Careers in the arts: an interview with Martin Doyle, The Irish Times’ books editor

Grace Farrell speaks to the respected journalist about Irish writing, college degrees, and Fatboy Slim

For many arts students, leaving college with the intention of staying in your chosen field is a daunting prospect. While English students are assumed to be aspiring writers, and history students aspiring historians, it is worth remembering the variety of career possibilities out there. Martin Doyle, the books editor at The Irish Times, spoke to Trinity News about his experience navigating a career in journalism and the advice he would give to students interested in walking a similar path.

As books editor, Doyle expressed appreciation for his predecessors, following in the footsteps of renowned writers and journalists such as Fintan O’Toole, Caroline Walsh, John Banville and Brian Fallon to name but four. Doyle describes literature as “an area in which Ireland has always excelled, perhaps never more than now in terms of the breadth of talent currently at work,” emphasising how Ireland currently boasts a fertile literary landscape. With the current boom in Irish literature, publishing, and readership; journalistic roles such as Doyle’s are crucial in promoting Irish writers, as well as prompting discussion about their work. 

Getting started

Figuring out what to do after college is likely a stressful burden for aspiring journalists, but Doyle underlines the importance of finding ways to hone your craft wherever you can. After graduating, he did work experience with his local paper, the Banbridge Chronicle: “My first assignment was to interview a civil servant on his retirement, ho-hum.” However, this task entailed more than expected, as this retiree “had braved picket lines and death threats to keep the lights on during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike that brought down the power-sharing government in the North. He was a hero in a suit with a great story to tell.” Doyle then went on to work in London at “small Irish papers that had a big reach – The Irish World, The Irish in Britain News, and the Irish Post,” as these gave him the chance to “cover big stories and events across a number of different fields.” He covered a wide range of different stories, from sporting events to the Dancing at Lughnasa premiere at the National Theatre in London, all within a few months.

What the job entails

Doyle expands on what the role of books editor consists of on a day-to-day basis. For print, he commissions and edits “10 pages of book reviews in the Ticket culture section in Saturday’s Irish Times and a varying number of feature pages (author interviews, essays, opinion pieces and general features),” as well as commissioning features for the daily arts pages. While Doyle occasionally reviews, most of his work is devoted to reporting and author interviews, with some of the most satisfying including “a series celebrating Irish women writers, culminating in a reimagining of the notoriously male Irish writers poster, and an essay exploring where in the world Irish writers have set their work.” Yet, the job does sometimes stray from this routine: “Some of the most fun, though, is going slightly off piste, writing about my 15 seconds of fame as a Father Ted extra, or the time Fatboy Slim sent me a mixtape when the support act’s t-shirt shrank in the wash.”

“Doyle’s first venture into journalism was ‘for an exercise as part of a Reuters job application which was, as you might expect, unsuccessful’.”

In his role, Doyle also works on the weekly digital newsletter and presents the section’s monthly podcast, The Irish Times Books Podcast, which has featured many esteemed Irish writers such as Sinéad Gleeson and Lisa Harding. The daily routine of the job might also involve meetings with a “publicist, reviewer, author, or festival organiser, as well as in-house planning or editorial meetings with colleagues. Some evenings, [he] might attend a book launch or literary event, and the occasional author dinner organised by a publisher.”

The challenges 

For a newspaper as influential as The Irish Times, deciding what to review is pivotal, and he describes it as “one of the biggest challenges of the job.” However, it is clear that the search for balance is a guiding force, “between Irish and international; fiction and nonfiction; and [striving] as far as possible for diversity in terms of both author and reviewer.” Another challenge that Doyle cites is the selections he makes “based on a study of publishers’ catalogues, the Bookseller trade magazine, and actual review copies as they come in.” This involves fielding pitches, “most of them plausible, from publicists and prospective reviewers.” Doyle says that: “When this year’s Booker longlist came out, it was satisfying to see [The Irish Times] had reviewed eight of the ten books already published.”

Doyle expresses how the book selection is still a starting point, as designating each book to a reviewer is a crucial act in itself, as is the tone of the review: “It is an unfortunate truth that the most popular reviews are usually the more scathing, but we do not encourage spleen, only honest critique.” Doyle references an article from The Irish Times which broke down the barrier between reviewer and reviewee: Reviewing Irish books: the good, the bad and the ugly truth. He notes that it “offered [his] reviewers, who are often also authors, the chance to set out their modus operandi.”

