A brilliant former Montreal Gazette colleague of mine who is now, as of the start of this academic year, a professor of journalism at a university, posted something rather poignant on Facebook at midday today: “It is so weird not to be in a buzzing newsroom right now.”
She was referring, of course, to the shocking (and as of the time of her posting, still very much unfolding) events in Ottawa, when shots were fired in the halls of Parliament and a young reserve soldier with his whole life in front of him was shot and killed at the National War Memorial. As I write this, several hours later, I think the whole country is still trying to wrap its collective head around the very un-Canadian events of the day. And mourning the death of that soldier, whose smile is so dazzling in all the photos.
My former colleague’s post referred to the fact that she is in academe now, as opposed to a professional newsroom. Both she and I have been in newsrooms on so many days like today, when shocking events catch everyone by surprise and it is necessary to dispatch a vast team of reporters to cover them, to co-ordinate and manage the coverage, and to ensure that the news as it develops is posted as quickly and as accurately as possible online and, eventually, in our newspaper. While the events of such days are, unfortunately, almost always tragic, the adrenaline rush you get from working through them and helping bring the news to the world is like nothing I can describe.
So I could certainly relate when I saw my former colleague’s post, right after I had emerged from the cocoon of teaching a class of first-year journalism students at Loyalist College about writing leads for news stories. And I came this close to adding a comment to her post, along the lines of “Me too.”
But then I stopped and looked out the door of my office, toward the centrepiece of the journalism program at the college: our own newsroom. And it was a scene of non-stop activity, full of students monitoring social media and websites and TV screens, taking notes, making phone calls, preparing to head out to nearby Canadian Forces Base Trenton to report on what impact the day’s events might be having there, prepping radio newscasts, and producing a constantly-updated running report for QNet News, the website made up entirely of our students’ journalistic work. And I thought: “Wait a minute! I am in a ‘buzzing newsroom’!”
As I hastened into that newsroom to offer to help (providing a brief break for a colleague, Robert Washburn, who had been in the hot seat directing operations through the morning), I thought: “I’m right at home here. This is what I do.” And in the midst of all the activity, I offered up a brief thanks that my own transition from professional journalist to journalism teacher had landed me in a place where the focus is on practical learning – on teaching students to become multiplatform journalists by working with them as they actually produce multiplatform journalism. Or (to quote a slogan I knew well in my Queensborough youth – the slogan of 4-H clubs, of which I, as a young rural person, was a member more than once): as they “learn to do by doing.”
The other thing I took away from today is how exciting it is to see young journalists experience and work on a huge breaking story for the first time. Our team worked so hard, and did such a good job. The adrenaline in the room was palpable, and it fired up the reporters and editors. At the end of the day they were excited and proud of the work they’d done, and justifiably so.
My heart broke late this afternoon when we got word that the soldier who had been killed had been identified as 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Not just because it was just such a damn stupid waste; it was really because of the reaction of one of my students, who was preparing to do the 5 p.m. radio newscast. “He was 24,” he said softly, shock and sadness in his voice. “Twenty-four. That’s just a year older than I am.” Suddenly it was very, very real. For him. And for me.
This evening, my heart was again touched, by another one of my students. It was warmed to the core by his post in our program’s Facebook group: “Wanted to say it was great working with everyone involved with the Ottawa Situation. Was a nice taste of the real job.”
For a veteran journalist like me, there’s probably not a thing in the world better than to see these brand-new journalists find out about the thrill, the scariness, the realness, the rawness, the demands, the stress, the fun and – perhaps most of all – the teamwork of covering news.
These young people will go far. I am very, very proud of them.