AlumNouse: in conversation with Katharine Wootton, News Editor for BBC Radio York


Heather Gosling (she/her) interviews Katharine Wooton about her experience of the world of journalism, and why local news matters

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Image by Katharine Wootton

By Heather Gosling

I recently had the chance to speak with Katherine Wootton, our most recent AlumNouse interview, who is currently News Editor for BBC Radio York. I caught up with Katharine to discuss her career journey, the power that journalism can have, and her advice for student journalists.
We started off by discussing what her role at BBC Radio York involves: “I am the News Editor for BBC North Yorkshire. My role involves looking after my team of reporters and newsreaders here, and providing content for a North Yorkshire audience on a range of platforms. We provide content for the radio station, but we also write online articles for the BBC website and we also help out our colleagues in television as well.”
Katharine emphasised the importance of highlighting local stories: “So we are on the hunt for amazing North Yorkshire stories that people would not otherwise know about, and also issues that matter to our audience. It is a really interesting and varied role. Yorkshire is a massive county. There are loads of stories from such a diverse community. It really is an exciting place to work.”
We then reflected back at Katherine’s time at York; Katharine mentioned that she jumped on all the opportunities available: “While I was at university I did a lot of work for The Press and I worked for Aesthetica Magazine. I also did some work for Theatre Royal doing press and publicity. York is an amazing city for media and culture.”
After completing a degree in English Literature, Katharine described her subsequent journey into journalism: “In terms of how I got here, I actually come from a magazine background. When I graduated from York I got a six month magazine internship as a journalist down in Peterborough working for a company called Bauer on a magazine called Yours magazine, which is a magazine for women over 50. I ended up being made permanent there and I stayed for seven years working my way up through different jobs. I worked on the Features team for a while, and then I moved to the news side of things which involved a lot of celebrity interviews and consumer topics. I then became the editor of a spin off magazine that we did that looked at books, short stories and fiction. This was a new title that I set up and established. By the time I left there, I was Deputy News editor, but I was looking for a fresh challenge and I had always wanted to work for the BBC and being from Huddersfield I was keen to come back to Yorkshire. So when this job came up in York for the BBC I jumped at it and was lucky enough to get it.”
“I’ve been here for two and a half years now, and I have been News editor for most of that time. For a while I was also executive producer looking after the radio teams as we were going through quite a big period of change.”
Looking to the future, we discussed how journalism is changing in response to digitisation and the changing nature of how we get our news. “These changes to make us more multi-platform have come in during the last year as part of the BBC’s digital first strategy because we know that audiences now are consuming content in a totally different way to how they were five or ten years ago. I know that I get my news largely on my phone. Making our stories now work for online as well as radio and TV means millions of people can potentially get chance to see our stories and that’s an amazing feeling for that journalist, but also if that’s someone from the community whose story you have put out there how amazing that two million people have seen their story and know about their issue.”
I asked Katharine about  the importance of multi-platform journalism in election coverage. “Absolutely. I think this time around for election coverage compared to local elections the focus is on digital. I think particularly on getting new audiences interested.” We also discussed the challenges of engaging people in politics:” We have our core audience who we know are interested in politics anyway, but it's about engaging those people who hear us talk about politics and immediately switch off – it's about finding the issues that matter to them but also presenting it in a way that is approachable to them. Whether that is getting rid of the jargon or making policies make sense because of course we all know that politicians speak in a certain way and it is hard to interpret what that actually means to normal people. So that’s our role to help with that and to make it fun! It does not have to be this boring subject, like taxes, pensions, all that stuff might feel like woah… I’m not interested in that! So we really get our journalists to think about how they can bring some fun into it because it doesn’t have to be dry. We’ve been doing reels, BBC Sounds, Facebook, all this content on social media. We have also started Your Voice, Your Vote, where people write in and tell us what their story is and what they want to see from politicians and then we can go away and contact their constituency candidates for each party and respond with what that person would get with all of the different parties.”
I then asked Katharine whether she had a specific news story she covered that she saw as her proudest moment as a journalist, she thought for a moment and replied: “That’s a hard question! I don’t know if you know about Claudia Lawrence, she was a woman that went missing in York 15 years ago. She worked in the university in the kitchens and was walking to work one morning and she basically never came home. No one knows what happened to her. The case is now in the cold case team with the North Yorkshire police department. But as far as where things are now it remains one of the biggest mysteries. She is one of the most high profile missing persons cases in England in the last twenty years. That’s a story that BBC York has followed since it happened, but what we decided to do was that as it was coming up to the 15th anniversary this year and it would have been Claudia’s 50th birthday this year, we decided to do a much bigger piece. One thing that we had that was unique was that we had a very close relationship with her mother, so Joan (Claudia’s mum) has known us for many years and we have really nurtured that relationship to the point where