Gwendolyn Richards is a graduate of the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia Masters’ program and was a reporter for the Calgary Herald (2004-2016). She is now a freelance food writer, columnist, and author. Her first book, Pucker: A cookbook for Citrus Lovers, was published in 2014.
When applying for university, I knew I didn’t want to do anymore math that I didn’t understand. So, half of my applications went out to universities with a business major, [but] then I had this epiphany and the other half went out for a writing major.
I decided to go to the University of Victoria, and they offered a writing program that had fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting and so on, including a journalism component. So, I signed up for the journalism classes not knowing that was going to end up being a passion for me.
After graduation, I started working for small town newspapers on various work terms, and that’s when I really came to understand that was where I wanted to go.
At that time I had no reason to believe that journalism was going anywhere. There was a bunch of us in school, and we’re all still friends, and of all of us that took all the same courses. I’m the only one that became a journalist.
My first actual newsroom was in Dawson Creek and it was a work term. It was actually a daily up there, which was pretty crazy. I was really just terrified, but within the first day or two I had to write a story. Everyone had to produce, and you could actually go into a room and overlook the printing press and I was able to watch my first story literally roll off the presses.
I would give my younger self the advice to shoot higher. I probably could have tried harder to get into those bigger dailies, but I sort of felt like I was only really prepared for small town news.
I actually went back and got my master’s in journalism at UBC, not because I felt like I needed more schooling, but I knew that the connections I made in that program were going to launch me into bigger, better markets.
My biggest learned skill is that you have every right to be there and get the story. Early on in my career, I kind of let a few board members of various boards or whatever tell me what I should be covering and what I shouldn’t be covering, and I see now that they had no right to do that.
One of my most memorable stories was at the Vancouver Sun. I was just an intern, and there was a story about a salmon seiner — a fishing boat — flipping, and it killed five members of a family. It was awful, two kids died, but it was the first time where the editors said, ‘You’re on this story, you cover it.’
Later in my career, my empathy proved to be very helpful. I’m just really overly-sensitive. I covered crime for a long time before becoming a food writer, and that meant talking to a lot of people in some of the worst moments of their lives.
I would say the disappearing number of jobs has been the most significant change I have noticed in journalism. It’s distressing because I think the mentality around news is shifted, everyone saying “fake news” this and “bias” that. But I don’t think people realize what they’re losing by not supporting journalism. They are losing that chance to hold organizations and companies accountable.
For future journalists, I would say no story is below you, because no matter what you’re covering, you’re either going to learn something from the material, or in a way that you have to work in a quote, or the way that you interview someone and [then] realize there was a different question you should’ve asked, so always take those opportunities to grow.
The journalism world still has a ways to go in terms of positioning women into management roles in newsrooms, editors, editors-in-chief, managing editors, the ones that are making the strategic decisions around coverage. I think that once we see a shift in that, it will do the world of journalism a lot of good.
I always wanted to write a book, and I always wanted to be a fiction writer, but it turns out I am not good at making stuff up, which is why I’m a good journalist. I can’t even lie if I tried. I’d been food-writing for a little while, and I thought I should try [it]. I had to tell a story just through the recipes.
As told to Casey Richardson. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
This article is part of a series of profiles on industry professionals through the Calgary Journal. To see more like this, visit the On the Job page.
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