If you’ve been following along, you probably know I recently graduated from uOttawa’s Digital Journalism program. This weekend while I was cleaning up my computer and freeing some memory, I came across my old “Interview with a Journalist” assignment from one of my classes.
It’s a pretty common assignment for student journalists; an opportunity to practice interviewing and take in some wisdom from a boots-on-the-ground industry vet at the same time. I wrote my assignment on Carleton Place municipal councillor (and my former Managing Editor at Metroland) Theresa Fritz, who died suddenly in January 2021.
We didn’t know each other all that well. I was probably a passing blip on her radar, to be honest, but that just goes to show that she was the kind of person who leaves a lasting impression.
Theresa and I kept in touch after I completed an internship in her newsroom in 2017. She sparked my deep appreciation for community news and was well-known for her dedication to her own community. She had so much integrity and passion for doing the right thing; I enjoyed bouncing ideas and opinions around with her on Facebook and discussing current events. She left behind a great legacy in journalism, politics and just being an all-around fantastic human being, so she was my natural choice for this assignment. It was supposed to be a 30-minute interview, but we ended up talking for hours about her transition from journalism to the political field, Canada’s changing journalism landscape, the impact of the widespread closures of community newspapers and the value of community news in general.
When I heard Theresa had passed away, I didn’t know what to say that could possibly illustrate the person she was. Turns out, I had already said it. Reading her words again feels somewhat bittersweet, but they mean a lot to me and I wanted to share them with you. I tried to do as little editing as possible, so please note that the following was written in April 2018:
When Managing Editor Theresa Fritz arrived at work at Metroland Ottawa East on Nov. 27, 2017, she had no idea her world was about to tilt on its axis. That day, Torstar would announce a non-cash transaction with Postmedia that would close nine Ottawa newspapers and cost nearly 90 people their jobs.
A hush fell over the newsroom. Looking back, Fritz recalls a heavy air of shock and a lot of tears that day. “We were all walking around like the walking dead for a while,” she says. “It felt like a punch in the gut.”
Metroland Ottawa East was responsible for several community papers including the Kanata Kourier-Standard, Nepean/Barrhaven News, Orleans News, Ottawa East News, Ottawa South News, Ottawa West News, Stittsville News and the West Carleton Review, all of which were to cease publication on Jan. 5, 2018.
Fritz says the real kicker was that they would have to keep putting out papers until then.
“We had one reporter who was going on maternity leave, one who was getting married, one who had just gotten married and had bought a new car the day before,” she says. “So many people in different stages of their lives, basically being told that their lives were about to end. But we still had to do our jobs.”
Fritz took the gut punch with dignity. She was determined to keep the morale as high as possible in the newsroom, so the content wouldn’t suffer, and their readers would not be disappointed. She told her reporters that they should go out on a high note, that this should be about celebrating their work and putting out the quality stories they’ve always produced. Fritz says she’s proud to say her team worked hard until the very last day.
Fifteen eastern Ontario newspapers were shut down following the deal. Postmedia acquired 26 properties from Torstar in the exchange, while Torstar acquired 17 from Postmedia. Postmedia closed 24 of the 26 papers they acquired, including the Metroland papers and Metro Ottawa. Fritz said the deal affected the whole province, but it hit Ottawa especially hard because they had so many papers in one market.
“Metro Ottawa shared an office with us,” Fritz recalls. “They were marched out of the building that day. No time. No notice. We at least had some notice, some time to say goodbye. But they didn’t.”
After three months of unemployment, Fritz began a new job at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as an editor on Mar. 3, 2018. She says she’s excited for the opportunity to use her writing and editing skills in new and challenging ways, but in her heart she’s still a journalist and would never have changed a thing about her career.
“I think journalism provides you with a number of portable skills, from being comfortable in a room full of people you don’t know, to communication skills and being able to sell yourself,” says Fritz. “These skills are what allowed me to start a new chapter in my working life.”
Although she loved being a journalist, Fritz says she sought a job with the government after Metroland was shut down because she couldn’t bear to put herself through that again. Fritz had gone through a similar ordeal when she worked for eight years at Performance Printing, who oversaw the EMC newspapers in Kanata, Stittsville, Arnprior and West Carleton. Metroland purchased Performance Printing in 2011, and although there were some job losses as a result Fritz says it was nothing like the magnitude of the Postmedia-Torstar deal in 2017.
Fritz says she has always done her best to make sure young journalists understand you should become a journalist because it’s what you love, not for the money.
“Unfortunately, journalism is grossly underpaid no matter how high up the totem pole you go,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s definitely about the passion.”
That passion was exactly what drew Fritz to community news.
Shortly after graduating from J-school at Carleton University in 1985, Fritz got her first job as a reporter at the Trentonian, a Thompson-owned tri-weekly paper in Trenton, Ont. She was 23. From there Fritz went to Runge Newspapers, a small chain in the Ottawa Valley that oversaw the Almonte Gazette and the Carleton Place Canadian, where she worked as a reporter for about a year and then moved up to associate editor for six years. Then she began working at Performance Printing, which eventually became Metroland, and Fritz worked as News Editor of the West Carleton Review for a year. She was offered the position of managing editor at Metroland Ottawa East in 2013, where she worked until the papers closed in early January 2018.
