Three pieces of advice for aspiring interns in the publications industry.

As many people know, before I became a full-time news editor I started out as an unpaid intern for a small communications company. People don’t even need to know me personally to know that; most people assume that any journalist who has broken into the field in the past ten years started out as an intern. Unpaid internships are increasingly common, especially in the suffering publications field. There are many mixed opinions on unpaid internships. Personally I do NOT think they are morally okay, but I also understand that they are an inevitability and CAN, if managed correctly, serve a good purpose. However, after experiencing a not-so-great internship and then working for a company that offers some of the best internships I have ever witnessed, I have some advice for recent or soon-to-be grads, or anyone looking for an internship in the publications industry (unfortunately my advice is best-applied to Ontarians).

1. Don’t look for an internship where you will only be a writer, copy editor or contributor.

Why [not]? This seems weird — you want to write/edit, correct? So you should be doing just that. However, a little-known fact about the Ontario Employment Standards Act [ESA]’s rules on unpaid internships is that you have to be actually learning something in your internship.

From the ESA: “The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school; The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.” If you are not gaining actual marketable skills that you may add to your resume, your internship is using you only for free work and you will not come out with a better-looking resume.

Look for: an internship where you will be acting as an assistant to writers and editors — not assisting them in the sense that you get their coffee, but assisting them in their other duties such as fact-checking. You should be an integral part of the team, which means remote internships in which you contribute pieces from your bedroom (which I did) are not real internships.

2. Do not trust an employer who tells you that you may/will get a full-time job at the end of your internship.

Why [not]? This is the kind of internship where interns feel like they are on a sort of “trial” period to see if you are actually fit for the job. You know where this should actually be determined? In an application and interview. Your portfolio and interview should speak for themselves. No, you can’t tell everything from a resume, portfolio or interview, but can anyone in any industry? No one sees engineers hired on a basis of working for free for the first 6-12 months and then if it “works out” they will have a salary. And giving even a hint of a job on the other end of the internship is not only cruel, it’s illegal.

From the ESA: “Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.” Not only should you not believe the employer if they do this, you should probably steer clear from them. This means that they’re willing to disregard part of the Ontario Employment Standards Act — someone who thinks they are above the rules, and not someone you want to work for.

Look for: An employer who provides very specific stipulations on the length of your term, and an employer who can answer in the interview what his or her previous three interns have gone on to do. If they keep it general (“They’ve all gotten jobs,”) ask them to be a little more specific — where did they get jobs? In the publications industry? Did you provide a reference?

3. Your employer shouldn’t hold you to the same standards that they would hold a paid employee.

Why [not]? Okay, this is tricky. Yes, your employers should hold you to a high standard (think of them like a professor or teacher). They should also expect a regular commitment out of you and for you to not abuse time off, to come and go as you please, etc. However, an employer who does not pay you should not give you grief about calling in sick or needing a day off to go to an appointment. It should hardly even be a question if you’re allowed to take that afternoon off to go to a dentist. If you get a paid job in the middle of your term, your employer should not attempt to negotiate with you and/or force you to stay. Most importantly, your employer should not expect mandatory overtime outside of the hours they have set for you. Looking for a paying job in itself is a full-time job when you’re trying to break into publications, so anything that demands more than 40 hours a week from you is not an employer that cares about the future and education of its interns.

This actually isn’t in the ESA. This is just common decency.

Look for: An employer who clearly outlines the hours during the week that you will work. Ask in the interview if you will have to adhere to the same process as paid employees for requesting days off. As if you will ever have to work overtime. If the answer is yes, be wary.

I don’t want to make anyone shoot themselves in the foot while they’re fresh out of school and desperate to get into the field. The fact is, we are all young and desperate at one point, so we will often throw our standards away for the sake of something that seems like work. The problem is that many of us end up with six months under our belt of having learned nothing new and being very exploited by employers who won’t offer any valuable reference in the long run.

Respect yourself. If you’re not going to be paid, assure that your employer will be held to a lawful standard.

On friends, enemies, winning and sweet, sweet vengeance.

Allow me to be cliché for a moment — in high school I was not necessarily popular, but well-liked.

