Freelance Journalist

June 8, 2023 (Updated )

Having grown up in Edinburgh, Severin Carrell is no stranger to the ins and outs of life in Scotland. After starting his career as a reporter and correspondent for The Scotsman, and a stint at The Independent, he is now back on his home turf as one of The Guardian’s Scotland correspondents, based in Edinburgh.

As you can imagine, it’s a big patch, so Carrell has had to get used to wearing several different hats; health, education, transport, energy, home affairs, constitutional crises — you name it, he has probably reported on it.

Journo Resources catch up with Carrell about dealing with difficult bosses, letting your ego take a back seat, and how journalism is actually just like surfing.

My Day Starts At…

My colleague Libby Brooks [The Guardian’s Scotland correspondent] and I work very closely together so every morning, we’ll exchange emails or text messages about what we’re planning to do during the day, or what we think the main stories are for us by around 8am.

Around 8:30am, I will normally do a note to the newsdesk, which just explains what we’re about to do [for] the day, or what we think the priorities are. Those [could be] a very specific list of diary events saying there is a press conference that we have to cover, or a debate in the Scottish parliament, or a report being published that we know we have to staff — or it’ll be much more loosely organised. We might also use it to pitch a story of our own that we’ve developed.

One of the tricks about being a specialist in any newspaper is to know already in advance what you need to cover and how you’re likely to cover it. A key thing about being a correspondent in particular is to try and be in control of your own destiny as much as you possibly can. If you’re immersed in a story, you should know pretty well what stories are on the horizon. Any reporter, even a general reporter who’s directed by a newsdesk, should keep a digital diary where you’re keeping an eye on general developments in your patch.

I Got This Job Because…

I was brought up there, in Edinburgh. The first 10 years of my professional career were spent working for Scotsman Publications — so The ScotsmanThe Scotsman on Sunday, then back to The Scotsman as a lobby correspondent at Westminster.

One thing about covering Scotland is it’s quite different from being a regional correspondent covering parts of England, because you have a government to consider. It’s quite a big call on one’s time and attention.

One of the beauties — and the challenges — about being a Scotland correspondent for a London-based UK national paper is that in London, a national newspaper will have a health specialist, an education specialist, a transport specialist, an energy specialist, political specialists, social affairs, home affairs, crime, et cetera. If you’re a territorial correspondent for Scotland for a UK paper, you have to cover every single one of those specialities, just in Scotland.

It’s quite weird! It’s also quite stressful at times, but at other times it’s a joy because it means you get to cover all the best stories of the day.

Journo Resources
“Any reporter, even a general reporter who’s directed by a newsdesk, should keep a digital diary where you’re keeping an eye on general developments in your patch.”
Severin Carrell, Scotland editor at The Guardian

The Thing I Most Enjoy About Having The Scotland Patch Is…

Undoubtedly [when] the SNP won power in 2007 and made the Scottish government a mechanism for trying to achieve independence. They elevated the significance of what the Scottish government does and stopped it from appearing to a London newsdesk as an administration that’s just running local affairs and services, into a much more specific and urgent political dynamic.

It was dealing with the constitution, the future of the United Kingdom, a political movement and party whose purpose in life was to challenge the existence of the UK and the status quo.

Of course, that’s relatively speaking a hugely more significant job to do. In the pre-SNP era, most London newspapers would regard the job of the Scotland correspondent [as] covering all the disasters but also [to] produce nice, escapist, colour stories about how wonderful it is living on this isolated Scottish island, or the latest haggis hunt. The job just became this kind of afterthought often.

But then it became much more significant, and that’s why The Guardian now has two Scotland editors because it’s now a busy, intense, dynamic patch, [which is] also multi-layered.

severin carrell interviewing alex salmond
Severin Carrell (L) and Tom Gordon (C) interviewing Alex Salmond (R) at the launch of the SNP campaign. (Image: Ewan McIntosh / Flickr)

New Journalists Should Know…

One of the tricks working for any newspaper [is] learning quickly what turns the desk on. What you learn is that your first market, the first people you have to sell to, are the newsdesk.

You’re not selling the story to the readership, you’re selling it to your boss. You’re competing with everyone else there for your boss’ attention and for the space, with every other correspondent who’s working on a story or has something commissioned. Everyone wants to be published and the question for you is to know what’s going to work and how to pitch it.

