Navigating the Newsroom: When to say yes and when to say no to casual work

I have a love/hate relationship with casual work. 

On the one hand, it’s how I began my career and how so many other journalists got their start. I remember one of my bosses telling me the CBC needed casuals in order to survive. Whether that was true or not, I know casual work gave me that foot in the door and eventually led to some great opportunities. Had I not packed my bags and moved halfway across the country only on the promise of casual work, I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

That said, precarious employment is nothing to write home about. When considering how much of an impact casual and temporary employment has on BIPOC workers, I think media companies need to think long and hard about why they continue the practice. Even contract work carries with it the same feeling for workers. Personally, it felt like being in a relationship where my partner just didn’t want to commit. At some point I just need to know…like…are we doing this or not???

So, for all you young journalists out there considering casual work, some advice:

  1. Only do casual work for as long as it serves YOU. I did eventually come to a point in my life where casual work no longer served me. I wanted more stability in my pay and in my schedule, neither of which I found while working as a casual. Don’t wait for your employer to decide when it no longer serves them…because that might be the day they decide they don’t need you altogether. Make sure the work you’re doing serves you in the sense that it’s helping you get to where you want to go. 
  2. Casual work is a good option for the undecided. Not sure whether you enjoy a certain platform? Work as a casual so you can float around, picking up different skills without being locked into a job you might hate. But don’t be afraid to cut the cord when the time comes.
  3. Make sure casual work isn’t all you’re doing. Even in the early stages of your career, it’s important you’re creating your own content. You should be freelance writing if you love to write. You should be producing a podcast if you love radio. You should be creating YouTube or TikTok videos if you love broadcasting. Don’t just rely on casual work to help you build your portfolio: be a content creator first and foremost. Not only will this make you even more attractive to employers, it’ll also give you something to pour into (and even monetize) when casual work dries up.

Navigating the Newsroom: Be a content creator

Some solid advice I learned from a journalist I still admire even now: whatever you love doing, you should be doing it. I think this is great advice for young journalists because it means, first and foremost, you’re a content creator. 

The ability to create original content is a huge asset in journalism because content is so often regurgitated information. This isn’t because of laziness: the demand for fresh content in a 24/7 news cycle can be tough to keep up with. The better you are at creating content, the better you’ll be at feeding the machine. 

However, creating your own content–something you own and enjoy doing–outside of work is crucial because it’ll give you something to pour into (and even monetize) when work dries up (and with the instability forecasted for this industry, I’d just say it’s wise for you to have something on the side now). 

So, just two tips for you this month:

  1. Be upfront about the content you create outside of work. I’m not a big believer in keeping this a secret. Personally, I’d use it as a selling point during an interview. Particularly if you’re only working as a casual, I wouldn’t give up your passion project nor would I encourage you to accept a job where you’ll have to stop doing it as a condition of employment. 
  2. Make sure this is something you’re passionate about. Look, juggling work and a side hustle is not easy. For those who do it, they do it for the love of it. So whatever you’re creating on the side, make sure you love it. It should never feel like a chore because, somedays, your 9-5 will and you’re going to need something live giving to help you remember why you got into storytelling and journalism in the first place. 

A change of heart

I used to think vision boards were a waste of time. How could a glorified arts and crafts project really help you stay focused on your future (cynical, I know)?

Despite my best efforts, the first thing that came under siege for me this year was my focus. The challenges came out of nowhere. Some storms in life brew on the horizon and, even though we try to ignore them, they come to pass (been there, done that, writing the book—literally). There are other storms in life you simply don’t foresee. The ones that hit when everything is going well and you’re doing everything right.

I can honestly say that, in February, I was doing everything right…but so much went wrong. There were many days I found myself speechless. One morning I woke up to pray, but there were no words. Some days it was just about getting through.

A young girl I used to mentor asked me if I’d come with her to an all-girls Valentine’s Day party. I thought the plan was just to eat chocolate-dipped fruit and paint our nails. I didn’t realize making vision boards was also on the agenda. I went because I care a lot about this young girl and I wanted to be there for her: to spend time with her, see how she was doing and just to support her. So, when it came time to make these vision boards, I put aside my cynicism and jumped in.