Being well-liked was undeniably as a result of my kindness to others; people could fault me for being somewhat annoying, clumsy and almost always socially awkward (on a good day, I make Michael Cera look like Russell Brand) but they knew me as the person who’d gladly give them a ride home, listen to their stories, laugh at their jokes and tell them their clothes were cool. I say that not as a martyr — they were just as good to me as I was to them. My friends were and still are true, as is evidenced by how many of my high school comrades attended my recent 24th birthday celebrations (thanks again for the Yoda mug, guys)!

What I’m trying to say is, I’ve gotten spoiled in that I’ve not had much experience with being genuinely disliked.

Fast-forward to university — my kindness and patience was now well-coupled with a slightly more mature and eloquent presence, so I continued my pattern of being well-received in most groups. Was I at the bar partying and downing colourful shots every Thursday, Friday and Saturday? Nope. But that can be chalked up to choice.

When I started volunteering for my school paper, my section editor took notice of my talent almost immediately. We formed a strong student-mentor relationship — an odd pairing considering I was actually older than him. But his writing skill was years beyond that of anyone else his age and experience level, and I was eager to learn from him. When he nominated me for more of a leadership role, subsequently integrating me into the paper’s editorial board, I gladly accepted.

But as much as he was an excellent mentor, we never fully became friends. I felt extremely intimidated around this group of editors — a feeling I had rarely if ever felt around people, let alone those my own age, in my life. While I’m sure he felt slightly responsible for me after introducing me to the group in the beginning, he quickly tired of my awkward “charm” and his annoyance with me became blatantly obvious.

It was more obvious in group situations than one-on-one. One-on-one, our conversations were intelligent and sophisticated, and we taught each other a good amount. Each time we’d speak I’d kid myself into thinking that our in-group dynamic would change, but it never did.

It didn’t help that his significant other was our boss the following year, when he and I were technically equals. Suddenly, matters that were supposed to be confidential between my boss and I were known by him as well, which resulted in some pretty embarrassing moments for me — passive-aggressive social media statuses undeniably directed at me, under-the-breath comments at meetings about matters that were supposed to have remained confidential. Suddenly it was easy for him to be single me out, and I didn’t have the deep-rooted friendship with the other editors that he did, so my support was virtually non-existent.

The subtle-but-present aggression directed toward me not only on by him but also his partner was contagious in the sense that my co-editors allowed it to happen without protest, despite being aware of it. I was even, at one point, called into a meeting with the editor-in-chief (you know, the one who had been directing aggression toward me) and the president of the parent company who both made me feel like my alienation was my own fault, and with my EIC present I felt unable to tell the president what was really going on.

I have always had issues with anxiety, but I have had those issues under control for a long time. But in my final year of university, facing a demanding academic and extracurricular schedule, money problems, issues with roommates and now witnessing as my one solace — writing — became plagued by alienation and psychological torture, I was a ticking timebomb. I was ready to quit every other week, and the pressure affected almost every other facet of my life.

Fast-forward just over a year — I am sitting at the desk in my quaint little office that I share with my fellow news editor, Nick. I am on salary with a Toronto magazine publisher. I am on a pretty personal basis with Toronto city councillors. I have the respect of people older and more experienced than me. All of this should be validation that I am not the horrible writer — or the socially-inept miscreant — I was made to believe that I was. And yet I still feel a hollow sadness that I never did impress the person who was just never able to like me.

As a recovering nerd, my ultimate dream has often been to bump into my former tormentors — maybe on a busy street or at a bar — and happily chirp about how well things are going for me at this point. I know now that very few of us former editors are working as legitimate journalists, and he is one of the ones who found work as a writer but not of the journalistic variety. When I consider this, it should fill me with pride, but instead it makes me feel petty.

The odds of this hypothetical scenario occurring are low anyway, but let’s just pretend that someday soon I will bump into him and regale him with my tales of Real Exciting Grown-Up Journalism over bitter espresso. Would the news of my exciting new career make him realize that he had been wrong about me all along? If I recall, he never doubted my abilities as a writer. If him knowing how many people showed up at my birthday party, would he care? Not in the slightest. He wouldn’t have never wanted to show up anyway.

They say that the best revenge is living well, but to me the best revenge does not exist. If one is still fixated on revenge, then one is not a winner. I do not mean “winner” in the sense that we are always engaged in a battle with our enemies — rather, we are always engaged in a battle against ourselves. If there is anyone I can win against, it is myself.

