Jane Ferguson: From Pulling Pints at The Last Drop Inn to Reporting From Afghanistan

“I slept on a lot of sofas, ate a lot of cheese triangles and flew a lot of budget airlines around the Middle East and Africa.” Vision catches up with our ex-News Editor and now PBS Special Correspondent

(Image: Jane Ferguson)

“I have in my mind the major geopolitical and macroeconomic impacts of these stories but it doesn’t really feel like that when you’re on the ground. “

“When you’re on the ground you’re covering a story in there – whether you are in Yemen covering the fallout of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, or whether you are in the West Bank talking about the situation there between settlers and Palestinians.”

That’s Jane Ferguson speaking to me over a dodgy connection on Zoom a few months ago. Jane is a Special Correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. She has covered some of the most significant global political events in the last decade, from the Arab Spring to the war in Afghanistan and the battle against ISIS in Iraq in 2016.

“Ultimately it’s my job to cover events on the ground, so the approach has to be a storytelling one. You know, we go in there to communicate, yes, important facts and figures, but we’re really there to tell stories so that people can understand what it looks, feels and sounds like to live through it and why it’s happening.”

For Jane, bringing humanity to conflicts is her goal as a reporter: “A lot of that comes down to getting in there and finding human beings to tell the story for you. 

Facing the danger of her job, she is remarkably level-headed: “Risk and fear are two different things. I get scared all the time.

“But,” she says “the experience of being there is not Oh My God I’m covering the crisis in the Middle East, it’s more like, oh, look, I’m in Romala today in the West Bank and protesters are over there and the IDF are over there and I’m going to cover what’s happening right here right now and then I will add context.

“When you’re out in the field the news comes and smacks you in the face. You’re in it as it’s happening just by the very nature of what it is, so a lot of it is ‘say what you see.’”

I ask her, why do this specific kind of work?

“I think it matters…having eyes and ears on the ground in conflict is very important for keeping checks on conduct in war.

“I’ve always wanted to help people commute,” Jane says.

“That’s essentially what we’re doing, we’re trying to help people around the world feel connected even to those living through some of the worst experiences and worst excesses of human behaviour.

“Conflict happens everywhere to every person, creed, religion, colour. None of us need to go very far back in our ancestry to find somebody who fought in a war and was impacted. I think that better understanding war matters.

“I’m not an adrenaline-junkie and I don’t take my life lightly,” she says, but “people around the world, often without a choice, live in a more precarious situation.”

“There’s always a calculation. No one ever sees the stories that I decided not to do or the road I decided not to travel…but the risks that I take are the ones that I think are worth it to do meaningful work and to live a life that I think has this sense of purpose. To me, it’s worth it.”

On being a woman in Journalism and Broadcasting, Jane reflects on where gender has been a barrier. Despite working and reporting from some of the world’s most conservative countries, she says a lot of the challenges have actually been closer to home:

“In the early days of my career when I was starting to get into broadcasting, it had way more of an impact on my career.

“All the networks were run by men; all the selection of correspondents who were female were seen through a male gaze. 

“I remember being under an incredible amount of pressure to be good looking, which I was not.

“I remember being in Somalia by myself being a one-woman-band with my camera. I looked like hell and it mattered. I felt an extraordinary pressure to look a certain way. 

“That has improved over the years, thank God, and we’re much less shallow in the way that we assess correspondents. 

“There have been times when I’ve been pulled from the field, from a dangerous story, and told it was because I’ve been a woman, but mostly that has been very rare.”

She says that determination is the answer to handling sexism: “The way to handle it is just the way anybody handles any obstacle that’s born of the ignorance of another who happens to have a grain of power over you: just find a way around it and keep going. You know, I’ve moved news organisations, I’ve kept working and things changed and things got better.

“I often think about the women that came before us…the women who were covering Vietnam and the Korean war. There were a lot of women there and it was harder.

“In my 15 years, I have seen things change so much and that has been really encouraging.”

For Jane, starting out in the industry in the late noughties was also challenging because of the Financial Crisis.

“It’s really hard for me to describe how few entry level jobs there were.

“We became that first generation…the first tranche of en masse freelancers.

She recalls, “I was flat broke and I was removing staples from an insurance document at an insurance company at a desk job in London. Before that I’d been pulling pints at the Last Drop Inn in York.”

When a relative was kind enough to give her a cheque, she decided to go to Yemen to study Arabic. “It changed my life.”

“I applied for a job in Dubai and I moved out there as a reporter. But, all that is to say that the biggest challenge was just getting started. 

“All those people would say oh well if you just had more experience we’d be able to give you this job, but like how am I meant to get experience, you know? Like? It was Kafka-esque: that was the hardest thing.”

Nowadays, Jane says Journalism is increasingly elitist and inaccessible.

“With news organisations so squeezed that they’re really relying on freelancers, if you can afford to live abroad and you don’t actually need [to work] to pay your bills, you’re at a great advantage. I was not in that position and so I slept on a lot of sofas, I ate a lot of cheese triangles and I flew a lot of budget airlines around the Middle East and Africa and did my work that way. 

Finally, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Jane (or ‘Janie’, back in 2006, as we found out while looking through our archives), was once News Editor here at York Vision while she was studying English and Politics.

When I ask her she takes a moment to remember (through the whirlwind of her life) what it was actually like.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to write, I wasn’t studying Journalism, I supposed nobody at York is, but I knew I wanted to be a journalist really badly.”

“The year before I arrived there was a very serious story about a paedophile, a sex scandal – child pornography – something about a professor.

“I remember I started as Deputy News Editor. I wasn’t a very good editor, I didn’t know how to use the online editing computer program but I really enjoyed holding editorial meetings and helping edit pieces. 

If Jane hasn’t already given enough advice to aspiring journalists reading this, she has a few more words for you to round things off.

“I think that a lot of people are probably going to give you a really negative [narrative], you know, the industry is so hard, you can’t get a job…but like, I got told that a lot of times.

“I think that you should not let industry situations deter you. 

“Changes, the economic climate, don’t think about that too much because you’ll always figure out a way.

“I think it’s getting more relevant nowadays because the internet is awash with AI-generated content.”

Her solution? “Just get really really good at what you do.

She also recommends asking others for help. 

“You would be amazed at how open people are to helping you if you’re humble enough to say give me some critical feedback, show me how to do this better.

“Throughout my career I’ve leaned into mentors, but not always just like hey can you get my piece published in the Washington Post?

“I got good at my work because I relentlessly wanted to be the best journalist in the room.”

Jane Ferguson 2005 York Vision Article

She smiles while reflecting back on her brief time at Vision.

“What we loved about Vision was that it was very tabloid-ey. It had this great irreverence and sense of humour which we really enjoyed. 

“Whether it was campus parties and antics like that, or the ducks (there were always lots of conversations around duck poop and potential health threats).”

I ask her what she means and she explains, “the campus is cement and the duck poop doesn’t really have anywhere to go…”

Jane Ferguson’s memoir No Ordinary Assignment (HarperCollins) is out now.

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