On Monday, the Montreal Gazette will be presenting awards in the form of bursaries to students in Concordia University’s Journalism department. As has become sort of a tradition for the past half-decade, I’m so lazy that I’m only now writing up my interviews with the winners of last year’s awards (which to be fair, were given out in January) and the year before (uhh, my dog ate it?).
I chatted with each of them briefly about their origins, their futures, and what they think about journalism. Here’s what they had to say:
Class of 2014-15
“When I was in Grade 3, that’s when 9/11 happened,” said Casandra De Masi, making me feel old. “My sister’s much older than I am. So I was always learning from her, following her. And when that happened I was basically glued to the television. I was so young, I didn’t understand what was happening, but my parents took the time to explain it to me.”
De Masi, who grew up in St-Léonard, devoured everything she could about the moment that changed America and the world. “I wanted to see the stories that were coming out of it. … From that point on I was always interested in writing and journalism. … I was always interested in the news when other people weren’t really paying attention.”
Her real passion for journalism, she believes, developed in CEGEP, when she worked for the student newspaper The Plant, eventually reaching the job of editor-in-chief.
“I think I more know about what I don’t want to do than what I do want to do. I don’t see myself being this international reporter going to war zones,” she said, adding later that “I believe that it takes a certain type of person or character to take that role on, a role I don’t fit.”
“I think I’m more interested in journalism that teaches people, because my sister is a teacher, and everyone always tells me they were surprised that I didn’t go into teaching as well. It’s something that I would maybe want to do later in my life is teach.”
“I think that education is key. I think that it could fix a lot of the problems we have in the world. … The highest compliment I can get from anyone is I have had people tell me when they read my stories for student media: ‘I actually picked it up and I read your piece and I actually learned a lot’.”
Specializing in audio-visual journalism for her undergraduate degree, De Masi had a work-study component, working at CBC.
How she sees the future of journalism: “I think it depends on the way you look at it. I think you could be pessimistic if you’re looking at it from the old-fashioned point of view. I think it’s optimistic if you kind of look at where it’s going and if you yourself are open-minded. The Gazette is going through some huge changes right now as well. You see that these places are making the effort to change and that makes me a little bit optimistic. I think if you’re working hard, if you’re getting all the tools possible to make sure that you can make a valuable contribution to the place you’re going to be working at, then you can succeed. And I think that could be said for just about any field now, because everything is changing.”
Where she’s at now: “After I got the bursary, I took on an eight-month full-time internship with Equitas — International Centre for Human Rights Education. I worked on their blog, took photos, managed their social media, and acted as the media liaison for the NGO. I met amazing human rights activists from all over the world! I returned to school after that Co-op internship for my last year, and I graduated from journalism this past June, with distinction. I also received the Co-op Student of the Year award for 2016, and was just recently awarded with a Faculty of Arts and Science Scholar award.”
“Since graduation I’ve been working on a few things here and there, but full-time I am an Information Officer in the Department of Public Affairs and Strategic Planning for the MUHC,” telling stories about patient care and research at the hospital network.
Correction: An earlier version of this interview spelled De Masi’s name with a lowercase d. One does not disrespect the D.
My conversation with Guenevere Neufeld started with her challenging me to guess her age. I guessed 28, and nailed it. I’m awesome. It ended with several of her classmates wanting to impress upon me how great she is, including her baking. “She inspires others to bake for her,” one of them said.
Neufeld is a self-described “country bumpkin” and describes the places she’s from as being “near” towns. She grew up “near” Lethbridge, Alta. (actually Coaldale, Alta.), and did an English literature degree at the University of Lethbridge, but says she prefers to consider herself as being from British Columbia, “near” Nelson (actually Kootenay Bay), in the southeast of the province. (Here she is doing a TEDx talk while in high school there in 2012.)
She moved to Montreal to attend the journalism program, and it’s been quite the adjustment. “I grew up near wheat fields and open skies, and I’ve lived in mountain valleys and hung out with trees, and now I live in a city.”
“I like small things,” she said, quickly adding “that’s a terrible quote.”
She said she expects she won’t stay in the city after she graduates.
What attracted her to journalism? “The ability to tell stories, to share important stories with the world.”
Asked what kinds of stories she finds important, she got … abstract: “Compassion, connection with other beings, and the truth of our human existence. And when it comes down to it, stories that talk about the purpose of life.”
She pointed to a project like Humans of New York as something that interests her. “Something that I’ve generally been leaning towards is writing about the day-to-day living process, like growing food, urban agriculture, sustainability, the very details of our lives, of our human existence. And how to find meaning within those details.”
She said she’s open to possibilities that are available, but jobs that would appeal to her would be things like working for AdBusters, or public radio, or dealing with women’s rights issues.
How she sees the future of journalism: “In some ways, it’s very difficult being in this program because there are so many options.” She didn’t offer much in the way of prognostication about the industry, but for her, at least, the future is wide open.
Where she’s at now: After working a summer with Concordia’s alumni relations department, and living in New Zealand for a year, Neufeld is returning to her roots, back in the Kootenays in B.C., working as the communications director for the Yasodhara Ashram yoga retreat, where her functions include blogging.
Full disclosure: Sara King-Abadi was a social acquaintance of mine before she won her award. We have friends in common who hang out at the same bar, though I wasn’t aware she was in the journalism program until I saw her that night.
The born-and-bred Montrealer studied English literature as her undergrad. Before that she studied theatre at Dawson College.
“I tried to avoid telling people I studied theatre when I first started, because I didn’t want people to know that I’d performed in front of people before.”
She said she tried studying theatre in New York City, but within a semester she learned that this wasn’t what she wanted to do.
While studying English literature, she learned student newspaper The Concordian was looking for a copy editor, and “it was there that I decided that I had an interest in journalism.” She heard through a colleague about how the diploma program leads to better job prospects than the undergrad program, and applied for it.
“I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that I want to change the world, because that’s a very big thing,” she said. “But there’s a lot more value to people’s individual stories than I think is realized. And I would like to be able to tell those stories. Because the things that always appeal to me when I read them are very personal. Something that can appeal to everyone.”
She pointed to a story she wrote for The Concordian about an award-winning PhD thesis by Eric Weissman on homelessness, that she particularly enjoyed. “Listening to him speak, he was so passionate about what he was talking about, that I started listening and being convinced about everything he said. I was so fascinated by everything he said that when I wrote that article, I felt a duty to portray his vision properly.”
“That’s important to me. People do amazing things, and they should be portrayed properly. Their stories should be told.”
How she sees the future of journalism: “I think that people tend to dramatize the industry going downhill. A lot of people lament the death of print, but they don’t realize the birth of another medium. Digital media is crazy. And it needs to be given its due as well. It sucks because anyone can be publishing anything and people tend to respect it less, I find. … Everyone is very nostalgic, and they don’t want to see the change happen, but they don’t think that everything they’re living now was at one point in a different way, and the generation before them had to live through change. It just happens to be faster. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Where she’s at now: King-Abadi worked as a reporter … well, the reporter … at the West Island Chronicle and Westmount Examiner, the last remaining anglophone newspapers owned by TC Media. Those papers were shut down a year ago, but she’s still working for the company part-time, filing stories in English for Les Nouvelles Saint-Laurent and le Messager Lachine et Dorval, mainly covering municipal affairs.
She writes: “Communities deserve a voice, and above that it’s the smaller papers that can still have representation at council meetings. (I’ve been to a LOT of council meetings.)”
She has also freelanced for the Montreal Gazette’s West Island section, and done some work with documentarian Brian McKenna.
Antoni Devlin Nerestant is a born-and-bred Montrealer with Haitian parents. He studied in political science before joining the journalism diploma program.
“I actually tried to get into journalism in the undergrad, and it didn’t quite work out during the application process, so I — I wouldn’t say I settled for poli sci, but I went with that,” Nerestant said. He actually ended up liking that program, and so rather than switch to journalism as an undergrad, he completed his bachelor’s degree and enrolled in the diploma program.
“I came into the program enjoying writing. It’s my main thing.” Despite this, he said at the time he sees himself working more on the broadcasting side for now. He enjoys politics and sports, but “I came into the journalism program with a bit of a chip on my shoulder to prove that I’m not just a sports guy. … I want to be versatile.”
“I’m just happy to be doing the best I can, and hopefully people around me family-wise will be proud. I know my parents, they never got this far educationally, so I do it for them, really, just so that they can feel as though whatever they went through in the old country, as they say, is worth it.”
How he sees the future of journalism: “I see it almost as entrepreneurship. I feel like you really have to work on your own future. And even though people say that it’s bleak, and in some cases it’s justified. I find that it just gives you more incentive to really pave your own way and do things that aren’t conventional. From people that I’ve spoken to in the business, they tell me don’t take no for an answer, don’t think that there’s a conventional path to where it is you want to go. So to me it’s almost like you’re building your own business which is you. It’s a great challenge, and if you put yourself in that frame of mind, I think it can help outweigh whatever numbers suggest that it’s not easy to get a job.”
