The secret school of journalism

Greg McArthur sits in a diner booth.

Photography by Chloe Ellingson

I’ve been a professional journalist for more than two decades – a line of work that, I’ve come to appreciate, conjures up considerable intrigue. When someone learns I work at the Globe and Mail, whether at a dinner party or chatting with other parents at the hockey rink, I am often peppered with questions about the high-stakes, behind-the-scenes drama: What got left on the cutting room floor?

Is a particular columnist that cranky in person? Why are you so hard/soft on Politician A? And, inevitably, tucked somewhere into that series of inquiries, is one about how I got into the business in the first place: Where did you go to journalism school?

For those of us who graduated from Queen’s and work in the industry, the answer to that is a point of pride, but not entirely straightforward. That’s because Queen’s doesn’t have a journalism school. There are no courses on how to write a headline or develop a confidential source. But I take delight in answering the question because it’s an opportunity to let them in on a little secret (and what journalist doesn’t love sharing a secret?): Queen’s does, in fact, offer a one-of-a-kind journalism education – one that has pumped out an outsized number of reporters and editors Canadians rely on for facts and hard truths about their country and beyond.

The Queen’s Journal, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has served as a training ground for numerous journalists who fill the pages of Canada’s most important publications and the newscasts aired by its major broadcasters. Although the Journal’s reputation for producing high-calibre reporters and editors is well established within the confines of the media world, it’s high time its impact was known more broadly. The professional track record of Journal grads is remarkable and their collective list of accomplishments, I suspect, would make most “official” journalism schools envious.

As you might expect from a student body known for its ambition, the Journal was the starting point for several newsroom leaders and executives – managers who set the news agenda, oversee hundreds of staff located in the far-flung corners of the world, all while stickhandling the daily controversies that are part and parcel of the job. John Stackhouse, Com’85 and a former Journal editor, was editor-in-chief of the Globe from 2009 to 2014, a position to which he was appointed after traversing South and Southeast Asia as an award-winning foreign correspondent and editing the Globe’s Report on Business. Similarly, Giles Gherson, Artsci’79, got his start at the Journal before embarking on a journalism career that vaulted him into the editor-in-chief’s office at both the Edmonton Journal and, later, the Toronto Star.

Scott Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen and a senior vice-president at Canwest Publishing Inc. (and, for a time, my boss at the Citizen) – where he was responsible for that chain’s major dailies, including the Vancouver Sun and the Calgary Herald – volunteered as a writer at the Journal during his undergrad. It was Mr. Anderson’s only journalistic training before he set off into the real world. Lianne Elliott, Artsci’01, who supervises dozens of reporters, producers, and videographers as a managing editor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), got her first taste of running a newsroom as the Journal’s news editor.

Other Journal alumni are better known for their scoops and revelatory reporting. Brendan Kennedy, Artsci’07, is part of the investigative team at the Toronto Star that, over the past year, has broken several stories about Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s recently reversed decision to open swaths of protected Greenbelt lands that surround Toronto to a select group of developers. Canada’s business community regularly turns to my Globe colleague James Bradshaw, Artsci’06, for news about the manoeuvrings of a powerful, but often press-shy, group of men and women – those who control the trillions of dollars under management by the country’s largest pension funds and private equity firms.

During the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency, I would frequently look up from my computer to see a familiar face on the television screens that adorn the walls of the Globe’s newsroom – Journal alum Meagan Fitzpatrick, Artsci’02, reporting from Washington, D.C., for CBC on the president’s latest imbroglio.

Some of the Journal’s best writers have gone on to author celebrated books, both fiction and non-fiction. Anna Mehler Paperny, Artsci’09, and a Canadian correspondent for the news agency Reuters, wrote the deeply reported and even more deeply moving memoir about mental health Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person. Ian Stewart, Artsci’90, was the bureau chief for the Associated Press in West Africa in 1999, covering armed conflict in Sierra Leone, when he was shot in the head and nearly died. He miraculously survived and turned his harrowing experience into Freetown Ambush: A Reporter’s Year in Africa. Whenever someone happens to mention the literary success of Omar El Akkad, the winner of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel What Strange Paradise, I share the story of how he walked into the Journal in 2001 and pleaded for a journalism job to save him from an academic program – computer science – that no longer held his interest. We hired him that night and he turned into one of our best reporters.

