Thoughts on a career so far

I tend to do a lot of thinking. And I also tend to go on occasional email inbox purges. This post the result of both of those.


So more than three years ago, I got this email from a recent Carleton grad, who was getting in touch with me in hopes of soliciting some advice about getting her career jumpstarted.

Now, I like to think I’m useful and I have something to offer people. So of course I said I would offer her some insight.

What follows is what I told her, in hopes it would be useful. It’s mostly my story of my career up to that point (September 2011), but it also includes some comments about what I found is necessary to break into the journalism world. I will also offer my commentary on my words from the past.

What is not included is the woman’s initial question, or her response to this rambling. I don’t feel I have the authority to publish her side of the conversation.

Here we go.

Howdy,
OK, that gives me a better idea. I think what might help, or at least give some perspective, is if I simply tell you my story.

Back in the final months of fourth year in J-School, I was pretty much panicking trying to find work for after I graduated. I had friends who already had things lined up, so I was feeling more pressure to find something. Plus, up to that point, I’d always known what I was going to be doing in the summer.

Seriously. I was really panicking and afraid. After years of having a summer job lined up, to be facing uncertainty was really unnerving.

Knowing that getting into the media in the big cities (specifically Toronto) is virtually impossible for someone fresh out of school, I knew I had to look elsewhere for work to gain the necessary experience. In that respect, I was willing to move away from home right away, even if that wasn’t my preferred course of action. Of course, it seems like my belief that breaking in fresh out of school was wrong; it is possible, you just need to be good and have the drive to do it.

Yeah. I didn’t really have to travel halfway across the country, all things considered. But for someone still somewhat uncertain what he wanted to do with his life, a cross-country trek was truly the right move, in retrospect.

Moving on. So fresh out of school, I somehow landed a reporter gig with a small-town weekly in Saskatchewan. I guess I was one the lucky ones afterall. But not really. The job absolutely bombed within four months, mostly because I just wasn’t happy where I was. I was in Meadow Lake, Sask., and being from Toronto, there aren’t too many places as dissimilar.

Oh, god. Still the worst personal decision I could have made. So many bad memories.

So after four months there, I packed up and headed back to Toronto to lick my wounds and try to sort things out. In the time I was there, I thought about what I wanted to do, and started applying for new jobs. I knew I had to get back out there, and take the lessons from Meadow Lake and apply them to whatever I did next. In the time I was home, I found a way to do two internships (those unpaid spawns of the devil), as well as play Ultimate and do dragonboat. In other words, ignoring the virtual unemployment the fact I wasn’t in school, I had a regular summer.

It was a really good summer. Although the PA camping trip in August kind of put a damper on it. Why was I such a jerk?

I kept applying to weekly papers, and actually got some interviews. Actually, the Meadow Lake job was the only interview I got at the time, so that may have played into me taking it when offered. Anyway. I did a few interviews, but none of them resulted in anything.

That point about Meadow Lake being the only interview I got is key. I was desperate for a job, and when I got that interview and it turned into an offer, how could I refuse? I mean, if I had been getting an interview a week, I likely would have held off on Meadow Lake, because, seriously, the odds would have been something ‘better’ would have come up. Then again, knowing my luck, nothing would have come up.

Then, finally, I interviewed for and was offered the reporter gig with the Westlock News, in Westlock, Alta. You would have thought I learned my lesson from Meadow Lake, but clearly that’s not the case.

There was a long talk with my parents about this. The decision was, if this fails horribly again, I can just come back to Toronto. But you can understand how apprehensive I was to move again, and so far away (farther than Meadow Lake) again.

That was early November 2010, and I’ve been out here in Alberta since then. In fact, at the start of September, I took over as the editor of the Barrhead Leader, which is a sister paper of the News. I won’t say I’m happier at the Leader than I was at the News, because I’m honestly not. I was very happy with the News. The people are great, the routine was manageable, that kind of thing. But the Leader job was offered and I decided it was worth a shot.

That happiness point is also key. Barrhead, compared to Westlock, was really not that fun. The office dynamic was much different, the town seemed less welcoming, and it was that much further from Edmonton. Now, maybe my experience was jaded by how well Westlock was going. And a happy job is the result of a lot of factors. But I never really felt like I fit in in Barrhead.

