Grad Talk: Life beyond the bubble with Leaf

This week on ‘Grad Talk’ we’re chatting to Leaf Arbuthnot, who graduated from Magdalene in 2014 with a degree in French and Italian. Now a feature writer for the Sunday Times, here she discusses her life as a journalist, the perks of internships and why it’s ok if you don’t land your dream job as soon as you graduate.

Interview by Kitty Grady

So, what do you do now?

I’m a feature writer for the Sunday Times. I write interviews mostly but also general features, book reviews and occasional news pieces. I do new poetry collection reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and have written a novel, which has just won the Pageturner Prize and will (touch wood) be published next year. I’m about to start a book review show on Talk Radio and I do news shows for them quite regularly, running through the day’s top trending stories.

… and how did you get there? 

I spent lots of my summers since I started at Cambridge interning in different newspapers and magazines to work out what sort of work environments I vibed with most. That was helpful in that it narrowed my options down – I realized I liked newspapers most of all, and wouldn’t thrive in monthly women’s magazines which have more languorous deadlines.

In terms of practical journalistic experience I did quite a bit at Cambridge – The Tab, the Cambridge Globalist, my own College’s magazine which I co-edited. I spent my year abroad at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and wrote art exhibition reviews for a paper there.

I guess I tried to study hard enough to maintain decent grades while at Cambridge, which was instrumental in helping me to win the Henry Fellowship in my final year. It’s a scholarship that supports students who want to do a year at Harvard or Yale. At Yale I did some teaching, a broad range of classes and worked on its newspapers – focusing more on economics and making podcasts. After Yale I interned at the Financial Times then got a job at the Sunday Times, where I’ve been since August 2015.

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Leaf’s desk at the Sunday Times: “Taming a conversation into a feature-length article is challenging, in the best way.”

Describe a typical day.

Roughly speaking I have three types of days – an ordinary office day, a writing day and a press day.

On a normal office day I arrive at the News Building in London Bridge at 9am then read the papers (The Times, the DM and sometimes the FT, plus bits and pieces of other papers). I spend the day thinking up feature ideas, trying to get exclusive interviews with people who are relevant to that week’s news, researching individuals whose interviews I have already secured, reading books that are soon to be published to see if the new releases contain fun or moving stories. I’ll have meetings with the features team once or twice a day to exchange ideas and go through what articles we have sorted for the coming Sunday.

If I’m doing an interview they tend not to be in London, so I make my way to wherever my interviewee is. Then I’ll spend an hour or so talking to them, having read their book or seen their film. I’ll type up the transcript (the recording of the conversation) on my way back to London, if it’s a long way away. Then usually that evening, I’ll write the piece (or do it the next morning).

On press days I get in earlier than normal. Press day is the day that we basically press “send” on the features section. All our articles come in and I’ll edit some of them – they often need to be cut to fit the shapes on the page. I work with the Design and Picture teams who make sure our content is beautifully displayed on the page.

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Leaf: “Do take advantage of summer, Easter and Christmas holidays to intern […] it’s a useful way of trying on jobs for size without ever having to commit”
What do you like about it?

Interviewing means you get to meet a great range of people you would never otherwise get the chance to encounter. I’ve met a few celebrities (Prince Charles, Lily Cole, Tinie Tempah) but the fun interviews are with people who aren’t high-profile but have become well known for something impressive, that’s not connected with the arts – ordinary people, basically. Like I did an interview a year or so ago with a brickie who left school at 16 then, years later, set up an incredible observatory near Scotland.

The other best part of the job is the writing. Taming a conversation into a feature-length article is challenging, in the best way. Editing others’ work is satisfying too – sometimes you can start with something bad and end up with something brilliant; it’s rewarding to contribute to that transformation.

Leaf’s interview with Prince Charles for the Sunday Times

What do you dislike about it?

Trying to get interviews with people can be hard, because sometimes they are difficult to track down. Or they don’t want to talk to the press, so persuading them you’re not going to do them over is wearing. I often find myself emphasizing that I don’t write for a tabloid. But it can feel a bit grubby.

In newspapers you’re at the mercy of, well, the news. Occasionally pieces are killed last-minute – an ad will gobble up the space that your article was in, a more timely piece will bump yours off the page- and that can be disappointing, particularly if you worked hard on the article.

Once I interviewed a lovely couple who had moved to Australia with their teenage daughter. Within 6 months of them moving there, the girl was brutally murdered steps away from their doorstep. Getting that interview (with the girl’s parents) was very difficult because they were so traumatized. The conversation went well though, and they were excited that their daughter’s story would be in such a big newspaper. But the piece didn’t run in the end because it wasn’t deemed news-y or urgent enough. I felt incredibly guilty for wasting the parents’ time and letting them down.

What do you miss about Cambridge?

I miss having so many friends in such a short vicinity. And I miss going to lectures and supervisions actually, it was a massive privilege to have such intelligent people imparting their knowledge to me all the time.

…and what do you not miss?

It felt quite cliquey, those sort of fall apart after Cambridge.

Leaf: “It was a massive privilege to have such intelligent people imparting their knowledge to me all the time.”

Did you know what you were going to do before you graduated?

No but I suspected it would either be academia or journalism.

What are your personal aims for 2017?

Secure a publisher for my novel.

What’s your pipe dream? Be bold.  

Erm, I’d like to be interviewed on Desert Island Discs? Never going to happen but still.

Name three women you look up to.

Eleanor Mills, J.K Rowling, my mum.

Any words of wisdom for current undergrads apprehensive about job prospects?

Do take advantage of summer, Easter and Christmas holidays to intern. It’s rough not being paid but cut costs by sleeping on friends’ floors if you don’t have a house in London. It’s a useful way of trying on jobs for size without ever having to commit – you’ll know after a week’s work experience in advertising if it’s for you, and the same I imagine would apply to other sectors e.g. banking and consultancy

I think not being too stressed about the jobs thing is wise too – none of my friends are unemployed now, having left Cambridge in 2014. Having the University on your CV will help a lot. Equally it may not guarantee your dream job immediately after leaving so be relaxed about that too.

One thing I found useful was to decide what I wanted my life to revolve around after university: money (e.g. banking), interesting work, or worthy work (e.g. charity sector stuff). I realized I most wanted it to revolve around the middle option, so I went into journalism.

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