Want my job? with Nabeelah Shabbir, Deputy Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists

Learn from Nabeelah's varied experience as a journalist across Europe

Hi Nabeelah. Please introduce yourself to the reader.  

I’m Nabeelah, a British-Pakistani freelance journalist based in Amsterdam. I am Deputy Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which is based in Washington DC.

Tell us about your work at the International Center for Journalists.

I started working for ICFJ as a Senior Research Associate in the thick of the pandemic, January 2021. In that time I’ve worked across three main research areas: the impact of the pandemic on journalism; online violence against women journalists; and how newsrooms are fighting disinformation. While I am not doing journalism for a news organisation in my current role, I am working alongside many journalists from all over the world, so I do feel very plugged in. 

What are the ups and downs of being a journalist?

I’ll start with the downs: for a year, I was an unpaid intern. I am not sure I would do that again. Then for ten years, I was paid poorly as a journalist. It was hard to get and keep a permanent role in journalism in the UK, where I am from. Like many others, it is a competitive industry, and so it always meant that it was easier to find work abroad, mostly in Europe. I have lived on the continent for over a decade now, between France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

The ups: working in a multilingual space when it came to journalism. When I worked in a newsroom in Paris for much of my early career, I was surrounded by editors from Spain, France, Germany, Poland and Italy, and the main languages for the newsroom were thus in French and English, but also Italian, Spanish or Polish. It contributed so much to my understanding of how Brits write and report (which felt very close to the German model). 

I also learned so much about myself as a European. I was usually editing journalists whose native tongue was not English, which was another insight into who they were and what they wanted to say in their writing. We would often adapt other people’s articles and translate them into other languages, which gave us a very unique perspective on each other. If you’re a curious person who likes asking questions, in journalism you can learn so much about other people, cultures, societies, issues. In turn, you find out who you are in the grander scheme of things. I don’t think you ever stop learning.

What are the highlights of your career to date? 

I would cite three different highlights.

Firstly, whilst working in Paris, I had the great fortune of running a two-year journalism reporting programme in the Balkans. That experience alone – of working in a region fraught with recent history and tensions – was unique. The entire experience of working in my 20s to understand wider European, Balkan and Turkish ‘neighbourhoods’ has defined me as a person today.

Secondly, it was getting a traineeship and joining The Guardian. I did it at the grand old age of 30 and was the oldest in my cohort. Joining a legacy newsroom after many years in a creative start-up space was an important experience. I learned so much more about values, such as speaking truth to power. Plus, it was a dream job since I used to read The Guardian online ‘cover to cover’. I only managed to stay at the newspaper for two years in London, but it ended in a British Journalism Award which I shared with the team I was working with. Thank you to my editor there!

Finally, in recent years I have worked with NHK, the main broadcasting corporation in Japan, and it has been a thrilling highlight of my career. I have been able to bring my transferable skills to a completely new audience, and once again challenge myself in a new environment. It has been amazing.

Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it? 

It’s really, really hard to find a job. Or at least, it was for me. I don’t forget those days very easily. I have an old Hotmail account which is full of applications and rejections. I think it’s important to remember those times as a sign of resilience and believing in yourself. Eventually I realised it was important to work somewhere where my skills wanted as much as I wanted the role.

I’d also say my experiences working in news startups have been very hard – in the two or three that I worked at, it was really hard to find a sustainability model for the media, no matter how great the journalism that we did or new angles that we found for it. I don’t regret the experiences. I just wish there were more success stories for smaller, independent media organisations.

I got to do a lot of research about that at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based at the University of Oxford, right after my contract at The Guardian was up. That another fun job which was journalism-adjacent and allowed me to interview editors and journalists in different languages.

Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what? 

The changes I am noticing only came to me as I got older and understood more about what was missing in the industry. Namely, diverse views and perspectives. To some extent, we had that in our European media by reporting with and about people from different countries in the EU-bloc. But, in fact, I have always struggled with being a brown woman in an industry which is elitist and often speaks to its bubbles. I got a glimpse of what a truly transnational media could look like when I worked at The Correspondent in Amsterdam, a short-lived journalism enterprise, exclusively with writers from India, Sudan, Nigeria and southern Italy. Every day, we reported on the same issues: climate change, early childhood development, mental health, politics, racism. I realised how much the “other” can bring to this kind of journalism, reporting on systemic problems. 

I have not yet figured out how journalism can better make us all care more, about each other in particular, and move beyond our tribes. Societies have become more polarised. The Big Tech platforms have transformed how news organisations are discovered, but have also done almost nothing about disinformation and rampant abuse targeted at journalists over the years. Independent news organisations are struggling to be funded and to grow organically. Plus, generative AI projects are being rolled out in newsrooms large and small, and while some of those tools are exciting, it has the potential to disrupt the industry again. So many of us are working remotely in these post-pandemic years, which can be a good thing, but no-one should be reporting from an ivory tower. 

I worry about my current research at ICFJ. I research how incredible journalists are being chilled out of the profession when they are targeted online (and even offline) for their work, especially when they are women or have intersectional identities. I worry about what information readers perceive to be true. And, there is an eternal problem in journalism about who gets to tell our stories, and to whom.

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say? 

Do NOT work for free for a year when you graduate! Keep reading and being inquisitive. Trust your instincts. 

What advice would you give to young people interested in a similar career? 

Learn languages. Save money. I managed to do this by taking on other jobs along the way, but I wish I had done more. Trust who you are, because it can be difficult to find that out when more classic news organisations, especially if you come from a background which is not as traditional as those of the ones who populate the newsrooms. Always keep reading and writing, especially the journalists you admire. You’ll find your voice. You’ll find your people and the topics you want to report on.

Header Image Credit: Domink Osvald

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