The other significant part of one’s daily life, particularly at The Guardian — in fact, all UK daily nationals — is that there are no newspapers left in the UK, with perhaps the exception of the Financial Times, [that] can be known as a newspaper of record [a major newspaper that is considered editorially independent and authoritative].

Every newspaper is working for a particular political and demographic market, so they want to find exclusive stories and new and original journalism which appeals to their readership. A lot of our job is to find stories that are wholly original, exclusive, new stories that are unreported, and that in itself takes a lot of time.

Journo Resources
“The first people you have to sell to are the newsdesk. You’re not selling the story to the readership, you’re selling it to your boss.”
Severin Carrell, Scotland editor at The Guardian

My Day-To-Day Responsibilities Are…

One of the things we have to do on a daily basis is constantly triaging. You have to look at stories which a Scottish newspaper will spend a lot of energy reporting, and figure out if it’s got enough significance or interest to have UK relevance, or to work for your newsdesk. I would say two times out of three, the stories that we triage are not going to make it.

A newspaper is a bit like going to a restaurant. On the menu you’ll have a meat dish, a fish dish, a vegetarian dish, a vegan dish, and you’ll have starters, main courses, and puddings — and every newspaper is exactly the same. You have to think about what you’re going to produce, because sometimes they just want a dessert out of you, and other times they’re going to want the main meal.

Sometimes, on some stories, like Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation in February, we have to produce the starter, main, and dessert all at once. You just have to know what you’re producing and how you fit.

Severin Carrell works on a wide range of types of stories. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

A Difficult Aspect Of My Job Is…

Sometimes you have to be really fast and sometimes it’s brutal. You might spend a lot of time talking to [someone] or have a story that someone’s tried really hard to sell you, and you’ve looked at it and pulled it inside out, and realised it’s not going to work.

Turning people down and saying “sorry, it’s not going to cut it”; having the newsdesk tell you that it’s not going to work because they already have enough of that kind of story, or they’re simply not very excited by it, is difficult.

You have to have the confidence to know that if today hasn’t worked, tomorrow will. [Just] because a story hasn’t worked now, doesn’t mean it won’t in three or four days’ time.

This is going to sound like a really tortured analogy, but one way of looking at it is to imagine you’re going surfing. You’re in the sea and looking at waves coming towards you. Sometimes the wave is going to be the one that carries you all the way to shore, and sometimes it just isn’t good enough.

Sometimes the story happens before you can get to it. Often, things are defined by what you miss, because you can’t be everywhere at once.

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

You need to have a relatively thick skin. The weird thing about our trade is that your ego is often so much of what drives you to chase a story, but sometimes that ego has to take a backseat. Sometimes, shit happens. And although you want to be in control of your destiny, it’s often the case that you can’t be.

Hopefully, you’ll have a news editor who isn’t a bastard, who will be okay with [missed stories]. Some editors will have a go at you and be like, “Why didn’t get that story?” Happily, that’s not the case with the organisation I work for, but I have worked for news editors who are like this.

It’s like any other trade, because I don’t think news reporters are much different from any other trade. It’s just accepted as part of life.

Journo Resources
"You’re in the sea and looking at waves coming towards you. Sometimes the wave is going to be the one that carries you all the way to shore, and sometimes it just isn’t good enough."
Severin Carrell, Scotland editor at The Guardian

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

I think the problem with newspapers — or newspaper managers — is they tend to make the mistake of thinking that because someone is a very good reporter, they’ll make a good editor, and that isn’t the case. You have to have a certain amount of emotional intelligence and humanity. That means coaxing [writers] and encouraging them, and also means pushing them when they need to be pushed.

I’ve been working in national newspapers since the 1990s. I’ve done this for over 30 years professionally; I’ve worked for five different papers; I’ve worked with 20 different news editors, and they’re [all] doing something different.

So just think about whether you want to do this for the rest of your working life, or whether you want to do this for 20 years. The fact that [someone is] being unreasonable or shitty or a bully today doesn’t mean that you chuck it in.

That was today, and today is yesterday, quite quickly — especially in journalism.

Kit Sinclair
Kit Sinclair

Kit Sinclair is a final year Modern Languages undergraduate at The University of Nottingham, as well as a veteran student journalist, having been involved with the student magazine Impact for coming up on four years. A freelance journalist, her work has also appeared in magazine Are We Europe and the What IF? podcast.

She has been awarded the SPA Regional Award for Best Journalist in 2023 and attended her first ever SPA Conference in Glasgow.

Header image courtesy of Ewan McIntosh via Flickr