On its face, the Journal doesn’t look different from most campus newspapers, but anyone who has offered to get involved there knows there are several things that set it apart. First, there’s the punishing production schedule. Unlike most campus papers, which publish once a week, the Journal publishes twice a week for the bulk of the academic year. That cycle is intense. The section editors barely have a chance to exhale before they are planning their next issue and are then back at the office for another all-nighter of writing, editing, and paginating sections. (Although the Journal has scaled back its print production in recent years – keeping it in step with the online reading habits of a younger audience – the staff has stuck to that demanding schedule for its website, posting new stories every Tuesday and Friday until the calendar creeps into exam season.)

That environment is a close facsimile of the expectations at a daily newspaper and its insatiable appetite for more stories. The pace at the Journal has another important effect: weeding out casual volunteers from those who are truly committed to the mission. Anyone who thinks they can sporadically dip into the Journal – devoting some spare minutes here and there so they can add a few sentences to their law-school application – doesn’t tend to last.

“Once I got hooked on it, it became what I did in a lot of ways,” says Mr. Gherson, the former editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star and the Edmonton Journal. “We attended classes and everything else but it really did become what you did. That was your social life, effectively.”

Like many Journal editors both before and after him, Mr. Gherson took an extra year to complete his undergraduate degree. Journal editors frequently opt to lighten their course loads to accommodate the newspaper – not the other way around – once they recognize the work as a calling. (I speak from experience. I was supposed to graduate in 2002 but finished my degree in 2003.)

  • Members of the Queen's Journal in 1883. Nine men sit around a table with two men sitting in front of the table on fur rugs..

    1883 Queen's College Journal staff portait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • Queen's College Journal staff in 1884. Eight men pose in front of drapes.

    1884 Queen's College Journal staff portrait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • Queen's College Journal staff in 1892. Twelve men and two women pose in front of a trompe l'oeil backdrop.

    1892 Queen's College Journal staff portrait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • Queen's Journal staff in 1918. Men and women posed in four rows looking at the camera.

    1918 Queen's Journal staff portrait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • 1932 Queen's Journal staff portrait. Men and women pose in three rows looking at the camera.

    1932 Queen's Journal staff portrait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • 1937 Queen's Journal Press Club portrait. Three rows of men and women pose for the camera.

    1937 Queen's Journal Press Club portrait. Courtesy of Queen's Archives

  • 1939 Queen's Journal individual staff portraits.

    Courtesy of Queen's Archives

When someone tells you they were on staff at the Journal, it tells you a lot about them, says Ms. Elliott, the CBC editor. “It speaks to passion and commitment.”

Another distinguishing quality of the Journal is that, while some campus newspapers are published with help from professors and lecturers, the Journal is an entirely student-led project. To be sure, this contributes to all sorts of missteps: headlines that miss the mark, over-the-top opinion pieces, and errors in judgment. But overcoming those mistakes forces the staff to recognize – as many undergrads are reluctant to do – that they really don’t know a whole lot about much, which is an essential part of any journalist’s journey. The experience propels staff into difficult situations that require imperfect decisions.

I remember negotiating with a protestor, Paul Quick, Law’09, after he was arrested for allegedly trespassing at a 2002 meeting of the Queen’s Board of Trustees. 
Mr. Quick had planned to protest, with others, then- Principal William Leggett’s proposal to remove provincially mandated caps on Arts and Science tuition, but Kingston Police swooped in and hauled him off to a holding cell.

When we connected by phone, Mr. Quick said he wanted the story to be about the issue of Arts and Science tuition and not about him personally, and he told me he would agree to an interview on one condition – that we not publish his photograph. Although I wanted to hear what he went through that night, it felt wrong, in my gut, to cede that kind of control to the subject of a story. I told him no deal. Writing this today, I still can’t say with absolute certainty that I made the right call – whether our audience was better served by viewing a small portrait photo of Mr. Quick, rather than reading his account of what happened. (A noteworthy coda to this story: Mr. Quick’s trespass notice, which barred him from campus indefinitely, was later revoked so he could attend law school at Queen’s. Mr. Quick now works with the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic and has served as legal counsel before all levels of Ontario and Canadian courts.)

