By Will Baldwin
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with some of the most accomplished former sports editors in the long history of The Eyeopener. In this Q&A, they told stories of their time at Ryerson, what they wished they knew in university and gave some advice for current Ryerson students.
I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Bob McKenzie, TSN Hockey Insider
Erin Valois, National Director, Digital Strategy and Olympic Editor, Postmedia
Renata D’Aliesio, Head of Investigations, The Globe and Mail
James Mirtle, Editor-in-Chief, The Athletic, Canada
Sean Fitz-Gerald, Senior National Writer, The Athletic, Canada,
Noah Love, Product Manager, Sportsnet
Amit Shilton, Former Toronto Editor at the Toronto Star
Adam Button, Chief Currency Analyst/Managing Editor, ForexLive
All answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How did your time at The Eye help you in the industry?
Valois: It really helped me learn about deadlines and expectations and how to work with other people, because I think journalism school may have changed, but I found that it was very reporting heavy, and it didn’t talk as much about sort of the production aspect of journalism.
D’Aliesio: For me, The Eye is everything. When I started at Ryerson, I always had known at a young age that I wanted to be a journalist. But in my first year at Ryerson, at the end of the first semester, I questioned whether I was good enough to be a journalist. I grew up in an immigrant family reading the Toronto Sun. I got to school, and everyone felt like they were more well-read than I was, they were reading The Globe and Mail and the CBC and that just wasn’t my world. In the second semester, I decided I needed to go to The Eye and start writing and start trying to do this thing that I wanted to do for forever. At The Eye, I found my confidence to be a journalist, I found my voice and I found a family there.
Mirtle: That was the first time when I was actually working with a physical newspaper and I was doing things like laying it out and thinking up headlines, and I was pretty green in the journalism industry until that point. I was a writer there first and then I became a sports editor…You put together some of the most ambitious people that were in the journalism program at the time, and it was a lot of fun.
Fitz-Gerald: It’s going to sound hyperbolic; it’s going to sound dramatic. Without The Eye, I’m not in the industry. School is fine, it’s whatever it was. If I just went to Ryerson, I wouldn’t be in journalism 100 per cent full stop. I would have a piece of paper, maybe, I’d have a GPA that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show my parents. But without The Eye, I wouldn’t have learned how to become a journalist.
Love: It definitely was good in terms of very early in my career, figuring out how to be deadline-focused, especially as an editor. Having a lot of things happen on the weekend and then basically having a day on Monday to pretty much write, well from Sunday to Monday, to write the whole section, lay it out and put it together.
Shilton: I think for me, The Eye was my journalism school. I just spent so much more time there than I ever did in class and felt like I learned a lot more at The Eye than I ever did in class.
Button: It’s a confidence builder, you have the blank page, and you have to fill it up. And, the pressure of it, of that blank page and filling it.
Favourite Eye memory?
McKenzie: It was fun because it was all your buddies. And you would say you were working on your page and you were. But it’s printing Wednesday and so we would work on it on Monday night, but you wouldn’t really work on it and just go to the pub and talk about the work you were going to do and then you would do some work on Tuesday, but not much. And then you’d be cramming like crazy, enough to stay up all night Wednesday to get everything done. It was just an excuse to get together and have fun.
Valois: When we found out about Maple Leaf Gardens, how that was happening, how that was becoming the new arena because. For a while everyone thought Ryerson was going to buy Moss Park and that we were going to make a big play into soccer. So, it was really cool to be part of the coverage and how that built out over the year with that announcement.
D’Aliesio: I think it was just those late nights, like the production nights, kind of the day before the paper went out, there was always a crew of us that was working late into the night editing stories, laying out the paper. And, you know, those were exhausting nights but also those are the memories I hang on to… Some of the crazy shit that we got into because we were operating on no sleep and we just needed to kind of release some energy.
Mirtle: Some of the stories we were able to do; we did some real journalism when I was there as the sports editor and I remember just working. There were some young writers we had that ended up being like a Josh Wingrove, who was one of my young writers that year. Now he’s at Bloomberg and he’s covering US politics. I wish I had a list of everybody who worked with me there. Ryan Wolstat covers the Raptors for The Sun, he was one of my writers. We just had a lot of really talented people and it was pretty cool. That’s kind of where I first got the bug that I like working with younger writers and helping them develop and get started in their careers and that’s what I’m doing now with The Athletic.
