Business journalism and politics – from Dublin to NYC and back

By Rob Norton     March 7, 2014

Niamh Sweeney (MA, 2011) worked as a press secretary and parliamentary aide in Ireland before landing a radio gig at RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Ireland’s national public service broadcaster). After completing her degree at Columbia, she worked in the US as a reporter at TheStreet and Bloomberg, and as a correspondent for The Irish Times. Since November, 2012, she’s been Special Adviser to the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade in Ireland, She spoke with adjunct associate professor Rob Norton during a visit to New York in February.

How did you get your first journalism job at RTÉ?

Niamh Sweeney

I started as a freelancer in 2005, and I was lucky. Pope John Paul II was dying, and a friend of my brother’s living in Rome told him he had met an RTÉ correspondent who was looking for some help, in anticipation of the pope’s death. I was doing a graduate degree in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology, my undergraduate degree had been in Italian, and I’d spent a year abroad in Florence. I also knew what it was like to be Catholic. They flew me out there for a month. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and a bit of seizing the day.

They took me in as a freelancer as I finished my graduate degree, and I did all sorts of things, like news bulletins and anchoring the breakfast new on their pop station.  Then I went to a Sunday news program called This Week, working for Gerald Barry, who had presented that program for over 30 years. He was a great mentor and role model, and had an unrivaled knowledge of contemporary Ireland and contemporary politics. I worked with him as a reporter and then as a co-anchor for a year after that, and it was a very constructive time. He died, very sadly, three years ago.

After two years on that program, I went to another program, The News at One, and was a reporter there. But at that time the bottom had fallen out of the economy, the banking crisis was under way, and RTÉ was looking for ways to save money. They were offering staffers a two-year career break, where they would give you €20,000 euro to disappear for two years, and give you your job back at the end of it.

Sounds pretty attractive.

I’d been there almost five years at that stage, so I figured I should go off and see what else was out there.  All our coverage was about the global financial crisis, and I suppose like everybody else, I was trying to inform myself.  I was reading the Financial Times and The Economist, but there would just come a point where I’d be interviewing people on the program and I couldn’t challenge them after a certain point, because I just didn’t know enough.

So I wanted to do something about that, and I wasn’t just going to go off for two years and flip burgers in Australia. I wanted to add a bit of value, so I applied for the MA business program at Columbia and got it, and I came over thinking I was going to go back to RTÉ.

What did the program do for you?

It was utterly transformational.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I came over here sort of pretty sure of myself as a journalist. But there’s just no comparison between what I could do before and what I could do after.

First of all, I learned how to write.  I’d always written for radio, and there was a bit of a print bias here at the time. I resented it initially, but it was the best possible thing for me, because I’d always said I just didn’t want to write, but the truth was that I probably couldn’t write. I was forced into it at Columbia, and the possibilities certainly opened themselves up to me. In broadcast, if somebody doesn’t say it into your mic, there’s very little that you can do with it; whereas with print, you can suggest, you can introduce, you can seek confirmation – you can do all sorts of things with bits of information. This was new to me, and I really loved it.

How did you find the finance and accounting courses?

I found it very difficult to begin with. I had studied arts and languages, and had no track record in those kinds of subjects, so it was hard to get a sense of how I was doing. It was just a massive learning curve, but I loved the whole experience. It was great being able to sort of take time out from the daily grind of deadlines and producing content, and just bury myself in all these new topics.

Was there a class in particular that you liked?

It’s very hard to isolate one class. It’s more the sum of its parts.  I got a great foundation in the journalism courses taught by Sylvia Nasar and Jim Stewart, but the course I may have gotten the most out of was International Capital Markets.  I took it at SIPA (the School of International and Public Affairs), with Richard Robb, who has his own hedge fund and is also a very prolific contributor to The Financial Times.  It totally demystified that world for me, in a way that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

What did you do after you graduated?