And that’s my story.

I think if there’s anything to take out of it is that you’re going to have to take chances. Part of why Meadow Lake failed was because less than a month into the job I flew back to Ottawa for the grad ceremony and saw most of the class again. We had an after-grad afterparty where one of the girls in my class “just about took my by the shoulders and told me that she’s admires what I’ve done, that it’s a courageous thing to do, and that I’ll be fine.” I am quoting something I wrote, if you were wondering. The fact she and other people had so much confidence in me made me realize more than anything that I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t have the same confidence in myself.

Yeah. That grad party was a hard, hard night for me. But it didn’t really kick in until the next day (see here for that story and more). But, that sense of everyone being more confident in me than I am remains. I still feel, especially since moving to the Edmonton Sun, that I’m only eking out a job. Like I’m barely surviving. I know, objectively, that I’m actually doing quite well. Sure, there are times when things go haywire — it happens to everyone — but I still feel like I’m only a screw up away from the unemployment line. Then again, I have to have some form of confidence. After all, I have managed to make a go of it out here for the last four-plus years.

There will be heartache. You will think to yourself that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You will wish you could do it over again. But it is all for the better. As much as Meadow Lake was a horrible experience that really did shatter a lot of my self-confidence, as a learning experience about what it takes to be a journalist, it was invaluable. I would never want to be in the same situation again in terms of the aggravation I went through, but the journalistic eye-opening is something I would not have gotten without going through that.

Bingo about Meadow Lake. Horrible personal experience. But it was the kick in the pants I needed to really launch my career.

Now, I don’t know what direct words I can offer. This is, after all, my personal experience. But it is real-world experience, jaded as it may be.

I hope that helps. It’s not easy breaking in to the working world. It takes someone taking a chance on you as well. I have nothing but high praise and immense gratitude for my former boss at the News. He took a chance on someone who had had a horrible previous work experience, and I think he would say he would do it again. And when it comes down to it, I think that’s what you want out of any work experience – that the person who hired you would do it again.

Thank you George. That’s all I have to say.

Holy crow. I really wrote a lot. Seriously, I hope there’s something in there you can use. Best of luck and let me know how it goes. If you need or want anything more, let me know. You know where to find me.

I should really contact this woman again and see what’s up since we last corresponded.

Deaths on the job

Seeing as I’m a reporter, I am often privy to some of the world’s more unseemly happenings.

I have recently had the chance to take a look at a huge bust of guns and ammunition. That was pretty neat. I wish they could have let me touch them, but I understand why I couldn’t. Cross contamination of evidence and all that.

Then there was my RCMP ridealong, where we apprehended a driver who had had too much to drink. And also had an unloaded gun in his trunk. That was an interesting night.

But the last three weeks have certainly blown those two incidents out of the water.

Why? You ask.

I have had to report on a double homicide and two fatal traffic collisions.

The homicide was shocking, because it was the first one in the Westlock area in many years. So many years, in fact, that no one in the office could remember the last one.

It was a fairly uncomfortable experience. You had a man allegedly shoot and kill his son and his son’s friend, which also robbed one woman of her child and her husband in one fell swoop. Not to mention the family of the friend. Then there was the awkwardness of speaking to a family friend.

I don’t mean to sound all ‘woe is me,’ but there are some parts of this job I really hate.

Then there were the two fatal traffic collisions in three days.

On Jan. 13 we had a man hit two other men who were standing beside a tow truck as it was pulling a truck out of the ditch. One of the men struck was killed and the other was transported to hospital by air ambulance.

Fortunately, yet unfortunately, I was on scene about two hours after the incident took place. So I didn’t see any bodies. But in retrospect I should have. See, the incident took place at around 19.30, and I went for a swim at 20.00, getting to the pool at around 19.45 or so. The crash site was visible from the pool, as I could see RCMP lights flashing as I approached the pool. But I thought it was simply someone being pulled over, so I didn’t go investigate. Not like I would have had my camera with me, anyway.

I only went to the scene when I got a text from my boss telling me about a crash.

It was certainly a shock, when I got on scene and the officer told me what happened. He gave a rather vivid description, which I won’t repeat here.

