August 2020

Food for thought: meet Ellen Manning

From her days as a student reporter at Leeds to covering the Royal Wedding and the 2012 London Olympics as well as spending a day as Prince William’s ‘casualty’ in his role as an RAF Search and Rescue pilot, Ellen Manning has covered a lot of ground in her career as a journalist. Now working freelance, she shares with us her journey after Leeds and her growing passion for food writing.

Ellen, start by telling us about your current work as a freelance journalist and PR consultant?

EM: As a freelance journalist and PR consultant, my work is pretty varied. I've been a journalist since I graduated, starting with a job at my local newspaper and working my way up to become chief reporter of the Press Association, the UK's national news agency. After a brief stint writing about telecoms after that, I decided to go freelance in 2016, writing news and features for a range of national publications. I write about a whole range of subjects, from food to business to technology and some comment pieces. As a journalist who has worked with PR companies and consultants for years, I increasingly found people asking me for advice about what it is that journalists wanted, so I also started offering my services as a PR consultant. I work mainly with small businesses, helping them tell their stories and gain media coverage. I also deliver media training and do some public speaking, as well as appearing regularly on BBC radio.

You studied English at Leeds and graduated in 2004 – tell us what you most enjoyed about your course and living in the city.

EM: When I was trying to decide what to study at university, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I met broadcaster Jon Snow at a book signing and his advice was to study something that interested me and that I was passionate about, which was English. I had always loved literature and had an interest in current affairs, so it made sense to choose English Language and Literature. I loved the variety of the course – we studied everything from Anglo-Saxon works right up to modern day literature. I also found some brilliant modules that seemed unlike anything I had ever seen before - including one on literature and pain, as well as others that included a broad range of diverse literature and authors.

For an 18-year-old from a small town, living in the city was a whole new world. I loved how vibrant Leeds was (and still is) - from culture and live music to bars and pubs. It felt like everything was so accessible, and the city felt young and fresh, as well as safe. Many of my uni friends stayed in Leeds after we left and still live there, and every time I visit I get the same smile on my face at all the wonderful memories we made, whilst also looking forward to seeing the latest way that the city has changed and evolved. It's almost unrecognisable since I was there, yet has the same vibrant feel.

While at University you were an active member of the student newspaper and LSR radio – how do you think this has influenced and shaped your career?

EM: Becoming involved in the student newspaper and LSR pretty much set me on the career path that I'm on now. As I said, I didn't know what I wanted to be when I 'grew up' when I was choosing my degree course, but getting involved in these great organisations at university pretty much made up my mind for me. Both were fun, challenging, inclusive and full of passionate people keen to create something that was never dismissed as 'just a student radio station or newspaper', but had the level of professionalism that would allow them to stand tall among the real deal. They were inspiring things to be involved in and pretty much set my course for a career I wouldn't change for the world.

After graduating, was it challenging to find your first role?

EM: Once I decided journalism was what I wanted to do, I was advised that work experience would be vital in securing a role so spent my holidays from university doing stints at radio stations and newspapers. Shortly before the end of my course I noticed a job advertised at my local newspaper, the Redditch Standard, and applied. The role was a trainee reporter role and the newspaper would pay for me to do an NCTJ qualification one day a week at college whilst also learning on the job and was the perfect job at the time. I got it, and left Leeds on the Friday and started work on the Monday. With pressure on local newspapers greater than they've ever been, I'm not sure it would be that straightforward nowadays, but it does go to show that putting in the time and effort to show you're passionate about your chosen career can go a long way.

You began your work in regional journalism before shifting to press agencies and becoming Chief Reporter at the PA. What were some of the most memorable stories and events you covered?

EM: Even as a regional reporter, I had some amazing opportunities, including interviewing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they visited my local town during the 2005 election campaign. As a reporter for PA I had even more opportunities. I was embedded with British troops in Afghanistan several times, including once with Prince William when he visited Helmand Province for Remembrance Commemorations. I also covered a 'day in the life' of William while he was a Search and Rescue pilot, and volunteered to play the role of a casualty to be winched up by his helicopter (a slightly surreal moment to say the least). I've covered investitures at Buckingham Palace, was flown out to the Mediterranean to cover the Royal Navy on exercise, and covered Wimbledon several times. There were plenty of memorable court cases, from the phone hacking case to the trials of high-profile celebrities. The list goes on, but I had some brilliant experiences courtesy of my job.

While at PA you covered the Olympics and the Royal Wedding – what are your abiding memories of working on those events?

EM: Both were one-off experiences really. I think most reporters covering them were conscious that some journalists never get to cover these kind of events during their careers so we all felt quite lucky. They were also huge logistical efforts for an organisation like PA, requiring hours of preparation, planning and organisation for all of us, with all the accompanying anxiety that things go without a hitch. In the run-up to the Royal Wedding I was seconded to help PA's royal correspondents with an array of preparatory work, from interviewing cake makers to writing profiles and features.

The Olympics was a hugely memorable experience. While sports correspondents covered many of the events, their news value meant that as news reporters we were dispatched to various events to cover historic moments, so I witnessed everything from Mo Farah's track success to Andy Murray's tennis gold medal. We worked hard and played hard so even if we weren't writing stories, we were watching as many events as we could. For me the highlights were the mad dash across London from Wimbledon to watch Usain Bolt win the 100m, as well as the spectacular closing ceremony and being able to actually walk on the track afterwards.

