Women's Initiative

Women's Initiative

Writing While Female: Paula Simons on a career in journalism

WAVE member Elyssa Teslyk sat down with veteran reporter and columnist Paula Simons to chat about a life in the media, and what it’s like to “write while female.”

You can hear more from Paula and other women writers at the Litfest 2017 panel: Writing While Female on Sunday, October 15, at 1.30 p.m.

For more great non-fiction programming, please check out Litfest’s full festival line-up.

WI: What has inspired you to build a career as a journalist?

Paula Simons

PS: I never think of myself as building a career. I don’t think journalists think that way. I wanted to tell stories, and to shape the way people think about their community. I got into journalism because I loved the craft of being a journalist; and the “building a career” stuff just happened by accident. No one becomes a journalist for the job security. You do it because it’s something you really want to do – it’s not my career, it’s my passion.

The first major story I ever covered was a high profile murder –the death of Claudia Sychuk. Her husband was Maurice Sychuk. He was a law professor, a bencher with the Law Society and a man very respected in Edmonton and within the legal community. After a New Year’s Eve party at the Petroleum Club with Edmonton’s elite, he slit his wife’s throat. I was working as a freelance copy editor at the time. They were short-staffed right at the New Year’s holiday, so I got to cover the story.

Up until that moment, I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing [pursuing journalism]. At 22, did I make the right choice? Should I have gone to law school? But covering this story convinced me that I’d taken the right path. It wasn’t just because of the excitement of covering a society murder. There were serious social issues at stake, too. Everyone in the legal community had known for a long time that Sychuk was a dangerous man. Why had no one stepped in to save Claudia when he had a history of anger management concerns? This case shook a lot of people. It was reminder that spousal abuse happens in upper middle class families too. So, hooked by both the adrenaline of covering a murder and the passion for social justice, I have not looked back. Have I done things to further my career? Sure. I moved from Alberta Report magazine to the CBC to the Edmonton Journal. I went from being a reporter to being an editorial writer to being a columnist. I am not completely naive or laissez faire about a career trajectory, but a career implies something practical that you’re doing from 9-5 and this is more of the life I live. If you don’t enjoy doing this, you must not do it. It’s not something you do to pay the bills. Only the most passionate and engaged people stay in journalism.

WI: What is it like to work in a newsroom?

PS: No two days are the same. Sure, there are some things that are the same, day in and day out – the paper goes to press, deadlines fall at certain times; but as a reporter, there is no knowing what you will do on any given day. You may start off thinking it’s going to be a quiet day working on a feature — then something happens. You have to thrive on variety. There are long hours, you’re in the public eye, you have to be prepared for a high degree of public engagement with people who are not happy.

WI: What has your experience been with dealing with gender stereotypes in your workplace?

PS: When I started at the Edmonton Journal, my managing editor, the City editor, the Business editor, and publisher were all women. Most of those women were hardcore feminists, so it wasn’t a big issue here. They had already fought for on-site subsidized daycare, and for longer maternity leave. I didn’t face a lot of gender stereotyping at the Journal. At previous places of work, there were some stereotypes that women maybe didn’t work as hard, or, more to the point, were not as reliable because of breeding.

At one point in my career at the CBC, when I was pitching a network pilot, I had a boss (whom I liked, thought was nice, had a feminist wife) ask me for my assurance that I was not going to get pregnant if I pitched for the show. I felt very indignant that he’d ask. Now that I have a child, I feel it even more so. But really, there truly wasn’t much sexism from colleagues, but far more from people I interviewed. You can often make that work for you; people underestimate you, but it isn’t always a bad thing.

The sexism I faced was less explicit than what the wave of women before me faced. It was more systemic. Here’s what I mean. I started at the Journal, got pregnant within the first year (on a junior salary), then went on maternity leave, then came back part-time, got a promotion (even though part time) and didn’t start working full time again until my daughter went to kindergarten. I got a big promotion then – I went right to being a columnist, but I didn’t automatically get a pay raise. And after awhile I came back to my employer and said “I am not asking what the male columnists are making but I know what I am making; just see if you’re comfortable with that. With that, my salary nearly doubled. No one in human resources did this to me; it’s just part of being on the mommy track. If I hadn’t asked for a comparable pay package then, I’d be at a disadvantage. It’s not personal, malicious sexism, it’s more something baked into the structure. You have to learn how to be frank and ask.

