Thursday, 16 February 2017

WONDER WOMEN: the i paper's Katie Grant on Emetophobia, Feminism, and Getting Started as a Journalist

Wonder Women is a new series in which I interview the women who inspire me the most. These women are making waves in their careers and changing the world one step at a time - but most importantly, they're doing it for themselves.

Last week I talked to Lisa Cimorelli of the band Cimorelli about change and living fearlessly. Today, I'm talking to i paper journalist Katie Grant. We've kept in touch since her brave piece on anxiety and emetophobia, and she helped to get the #HelpAmber campaign off the ground in 2015. Read on to discover her thoughts on mental health, feminism, and whether or not university is necessary for carving out a career in journalism...

What is your role at the i paper? Can you take us through a normal day?

I'm a reporter. My main areas of interest are social affairs and gender issues - from the gender pay gap to access to abortion to sex education, it encompasses many areas including business, politics, health, education. I am especially interested in mental health; there is a huge overlap with other areas in ways that many other health-related topics aren't - employment, housing, human rights, benefits, discrimination.

I am fascinated by most stories related to health but many (though definitely not all) people with mental illnesses are vulnerable and isolated. I want to keep shining a spotlight on issues that affect them and their loved ones.

How did you get to where you are now?

I loved English at school and was quite good at it - I often really enjoyed my English homework. I studied English and Philosophy at university in Ireland. Again, I loved the texts and everything I learnt. I didn't contribute to the university papers - I didn't have a clue how to get involved and felt like I wouldn't belong there. My advice to anyone interested in getting into journalism is to do the exact opposite of what I did! Go write for the student papers, build up your portfolio, get an idea of what areas you're interested in.

I wrote one story for a magazine at uni when I met a man on the street who it turned out had been cycling around the world for about 50 years. Just stopping and chatting to people you think look interesting or unusual can get you a good story. As soon as I got talking to him I thought this would make a great feature. It never occurred to me to pitch anything else to editors at the paper, I didn't have a clue how. I had very little self belief and just thought I'd better keep my head down and let the more bolshy students get on with that.

"I didn't have a clue how to get involved and felt like I wouldn't belong there."

When I left university I did various jobs, some of which I enjoyed, such as working as a teaching assistant, others less so. I started writing a blog and invited all my friends who I knew were interested in writing too to submit posts - they varied from funny relationship stuff to book reviews and it was a modest success. I loved it because I realised I could write and we built up a pretty good audience.

One day I read a travel piece about a brilliant trip to Transylvania by train, which followed the route across Europe taken by the characters in Dracula. I wanted to go so badly but could never have afforded it - it was 10 days long and cost a few grand. I was working at a housing charity at the time and decided on the spot to give journalism a go - at the very least I might be able to get a trip out of it. I hounded every national newspaper and magazine that I knew of to commission me and eventually a couple relented. I got to go on the trip and after that I continued getting commissions from different magazines. I wrote quite a bit for TNT magazine and also a cycling magazine. I wrote about cycling quite a lot, in fact, which was weird because I couldn't actually ride a bike.

I got work experience at Decanter magazine at IPC Media which publishes a lot of magazines - including the now-defunct Nuts. While I was in the building I distributed my CV to virtually every magazine there begging them to let me do a week or so of work experience with them.

"I feel sad at the way lads mags objectified women and girls and advocated what I think is quite a damaging idea of masculinity."

Nuts was the first to say yes. Now I'm a little older I feel sad at the way lads mags objectified women and girls and advocated what I think is quite a damaging idea of masculinity. At the time though I was very excited and I was thrilled that they let me pick the 'boobs of the week' from the amateur shots sent in by members of the public. They trained me in InDesign software which was incredibly useful.

From there I did work experience at InStyle (also an IPC title), first on features and then on the subs desk. (Subeditors edit copy to fit, write headlines and captions and spot and amend any errors that could lead to a lawsuit or some kind of public embarrassment.) Pretty soon I was being brought in to do freelance shifts (i.e. getting paid).

My chief sub knew the production editor at the Independent on Sunday and I started doing work experience there. I did the classic thing of arranging to come in for a week and then never leaving. I'm still in the building over four years later. The work experience quickly led to paid shifts on the subbing desk and then paid reporting shifts when they were short staffed.

Finally a junior writing job came up on i and I got it. I was so happy. For the past three years I have slogged my guts out for a paper I love. I have gradually managed to work my way up, first dispensing with the 'assistant' title, then being given my own column. Today, while I am far nearer the start of my career than the hacks who've got 20 or 30 years on me I've managed to carve out a niche and am bringing in exclusives.

Is university necessary for someone wanting to pursue a career in mainstream media?

Others will disagree but I say no. I enjoyed my degree but it affected my career path minimally. If you are tenacious enough you do not need a degree to get a job in journalism. I did not do a post-grad in journalism which virtually all of my contemporaries did. City in London is one of the best possible places to go. If you can afford it, then definitely do one. I could not afford it.

"If you are tenacious enough you do not need a degree to get a job in journalism."

I feel a bit insecure sometimes that I'm lacking something everyone else seems to have but while it is useful, it is not essential. It will act as a springboard but will not guarantee success. In fact, it might make you an entitled little shit. I have seen a few people come in on work experience who act as though any small or mundane task is beneath them. I do not like to generalise but it has always been men who do this. It does not endear anyone to them.

