5 Minutes with the Media–Conor Shields

Here at MediaHQ, we like to sit down with Irish journalists to gain a behind the scenes look at the industry and get the inside scoop.

In our latest 5 Minutes with the Media interview, we speak to London based journalist (and former MediaHQ staff member!) Conor Shields, all about his experiences in the industry, the differences between the UK and Irish media, as well as his favourite story he’s worked on so far:

1) What is your current role and what does it involve?

I’m a news reporter at News Shopper, which is a local newspaper serving south-east London and parts of north Kent.

My role, in particular, is to cover two areas, the London borough of Bexley, and Dartford which is a borough of Kent. Stories can honestly range from the scary and serious to the light and ludicrous. News Shopper has a bit of a reputation for covering more of the quirkier stories that come through our inbox. You know the sort. The local news stories you’d read at home and laugh at because they’re so ridiculous that you’d wonder why they were covered in the first place. There’s never a dull day here.

2) Have you always wanted to be a journalist? What made you want to become one?

I actually wanted to be a doctor when I was younger, but then I realised when I was about 15 that I was a bit thick and probably wouldn’t be able for the workload after school. I always had an interest in writing though but always thought I’d end up in a more creative role.

During Transition Year at school, we had a short module in journalism for a couple of months and I think that’s where I really got a taste for it. We were sent off to do interviews with people and the majority of people just went off an interviewed Mammy and Daddy, which to be fair, would make the most sense if you had no interest at all in the subject.

I remember I interviewed my friend who had been doing well in the Irish Tae-Kwon-Do circuit at the time and I just enjoyed picking her brain on the sport. There was something just enjoyable about taking a 20-minute recorded interview and condensing it down into an engaging and enjoyable piece of writing. Only thing was I submitted the assignment about a week late so deadlines were something I needed to get used to.

3) How do your experiences in the industry so far compare to the expectations you had while studying/learning the trade?

Well, I’m really still quite green to the industry as I only started back in November. But in saying that we were constantly told throughout our course that we would never get jobs in journalism so any expectations I had were minimal at best!

I did realise quickly that there are a lot of things I still need to learn which I didn’t learn throughout my four years of higher education. A lot of my course was based on theory and practical modules weren’t as intense as I may have wanted them to be. We used to run a newspaper as part of our course called The Liberty, which was published four times a year. This meant that for one semester, we had two print runs, meaning we each had plenty of time to write our one or two stories as needed. In a professional local newsroom, that is far from reality. Stories need to be in-depth but done in a timely manner, especially for online.

I would suggest that anyone looking to make a proper go of journalism should pester their way into as many newsrooms as possible. You’ll soon learn what’s expected but if you’re passionate, you’ll love every minute of it.

4) What’s the best story you’ve worked on?

This is always a tough question. Before News Shopper, I did a couple of weeks work for Dublin Live through a friend, just for the experience. I remember the Head of News walking over to the Dublin Live desk with a puzzled look on his face before asking, “Does anyone know who DJ Spiral is and why he’s phoning me?”

As a fan of Big Brother and in particular the outright drama of season seven, I knew exactly who he was talking about and was delightedly tasked with interviewing him. He was trying to promote his club night but I was more itching to ask the important questions…of course…what he thought of the show nowadays. In fairness, he was quite happy to call them out and even flogged the idea of a season seven reunion. I always remember that story since then.

At NS, I’ve been able to cover quite a bit in my short time here. There was a horrible incident of sexual assault in Greenwich a couple of months ago in the same spot where a previous assault had occurred last year. I managed to get the local council to show that they had not acted on that and install security cameras or lighting to prevent any further attacks. It wasn’t a major revelation or finding, but to me it was the first story I did I’ve really been truly proud of. It’s why I wanted to get into journalism, to highlight issues relevant to the public interest, especially when it’s in relation to those in a position of responsibility. To ask the right questions.

5) What’s your favourite thing about working for a local paper?

It’s honestly the people. You get the opportunity to speak to some amazing people who really want to do right for their community and every week there’s always a great uplifting story on the website which really makes you appreciate what you do. A local paper should reflect the community it serves. There are always terrible incidents and tragedies that need coverage, but it’s important to highlight the good where possible.

6) What are the differences between the Irish and UK media?

Tough one. I find UK media to be quite divisive at times, particularly with the political situation the way it is at the moment. There’s a lot more focus on papers having an editorial standpoint than what I see in Irish outlets. But that could just be something I overlooked while living in Dublin

However, that doesn’t really filter into local news here and our political concerns usually only stretch to the local councils.

7) What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt as a journalist?

Double. Check. Everything.

Even when you think you’ve nailed it, always get someone to read it or confirm it. The more people that can confirm something, the more confident you’ll feel in your reporting.

8) Is there anyone in the industry you look up to?

In the current industry, there are plenty of incredible journalists who I admire.  However, the late Veronica Guerin has always been my journalistic inspiration. Her defiance and inability to let go, even when her life was in danger, led to real change in Ireland and is something I’ve always looked back to when I sometimes doubt myself or my profession.

9) What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the industry?

Just start writing! When I was in college, I got involved in every student media platform going and made sure they gave me a chance to have something on their website. It’s those early experiences that will stand out when going for jobs. I remember at the interview for my previous job, I was asked about a piece I managed to have published by The Irish Times and we ended up chatting about it for a good 15 minutes and helped me get in there.

The earlier you start building up bylines, the better chance you have of getting in somewhere when you apply.

10) Finally Conor, we would like to give you the platform to respond to this interview where a wild claim is made that you are the least talented Shields brother??

Claims are but that, claims. You’d have to ask our mam about that one!

However, I will say, our talents lie in different things. Mine relies on understanding local issues and conveying them to readers in an entertaining and engaging manner, he relies on kicking a leather ball. Each to their own I guess!

Jokes aside my brother’s are extremely talented individuals and both have had unbelievable successes this past year. Stephen’s film, The Hole in the Ground, has seen an international release to critical acclaim this year and Chris just picked up the Player of the Year award for the Airtricity League at the recent FAI awards. It can be hard to keep up with them but sure friendly competition is what keeps us going.