I never actually wanted to be a journalist. When I was in Grade 11, my parents sat me down and asked what I wanted to do with my life. I said, “I wanna rock.” Much to my dismay, Dee Snider didn’t appear and throw my dad out the window the way he did in Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gunna Take It” video. Instead, since my math and science marks were in the low 60s, and I had always been a good writer, my parents and I decided journalism school seemed a logical choice.
But I had never interviewed anyone before, and when I started to, it never sat well with me. I overcame my initial shyness, but I felt I was interviewing people solely because I needed sources and quotes. Focusing on magazines changed things, as I pitched stories I wanted to write, and talked to people I found interesting. But even after a great 25-minute interview, I knew I’d never write half the things I heard, and an editor would significantly shorten what I turned in. Even this story’s a lot shorter than what I first wrote. That’s why I’m not sad it’s my last piece of journalism.
So I’m back to the question my parents asked me: What do you want to do with your life?
I seek help on Ryerson’s Alumni career day where former grads share career advice. While many students are hoping to win a free iPod Touch from a grand raffle, I’m not here for electronics.
A name catches my eye. After establishing we’re not related, I ask Graeme Harris how he used journalism to break into the corporate world. Putting aside his BlackBerry, Harris tells me he too graduated in a time where there were a financial crisis, suggesting I read up on the early 1980s when overpriced oil and tight monetary policy led to economic disaster. But he worked part-time at the Bank of Montreal, and freelanced for magazines such as Canadian Business, until he started full-time with the bank in 1986. Since then, he’s held various communications and media relations positions with BMO, RBC and his current employer UBS. He adds that public relations people think journalists make either the best or the worst employees.
Not all PR jobs are corporate though. Donna Varrica, a Concordia University grad, left journalism because she didn’t like reporting on tragedies. Ironically, she was working for her alma matter in 1992 when professor Valery Fabrikant shot and killed four of his colleagues. Her handling of the Fabrikant affair helped prepare her for her current position as director of communications at Dawson College where in September 2006, Kimveer Gill killed one woman, and shot 16 other people. For nine days straight, she dealt with up to 125 media requests a day, many from CNN, MSNBC and other international outlets. Her schooling helps her understand journalists’ needs and she’s shocked when PR people send three-page news releases to the media or hold press conferences for minor events. “Unless you’re Celine Dion or the [Montreal] Canadiens,” she says, “in this town, you don’t have a news conference.”
Then there’s Tyler Kustra who works for the Library of Parliament in Ottawa. The 28-year-old studied journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He also decided to pursue a double major because economics was his second love. He later earned a master of economics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Today, his job is to make politicians look smart, so he provides MPs with concise analyses on the effects, and pros and cons of government programs. Although there are plenty of economics grads out there, most can’t communicate as well as Kustra can. But he says it takes more than a journalism degree to work in the civil service. “Everyone here has an advanced degree, so they wouldn’t even look at my resume if all I had was a bachelor of journalism.”
Bill Killorn, another double-degree holder, studied international relations at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and journalism at King’s. Now the domestic program director at Journalists for Human Rights, he doesn’t think the papers are completely necessary. “It’s all about how you carry yourself and interact with other people,” he says. Still, the job is an ideal fit for him because it combines all his schooling. He also feels NGOs are ideal for recent grads seeking work experience. “This isn’t one of those internships where you’re sent to get coffee,” he says, sipping a hot chocolate from Starbucks. “At an NGO, interns get to do the things we would pay someone to do, if we could afford to pay them.”
Great work and no pay? Sounds a lot like the magazine and online journalism internship postings I keep getting in my inbox. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to work for free. And when magazines offer unpaid work, it seems to send the message that only the rich can do what they want.
But there are, of course, some folks who didn’t start wealthy and love their jobs now-people such as Justin Kingsley, vice-president of bleublancrouge, a Montreal-based ad agency. After graduating from journalism at Concordia, he became a national sports correspondent for The Canadian Press in Toronto, covering pro sports and the Olympics. Eventually, he went to Parliament Hill, where he was the government spokesman on the sponsorship scandal, and became Prime Minister Paul Martin’s press secretary for a year. “I’ve always stayed in one field, and that’s communications,” Kingsley says. “And if I had to be even more specific, I’d say strategic communications. And what gave me the foundation for that is journalism school.”