she will talk to us in a way that she wouldn’t talk to any other journalists. We knew that we had really unique access, so rather than just doing a one off report we decided to do many sessions and built up this amazing podcast that was a really unique insight into what it was like to lose a child in a missing persons case. The podcast could not have been about what happened to Claudia because no one knows, instead we wanted it to be all about the mother’s story. It was all about Joan’s personal insight and what it was like: breaking down the moment she got the phone call about Claudia being missing, breaking down the media spotlight that fell on her afterwards. We discussed what has happened to Claudia’s house which is still empty on Lawrence Street; it just remains there as a shrine to Claudia – it is quite powerful and moving to look at what is in there. We did a podcast and also some TV interviews with Joan as part of it and a big online piece. The podcast did incredibly well on BBC Sounds and it became one of the main podcasts. The online article got several million views. We had enormous coverage from that, and also huge praise from the family as well. That story was a proper labour of love because it was years of hard work and relationship building which is something that I am really keen on because what we can do in local news which is different is build those relationships in the community because after the national press have left we are still there in the community talking to those people. That is one of the stories that I am most proud of as it was a huge team effort, everyone pitched in.” When we are discussing this story, I can see how much this means to Katharine that her work has helped a grieving family.
We continued to discuss Claudia’s story; I asked Kathrine: do you think that fundamentally the power of journalism is being able to highlight stories like Claudia’s? “Absolutely. Particularly working in local journalism there are so many incredible people on our doorstep. There are stories that perhaps a national newspaper or outlet would not necessarily pick up on because whilst they might not always be big, exciting stories, they are stories that matter to local people. And I think that is where the power is – being able to shed a light on stories that otherwise no one would know. At BBC Radio York we do a big thing called Make A Difference awards where local people who do incredible things in their community are nominated. And they are often people that are super humble and would never want to shout about what they do. We are able to give them a platform, and suddenly either they inspire someone else or if what they are doing is helping others, then other people can get in contact with them and are able to access that help. That for me is the thing because you're not only able to share those marginalised voices, but you’re also able to make actual change. It might be a small change that impacts one town, or even one street, but you have still changed someone’s life and I think that’s the power of it.”
While there are many advantages to a career as a journalist, Katharine also highlighted some challenges in her role. “There are always challenges, especially now that we are doing online stuff. The internet is a never ending ether and there are so many stories, but only have so much time and so many people in the office, so the challenge can be which stories we say no to. Other challenges can be getting into communities to get those stories. Particularly when you have a story that is controversial or there might be fear attached whether that’s a community speaking out about anti-social behaviour that they see on their streets. You’ve got to put in a lot of time to prove that you are trustworthy. We know that trust in the media is something that is really fragile and we have got to be careful with that. So we have to respect that often we can’t go straight into a story. We have to be trusted that we can tell a story. For people who have never been media trained or who don’t have experience with media, it can be a really scary experience to tell your story to a journalist. Particularly with online trolling and things like that there can be a lot of fear about putting yourself out there and what people are going to say about you. We’ve got to be really responsible and look after the people whose stories we are telling. Whether that means making sure they get the right aftercare after the story and making sure they understand fully where the story is going to go. But it can be difficult getting those stories in the first place if a community is fearful, reticent or if they just don’t really get what we are trying to do.”
We wrapped up the interview by discussing student journalism, and the advice that Kathrine would give to student journalists. “I would say while you are at university take every opportunity there is. York is amazing because there is so much to get involved with. Within the university, there are so many papers, radio stations and TV stations. It is just brilliant. So, mine it for all it is worth! Even if you think that you want to be a print journalist, go and do some shifts at URY or YSTV. The more strings you have to your bow, the more employable you are. My journalists have to be multi platform, and they have to be able to write great online copy, take fabulous photos, create content for television and social media and audio. Write different kinds of stories; even if you think you're a serious news hound, go and review a play and vice versa. Think about what you can do off your own back – anyone can start a blog, anyone can start a Youtube channel (even if it is just you and your Mum that watches it – it doesn’t matter), showing the initiative is important, you can be a content creator from the back of your student digs. Also, look beyond university as well. York is an amazing city for media and culture, so get involved!”
I would like to thank Katharine for her involvement in AlumNouse. It was an inspiring interview that opened my eyes to the power of journalism, and the importance of local news in highlighting local stories.

Want to get involved? Whether you are a current UoY student and want to write for AlumNOUSE, or you’re a York alum and want to share your story, please contact : or To find out more info on AlumNOUSE please see previous AlumNouse articles, or feel free to get in touch.
To listen to the BBC Sounds podcast 'Claudia Lawrence: A Mother's Story', please follow this link.