No two days are the same for columnist Catriona Stewart. She has spent 15 years covering the education, crime, and court reporting beats, but as writer-at-large at The Herald, she now gets to spend her time on longer reads and more in-depth features, focused largely on politics and social affairs.
“My remit currently is really broad. I basically get to write about anything that’s topical, anything that interests me,” she says. With the Glasgow-based publication covering all of Scotland, this is indeed a broad patch.
We catch up with Stewart at the SPA National Conference, where she tells us about her journey from serving coffee as a student to working for national news organisations, her reporting that changed the narrative about Govanhill in Glasgow, and the relentless work ethic that got her to where she is now.
My Day Starts At…
I feel like my day never really ends. I keep erratic hours, [and] work multiple jobs. I’m a writer-at-large for The Herald, which is a full-time job. I also work at Glasgow University with postgraduate students; I do a lot of broadcasting, maybe five or six different broadcasting, radio, and television bits a week. I’m secretary of Women in Journalism Scotland, I have a mentee, and I sit on the Children’s Panel [trained volunteers who make legal decisions in children’s hearings]. So I keep a very chaotic schedule!
I don’t tend to have a morning routine. Sometimes if I’m doing the morning Paper Review, I’m up at 3:45 in the morning. That’s a case of just sitting down at my desk and getting straight to work.
“I’ve done a lot of big ticket things that I suppose young journalists might want to do. But actually, community reporting is the most important thing that I’ve done.”
Catriona Stewart, columnist at The Herald
My Typical Day Involves…
I never know what I’m going to be doing from one day to the next. I do sometimes have things planned ahead, but with regard to broadcasting, that’s always very ad-hoc. The phone will go and it will be the BBC or Times radio or Sky News, or one of the broadcasters, asking if I’ll come on TV or on radio and talk about [a] topic, and that can be really unpredictable.
This week, I’ve done radio segments at half five in the morning; I’ve done television at 10 at night; I’ve been to Edinburgh to do Newsnight, which means I didn’t get home until half past one in the morning. So it’s very, very variable.
I thrive on that, I really enjoy it, but it’s pretty exhausting as well.
I fell into [journalism] completely by chance. It would never ever have occurred to me that I could have been a journalist or that it was a possible job. I’m from a very working-class background and community. I think from my primary school, I might be the only person who went on to university.
I did English literature here in Glasgow. I hate to say it, but I really didn’t enjoy the course. I was only doing it because I got good grades at school and no one in my family had been to uni before. My mum was really keen for me to go [but] I got here and felt very lost, very overwhelmed. I kind of sailed through school [as] I was quite bright, and then I got here and it was terrible — I didn’t know what I was doing.
But I worked in a coffee shop [which was] next door to the Daily Mail offices and STV. There’s a Scottish newsreader called Shereen Nanjiani who’s quite well-known in Scotland, who came in every day for a mocha frappuccino. I was just chatting to her one day, saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, I have no idea what I want to do when I graduate,” and she got me into STV on work experience, and I really loved it.
I pestered the news editor of the Daily Mail for work experience, and he got me in there. I ended up being there for five years, and that was it. I became a journalist, but it was a surprise to me as much as anybody else.
I Got This Job Because…
I just worked incredibly hard. I didn’t really understand the lay of the land or how things happened. I think I was 20 when I started working in the Daily Mail, so I didn’t know anything.
The editor asked me one day if I had a splash for him and I was like, “I don’t know what that is.” You couldn’t Google these things. The internet existed, but we didn’t really use it all that much — I’m not that old, I just started really young. So I was totally clueless, but there were people who mentored me and looked out for me.
I was just very good at copying other people. I [saw] my friend Shauna was doing a little column in The Herald — it would never have occurred to me that that might be a possibility for me to do — but because she was doing it, I pitched to do the same thing. Another colleague about my age was very dynamic and forward-thinking, and I just kind of copied what he did. I learned from observing other people.
