(Article Written by Valerie Franklin, Student CMNS/JRNL 300)
John Vigna’s CMNS/JRNL 300 students got a chance to learn from one of Abbotsford’s most experienced newsmen when Mike Archer, editor and co-founder of the local news website Abbotsford Today, paid a visit to their class last Thursday. During his hour-long talk, Archer drew on his 20 years of experience in the media industry to answer students’ questions about editors’ standards, journalism ethics, the job market, and the world of online news writing.
Although he offered plenty of positive advice, it was often balanced with candid warnings of what young journalists might face. Because of the competitive nature of freelance journalism, he encouraged students not to be disappointed if they have to spend years working their way up.
“When you’re looking for work, your idea of being a journalist or a writer may always not conform to the thing you get offered,” Archer says.
A recurring theme in his advice was the importance of developing strong writing skills while in school.
“I’d like you to start thinking of yourselves as writers before you think of yourselves as journalists,” he says. “If you can tell a story, I can teach you how to tell it the way I want it told.”
The highlight of the class was a mock editorial meeting where we pitched and tested our news story ideas with Archer.
(For every class, we conduct mock editorial meetings in small groups, summarizing the news for our own “beats”. There are six groups of 4-5 students. Each group has a different beat that they cover and update the class on weekly: Local news, Provincial news, National news, International news, Business news, and Arts/Culture/Sports/Quirks & Quarks. We test our pitches within our own editorial groups and then present them to the class to receive feedback. The exercise teaches us how to breakdown basic news stories and how to critically reflect on and communicate those ideas in brief pitches as you would in a newsroom).
Archer received students’ pitches for news stories and organized them according to the newspaper section they would fall under. Pitches included colony collapse disorder among bees, racial tensions in Britain, Australian smoking advertisements, black market gasoline, and an escaped sex offender who recently slipped over the Canada/US border.
Archer marked stars next to two of the pitches, black market gas and colony collapse disorder. He explained why these topics might make the front page when others might not: each story had deeper implications, an element of the bizarre, possible human interest angles, and the potential for catchy headlines with words like “panic” and “black market”.
As editor of Abbotsford Today, Archer is naturally interested in the trend away from traditional media and toward online news sites. Students were asked what they use for their main news source, and, predictably, none of the answers involved print.
“I use Twitter or iPad apps,” said one student. Others agreed, saying that they used their phones and social media sites to follow the news.
“With the news on Facebook, you can leave a comment or see what other people think,” another said.
Archer enjoys online journalism because it allows editors and journalists more freedom in what they want to write about and when they can publish it. The interaction between writers and their audience also appeals to him.
“Media is much more driven by the audience today,” he says.
Although online journalism is becoming increasingly popular as a career, Archer warned students that journalists are often at the bottom of the food chain in the media business. He also cautioned students to do their research before plunging into a new job.
“Take your time looking at the newspaper, the television station, the radio station, the website that you’re thinking of applying for a job at,” he says. “Do they fit your worldview? Do they fit your opinions? Do they fit your idea of what media is about?”
Before leaving, Archer offered the class an open invitation to write for his website. Many of Abbotsford Today’s unpaid contributors are aspiring journalists looking for real-world experience – a perfect opportunity for students.
“I want you to write about whatever you’re interested in,” he says. “I don’t just want you to get published. I want you to get published in a way that’s going to help you.”