As part of Exposure’s I’m Inspired project, aspiring journalists Samsam and Emma met fellow Barnet resident Sian Gregory, who is Acting Commissioning Editor at the UK’s best-selling women’s weekly magazine, Take a Break.
Samsam Moallim (SM) and Emma de Duve (EdD): What does your job involve?
Sian Gregory (SG): It’s my job to fill the pages with everything you see — whether it’s health, fashion, whatever, it’s my job to fill it. Stories get offered to us by news agencies or just people ringing up or writing in wanting to tell their story. I have to organise it and then build the pages. You have to get the right balance, so if you have a sad story there, you’ll put a happy story next, or if you’ve something a bit serious here then you might put a dog story there.
SM/EdD: What’s a normal working day like for you?
SG: I’ll get in in the morning and my inbox will be full of pitches — people pitching different stories to me. There’ll be about 40 of those waiting, so I’ll whittle those down. Then we start bidding. For example we’ll offer £300 for this story, but then another magazine will offer £400 and then we have to decide if we’ll offer £500… that’s happening with lots of different stories at the same time.
We work 10 till 6 usually. People’s stories don’t stop at the weekend, so we also work on a rota on a Saturday and Sunday morning — we buy all the papers, go through them, see what true life stories we want to chase, by that I mean we get in touch with that person and see if they want to speak to us about what’s happened.
SM/EdD: Are you mostly based in the office or somewhere else?
SG: Our writers are mostly at a desk, but they do go out to do interviews if they’re particularly sensitive. If people don’t want to talk about it over the phone we will go to their houses. Now that I’m commissioning, I’m doing less writing, so that’s always at the desk. The stories are all coming into that inbox so I have to be in one place.
SM/EdD: Who or what inspired you to get into this career?
SG: I really like writing and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was little. I didn’t really have a plan B, it was always just to write!
I think if you’ve got a Plan A and you’re willing to go for it, you don’t need a plan B… All you have to do is keep your dream in your head and work really hard.
SM/EdD: What was the path like to where you are today?
SG: I’m from Yorkshire and when we were all asked when we were younger what we wanted to do, and I said I want to write for a magazine in London, everybody said “that’s ridiculous”. Barnsley is half a world away, so even going to London for the day was unheard of. You were expected to live, work, stay in Barnsley.
But I didn’t want to do that.
When it came to work experience, the choices were go to the local Asda or Tesco and that was it! I really wanted to go to a newspaper office. [At school] they said I couldn’t do that, it’s not realistic. So I rang up the Chronicle [local newspaper] myself and arranged it — they had to let me go in after that!
It was good to have that on my CV. After that I just kept going, just kept ringing places… Then when I was at university, doing journalism, I got some work experience at Take A Break.
I was meant to be here for two weeks, and they asked me to stay for the summer and then at the end of the summer they gave me a job as editorial assistant — so helping with general things around the office — and then writer. Then I became a senior writer and then commissioning editor.
SM/EdD: What qualifications does your role require?
SG: I was good at English at school and worked hard and got A-levels, and did English at university. But I don’t think you need top qualifications to do [this job]. As long as you want to tell people’s stories and ask the right questions and want to listen; if you’ve got a genuine talent and the determination you will succeed.
When people come in here for job interviews, our first question isn’t “What’s your education?”. It’s how passionate they are about what they’re doing and how they speak to people.
SM/EdD: Are you responsible for the work of other people?
SG: Yes, I’ll allocate a writer to do each story. Being in charge of features is weird because in my head I’m still that girl in Barnsley thinking “Oh, I’m going to get found out!”.
But it gives you a sense of pride when everything comes together. When I get the new issue in and I’m flicking through it and one page makes you cry and one page makes you laugh… it’s just people’s words that have done that.
SM/EdD: What would your advice be to young people who want to get into journalism?
SG: Try and get as much work experience as you can. Always try to get into a magazine or newspaper. Ring them up, they can always say no. Keep going. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, what background you’re from or how silly people think it is. Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t able to do it because that’s what people said to me.
You can have all the qualifications in the world but being in an actual office environment, doing it — that’s the thing that matters. That’s where you learn it all, where you meet the people who’ll keep you in mind for future opportunities.
Your writing has to be good, so read whatever you can get your hands on — books, magazines, newspapers, anything. And just keep practising, if writing’s what you want to do, just keep practising.
SM/EdD: What’s important apart from experience?
SG: I think connecting with people, being able to meet them, gain their trust. We get some horrific stories and people trust us to write their story. So to relate to them on a personal level, you do need those people skills. If you’re interested in people and the details about them, then you’ll make a good writer.
SM/EdD: Do you have any tips for young writers who would like to pitch an article to an editor like you?
SG: Just go for it. You’ll get told no a lot of times, but it’s not personal. Like this morning, we had a really sad story come in about a little girl who has a brain tumour and her family were trying to fundraise for treatment abroad for her. But that’s already on the list of stories we’ve bought in, so we wouldn’t be able to include it in the next issue.
The details are really important as well when you’re pitching a story. Don’t just say, “There was a little boy and this happened to him”. [Instead], it’s “There was a little boy, his favourite TV show was Peppa Pig. He used to watch it every day with his granddad and they’d eat spaghetti Bolognese while they were watching it…”. So you’ve got that insight into their personality and readers relate to it, and it just makes it all the more moving. When you can put the detail into the pitch like that, then you’ve got people hooked.
Some of Sian’s answers have been edited for clarity and length.
This article was produced with support from the Young Barnet Foundation.