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Media Interview with The Sun’s technology and science assistant editor Harry Pettit

Harry Pettit The Sun

‘All (well, most) good stories centre around people and what makes them tick’ – investigating what makes the world tick when it comes to tech and science is Harry Pettit, who recently took on the role of Technology and Science Assistant Editor at The Sun.

Interested in learning about ‘mad projects’ and new discoveries across the world, but aren’t so invested in the idea of thumbing through countless academic journals to find them? Check out what Harry is hoping to bring to the national paper’s tech and science coverage, how the pandemic has changed publishing and some interesting facts you may not know…

What do you love most about your subject?

I love that science and tech as a beat is exceptionally varied, veering from news about the latest iPhone to space launches and gruesome archaeological discoveries. Our stories often (though not always) provide a lighter side to the news, showing readers something cool or interesting to break up the torrent of political scandal, Covid anxiety and celeb gossip.

What new approaches/topics are you hoping to bring to The Sun’s tech and science content as assistant editor for the team and what are you hoping to continue?

I come from a science background, and want us to lean a little more in that direction by bagging more science exclusives. Trawling through research journals to find obscure papers is difficult (and, let’s be honest, slightly dull) work, but it can turf up some great stories that nobody else is reporting on.

What have been the main challenges for you while working during the pandemic?

Not seeing my colleagues every day has been a challenge, particularly as we’ll often bounce ideas off one another in the office. It’s just not the same on Slack. I’ve also missed heading out and reporting in the field. Some of my favourite features have involved hopping on a train out of London to go and chat to the people behind some mad project.

What do you think will be the long-lasting impacts of the last year or so on the media landscape and how editorial teams work together?

I think the pandemic has and will continue to make homeworking more normal. Prior to the pandemic breaking out, I’d not worked a single day at home in my career. It’s shown that, while it’s not ideal, journalists and editors can still effectively collaborate remotely.

How did you originally get into journalism?

I studied a science undergraduate degree before completing a science communication master’s degree at Imperial College London. During my postgrad, I worked for Imperial’s news team writing features for the university’s website. My editor at the time knew someone at the Mail and, after I graduated, managed to get me an interview for a science reporter role at MailOnline – my first proper journalism job. Contacts are everything in this industry…

Top three features you’ve worked on during your career?

My favourite features are those that speak to the human side of technology or science. All (well, most) good stories centre around people and what makes them tick. One of my faves required a trip to Sheffield to interview the people behind Aura Flights, a company that will scatter your ashes in space by strapping them to a weather balloon. Another involved visiting a care home in southwest London where staff used speakers powered by Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa to help look after residents. Finally, I interviewed an American Mum living under lockdown in her home in coronavirus-stricken Italy last March, a couple of weeks before restrictions swept across the rest of Europe. It did really well on our US site.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Try to enjoy yourself! You do your best work when you’re having fun.

Do you find contributions from PRs useful for any part of your work at The Sun? If so, what kind of contributions would you welcome, and how/when would you prefer to receive them?

PRs are vital to the work we do, particularly on the tech side. I find PRs most useful when they can quickly connect me to a relevant expert for a story, though we also regularly use press releases pinged to our inboxes. Emails are definitely preferred to calls, and early in the morning is best – pre-9am if possible. One thing I will add, though, is that we almost never publish stories based on surveys. Please stop sending those.

The industry can be tough – would you recommend a career in journalism to new graduates, and what are the potential highs and lows of working in media?

I would definitely recommend a career in journalism to anyone who is passionate about the industry. It’s hard work but incredibly rewarding and you’re surrounded by intelligent, motivated coworkers. The highs include the rush of finding a great scoop and managing to publish before anyone else, or getting to dig deep on a topic that you find really interesting. The lows include long hours and the high-pressure nature of the job. Journalism is not for the faint-hearted.

What media have you been seeking out yourself throughout the pandemic?

I’ve been reading a lot of books as I’m on a quest to get through all of the classics that I’ve failed to get around to until now. Books offer escapism that doesn’t require me to stare at a screen in my living room, which while working from home during the pandemic I’ve typically had more than enough of by the time the evening rolls around.

Lastly, can you give us an interesting tech/science fact you learned recently that we might not (probably won’t, if we’re honest) know?

A good pub fact is that Richard Branson was not the first billionaire to go to space (and looking at some of the headlines that went around, it appears many journalists aren’t aware of this.) That title goes to Dennis Tito, an American engineer who funded an eight-day jaunt to the International Space Station in 2001. He paid Russia’s space agency a reported $20million for the trip.

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