Tuesday 27 September 2016

Social Queens: The Irish women leading the digital media revolution

They're at the top of the social-media game for CNN and the BBC, between them commanding hundreds of millions of followers worldwide - and they are best friends from rural Ireland. Here we meet our internet queens

Joe O'Shea

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

Top of their game: Samantha Barry and Anne Marie Tomchak catch up in London. Photo: John Phillips
Top of their game: Samantha Barry and Anne Marie Tomchak catch up in London. Photo: John Phillips

From sharing college digs in Dublin to working at the very top for two of the biggest media corporations in the world, Samantha Barry and Anne-Marie Tomchak have come a long way in a relatively short time.

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Now both in their early 30s, they met while studying to be journalists at DCU and apprenticed together on the "graveyard shift" in news on RTÉ radio.

Today, Sam is head of social media and strategy at global news-network CNN, while Anne-Marie has launched (and presents) BBC Trending - the corporation's presence on social media, tasked with reporting what the world is saying on the internet.

Both work in the highly complex, fast-evolving world of new media, for global broadcasters that are pouring huge resources into trying to stay ahead of the game. With Sam based in New York and Anne-Marie in London, they lead hectic, high-pressure lives.

CNN has around 150 million people worldwide, who follow them on various digital platforms, while the BBC has a global audience of around 230 million. And they both work with large teams covering a global beat.

But whether it is in New York, London or at industry conferences in cities such as Barcelona and Berlin, they meet up regularly and stay in touch almost daily, maintaining a friendship that has meant a lot to both of them down the years.

Anne Marie Tomchak on BBC news
Anne Marie Tomchak on BBC news

"We mentor each other, support each other, it's very easy for us to talk because we have that strong friendship and we work in the same world," says Anne-Marie.

Sam, who has lived in New York since being headhunted by CNN over a year ago, says it's "very important" to know that her old friend is always there for her. "We started out together and followed a very similar career path. We have so much in common and we both know that we could be anywhere in the world, at pretty much any time of the day or night, and we can just get in touch," she says. "We talk on the phone a lot. Which is pretty unusual these days."

Anne-Marie says they know they can go to each other when big decisions come up. "We talked about the CNN job. And when BBC Trending was starting up, I knew I could talk to Sam about it and sound her out. It's a very specialised world we work in, so having somebody who is close, an old friend who you can trust and who knows what you are talking about, that's so valuable."

We meet up in London on a very sunny Friday afternoon, in the cocktail bar of the quietly glamorous Langham Hotel, just across the road from BBC Broadcasting House and Anne-Marie's office. Sam breezes in a little late, having had to navigate central London traffic after a visit to 10 Downing Street, where Anne-Marie's husband David Tomchak is head of digital, looking after (amongst other things) David Cameron's social media.

It's been a couple of weeks since they last met, at a new-media conference in Barcelona. And after quick hellos, the talk quickly moves to plans for the evening. Sam is on an early flight to New York the next morning, but there will be time for drinks and a bite to eat later.

Both women are from a rural background, Anne-Marie's family (the McNerneys) still farm in Drumlish, Co Longford, while Sam's family live near Bantry in west Cork.

Neither woman can manage to get home as often as they would like. Anne-Marie moved to London in late 2010 to start working with BBC World, the 24-hour global news service. She has already been to stay in New York with Sam twice this year. And Sam was at Anne-Marie's wedding ("she caught the bouquet!" says Anne-Marie).

Before that, Sam has worked all over the world for various broadcasters, including a six-month stint in Papua New Guinea and another in South America. "I used to follow her life vicariously on Facebook, seeing pics of her on a beach in Australia in a bikini while I was freezing to death in wintertime Dublin," says Anne-Marie.

It's the common experience of their generation - college in Ireland, maybe some time working in Dublin to get experience and then out into the wider world, following the adventures of friends from home on Facebook and Twitter.

They first met at a DCU student house-party on the northside of Dublin, today they are high-powered figures in new media on the global stage. And they are determined to support each other, moving in a world where middle-aged men usually call the shots (even if they often don't fully grasp what's happening in social media).

"We will do conferences where we are the only women on the panel. And we will point that out. You might think that the area we work in would have a lot of smart, young women getting opportunities, that's not always the case. Tech and social-media conferences can be very male orientated," says Anne-Marie. "We both feel very strongly about gender-equality. And it's an issue we are not afraid to bring up."

When it comes to the qualities they admire in each other, Anne-Marie says she is sometimes slightly in awe of Sam's strength, and her sense of ease and calm in pretty much any situation. Sam describes her old friend as "one of the kindest people I know. You are just so loving and kind to people. And genuine."

