Freelance Journalist

August 23, 2022 (Updated )

As an environment reporter for The Guardian, Helena Horton regularly hits the front page. From Conservative MPs being accused of trying to drag the climate fight into a new culture war to the fight to keep our beaches free from sewage, her stories tap into some of the most important issues facing the UK and beyond.

We caught up with her about her love for nature and animals, “unglamorous” journalism jobs, and how she thinks aspiring journalists should be gaining experience.

My Day Starts At…

I normally wake up pretty early because I either go for a swim or go to the gym. I usually wake up at around 6am, head over to Hyde Park for an outside swim in the Serpentine River, and take the opportunity to look at the birds while I’m there.

After that, I head into work for about 9am and tend to grab breakfast on the way. Sometimes if I’m organised, I’ll have some toast at home. I’m a tea lady, definitely. I always have a cup of tea at my desk.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Helena is a keen outdoor swimmer in her spare time. (Image Credit: Twiter)

My Typical Day Involves…

It’s different each day! Sometimes I’m more desk-based and I’ll be researching, looking into scientific papers, and transcribing interviews. On Mondays, I have a meeting with my editor at 11am and we go through the things that I’m working on throughout the remainder of the week.

Or, I could be out getting stories. For example, I could be at a conference, or in parliament meeting MPs and talking to them about climate change. Currently, I’m trying to get permission to go to Dorset to investigate this eagle that’s been poisoned. I really could be anywhere, but I’m usually found in The Guardian’s office in King’s Cross.

a young helena horton with her twin sister at a table labelled sky news
A young Helena Horton with her twin sister. (Image credit: @horton_official / Twitter)

I Always Thought I’d Be…

I’ve always been interested in writing and also in nature and animals — when I was little I’d write stories for my younger sister. Then, at university I read philosophy, which is about writing and argument, and also started writing for my student paper, York Vision.

The Thing Which Surprises Me Most About My Job Is…

Now I’m at The Guardian, it can sometimes be a bit slower than I thought it would be. I get given a lot of time to work on my stories. If I have a story idea, sometimes I’ll be allowed a few months or a few weeks to work on it, whereas in my previous role I was doing more daily news. I still have to do that occasionally, but my team would rather have it later and better, than quickly and not as deeply reported.

I love rushing about and I think quite a few journalists have a short attention span, which is probably what draws us to the job. However, I think this is a better way of writing for me.

I’m Most Proud Of…

Every splash [front page story] I’ve ever had, to be honest! I’ve kept them all in a folder and I might get them framed one day.

Getting a front page is great, but the stories I most enjoy doing are the stories where people tell me that it’s made them change their life, or where I’ve managed to tell someone’s story really well. When I interview someone and they read the piece back, I’m always thinking, “What if they hate it? What if I’ve made it too sensational? What if they don’t like how they come across?” But that never happens, so it’s nice when they do end up liking it.

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I’d Be Wary Of…

Try not to work for free. Unless you’re working for a student paper which is actually owned by students, or doing a week of work experience at a national where they’re teaching you new skills, don’t give the work for free. Always ask for a fee, even if it’s just £50 or something.

It’s really empowering to get paid for your work. Also, you’re not a student journalist — if you’re writing something for a paper and it’s getting published, you are a journalist!

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

No one ever goes into their dream job in journalism straight away. I wouldn’t go into a newsroom and say you immediately want to be an environment reporter — a specialism is something you aim towards.

I found my years as a general reporter really useful because you learn the building blocks of how to write a story, and you learn so many different skills you wouldn’t have if you went straight into environment reporting. You should learn what the news agenda is, how a newspaper works, and what kind of stories they want.

Be prepared [for] your first journalism job [to] be in social media, or […] working night shifts at a paper. It could be something totally unglamorous, like going to a Travelodge in some godforsaken part of the country and waiting in the rain for someone to come out of their house.

Your name isn’t going to be in lights straight away, but keep going! Keep going, work hard, and try to get as much experience as possible in a variety of areas.

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“Getting a front page is great, but the stories I most enjoy doing are [...] where people tell me that it’s made them change their life, or where I’ve managed to tell someone’s story really well.”
Helena Horton

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

In a lot of newsrooms, the culture is quite old-fashioned. I haven’t found this at The Guardian, but definitely in some of the others I’ve worked in.

There’s sometimes some behaviour that wouldn’t be accepted in other industries which are more modern. I also think it could be more diverse as there aren’t enough women reporters or ethnically diverse reporters.

After Work…

I like going for a drink with my colleagues. I’ve only been at The Guardian a couple of months and I’ve gone to a few work drinks already, which is nice. I also like cooking a lot, so I either cook for my friends or I cook for myself.

Header image courtesy of Omphalos LGBTI via YouTube
Dolly Carter
Dolly Carter

Dolly has recently joined Archant as a Trainee Reporter across their Suffolk titles, the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star. Previously, she was editor-in-chief of her student paper Concrete and was highly commended for Outstanding Commitment at the 2022 Student Publication Association Awards.