Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent for The Irish Times and creator of The Irish Passport podcast with Tim Mc Inerney. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the University of Cambridge, she previously worked as a correspondent with POLITICO Europe.
How did you get into journalism?
As a kid I thought it would be nice to make a career out of writing as it was something I was always good at. I also wanted to understand what the hell was going on in the world. But for a long time I thought wanting to be a journalist was unrealistic, like having an ambition to be a Premier League footballer. It was mysterious to me how anyone became one.
At a crucial moment in college, I considered giving up any such ambitions and following my dad into dentistry. But my best friend encouraged me. He said: “If you became a journalist, I think you’d be a really good one.” He reasoned with me that there was no harm in trying, and that I could also try something else if it didn’t work out. I threw myself into pitching to student newspapers, then small digital magazines, and then publications that paid, building up experience and a portfolio. I started applying for internships. As soon as I got the opportunity to work alongside journalists, I realised that if they could do it, so could I. The friend who encouraged me was Tim Mc Inerney, who is now my co-host on my podcast The Irish Passport, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
My first job in the industry was as a sub-editor on a financial magazine. In the evenings I wrote for a charity-funded art magazine, and restaurant reviews in exchange for free meals. My big breakthrough was being accepted onto Reuters’ graduate trainee scheme. Three things were crucial to that: I spoke Italian thanks to an Erasmus exchange, I knew a bit about the bond market (this was 2011 and the height of the Eurozone crisis), and I had a portfolio of articles. Within a year I was posted to Rome as a correspondent, and could finally call myself a journalist. Since then I’ve worked as a correspondent for Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and POLITICO, reporting from countries around Europe including Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland. I became Europe Correspondent for The Irish Times just in time for the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.
How do you think the profession is evolving?
Journalism is being continually disrupted by changes to how people get information. These changes are largely driven by the tech industry, so media has to be reactive. It means that being able to constantly learn and adjust to new formats is a vital skill. So is creativity when it comes to business models. What works today may not work tomorrow.
What are the challenges of balancing your work in print media with podcasting?
Podcasting and reporting for written articles are naturally symbiotic. I love the opportunity to verbally explain on the podcast the complex topics I’ve been getting to grips with during the week. It’s a format that allows for the inclusion of the details you’d recount in a conversation with a friend: the puzzling things that don’t make sense, what was annoying, what was funny. I interview people for the podcast all the time who end up helping my written reporting and vice versa. The work load of course is overwhelming at times. This is the nature of the job though. Journalism is a vocation. Reporters report because they’d driven to do it – no one is doing this to get rich or have an easy life!
Who do you admire most within the industry and why?
I think finding out the truth and communicating it for the benefit of society is a useful and good thing. I love the feistiness of the industry and its irreverence towards power, and getting to take part in editorial meetings with wickedly smart and insightful people at the top of their game. Making a careful blow-by-blow plan about how the newsroom will cover a breaking news event like an election, and everyone working side-by-side under huge pressure and with the adrenaline pumping to execute it is a brilliant experience.
“Podcasting and reporting for written articles are naturally symbiotic. I love the opportunity to verbally explain on the podcast the complex topics I’ve been getting to grips with during the week.”
What has been your most significant story or project to date?
It depends how you measure significance. There have been a few things I’ve spotted early. One was Bitcoin: I wrote an investigative story about it for Reuters in 2012 which was one of the first times it was covered by major media organisation, explaining how it worked and the way it could challenge our concepts of money and economic systems. One Bitcoin was valued at $4.88 then; today one is $17,145.
I also foresaw that the Irish border would be the major obstacle in the Brexit talks, and started writing about it before the referendum was called, in 2015. Possibly the most challenging thing I did was making a film documentary, as I had to learn how to do it almost from scratch.
In terms of impact, last year, a Dutch 17-year-old tragically died, and her death was wrongly reported as euthanasia in major news organisations all around the world. Her name was trending on Twitter internationally, and even the Pope commented on it. I called it out as an error, and this led to corrections and internal inquiries by many major media companies.
I recently highlighted a fundraiser by the Native American Navajo people who have been hard-hit by Covid-19, and this went viral and Irish people ended up donating as much as $3 million, which was a major impact that I had some role in but can’t take credit for – it’s something amazing that came from the grassroots of the country.
Of course, I’m really proud of the Irish Passport podcast. It feels like we somehow hit on something that people can relate to, and it really feels like a special community that spans the world. We’ve got listeners everywhere from India to Argentina. Tim and I built that simply by working on our laptops in our bedrooms, teaching ourselves audio editing, and launching our episodes out into the world.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
At the moment, I’m trying to make sure I do home workouts and get out for walks to combat the sedentary effects of pandemic life! I like doing things with my hands to relax, like cooking or making crafts if I have time, usually with the radio or a documentary on. In normal times I would be travelling continuously between working abroad and being in Ireland with family, but the pandemic has called a halt to all that.