'It filled me with a sense of adventure'

Does
it broaden the mind? Maxine Clayman finds out how Young Journalists of
the Year past and present have spent the Cecil King travel bursaries
that come with their award.

YOU’RE A YOUNG , free, possibly
single journalist who has just been given £5,000 to broaden your
horizons and travel abroad. What’s the catch? For winners of the
British Press Awards Young Journalist of the Year award, there isn’t
one.

The Cecil King Foundation, established in memory of former
chairman of the Mirror Group and nephew of Lord Rothermere, provides an
annual travel bursary and a chance to escape the confines of the
newsroom and head for… well, what exactly did they spend the cash on?
Given that the award is left relatively open, the recipients had
different interpretations of how best to put it to good use.

Some,
like Independent columnist Johann Hari (2003 winner while at The
Guardian ), saw it as a means to try their hand at foreign reporting.

Hari
spent a month in the occupied territories, living in a refugee camp.
There he interviewed suicide bombers and got shot at on a protest
against the building of the fence in the West Bank.

His experience was very rewarding, he says.

“It
surprised me. You meet these people in bizarre situations and they’re
just like the man down the road. I met a local Palestinian headmaster
in Gaza.

The Israeli army occupied the top floor of his flat.

They
would literally go up a ladder to change shifts every day so he
couldn’t look out over the settlement. It was surreal. Every now and
then you’d hear noises and think, ‘Is that them?’ It’s easy to forget
people caught up in conflict are normal people coping with abnormal
situations.”

T2 ‘s deputy features editor Burhan Wazir won the
prize in 1999 as a 25-year-old working on The Observer . He spent a
month planning the itinerary for his three-month trip to the United
States and South America, setting up interviews in advance.

He
filed weekly pieces, mainly for The Observer ‘s foreign pages, ranging
from ones based on his experiences of shadowing civil rights campaigner
Al Sharpton during the summer of the NYPD killings and hanging out with
street gangs in LA, to landing an exclusive interview with Diana Ross.

However,
Wazir discovered nothing is set in stone and when events turned, so did
his trip. While he was in Mexico, Columbian revolutionaries stormed the
outskirts of Bogata, so he found a cheap flight and covered the story.
Similarly, he managed to get the first interview with a British woman
who had been jailed in Bolivia for dealing marijuana.

“Columbia
was probably one of the hardest places I’ve worked,” he says. “But I
conquered a fear, turning up in places I’d only ever read about and
meeting people I’ve only ever come up against stereotypes of. It filled
me with a sense of adventure and that’s the overriding thing it’s left
me with.

“Writing on the road gives you a chance to work at your
own pace. It’s the perfect environment. The prize should be there for
writing as much as possible.

And people’s attitudes towards me
changed as they started to think, ‘If he can do that for three months,
there’s probably lots of other things he can do’.”

Likewise,
Moscow correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer , Nick Paton
Walsh, organised stories in advance. Paton Walsh was 22 when, after
winning the award in 2000, he spent two and a half months in America.
His travels included stints in Las Vegas, where he met a group of
professional card counters, and Atlanta, where a car crash taught him
the importance of reading insurance contracts. The trip opened his eyes
to how the world of journalism can work and gave him an extra level of
confidence.

“I learned how to deal with the logistics of moving
from place to place and meeting deadlines – a phenomenally large part
of a foreign correspondent’s job,” he says.

Others, including The
Guardian ‘s Libby Brooks, 1998’s winner who travelled to Australia and
New Zealand, preferred to find feature opportunities once they were on
the road. Brooks visited Palm Island, an ex-Aboriginal colony off the
East Coast of Australia and also wrote about Maori land rights.

Andrew
Malone, 1993 winner and now The Independent on Sunday ‘s executive
editor (news), armed with a notion of travelling round Graham Greene
country, began in Brazil covering the 25th anniversary of Ronnie Biggs
on the run for Scotland on Sunday . He then went on to central and
north America before going to Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia and
Malaysia.

“For me, it was a question of arriving somewhere and
finding the most interesting things to write about,” he says. “I knew
it was kicking off in Haiti. I was there for the US invasion and there
was an appetite for the coverage.” Malone went on to do foreign work
for The Sunday Times and says his travels helped him immensely. He
learned to travel under his own steam, knowing where to go and not
being afraid of alien environments.

For others, the prize fund
was an opportunity to write features as part of an extended holiday.
Last year’s winner, The Sunday Telegraph’s Elizabeth Day, opted for a
round-the-world trip, taking in South Africa, Tanzania and Australia.
Day wrote about wind farms being built in Botany Bay.

Rebecca
Holmes (1996 winner), senior news reporter for Anglia Television, went
to Zimbabwe and Mauritius and produced a double-page feature for her
then paper, the East Anglian Daily Times, on her experiences, including
canoeing down the Zambezi.

Jay Rayner, 1992 winner, now freelance
contributor for The Guardian, initially said he intended to use the
bursary to trace the Diaspora of the Jews east into Persia, ending up
in China and India. He, in fact, funded a research trip to Italy to
write his first novel, The Marble Kiss, an art historycum- romantic
thriller set in Florence. Likewise, 2002 winner, Sathnam Sanghera of
the Financial Times , spent a month in the south of France developing
an idea for a book, as well as travelling to New York.

But the
award for most creative interpretation of how to spend the bursary goes
to 1989 winner Jocelyn Target, former deputy editor of The Observer,
who used the money to buy a second-hand Alfa Romeo Spider.

‘This year’s winner of the Cecil King bursary will be announced at next week’s British Press Awards.

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