Michael MacLeod has an HND in Practical Journalism from Edinburgh's Telford College (2004). Since 2005, he's worked at Channel 4, The Guardian and STV, as a journalist, news editor and producer. Having worked on over 700 articles for the Guardian, he currently works freelance in multimedia journalism, writing and managing social media accounts.
You got your HND in Practical Journalism in 2004. What was it like transitioning from being a student to taking the first steps in building your career?
Michael: It took time. I saved up cash from a part-time job at a paintball site so I could go on work placements in newsrooms. As a student journalist I was obsessed with radio. In particular, a world news show called Up All Night on 5 Live. It was on between 2am and 4am. I still have the bags under my eyes. Sadly I found out that the Scottish presenter, and my idol at the time, Rhod Sharp, lived and broadcasted from the US. I wrote to him and he was good enough to put me in touch with a former colleague of his at BBC Scotland in Aberdeen, who took me on for a two week placement. I then got another placement at the Wee County News in Alloa. The work experience mattered so much more than not being paid. I learned a lesson back then which ten years on I still live by, which is to never be afraid to ask. Whether that's asking for work or just asking for a phone number, if you're sincere in your motives it often works out alright.
In 2005 - not too long after your diploma - you got a job at Forth Independent Newspapers as a Senior News Reporter where you covered local news and managed a team of reporters. How did you get into that position, and what did you learn during those early years?
Michael: Again, I got really lucky. My work placement turned into a paid reporting role. I couldn't believe I was getting paid to write, even if it was pennies. Then the senior reporter left within my first year. Having been thrown into covering court cases and council meetings, it turned out my shorthand and media law training were keeping me afloat and somehow I was swimming. The main lesson I learned, though, was that you can stay in a job for too long. It was my first job, I was super grateful for it but it burnt me out. After three years I needed to quit. Commuting from Edinburgh to Alloa, setting off at 7am and getting home at 10/11pm every day nearly killed me. If that wasn't going to kill me, the criminals who were starting to recognise me at Alloa Sheriff Court would have, so I moved on to press agency work. Again, I recommend agency work to anyone making the step from local to national news. It can be tough doing door-knocks etc, but persistence pays. I got front page stories and pictures on most of the country's papers. Deadline Press in Edinburgh has a revolving door reputation for a reason, as it springboards reporters to bigger jobs. I must thank Scott Douglas, Raymond Notorangelo and Shaun Milne for taking me under their wing at Deadline.
Over the next decade you'd work a variety of roles, including as a Beatblogger with The Guardian and Assistant Editor and Programme Producer with STV. What would be some of the key learning points or highlights that you would pick out from throughout this stretch of time?
Michael: My year with The Guardian's local news project was precious and a definite highlight. I was lucky to get the job and so lucky to meet the people I worked with. Editor Sarah Hartley saw the value that sharing the Guardian's platform could bring to local news. Some questioned that value in monetary terms, but that wasn't the point of the project. In social terms it was unquestionably a success. We opened up eyes to what was going on in local councils, handed over our pages to local writers and supported local artists. In that year, across Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds, we gave people a voice on a national website. Five years on people still tell me they miss it. It's no surprise that the other reporters at the time, John Baron and Hannah Waldram, have gone on to really brilliant things. It made me realise that giving a global platform to local issues is a powerful combination.
When that contract ran out, I moved on to STV's online news team for a couple of years and then got trained up to produce TV. The company invested a lot of time in training when launching the local license channels. I can definitely recommend STV as an employer. I got to work with the news team by running live blogs on and election nights and the independence referendum results night. The online news operation headed up by Matt Roper and Iain Pope at STV is impressive and there's a real buzz on those big nights when the online and TV newsdesks integrate.
After working on about 120 hours of live TV, other opportunities were coming and going, so I jumped ship this summer to go freelance. I had hoped to land a full-time job sooner but things don't always work out as they should on paper. Freelancing is tough but another lesson I've learned is to commit fully.
You currently work freelance as a Journalist and a Producer, and your clients include the Guardian and Sky News. What can a day of work look like for you and what's it like transitioning into freelancing?
Michael: The transition has been fast. As a freelancer you have to let people know you're available and are keen to work hard. So I contacted former colleagues at the Guardian's Culture and Travel desks to let them know I was available. Same with Sky News, and to be fair to them all, they've called me when jobs have come up. PR firms also need to know what you do, so I contacted Gorkana who shared my details and that's resulted in some incredible opportunities. I'm grateful when I land work, because there's nothing worse than not being busy. Truth is, sometimes you have quiet days. I've no shame in admitting that, so I post to Twitter and often work comes from there too.
I love photography and am involved in the Scottish Instagram community by organising meet-ups, where online contacts can become pals offline and meet others. That's resulted in me helping to organise a couple of really big events at Edinburgh Castle and the National Museum of Scotland where I helped arrange its first ever 'empty'. I even met my now wife via Instagram!
Right now I'm working on something for one of the biggest publishers in America having just been on a helicopter ride up a mountain. No two days are the same. Having said that, I do miss knowing there will be a definite pay cheque each month. I'm my boss and that's my motivation each day.
Thinking back to your College days from 2002 to 2004, what advice would you give to your younger, student self, or to anyone else who is looking to build a career in journalism?
Michael: Get work experience in as many different kinds of places as possible. Don't worry if you end up working in a job you don't like. That can actually be a really good thing. A job you hate can be better than an easy job. The comfort of an easy job can breed complacency and stagnation. But if you have a job you hate, you will be motivated to find out and fantasise about what you DO want to do. You'll be more driven to get out and do what you love. There are always positives even in the low points. I'm 30 now and nowhere near an expert in 'building a career' but these are my learnings so far. As long as you don't stagnate, enjoying a media job means you're always excited about what tomorrow could bring.
You can follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelMacLeod1