The award that Western’s David Mills didn’t win

CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who hosted the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.
CBC sportscaster Scott Russell, who MCed the retirement event, is flanked by David Mills and Wendie Crouch. For hundreds of Western journalism alumni, Mills and Crouch have been enormously influential instructors.

The 2013 journalism award season is nearly over, except for the annual Michener Awards, to be held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 18. The Ontario Newspaper Awards were given out at a gala in Waterloo, Ont., on April 27, The National Newspaper Awards were celebrated in Ottawa on May 3 and the Canadian Association of Journalists honoured its best the following night in the same city.

For anyone who attended Western University‘s graduate journalism program at any point over the past 35 years, however, one of this year’s most important journalism milestones arrived at the end of April with the retirement of broadcast manager David Mills. Though not officially deemed “faculty” at the school, Mills was one part of a dynamic duo that gave hundreds of students the practical, hands-on training that allowed them to blossom as fully formed multimedia storytellers. The other, as any Western alumnus will quickly tell anyone who asks, was media specialist Wendie Crouch. It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance and impact of Mills and Crouch to the Western program.

All of that was evidenced by the warm and spirited retirement reception for Mills hosted by the university’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western’s Great Hall on April 25. Effusive tributes flowed. Professors emeriti came out. There were tears of joy and appreciation. And testimonials from graduates, both in-person and via video, spoke to Mills’s long and deep reach into the successes of the program’s alumni. Among the characteristics most frequently mentioned were his patience, resourcefulness and friendly mentorship. He was a master of the Socratic method: He taught by helping students think through their difficulties and challenges, rather than by simply answering their questions.

David Mills was a significant part of the education of hundreds of Canadian journalists who have gone on to win nearly every type of award in the national panoply: NNAs, CAJs, ONAs, CABs, Geminis, Canadian Screen Awards and dozens of lesser-known honours. If ever the Canadian journalism community were to create an award for an instructor who has had a significant, long and lasting impact on both individual journalists and their craft, candidates such as David Mills would win it. He didn’t — only because it doesn’t yet exist.

Tips from video producers for student entrepreneuers

My Conestoga College colleague Steve Roberts, coordinator of the school’s broadcast television program, did a wonderful job on Friday, for the benefit of his students, of convening and moderating a panel discussion on independent video production. He graciously allowed students from other programs to sit in — something that my broadcast journalism class said later they very much appreciated.

The seven panellists, all members of the Media Producers Group of Ontario (mpGO), discussed a series of prepared and spontaneous questions for two hours before moving into less formal setting with Roberts’ television students. Among their tips for students hoping to make a go of it as independent video producers:

Interior of The Rip, by Ontario artist Robert Wiens

Passion and persistence are keys to success. Never stop pitching, adapting, networking and learning to use new technologies as they come along.
• Prospective clients will Google you. Be sure your virtual profile is up-to-date and professional in tone. That includes social media as well as websites.
• It’s a growing industry and there’s room for everybody.
• Internships are opportunities to try people out. Prospective employers will be asking themselves not only how good are you, but how well do you fit into their mindset. As one producer put it, “We look for like minds.”
• Hone your writing skills. Writers get paid the most; it’s an invaluable skill that has a profound influence on the shape and look of any production.
• Learn to discern what clients need, versus what clients say they want — that’s one of the biggest communication challenges of independent production.
• Real networking seldom involves parties and martinis. It’s all about who you know and your reputation in the field.
• Don’t turn your nose up at small jobs. A $300 job can lead to a $900 job can lead to a $2,000 job can lead to a $5,000 job can lead to a $10,000 job, etc.
Budgeting is the most difficult part of your work. Do it fastidiously, then track every dollar and hour spent, and charge back for it. If you don’t get paid, you don’t get to play.
• Get used to having to juggle multiple jobs and multiple demands on our time each day. It’s part of the life of an independent producer.
• Attend meetings, but as few as possible. They are usually the most unproductive time of each job.
• The target audience is a big deal. Writing styles must adapt to clients and then be tweaked for client’s different audiences.

Thanks to the producers who participated in the panel: Paul and Paula Campsall of MetaMedia Productions; Rob Currie and Carol Ann Whalen or C to C Productions; Von Darnell of Huckleberry Film Studios; Tom Knowlton of TCK Production; and Peter Shannon of Memory Tree Productions. And, of course, to Steve Roberts for his initiative and hard work in convening the event.

The impact of social media on communication

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving as an interview subject for a short radio documentary by Conestoga College student Andrew Shepherd, produced in the studios of CJIQ-FM, the college’s radio station. Shepherd was interested in the exploring the impact social media are having on our society and the relationships we have with one another. He called his documentary “Transcending Maya.”

