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Tears of the trade

February 24, 2011 Comments off

A journalism student argued in J-Source on Wednesday that students should be given risk and trauma training in journalism school.

Megan Radford writes:

As journalists it is sometimes our job to put ourselves in harm’s way, to get the grizzly details and weed out what the public should know…and what they perhaps should not. What some may not realize is that the toll of this kind of life begins early. For some it begins even before we have officially entered the field.

Now I don’t have much opinion, or knowledge, about whether or not current training on how to manage dangerous situations is sufficient; the most danger I face is standing on the side of a busy highway every now and then.

But as far as the whole trauma thing, I think that it’s pretty clear that there needs to be more discussion about the sometimes heartbreaking situations we come across every day. Whether or not you encounter potentially traumatic situations depends on your beats, your community and your work rate. But if you’re a reporter who covers breaking news anywhere in British Columbia, it’s only a matter of time until you come across a troubling situation, be it a dead or dying person, a bereaved family, or a carnage-strewn highway.

Much of our work, of course, is no worse than watching the evening news. (It positively pales in comparison to watching coverage of the shit that going on in Libya.) But there is still a price to be paid and not just by those shooters who cover carnage. Even feature writing can take a toll; talking to families that are falling apart when your marriage is on the rocks, interviewing parents who have lost their children when your baby just turned two, or writing about dementia when your father keeps forgetting your name can all take a lot out of a person.

There will be times you see things you don’t want to see and hear things you don’t want to hear. But community newspapers, unfortunately, are often pretty ill-equipped to deal with that.

Not only that, but newsrooms are so small that it’s often not practical to take a day or two to decompress.

The result should be a mental health check — where maybe the editor calls his or her reporters individually into his office and, briefly, just makes sure that everything’s OK — every now and then. Such a meeting doesn’t have to just focus on stress from seeing too many highway accidents. For a city hall reporter, the editor could just ask whether he’s fine with his workload or whether he’s nearing a burnout state. But just hearing the question should be enough to lower the blood pressure.

If there is some underlying trauma there, it needs to be dealt with. (That also requires reporters to be willing to speak up and bare their emotions. Oh, the horror!) That means that newspaper companies should not only have plans in place to help reporters who come down with the shakes, but they should let their reporters know that such plans exist beyond the standard worker’s compensation stuff.

As for journalism schools, they need to both teach reporters how to interact with families who have lost loved ones, and how to process the tragic tales they will inevitably hear.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

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That was a pretty good post, eh? Two semi-colons! Keep them coming by helping me out. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

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Categories: Columns Tags: , ,

A small-town journo job takes one Barrie to Burnaby

February 18, 2011 Comments off

Burnaby Now arts editor Julie MacLellan takes a post on hick town I made a little while back and runs with it. Runs very far. (And no I’m not assuming she read my post, she very kindly referenced this blog).

Anyways, Julie writes about all the good things that come along with working at a small-town newspaper. She gradded from J-school in Ontario 16 years ago and sent resumes out across the country, eventually getting an offer from the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle. She decided to give it a go.

That was November 1994. I ended up staying in that wonderful newsroom, with editor John McKinley (thanks, John, you still rock) until the summer of 1997, when I migrated to the mainland to be with my then-boyfriend (now-husband).

Those two-and-a-half years opened my eyes to what a genuinely incredible thing it is to work for a community newspaper. If you want to write stories that matter to people, that have an impact on their lives, that make a difference every single day – well, there’s no better place to do that than in a small town.

Sure, sometimes it’s a pain in the butt – people won’t hesitate to come up to you in a lineup at the bank or the grocery store to tell you just exactly why your story about that new development missed the point, or why you really ought to do a story about their sports team (or child prodigy chess player, or art show, or teenage sensation singer, or, or, or). And they won’t hesitate to gossip when the new, single, 24-year-old female reporter is seen at a bar with, say, the guy who runs the shop next door … not that that ever really happened, of course.

But what you lose, occasionally, in the ability to draw lines between your “work” self and your “real” self, you gain back in spades in the genuine connections you build. If you park your big-city ego and urban snobbery at the door – because nothing will turn people off faster than someone who erroneously thinks that they’re too good or too talented for a “hick-town” newspaper – you’ll realize what an incredible sense of community you can build in short order.

