What’s next after student journalism?

‘We need to have more journalists working away for democracy to work’

Image by: Herbert Wang
Journal and Eyeopener alumni talk about the importance of the student newspapers.

For working professionals like Jeff Gray, student newspapers are invaluable breeding grounds for breaking into the journalism industry.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for it, I think all the many, many other people who go on to do this job professionally learned to cut their teeth at student papers,” Gray said in an interview with The Journal.

In interviews with The Journal, Gray and two other student newspapers’ alumni shared their journey from student journalists to their current day lives. They underscored the significance of student newspapers as guiding lights for the future of journalism—especially in a time when the traditional art of news reporting is gradually waning.

Jeff Gray, Queen’s Journal Alum

Now married to Volume 121 Features Editor Alison Masemann with whom he has three kids, Gray started at The Journal in 1992 when, as a first-year student, he joined as a staff writer. He later assumed the role of news editor in 1993 and became Vol. 122 editor in chief in 1994. Taking his passion to Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU, formerly known as Ryerson University), Gray received a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Broadcast Journalism.

“I found working at The Journal, learning by doing, and the time I spent at The [Kingston] Whig for two summers, I learned way more about how to read a news story and how journalism worked in those two places than I learned anywhere else,” Gray said.

Gray noted he learned a lot in his graduate program at TMU, but the foundation of his love for journalism was kindled in Kingston.

Fast forward to today, Gray has worked at The Globe and Mail for 25 years and is currently a Queen’s Park reporter in Toronto. As a political studies graduate, Gray’s education at Queen’s paired with his experience at The Journal was the crux in his career upbringing.

As a student journalist, Gray had one of his stories recognized at a federal level, a turning point for the then aspiring journalist.

In his first year at The Journal, the political studies student wrote a story quoted in the House of Commons.

“We had written a story about a visit by a Liberal MP during the original debate over NAFTA in 1993. This MP had said that free trade was a good idea and that Canada had to bite the bullet on deals like NAFTA to compete in the global economy.”

“The MP involved, Mary Clancy, claimed she was misquoted and faxed The Journal a condescending letter. We told her we stood by our story. The NAFTA bit was only a a small part of it, but it somehow caught the attention of NDP researchers on the Hill,” Gray said.

Gray wanted to cover politics because he wanted to be part of the process that is democracy. Now, he’s part of the feedback loop helping people understand what their politicians are saying and doing.

“It’s just a key part of that machine that is, at the moment, not working very well,” Gray said.

While student newspapers operate within the confines of a university, they hold immeasurable value for aspiring journalists by offering opportunities for momentous stories with long-lasting impacts. Gray mentioned a notable experience from his time as editor in chief in 1995, when The Journal secured press passes, and sent reporters to Montreal to cover the Quebec referendum.

“You’re just kind of a random person and you end up in these situations being very close to famous or political people. It’s one of the things that makes the job so much fun,” Gray said.

Noting how Metroland Media Group—the subsidiary responsible for over 70 local newspapers in southern Ontario—announced the closure of many publications, Gray emphasized the harsh climate of getting a job in journalism in the current media landscape.

The Toronto Star’s parent company and several other newspapers announced their intention to seek bankruptcy protection for Metroland. With the termination of over 600 jobs, the journalism field depends on those willing to break into the industry.

“There’s no question it’s way more difficult now [to get a career in journalism]. The number of jobs are not coming back,” Gray said. “I think if it’s something you really want to do, keep at it and hopefully, the stories you’re doing will make a difference and hopefully things will write themselves because we need to have more journalists working away for democracy to work.”

Since some student papers have been around for many decades, Gray explained how they’ve faced the same challenges that “real world” papers do. Publications like The Journal had more funding in the ‘90s when they were making money hand over fist, printing 10,000 copies twice a week as opposed to the present day, Gray said.
“Keep doing it. Take risks, push yourself, send that email, make that phone call, and make the story you’re writing the best possible story you can.”

Emerald Bensadoun, The Eyeopener Alum

For Emerald Bensadoun, her alma mater student paper is near and dear to her heart. In an interview with The Journal, The Globe and Mail reporter expressed the significance of exploring various media and discovering one’s preferred path when embarking on a fresh career in journalism.

Before her career, Bensadoun attended Carleton University where she earned her undergraduate degree in communication and film. It wasn’t until she attended TMU for her Bachelor of Journalism that she realized she was meant for a career in journalism.

Although Bensadoun has been both a content editor and weekend reporter at The Globe and Mail over a two-year period, she started pursuing journalism in 2014 when she worked as a freelancer.

“I kind of did my career in reverse. I started off freelancing in the Middle East during the Gaza war, and did a little bit of war correspondence, I realized that I didn’t actually know what I was doing so I went to TMU to get my Bachelor of Journalism,”
Bensadoun said.

Bensadoun’s freelancing journey arose as a happy accident. She landed an internship at a media agency called “Top Speed” who were looking for people who wanted to be journalists and train on international reporting.

