A historian in journalism – one week into the job

NewsJust over one week into my new job at the press agency I must say I absolutely love it. Working at the foreign languages desk I spend most of my day monitoring the news coming in from our correspondents all over the world via the various ‘queues’ on my computer screen and see if any translations are needed.

Most of the time the various desks, politics, panorama, sports etc, ask us to do translations for them – from English (mostly) and Spanish (rarely) into German – or we offer them stories we think might be of interest to them. We also keep an eye on the news generally, checking newspapers and websites, and sometimes we do our own stories or cover for a correspondent who is away on an assignment or on holiday.

Being paid to read the newspaper

Yes, ok, I’m being paid to read the newspaper. But that’s not the whole story. I also learn a lot. Most of the time the stories we translate need a fair amount of additional research. Some of it can be done on the Internet, some of it on various internal and external databases storing information on people, places and events. In the past week I’ve learnt among other things about the Nepalese constitution, the reasoning of the jury that convicted the Boston bomber, and a young woman who escaped Boko Haram.

It’s not just the stories themselves I enjoy. Doing the translations is fun too. The perfectionist in me always wants to find the right word, the correct idiom, the best way of putting it. Sometimes several colleagues at a time are deliberating about the best translation. With an international team of journalists and translators, including native speakers of English, Spanish and German, you learn a lot about the nuances of a language and the (subconscious) prejudices of its speakers.

You also learn a lot about things you never thought you would take an interest in – like golf. The story about Tiger Woods’ comeback was definitely the most difficult one I’ve had to translate so far, mainly because I don’t play golf myself and don’t know anything about putts, chips, birdies and the lot. Thanks to my colleague on the sports desk and various amateur golfers in the office I now know a little bit more.

A deadline is a deadline

What I really like about the job though is the speed and the almost instant reward when a story goes out. It’s even better when you find it on the web or see it printed in the paper a day later. You know that you have done something, and that you have provided a service many people will benefit from. No monograph, book chapter or academic article I’ve written will ever get the same exposure.

Just writeAlas, my background in journalism means I can get very impatient with academic procrastination. As a professional historian I have produced three edited collections within the last four years (well, the last one is due out later this year). I really enjoy this sort of thing; I go into editing mode almost naturally. But I simply don’t understand why academics have such an issue with keeping deadlines.

In journalism, if you don’t make a deadline, you’re in deep trouble. Nobody needs to read yesterday’s news. In academia deadlines seem to be just a rough guide to the decade in which you want to see your work published. I must have driven the contributors to my various edited collections bonkers with my insistence on timely submission, and I’ve certainly learnt my lessons in patience, even though my polite responses to extension requests for delayed chapters must have got increasingly passive aggressive.

Thinking on your feet

When I worked for the new agency for the first time in 2007-8, we had a stringer in Gaza who called the office to say his location was under enemy fire and he had to move on to somewhere safer. But he still kept filing. Whenever an academic tells me they can’t make a deadline, I think of that stringer in Gaza. Just write!

But, of course, it’s not all about speed. It’s about accuracy too. That’s why we always ask another colleague to look over our texts before they go out. Where errors in academic monographs can remain hidden for years, errors in news stories come back to you immediately, and correcting them might not always be easy – or pleasant. You really have to think on your feet. I’ll see if I can get used to that.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. I’ve only ever had one serious deadline issue. A book to which I contributed an article (the festschrift for my advisor, actually) is now 5 years late. In part it is because one of the editors became a witness in a lawsuit about scholarly plagiarism that are up years of his free time, but also in part because they demanded –not joking here–four rounds of editorial comment and revision. The last time they asked for changes, I almost refused.

  2. Sounds fairly typical, although that doesn’t make it any better. There are two sides to this though: In journalism the respective editor often changes a text without necessarily consulting the author (if the meaning is clear) as it would simply take too long. At least in an academic context you tend to approve what goes out under your name. Having said that, I quite enjoy being able to edit texts without too much fuss… 😉

  3. I am coming rather late to the party, only just reading this now, but it seems like you’re enjoying your job and you raise some important points about the academy and also the value of the global reach of your work. Very interesting.

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