by Megan Thomas
MA Journalism Studies
When I arrived for the first day of my placement at The Independent, I was daunted
and full of doubts about why they chose me.
By the next week, four of my stories were published, and I had gained a huge
amount of confidence and improved my journalism skills across the board.
Getting the placement
The three week-long placements at The Independent over the Easter break were set
up by the course director and the department’s employability officer Trish Mellars.
We were asked to pitch two articles, as well as send across a CV and a summary of
how the placement would benefit us, and how we would be able to benefit the
In my application, I mentioned my slightly unconventional career path as a former
statistician and this unusual skillset caught the attention of the editors who selected
me as one of the three students.
Once I was selected, I decided to prepare a few more pitches so I could be sure I
was making the most of the opportunity given to me.
I learned so much even though I only spent four days there and I feel I gained a
huge amount of confidence, as well as the bizarre feeling of being able to say:
“Hello, this is Megan calling from The Independent”.
When I arrived on Monday, I met my mentor and explained to her my original
pitches, as well as the extra ideas I’d thought of in the build-up to my placement.
I spent the day sending emails and reading reports to find more detailed story angles
for my broad pitches.
Finding the right angle
For one story, I arrived with the question ‘How are prisons recovering from Covid
restrictions?’, but I didn’t know which specific angle to take. I started going through individual prison inspection reports to identify patterns, taking notes on hundreds of pages without a clear purpose in mind. At the beginning, it looked like an overwhelming task, but over time I started to notice similarities between prisons and a few ideas formed in my mind.
After looking at what had already been reported on and discussing different
perspectives with my mentor, I settled on looking at how much time prisoners were
allowed out of their cells for. I’d seen in a lot of the reports that many prisoners were
still spending more than 22 hours a day in their cell, where they would normally be
expected to be in their cells for 14 hours.
The findings were interesting to the Chief Inspector of Prisons at HMIP and he
agreed to do an interview with me to discuss them. I was really proud of my story by the time it was done as I felt I really got the chance to dig deep into the subject, and it was amazing to see all my hard work pay off when it was published in a national publication.
For my other researched story, I ended up combining two ideas I’d come in with: the
impact of the cost of living crisis on those affected by the benefit cap, and those
escaping domestic abuse.
When I spoke to representatives from the charities, I was moved to hear how glad
they were to hear the story was being reported on, as they felt it was something that
lacked the media spotlight it deserved. My favourite part of the placement was being able to publish stories on issues I felt really needed to be highlighted.
Taking Initiative and Gaining Confidence
As part of the placement, I wanted to get some experience covering breaking news
and be helpful to the editors. The news editor who worked with the department to set up the placement was unfortunately ill with Covid when I started and few people were in the office, so I had to be persistent in finding someone who could assign me a story. When I found a news editor to ask, he was really helpful and got me fully involved writing up two news stories.
I gained really valuable experience in working to a tight deadline – I only had a couple of hours to learn about the topic and put the article together. For one of the breaking news stories, I went out and about in London to go to a protest and conduct an interview. One of my greatest weaknesses on the course so far had been lacking confidence to go out on a story straight away.
I might hear about something going on right at that moment, but be too nervous to take the initiative to go out and talk to people about it. So when I was asked if I wanted to go out to interview someone, I knew it was important for me to say yes. I went out to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and interviewed Roxanne Tahbaz, who was protesting to bring her father back from jail in Iran, where he had been expected to be released alongside Nazanin Zaghari- Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Asoori.
Writing the story was a moving experience, and one I never would have had without
stepping outside my comfort zone. On my first newsday back, I ended up volunteering myself to go out and cover a live story which is something I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to do before the placement.