“I’d actually just gotten kicked out of the journalism program at Carleton but still wanted to be a journalist and thought maybe if I took this internship, I could get some more experience,” Bensadoun said. “About two days before it started, the Gaza war broke out and they completely revamped the program and said that instead of doing an internship, we were going to be thrown into freelancing.”

While she was reporting on the war, Bensadoun’s light bulb moment of wanting to become a journalist came to fruition. She finished her undergraduate degree and was then off to pursue a Master of Journalism (MJ) at TMU.

Bensadoun noted her time working at Carleton’s student newspaper The Charlatan was brief, but her time at TMU’s The Eye was pivotal to her journalism career due to her long tenure.

“My campus newspaper taught me way more about journalism than I think any program ever could have,” Bensadoun said.

Starting off as the satirical news editor for The Eye, Bensadoun worked her way up to the News Editor position which introduced her to different professors and grad students who helped her land her first internship as a radio room reporter at The Toronto Star, and then as an editorial assistant at CBC’s The National.
During her time as news editor, The Eye uncovered that their student government had embezzled funds and committed fraud while receiving almost a million dollars of student
funding to party, Bensadoun explained.

According to Bensadoun, the University would make up people who didn’t exist to
vote in favour of school policies that would strip them of their watch dogs. The Eye’s reporting garnered national attention, which compelled school policy changes across the country, she said.

“Just because it’s [The Eye] a student newspaper doesn’t mean you don’t get to cover big issues. A lot of the stories that we covered got national attention and sparked a huge change, not only throughout our school, but throughout a bunch of other institutions across Canada,” Bensadoun said.

“You really do get to make a difference with your journalism, even though you’re just at the beginning of your career.”

Student papers are crucial to what professional news publications do, not only because students learn so much through getting hands-on experience, but also because Canadian journalism is very small, Bensadoun explained. Working at campus newspapers provides access to journalism conferences where you meet up-and-coming journalists from across the country—a huge networking opportunity.

“You get the opportunity to build a network of people that you’re going to be working with for the rest of your life,” Bensadoun said.

“It would be an incredible shame to cut something that’s so instrumental in a lot of
journalists’ lives and often gives them their first chance at writing bigger stories and making a difference.”

Sydney Ko, Queen’s Journal Alum

At the tail-end of her MJ at Boston University, Sydney Ko, Vol. 149 news editor is completing her professional project to graduate from the program.

When Ko migrated from Taiwan to Canada in 2018, The Journal gave her a place with a sense of community. She always knew she wanted to major in political studies but didn’t know what she was going to do with that degree. Having that degree under her belt solidified her ambition to become a journalist and report on politics and its impact on local events that affect people in their day-to-day life.

“Journalism is so challenging right now to break into. The reason why I decided to go into journalism school fresh out of my undergrad was [because] I wanted to be as well rounded as possible. You can survive as a print journalist solely, but the landscape is evolving consistently,” Ko said.

There’s a lot more to being a journalist than just the writing component, Ko noted. Multimedia, interactive website building, and working with audio are among skills Ko has developed in her current program.

“After coming to this program where’s there’s many required courses—for instance, a digital toolkit class that teaches you how to take photos and shoot sequences on a video camera—[it] diversifies your journalistic palette,” Ko said.

Ko explained coming into her master’s program, she felt she was a bit ahead of her classmates in terms of how to report, interview, and pitch stories because of the experience she gained at a student paper.

“These are all skills that you naturally learn being a part of The Journal. I started off as a contributor and worked my way up to Assistant News Editor, and then eventually the News Editor in my fourth year,” Ko said. “That hasn’t only helped me understand the whole cycle of stories and the stress of putting out content, but it taught me how to delegate and tell [important] stories people on campus want to read about.”

Being one of the only Canadians in the program, Ko finds her classmates and professors asking her about her past learnings and foundation of journalism. Ko said The Journal did a substantial job in its coverage of Indigenous stories—a topic which is incredibly unreported in the States.

“It’s one thing where people don’t really talk about,” Ko said. “Yeah sure, there’s a few stories out there but it’s not normally on people’s mind. That learning is just one of the main lessons I brought here to Boston University.”

In Boston, Ko sheds light on her classmates and professors about her experience covering the dismantling of the John A. MacDonald statue and how Truth and Reconciliation was an important part of her work during her time as a student, noting her interview with Queen’s Chancellor Murray Sinclair being one of her most memorable experiences at The Journal.

“It shapes you, makes you care about reporting stories, and telling stories where people can’t do themselves. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless—that’s one thing that The Journal did give me, and it helped me open my eyes and give this sense of purpose at Queen’s.”

Coming up next, Ko hopes to stay in the States and move to Washington, D.C. to cover politics. However, she is open to the idea of working as a print journalist and working her way from the bottom up.


democracy, Journalism, Media, student journalism

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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