I am still working on letting go how he and his partner made me feel, and it may take awhile yet — I never claimed to be a big person, only someone who attempts to be so. But as slow as the process is, I can feel myself slowly becoming more and more free of his judgment.

On the portrayal of fat women with a sex drive.

I have seen numerous debates on whether or not 2011’s Bridesmaids was a problematic film from a feminist perspective. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but as a feminist would not say that the film makes any strides in the female empowerment department.

One topic that feminist debaters only seemed to pay lip service to was the character of Megan, portrayed by Melissa McCarthy. If you are one of the few who has not seen the movie, Megan is The Fat One. She is more than just what Americans have deemed as “acceptable” fat (a generous size six with a toned tummy and meaty hips and breasts), she is fat.

But Megan as a character is so much more than fat. She’s hilarious. She’s undeniably the smartest of the main characters, having an extremely high security clearance with a very important federal government job. She has a great strength of character, is very convicted about her words and actions, doesn’t seem bothered when others obviously make fun of her and is there for Annie when no one else will be.

Most importantly, Megan is a very sexual character — probably more sexual than anyone else in the movie, despite others being shown actually having sex. Megan talks about her physical attraction to men very openly, as is demonstrated in the very first scene in which she appears. She is open and unapologetic about sex. But I’m left wondering if this does harm or justice?

I can’t decide — not only because I’m so torn but because as a woman who is 115 pounds of pure Taco Bell, I don’t really have the authority to decide. Portrayals of women like Megan don’t affect me. But I certainly am among the privileged bunch of people who gets to laugh at those characters.

Another similar character is Artemis, a bit character on FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Pam on FX’s animated comedy Archer. Though we know less about Artemis, Pam is portrayed similarly to Megan — probably one of the most competent employees at ISIS and extremely confident about herself, a superb fighter, a talented artist and even, according to Archer, great in bed.

Characters like this are, on one hand, a revolt against the lack of portrayal of fat women at all, let alone ones who have a damn sex drive.

But is this communicated in the right way? Where does the humour come from when we laugh at characters like Artemis, Pam and Megan? As a thin person who has probably laughed at my share of fat people in the past (I try not to, but I can’t deny that I was a catty, mean girl in my younger years), when I laugh at these characters, much of the humour is derived from the “mismatch,” that fat women are not “supposed to” be sexual.

Is this healthy? Are we laughing with them or at them?

As I said, I cannot answer that. I would, however, like to know what women who are more affected by these characters think. Are we laughing at or with characters like Megan? And what is the best way to portray women of all shapes and sizes?

Citizen Journalism: Underscoring our need for (talented) journalists

If I could tell you two words that I would rather never hear again due to the sheer number of times I’ve heard them over the past seven years, it would be “dying industry.”

From the day I accepted my position as my high school paper’s editor-in-chief, I was told not to hold out too much hope that journalism would lead to a fruitful career, because journalism, specifically print, is a “dying industry.”

They credit that death to the rise of blogs, the greater access to free information and the speed at which we transmit information. They’re the next two words I least want to hear when discussing my field of work: social media.

Social media is a tool which can enhance journalism in beautiful, rich ways, but instead is more often used to undermine it. This undermining is usually committed by social media users in an effort to “prove” that journalism is irrelevant, and is perpetuated by social media consumers.

The most recent way in which we have seen that cycle of events is the “citizen journalism” which arose from the Boston Marathon bombings. I must start by saying that there are print publications which got it wrong too, which is definitely irresponsible journalism. However, when you look at the publications who did “get it wrong” or publish unconfirmed information, those were already publications which weren’t held in high regard before this.

Then in comes Reddit, who attempted to crowd-source an investigation. Their efforts to be the heroes and name the bombers, which thousands of trained law enforcement officers and investigative journalists apparently were not skilled enough to do in Reddit’s eyes. This effort resulted in the identification and divulging of personal information of the wrong person, a man who had nothing to do with the attacks.

Because we all fancy ourselves responsible for keeping the world informed, many people took to Twitter to name the man and spread his sullied name like wildfire throughout the social media world.

So when I am told that journalism is a “dying industry” because of our fast access to information, I say that journalism is an essential and gravely important industry because of our fast access to incorrect and inaccurate information.

The worlds of social media and journalism should be more closely linked than they are now. Unfortunately, their relationship is still more antagonistic than anything else. So what can we do to combat this?