As I made the board, my mind wasn’t consumed with thoughts of the various situations percolating around me, for a change. The only thing on my mind was my vision. In that moment, everything else seemed like a distraction. For a few hours that night, everything came back into focus. Cutting and pasting images representing my short and long term dreams lifted my spirits. It was a different kind of self-love.

My vision board is now posted on the cork board in the room I pray in every morning. It’s the first thing I see: a visual reminder of where I’m going. I’m going to get there regardless of what I see happening around me. I whisper a prayer over every part of the vision board daily.

The storms haven’t yet passed, but I can see to the other side of them. I’m working on looking at things more through eyes of faith. It’s the kind of vision you need to stay focused. And if it takes glue sticks and some old magazines to help me do that, then so be it.

The last ten years

The end of 2019 marks the end of a year and a decade…which is kind of a big deal when you stop to think about it. I began reminiscing over the last decade: where I was when it started and where I am now. So much has changed…

I started working for the CBC in 2010, marking my first on-air gig for one of the major Canadian broadcasters. I was both timid and terrified, having just relocated from Toronto to St. John’s for the job. Fast forward ten years and I’m amazed at how much my confidence has grown. I’m not an extrovert (I just play one on TV), so believe me when I say my confidence has never been this high…though, if history is any indication, it can only increase.

Of course, this kind of reflection leads to a narrowing down of the key lessons that have carried me through these past ten years. I’m sharing them now because I’ll need them for the journey ahead.

Don’t give up. It’s impossible to navigate the ups and downs of life a quitter. Race and gender aside, this industry isn’t an easy one to survive. I’ve been laid off, had to move across the country for work and had to volunteer or work freelance for five years before I could land my first casual gig. I don’t know where I’d be now had I given up (or had people given up on me…but that’s for another post).

Sacrifice is part of the journey. I’ve had to move away from my Toronto family and I’ve worked nearly every weekend for the past ten years. For anything we want to achieve that’s worth pursuing it always means we have to give something up in the short-term. It’s always worth it in the end, I’ve learned.

Have work, will travel. I still meet a lot of interns who say they don’t want to leave their home city to pursue opportunities. Leaving Toronto was tough, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’d probably have done it sooner if I knew how much good leaving the city would have done for my career. I still encourage young journalists to explore opportunities outside of their home cities. Be warned: it will be tough. Leaving Toronto meant my first real encounter with racism. However, the trade-off was personal and professional growth. The transformation came when I stepped outside of my comfort zone.

Be consistent. Over the course of this decade, I was consistently inconsistent. I started blogging but didn’t always do it monthly, I took up running but still don’t do it regularly. Consistency is key to success. Think of any great person and there’s something in their life they do consistently: be it training, sticking to their values, delivering on time, praying–regardless of what it is, they do it well because they’re consistent. I think consistency is about a personal commitment we make to ourselves without compromise, with an eye to the kind of personal betterment that impacts the lives of others.

The best-laid plans

A few years ago, I remember going to speak at a school and the teacher telling me her students were stressed out. They were in grade 10 and many of them were already dealing with the pressure of what to do and where to go next: what university to apply to (university, not college. Never college), what program to study, their career path. Their teacher told me the pressure they were feeling was driven by both external and internal forces.

I’m grateful for parents who were always supportive of my decision to pursue a job in journalism–which is kind of a big deal when you consider I was raised by two hard-working immigrant parents. They were both willing to look beyond the popular options of accountant, doctor and lawyer to see there was a storyteller in me. However, that didn’t stop me from applying unnecessary pressure on myself to perform. I had my one, three, five and ten year plans all worked out…

…but those plans never seem to take into account one oft-overlooked fact: life happens. My plan didn’t factor in multiple moves across the country or layoffs or delays–the unforeseen things that *seemed* to slow me down. Eventually, I learned I didn’t have to have it all figured out–no one does. Anyone who says they do have it all figured out is lying to you (and themselves, for that matter).

My faith also helps me cope with the ups and downs, valleys and peaks. Knowing God’s plans for me are–and have always been–good means I don’t have to worry (Jer. 29:11). The delays and disappointments become opportunities to grow and gain perspective. It’s what I tell students now when we talk about life after school: it’s about the journey, not the destination. So, I’m rejecting perfectionism for processing, because this process I’m going through is a beautiful thing, and choosing faith over fear so I don’t succumb to the pressure of thinking I need to have every step all figured out.

