A Change of Pace and Direction

A declining industry has forced many journalists out and into the world of communications

By Anna Tilley and Ashley Singh
Photos by Ashley Singh

The mounting pressure on the journalism industry has made some reporters decide to set down their notebook and pen and switch over to communications and public relations work.

Whether it’s for the sake of a career change or to escape the relentlessness of the newsroom, journalists switching into communications are part of a growing trend. Even those at the top are not exempt, as is evident in the case of former Global BC anchor Randene Neill.

In late October 2016—shortly after the shocking departure of her morning show colleague, Steve Darling—Neill surprised viewers by announcing she too would be leaving Global, after more than 16 years with the station, to pursue a new job opportunity.

Journalism wasn’t Neill’s first career choice, but after receiving a degree in political science and experiencing difficulties in the job market, she applied to the broadcast program at BCIT.

“As soon as I finished [at BCIT], I did my internship at CHBC [Global television station] in Kelowna. They weren’t hiring, so my first job was out in Brandon, Manitoba, where I was for a year. I was a reporter, an anchor, I mopped the floors, I ran my own teleprompter—I did all that kind of stuff,” she says.

Neill was eventually hired at BCTV, now Global, for a summer and was then hired as a full-time writer. She worked her way up to become a producer, and finally became an anchor.

Neill was first thrown into anchoring the morning show when a previous anchor wasn’t able to come in one day.

“The producer at the time knew that I had some anchoring experience in Brandon, so she literally said, ‘Find some clean clothes to wear, brush your teeth, and get on the air.’ So I just filled in. It was a three-hour show,” she recalls. “I kept trying to go back to reporting and they’d keep putting me back into anchoring, but my best times at Global [were] doing stories, winning a couple of awards, and being really proud of the reporting I did.” Neill says that Global News was a supportive and collaborative workplace.

Still, Neill noticed a change in the industry from when she began her career. Back when she started, she could spend a large amount of time on one story. As the newsroom faced smaller budgets, reporting resources became tighter.

“Fifteen years ago, you were doing just one story for the News Hour. Now you’re doing five or six different stories on the same topic—and in that time, a story that would be three minutes is 1:30,” says Neill. “It became harder to tell that story with depth and perspectives, so that people understood how it fits and how it is important.”

As the industry continued to evolve, Neill decided it was time to leave. She had researched different job opportunities and heard about Anthem Properties,  a real-estate development company, where she has been serving as the company’s first communications director. At Anthem, Neill is working to rebrand the company’s profile.

“[The position is] brand new. I go to bed every night with my head swimming […] like, oh my God, I have so much to learn. But that’s a good thing, because you never want to stop learning.”

Neill believes that what makes journalists well-suited for communications is their ability to tell stories. “I think it’s hard to find a really relevant story that the public will be interested in. That’s something that you need to know how to do to be valuable to a company to spread their message.”

Kirk Williams, now a media relations and communications director for Pace Group in Vancouver, spent 27 years at CBC before leaving in Nov. 2015.

Reporting was a job that Williams says he was lucky to have— and which he misses today.

“It’s an incredibly important thing to have the freedom to call somebody up and ask them questions about something, and also make them accountable,” says Williams. “It’s a fantastic job where you’re actually paid to satisfy your curiosity.”

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Kirk Williams left the CBC for the Pace Group in 2015

Over his three decades in the business, the online world exploded and workloads and deadlines had to adjust accordingly, though Williams embraced the extra work. He loved what he was doing, he says, but thought that if he was going to make a change, he should do it sooner rather than later.

“I asked around for advice from various people and the advice I got was to make yourself uncomfortable—that’s the secret to personal growth. So get out of a comfortable place you love and throw yourself into something [else],” he says. “It was a whole different perspective.”

The job he landed at Pace Group wasn’t something Williams had planned out. He had a meeting with Pace and soon he had a job offer. Before he left CBC, his colleagues made sure he was prepared.