Fitz-Gerald: Being there on Saturday night, Sunday morning, playing NHL at three o’clock in the morning when you should be putting your section together because you’ll be damned if you’re going to lose three games in a row to the editor-in-chief. At two o’clock in the morning going to the Tim Horton, or somebody discovering that if you mix coffee with chocolate-covered coffee beans from a second cup, that gives you an extra hour of lucidity before you pass out from putting that final touch on your section. Just through the energy doing all the things and you’re so young and you have all that stuff was a special shared experience.
Shilton: Waffle day.
Love: In the quad just off of Jorgensen Hall there’s a gym and a bunch of times, we would be able to access that gym and just play basketball. But then we figured out that there was a way into the gym; There was a way to basically blow the door open when it was locked. So we could go and play horse and bump all into the daylight hours. I swear to God, just the amount of time we spent playing around at like 2:00, 3:00 in the morning on Eye deadlines, that is one of the most enduring memories of being at The Eye.
Button: So, I tried out for five different teams at the start of the year, I did it anonymously. I was a pretty athletic guy but a lot of people think; you know, you’re down at the RAC and everybody thinks they could play on the team, especially then when the teams were bad. There were two reasons to do it: one, we wanted people to connect with the team. So, you want to see, OK, how good are these teams really? You can’t really measure yourself until you play against them. And the second was, I didn’t know anyone. You could always get in touch with the coaches and everything, but this was a way to really connect with the players and coaches.
What’s one piece of advice you have for young journalists who hope to end up in the same place as you?
McKenzie: Decide for yourself whether you want to be a specialist or a generalist. You should have a very narrow focus of what it is that you do, or if you want to have a very broad view of it.
Valois: It helps to go into your journalism career as a student, really thinking about different skills that you want to pick up in different ways that you can sort of test out new interests that you think might help you later on in your career. I think that there’s a lot of really neat skills and ways to set yourself apart that you can do on your own.
D’Aliesio: I think for me, the biggest thing is to do it. To do journalism and not just be doing it in class but to find those opportunities outside of class to do journalism.
Mirtle: It’s going to be a difficult journey and don’t get discouraged. Think of it as a process and not something that’s going to happen right away. A lot of people look at people like myself and think that where I am is impossible or whatever and for the longest time I wasn’t even covering the NHL. I was almost 30 years old. The industry is really challenging and it’s going to test you emotionally and mentally. It’s very draining. But, if you put the work in and you continue to get better and you make connections with people and people can see how much you want it and how hard you work, you can succeed in it.
Fitz-Gerald: Take a look at all the sports editors and look where they ended up. They ended up all over the place. Bob McKenzie became Bob McKenzie. Renata D’Aliesio became one of the most important journalists in Canada and I didn’t say important by mistake. She’s written stories and been a part of projects that have changed the lives of Canadians in a good way. Erin Valois is part of moving digital strategy for the biggest newspaper in Canada. I still write about sports. People go on to do really important things and I still write about sports. It’s OK. You can go and find your own path and that’s part of the really exciting thing.
Love: My general advice within the journalism industry is don’t be afraid to do things that make you uncomfortable. I definitely would say, sometimes the idea that you think is going to be something that you’re not going to enjoy will wind up being something that will be very good for you.
Button: I got into financial news and it was before the financial crisis and I was interviewing, quote-unquote, smart guys, and I thought I could do it better than they could. And so, I built this business and, one thing led to another and now I’m probably one of the most read currency analysts in the world. My advice to any journalist would be don’t be intimidated, I think journalism is dramatically undervalued. [In the finance sector], I mean, everything hangs on financial news and the journalists are the lowest paid cog in the whole system.
One thing you wish someone told you before you left Ryerson
McKenzie: Keep a journal and keep notes. I don’t think I’m going to write a career retrospective book but I’ll tell you what, if I had the notes for the last 40 years, I probably would.
Valois: As a newsroom leader now, I think it’s really important for us to be authentic and to really try to get to know candidates that want to work with us. I think before when I was in school, there was a lot of sort of posturing around. I wish that I didn’t worry so much about projecting a certain kind of image when I was job searching for those internships because I think that it makes you something you’re not.