What he’s up to now: You’ve probably seen him doing reporting for CBC Montreal, where he’s also worked as a researcher. He’s currently in Sherbrooke on temporary assignment.
Where you can follow him: @AntoniNerestant
“I think my first taste of journalism probably was back in elementary school, Grade 6,” said Samantha Mateus, who grew up on Montreal’s south shore. “My English teacher, I still remember her perfectly to this day, Miss Conway, she used to open up every class with a current events segment. So every class a student would be designated to report on the previous day’s news. We’d go up to the front of the class with our little newspaper clippings and tell the class what’s been going on. And so I kind of had a knack for it, and she always suggested that I go into journalism, but I never really thought much into it the years to come.”
Mateus’s passions include travel, soccer and historical fiction.
“I always knew that I wanted to something related to languages and literature. At Champlain College I studied modern languages, thinking I wanted to go into translation.” (She now speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.) “I did two years at McGill in linguistics, thinking I wanted to be a speech pathologist. I took a year off, and revised my whole interest into journalism.”
She took a specialization in textual journalism at Concordia.
“I’m still not 100% sure. I’m more into feature writing, magazine writing,” she said about her future. “I think I can be quite versatile, but I do have a huge interest in culture and travel, for the most part.”
How she sees the future of journalism: “It does weigh heavily on my mind,” she said, noting the guest speakers her classes have had who have been kind of down on the industry. She’s hoping that getting experience will help her chances of surviving in the industry.
Where she’s at now: She graduated from Concordia this spring. “Upon graduating, an opportunity slapped me in the face and I was brought on board to see through the launch of a Montreal-based tech startup called OMsignal, which specializes in textile innovation and smart apparel,” she wrote to me this weekend. “I helped develop a branding strategy and implemented a successful PR campaign around the official launch, securing media coverage across North American outlets.”
She also contributes Montreal-based stories to the online lifestyle magazine Vitamin Daily.
Recently, she said, she left OMsignal to focus on pursuing “a career more in line with my immediate field of study. So, I’m back out there on the job market, looking to work with the written word again and craft meaningful stories.”
Class of 2015-16
Zachary Kamel grew up north of Boston, but his mother is from Montreal. So naturally my next question to him was about his hockey allegiance.
“I refuse to answer,” he said.
He did say his allegiance may be shifting, thanks to that generous star player named P.K. Subban. … Sigh.
“I’ve always been a consumer” of news, he said. “I’ve been reading the Globe and New York Times since I was a teenager.”
Before joining the diploma program, he got a degree in political science (with a Middle Eastern concentration) at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I ended up working within my degree, working for Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on his campaign to get money out of politics. I ran their blog and social media accounts. The one thing I didn’t really like was the way in which I felt that I was marketing. I was writing for this NGO or non-profit and it wasn’t my voice.”
“I don’t think there’s just one thing that I could see myself doing, and that’s part of my problem. I’m almost 30 years old … and I’ve been all over the place for almost a decade. I know that I want to be writing, and I know that I want to be producing original content and I know I want to be reporting.”
“If you asked me a year ago, I would have said I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, which would tie together my interests and language skills. Now, I don’t know. I really respect and appreciate local reporting.”
Foreign correspondent remains the dream, but working for a reputable organization remains the goal.
How he sees the future of journalism: “A lot of our professors at Concordia think it’s pretty grim. But I feel like journalism in a way is a few years behind the rest of the world in reality and there need to be serious leaps and bounds in figuring out how this new media landscape looks and how to incorporate these old entities into that. When you’re looking like companies like Vice that have just exploded, or even BuzzFeed, they’ve figured out something that places like the New York Times or the Gazette weren’t able to at the same time. Had they been able to adapt to their models, I think they’d be just as strong if not stronger. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, I just think there needs to be a lot of adaptation.”
Where he’s at now: Doing casual work for CBC Montreal in current affairs and news. “I was asked to come in for a week in August, and have been working a fairly regular schedule since,” he writes. “The CBC has been great. I couldn’t have asked to work with a better team of journalists. Everyone is extremely supportive. At the moment I’m mainly doing research, but I’ve had the opportunity to write a few of my stories up for web. Hopefully the work stays steady.”
Despite his youthful appearance, Simon Nakonechny is older than I am. He did his undergrad in jazz performance at McGill from 1998-2002, but he’s originally from Swift Current, Sask. So is his wife, but they actually met in Montreal, and moved back here in 2007 because they missed the place.