I was always available to do extra desk shifts to give me editing experience. On top of my normal day job, I got into music journalism, [doing] a lot of music reviewing, largely for the extra money, but also because it was extra experience. I was just very willing, very available, and reliable.
An editor once said that I was bright and could write, which was all they were looking for. I’m a good writer, I was a very hard worker, and I was really adaptable and could do lots of different roles. So I think all of that’s been beneficial in getting me to where I am now.
I Am Most Proud Of…
The work that I’ve done in the Southside of Glasgow, trying to balance out a lot of the negative commentary around an area of Glasgow called Govanhill. I started writing about Govanhill about 13 years ago, when all of the press coverage was relentlessly negative.
There was a lot of racism in the area, there was slum housing, there were some really complicated racial dynamics, and right-wing newspapers came in and wrote some terrible things about the people who live there, particularly about the Roma community. I made it my mission to counter that.
Not everything was rosy and positive, but I tried to speak to the communities that were being written about in the papers. I would never write a story about the Roma without actually speaking to Roma people. I tried to get to the heart of the issues and why they were happening, and I think a lot of the work that I did was a useful corrective to a lot of the really right-wing coverage that was being given of the area.
That might sound hyperlocal. I’ve done a lot of things; I’ve been in Sierra Leone; I’ve been in Burmese refugee camps. I’ve done a lot of big-ticket things that I suppose young journalists might want to do. But actually, community reporting is the most important thing that I’ve done.
“Newsrooms were very, very sexist places — the sports desk was a nightmare. I wish I had spoken up for myself more. I always hope that younger people coming in would feel confident enough to speak out.”
Catriona Stewart, columnist at The Herald
If People Wanted To Follow In My Footsteps, I’d Say…
I would advise people to be willing to work hard. I probably have a little bit of an intense work ethic, and I really advise people to have more of a work/life balance than I do. But I think you have to be willing to do things that you might not want to do. I certainly speak to and work with a lot of young journalists now, and I think there is an idealised notion that you can pick and choose what you want to do, that you can cleave to your morals and your ethics at all times.
Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you have to write about subjects that you feel uncomfortable with. Sometimes you have to interview people that you feel uncomfortable with. In a sense, you have to put your own ego aside and concentrate on the job, rather than how you feel about the job.
Hard work has a lot to do with it as well. Especially in the early days, you have to be willing to go above and beyond quite a lot. You have to be available to cover shifts, to help out with people, and [be] willing to listen to other people and learn from them. You might feel like you know everything, but really you don’t.
The Thing I’d Most Like To Change About The Industry Is…
I started at a time where there was a lot more sexism in the industry, where you would go into the newsroom and your boss might pull you up or make terrible comments, and I feel like he didn’t push back against that enough. I think older me looks back at younger me and thinks: “While you were in a really difficult position, you were faced with someone who had a lot of power”. But I do worry that I went along with it a bit too much to not rock the boat.
Newsrooms were very, very sexist places — the sports desk was a nightmare. I would really hope that it’s different for young women coming into the industry now. Even though I’m saying you sometimes have to do things that you’re not comfortable doing, you can still stay true to yourself, and choose your own beliefs, and not lose sight of that.
I wish I had spoken up for myself more. I always hope that younger people coming in would feel confident enough to speak out. I hope that we’re creating newsrooms where people do feel more respected and more valued. I’m really heavily involved with Women in Journalism in Scotland, and it’s something that we’re trying really hard to achieve.
After Work, I…
I definitely don’t do enough in my downtime. I’m a member of the Children’s Panel, which is a volunteer legal tribunal. You don’t have this in England, but in Scotland, we don’t deal with children in the criminal justice system. We have a separate legal entity whereby the child needs to be taken into foster care, or into a secure unit, or anything involving a child who needs care and protection from social work services. The Children’s Hearing do that and it’s all run by volunteers. I take a lot of value out of that.
I do adult ballet classes at Scottish Valley — those are really good fun. I’m in a movie club that we set up during the pandemic that’s still running. I have a lot of friends and we go out and have fun.
So I do some fun stuff — I’m not just working all the time!
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.