Being a journalist in the internet age

Doyle remains hopeful about the impact of the internet on journalism, as while it is “of course a threat to traditional journalism,” it is also “a wonderful opportunity to broaden and deepen what we do.” He cites two articles from The Irish Times as examples of this, David Gluckman’s piece about the origin story of Baileys, and Ian Cobain’s article on the murder of Pat Finucane which “would have required four broadsheet pages to tell, but the web is wonderfully capacious.”

“With the current boom in Irish literature, publishing, and readership, journalistic roles such as Doyle’s are crucial role in promoting Irish writers as well as prompting discussion surrounding their work.”

Is social media changing the way a career in journalism looks? Do you need followers to get published? Doyle believes it to be helpful in this sense and beyond, as it aligns with the aim to “write to be read” while also getting your work out there: “Composing a tweet or a Facebook post can help you focus your mind on what the essence of your article is about, the same as writing a headline or standfirst.”

Does your degree matter?

Whether or not they chose the right degree may be a concern for aspiring journalists, but Doyle, a French and German graduate from the University of St Andrews, emphasises the value of experience over anything else, from college or elsewhere. “I intended to do a masters in journalism but got a job on an Irish paper in London during what was supposed to be a gap year … Ironically, I got my start not because of my degree but because the editor was the manager of my cousin’s GAA team.”

Doyle’s advice is to “do your first degree in whatever takes your fancy, and then do a masters in journalism.” As although journalism is a competitive field, it is also an expansive one, and Doyle believes: “A degree in science or business/economics could help you stand out in a field dominated by arts graduates.”

Advice from an expert

With the recent spate of downsizing and closures across media companies and publications, is there truth to the idea that journalism is an unsustainable career path? Doyle is pragmatic, but not pessimistic: “I suspect there are fewer opportunities and less well-paid ones. But if it is something you feel passionate about, it is not an impossible dream. Media companies such as The Irish Times are still hiring.”

Despite the scarcity of internship opportunities, especially those which are paid, a career in journalism is not an unattainable goal. Doyle acknowledges the “undeniably tough” nature of the field, but he recommends starting from the ground up: “My advice would be to write and get published wherever you can. I didn’t join the student newspaper but I should have.” Doyle’s first venture into journalism was “for an exercise as part of a Reuters job application which was, as you might expect, unsuccessful.” 

To any students disheartened by the seeming impossibility of internships and getting a foot in the door, Doyle brings a message of hope: “CVs are grand but commissioning editors want to know can you write … A hyperlink to a national paper article is perhaps more impressive than one to a student newspaper, but if the student article is better written, I’d give the latter the gig.”

“To any students disheartened by the seeming impossibility of internships and getting a foot in the door, Doyle brings a message of hope…”

While getting work experience is vital, so is how you proceed in the job itself: “You learn by doing but also by watching and listening … I remember my first shift as a feature production sub-editor at the Guardian, watching a colleague copy and paste a half dozen headline boxes before she even wrote one word of her first headline, knowing she wasn’t going to get it right first time. Witnessing the time and effort put into designing pages and reworking headlines and intros at The Times, where I spent five years, was another eye-opener.”

The age-old advice of “practice makes perfect” springs to mind as Doyle reiterates how it is not just experience employers want, but skill: “I would advise keeping a diary; keeping your eyes open for what might make a story; try your hand at different sorts of writing. If you go on holiday, have a go at writing it up as a travel article. Watch a match? Write a match report. Read a book? Write a review. Interview your professor.”

Doyle has conducted interviews and events with a wealth of Irish writers in the past, such as his recent conversation with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, but he doesn’t see himself as able to give advice to writers in general: “As I’ve never written anything other than some very juvenile poems (note to self: buy shredder), I wouldn’t dream of giving advice.” However, he would pass on advice he finds universally applicable to all writers: “Writing is rewriting … your first draft is never the finished article. And join or form a writing group … find peers you respect who will read your work and give you feedback, and do the same for them.” 

Doyle’s final word of advice is both practical and inspiring for a budding journalist, and while it is rigorous, it is still doable: “Read voraciously but critically. Write regularly. File on time and to the requested length. If you must use big words, make sure you use them correctly. And have fun, at least some of the time.”

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.