Find a Good Story. Tell it in a Good Way.
When Joanna Chiu enrolled in Freelance Writing: Introduction at UBC Extended Learning, she wasn't committed to being a journalist. Today, she’s deputy bureau chief at Star Vancouver and a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Joanna Chiu sits with me in a coffee shop on a busy corner in Vancouver’s Gastown, hands wrapped around a porcelain cup of espresso. She keeps her wool taupe jacket on, as though she might need to sprint back to her office across the street.
It's not unlikely. As the deputy bureau chief at Star Vancouver, deadlines drive Joanna's day, and today is an especially busy one in the newsroom.
Ignoring her naysayers
Just a few years ago, Joanna wasn't sure she wanted to be a journalist. As Joanna explains, "When I graduated in 2010 with a degree in history from UBC, it was in the midst of the economic crisis. I was thinking of being a journalist, but some people discouraged me, saying I wouldn't make a lot of money." Ignoring her naysayers, she enrolled in Freelance Writing: Introduction at UBC Extended Learning.
For Joanna, the part-time evening format was an ideal way to figure out if she had a future in journalism. "I wanted a course without a lot of academic theory or concepts. I wanted to know exactly what I needed to do to make money as a journalist, sell pieces, pitch editors and find ideas that sell. And I wanted to learn in a classroom environment without committing to a full-time master's program."
Taught by award-winning CBC reporter and producer Jennifer Van Evra, Freelance Writing focuses on exactly that. And Joanna, like many of Jennifer’s students, has found success under Jennifer's tutelage. "As a result of the course, I published my first freelance article in The Georgia Straight. Quickly, I actually got paid for writing, and Jennifer gave me the support I needed when I was pitching stories."
Adds Joanna, "Jennifer was amazing. Assignments were practical and each one was different, and the feedback she gave was helpful and encouraging. She had magazine editors come speak to our class to talk about negotiating rates and handling the business side of journalism. The course gave me such a good grounding."
New York calling
Her success in Jennifer's class didn't end there. "When I signed up I wasn't committed to pursuing journalism. I didn't think it was possible. The course gave me the confidence to book a ticket to New York to search for job opportunities," says Joanna. She landed an internship at The Nation, and eventually applied and was accepted to the master's program at the prestigious Columbia Journalism School.
After graduating, Joanna wanted to meld journalism with her passion for and interest in history and human rights. She travelled to Asia and spent seven years as a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing, working for publications like South China Morning Post, The Economist and Agence France-Presse, covering China human rights and social affairs. She returned to Vancouver in the summer of 2018 to take a position at Star Vancouver.
Despite the erosion of news departments, presidential attacks on mass media and what some might call the dumbing down of news, Joanna is optimistic about the future of journalism.
"I'm really inspired by the work I get to do now [at Star Vancouver]. When we write a story, we want to have a solutions angle, and [explain] what can change. As a result of our reporting, schools are paying attention to lead in water fountains, for example. We do a lot of reporting on climate change and corruption in Canada."
Joanna looks down at her phone once in a while, apologizing for the interruptions. I feel grateful that she's spent 45 minutes with me with all that's happening in her newsroom today. In many ways, she represents the new face of journalism: young, multicultural and bilingual, internationally mobile and digitally savvy. Yet her values are rooted in the lessons she learned in Freelance Writing.
"Jennifer's passion for news really translated in her course. Her approach to journalism and the way she communicated the purpose of journalism were very humble.
"Find a good story. Tell it in a good way."