Back when I worked at the CBC, a bunch of unionized young women – we were all associate producers and production assistants – got together to compare salaries and asked to be paid the same. An old-fashioned man who was our station manager happened to think that it wasn’t appropriate for “young ladies” to discuss their salaries. You mustn’t give in to that mentality, but instead must look out for systemic things, things that aren’t just one person’s bigotry or malice, but just because something’s been done that way. Push back on systems that are sexist by default.

WI: How do you build dialogue conversations with people who are sensitive to the “F” word?

PS: I am fortunate to have had strong feminist bosses at CBC and the Edmonton Journal who broke the trail for me. It is still our responsibility to point out systemic inequities to people.

WI: What advice do you have for women who are building an active presence on social media?

PS: Be prepared for the trolls. Ultimately, it depends what you want to do and what your goal is. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, but I use them differently. Facebook tends to skew toward a female audience and sends positive signals to people (liking, sharing, friending). Facebook can be a slightly gentler realm (less pugnacious). I use Facebook for connecting, leading community conversations, building community and sharing/curating material because it is prosocial Paula. It’s a great place if you’re trying to build a brand identity. It’s amazing how viral it is and it’s sometimes underestimated. I get more clicks on stories via Facebook with fewer Facebook fans than I do via Twitter, where I have far more followers. It has a great multiplier effect. If you’re trying to build a brand for a company, it’s a great place to be. Use Facebook proactively, don’t just set up and post a few things and wonder why no one’s sharing — there has to be engaging conversation. That means using Facebook Live, posting pictures and articles, sharing. It is important to do the curation to ensure you are in people’s Facebook feeds in order to build community.

On Twitter, I have more than 40.4K followers and have tweeted 56.1K times in 6 years. Twitter should be used aggressively (but professionally) to break news, have conversations, comment and build a persona for yourself. On Twitter, I am always Paula Simons, @Paulatics – there are no private tweets about anything. Twitter requires a stiff spine, a tough skin, a quick trigger finger and an internal editor to prevent you from making a jerk of yourself. You must be careful because once it’s out there, even if you delete it – someone has done a screen capture. It can be tough to remind yourself that everyone can see your tweets. It is important to learn how not to feed the trolls. I will engage with some people in some measure of rational discourse, but blocking them gives them satisfaction. MUTE PEOPLE – it has saved me a great deal of grief. You don’t have to listen to trolls, but resist the temptation to engage with the worst of them, because you will regret it. Sometimes it’s important to take a mental health break for a couple hours…..or days.

WI: Given your upcoming appearance at LitFest, what trends or changes do you foresee happening in media?

Even though everything is technology driven, it is dangerous to try to fortune-tell what will happen because you don’t know what the next tech will be, what will thrive. What I do know, is that it will be more interactive.

The daily newspaper is in trouble. I don’t know how much longer they can go on hand delivering papers to your house: it’s a 19th-century medium and model. It has a high cost, especially when the vast majority of readers are online now. Inevitably, it will die but no one is brave enough to kill it yet.

My daughter hardly watches TV! She doesn’t even have a television (which is hard for my husband to understand). She watches Netflix sometimes, but doesn’t sit down and watch the TV. My observation is that this generation are not passive consumers of media but interactive. They want to be media creators as much as they want to take it in. It is an exciting time to be a journalist. In the old days, we made one print product a day. During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we didn’t have websites, Facebook or Twitter to get out the breaking news. We printed a special edition of the paper and said “Extra! Extra! Read all about it,” handing it to afternoon commuters.

These days, we cover breaking news in real time as it’s happening, on every media platform. Giving people live news as it’s happening is very exciting. On the other hand, when I’m doing an in-depth story, I can give details that I couldn’t before. I can link out to auditor-general’s reports or court judgments. I can give the direct source because of the technology’s curating abilities. It’s not the greatest time to be a newspaper publisher right now – but it’s still a great time to be a journalist.

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