Freelance Journalist

January 31, 2024 (Updated )

As the editor of a national newspaper at only 25, Laura Webster is the youngest person to do her job in the UK. The fact she’s running the only major pro-independence publication in Scotland, The National, makes it no easier.

Opinionated, driven, and energetic she’s showing that Fleet Street norms no longer hold up in Glasgow. We talked to Laura at #SPANC23, the Student Publication Association’s National Conference, to learn more about a day in the life of a busy national editor, her career to date, and her advice for aspiring journalists.

How does your day start? 

My day starts at around 8am. I check all of my main websites and the email inbox — I typically get 300 emails a day, depending on how active I’m being — and also look at all of the analytics from overnight. Then I log onto Slack and chat to all our journalists about what’s happening with them and what they think are the important stories of the day.

I switch on Radio Scotland to hear what I missed overnight, basically I’m just firing as much information into my brain as possible. I head into the office, where there’s usually some sort of firefighting to get to grips with.

Then we have the morning meeting. We’ll look at the big things we want to catch up on that day — and at everyone’s diaries and try to coordinate where everyone will be and what’s going on.

Journo Resources
"I feel the need to prove myself, but that makes me work harder and grows confidence in my own abilities."
Laura Webster, Editor at The National

Was journalism always the plan? 

Yes, [though] there were a few moments where it was going to be politics instead! For quite a while I wanted to get into fashion journalism; I’ve always loved fashion as an art form. I also play various instruments, so there was the potential to go into music journalism instead.

Then, 2014 happened and the referendum inspired me to get more involved politically. I knew that wasn’t going to be the end of that conversation, and I knew I always wanted to be in that world and thinking about these constitutional quirks — how devolution and these institutional mechanisms work. I know that makes me sound like a huge nerd, but that was fascinating for me!

How did you get into journalism? 

I left school at 16 because I wasn’t enjoying it. I was living in a rural part of Fife and knew it wasn’t really my vibe. So, I went to college in Kirkcaldy, which is a small town in Fife, and studied for a Higher National Certificate in practical journalism. They really threw us into going out and talking to people — politicians, candidates, whoever — and that’s what made me fall in love with political journalism.

Then, I went off to Glasgow Caledonian University, to study on their NCTJ-accredited course; learning my shorthand and all that good stuff. I did internships at The Sunday Herald, which is now closed but was a great newspaper. I did some marketing and communications internships as well, because we were taught every day at university that the industry was dying, and it would be impossible to get jobs in journalism — although it worked out in the end.

In my final year, I started doing shift work for The National. The day after I graduated they offered me a job, which I accepted and I’ve kind of never left — I just kept working my way up the ladder.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Laura at the Break Up of Britain conference (L) and The Sunday National cover from July 23, 2023 (R) (Image credit: Laura Webster Twitter, and The National)

How has the journey been to becoming The National‘s editor? 

It’s been incredible, and I’m so proud of myself and grateful for the opportunities given to me. At times I was quite self-conscious and worried about my ability to make it in journalism, when all my friends from university were already working in broadcast journalism, and I knew I really didn’t want to do that. I also have pretty strong political beliefs that I’d want to bring to my work as well, so it made me think there might really not be much out there for me.

I really didn’t want to be part of anything that pushed income or racial inequality, and had plenty of friends who went to work for publications who, as they’d say themselves, have questionable front pages sometimes. That’s why I was really pleased to get to work for The National, which I’ve always seen as a progressive, left-of-centre publication for independence. So, to have risen through the ranks, get to run a paper, and learn from my colleagues and ex-colleagues every single day is a huge privilege.

I’m so pleased to have that opportunity and also to be such a young editor as well. As far as I’m aware I’m the youngest national newspaper editor in the UK, which is quite a title to live up to.

Has your age impacted your career?

I feel like there are quite high expectations of me, and people I’ve never met who think: “Why the hell is she an editor of a national newspaper? You don’t know what you’re doing.”I feel the need to prove myself, but that makes me work harder and grows confidence in my own abilities.

The industry’s very young at the moment, especially for young women within the Newsquest stable: The Glasgow Times, The Herald, and The National are all edited by young women now, which is amazing.