As a reporter, you get doors opened to you that would take years otherwise. You become part of a town faster than perhaps anyone else ever could. Each and every day, you are out talking to real people, doing real things. You are writing about them and taking pictures of them at work, at creative pursuits, on the sports field, at school. You are constantly hearing from people about what you are doing – for better or for worse – and you are never, ever allowed to forget that your mission is to serve the community in which you live.

It’s something that’s far too easy to lose sight of when you move to a bigger newspaper in an urban setting, where the disconnect between reporter and reader is much greater, and where you inevitably spend more time at your desk and less out there walking around the streets, talking to real people. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing big headlines (or, these days, in trying to increase “page views” on the website) and forget about what we’re here to do in the first place – which is to say, keep our community informed about what’s happening in our collective backyard, tell interesting stories about interesting people and provide a forum for people to share their ideas – all those things that make community newspapers such an important part of people’s lives.

In a small town, you always know that your work matters. And that’s an amazing thing.

more…

The rest, in which Julie talks about how the skills learned at a small paper will prove invaluable wherever you go, is very much worth reading. But I’m not going to steal the whole bloody thing so check it out here.

How to get a journo-job, redux

February 10, 2011 1 comment

Never have journalism program graduates needed more help finding jobs. Fortunately, they’ve never had more advice.

Not long after Burnaby Now editor Pat Tracy gave aspiring reporters a piece of her mind, Joe Banks, a journalism professor at Algonquin College and a former community newspaper reporter, offers up some tips for would-be Ottawa journos.

The advice is just as good for graduates here (British Columbian grads can probably just substitute Victoria, Vancouver or Kamloops for Ottawa).

The column in four words: Find a hick town.

A friend of mine owns a paper in Fort Frances, Ont., just west of the northern tip of Lake Superior. Few months go by when Jim Cumming is not phoning me about another opening for a general assignment or a sports reporter. It has now reached a point where if I feel a student is the right fit, I’ll tell him there’s an opening in Fort Frances, because if there isn’t one now, there will be in five minutes.

I heard stories like that at an Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association symposium in Edmonton last month. Editor after editor asked me where all the young grads are, even though I know we are pumping them out at a feverish pace all across this country, from both colleges and universities.

“Mine love Ottawa too much,” I shrugged, sitting around a table of colleagues. That was followed by nodding heads of journalism instructors from Edmonton and Calgary, whose own urban-centric grads are reluctant to leave their cozy mass transit lives for northern Alberta towns where the ground leaks money.

more…

Clearly, big cities hold a certain allure for journalists who want to break big stories and get noticed. Unfortunately, there’s also a complete dearth of jobs. I don’t know if small towns are ever going to be as enticing a location than a place like Ottawa or Vancouver. But I bet that journalism professors can probably do a better job of letting their students know why a community newspaper job may be better than there dream job at the Citizen or the Sun. Certainly, it would probably stop some qualified reporters from retiring their pen prematurely.

I want to post on this in-depth one day, but I don’t have the time today.

Still, here are three things that you can get at a small-town community newspaper that you can’t get at a daily.

1. Freedom – your story pitch is never going to get turned down or spiked and never run.

2. Freedom – you can write columns, you can write features, you can write breaking news

3. Freedom – there’s more flexibility when it comes to your hours. When the paper’s done, you’re done (sometimes).

Bonus: Freedom – as in working practically for free. But at least you’re not working for the government.

Categories: J-school Tags:

Textbook prices take me back (updated w/ comment)

December 20, 2010 1 comment

So I came across this book called “The New Journalist: Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking” by Paul Benedetti, Tim Currie, and Kim Kierans.

The Tyee describes it thusly: “The ultimate Canadian guide to the shifting news media game and how to be a player.”

Sounds like an interesting read, right? It may be. I’d love to see what it has to say about community journalism, but I’m sure as hell not going to pay $59. That’s how much this 348 page book costs. And on the website, review copies are only doled out to those professors who might want to assign the book for class.

You know how you get older and as you do so, you forget the maddening parts of college and focus on all the drinking? Well, a $59 price tag for a book on journalist brings all that frustration at crazy-ass book prices right back. Thanks Emond Montgomery Publications.

P.S. If they read this and want to give me a book, I’ll gladly retract my snide comments.

Andrea comments:

The alternative is to hop a plane to Halifax, put on some flannel and pretend to be a University of King’s College j-school student, and sneak into one of Currie’s or Kierans’ classes and start asking unrelated questions.

…actually, that would probably be a lot of fun, now that I’ve said it. Road trip?

(A former King’s student, in case you can’t tell.)

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Categories: J-school Tags: ,
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