The Jan. 15 crash was, I can only describe it as such, a freak accident.

What happened there was a vehicle was blown off the road into the ditch by some incredibly strong wind gusts.

The driver of that vehicle got out to survey the situation, and was struck and killed by a twin-trailer grain truck that also got blown off the road.

The body was still in the ditch when I got there. First body I’ve seen that wasn’t at a funeral.

I have been encouraged, if I feel I need it, to talk to people and seek counselling. I don’t know if I will follow through, because right now I feel OK.

We’ll see how things pan out over the next few days and weeks.

Editorship

I am the editor of the Westlock News now.

This is my second editorship, after having been in control of the reins of the Barrhead Leader.

I have to say that occupying this role is both fun and challenging. It’s fun because I am the last line of defence, so to speak, when it comes to submissions in the forms of letters and other story ideas.

But it’s challenging because my duties have somewhat doubled. Now I am responsible for making sure I complete the stories I choose to take on, as well as making sure the story list is as full as possible. Sure, I am not the only one who has to come up with stories for the paper, but as the editor the brunt of that duty falls to me.

I’m not complaining. I do relish the added gravitas I now get to wield, even though I don’t act like it’s a big deal. That’s because it’s really not. Other than keeping the list ship-shape, things really haven’t changed in the newsroom.

Except for adjusting to my reporter. But that’s the case any time you change jobs or get new coworkers — there’s a feeling out period until both parties are comfortable with each other. And so far, things are going smoothly. This is going to be fun.

I hope.

Stirring the pot – updated

[EDIT] I have now included the seventh letter my column solicited. Hopefully it’s the last one I have to add.

As you’re all likely aware, I enjoy stirring the pot. Hell, it’s basically doing that that got me sent back to Westlock (even if I had no intention of stirring the pot at that time).

I’m also staunchly pro-choice, with the only time the man is allowed to have any say is if he’s the man who got the woman pregnant. And then it’s only to let his opinion known. Or if he’s the woman’s physician who is making a pronouncement based solely on medical information. Ultimately it’s the woman who decides whether to carry the pregnancy to term or abort.

Well, every year out here we have a Life Chain — an anti-choice demonstration where anti-choicers stand around and hold signs.

Naturally, I am opposed to them. So I wrote the following column:

Final decision rests with a woman

And naturally, I received some letters about it.

Actually, scratch that. I received LOTS of letters about it. Or at least about letters about it.

Take a look (please note, the headlines were written by my publisher):

Society has failed women

My only comment about this letter is that they do not understand why I really can’t attend / encounter their protests. I can’t go near them because it would be very hard for me to keep my mouth shut or put up a counter protest. Of course, I didn’t explain the real reason why I can’t go near them, so I guess I can’t fault them for getting my motives wrong.

On to the rest of the letters:

Tip of the iceberg

Pro-life rally upsets reader

Silent no longer

The human body belongs to god (I refuse to capitalize ‘god’)

Comment highly offensive

Rally about awareness

There is still one more letter to come. It’s running in the Oct. 22 issue of the Westlock News, so I still have to grab the PDF for that page and then I’ll post it.

Regardless, This is the most legitimate letters anything I have written has received. This is nothing like my Zombie Jesus comment that earned me a crapload of hate mail.

This attention is apparently why I got into this field.

And to think, I could have written that column in a lot more strident manner. I actually toned it down.

Colorado shootings

First thing I thought when I saw that there was a shooting in a movie theatre showing the new Batman movie was that it happened in Aurora, Ont. Why? Because the first tweet I saw about it when I checked my Twitter said “#Aurora” and #Col”.

I was unaware there was an Aurora in Colorado. And I thought maybe there’s a theatre in Aurora, Ont. called the coliseum (or however it’s spelt).

I also had not turned on the radio yet, so I was truly in the dark about what had happened.

But once I learned the truth, all that I previously thought didn’t matter. All that mattered is that someone went into a theatre and shot several innocent people, killing some of them.

Once the facts were known, all that mattered were those facts.

All this is to say that I don’t believe CelebBoutique was being malicious in its tweet about its Aurora dress being the reason for the hashtag #Aurora while it was trending.