D’Aliesio: I would like for someone to have told me to not get too down about the layoffs and the transformation that the industry is going through. That’s been happening for decades now. The first full-time job I got at the Edmonton Journal came after a round of buyouts and downsizing in the newsroom. It’s a constant of our business. But through this transformation, we’ve also seen a lot of new media organizations pop up, a lot of independent media that’s doing some really cool things. There are jobs now that exist in journalism that didn’t 20 years ago when I left Ryerson. It used to be either you were a reporter or an editor and there’s just so much more you can do in journalism now. So, I would want to tell people to remain optimistic.
Mirtle: Maybe just that it was going to work out all right and it was going to be fine. It’s hard going through. It’s a very anxious time. I had moved away, and I didn’t have any money and I was relying on loans. It’s easy to allow anxiety over the future to overwhelm you. It’s a hard industry, it’s hard on everybody and you have so many talented people at that school that are all trying to get so few opportunities. So, it creates some incentives for people to really kind of not balance their lives out very well. So, I think what I would tell myself is you’re going to be OK, you’re going to succeed, continue working hard but try and have a life too. Your entire life can’t just be one thing
Fitz-Gerald: Take some time to enjoy the moment in the process. I think a lot of the time back then, I graduated in 2000 and I was always looking forward to the next internship, looking to where the hell am I going to land after graduation. What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life? What happens if I don’t get a job? I mean, my GPA was not great. So I sure as hell wasn’t going to go for a master’s or a law degree anyway because nobody was going to take me. I was always looking forward and, if forty-four-year-old me could go back and talk to twenty-something me, I’d be like, enjoy the moment just a little bit more.
Love: Whatever you have in your head of what you think you want to do, either don’t be married to it or have a plan to do it and how you can achieve it properly. And if you get somewhere, that is the thing that you want to do and it is really what you wanted, make sure to put in work to assure yourself success.
Shilton: I really just focused on The Eye and that was really my life for four-plus years, so if I could go back, I’d say, all this stuff is great, but there’s 200 people in your class and in J-school and it’s just as important to build those connections with people as it is with The Eye. So, don’t lose sight of the world sort of outside of The Eye as well.
Button: Don’t be afraid to start a business and I guess for a journalist, crank out content and move to Montreal. The people are beautiful, the party never stops and the rent is cheap.
What are you most proud of since leaving Ryerson?
Valois: I am one of the youngest people to be on the masthead of the National Post and I’m one of the youngest people in Canadian media right now at a higher level. So, I really appreciate all the experiences that I’ve had to get to this point. And the fact that I get to run the Olympics for the whole company is pretty cool.
D’Aliesio: I am at The Globe and Mail now and I just started a new job this week. I’m now head of investigations and like, you know, the things I’m doing now, I have to say I never imagined that I would be doing them back then. I just fell in love with journalism. I still am and feel like it’s such a privilege to be doing what I’m doing. I’m paid to learn every day. I’m challenged every day and just work with a group of people who are just so smart and curious and engaged and yeah, I can’t point to sort of one that I’m most proud of because I just feel like I’ve been so lucky and fortunate throughout it all.
Mirtle: Just helping launch The Athletic in Canada. I was the sixth or seventh person that the company hired, and we didn’t really have any subscribers, hardly at all when I started and now, we’re well over one million subscribers. We have journalists in different countries and the opportunities that we’ve been able to give young people in this industry have been amazing. It’s been the most rewarding thing that I’ve done for sure.
Fitz-Gerald: I write about sports, right? I mean, I try to tell good stories. I try to do my job really well and sometimes, I find a story that hopefully changes somebody’s life or people’s lives for the better, inform them or entertain them or create a bit of a distraction because sports is entertainment and maybe something is really interesting or tell the stories of interesting people. I’ve had a couple of things hit here and there, which has been really, really nice. But a lot of times, when you step back and you’re, I guess, somewhat mid-career and certainly mid-life, taking a look back at the people that you call friends and seeing what they’ve done and all of the things that you hope when you’re in journalism school and you can look around and be like, ‘Yeah, I know people who did that.’
Love: I went into my job tasked with turning Sportsnet into a full-time competitor and leader in the web traffic world with TSN. Being able to do that was probably my career highlight.
Shilton: Just recently, last year and a bit ago I stopped working at the Toronto Star and I was really happy that I got to work there. It was the paper that I definitely grew up reading, especially the sports section there. So, being able to spend time there, to work there, to meet people who work there, to have that experience, I think is something that will always stay with me.
Button: Building ForexLive. I write all day every day and the internet rewards profligacy currently and just cranking out content and we’re the second-biggest currency website in the world.