Journalism Diversity Fund: Turning a pipe dream into reality

After a heartfelt speech at the annual Journalism Diversity Fund celebratory lunch, fund recipient Layth Yousif looked back at how it helped him become a reporter at the Bedford Times & Citizen:

layth yousif

I grew up on council estates in London to immigrant parents who arrived in England without a penny to their name and my dad experienced overt racism in the 1970s due to the colour of his skin. Some of my friends ended up in young offender institutions, some got into drugs, whilst others simply dropped out of school at an early age without any qualifications.

My parents had always instilled a strong work ethic and through my love of writing I had always wanted to be a journalist. It was through their help I managed to get the grades to go to Newcastle University. I had a very enjoyable time there – some would say too enjoyable – but when I graduated I wrote to over 100 publications asking for a job. I had always spent summers doing work experience for local newspapers whilst fitting in jobs to pay my way but when I failed to receive a single reply I fell into back office roles for various Investment banks in the City.

What I should have done – and it took me a long time to realise the fact – was to re-send those applications again and again and again, until someone did reply. Unfortunately I didn’t realise it at the time. I just thought journalism didn’t want me.

Ironically I worked moving numbers around rather than words for a long time, becoming more and more disillusioned with the path my career – or lack of one – had taken me. The complete lack of satisfaction, not to mention frustration at the fact I wasn’t writing and hadn’t fulfilled my childhood ambition of becoming a journalist began to get worse.

My job gave no tangible or intangible benefit to society and although I met a lot of good people I still keep in touch with – the overriding feeling from working in the City was one of utter exasperation and dissatisfaction at my failure to do a job I had dreamt of doing from a young age.

To cut a long story short, after doing an MBA which included a lot of writing and some charity work in Uganda I decided with the backing of my partner Claire to give myself a year to break into journalism.

It was a bit of a leap in the dark but the best piece of advice I received during those early months was never say ‘no’ to anything, write as much as you can, and get as much work experience as you can. I was also lucky enough to get accepted onto an NCTJ newspaper journalism diploma course at Lambeth College run by the indefatigable Roz McKenzie.

I have a lot to thank Roz for, including her first making me aware of the Journalism Diversity Fund. She encouraged me to apply, so I did. My first application was unsuccessful but now armed with a more persistent mentality I tried again a few months later- but this time with far more work experience under my belt thanks to John Francis, one of the best local newspaper editors in the UK.

After passing John’s stringent tests I was lucky enough to gain work experience at the Bedford Times and Citizen, the Luton News, the Dunstable Gazette, the Leighton Buzzard Observer and the Hemel Hemsptead Gazette. I have a lot to thank John for, including his constant support, advice, belief in me and mentorship.

At my diversity fund interview I was so nervous when I lifted a cup of water my hands wouldn’t stop shaking – but somehow I managed to persuade the panel, which included Joanne Butcher and Evening Standard deputy editor Will Gore, I was worth a punt.

The support from the diversity fund has been brilliant. I owe them so much – not just from the financial angle, which in itself played a significant part in helping me do the course, but from tangible support in terms of accessing their contacts book.

With Will and Joanne’s help I was fortunate enough to be allowed to spend time on the Standard sports desk, first on work experience, then as an official freelancer in my own right – and to date I have sourced quotes from Sol Campbell and Kenny Sansom for them and have had a large number of articles appear on their digital edition. I was also asked to represent the Standard in interviewing Ray Parlour for a piece and regularly write online sports pieces for them including Champions League and Premier League player ratings.

During my time on the course I was published in over 50 publications both online and in print including Four-Four-Two, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, the official Arsenal website, The Gooner, The Sunday People, Sabotage Times and others on a variety of subjects including sport, travel, news, business, music, health and books.

But I always saw my future in local journalism and thanks to the Journalism Diversity Fund, Roz, Joanne and John amongst many others, I was employed as a freelance news reporter for the Bedford Times and Citizen – and I absolutely love my job! I was talking to my partner the other day and I simply said I don’t have the ‘Sunday night feeling’ anymore. I love my job, I love my profession and I love the challenge of being able to tell a story the best way I can.

One of the things I enjoy about being a journalist is no two days are ever the same. I have already conducted one-to-one interviews with Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Vince Cable and Nadine Dorries amongst others. My biggest achievement to date was my investigation into a doctor which culminated in him being stripped of his MBE. I have also been asked to run my newspaper’s campaign in getting the town behind the local football team.

In the last month alone I worked on stories regarding stalkers, murder cases, suicide inquests and traffic accidents as well as my region’s biggest sunflower, school fetes and local council meetings and an exclusive or two including one on the local rugby club. I can honestly say I’ve loved every minute.

Earlier this summer I was also lucky enough to be commissioned to write a book entitled Arsene Wenger 50 Defining Fixtures, which through my efforts is now stocked in Tesco and Waterstones. I have recently started a weekend book signing tour with my next one being at Waterstones, Islington on Saturday September 27 from 11-3pm – so any local reviews of the book would be greatly appreciated! I have also been commissioned to write two further books in 2015 and 2016.

I have to stress none of this would be possible without the help and support of the Journalism Diversity Fund and the many talented journalists I have met along the way who have helped me make what was once a pipe dream become a reality – and of course my family including my three kids and my partner Claire.

I would encourage all aspiring journalists to consider the Journalism Diversity Fund – and if I can help anyone who aspires to be a journalist in any way I will – as I was once helped by the fund and journalists who believed in me.

To buy Layth’s book Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures with a foreword by Sol Campbell click on http://www.amazon.co.uk/Arsene-Wenger-Fifty-Defining-Fixtures/dp/1445642212

Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29 and @laythjourno

[This blog was originally posted on the Hold the Front Page website and has been edited.]