Journal staffers find themselves in all manner of uncomfortable spots that they are forced to navigate. Every school year there is, invariably, a tragic death of a student or professor that requires coverage. Journal staffers learn quickly that they can’t cover these events from the sidelines, and that to write a proper, worthy obituary you have to reach out to the very people – friends and family – who are the most distraught over the death. Those are daunting phone calls to make, but the staff learn how to make them delicately and respectfully.

They also learn, very quickly, what not to sweat.

When a whistleblower – whose identity remains a mystery – stuffed a stack of confidential emails into the Journal’s mailbox in 2001, it set off a mini crisis in our newsroom, but one that existed solely in our minds.

The records detailed a dispute between the Alma Mater Society (AMS) and the Queen’s administration over the operation of the Queen’s Pub and included a thinly veiled threat on the part of one university official that the establishment might even be shut down. When one of our reporters contacted the student government for comment, a demand was made for the return of the emails. We convinced ourselves we were sitting on something akin to the Pentagon Papers and a court order for the return of the documents was imminent. We spent the next several hours photocopying the emails and hiding them in various nooks and crannies of the Journal house. Nothing came of it.

Most of the Journal alumni I spoke to shared anecdotes about learning to remain steadfast when receiving pushback about a story – and that pressure usually emanated from the AMS, which was run by people you were almost certain to see the next day in class.

Mr. Stackhouse’s Journal broke a story about the AMS using student money to buy memberships in the Ontario Progressive Conservative party – a step the leaders of the student government took to ensure they could send a delegate to the party’s 1985 leadership convention. It was clearly a questionable use of money and a story very much in the public interest. But Mr. Stackhouse’s friends on the AMS didn’t see it that way when he chose to publish. Before that moment, all the arguments Stackhouse had heard about the importance of a free press keeping a healthy distance from the government were theoretical. Now it was very real and a reminder, he told me, that “the loyalty is to the reader and the news organization. The loyalty certainly isn’t to one’s friends.”

All those experiences – the screw-ups, the triumphs, the late nights eating bad takeout food – build something else along the way: an extreme camaraderie. Journal staff go through a lot together, and the bonds created there extend across generations.

Mr. Kennedy, the investigative reporter at the Star, says that during his years at the Journal, the staff would pin on a bulletin board the clippings of Journal alumni who were writing for Canada’s major dailies. “I remember feeling a very strong sense of being part of a lineage,” says Mr. Kennedy. “We were very aware of those who had worked at the Journal before us and gone on to great things.”

Once a year, an assortment of alumni makes the trek to Kingston to review stories and offer feedback to the staff. When he was editor-in-chief of the Citizen, Mr. Anderson used those visits as recruiting trips to hire summer interns because, he says, the Journal bred a special kind of young journalist – one with a little more hunger for good stories than your average cub reporter.

“That’s why so many people from the Journal succeeded,” says Mr. Anderson, who has returned home to Queen’s as executive director, marketing, communications, and donor relations, in the Office of Advancement. “You worked your ass off because you didn’t have any formal training.”

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the Journal as an important Queen’s institution is the large number of volunteers it continues to attract. This year’s editorial board has 27 students on staff – despite what can seem like an endless stream of bad news about the financial viability of the industry. Now, perhaps more than ever in the Journal’s history, the prospect of turning all those sleep-deprived and stressful hours into an actual career can seem a little bleak.

But if there was ever a place to test someone’s resilience and passion for the craft, it’s at the Journal.

In my final interview for this piece, I spoke with this year’s editors-in-chief, Asbah Ahmad and Cassidy McMackon, who said they were both – only one month into the school year – already a little battle hardened.

“You have to be very tough to work here,” says Mr. Ahmad. “Even if you’re not tough, that’s fine, you’ll learn to be tough.” 

As the Journal celebrates this milestone year, it is asking for contributions to a special fundraising campaign.

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