Fritz says working in community news offers a level of intimacy you don’t necessarily get from working for larger publications like the Globe and Mail, CBC or even the Toronto Star.
“You can have the best of everything,” she says. “My personal interest has always been hard news and police court and crime. You can do a bit of everything. You can do the hard news and you can do the features.”
But Fritz says the thing she truly loved about working for a community newspaper was the relationships she developed with her readers.
“They open up to you, they tell you their stories, they put a lot of trust in you,” she says. “And sometimes that might mean you have to answer for it in the grocery store, but you don’t get that kind of rapport with bigger papers. You’re representing the people who live there. Their friends, their neighbours, their lives.”
Fritz believes that community news is sure to suffer as more and more small papers are shut down and print publications lose resources to the digitization of journalism. She says as news moves from print pages to the internet, it becomes difficult to monetize them through advertising.
“Community news is suffering, not only from the perspective that you don’t have journalists writing those great little community stories that would otherwise be ignored, but for journalists,” says Fritz. “We had so many people coming through our doors, whether they were student interns or people looking to start up their careers. You have lots of opportunities to learn on the fly with community news.”
Fritz says Ontario and Quebec are being hit the hardest by the drastic changes facing Canadian journalism, but that the closing of community papers by Torstar and Postmedia was part of a bigger plan to allocate more resources to the things they do well – like the larger dailies – by cutting off the papers that weren’t part of their core market.
Although the fundamental skills of being a journalist –interviewing and reporting – have not changed, according to Fritz there have been significant changes in the industry since her career began. The job is still about asking the right questions, taking notes and telling stories, but Fritz says the changes are mostly related to technology and pace.
“When I first became a journalist, we did cut and paste layout on layout flats and it was much more hands on. It was almost like arts and crafts, it was very time consuming,” she says. “Now we do all our layout on computers, and we use content management systems instead of typing everything up on word. Even photography. You’d go to a scene and shoot away, just praying that you got something good on film. Now we use digital cameras.”
Online news sites and social media have changed the way consumers get their information. This means that journalists must sometimes sacrifice quality for speed, which is why many publications have adapted a “web first, print best” model. Fritz says there is more time to finesse and add more detail for a print story than there is for something you’re going to want online in the next hour.
Another substantial change Fritz has noticed has been the level of competition journalists entering the industry face these days.
“You have your big players, you have your dailies, your TV and radio stations, then your smaller outfits. The consumer definitely has more choice about where they’re going to get their information,” says Fritz. “Newsrooms have shrunk over the years. There have been layoffs, cuts being made. There are not that many journalists to go around now, because there aren’t as many jobs. That’s why so many journalists are going into communications, they’re taking those skills and using them in another way.”
Fritz says that social media and an oversaturation of online news has also given birth to the “fake news era,” something journalists didn’t have to worry about years ago when trusted print publications were the most common way to consume news. This means journalists must make an extra effort to be factual and accountable in their work.
According to Fritz, there are a whole new host of skills that journalists entering the field must be armed with to get an edge on the competition in this constantly-evolving industry. She says being flexible and open to change are two of the most important traits a journalist must have in today’s climate, aside from being social media-savvy and knowing how to increase your online readership. Perhaps most importantly, you must also be willing to relocate.
“You have to be able to multitask,” Fritz adds. “It’s no longer a case of going out, covering something and that’s your day. You have to be able to turn things around fast. You have to make yourself valuable. Even if it’s not your first love, sometimes you have to be willing to go in a different direction. It’s a challenging time. But communication and writing are such great skills to have; if you have them, you have a lot to work with.”
Following the closure of Ottawa’s community newspapers, Fritz says quite a few independent online community news sources have cropped up as an attempt to fill the void. However, she worries that these stories will be lost among the flood of trending global topics and “Buzzfeed journalism” that clogs readers’ feeds.
Despite this, Fritz firmly believes newspapers will have a future. For the most part, she says that the online news landscape does not care about community news and that these online news sites do not replace local community newspapers.
“I don’t think they’re going to be gone any time soon,” she says. “Just speaking about Ontario, I think there are less of them than there have ever been. But they do fill a niche. They fill a market.”
Fritz believes journalists will always be needed. Whether you’re working for an online or a print publication, for a radio or a television station, someone must cover the news. As Fritz says, “content is not just going to find its way onto some website somewhere,” someone must put it there. That’s the work of a journalist, and Fritz says producing honest, factual and engaging content and having a willingness to be held accountable is what sets a true journalist apart from citizen journalists and bloggers.
“I think journalism, as a whole, is still alive and well,” says Fritz. “What it’s becoming is different than we ever could have imagined, but if journalists can adapt to the way the industry is changing I think there will always be a place for journalism. I still think it’s the best job going.”
© Victoria St. Michael, 2021
Rest In Peace, Theresa. You are missed by many.