Ismail Mulla is Comment Editor at the Yorkshire Post and has recently been nominated for the British Muslim Media Achievement of the Year award, for the second year running. He talked to us about his career so far, being a role model for young muslims going into journalism and his passion for cricket.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a journalist?
This is going to sound really sad but from the age of 10. I remember being in Mr. Blake’s English lesson in Year 6 and we were doing mock news reports. It was basically a crime report of a fox being arrested for committing a crime. It was the little things that reporters did that really intrigued me, like changing Mr. Fox to Fox in the crime report after he’d been found guilty. It was that fascination with the English language that got me interested.
Also my dad always brought home a copy of whatever newspaper he was reading at the time and I used to flick through the sports report. He encouraged me to start reading the news pages and I thought I can do that, it looks really straightforward. Obviously it’s not – news reporters do a very difficult job – but at that age you don’t know.
How did you enter the profession (education/training etc)?
I did an undergraduate BA in journalism at Leeds Beckett University and that equipped me with all the skills I needed to enter the industry. Coming out of university in 2012 the jobs market wasn’t great – journalism had probably been through its worst cyclical recession ever. So I was knocking about a bit, working in retail and also doing some freelance work to keep my hand in. I worked for a couple of small specialist South Asian newspapers near Dewsbury where I live.
I did that for a couple of years, and then the Yorkshire Post launched an internship in partnership with a printing charity in 2014. It was a position for a year which allowed a young person to come on board and work for the Yorkshire Post business desk, which was and still is really well respected. At the end they’d have the skills required to either find a job elsewhere, or if a position became available, the Yorkshire Post might hire them.
I had the interview and was lucky, I got it and spent a year working on the business desk. Towards the end, they wanted to keep me on but there was a recruitment freeze across the company, because things were tough, which they often are in journalism. So they spoke to the printing charity and agreed to extend the internship by month, so that I wouldn’t be at a loose end. Then one of my colleagues on the business desk resigned and they asked me if I’d like to continue working with them. I stayed on the business desk until last August when I moved on to become Comment Editor.
During that time I did the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualification, which I completed during lockdown.
What was the first story you wrote?
For the Yorkshire Post my first story was rather humdrum, but a real eye opener for me. It was about the manufacturing PMI index, and while I can’t recall the exact details I remember the newsroom was really hectic that Monday because they’d just had their business awards and everyone was very busy. They told me to get one with it. They gave me the PMI index and a list of people to talk to and told me to figure out the story. I’d never wanted to be a business journalist and it was really hard to understand some of the more technical terms. I remember talking to analysts and experts and trying to get them to explain to me what things meant. So while it wasn’t earth shattering it taught me a lot.
What is your favourite story to have worked on?
Oh that’s quite difficult to answer. I think the stories I really like are the ones that make a difference. Before I left the business desk I did a story on a young Ukrainian entrepreneur who’d fled the war. She was a fashion designer who had landed here and was going through a difficult time. She wanted to launch a business of her own and make a success of it. I wrote the story and got messages on LinkedIn from people saying they wanted to help her. I put her in touch with them and quite a few of them really helped her get her business off the ground. She’s had free PR help and pop-up shops in prestigious locations. That sticks in my mind.
I’ve also done a lot of stuff on autism and autism awareness, and wrote a series of stories on neurodiversity during and after lockdown. People have since told me that I helped give them hope and enabled them to speak more openly about mental health – those are the fulfilling stories.
What’s the most difficult story you’ve worked on?
There was one story that was quite harrowing about ex-offenders turning their lives around and they talked about some of the stuff they had done in the past. That was really difficult from an emotional point of view, because you realise that these people have ruined other people’s lives, their loved ones’ lives and their lives as well. And you have to handle the details they give you in a sensitive and sensible manner without being crass.
Who’s the most famous person you’ve interviewed?
I interviewed Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain. He was always a hero of mine, and Jonathan Agnew, the cricket broadcaster. I’m a bit of a cricket badger. Otherwise I generally don’t tend to seek out famous people for interviews.
What challenges do you feel you’ve faced as an Asian Muslim in mainstream journalism?
Initially it was probably contacts, because not many people from my sort of background go into journalism, as it’s not seen as a career for them. So there weren’t many role models to look up to.
When you first enter the newsroom, because there are so few Muslims working in journalism, people don’t know what to expect. We’ve had a few at the Yorkshire Post, so we’ve been lucky. And it’s nice to have the support of colleagues. When I started I was really conscious of whether I’d fit in, but everyone made me feel really welcome.
The biggest challenge is probably lack of a clear path, because not many Muslim people take that path into journalism, particularly in print. You may see them on television a bit more. Hopefully I think that’s changing as more people see it as a feasible career and realise you don’t have to be of a particular type to fit in to a newsroom like ours. It might be different on the nationals and I don’t want to downplay this, as there are class differences and gender bias in certain newsrooms across the country, so you have to be mindful of that.
As a British Muslim I’ve had it pretty good. And there are benefits to having diversity in the newsroom as it makes for better coverage.
You’ve just been nominated for the British Muslim Media Achievement of the Year – what was that for and how do you feel about it?
I think it’s my general contribution and work. I don’t know who nominated me, but whoever it was, I genuinely can’t thank them enough. It’s always nice to have that sort of recognition. I’ve had a few messages in the past on LinkedIn saying thanks to you I can see a path in journalism, and that’s probably more rewarding than any award. When someone says I can see a bit of myself in you and I think I can become a journalist – it’s always nice to have that kind of feedback from people.
Can you describe your working day
As Comment Editor I like to start early – around seven o’clock. I’ll usually get a couple of op-eds onto the page and ready for the web. Everything has to go online first. Then one of our regular contributors will send theirs in and I’ll get that on the page too. Then I turn my attention to leaders – which is where the newspaper gives on opinion. I’ll have the radio on in the background – BBC News, Sky News – to keep up to date with any national news stories that are of concern to the Yorkshire region. I’ll also be keeping an eye on the news list which our Editor puts together with the stories we will be running over the next 24 hours, both online and in print. Then I start preparing my own list of what I’m going to run online.
Around 11 o’clock we have our morning conference meeting where all the department editors gather. We go through our lists and flag up any issues. After that I stay on with the Editor and we have a frank discussion about what we should cover for leaders, our approach and what positions we should take. Then I’ll start writing the leaders, filling any gaps and chase columns that may be missing. I also plan what we’ll run later in the week.
The last thing in the day will be the letters page, which I will do for the following day so we’re always a couple of days in advance. These are readers’ letters responding to our stories.
With deadlines and the fast-paced environment of journalism, it must be quite a pressurised and stressful job. How do you relax in you spare time?
I like to watch a lot of cricket. I also like a good book and enjoy watching films, particularly film noir. Occasionally we just go for a walk around the park.
How do you prefer to be contacted by people (email, telephone etc)?
It’s best to email because there are no longer many people in the newsroom, so telephones don’t always get answered.
How can people submitting news stories best grab your attention with their press releases?
Keep it clear and keep it simple. Tell us what the story is in the subject line, and if you have a press release put it in the body of the email because we can’t always open attachments. And make sure you’ve got Hi-Res pictures attached.
Ismail can be contacted at email@example.com