Senior editor, Xtra magazine
Erica Lenti is a senior editor at Xtra (magazine).
How has your journalism degree helped you?
My time at Ryerson, as cliché as it might sound, really prepared me for my entrance into this industry. I remember when I applied to the program, there was some marketing copy on the RSJ website that said journalism students hit the ground running—and that was precisely what happened with me. I was thrown into a multitude of experiences—from interviewing strangers on the streets of Toronto to producing a TV hit to editing a long form feature story—so that nothing could really surprise me when I emerged on the other side with a degree in hand.
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
For starters, the campus is smack in the heart of Toronto’s downtown, surrounded by a majority of Canada’s largest media organizations, so you’re in close proximity to so many of the journalists you aspire to be like. And many of those journalists come to the school to prep you for the real world. Funny enough, I met Lauren McKeon, then the editor of This Magazine, during my second year at Ryerson in a feature writing class; four years later, I became editor of This myself.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
After graduating, I found myself in a familiar place for many recent university grads: I was unemployed, applying for as many jobs as I could, trying to find my footing. I was 21 and had no idea what I was doing or where I was going; all I knew is that I had a passion for magazines, and I wanted to somehow work adjacent to them.
I applied for the Walrus six-month fellowship in hopes of doing just that, and I miraculously landed the gig. It was an absolute whirlwind working for such a prestigious magazine alongside editors and writers who had inspired me throughout my time at Ryerson. During the fellowship, I was offered a full-time job editing at the urban politics site Torontoist, and I worked there for about a year. We had a real shoestring budget but everyone there was so incredibly passionate about the city and the stories that were going unnoticed by other local papers and sites.
Now, I’m the editor of This Magazine, Canada’s 52-year-old magazine for progressive politics, culture, and arts. I’ve always said working at This would be my dream job—and it still is. Every day I get to put together a magazine with such history and an amazing following, and I get to work with writers, illustrators, editors, and publishers (shout-out to the best publisher ever, Lisa) who are so talented and driven. There’s really no better feeling than cracking open a box of new magazines and seeing what we’ve accomplished as a team.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
In my first week at Ryerson, we had to write a grammar test. All students had to achieve at least a 70-percent grade to continue into their second year of journalism school, and we each had three attempts to do so. I’ve never been so stressed in my life over a test. I sincerely thought I was going to fail and make a fool of myself. I wrote the test on a Thursday, and I remember coming home and crying, certain that I wasn’t cut for journalism if I couldn’t handle a simple test.
We received our test results the next week, and I passed with an 83. I always think back to that time, now that I’m handling much bigger and more complex projects on a daily basis, and try to remind myself not to underestimate my abilities.
I do think first-year Erica would be astonished to know I’ve made it as far as I did for my age—present-day Erica is still astonished—but I always try to keep in mind how hard I worked to get here.
What’s one of your favourite memories from j school?
I can’t think back to my time at Ryerson without touching on my final year as editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. It was the highlight of my four years in j-school. Sure, it was the most challenging project I tackled in my time as a student, but it was also the most rewarding. I learned how to be an editor during those months—how to cope with colleagues going through emotional stresses, making tough decisions that reflect the beliefs and values of the entire masthead, and putting out a magazine we’d all be proud of. It was also super fun—we may have raced our wheelie chairs down the hallways of the Rogers Communication Centre during our late nights when no one else was around (wink wink).
Can you talk about one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a journalist?
I’m a young, queer woman in an industry that hasn’t always valued young, queer women. There have been times—and there still are—when those who have been in journalism longer than I have dismiss my ideas and values, or when my sexual orientation becomes a point of interest when it shouldn’t be one at all. Whenever those situations arise, I take it as an opportunity to remind everyone in journalism that there needs to be more spaces for folks of multitudes of identities, particularly from LGBTQ communities.
What have you learned during your time as Editor?
I’ve learned so, so much about making magazines—everything from what makes a good cover to how to trim an 8,000-word story down to 2,500 in a day (true story). But what really stands out to me are the lessons applicable not just to this industry but to life outside the walls of my office. I’ve learned so much about different communities, particularly Indigenous communities and communities of colour in Canada, through our constant coverage of them. In working with writers and artists from a range of diverse backgrounds, I’ve learned about privileges—my own and of those around me. In appearing on panels and in classrooms to talk about This, I’ve learned how to become a better public figure, and how to represent myself and the people involved with our magazine. No matter where I end up in the future, I’ll carry these lessons with me.
Any memorable RSJ professors during your time at Ryerson?
A big shout-out to Anne McNeilly, my first journalism professor who gave me the confidence and pep talks to keep me going. I returned to her office throughout my four years at Ryerson just to chat, and her door was always open for me. For that, I thank her.
My time at Ryerson also would not have been complete without the constant guidance and support of Tim Falconer (Timoji), who gave me my first opportunity to be an editor and explore my love for magazine journalism. Tim became not just a mentor but a friend, and keeping in touch with him after I graduated has been invaluable.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
Keep going. Had I given up after writing that grammar test in my first year (or any other time I felt I just wasn’t good enough), I wouldn’t be a part of this industry, making a difference with the magazine I edit and publish every two months. This advice especially applies to those who are part of marginalized communities, who perhaps think there isn’t space for them in journalism. I assure you of this: There is.