Freelance Journalist

May 18, 2023 (Updated )

As head of comment for The Press and Journal in Scotland, Alex Watson manages the paper’s entire output of opinion pieces, including a large team of columnists and guest writers. Outside of work, she also produces a podcast about the legendary documentary presenter, Louis Theroux. It’s a lot.

The Press and Journal, owned by DC Thomson, is technically a regional paper, but it covers a giant patch. Looking after the north of Scotland, it stretches all the way from Aberdeen to the Highland islands. If this wasn’t enough, Watson also looks after the paper’s sister title, The Evening Express, which is an Aberdeen City paper. When she has the time — which isn’t very often — she also occasionally writes her own columns.

We catch up with Watson to discuss how she went from working at IKEA to becoming a journalist, what she thinks of shorthand, and why we should be paying for our news.

My Day Starts At…

I’ll get up, usually go for a quick walk, and get a coffee. I used to have quite a long commute and when the pandemic and home working started, I still wanted to try and have a bit of a walk in the morning and clear my head, so I still do that just out of habit.

I do have an office. I’m not in there all the time as we’re hybrid working, but to be honest, it’s pretty much the same whether or not I’m there.

I sit down at the desk for 9am on emails, catching up on how the day before went. We have a morning conference at half past nine, where all of the editors for each of the teams are on a call together. If we’re in the office, we’ll be in the office together, but some people are in Inverness and [elsewhere] so there’s always somebody who’s remote.

Then I just kind of work in theory until five, but often after that.

My Typical Day Is…

I think [for] most people, especially once you get past a certain level, it’s never nine-to-five, really. In theory it is, and there are some days where I can log off on time and that’s great.

Other days, when big news stories are happening, like a new First Minister, or the Queen dying (that was quite a big one), you kind of get that adrenaline anyway, where even if you’re not in the office, it’s quite an exciting day and you want to see what’s happening, you want to be involved, and those tend to run a bit longer.

So it’s a bit of a balance, and I have tried to be more aware of my work-life balance. Especially when you’re working from home, you can just get chained to the desk. So I have tried to make sure to step away, but some days you just end up working later.

I Always Thought I’d Be…

I’ve always wanted to be a writer for my entire life, as long as I can remember. I’ve always told my parents I would be a writer, I just never actually wrote anything for a really long time.

I did English literature as an undergrad, graduated, worked at IKEA, and then decided that I couldn’t take that any more and I had to do something else. So I thought, “What skills have I got? I can write, so I’m going to apply and study journalism,” and that’s what I did.

What ended up happening is, being immersed in local journalism [with] a lot of very experienced reporters and editors, I [fell] in love with journalism since I started. I don’t think I’m one of those people who’s always been like, “I’m going to be a journalist.”

But I think now, as I’m really on board with it, we’re just lucky to have it.

Journo Resources
“A lot of people have quite a cynical view of journalists and journalism, and my experience is that [journalists] genuinely care about what they’re doing and want to try and make a difference.”
Alex Watson, head of comment at The Press and Journal

I Got This Job Because…

It was in theory a bit of a jump in terms of how much I would have been responsible for. I’d already had experience that gradually built up to leading a team and I’ve done a lot of decision-making and managerial stuff, but this was a very different role.

So it was probably a bit of a leap of faith but the editors that hired me thought that I was a good fit. I knew my way around digital journalism which was important to them; I had a strong moral compass of my own which plays into it; I am good with other people, managing people; I am a good, meticulous editor. And I suppose I am a self-starter as well, because I am pretty much just a solitary team of me.

The Thing Which Surprises Me Most About My Job Is…

Something that maybe surprised me initially, and would probably surprise a lot of people who don’t work in the industry, is how there isn’t actually that many resources. Everyone’s having to pitch in and do a lot. There aren’t these massive teams of people working, generally speaking, especially in Scotland. Probably a lot of [other] titles are the same.

I think it was a nice surprise how much journalists genuinely care about their work and their communities. A lot of people have quite a cynical view of journalists and journalism, and my experience is that it’s just not found there. People genuinely care about what they’re doing and want to try and make a difference.

