Interview by: Jaclyn Mika (RSJ '08).
Kerry Wall, RSJ '07, is a Senior Web Manager for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
I knew pretty early on—definitely by the middle of my first year—that I didn’t want to be a reporter. That probably sounds weird! Why go to journalism school, then? When I applied and enrolled, I knew that the news and the work of keeping people informed were very important to me. I just wasn’t sure I should be the one asking the questions. Interestingly, long before I ever decided to apply to journalism school, I wanted to be a web designer. (“Web developer” wasn’t really a term then!)
How did that vision change as the years went by?
It really solidified. Learning the ins and outs of broadcast production, copy editing, newspaper layout, and packaging online news convinced me that there’s more than one way to be a journalist, and that this ‘other’ side of things was where I belonged. I also spent three terms as an editor at the Eyeopener, and found that I was much more comfortable working with reporters than being one myself. So what started out as a gut feeling turned out to be accurate.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
Pretty excited! Actually, one of my favourite elective courses from my degree was Introduction to Classical Music with Dr. Leslie Hall, which I took in my first year. I’ve loved this kind of music my whole life, so the opportunity to combine so many things that are important to me is really special. What I learned in that class touches my everyday work, too!
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
Not just the chance to get out there and learn by doing, but to learn everything by doing. There weren’t a whole lot of surprises in the real world; we’d been working to deadlines since the first few weeks of first year. We were expected to get things right from the very beginning. It was special in that there was no room for error, but it was also a safe place to learn that there's no room for error.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
I was really lucky; I picked up some part-time shifts encoding video at CBCNews.ca the summer between my third and fourth years, and that turned into a full-time job after I graduated. Because I could code, I was moved around a lot to cover for other positions that required those skills. I got to spend a lot of time on the interactives desk, where the team really fostered my interest in web development. This had been a hobby, but as I got to do more of it, I realized this is what I was actually meant to do. I decided to take continuing-education classes to firm up my skills. As I was contemplating making the leap out of journalism, there was a particularly large round of job cuts at the CBC and I was ‘bumped’ out of my job. It felt a bit fated. I was able to take my new skills and work as a developer at a small agency for about a year, and then the TSO web job opened up, which has been a wonderful fit for me.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
The biggest thing is deadlines and time management. I get “you’re so fast!” a lot, and the entire reason is that I worked in an online newsroom for eight years. You have to be really good at getting things done properly and correctly in the shortest possible timeframe. You also have to be able to juggle many competing priorities at once, and know how to organize them. That’s a lesson that dates back to journalism school; that real-time wire reporting exercise from online journalism class in second year still makes me kind of nauseous! But we were prepared for this early. And in any career, journalistic or otherwise, a serious commitment to accuracy and integrity are important. Those were good lessons to have drilled into us early, too.
Can you talk about one of the biggest:
1) accomplishments you've made?
I’m really proud of having worked on three different federal elections at CBC, in three totally different capacities. My very first CBC stint was as a candidate-profile researcher in 2006, when I was in third year. I was working there full time in 2008, when I got to work on interactives and photo galleries throughout the campaign and on election night. In 2011, I was part of the social-media team.
2) challenges you've faced as a journalist?
The economic reality has been hard. Before my own layoff, I watched many friends, colleagues, and former classmates be affected at other organizations. The good news is that a background in journalism provides a good starting point for regrouping within the industry or outside of it. The skills are very transferable.
What's one of your favourite memories from j-school?
My time at the Eyeopener in particular provided me with lifelong friendships—including my husband! There were two tables of Eyeopener alumni at our wedding, so that counts as an honourary j-school memory, too. And even though I didn't want to be a reporter, I did get to sample that life in class and in my fourth-year internship at the Hamilton Spectator, and some fun stories came out of that. My favourite Spectator story was about a boy who won a Hockey Hall of Fame essay-writing contest and got to bring the Stanley Cup to school... and that's how I wound up holding a door open for the (encased) Stanley Cup as it was being taken out of the building after the assembly. I didn't expect that when I applied.
Any memorable RSJ professors during your time at Ryerson?
I have a really vivid memory of one Information Resources lecture where Joyce Smith asked us (it was the entire undergrad first-year class) what the difference was between a reporter and a journalist. This was something I’d been thinking about a lot around this time, as I was really starting to understand that I wanted to be in journalism but not a reporter. She asked how many people thought they were the same thing, and most people put their hands up. That really stuck with me, because I really believe reporters are journalists but not all journalists are reporters. That moment sort of cemented how strongly I felt about that. Even though I didn’t want to be a reporter, I knew I still had my own place in the industry and that what I had to offer was important.
Lots of other professors and their lessons have stuck with me, too: Suanne Kelman, Ann Rauhala, Marsha Barber, Shelley Robertson.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
There are a lot of ways to be a journalist. Explore as many as you can, and don't limit yourself. If you're interested in learning to code, do it. If you think you might like data journalism, give it a try. Editors and technical people are huge parts of the process, especially in the growing digital field. And if you end up deciding you want to take the skills you've acquired and apply them somewhere else, that's OK. Above all, trust your gut.