Written down, these sentiments might come across as slightly syrupy. But seeing them together, there's no missing the genuine friendship and affection for each other. And the admiration. They know the world they both operate in, the challenges and the pressures.

"We both live in a media world where there's a lot of networking, a lot of people who will be nice to you because they think you can help them or whatever," says Sam. "With Anne-Marie, it's just a genuine interest and kindness towards others."

Sam and Anne-Marie recently had the "slightly weird" experience of covering the Irish same-sex marriage referendum for New York and London, directing coverage of what, for them, was a very emotionally involving Irish story.

"It was so strange, and a great example of how our lives work in a social-media age," says Anne-Marie. "I was in London, Sam was in New York. We're both covering it, for the BBC and CNN, looking at how it's playing out on social media. But we are in contact ourselves, saying, 'Wow, look at what's happening at home!'"

When asked if they could be called "high-achievers", Sam says she has no problem with that label. "When you look at global media, the two big brands that people will recognise are the BBC and CNN. And we both work in an area that would be considered a new form of journalism, working in the social-media world.

"Anne-Marie is one of the few people that I am friends with, that I have in my life, that really understands what I do." (In simple terms, Sam directs CNN social-media operations, as senior director of social news, she manages the teams covering world news through social media, guides digital strategy and plans for the future).

Anne-Marie points out that in some ways, they are operating on a new frontier, helping to guide two media giants through a rapidly changing landscape. "It's kind of uncharted territory," she says. "For example, we are setting up new partnerships with social platforms, finding ways to collate information on how people are using social media, what interests them, what trends or grabs people's attention and what does not. There is no one answer and nobody has really written the book on this. Each broadcaster has different priorities, different approaches, so we have to work on finding the best way."

In their hyper-connected world, work lives often mesh with personal lives. In Anne-Marie's case, she met and married an Englishman who works in digital. And in Sam's, she often finds that being a single woman working in media in New York results in meeting a lot of people with similar backgrounds.

"I go on a lot of 'friend dates'. That's a big thing in New York. You'll meet people through work and they find out that you are single, so the big thing is, 'Oh, I have to introduce you to a friend of mine, you two will totally hit it off.' It's not hard to meet people in New York. But managing your time is difficult. And also getting used to US culture, that New York thing of, 'I totally crushed that meeting!' or 'I killed at the gym!'. It's a little different to Ireland and England."

Sam says she has found the Big Apple to be a real eye-opener, even after living and working in London. "New York is terrifyingly exciting. There are pressures and it can be very challenging, but you just have to enjoy that, make the most of it. And I love my job".

Anne-Marie chips in to point out: "Well, you're not exactly roughing it in New York!" Sam lives and works in Manhattan. And despite hailing from county Cork, calls herself a "Big City girl". "It would have taken a lot to get me away from London, which I love. But I'm the kind of person who loves to just jump in. When the offer to go to New York came up, and I looked at what I would be doing with CNN, I just wanted to go for it. There was one moment on the plane when I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' But it was just that moment."

Both are now very settled in their respective home cities. And neither can really see themselves returning home to Ireland in the near-to-middle future.

"Coming to London, working for the BBC and meeting my husband here. I think that's definitely been the defining point of my career, and probably in my life," says Anne-Marie.

Sam intends to stay put in New York. But having lived and worked in virtually all four corners of the world already, she appears to be far from settled for life. But no matter where she is, her best friend will always be on the other end of the phone.

Name: Samantha Barry

Age: 33

From: Bantry, West Cork

Education: BA Arts (English and Psychology), University College Cork

M.A., Journalism, Dublin City University

Lives: New York

Previous employers: BBC News, Vizibee, Intermedia, Australian Broadcast Corporation, Newstalk, RTÉ

Current position: Head of Social Media, Senior director of Strategy, CNN

@samanthabarry: They are subtitling the Irish people on #TheBachelorette ! They are speaking English. Cringe

Name: Anne-Marie Tomchak

Age: 32

From: Drumlish, Co Longford

Education: B.Sc., Communications (Film and Broadcasting) Dublin Institute of Technology

M.A., Journalism, Dublin City University

Lives: London with husband David Tomchak

Previous employers: American Public Media, RTÉ, Radio Netherlands, Deutsche Welle Radio

Position: Reporter and presenter, BBC Trending

@AMTomchak: What a brave woman. Irish blogger #EmmaMurphy takes a very public stand against domestic violence. I salute you

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