It is said that if you are not born in Ballymena you will always be a blow-in, so despite having lived almost all her life in Ballymena, journalist Nicola Weir says she is just that: a “blow-in”.
The same could be said for her agri-journalism credentials. As although both sides of her family are farming stock, she was a “blow-in” to agri journalism, only making the jump from mainstream news in 2019 when she saw a gap in the market.
Keep on moving
Brought up Moravian (one of the oldest Protestant denominations in Christianity) in the historical village of Gracehill, Nicola attended primary school in the village before Ballymena Academy.
With the renowned Moravian focus on education, it was unsurprising that her parents saw a fruitful law career for their daughter.
For this reason, instead of entering journalism directly after her A-Levels, Nicola went to Queen’s University to study English language and literature. However, her desire to pursue a career in journalism didn’t wane.
As a last effort, Nicola’s father took her to meet, then-editor of the Ballymena Guardian newspaper, Maurice O’Neill (RIP), for what he hoped would be a strong talking to.
She remembers: “He marched me into that office and said, ‘Maurice put her off journalism. Tell her how terrible it is. So in this smoke-filled room, when you were allowed to smoke like a train, Maurice – who did smoke like a train – described the desperately long hours, shift work, saying, ‘it’s a terrible, terrible job’. Yet I just loved it even more.”
Accepting that she was not for turning, her parents reneged and Nicola went to Belfast Institute of further and higher education to study journalism.
A first interview for the Mid-Ulster Mail ended in disappointment but as with many closed doors, another opened.
“I did the interview with Lindsay Kilpatrick who was high up in the [Morton] group. About four weeks later, he called and offered me a job in the Coleraine Times. So that’s where I got my start in journalism in 1995, writing general news.”
Ironically, courtroom work was her first love and remained a reporting staple throughout her career.
“I adored courts and councils and all the argy bargy. I loved the stories, the arguments, the accuracy, but it was nerve-racking. One word wrong and the judge hauls you in the next day for a dressing down.”
Having spent five great years at the Coleraine Times, for the betterment of her career, Nicola knew she needed to do other things so she moved to the Newsletter in Belfast. It was daily, fast and furious and she admits that was a big adjustment. Being not particularly keen on daily news, when approached to deputy edit the Chronicle Group of papers, she jumped at the chance.
It was only when the BBC put out a call for freelancers in 2004 that she moved again, which was a massive decision at the time. Nicola’s son George was only two and her husband, Peter, was setting up his own business, which meant her salary was the stable family income.
“I debated with my husband about leaving and he said to me: ‘If you don’t do this, you’re always going to regret it. Take the leap of faith.’ So I did.”
Freelancing on the radio desk allowed Nicola the opportunity to get back to her first love, the courts. Journalist Ivan McMichael was synonymous at that time reporting from the High Court but as it turned out, Ivan was keen to advance his golf game. Hearing of Nicola’s accuracy, he asked her to cover his Mondays and then his Tuesdays.
This work attracted the attention of Kathleen Carragher, who was in charge of the newsroom. Kathleen offered Nicola a part-time contract which took her out of freelancing, but it was only when a full-time contract was offered by the BBC did this stint in the courts come to a close. She describes this with a wink as “a negotiation”.
The radio desk
Nicola’s firm view is that every journalist should start on a radio desk.
“That start gives you skillsets, such as reporting, writing and accuracy. That was darn good training. Producing the bulletins on the hour every hour. Telling a story succinctly in 30 seconds and getting it across bite-sized.”
After the radio desk, Nicola worked on Talkback, Evening Extra and Good Morning Ulster as well as being the district reporter for the Northeast for BBC Newsline. Four years in, she made the jump from radio to TV.
“That entailed me covering Limavady to Antrim for TV and radio. I had a camera strapped to my back, did my own filming and wrote copy. You just did everything,” she says.
From there it was back to Belfast to present the news on TV before landing a role on the Nolan Show on radio and Nolan Live on TV.
“Steven Nolan is a tough taskmaster and expects perfection. I learned a lot there about accuracy,” she laughs although you can tell she is deadly serious.
Does farming matter?
In 2019, Eddie Doyle arrived in the BBC from RTÉ as head of content commissioning and Nicola thought she would take the opportunity to raise a concern with him that she had.
“I knocked on his door and said, ‘I think there needs to be an agriculture show’. He looked at me and goes, ‘Is there not an agricultural show on BBC Radio Ulster already?’ He was gobsmacked, so when I said, ‘I’ve got this great idea for a programme”, with all due credit he pushed it. That’s how I got the programme Farming Matters on air in October 2019 just before the lockdown.”
In February they recorded an outdoor show with Nicola sitting on a bale with Minister Edwin Poots and a group of young farmers. Then lockdown hit and she thought, “how am I going to do an agricultural programme without seeing anybody? But it worked, not as well as it’s working now, but it worked really well.”
Conscious of reaching the widest possible audience, Nicola notes that when non-agri people think about agriculture, they think about pigs, cows, and tractors – not finance and politics, gender roles, legislation, food provenance or the impact of the protocol. Also, on the political front, she says: “We don’t have a working government to put legislation through so farmers are very frustrated. We’re at this point where everything’s stalemate here.
“Agri journalism is not given the respect or prominence that it should be given. Agriculture programmes on TV tend to be magazine shows. There’s a responsibility on the major corporations such as Sky, RTÉ and the BBC to show that farming and agriculture isn’t a sideshow.”
An advocate for some kind of compulsory agricultural element in all schools, she draws a parallel: “Religious education is compulsory to a certain stage, but nothing to do with practical knowledge of the land. Most young people are getting their news now through skewed social media.”
Fake news dominance
While very concerned about the rise of social media, Nicola doesn’t know how to stem the flow of it.
“We are heading into an era where institutions like newspapers and the BBC are being pushed aside in favour of these more immediate but inaccurate news sources. People should be going to trusted accurate sources for news like the BBC. The same goes for trusted, accurate papers.
For Nicola, there are two sides to every story. “That is the way we do it in the BBC, that’s the way I live my life with my journalism in the BBC. I’m still old school. I still check my facts.”