The company’s explanation is enough for me, because what it ultimately comes down to is that just because something happens in the U.S., that doesn’t mean the rest of the world needs to take notice immediately. The company is based in the U.K. (or so I have read), so perhaps it is legitimate that they were unaware of the reason behind the trending of #Aurora.

And to everyone who may be encouraging a boycott of the company, I really only have this to say: I highly doubt you’ve never stuck your foot in your mouth.

Everyone makes mistakes. CelebBoutique has owned up to it. All we can do as consumers and family and friends of the victims is take the company at its word.

For note, here are some links to the story as covered by various media outlets.

CelebBoutique Tweet Riffs On Aurora ‘Batman’ Shooting: UPDATED

‘Dark Knight Rises’ shooting: Twitter outrage as clothing boutique tries to capitalize on ‘Aurora’ dress

Celeb Boutique Twitter Account Tries To Capitalize On The Fact That Aurora (Colorado) Is A Trending Topic

Horrible E-Boutique Uses Dark Knight Rises Tragedy To Sell Dresses

Clothing retailer’s insensitive #Aurora tweet enrages Internet

NRA magazine, Celebboutique.com delete tweets after Colorado theater shooting

Sources

I was recently reading a story written by a fellow journalist.

OK, fine. I do that a lot. It’s not really a big deal.

But what is a big deal is what I discovered when reading this story.

What I discovered is that this journalist did not speak to anyone in writing the story. Not. One. Person.

Instead, this journalist quoted a pamphlet.

You read that right. This so-called reporter quoted a pamphlet. That was the sole source. A piece of paper with words on it. That was the primary source of information used to write this story.

Well, this journalist also cited a website. Somehow that doesn’t make things any better.

Now, the story isn’t precisely significant. All it talks about are the plans for a community celebration. As in what sort of festivities will rock the community in a few weeks. It’s not like this journalist was attempting to track down electoral malfeasance.

Which, in all honesty, makes what this “journalist” did even more galling. It’s a simple phone call to one of the contacts listed at the end of the story to ask what is going on. And if that contact doesn’t have the information sought, s/he would likely know who would. It’s a simple call that should take no more than 10 minutes.

But no. This “journalist” has quoted a pamphlet and a website.

There are no words to describe how poorly that reflects on reporters as a whole. None. I don’t know how to explain why what this “journalist” did is unacceptable.

Sometimes I wonder.

OK. I do have some things to say.

In virtually all stories (and the one in question is by no stretch of the imagination an exception) at least one human source must be quoted. Two or more is ideal. To write something and have the sole source of information be a letter/pamphlet/website/etc. is such a shoddy example of reporting it barely can be classified as reporting.

It’s more like research for an academic paper. And even then, using a pamphlet and a website is a sure-fire way to be laughed out of any academic institution.

I would like to refer to a story I am currently writing.

Right now, I am working on a story that has its basis in a letter one resident has sent to the mayor. It turns out I have to quote the letter. I would prefer not to have to do that, but the letter’s writer did not want to comment until he received a reply from the mayor. I can understand his logic, and while I don’t agree, I can’t force him to speak to me. Well, I did get him to answer one question I had, but then he clammed up.

I have also spoken to the mayor about the letter, as well as the town manager.

What this all means is that I have to quote the letter, with the added comment that the writer did not want to speak. By making that statement in the story, I have covered my bases. I’m not happy about it, but like I said earlier, I can’t make people speak to me.

Then again, the letter is so short I’d barely be able to get more than 150 words using it alone.

But the point I’m making is there is absolutely no reason not to have human voices in a story.

My example is a somewhat controversial issue. It requires human comments.

The piece written by that so-called “journalist” is previewing a community event. There is no reason why anyone involved with the festivities would NOT want to speak to the press.

Tu sais quoi? I’m just talking in circles now. You get what I’m getting at. A story is not a story without a human voice in it. Quoting written words without attempting to get that human voice is unacceptable.

How does this “journalist” have a job?

Quick portfolio update

Truthfully I was not planning on posting here for a while, but seeing as I have updated my portfolio, I figured I may as well let you all know that.

So, for the record, I have updated the Newspaper Work section of my portfolio. Check it out.