March 22, 2011

By PAIGE ELLIS

STAFF REPORTER

Maintaining a balance between life and work is challenging but it also helps journalists produce better stories, media professionals told Ryerson students attending a panel discussion entitled “Balancing Bosses, Babies and Blogs.”

“No one should be defined entirely by their jobs and good journalists should have a life,” Suanne Kelman, a journalist and acting chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, advised the crowd of about 120 journalism students, faculty and members of the public.

“It’s important to spend time, a lot of time, with people who are not journalists. Normal people, because they are your audience.”

Panellists participating in the March 22 “Women in the Field” symposium, organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, sounded off on the challenges of juggling their many roles – reporter, parent, friend and partner.

Kelman warned that if reporters aren’t careful, work can consume their lives. “You’ll wake up one day and realize that you’re 43-years-old, have no kids, no friends and no hobbies.”

She added that while women may want it all – a successful career, a happy marriage and a house full of children – employers have other priorities. Journalists just starting out in the business, she warned, have to earn the right to have a say when it comes to work schedules.

“If you’re new and go to your boss and ask to leave at 5 o’clock, after they’re done laughing at you, they will fire you.”

Kelman also recounted a conversation she had with Robert Hurst, the former head of CTV News and Current Affairs. “[He] said he’s not happy with the journalists Ryerson is sending him because they don’t have that fire in the belly,” she recalled. “[He said] they aren’t willing to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

But for parents, that kind of schedule is impossible.

Philip Preville, a Toronto-based freelance writer and father of three young boys, said achieving work-life balance means sometimes having to say no to projects. “When you don’t have kids, and an editor calls with an assignment and needs you to drop what you’re doing, you say yes because you don’t know when another call will come. Now I have to say no.”

Anne-Marie Mediwake, co-host of CBC News Toronto and the mother of triplets, said she also struggled with refusing an assignment last year when she was asked her to cover the Vancouver Olympics. She said she couldn’t leave her husband alone with the kids for four weeks, but she was also nervous about declining the offer. “I thought ‘if I say no, will they ask me again?’ ”

Laura DiBattista, the host of CBC radio’s Here and Now and the panel moderator, said that as a young mother, she was often overwhelmed by her dual role as parent and journalist. Eventually, the juggling act became too much and she had to ask for permission to leave work at 5 p.m. “I saw looks from coworkers when I got up to leave early like ‘oh, you get to leave now.’”

The tension in the audience was palpable as the discussion proceeded, with students exchanging looks of concern and anxiety.

The mood lightened, however, when an audience member asked the panellists if journalism is worth all the hard work and sacrifice and they all talked of their love for the business.

“There are good parts to journalism too,” DiBattista reassured the crowd. “Every day is completely different…. If you have a hungry mind, journalism does feed that.”

Carly Foster, a community magazine publisher in Uxbridge, Ont., and the mother of two girls, said that being a parent helped her with her journalism. “I was able to bond with readers about having to change my baby on top of a Tim Hortons table because there were no change tables,” she said, referring to her blog on parenting issues. “I was able to meld motherhood and journalism together.”

The journalists also tackled the issue of when to have kids. Preville suggested that perhaps having children at a young age is the best approach. “In my mid-thirties I met a man who was going to be an empty nester at 40,” he said. “Maybe that’s the way to do it.”

DiBattista said she put off having children for eight years after marriage because she wanted to build her career. When she was finally ready to have kids, she only had one, a decision that she said was also “career-driven.”

Mediwake observed that there is no perfect formula for when to have kids. “They’re always going to cost money and chew up time,” she said. “You just have to jump in with two feet and make it work.”

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