The media landscape is shifting. Layoffs, cutbacks and uncertainty about the future have cast a shadow over much of the industry. In our new series, “Bylined: Women in Journalism,” we talk to notable women working in journalism to find out how to survive (and thrive) in the current climate. For this installment, we chatted with Sarah Boesveld, Senior Writer at Chatelaine.
SDTC: What was your trajectory to get where you’re at now?
SB: I got my Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University – a four year undergrad. Writing for the student paper was super key whilst there (what’s up, Eyeopener!). It’s where I learned to pitch ideas, develop a sense of story and see the results ‘practice, practice, practice’ can yield. I was United Church Observer magazine’s first intern, I did the radio room at Toronto Star and a summer internship at The Globe and Mail, which turned into a mat leave contract and a few more contracts. I worked at National Post for five great years before landing here at Chatelaine.
What was the best piece of advice given to you?
I used to be so self-conscious about my career trajectory that I wasn’t doing “serious journalism,” like breaking big stories on Parliament Hill or covering the war in Afghanistan or exposing corruption by way of a big deal investigation. Then I had brunch with an editor I really respect (who had never been my editor directly) and she gave it to me straight: “Write what you want to read.” And I want to read stories about the way we live in this complicated, fast-moving world. That bit of common sense felt like an epiphany. Those are very often the most memorable stories, the ones to which readers can relate.
What has changed in the industry over the last five years?
We are so much more digitally focused now than we were five years ago when I started at the Post. It was all about getting on the front page, but now you can track how much traction a story got online via social media shares or page views or whatnot. It created a whole different yardstick to determine the stories to which readers gravitated. Video is a big deal. So is the ability to reach audiences across different platforms. I’m willing to bet you’re reading this article on your phone.
Why did you initially want to get into journalism?
When I applied to journalism school, I wanted to be a food writer. Stuffing my face and getting to write about it sounded like just about the best gig ever. I always made my own magazines as a kid – even my own radio show. But when I got to j-school and into my first industry gigs, I realized my real forte was connecting with people and telling their stories. I really took seriously that relationship of trust — that people would open up and tell me what they were thinking.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a writer today?
I would say balancing the voracious appetite of the web and focusing on the long game; those meaty features or projects that will make an impact. It’s a balancing act in most newsrooms — everyone is short on bodies and financial resources. It takes a lot to step back and go, “Okay, what is really worth my time here – that web hit or that extra research to develop what could be a really wild and amazing feature?” It’s tough.
What do you enjoy most?
Interviewing people. I love the way an angle or a lede or a whole different story idea can present itself through the flow of a conversation. I also love hashing out story ideas with colleagues or other people in my life. Noticing something, digging into it a bit more and finding a story there is hugely satisfying.
Are you afraid for the future of the industry or excited about how it’s changing?
Uncertainty is always scary, but it can also be very exciting. There’s a lot of opportunity in change, and the challenge is just seeing how you can roll with it. My motto is and always has been “Work hard and be nice to people.” If it doesn’t work out, at least you have that — and it should be of great help in moving on to the next thing.
Any tips for young women getting started in this field?
It’s a bonkers business at the moment. I don’t envy anyone starting out. But start to write, if even for cheap or free (but do NOT write for free for too long – you should be paid for your work). Do internships. Meet people. Keep creating. Start to put your ideas and talents out there where they’ll be seen. And keep your chin up…
What has been the best memory from your career thus far?
In December 2014, I went to Winnipeg with the Post and some folks from Centennial College to do a photo essay workshop with Indigenous high school girls about how the issue of “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” impacted them. It was a privilege getting to know them and seeing them empowered to tell their own stories. It culminated in our project Silent No More. The girls were so proud of their excellent work and I was mama bear proud of them.
How can we ask better questions of our sources? Can you describe your approach during interviews?
It really depends on the type of interview you’re doing. If it’s a politician or an academic or businessperson, it helps to get right to it. Ask clear and direct questions. They don’t have all day and neither do you. But when you’re drawing out someone’s personal story, it always helps to get a bit of a rapport, and start from the beginning. When they’re comfortable opening up to you and feel they can trust you with their story, it’ll make for a much better interview.
What makes a great pitch?
Get to know me as a writer and the sorts of stories I’ve already put out there. I’m interested in the counter-intuitive, a new observation about a universal experience, an emerging issue that will impact the lives of a lot of people in our country. I am not the person to which you pitch the greatest new blender or your desk-side beauty trial (though I have some awesome colleagues who totally would be! And they probably don’t want to be pitched a think-piece or the subject for a profile).
More people get their news now via Facebook. And Facebook’s algorithms control a lot of the user experience in determining what gets seen. Does this affect what you write? Does the pressure to generate traffic have an impact on your work?
I don’t know about algorithms, but I do use Facebook to get a sense of what people are talking about and sometimes story ideas stem from that. The pressure to generate traffic absolutely impacts my work, but I believe in the core principle behind it: we want to give people what they want to read. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be smart, challenging and/or fun.