“As a going-away gift, my colleagues and friends at CBC gave me a compass, to keep my moral direction, because there’s always a joke about being on the dark side once you enter communications,” says Williams. “Then they gave me a flashlight, since I am on the dark side, so I can find my way home to CBC. Thankfully, I haven’t had to test those.”

Williams says he has taken his journalism background and applied it to his current job. He does media training, assists clients in publicizing stories by reaching out to journalists, and helps clients thrive in the media. “At this point I just try to keep sucking up information and skills like a sponge,” he says.

Even though Williams enjoys his new role at Pace, he says it wasn’t easy for him to leave journalism. “It was really emotional. It was 27 years of my life. I still miss chasing the big story. I’ll be honest: you sort of grieve a little bit. It’s a great job—it’s the best job in the world—and people are very lucky to do it.”

Now sitting on the dark side, Williams has high hopes for journalism, a profession in transition—where being an entrepreneur is a good thing, and where digital journalism is growing.

“I think the [2016] American election has told us that we should pay for journalism. The days of just going out, surfing websites, and just getting our information for free doesn’t really cut it, because good journalism requires money,” he says. “We have something that’s pretty precious that needs protecting and support, and it’s so important to the future of democracy.”

W

hile journalists like Neill and Williams spent decades in the industry, a younger group of journalists is also making the move into PR positions.

Erin Steele, who graduated from Langara College’s diploma journalism program in 2010, thought she would be a journalist forever. After working for a variety of comunity papers, she recently became a digital marketer for a publishing company.

Steele still loves journalism, but the pressures that came with her jobs in community papers left her with a changed mindset, though she also left with many proud experiences. “I loved when I was able to do something that really had an effect on the community, or for people who didn’t necessarily have a voice and were then all of a sudden able to have one,” Steele says.

The uncertainty of the job market and seeing veteran journalists laid off started to make Steele think that a career shift made sense.

“I just started thinking about the long-term sustainability. As much as I love journalism, I started becoming afraid I wouldn’t be guaranteed a job.”

Steele took her knowledge of journalism and channeled it into her new Kelowna-based job. Her responsibilities include posting on social media, email campaigns, and media relations. It’s a career path that she can see stretching far into the future.

“With journalism, I loved it, it was great, but the highs were high and the lows were lower. Sometimes I would sit there for 10 hours straight at my desk, eating my lunch with one hand and working with the other, and I don’t have that here,” Steele says. “I start at 8 a.m. and go home at 4 p.m. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t wake up in the night stressing about whether I’ve missed a deadline, or if I’ve put something wrong in the newspaper. I would say I have the best work-life balance I’ve had in years.”

Even though Steele watches journalism from the sidelines, she still advocates for its future. “Journalism is an incredibly valuable part of society that will always be needed. I think that’s evolving right now, but I think [society is] going to need journalists. For those people who want it, hang in there and maybe be part of what the future of journalism is […] whatever that might be.”

For Randene Neill, moving on wasn’t as hard as might be assumed after 16 years. Even though she misses delivering big stories at times, she says she was ready for the next chapter.

“My parents were the most upset because they were like, ‘How are we going to watch you every day?’ But everyone was great. It was just perfect timing,” she says. “I don’t miss standing on Highway 1 in the middle of the blizzard, reporting live. Neill believes that, despite challenges for traditional broadcasters and newspapers, she sees big growth in web-based journalism jobs. She says that no matter the changes, successful journalists will still have to follow the same old rules.

“You have to be hungry. You have to be willing to work hard and be willing to move to small markets. I think [journalism] is more valuable than ever before. We have to figure out a way to tell the truth again,” says Neill. “It’s so important for journalists to be able to be the unbiased, truth-seekers that we desperately need right now.”

For the journalism industry, Neill is confident that journalism will always be important, and will continue to evolve.

“Twenty years from now… you’re going to say, ‘boy, it’s changed!’”

 

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Randene Neill, communications director for Anthem Properties, is a former broadcast journalist for Global BC

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