Trainer Profile: Leo Cendrowicz
Leo has worked as a journalist for over two decades, reporting from around the globe for dozens of titles on a plethora of issues – from reporting EU affairs in Brussels to covering the Zimbabwe elections in 2013. He was a longtime correspondent for Time in Brussels and his work has appeared in the Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Hollywood Reporter. He also edits The Economist Guide to the European Union.
Leo is Clear Europe’s lead writer and has written and edited numerous conference reports, speeches and articles for our clients. He has also delivered training on how to report the EU in Vietnam and guided journalists on study tours of Brussels.
Q: How did you establish a career in writing?
I guess I was always curious and fascinated by current affairs. I’d grown up reading every newspaper and magazine that my father would give me. Then I studied journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, which at the time was one of only two journalism schools in the UK. It was very practical so immediately you’re out there, talking to people and writing articles to tight deadlines.
Q: What skills goes it take to make a good writer?
You need a lot of qualities, yet even the best journalist writers out there don’t have the perfect qualities. You need to obviously be interested in the world, be curious, and ask questions – to always ask why, why, why over and over again. You need to be persistent and be able to talk to people. You can’t get anywhere unless you can talk to people; get them to speak, get them to explain, get them to open up.
Some people think the only way to do it is to be confrontational, to be a Jeremy Paxman, but that has its limits. That only works in a studio format where the person is ready to get into an argument. A lot of the time people will just walk away if they find you’re being too antagonistic. Usually the best journalism scoops come when you actually entice people, get them to reveal things. You have to find ways to persuade people to do that. It’s not just in the conversation or interview, its in the lead up as well. You have to know the context. It’s not just a question of writing it down. If you don’t know where you’re going or what the whole meaning behind the situation is, the history, the background, then it becomes quite empty and superficial.
Q: As a journalist, what makes you tick?
I like to explain things, tell people what’s going on – to educate, enlighten, and entertain at the same time. The stories which I like doing best are the ones where I feel I am giving my audience something they won’t get anywhere else and I can explain the issue in a way that hasn’t been explained or shown before. They may get some bits elsewhere, but they don’t get the whole story until I present them with the facts and explain it better.
Q: Are there current media trends that excite or worry you?
The transformation in the media over the past few years is extraordinary. It’s not just how much it’s changing, but how fast it’s changing. We haven’t quite grasped the effect it has on us, not just in the way we consume our media but in the way we actually debate information and the way we communicate with one another. When the telephone was invented, some people were terrified about how it would change the way we conversed. We laugh about this kind of thing, but all the additions in recent years have been just as transformational. It can be daunting, the way we can get instant alerts and instant reactions. But I appreciate that you can get the information quicker and with more of a thump than ever before.
“I like to explain things, tell people what’s going on – to educate, enlighten, and entertain at the same time. ”
Q: Has it affected the way you go about your work?
It has. It means that I have more access to information than ever before. When I started off, you had a breaking story and only a few media sources to go to. Most news sites had rolling coverage. Now with the Internet, everyone’s got a voice. The worry is that people will, with the proliferation of the media and the appetite for the instantaneous, miss out on the big picture and reflective pieces.
Q: How much of your reporting is solely focused on the EU?
Roughly two thirds. I still like doing things about Belgium, because it keeps me grounded – Belgium is so quirky and weird. And occasionally you have serious things, like the Brussels bombings, which was quite an intense time for me when I was writing a lot every day for The Independent. When it comes to the EU, that is a real challenge. When the EU Commission is fining Microsoft, how do you explain what the European Commission is, why it is important and how does it get the power to do this sort of thing? The challenge is to tell the story as neatly and sharply as possible – a particular challenge in Europe and the EU.
There is a particular thing about a journalist’s character that you always feel you can approach any issue and grasp it quickly and incisively. You have your training to understand what questions to ask and what to look at and what are the key issues very quickly. I work for Time magazine, which really is an international magazine. It doesn’t play to a national audience so you’ve got a lot of freedom in a sense that you don’t have to direct it to geographical references, but you do actually have to explain things and you have to explain things in the most succinct and elegant way possible.
Q: What do you love about your job?
I love the surprises. I love it when I can see something or someone tells me something which is completely fresh and opens my eyes. There are times also, when I’m talking to someone and they just say a line or a few words that sums the story up in a nutshell, like a perfect soundbite – and I know that’s going to be the key to my next 2000 words. Journalism wise, I think my highlight was covering the Zimbabwe elections in 2013. That was quite a nervous time and I’d managed to get in and out of the country amid such political tension and tell the story of what was actually quite an extraordinary, if flawed, democratic event.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists and writers?
Energy, enthusiasm, curiosity – they’re going to get you through a lot in your early years. The platforms used are less important. It’s just how you pursue the story which really matters.