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April 4, 2024

Journofest 2024: Alex Crawford, Stephen Wright and others share their industry insights

Key insights from the annual News Associates conference in Twickenham.

By Clara Aberneithie

‘Tiktok detectives’ are an irritant for Sun crime reporter Mike Sullivan and juggling work-life balance is phenomenally difficult for Sky special correspondent Alex Crawford.

These were two tidbits at Journofest 2024 in Twickenham, an annual conference organised by News Associates for its trainee journalists.

Here are the highlights from a day where giants of journalism shared their insights with the industry’s next generation:

Sky’s Alex Crawford on Gaza and balancing home life

Alex Crawford explained how her husband and four children have been on the move with her job since the eldest was eight.

Crawford recalled: “We went to New Delhi, to Dubai, to South Africa, and now to Turkey.  

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“It’s been phenomenally difficult to balance family and work.

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“Every time we move, my kids are quite apprehensive.”   

Now based in Istanbul, she said: “Turkey offers a very pivotal position because geographically, you can get almost anywhere.”  

When asked about her experience as a woman reporting from warzones, she said that while the dangers were similar for both sexes, there were “different considerations” for women.  

She explained: “I actually went onto pills to stop menstruating when I went to one war zone. 

“It’s something I never want to do again because coming off them was really painful.”  

Crawford concluded the interview by saying she was unsurprised by the lack of response from Israel to a letter she signed campaigning for international journalists to be permitted entry into Gaza.  

She said: “It goes against everything journalism stands for.  

“In this era of fake news, journalists need to be on the ground to prove a lie or disprove it.”  

Post Office scandal reporter on legal threats from Fujitsu

Computer Weekly’s chief reporter, Karl Flinders explained his title’s first Post Office IT scandal revelation in 2009 was not published for over a year over fears of legal action by the tech giant, Fujitsu.  

He said: “The Post Office kept sending defensive emails, saying that Fujitsu would sue us.”  

Flinders was joined by former sub-postmaster Balvinder Gill who was bankrupted and sectioned after being wrongly accused of stealing £108,000 in 2004. 

While sectioned, his mother, Kashmir, took over the branch. She was found guilty of stealing £57,000 in 2009. Her conviction has since been overturned by the Court of Appeal. 

When asked about his experience with the media, he said that a journalist had shown real concern for his wellbeing.  

He said: “I was actually posting comments during the 2019 High Court trial, just before I was sectioned again. 

“A journalist I knew reached out – he suspected I was unwell just based on what I was posting.”  

However, Gill’s interactions with journalists have not always been positive. He explained how he dislikes receiving questions about his ethnicity because in his case, he didn’t believe that it played a significant role.  

He added: “When asked about race, I only answer from the perspective of my parents.  

“I don’t want to be a token of ethnicity, another victim story.”  

The ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ has helped raise public awareness, with 9.2 million viewers.

Flinders said: “If people like dramas and they know the relationship with real life, it’s really productive. 

“For years, we just needed the mainstream media to dig deeper.  

“We did as many stories as we could hoping that eventually, it would spread.”  

Why good journalists won’t be replaced by AI

Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford said: “AI will transform things at a macro level because it can be an amazing digital assistant. 

“So for sure, familiarise yourself with AI as a tool – but bear in mind that AI will never replace human interaction or pitching an interesting story.”  

He added: “The journalists who are currently rewriting press releases will find things tough.”  

Discussing the difficulty of catering for Google’s changing algorithms, Ponsford said: “You’ll always make money in journalism if you have a good story, but yes, you have to make headlines and intros immediately engaging.”  

Freelances need strong conviction

Freelance Jacqueline Shepherd said: “You have to be built for freelance work, to have the nerve, because your projects vary every few weeks.”  

“It’s about having the strength of conviction to keep moving.”  

When asked how she makes freelance work financially, she said: “One of the things I do is spreadsheet everything – especially tax returns which can catch people out.  

“Apply for jobs well in advance, save as you go and get an extra job if you need to.” 

Ponsford said: “I wouldn’t suggest freelance work straight off the back for those starting out – pay is not great and is often slow.  

“Freelancing is partly a sales job, it’s about persistence, you have to contact people again and again.”  

Eve Bennett, who works for Sky News, said that she appreciates the “stability of staff contracts.” However, that is not to say that contracted work doesn’t come with its difficulties.  

Bennett explained how she is on a rolling hours contract which means that she works unusual hours, often working through the night into the morning, four days a week. 

She added: “It has its impact on hobbies and your general work-life balance.”  

Nicola Bulley case changed police-press relations

Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt said Nicola Bulley’s disappearance was a “watershed moment” which taught police forces that they needed to fix their relationship with the press.  

Lancashire Police was criticised for not communicating essential information to the press which could have put a stop to speculation. 

Brunt added: “The relationship used to be really good but I guess that all changed with phone hacking. 

“That said, I’ve noticed over the past few months a change in the right direction.”  

Sun crime editor Mike Sullivan said: “We now have a very different generation of police officers.  

“I used to go to the pub with police officers – they gave me great detective stories.”  

Commenting on the role of social media in filling information voids, Sullivan added: “The Tiktok detectives are a pain in the proverbial.”  

Journalists need to stay in touch with their emotions

Daily Mail associate editor Stephen Wright said crime reporting can take its toll emotionally, but added: “You can’t do your job properly if you’re desensitised.”

He said: “I remember when I attended the trial of Rose West [in 1995] and journalists were sniggering at the pamphlets in the courthouse offering emotional support for those affected.  

“It was a very macho environment back then.”  

Asked for his view on privacy before charge for criminal suspects, Wright said his own view was: “I think there are some types of crime which are so ghastly that suspects shouldn’t be named until they are charged.”  

He said he was grateful to have started his career in local journalism, which made him realise the importance of listening to people.  

He added: “I worry about the future of journalism.  

“Even at the lower level, when I started, local media was still big, I mean, my local paper had 20 journalists but now it has about four.”  

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
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  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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