A bit of background on Shepherd: He was born and raised in Kitchener, Ont., and is in the second year of the Broadcast Radio program at the college. In high school, he took all academic/university level courses, thinking he was university bound. But his friends coaxed him into developing his broadcasting abilities.

“I didn’t always know that Broadcast Radio was the program I wanted to be in,” Shepherd says. “My friends told me I belong in radio, so I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did, because it’s the best experience I’ve ever had — and I’ve fallen in love with radio.”

In addition to his studies, Shepherd works part-time at 99.5 KFUN as one of the weekend newscasters. “And when the big guys take time off, I’m the man to fill in on the morning shows on both KFUN and 105.3 Kool FM,” he adds. “I’m currently working on getting an internship there for the summer.”

“News is my forte. I enjoy watching the world change in front of my eyes and reporting on it,” he says.

To listen to Shepherd’s documentary, click on the link below.

Transcending Maya

Campus reverie

For most teachers and students, school’s out for the summer. The great, yawning gap of July and August provides a respite from daily and weekly routines. Not so for me: July and August bring seven weeks of teaching and mentoring in the company of 31 graduate students at the University of Western Ontario‘s journalism program.

We began our foray into the murky and tentative world of journalism ethics last evening with a discussion about bias, then launched into two case studies. One of the benefits of having taught journalism as long as I have is that former students become some of the best sources of case material. Last night, we explored dilemmas (one from the world of broadcast journalism; the other, print) faced by two of my former students at Ryerson University‘s School of Journalism: Kimberly Gale, a reporter at CBC Radio in Toronto, and Oksana Lypowecky, an editor at the Saint John Telegraph Journal. It’s a three-hour class. But I arrived early and stayed late, taking time to stroll the UWO grounds before and after the lecture.

The spire of Middlesex College at dusk

There is something haltingly beautiful about a university or college campus in the summer. The pace is relaxed. The manicured grounds are beautiful. The detritus of the past semester has been swept away and anticipation is already building toward the arrival of a fresh crop of students in the fall. Campus pubs and eateries are uncrowded and convivial.

Perhaps I feel this way because my spouse and I spent our first year of married life on a university campus. We were residence dons at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo and spent the glorious summer of 1975 on its sprawling grounds. Our studies complete, we had four months to while away before the big move to our first jobs in another community — and we took advantage of every moment. There were early-morning duckling feedings and late-night walks. Both of us became involved in the dramatic production of In Search of a Country by Urie Bender, directed by Maurice Evans, at UW’s Theatre of the Arts — Jacquelyn had the female lead; I was stage manager. There were cast parties, walks to a nearby plaza for wine and havarti cheese, and impromptu picnics with no particular beginning or end. Rent was $50 a month, it was summertime and the livin’, as George Gerschwin wrote, was easy.

At a deeper level, however, there’s much more. Universities and colleges are about inquiry, learning and communicating — pursuits that lie at the heart of the journalistic credo. Their campuses are at once utilitarian and symbolic. They represent aspiration, experimentation and progress. They remain repositories of a kind of idealism that tends to dissolve beyond their gates. And, as corny as it may sound, the students who inhabit their varied spaces are a kind of bridge to the future.

In all of that, for me, there is a magnetic attraction.

A busy semester, just ended

Two first-year Conestoga journalism students practise their video editing skills using Final Cut Pro.

Ahhh, the end of April. It brings warmer weather and, just as important for post-secondary teachers like me, an end to classes. And that means considerably more time for things such as curriculum revisions, reading, blogging and long-postponed chores around the house.

It’s been an eventful semester. On top of the daily preparation, classroom deliveries and grading that go with teaching three courses — news writing (two sections), business and economics for journalists, and magazine writing — I was involved in helping organize the journalism program’s annual spring gala featuring guest speaker John Hinnen, judging the winners from among dozens of award entries from students and preparing to launch the college’s new media program this fall.

With the bittersweet close of classes yesterday, it’s on now to final grading — 266 papers over the next 10 days. Meanwhile, the school year has left me with memories of some remarkable students. See my column in today’s London Free Press, as well as a profile by the Waterloo Region Record of one of our print students.

Supreme Court validates responsibility argument

The Supreme Court of Canada's judgment means additional freedom — and responsibility — for journalists. Credit: SCC

I was sitting in a restaurant Tuesday morning having breakfast with my spouse, our daughter and her friend when I happened to check the Twitter feed on my mobile phone. “Yes!” I exclaimed, feeling suddenly self-conscious about my outburst as other patrons were trying to caffeinate their way to alertness.

“That sounds as if you might actually be getting excited about something,” my wife said. (I’m not generally known for pouring a lot of emotion into everyday conversation.)