He’s had an interesting career already. During his time back in Saskatchewan, and also in Montreal, he worked as a film producer. He also helped start a non-profit theatre in Swift Current, saving an old vaudevillian venue and turning it into a cultural space that hosts “everything from country wedding to gay pride events.”
His passion for storytelling goes way back. “When I was nine years old my mom, my dad and I made a mock Ideas show where my mom was Lister Sinclair and I was an expert on WWII aircraft,” he said. “I actually found the tape recently and did a little piece for the Ideas 50th on it.”
“Growing up in a small town in Saskatchewan, CBC Radio was very much a bit of a lifeline for us because this was before the Internet when you had so many cultural options, in many ways that was the way we learned about the outside world. We had the dial locked on CBC Radio. And I think that all those years and years of growing up with CBC was quite formative for me. So when I ended up pitching an idea to Ideas I was 25 or something and it just kind of worked, I guess. I feel like it was all kind of in there and it just sort of got unlocked.”
So why sign up for the diploma program? “I felt kind of like my chops were maybe not as solid in that aspect. The documentary storytelling aspect was solid, but just in terms of getting the fundamentals down. So I thought a 10-month program is perfect.”
Besides documentary, Nakonechny said he’s also interested in local journalism and even sports journalism. “I feel like I’m very motivated by characters, too. There are a lot of characters out there that can tell great stories. So I’m always looking for that in my journalism.”
How he sees the future of journalism: “Coming from a music background, it’s awesome. Music is so much less paid. The bar is so low here,” he said, half-jokingly. “But seriously, I have a hard time even conceptualizing that. I just feel like I’m focused on doing the work as much as I can on a daily basis and I guess I’ll let people with a higher pay grade than me figure out how it’s going to work out in terms of money or eyeballs. I’m just really motivated on getting stories and telling stories and I’m kind of like leap and the net will appear.”
On what he’d change: “I’d like to see a little bit less formality in both reporters and the people that present the news. I’m not talking about Vice, but I just mean getting yourself in there a little more, getting your personality in there a little more, using a bit less formal language and being a bit more conversational.”
As a radio buff, he doesn’t see that medium dying anytime soon. As our lives get busier, we’re more often in situations where we can free up our ears and heads but not our eyes or hands. This is especially true for parents of young children, like Nakonechny.
Where he’s at now: At CBC Montreal, working as a casual reporter/videojournalist. He’s also contributed to the CBC Radio show Ideas since 2006, including this piece aired in September. And he was a Joan Donaldson Fellow and worked in Ottawa (at Power and Politics), St. John’s and Toronto. “It was an amazing way to step up my reporting skills,” he writes. “But it was hard to be away from my wife and toddler all summer so I’m very happy to be back in Montreal.”
“I remember being in my last week of the deadlines to apply for universities, and just applying to the general BA at McGill and thinking whatever I’ll get into that,” explained Arian Zarrinkoub. “And then my friend who also worked at the Papercut at Marianopolis said ‘oh there’s actually a journalism program at Concordia, maybe you want to consider applying to that.’ Prior to that I had never considered journalism as an actual career.”
The undergrad, originally from Peterborough, Ont. but raised in Montreal, said it started to become more real when she was going through the application process. That’s when her dream grew.
“I think I’ve always had an interest in journalism just because my family is very into current affairs, we come from a part of the world, Iran, where it’s always in the news, and so we always talk about this kind of thing. I’d never considered this career for myself, partially because, I don’t know, I feel like as a minority perhaps you’re kind of excluded from that sort of thing to a certain extent.”
She said that, even though “my mother would kill me,” she’d love to work somewhere like Jerusalem or Syria being a conflict correspondent. Or reporting on politics from Washington or Ottawa.
How she sees the future of journalism: “I’m told by my very ethnic family that journalism is going nowhere and I should be a lawyer, every day. But I don’t see the future of journalism being very bleak. Everything’s just going to come together, the print, the visual and the audio and all that will just kind of have to blend together into one new way, a more concise way of telling a story, and a more complete way of telling a story.”
“It’s concerning, but I don’t think it’s dire. I’m not a pessimist yet.”
Zarrinkoub was also optimistic about the increasing diversity of journalism. “I feel like the old boys’ club of the white men smoking their cigars, that’s really great that it’s changing and it’s being more integrated with minorities and different people from different cultures and different sexual orientations and gender identities. … It’s something I’d like to see continue.”
Where she’s at now: She’s been working at CBC for almost a year now, mostly in Montreal, but for the past month she’s been in Sherbrooke working as a writer-broadcaster for Quebec AM as a maternity-leave replacement. She’ll be completing her degree in the winter semester, hopefully. “It’s been an awesome year. The people in the Montreal newsroom have become my mentors and my friends and I am so lucky to be where I’m at right now in my career.”
