Slightly early for our interview, I walk toward Vivian Smith’s office in UVic’s Fine Arts building. The instructor is busy talking to another student about the role journalism plays today.
Smith and I planned to discuss journalism as well — an issue relevant and trying, having its fate questioned and revised every day. When she graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an MA in Journalism, Smith climbed through the industry’s ranks. Smith spent 14 years at the Globe and Mail as national edition editor and national beats editor before becoming a freelancer in 1994. She wrote for various national papers and news magazines until joining Victoria’s Boulevard magazine as associate editor in 2009. She also held teaching positions at a number of post-secondary institutions and now teaches professional non-fiction to keen and news-hungry UVic students.
We discuss her current PhD thesis, which deals with the career experiences of women in print journalism and why they continue with their careers today.
“A lot of the older women [in my study] feel like they’re really lucky just to be there. Luck plays a big part in how they feel that journalism has rewarded them,” says Smith.
Being part of the demographic herself (now 59), she felt the burn-out effect of having a full-time management job at the Globe while she and her husband were taking care of their two children. She relocated to Victoria after accepting a buy-out from the paper. It gave her the opportunity to take a step back and write periodically. One of her memories from those early freelancing days was researching a story about Michael J. Fox for People magazine. “I have never done as much fact-checking in my life as I have for People magazine,” she says sternly, almost as if she’s reliving those experiences right there in her office.
Throughout our talk, Smith brings up the importance of writing “real-life” news articles. One she remembers in particular was about a middle-class family in Calgary who could not afford the pleasures of leisure activities during the mid-1990s recession. She says stories that give a humanistic approach to news are what really affect people.
“I don’t get much out of institutional stories,” says Smith. “They don’t really tell me about life at the working end of policy.” She says she hopes that a ripple-back effect can occur from humanistic stories — stories that firstly affect the reader, and can then affect an institution.
What concerns Smith the most about the publishing world today is the apparent loss of interest for those people stories. “Eventually, [newspapers] cut out what people go to media for, which is understanding, which is news, which is context . . . human stories.” This “cutting out” is mainly due to the current economic struggle that newspapers face.
“What we define as news is pretty narrow,” continues Smith. “There is a lack of diversity in staffing, which means that we don’t reflect Canada back to Canadians the way it exists, the way they live in their communities.”