I’d read a tweet about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in a case where “responsible journalism” had been the key argument in a libel case — a ruling that provides for additional protection for journalists and news organizations when careful, balanced and methodical work on a story is in the public interest, even if it happens to tarnish the reputation of an individual.

In the annals of Canadian journalism, the lack of this type of precedent has killed hundreds of stories, no matter their importance to the public interest and national discourse, for fear of libel and slander litigation.

Dean Jobb, associate professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax, has provided a cogent and accessible analysis of the ruling for Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin also wrote a fine piece on the meaning of the ruling.

The challenge for news media now, of course, will be to live up to the demands implicit in the judgment. The danger lies in citation of the Supreme Court decision by journalists without the requisite hard work and care in reporting. As is so often the case in other spheres, with increased freedom comes increased responsibility — and that will be the message journalism instructors will need to relay to their students.

I expect the ruling will, in a roundabout way, also increase the impetus toward the professionalization of investigative journalism, if not in a formal sense, then in its practice. And like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats, it reminds every thinking journalist of the imperative of nailing down every detail before publication.

Advice for aspiring journalists amid media tumult

Four themes I’ve been pushing out to my 70 or so first-year students this fall semester, amid the steady litany of job losses, consolidations and reports of “outsourcing” from traditional Canadian news media:

1. Story still matters. The great flux in the worlds of media and journalism are essentially about modes of delivery and creation of new business models. There’s very little serious talk about whether journalism, in some form, will survive or whether engaged citizens of North American democracies will continue to demand timely, accurate and contextualized information, whether through flat screens, podcasts, e-readers, mobile devices or more traditional media. Journalists are analytical storytellers, so practise and hone to a razor edge your skills at telling stories across the wide range of platforms. Don’t, however, ignore development of an equally important skill — something past generations of journalists have called a “nose for news.” Master the knack for anticipating and uncovering the story and, as within the proverbial mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. If you can’t do that, all the software and technological prowess in the world won’t make you successful.

2. Develop your own brand. As you practise your writing — in the classroom, on your blog, through social media postings, etc. — begin to ask yourself about what will distinguish you from the thousands of other journalists with whom you’ll soon be in competition. How will your work stand out? What special interests, proprietary knowledge or, yes, even bias might you leverage or develop to set yourself apart? An intimate knowledge of the procedures and databases or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada? An expertise in sport-related injuries and the clinics that treat them? A heightened understanding of food science and food distribution? Now’s the time to take a hobby, special interest or mere curiosity and turn it into a sort of mini-specialization. Don’t dismiss the importance of competence in journalism’s primary skills: investigation, interviewing, vocabulary, accuracy and deft writing, among others. But develop your personal brand on a parallel track with those basic competencies. Take your first steps, however halting, along that path.

3. Think entrepreneurially. Consider the possibility that you may never spend 20 or 25 years as an employee of a large media company. The trend toward leaner staffs and outsourced work is often characterized as evidence of the slow death of journalism and news organizations, especially by those who have spent their careers inside those walls. It needn’t be so. While traditional news media outlets will likely continue to hire staff writers, reporters, photographers, illustrators, designers and engineers for some time to come (albeit at a slower pace), don’t dismiss the notion that your journalistic career might be more akin to that of the owner/operator of a small business or a member of profession. Find ways of learning or practising entrepreneurial skills, such as pitching story ideas, promoting yourself and the type of work you’re interested in doing, keeping proper financial records as a self-employed individual and collaborating with others to break and tell great stories. Consider the possibility that, as they develop leaner business models, news organizations may some day contract out reporting in addition to copy editing; that journalism will be more collaborative and as much the purview of self-starting, independent professionals as of staff tied to desks inside corporate entities. And within that scenario, what’s to prevent clusters of excellent journalists from operating collegially as units, offering their services to buyers or “clients” the way law firms have operated for decades?

4. Rev up your flux capacitor. Don’t be cowed by the naysaying and pessimism of those within traditional news media who live — or in some cases are imprisoned — inside legacy products and the business models on which they’ve too long relied. Rather than focus on its delivery modes, place your confidence and faith in journalism itself: the human yearning for story; the pursuit of truth in an age of spin; the need for mediated discussion, spirited debate and forged consensus among bonfires of various vanities; the continuing importance of assembling that “first rough draft of history” for the benefit of those who come after, whether they be other journalists, historians or their critics. The questions around delivery modes and business models will eventually sort themselves out — and you have an opportunity to play a significant role in helping devise them. Within another generation — one slice of the duration of a typical career — the news media landscape is likely to look very different. So what. Seize the historic moment. Master the storytelling arts; muster your courage.