opportunity to write an article about something”. She is quite certain that it’s the latter who make the best journalists, because they can and are willing to “find the human angle to every story, even if it’s something really dry like finance or cranes”.

“Find the human angle to every story…”

I have the chance to interview Donna Ferguson after the event. I’m a little embarrassed about my slightly amateurish questions, but she takes me completely seriously, giving me extensive and thoughtful responses. She is so passionate about writing; it’s really quite remarkable to watch. “I just think it’s a wonderful, wonderful career, and I feel so lucky that I can make a career out of it. It’s so interesting and satisfying: you can ask the questions and you get the answers. You can have very interesting discussions with really interesting and fascinating people.” But she’s realistic about things too: “I do think that as a woman, you have to find a career that suits your life as well. You can’t have it all without making some compromises unfortunately. I knew I had no way of going back to a full-time job, but I managed to find a career that suited my lifestyle”.

I ask her to elaborate on some of the turning-points that she had mentioned during the talk. “To be honest, the crucial thing was getting pregnant. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have gone into freelance. I wouldn’t have met my mentor at the Working Mums Club, who made such a difference. That’s why I think it’s so important to give help to people starting out on journalism, I would not be where I was if people hadn’t taken a chance on me”.

“I would not be where I was if people hadn’t taken a chance on me…”

And she does precisely that: helping those with an interest in journalism.

Lola Miller, Secretary of Cambridge University Women in Media (CAMWIM), which was founded last year by President Anya Cooper, following her chance run-in to the Women in Media Committee from Manchester University at a Student Media Conference, tells me that “Last year we did a big conference with five journalists who came to do a panel. During that period we were in contact with Donna. She couldn’t make it then, but she contacted us in August, saying that she would be interested in running a workshop”.

I’m thankful to Anya and her Committee for organising an event that tries to combat “nepotism for people without privilege”. Anya reflects the thoughts of many when she adds “I don’t have loads of contact with people in journalism, and I know loads of my friends don’t, so this is a nice way to come along for free, where everything is just open to everyone.” CAMWIM is also planning to invite male speakers as the year goes on: “Although it’s important to have a female network, it’s important that these conversations get transmitted outside these circles. When you hear about Donna’s story, how hard she found it to get back into the industry after maternity leave, it just goes to show that men also need to be involved in the conversation”.

“I don’t have loads of contact with people in journalism, and I know loads of my friends don’t, so this is a nice way to come along for free, where everything is just open to everyone…”

Unlike many other careers events which can leave you feeling frustrated and concerned about your future, this workshop with Donna Ferguson was one of encouragement and inspiration. It would be an undoubtable challenge to get into the industry, but she showed us that it could happen, and that we were partly along the way there: “Cambridge is very good preparation for journalism because of the constant pressure and the constant deadlines. You learn how to meet a deadline, and you also learn how to miss a deadline.” And the most important thing? “You never know what impact you are going to have [with your article]. You just never know, so just pitch it.”

For those of you who would like some more top tips on journalism from Donna Ferguson:

1. “Work backwards from an article that you have read. What questions have been answered in the article? What is the key thrust of the piece? What makes it a good story?”
2. “Read a particular section of a newspaper religiously, so that you really get to know that publication.”
3. “Just write through writer’s block. Just keep writing and writing.”
4. “When it comes to interviews, remember that there are always two sides to it. First of all, prepare: think of the questions you would like to ask in advance. Second of all, listen and respond to what they are actually saying.”
5. “Ask the “How do you feel?” question. You have to get to the emotion in a piece.”

Missed this workshop? CAMWIM are aiming to hold two events a term – one speaker and one panel – with a broader reach than just journalism: radio, music and TV. There will be more details on the Cambridge University Women in Media Facebook page, which can be accessed here.