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Describe your day-to-day…

It’s very fluid. There are always live news events that require your full attention, or major pressers in the afternoon that mean you need to send off three journalists to cover something when you thought they’d be working on some other story. You have to be flexible to anything happening. You can never say: “Oh it’s too difficult”. You have to make it work.

My primary focus is managing our reporters and making sure everyone’s in the right place at the right time. I don’t put the pages together most of the days, we have an assistant news editor who does that, so I’ll liaise with her, letting her know what I think should be the leads on certain pages. We do a print conference at one o’clock to chat over those things, and I’ll have meetings with the sub-editors, checking what they are doing.

I have meetings with freelancers all the time because we also accept pitches from history writers, culture writers, sportspeople — you name it. I’m always thinking about who we should commission.

What have you been most proud of in your job so far? 

I’ve only been there for a few months, but I’m really proud of how we dealt with [former Scottish first minister] Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. Before the press conference, in Murrayfield, people didn’t believe she was going to resign. Nicola had just been such a central piece of Scottish society and politics for such a long time, that even people who didn’t like her were shocked.

Former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned in 2023. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

It was 10am in the newsroom and I got a call from a reporter on her way to the press conference telling me it was on the BBC that Nicola was going to resign. I was able to say concretely: “Right, this is what we’re doing.” The following paper we produced was absolutely fantastic. We did great digital stuff, had great videos, did a special podcast, and I felt I did a great job in rising above what I thought I was capable of.

I just felt like there wasn’t a world in which I could’ve done a better job of covering Nicola’s resignation.

What is your advice for people wanting to work in journalism? 

Be as willing as possible to turn your hand to anything, because that is the modern world of being a journalist now. You have to be comfortable with SEO, digital production, and print production. You have to keep up with all of these trends, knowing how they can benefit your organisation. Also, just trying to be interested in how the organisation works beyond just your day-to-day tasks [is so useful]. I think people really appreciate you caring about more than what’s in front of you, especially editors.

Young journalists can be too self-indulgent — [thinking] content is about me, not the consumer — but they can also focus only on what is “for me” to do, not wanting to overstep and staying quiet. My advice would be to take that risk and disturb people because you’re not going to be remembered if you don’t. We want people to ask questions in the newsroom and we want them to be engaged.

Don’t be afraid to speak up. Be respectful of those around you, but don’t just feel like you have to stay quiet because there’s so much for you to learn from the people around you.

Journo Resources
"Take that risk and disturb people, because you’re not going to be remembered if you don’t. We want people to ask questions in the newsroom; be respectful, but don’t feel like you have to stay quiet because there’s so much for you to learn from the people around you."
Laura Webster, Editor at The National

What’s the thing you’d most like to change in journalism? 

Two things really bug me. One is newspaper ownership — the model is very poor in the UK. The centralised nature of ownership is very unhealthy for democracy and society. It links to the centralised method of deciding what’s an accepted viewpoint in the media.

I’ll take Jeremy Corbyn as an example; I’m not a major Labour person, but all newspapers in the UK took the same stance on Corbyn— and ended his career because of it. They could’ve done the same for Boris Johnson, but they didn’t because Corbyn was a threat to their financial interests.

What’s more, journalists don’t like to be seen to go outside of the pack, firstly because the design of the system means they want to be part of the clique, and not the irritating outsider. And, secondly, because they are often serving similar interests: that the newspaper always has to grow and that the money has to keep flowing.

What do you do after a work day? 

Sometimes I won’t get out of the office until 10pm, so then I just sleep. I like to try and finish before 7pm [though]. I walk home and try to do something active to get all the irritation and stress out of me — running or working out — and I love to cook.

Anything that focuses you can be therapeutic and takes you out of work — I’m even learning Dutch and Gaelic on Duolingo. You’re always panicking about what you have to panic about next, because there always is something, so anything that can get you out of that mindset is helpful.

George Devo
George Devo

George is a freelance journalist and also studies politics at the University of Sheffield. He writes for the student newspaper Forge Press, where his piece on the struggles of student parents earned him a nomination for ‘best feature’ at the Student Publication Association Awards in 2023. He’s a proud Brummie and a long-suffering supporter of Norwich City football club.

Header image courtesy of Laura Webster