The fact is you are more likely to get a job and even work experience if you have done a post-grad. This sucks balls because the only people who can afford to do a post-grad tend to be middle class, privately educated and usually white. There is a surplus of middle class, privately educated white journalists. There is nothing wrong with being this person - I am this person! - but the workforce at a lot of papers and magazines does not reflect society and a lot of stories will be missed or snubbed if nobody knows where to look for them and why they are valuable. So, to sum up - if you afford uni and a masters, do it. If not, it might well be harder but certainly not impossible and if you lack tenacity you're in the wrong profession anyway.

What is the best part of your job?

I love most things about it - I am never, ever bored; I have never once clock-watched, I really, really love my colleagues, I am stimulated and feel really engaged and also that my opinion and ideas matter. Above all, I love connecting with people, especially people whose voices might not ordinarily get heard. I'm quite introverted and can get shy at social events but when I've got my journalist's hat on I revel in it. I am endlessly amazed at how you can ask perfect strangers the most personal questions - 'How much do you earn?'; 'What impact does your impotency have on your relationships?'; 'Do you have a favourite child?' - and they will answer, and at length.

"I'm quite introverted and can get shy at social events but when I've got my journalist's hat on I revel in it."

I'm honoured when people choose to open up to me. I don't feel nervous talking to or listening to them; I feel really pleased that they feel comfortable.

One woman I interviewed spoke to me about being raped. She was nervous but wanted to talk and I wanted to listen. I bumped into her recently and she told me that she has never forgotten our conversation and she feels more able to talk to other people as a result which is something I would not have expected but is a comment I will treasure.

I’ve seen lots of journalists discouraging young people from pursuing journalism as a career due to so many papers and magazines going out of print. What is your view on this? Do you think it's possible for journalism to remain a career option, or is it a dying trade?

I would never discourage someone from entering any profession they were interested in for fear of the future. There always has and always will be an appetite for news. Many people still enjoy the physicality of paper between their fingers - I definitely do. But equally I can't imagine not going online for my news.

It's not a dying trade but things are undoubtedly transforming and the industry is in a weird state of limbo at the moment. People are getting laid off all the time: hundreds of talented people at the Indy lost their jobs last year. It was very upsetting and quite scary to see my mentors treated in this way. From what I gather things are tough at the Telegraph, the Guardian and Vice at the moment to name a few.

There definitely are jobs out there, mostly online. There is absolutely nothing 'inferior' about working for a website and people should not be sniffy about it - look at BuzzFeed News. They get terrific scoops and have a fantastic investigations team.

Print, in general is on the decline, though I feel very, very lucky because i sales are continuing to rise. Nothing is ever certain though. I hope very much to still be enjoying my career as a reporter for a print and online publication in five years time but I don't have a clue what will happen in future. For me, it's enough to know I'm doing it now and if circumstances change, that's life -  I will find something else I love. I hope others thinking of entering the profession will adopt a similar attitude and give it a go.

Out of everything you've written, which piece are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of a feature on emetophobia (a phobia of vomiting) and anxiety I wrote for The Independent a couple of years ago.

I wrote about experiencing a breakdown, developing an OCD, starving myself and having an anxiety disorder. I'm not sure why I did it, I just really wanted to say something about it after hiding and pretending about things for so long. It felt right but I was really scared - I was pretty sure I'd never get a boyfriend again, it might harm my job prospects and people would think I was really un-fun. But I also thought, oh well, never mind! What is the point of having a platform if you don't use it to say anything important? To me this was important.

"It felt like a huge weight off my shoulders."

I never realised anyone had gone through what I had until I read a piece about emetophobia and started following people on Twitter with anxiety/depression. It feels great to know so many other people are equally miserable! I felt so much less alone and it gave me hope I might be able to live a fulfilling life. So I thought, who cares if no one hires me and no guy wants to date me and people think I'm a downer. I just realised it didn't matter.

It felt like a huge weight off my shoulders to write and publish it. I sent it to my closest friends and family because I had never really been able to speak to them about it before. It was very emotional for me to receive messages and emails and letters from other people who had had similar experiences.

Somebody even painted an incredible portrait of me which was pretty much the most flattering thing that anyone has ever done for me. I felt really humbled. Now I feel a little disappointed when I write a story and no one sends me an oil painting of myself.

Who inspires you?

My mum inspires me. She is so kind and really open minded and just a free spirit. When I told her I was going to quit my job and try to become a journalist I thought she'd be furious but she was thrilled and really encouraged me. She reads all my stories and emails me links to other stuff she thinks I might want to write about.

Also a former journalist called Pavan Amara - she brought in great stories, often stories which affected women of colour, another hugely overlooked area. Women are not just a homogeneous lump.

Then she decided to become a nurse. She worked her arse off and now dedicates herself to helping survivors of sexual violence. She is so modest and humble. I admire her a great deal. She has had quite a lot of media coverage for her work but she is not fame hungry and doesn't seek publicity. She just does what she is passionate about and doesn't need anyone else's approval.

Click here to follow Katie on Twitter.


  1. Absolutely inspiring! Couldn't read enough. Well done, Amber :)

  2. A great post - I have enjoyed many of Katie Grant's articles - they are informative and make you think. this post of yours asks the right questions and Katie;s replies are frank and honest - V.G.

  3. Great interview Amber! Your question about journalists' discouragement towards people getting into the field was something I've always wanted to ask the experienced writers. Her answer was spot on! Thank you so much!

  4. I haven't considered journalism as a career path personally, but this interview was enlightening and inspiring! I'm thinking about journalism in a totally new light. I love this new feature! :)