By: Daniela Olariu, (RSJ ’17)
Thia James, RSJ ’07, Reporter and Digital Specialist, Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
I wanted to become a crime reporter more than anything. I came to the journalism program after graduating with a double major in political science and criminology. I had hoped that would have given me a solid basis for becoming a crime reporter.
How did that vision change as the years went by?
I’ve done several different things over the past decade that’s widened my view of who I want to be and where I want to be. I like the idea of naturally coming into a niche and focusing on subjects of interest, rather than trying to work with a narrow focus towards a singular end goal. So, crime reporting is among my areas of interest, and I do work on stories that fall into that category, but I like not being locked into only ever focusing on any single area of interest.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
I think my first-year self would be surprised that the road has taken me outside of Toronto, where I was born and raised. I think for a long time, I couldn’t see myself really leaving the city, let alone the province. There are so many good stories, important stories, ones that are necessary to tell everywhere you look and you’ll find them if you look beyond your own backyard and comfort zone.
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
I think it’s the opportunity to work with instructors who are actively a part of the world of journalism. There’s the opportunity to see their work and ask them how the story came together or how they handled a specific situation. That, and on day one, you’re treated like a journalist. I remember my first print class: we were sent out on the first day to do streeters and come back with a story. Students are in the mix in a way that I’m not sure you can get elsewhere.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
Full-time, I’ve worked at a TV station on the web (BNN), at a radio station as a web editor in Prince Albert (CKBI/paNOW) and now I’m a reporter and digital specialist at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. It’s a long story how I got here, and I’m trying to not run up the word count. I had always wanted to work at a newspaper, that was my focus in j-school. When I made my successful application to work at the StarPhoenix, I remember applying for all three openings that were available at the time. I started out on the night desk, but took on every opportunity I could to write.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
I’d say it gave me a solid foundation. I think the one thing that you learn in journalism school that I’m not sure you can get otherwise is all the specific information about media law and ethics. There are basic tenets that you follow, such as don’t take gifts from sources and then there are the finer points, such as what kinds of situations would make a journalist liable for a slanderous or libel.
Can you talk about one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a journalist?
Honestly, the popular conception of what journalists do, has been a problem, not just for me, but other colleagues in the industry. With the negative portrayal in pop culture, social media, entertainment and by now public figures, it’s hard not to feel discouraged. The work we do as journalists daily to hold people in power to account for the decisions they make while they hold that power is something I remind myself of daily. Yes, we write about other things we think people may be interested in, but the former reason, holding power to account, is our real value.
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
It’s not just a single memory, but I’d say my six weeks at the National Post in the last batch of students in the field placements. It was an incredible experience.
Any memorable RSJ professors during your time at Ryerson?
Two stand out the most: Peter Bakogeorge and Robert Cribb. Peter Bakogeorge inspired me to look for the person most affected by whatever the topic of the story is. He also impressed upon his students the importance of getting details, no matter how minor they seem, correct. A source will always remember that you spelled their name wrong.
I thank Rob Cribb and story about his investigative work into the city’s inspections of restaurants for the Toronto Star and the resulting DineSafe program for really giving me an introduction into the real-world value of access to and freedom of information laws — change can be effected.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
One thing I wish I could tell my first-year self is that building and maintaining a good support network is very important. It’s not only about career-building, it’s about creating a sense of community for yourself within the industry.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.