Read the news. Read your dailies. Subscribe. Support the news you want to consume. Want left wing news? Subscribe to the Globe and Mail to get around the paywall. Want right wing news? Do the same with the Toronto Sun. But support the news. Create and sustain these jobs. Give our young, talented, emerging journalists a chance to point you in the right direction. Because some 21-year-old Twitter user isn’t going to.

The sensitive reporter

It’s a cartoonish yet strikingly common stereotype of reporters: the stoic, insensitive young member of the press stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of the story, pushing through grieving crowds at the scene of an accident, staring heartbroken mothers in the eye and pressing on with invasive questions, their stoney faces juxtaposed against the red, tear-filled eyes at a funeral.

I would like to thank TV shows such as Law and Order for helping to convince people that my profession is full of such jaded young journo-bots.

It is true that journalism has given me a tough skin — even in my days of student journalism. I remember after only working as a senior reporter with my student paper for two months hearing that there had been a car accident at the major intersection of our campus. I immediately grabbed a recorder and bolted for the scene, a photographer in tow. I remember not even hesitating to extend my arm and fan spectators out of the way as I approached a girl my age who had been hit by the car and proceeded to interview her. I was shocked at the authority in my normally flippant and feminine voice as I told people to get out of my way — I was press. Press.

This is the same woman who still cries out of frustration when she can’t finish a climbing route fast enough. Just the other night, I began to think about the possibility of my mother developing Alzheimer’s and burst into tears out of nowhere.

My very first interview was in fact a woman who was still grieving the loss of her father some months later. I knew this; I was interviewing her about a charity bike race she had completed in his honour. And the very first question I asked resulted in tears in her eyes — which of course caused tears to well in my own eyes.

Last night was not unlike any other; I was driving home from work listening to As it Happens on CBC Radio. Carol Off was interviewing Leah Parsons, the mother of sexual assault and bullying victim Reteah Parsons. Reteah attempted suicide late last week and her family chose to pull her off of life support on Sunday, April 7. Her long battle with depression from the trauma of not only her sexual assault but her humiliation and betrayal from her friends, peers and school was not something Mrs. Parsons was unfamiliar with. She had done her best to bring her daughter piece of mind and bring her attackers to justice, though the battle was in vain.

At least once a week I hear a radio broadcaster interviewing someone in mourning. They bookend their interviews with seemingly genuine wishes of sympathy. I don’t mean to question their intentions; I know that we are all human and we all know death, especially young death, is always tragic. And I hate to assume that someone in my own field is simply extending their condolences in an attempt to “look good.” However, a career reporter such as Carol Off has surely seen and reported on such a high number of tragedies and interviewed a staggering amount of grieving mothers in her time that this is nothing shocking, correct?

As the interview ends, Mrs. Parsons’ composed facade begins to crumble, her voice begins to waiver, and we hear the painful helplessness of a mother who has lost her child. It’s impossible for me to hold back tears in my eyes as I imagine her clutching the phone, her eyes fixed on nothing, haplessly wishing for her daughter to return home.

Carol Off extends her sympathies once again, this time more insistently, with a softer voice. She then asks Leah Parsons if she’s going to be okay. Parsons answers in the affirmative. She asks her final question — is someone with her? Parsons says yes, a house full of people. Jeff Douglas concludes the story.

Are reporters a special breed? Do we have skins of steel? Do our eyes not well with tears? Must we force ourselves to stop empathizing and sympathizing as a defence mechanism in order to better perform our jobs?

The answer is no — at least, not entirely.

It is precisely that sensitivity and empathy which makes a story compelling, human and worth reading.

On Richard Kachkar, retribution and “not criminally responsible”

It was a sad day for Christine Russell on March 27 as she listened to a judge rule that Richard Kachkar, the man who killed Russell’s police officer husband Ryan with a snowplow two years ago, was not criminally responsible for his actions.

Kachkar had been evaluated by three top psychiatrists, one of whom had been hired by the crown.

Russell’s death followed Kachkar’s early morning break from a homeless shelter as he went on to run through the snowy streets barefoot with no jacket, yelling about “Chinese technology,” Facebook and the Taliban. The psychiatrists on trial found that Kachkar was experiencing severe psychosis at the time.

