Journalists of Tomorrow: Lissa Albert

Every year, I speak to winners of Concordia’s journalism school awards as they’re presented at the Montreal Gazette offices. Today, this year’s winner of the Susan Carson award, Lissa Albert.

Lissa Albert

It’s not unusual in the journalism graduate diploma program to have one student who’s noticeably older and more educated than the rest, but it’s usually someone in their 30s, not 50s.

“Everyone was out of their undergrad and I’m like the grandmother,” Lissa Albert told me before letting out a laugh. “It was a little intimidating because I was like ‘do I have to prove myself?’ I’m always aware of how I stand out in terms of not being the typical graduate diploma student, but my classmates have been really amazing, they’re a lot of fun and they’ve made me one of the gang.”

Albert has a lot of history, and she likes to talk. So our conversation after the awards ceremony in October lasted 33 minutes, or a little bit less than the four others combined. The 56-year-old Montreal native studied early childhood education and sociology, then took time off to raise her children before returning to school to get a masters in education technology.

If she was younger, she could easily be described as a keener. A more appropriate descriptor would probably be driven.

“I’m not the kind of person to just sit at home and do lunch,” she said. “I need to do something more. I went into ed tech not knowing where exactly it was going to lead, just knowing that I needed to feel productive, get that kind of intellectual stimulation, and I ended up just adoring everything that I did, coming away with a mission in life, which is cyberbullying education.”

Her path to this mission is an interesting one.

“I started in sociology, and in my last assignment, I was actually going into prison rehabilitation because I started writing to a man in prison when I was 16 years old. He was at that time, he thought, the only Jewish prisoner in the entire state of Georgia. And so my teacher had a Jewish pen pal club, I said ‘I’m in.’ This guy, I started writing to him, because I wanted to write the great Canadian novel, and I wanted it to take place in prison, and I thought I’d get some information. We became friends, I’m still in touch with him now. He’s out, he’s on parole, he’s happily married.”

The interview is edited down for clarity and length. All the above I got from just asking her for her name, age and previous degrees.

What got you into journalism?

I have been very involved in world events as a consumer of news. And I have found that the most frustrating thing — because I’m old enough to remember Dan Rather, not so much Walter Cronkite but Dan Rather — is how the news used to be the facts. And now I don’t believe we are getting straight news.

So I’ve been talking for at least five years that there’s a thesis in my head about media bias. And when I decided I was going to go back to school, I found Digital Innovation in Journalism Studies, and I said ‘okay this could lead me to writing that thesis, working on the research that it takes to not change the world but perhaps start turning news back into those five Ws. I think that it’s really been diluted, technology has diluted it, everybody has a blog and not everybody realizes that a blog is not always straight news, there are those that are, but opinion is not news.

Pew Research recently did a study where they found something like 14% of people can tell the difference between news and opinion (it was actually a bit better than that), and this is a problem because there’s so much news out there. So I started to look into the program, so when I called Mircea [Mandache, the Graduate Program Assistant at Concordia’s journalism department] to see if I could get into the program, if it was too late to apply, and he said don’t worry about it and if you’re interested you could do the graduate diploma and switch to the masters program after a year, and I thought ‘okay if I’m going to study the field it would be good to have more than a consumer-level knowledge of what the field entails,’ and this behind-the-scenes stuff is just mind-blowing. It will help me in the thesis. Realizing that there are so many different forms of journalism that I can do. I can tell a story, I can raise awareness of something. I can do features. We’ve had all these exercises.

I’m not bored anymore, that’s for sure.

So once you finish the master’s degree, what do you see yourself doing afterwards?

Whatever the world brings me. I’d love to be able to write. Visual journalism wasn’t my thing, but radio was fun, because I can talk if you haven’t gotten that yet. But I would love to write, I would love to use the words that I know how to use and touch people, just touch their lives in some way, whether that’s to inform them, or inspire them, or educate. When I talk to undergrad student teachers, and this is not hyperbole, but if you know even a fundamental knowledge to recognize when a student is being bullied, you can literally save a person’s life. It’s one of my missions. But anything that I can find, Freelancing or getting a job as a writer.

News is supposed to be hard facts, but it’s not because emotions come into it. And I can tap into that, so I hope to freelance, I hope to write, and I hope to use all of the knowledge I have on cyberbullying, how important it is that it become a topic, a water-cooler topic that we don’t talk about just when a kid kills himself, but something that we need to recognize as a problem and an epidemic in our society and possibly do something bigger, a book, a series of articles, a feature, a column, whatever I can, I just want to use my words for good.

How did the interest in cyberbullying start?

Wow. When you go back after a certain amount of years not being in school and you go back to a field you can be employed in, it’s better to do an internship than a thesis, because there’s ageism in the workplace, and if you go back into the workplace as an intern then you can get your feet wet. So I was looking for an internship and based on a project that was happening at Concordia where they were collecting life stories of victims of genocide, I hoped to make that an internship and that did not work.

One day, driving to pick up my kids at day camp, and Trudie Mason was on CJAD talking about cyberbullying and she was talking about how kids know what they’re doing when they’re cyberbullying other kids and I said, because I had just done a project in ed tech, a website about emotional abuse awareness. People don’t realize that it almost goes deeper than physical abuse. And I picked up the phone and said bullying and cyberbullying and — having been bullied from the age of five to the age of 17, same guy, lived across the street, every day on the way to school and the way back, in school — I said it’s a form of emotional abuse, so while kids know what they’re doing, they don’t know the impact is on the person on the other side of the screen. They don’t know what they’re doing, they know how they’re doing it but they don’t know what the impact is.

She debated with me, and I thought I gotta look into this. It wasn’t yet a household word, it was not yet a trend, it was something that was starting to become more prevalent. I went to the internship coordinator, and I said I can do cyberbullying, I can talk about emotional abuse of kids.

This was something that I had to do. It was a mission. It needed publicity. It needed to be a word that people talked about, and it needed to be something people took very seriously.

How do you see the future of journalism?

I hope — okay, can I do this without insulting the people I want to work for? The future of journalism to me is giving people the ability to take the facts as they are and make up their own minds rather than being told what they should be thinking or feeling. I’m hoping that the future of journalism is where the audience is given the credit to make up their own minds.

Are you optimistic about journalism as a business model?

I am, because of all of the different ways in which — you can be a journalist in Montreal and freelance for somewhere in Australia. I think that I have the ability and I have the drive to get out there and look for something that will make it meaningful for me. I really hope to be able to get my word out there, and definitely going to apply here (at the Gazette), it’s like my Mecca. I wouldn’t have come into this program if I didn’t think I could do something. I don’t get a degree to hang it on the wall.

How can people follow your work?

My journalist perspective started off when I was writing about the Habs so I have to actually change my handle — @lissahabswriter — I would rather it not say “Habs writer” because I’m a lot more than that.

(She’s now at @lissajournalism, but you can read her archived stories about the Canadiens on AllAboutTheHabs.ca)

If you’re a journalism student, this is your last chance to be like Lissa and apply for the Montreal Gazette summer internship if you haven’t already. The deadline is TODAY at 5pm.

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