I went to TheStreet, Jim Cramer’s operation, in the financial district. I was there for three months, covering the markets. And then I went to Bloomberg Radio. I wanted to prove myself, and I just went straight to work.  I was technically as proficient as anyone else in there, and I had a good broadcast voice. Somebody happened to be on maternity leave while I was interning there, so they just sort of slotted me right in, and within a couple of days, I was churning out  “Market Minutes,” as they called them. You’d cover the main stock indices, take a couple of  headlines off the terminal about what was happening with commodities or other financial products, and put together a 60-second bullet of information.  And you did it three times an hour, so it was a bit of a pressure cooker, but hugely helpful for me. It was all sort of new territory for me.

I was interviewing for another position there, but it was a turbulent time at in the broadcast division; they were laying people off right and left. They decided not to fill that position, and at that time my two-year career break from RTÉ was coming up, and they were putting  me under pressure to say whether I’d come on back or not. So I went home for a while, but then came back again.  I made a connection with the business editor of The Irish Times and got some interesting assignments, starting with an interview with Wilbur Ross, the financier, who had led a consortium of investors that invested a billion dollars in the Bank of Ireland. That led to a front page story in the business section. I did piece on fracking in Texas, I covered the IMF spring meetings in Washington, D.C., and then I started to get to fill in on various people’s columns if they were off.  So I’d write about ratings agencies or the Fed’s quantitative easing.

It was all going very well. I went home for a few weeks in July of that year – this is 2012 – and they put me on the desk for three or four weeks covering regular news and business. I got to work with many editors I hadn’t known before, and when I came back to the US, I was writing features.

So how did the move back into politics happen?

Well, things were going well with the Irish Times but then I got a call from somebody who works for Eamon Gilmore, who is the deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs.  He’s also head of the Labour Party. (Under Ireland’s coalition government, the head of the junior partner – the Labour Party today – becomes Tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, of the government.)

They were looking for a special adviser to work with him specifically on the foreign affairs portfolio. “Special adviser” sounds sort of funny if you’re not familiar with it, but it means a very specific thing in Ireland and the UK.  It was a terrific offer, and I pretty much said yes straightaway. I came home three days later to meet him, and we shook on it.

Tell me a bit about your job.

I’m based in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I manage Mr. Gilmore’s press relations.  I travel with him everywhere, which is frequent enough.  We’ve been to places like China, Turkey, South Africa, Chile, and all over the US – Atlanta, New Orleans, D.C., New York – and all over Europe. There’s a lot of times back and forth with the EU, which is a dominant focus for every ministry. I handle his press relations when we’re abroad, and I also manage any press relations that are attached to his foreign affairs portfolio when we’re in Dublin.  But I also work very closely with other colleagues on domestic issues. I work on some policy as well. One big initiative that just came off there a few weeks ago is that we’ve decided to expand the embassy/consulate network, on a trade basis, to places like Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, Nairobi, Jakarta, and Bangkok.

And it’s not always straightforward or easy, that’s for sure.  The stakes are pretty high all of the time, so I feel a lot of pressure not to miss anything.

Is there the same kind of “revolving door” that we have in the US, where people go back and forth from the media to the government, and back again?

Yes. There would be some well-known people in Ireland who have moved between the two worlds. Probably the most notable example is George Lee, who was the economics editor for RTÉ – and a really crucial member of the newsroom around the time the crisis kicked off, because he was one of the very, very few people who really had a handle on what was going on.

He took a career break and went and ran for Fine Gael in a bi-election, and got 70 or 80 percent of the first preferences.  Swept in on a blaze of glory. But a year later he decided he wasn’t happy, so he quit and went back to RTÉ. But of course there had to be a quarantine period.  Now he’s back doing a show called The Business, and he’s starting to do Prime Time, which I guess would be equivalent to 60 Minutes.

There’s another guy named John Murray who’s a very prominent radio presenter.  He used to work for the Progressive Democrats.  They don’t exist anymore.  But he was in press for them.  A lot of my colleagues now who work as press advisers had been journalists for print or broadcast.  I’m not sure too many people go back, but there are some.

So is here a chance we’ll see you back in journalism some day?

I do like my job, but I guess you never know.


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