I Am Most Proud Of…

Probably doing this job and like, not dying, especially during the pandemic and being outside of the newsroom. In the beginning it was quite a scary, intimidating thing to just be given this department, like, “Here you go!”

I was really lucky to be given a lot of faith and trust, and just allowed to do what I wanted. I’ve managed to get a lot of women of colour writing for the P&J, which would have been quite unheard of not that long ago.

So, yes, I’m quite proud of managing to change things.

If I Was Starting Again…

I wish that I had stuck [with] shorthand, which I was never that great at but I was getting there. I also wish that I had done a lot more work experience, because that’s really where you learned. I think if I had gotten into a proper newsroom earlier, I would have realised that I could do it a lot quicker.

I would have learned a lot of skills, it would have [been] picked up a lot faster, and I probably would have been where I am now — but a lot earlier.

I Think Shorthand Is…

It’s not necessary but it’s great. It’s like a magic power, a code, [or] a special language. I can’t really do it, so I record everything but then you have to sit and transcribe. If you get the chance to do it, then just do it wholeheartedly, because it’s one of those skills that is so rare to get to learn.

Journo Resources
“I still think there can be — even if it’s unintentional — sexism [...] It’s always worth being aware of that, calling it out.”
Alex Watson, head of comment at The Press and Journal

If People Wanted To Follow In My Footsteps, I’d Say…

Just write. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay your dues — you do need to hone your skills — but you eventually deserve to be paid for it, so don’t let yourself be taken advantage of in that way.

Just get as much experience in every kind of journalism as you can. Do the gig reviews, the food reviews, do whatever to get into reporting, go to court. There [are] so many skills I don’t have. But all of that stuff just helps you be a better journalist and editor.

When I first started at uni, we got told as a journalist, “you’re a pen for hire”. That is the mindset I’ve always kept. Just being a general all-rounder is actually a really good place to be.

Look for the people who are going to help you, who have experience, who do want to help. There’s so much knowledge and even in my thirties I’ve learned so much over the last two years from other people. You’re always going to keep learning — just be open to that.

It’s a lot better now but I still think there can be — even if it’s unintentional — sexism, where women get talked over in meetings or don’t get asked to speak. I think it’s always worth being aware of that, calling it out. If you feel like you’re young and don’t want to speak up, then there will be someone in that newsroom who you can trust who will advocate for you and stand up for you.

Don’t be afraid, [and] also don’t think that it’s your fault if you’re too scared to speak up. That’s natural but it’s definitely, especially in this day and age, not something that should go on in a newsroom.

Journo Resources
"You wouldn’t go into a shop and steal a newspaper, but people really don’t want to pay for stuff online [...] The industry needs to figure out how it’s going to get paid, and people also need to accept that they should pay for good news."
Alex Watson, head of comment at The Press and Journal

The Thing I’d Most Like To Change About The Industry Is…

I’d love the industry to just get a ton of money with no strings attached. I think the biggest thing that we need to do is to get people back to thinking that they should pay for news. You wouldn’t go into a shop and steal a newspaper, but people really don’t want to pay for stuff online, because they’d been used to getting it for free. We need to try and shift that mindset back.

If people aren’t going to subscribe to a newspaper because they want to read a bit of everything, then we need to get better at micro-payments so that people can read a Herald article, and a P&J article, then [a] Guardian article. The industry needs to figure out how it’s going to get paid, and people also need to accept that they should pay for good news.

After Work…

I do almost another job to relax — I have a podcast. I am not a man in his thirties, but I do a podcast about Louis Theroux. Me and my friend Matt watch old Louis Theroux episodes and then we talk about them, and that’s really fun. It takes up quite a lot of time.

And then outside of that, I love music and food and sleep. That’s about it.

Waseem Mohamed
Waseem Mohamed

Waseem Mohamed has spent over a year being the news editor at Durham’s student newspaper Palatinate, covering breaking news, investigations, and interviews. He also has numerous bylines in The Guardian, The Observer, and The Telegraph.

Waseem’s interests lie particularly in foreign affairs, politics, and data journalism.