Ali Velshi’s biggest competition just might be Google. Velshi, the current chief business correspondent for CNN, was welcomed back to his alma mater on Saturday to host a talk with members of the Queen’s community as a part of the Initiative Campaign launch.
He spoke about the current challenges and pressures for journalists to present new and relevant information that’s not easily “Googleable.” Velshi, ArtSci ’94, began his time at Queen’s contributing to the Journal for two years. He then became involved in student politics, serving as AMS Campus Activities Commissioner from 1990-91 and AMS speaker from 1991-92.
“You’ve got to give your reader or viewer access to something that they couldn’t otherwise access themselves,” he said to approximately 100 people at Common Ground on Saturday.
Velshi said his time at Queen’s allowed him to develop critical thinking skills and taught him to embrace those who don’t share his views, a trait that’s pertinent to his job as a journalist.
Having graduated with a religious studies degree, Velshi sought a job in print journalism and planned to attend the Master’s of Journalism degree program at Columbia University. After applying to various jobs, his sole offer was an unpaid summer internship from CNN. For the internship, he moved to Washington to work on the television program Crossfire, which paved the way for his next internship with CBS.
Since then, he’s worked with NBC, CTV, CFTO, CP24 and BNN.
After his talk, Velshi sat down with the Journal to share his thoughts on the current state of media, criticism and managing a Twitter account with over 105,000 followers.
Did you always know you wanted a career in media and journalism?
“I always enjoyed media and journalism. I was a consumer of the news probably younger than many people are. I had a family member who was involved in politics, so it was always relevant to me. I always thought the news interesting and I always thought of [journalism] as an important job, but I certainly didn’t come here thinking that’s where I would end up.”
How were you involved in media at Queen’s?
“It never even occurred to me to go to journalism school. I came to Queen’s and it seemed like a natural fit to go work for the Journal and they were quite welcoming. I was with the Journal for at least two years and I don’t think at any point it struck me that this was going to be my future. Then all of a sudden I’m making decisions about the rest of my life and I’m thinking, “This is what I really enjoyed.” That really developed at Queen’s and it really developed because of the Journal.”
You’ve worked as a journalist in both the United States and Canada. What are some of the differences between the two?
“It used to be that you had to do everything on a shoestring with Canadian media. Now everybody does everything on a shoestring, so we’re much more similar. I would say there is still less embrace in Canada of this personality-based, almost partisan type of journalism that you see in US cable media. Canadians just don’t seem that interested in it. I think, anecdotally, the consumption of news in Canada is greater than it is in the United States. More people watch fewer channels and, hence, are concentrated on news.”
What has been your favourite story to cover during your career?
“In truth, it’s not anything obvious. It’s the covering I did probably in 2005 for a series called The Turnaround, where I would go into small businesses. We would take in an expert from another industry and we’d help them. I got to meet real struggling and successful small businesspeople, who are really the backbone of our economy and give them a leg up. Big names these days are always too well media trained. CEOs, treasury secretaries, kings and ministers; we get access to them — viewers find it interesting sometimes. But they’re never going to slip-up and tell you something. Regular people say regular things and that’s actually more interesting.”
What’s the difference between a good TV story and a good print story?
“Your audience is different. A print consumer has committed to doing a little bit more work than a TV consumer. You can read your newspaper while you’re eating your lunch or drinking your coffee but you can’t actively be doing something else with your brain. You can be doing something with your brain while you’re watching TV. If you’re picking up a newspaper or magazine you’ve committed to reading something. Your mind [is able to] put more stuff, more detail, more density into a print story than you can into a TV story.”
You have a prominence on Twitter. Why do you use it?
“For a few reasons, one is instant response. I can tell from Twitter response how my show did. I can tell when somebody liked what I did. I can tell when they didn’t. I read every tweet and every post. I don’t promise to respond to everything, but I do promise that I do see it and I gather data from it.”
What do you think are the drawbacks of sites like Twitter as a news source?
“It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a time suck. It draws you into discussions that may not be where your energy should go. It can ruin your mood or give you an inflated sense of your value. All of that is to say disproportionate. It takes a disproportionate amount of time, disproportionate amount of explaining to people what you really meant, disproportionate amount of time telling people they’re stupid. Twitter and Facebook can take up too much of your time. Social media is a great point of contact, but it should never be your only point of contact.”
The common idea is that print media is on its way out. How do you think TV or other forms are adapting to these new trends?
“We think of print media journalists as people who know a lot and research a lot and I think that’s true. I do a good bit of writing and it takes different muscles. So, I think there is going to be a reduction in the amount of print media but a lot of that is transferring itself into online. The art of writing is not going away, the art of interviewing and researching is not going away. And that’s just the truth. There are some great newspapers in the world that will still continue to be great newspapers. Ultimately, it is not the way we will consume news in the future.”
What’s your advice to aspiring journalists?
“Write everything in a way that makes it so relevant to your reader or your consumer that they don’t have a choice but to get attached to following you. Be relevant to them, don’t be self-righteous about what you think. Ultimately, the success of a journalist depends on their ability to research, report and ask the right questions. And I don’t think that’s changed for a thousand years.”
Where do you draw the line when it comes to journalism ethics? Is it blurrier these days?
“I don’t have any wisdom about it other than to say that you always have to think that you have to think it through all the time and you have to discuss it. You can’t assume that there’s some answer.”
With the use of social media often many think the end goal is to be the first to deliver the news. Does this impact the quality of the news?
“Absolutely it does. I’ve been caught up in it myself. I didn’t proofread a tweet maybe a month ago that by missing one word, the word “no,” I completely changed the meaning of the tweet and completely put out the wrong news. It’s nobody’s fault. It wasn’t CNN’s fault; it was entirely my fat fingers. The lesson learned is proofread your tweets. I sent a lot of people the wrong information, who then re-tweeted the wrong information within seconds and I spent the entire day backpedaling on that, apologizing to people. I tweet a lot and I don’t get it wrong, but of all the ones to pick to make a mistake on, that was not a good one.”
That said, how do you deal with criticism?
“Embrace it. Embrace it with open arms. Take the criticism, learn from it. When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. When you’re not wrong, don’t say you’re wrong, but invite the criticism anyway. Let people know that they can always criticize you. Stand up for yourself when you’re right and when you’re wrong, you’ll say you’re sorry.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.