Christine Russell has not disclosed her opinions on the legitimacy of Kachkar’s illness or mental state. She has, however, expressed that her husband, killed in the line of duty, “deserved better,” and that the ruling will follow her and her young son for the rest of their lives, that there is no closure and that knowing that Kachkar is “free” will haunt her son. She is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push forward a bill that will tighten restrictions on people found to be not criminally responsible for crimes committed.

While Russell’s grief should be taken into account for her statements, her reaction has made me worry about our country’s current attitude toward mentally unhealthy “criminals” and the pedestal on which we place police officers.

Russell repeated that her husband was killed in the line of duty upon giving her reactions to the media. She also produced a family photo during the trial and asked Richard Kachkar to look at her family.

Mrs. Russell does not appear to understand that a person who is unable to appreciate the impact of what they’re doing certainly cannot appreciate the grief of a family without a father. Every death is tragic, and Ryan Russell certainly died a hero, but the tragedy of a death does not correlate with the intent of the killer.

More disturbingly, Christine Russell seems to have somewhat of a desire for revenge against mister Kachkar. I am sure that many have remarked, maybe even to the widow herself, that even finding Richard Kachkar guilty of first degree murder would not have given her the “closure” that she so craves. Her husband is still gone. As for how her four-year-old son copes with the loss of his father, that is up for Christine to decide how she wishes to approach the issue.

If she frequently tells her son that his father was killed by a bad man who is walking free now, of course it will strike fear into the heart of the young boy.

However, if she tells her son that her father was killed by a very sick man who did not mean to do something so awful and is getting the help that he needs and we hope he will never do it again, that is obviously different. It will teach her son to sympathize and not to fear the mentally ill, and instead of fearing for his own safety to hope that mister Kachkar gets better and that no family has to go through what his family did.

I fear that Christine Russell will teach her young son to be fixated on revenge from a very young age, and that he will become a young Bruce Wayne, minus the billionaire superhero part, forever searching for a feeling of completeness that can never be filled.

We must learn to divorce ourselves from the very legitimate emotions of the victims and their families when being critical of the perpetrators’ mental states. How angry someone is at someone else should not affect whether or not someone gets a fair chance at rehabilitation.

Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

It seems you can’t pick up a student newspaper, hear a student council election speech or pass by a campus bulletin without seeing or hearing the words “mental health.”

Mental health: we need to talk about it. Mental health: it’s as important as physical health. Mental health: erasing the stigma.

This is good, right? We do need to talk about mental health issues, especially among university students. I first noticed the increased saturation of conversations about mental heath at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University, following a tragic and terrifying residence fire in my freshman year, 2009, which resulted in the death of one student, a well-liked varsity athlete. The fire was ruled as a suicide the following school year, and residence life dons were subject to more thorough training to recognize issues similar to the ones which lead to the tragedy.

The problem I now see is that “mental health” has become a new buzz-term said over and over by people who either don’t understand or don’t want to talk about the severity of mental illness.

In attempting to remove the “stigma” of mental illness, we’ve also avoided talking about the parts of mental illness that are downright ugly.

The words “mental health” are used in such general, nonchalant ways and as a result all mental health problems are regarded as homogeneous, with homogeneous solutions. Campus “experts” often cite class stress, separation anxiety from home, adjustment to a new life and relationship problems as common issues for students, and while these certainly need to be addressed, it seems that they are pussyfooting around some real big, significant problems — problems that maybe aren’t so easy to “just talk” about.

As many times as I have simply heard the words “mental health,” “issues,” and “stress,” and occasionally the words “depression” and “anxiety,” I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard the words “self-harm,” “suicide,” “disordered eating,” “addiction,” “abuse,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “assault” used in mental health campaigns.

Launching campaigns to assure people that they’re not alone and they’re not weird because they’re stressed out is all well and good, but there’s a difference between common anxieties shared by the vast majority of a student body and far grittier problems such as addiction.

While I definitely cooed at the notion of Laurier’s “puppy room” last December during fall 2012 exams, to hear that it was regarded as a “mental health” campaign only further emphasized to me that student mental health campaigns are still merely scratching the surface of true mental health problems. Not every problem can be solved with a puppy. In fact, most cannot.

Having someone to discuss your issues with is often invaluable, but that does not mean that it is helpful for everyone. Money being put toward mental health issues for post-secondary students should be put into more councillors equipped for dealing with very specific problems, not bubblegum poster campaigns.