Pressed into service

Pressed into service McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
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Pressed into service

Reporting what's what around campus is certainly more than a passing avocation for John Salloum. Pose any question about his role as editor-in-chief of The McGill Tribune and it quickly becomes obvious that he's passionate about delivering the news to his peers.

Photo McGill Tribune editor-in-chief John Salloum and features editor Ian Speigel prepare another issue
PHOTO: Owen Egan

"I love it," he says simply, with a wide grin. "I just love it."

Consider it a safe assumption that love of journalism is exactly what's kept Salloum, an economics major, attached to the Tribune for the last four years. What else but a flare for reporting could persuade him to volunteer 20-plus hours per week in the variety of positions he's held since joining the paper. What, but an affection for print, would allow him to recall that he's collaborated on 92 editions of the Tribune?

"Counting issues is more about nostalgia," he admits wistfully, "since there's only a few Tribunes left to publish before the end of the year."

Don't think Salloum is alone in his passion for print. Actually, he's merely one example of the hundreds of students who volunteer their time -- as writers, editors, photographers or graphic artists -- in order to produce the papers that are read on campus year after year.

At the Tribune alone, Salloum estimates some 200 students lend their diverse skills to the publication annually. Hundreds more are recruited by McGill's other student publications: The McGill Daily, Le Délit français, Nightshift (continuing education), The Plumber's Faucet (engineering), The Bottom Line (management), Steps magazine (arts) and several assorted newsletters.

Stephanie Levitz, the Tribune's assistant editor-in-chief, would encourage even more students to write for the campus press as a way of getting better acquainted with their university. "For me, writing for the Tribune really personalized my McGill experience," reflects the North American Studies major. "Being part of the paper has made me feel involved and provided me with a heads up on all sorts of events and news happening on campus."

Mechanical engineering student Sally Warner, the McGill Daily's production design editor since 1999, agrees; volunteering for the student press is a great immersion in university life. It's also a good way to leave one's mark behind. "McGill is a huge university," she says. "Working at the Daily is my little way of affecting the school. Instead of just passing through, I create a product students can hold in their hands."

To Ben Errett, a biology major and the coordinating editor at the Daily, the process of putting together a paper is more exciting than the product itself. "The thrill of being on a deadline and getting a story out there reminds me that I'm alive," he enthuses.

Equally satisfying to Errett is the opportunity the Daily offers every week to break news, offer a fresh-looking publication and push the occasional envelope. All that, he says, while fulfilling the paper's mandate "to give a voice to the voiceless."

The focus at the Tribune, the Daily's chief competitor, is much the same: to provide readers with the most relevant news package possible. "Campus papers are the best vehicle to deliver information that directly affects students," says Levitz. "We're the first place where students will find out if their tuition fees are going up or if the McGill Redmen won a game."

Salloum agrees and adds that papers can help provide a critical voice on campus, too. "We can serve as agents for change in the McGill community," he says, noting transparency in student government and in university administration is encouraged by a free press.

Given that McGill has no journalism school, the University's papers play the critical role of training budding writers for potential careers in the mainstream media. "We see training people with no experience as part of our mandate," Salloum says.

Judging by the number of McGill alumni working in the media, the campus papers are doing well as reporting incubators. Former Daily editors include Pulitizer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer and CBC Television's Mark Starowicz, the man behind the epic Canada: A Peoples' History.

M.J. Milloy, for instance, was able to parlay his experience as coordinating editor at the McGill Daily from 1995-1996 into a full-time job at one of Montreal's alternative weeklies.

As news editor at Hour, Milloy raves, "The student press has provided me with some of my best writers. Whenever I see a CV that includes experience at a campus paper, I know that person knows how to write a good story."

Katherine Sedgwick, city news editor at The Gazette, agrees that working for campus media is great training for mainstream outlets. "We just hired someone from the McGill Daily for a summer internship," she says.

Even though The Gazette generally prefers hiring journalism graduates, people with a general bachelor's degree and solid reporting experience are contenders, too. After all, she says, "a journalist can learn more in one week on the job than three years in school."

Add The Globe and Mail's Jan Wong, who went from Daily scribe to becoming one of the country's best known journalists, as an advocate for the on-the-job training that student papers provide. "An undergraduate degree in journalism is a waste of time," she says, adding training in other disciplines is more useful to future news writers.

What's more, she stresses, campus reporting can give students an opportunity to break their first big stories: "Half of being a good journalist is finding ideas, little scandals ... that can affect so much."

The Daily broke a big story last year that captured the imagination of the national media: the decision of a handful of senators to reject Royal Bank president John Cleghorn as a proposed honorary degree recipient.

The story raised questions about the paper's propriety since the vote was supposed to be a closed-door matter.

Says Kate Williams, director of the University Relations Office: "The damage that story caused to Cleghorn, who has worked tirelessly for McGill, can never be made up to him."

For their part, Daily editors say the story raised legitimate questions about the honorary degrees process and who should be entitled to them.

Stints on student papers offer opportunities to sharpen a variety of skills. You learn to write quickly, think critically and overcome shyness as you interview countless strangers to relate their stories.

Student reporters also learn how to work closely with colleagues for long periods of time. Their papers tend to be run from over-crowded, dirty, poorly equipped newsrooms. The Daily's temporary sixth-floor digs at New Chancellor Day Hall, for instance, are windowless and dreary.

Worse, the Daily and its sister publication, Le Délit français, share their small space, where reporters type up assignments on one long desk that resembles an assembly line. "That's why," Warner says, "you need to learn to embrace the people you work with as friends."

The same is true at the Tribune, where the paper's offices are also windowless, as well as hot, stuffy and claustrophobic. "We used to joke that hell was directly beneath us," Salloum says. "Until we recently discovered the heat source. There's a boiler room above our offices!"

The distressing quarters of all three papers should improve once they move into their new University Centre offices this spring.

Warner says Daily and Tribune staff don't tend to socialize. "There is an intense rivalry. We want our paper to be bigger, we want our stories to be better, and we want to report the news first."

Errett says surviving on the occasional three hours' sleep isn't so bad once he takes into account the benefits being a student journalist has given him, such as an internship at Saturday Night magazine last summer. Salloum says being a reporter has taught him the value of being persistent. Warner, for her part, has landed a variety of jobs through her Daily work; she is currently the McGill Reporter's designer.

Student journalists, Levitz adds, are paid for their free labour (some editors earn a modest stipend) in the sort of marketable skills that will give them an edge in the job market: a knack for efficient time management, a flair for writing and the ability to deliver on deadline.

Then there are immediate and tangible benefits, says Errett, "like seeing people walking around campus with our paper, which is a thrill that never gets old."

Warner agrees. "Although I haven't been able to go out on a Friday night since joining the Daily, every time I see the paper come out, I think, 'Wow,' I've really helped accomplish something."

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