What sets your soul on fire

Have you ever been on a trip where the focus wasn’t so much on the destination, but on the journey? For me, that trip was Israel in February 2018. It was my first time in the country and it was amazing. There’s something invigorating about seeing all the places you’ve read about all your life: suddenly everything was alive in a way it had never been before.

But the trip wasn’t just about going to Israel. Rather, it was about everything I’d been through that lead to me being there. Up until late 2016, I’d spent nearly seven years searching for answers: what do I believe and why. I won’t get into the answers to those questions in this post. In the end, though, I returned to the faith of my childhood, but in a more meaningful way. This time, it was personal.

One of the key questions I grappled with as I moved into the next phase of my journey was purpose: why am I here? Why do I do what I do? What motivates me to get out of bed every morning? I remember taking part in a panel a few years ago and the question of purpose came up: why are you a journalist? One of the panelists (a journalist in Vancouver) said many people in news often talk about how much they love telling stories, they love meeting people, but, he said, the reason you’re in this business has to be–and likely is–deeper than that. The problem, he said, is we often don’t connect with that deeper meaning.

At the time, I remember feeling so offended by his response. How dare you criticize my shallow way of thinking, I thought. You don’t know me! Now, years later, I have to admit he was right.

I am still defining my why. The more I do the things that set my soul on fire, the clearer it becomes. The closer I get to my why, the less I care about money or status, the more my inner circle shrinks. The closer I get, the more I transform, becoming more of the person I want to be. The whole process is rather uncomfortable, but no less inspiring. The more I do the things that connect with that deeper sense of purpose, the more life comes into focus.

The 6 Tips I share with every young woman I meet.

I don’t remember too many of the guest speakers who came to speak to my classmates and I when we were in high school. So, whenever I’m invited to a school, I seize the opportunity to give to them what I wished someone had given me: honest advice.

For the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at an all girls Catholic school in Vancouver. There’s something about speaking to a room full of smart, beautiful young girls: they’re at a critical stage when they need to hear nothing but support, encouragement and wisdom from the generation before them. My hope and prayer is to be one of those voices.

Life itself is full of ups and downs but, in this industry, the highs are high and the lows are low. Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy the highs and survive the lows—but it hasn’t always been easy. Most of the students I speak to don’t plan on pursuing a career in journalism, but the principles I share with them are timeless and transcend the sector I’m in. I’ve boiled them down to my top 6 tips:

Be Good at Networking. Sometimes, it really is about who you know. Don’t be sleeping on that LinkedIn profile! Don’t ever let fear hold you back from introducing yourself to that person in the room who you think is at a level much higher than you! You never know who might be the divine connection to help you get from where you are now to where you need to be.

Be A Risk-taker. Step outside of your comfort zone. Do it early and do it often. So many people limit their success because they’re too afraid of the what if’s. Don’t be held back by a fear of the unknown.

Be Fearless. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Don’t shy away from change or challenge. Don’t dwell in mediocrity because you’re too afraid to go, to do or to be. Start something new. Do something no one else has done before…and do it boldly.

Be Focused. Most people don’t know this, but I begin my day with prayer. In this life, there are so many things thrown our way and I have no idea what tomorrow holds. My faith in God through Christ is my firm foundation: no matter how rough the storm, I know I will *always* come out better on the other side. Prayer keeps me focused on what matters: connecting me with my divine purpose and keeping me on the straight and narrow path.

Be Prepared for Setbacks. They are going to come—I can guarantee it. Something will be thrown your way and, if you aren’t ready for it, it could destabilize you. One of my favourite Bible verses is Romans 8:28: “all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.” All things—even the bad things—work out for my good. I learned this lesson firsthand after I lost my job, but got a new one that I didn’t even go looking for: they came looking for me. So, have faith in God: your setbacks could be setting you up for success.

Be Your Biggest Investor. Your teachers will invest in you, your parents will pour into you…but make sure you are investing in yourself. Upgrade your skills by taking a few courses, go back to school for that degree, or take that much needed break you’ve been postponing (because resting is investing!). Spend the time, money and energy needed to ensure you’re the best you can be.