Four years ago, you made the decision to go freelance, broadening the stories and topics you write about, what prompted you to make this move?

EM: After years of covering national news at a fast-paced, competitive level, never really knowing where I'd be each day or when my day would finish, then a brief stint in a job that was more straightforward but still required a long commute, I decided I wanted the freedom of writing what I wanted to write about, along with the freedom of working the hours that would allow me to have a greater balance. My husband works strange shifts so me working 9-5 doesn't really work for us, which meant freelancing seemed the perfect answer. I also wanted to write longer-form features on ideas that I had pitched, rather than only reactive news reporting. Now I do a mixture of both which gives me the flexibility I had hoped for.

As well as your general writing and PR work, you are an established food writer. How did that start and tell us about your blog Eat with Ellen.

EM: While I was in the role I was in before I went freelancing, I was itching for an outlet for creativity where I could write what I wanted to write about so I started a hobby food blog, Eat with Ellen. When I went freelance it seemed to make sense that I should combine my passion for food writing with actually earning some money, so I decided to start pitching food pieces. It meant changing from being an established news reporter to trying to break into a field I hadn't previously written in, but I persevered and now write for several publications about food and drink. I'd always like to write for more publications, but it's a case of continuing to pitch ideas and build contacts.

Eat with Ellen is a hobby that allowed me a creative outlet where I am writer and editor all wrapped up in one. I review restaurants I've been to, make a few musings, and champion local food and drink businesses. To be honest, anyone can write a blog – they're easy to start and can be useful platforms to showcase your work or just allow your creativity to shine. It doesn't earn me anything, but I think probably demonstrates my passion for food and food writing. It also won best food and drink blog at the Midlands Food Drink and Hospitality Awards in 2018 so it was nice to receive some recognition for something I put quite a bit of effort into. When it comes to writing about food, I think you need to be able to try to transport a reader to the table with you, making them almost taste what you're eating just from reading your words. It's something I'm always trying to get better at, but practising is important. The more you write, the better you get.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever eaten and what is your go-to menu item?

EM: Such a difficult question. I've had some wonderful meals at Michelin-starred restaurants - Opheem in Birmingham was a real highlight. However, I do love some of the great restaurants that maybe don't have a star but are turning out wonderful food. Socius in Burnham Market in Norfolk is one of my favourite places, and The Mash Inn in the Chilterns is lovely too. Sometimes it's not just about the food but the whole package – the service, the setting, the ambience. When it comes to go-to menu items, I am a bit of a carnivore so will always tend to go for some meat on the menu.

Both PR and journalism have gone through significant changes in recent years, with more content being accessed digitally and a significant decline in circulation for newspapers. How do you view the changes and what do you think the future looks like for both industries?

EM: It makes me sad to see the decline of newspapers, especially local papers which really are struggling. As sad as it is, I do think somehow their models need to change and they need to try to find a way of creating revenue that doesn't rely on advertising. The future is incredibly uncertain. However, I do think there will always be a place for journalism and PR and also for print media, it's a case of being able to diversify and find a way ahead.

We have loved your messages to our alumni community in recent months – tell us your own experiences of lockdown and any advice you have for those in similar situations.

EM: In some ways, lockdown didn't particularly mean much change for me. My husband is a firefighter so continued working as normal and I normally work from home anyway. Being self-employed meant it was an uncertain time for work, but after an initial period of worry I did manage to find work, and so lockdown actually proved to be rather enjoyable in some ways. We don't have children so didn't have the stress of trying to home school, so lockdown for us involved work, lots of long walks, revamping our garden and enjoying a slightly slower pace. With no client meetings for the PR side of my business, there was less rushing around which allowed me more time to do other things. Obviously we missed loved ones hugely, but I consider us quite lucky compared to many. I suppose in terms of advice, the biggest learning point for me was accepting that it would be difficult emotionally. Some days I felt brilliant but others felt hugely negative and I soon learned that lots of people had similar feelings. I think in situations like lockdown it's important to just cut yourself some slack and not be too hard on yourself – worrying about whether you're working hard enough, or being positive enough, or doing enough doesn't help. Go easy on yourself.

Do you think that our approach to work will fundamentally change as a result of the current pandemic?

EM: Absolutely. I think employers have seen that allowing employees to work from home doesn't necessarily affect their efficiency and in fact brings other benefits. As someone who really cherishes the flexibility that being self-employed allows me, I think it's obvious that employees are embracing the similar level of flexibility that working from home has allowed, and if that doesn't affect their ability to perform their job then it's a win-win situation for everyone. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that perhaps many of us had the work-life balance wrong and one positive to come out of it could be that we reassess the way we approach work and maybe get that balance right.

What advice would you give to those students who have graduated from Leeds this year and are currently assessing their career options?

EM: I really do feel for graduates and anyone looking for work at the moment or trying to start a career. It's more competitive than ever and must be hugely daunting. I would say that when you're trying to decide a career, think about what you'll love doing rather than just the salary or 'prospects'. Work is something you will spend a huge amount of your life doing, and if you don't enjoy it then you're in for a rather miserable existence. Contacts are hugely important too. The saying, 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' may be hackneyed but it's a saying for a reason. Contacts are invaluable and people are often so willing to help people starting out on their careers. We've all been there, so helping someone who is further down the line is something people are happy to do. It's not a case of having to be born into a certain family or from a certain background - contacts can be formed and made by anyone, it's just a case of building relationships and not being afraid to ask for help.