“I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls,” Amanda Siino joked about the reason she got into journalism. “But also because I’ve been reading newspapers as long as I could read because my dad always read newspapers and I thought the highest honour I could achieve was to be read by my father in the newspaper.”
She was studying with a double-major in journalism and liberal arts. Part of that included spending a year in Egypt, which she wrote a bit about on a blog. She said she wanted to become a foreign correspondent.
“I wanted to report stories that would affect the way that we understand the world in a culturally sensitive way,” she said.
How she sees the future of journalism: “I think that there’s a lot of space for creative thinking in this field right now and to be open to interdisciplinary work that melds the different formats and finding new ways to do it effectively. There’s a lot more tools now, but finding a business model is difficult.”
But, she adds: “I’m also 23 and have no financial investment in this right now.”
Asked what she might fix about journalism, she thought a bit and answered: “There’s a lot of pressure to turn things around really quickly, and I think that leads to a lot of blind spots when we deal with gender issues … cultural appropriation … and racism and how all of these very intersectional issues are really really important by people who are the producers of the news that people read every day. If we can’t fix it in our own news media production then we can’t fix it in the world at large. And so that’s one thing that I’d really like to fix.”
Where she’s at now: Working on her graduate diploma at York University at the Centre for Refugee Studies, studying urban refugees in the Middle East, “interactions between refugees and host communities, how those interactions affect cultural restructuring after displacement, and how this restructuring affects women and youth in particular.” Before that she went back to Cairo to volunteer at an NGO working with refugees.
“I’ve taken a turn away from journalism for the moment. (And am now feeling guilty about it!)”
But, she adds: “I wouldn’t have ended up doing this work without journalism school taking me to Cairo on exchange in the first place. Journalistic training has been integral to what I am doing, even though it’s in quite a different form.”
Where you can follow her: LinkedIn
“I always wanted to be journalist. That’s really cliché to say, I know,” said Marion Ghibaudo, originally from Thônes, France, a small town near the Swiss border. “I love to learn about people, about their stories and be able to write about it.”
The 31-year-old already had a master’s degree but decided to move to Montreal and enter Concordia’s diploma program. “I had the good luck when I was 16 to work with local journalists in my hometown,” she said. “I wanted to learn about radio and TV. I just thought it would be good to have well-rounded skills. I just thought the program was perfect.”
Ghibaudo, who also spent seven years in London, England, would love to see herself as a foreign correspondent. “I love to see the politics behind what’s going on in the world,” she said.
How she sees the future of journalism: “Hopeful and depressed at the same time. We’re still trying to figure out how to be journalists. I think we also need to be more aware of the public’s needs. If we want to be able to still lead as journalists, we need to be more in conversations with the public.”
Where she’s at now: “As you know, the media landscape is rapidly changing and while I am actively looking for a job in a newsroom, I just thought I should put to use the skills I learned at Concordia by putting up my own website.”
“For me, it’s about photography first,” said Mont-Laurier native Marie-Pierre Savard, who was studying in Concordia’s new visual journalism one-year program. “I did my undergrad in communications and photography (at UQAM and Université Laval) and I always wanted to go further in photojournalism. I researched for one or two years what I can do to become a photojournalist, but there was no program in university that was interesting. So when they launched the visual journalism program (at Concordia) I was ‘oh my God, that’s for me, it’s in Montreal, 10 months, diploma, it’s perfect, short.'”
For Savard, the appeal of photojournalism versus other types of photography is the variety, the lack of routine. “Each day it’s different,” she said, meeting new people, having new challenges and new ways of expressing herself through her photos.
But asked about her dreams, it’s more practical: “I just want to work, get paid and pay my rent. I’m really like a chameleon, I can work as a wedding photographer or a photojournalist.” She’d love to travel around the world and cover war zones, but she could also work for the Journal de Montréal.
I asked her where she consumes her news. Her answer was a bit funny for a photojournalist: “I get my news from the radio, mainly.”
How she sees the future of journalism: “I’m really pessimistic, especially for photojournalists. But for now, that’s what I want to do so I’ll push hard, and work hard for it.”
Where she’s at now: Doing freelance photography, including wedding photography, in between trips to far-flung places where she likes to bike.
By the numbers
So to recap, of the above:
- 4 got work at CBC
- 1 has moved on to another degree
- 2 are in PR
- 1 is in print media (part-time)
- 3 are actively looking for work or freelancing
- Most are still under-employed