Women Who Lead – Leading at the Edge of Journalism

When I first met my guest this week, Mary Ellen Southwick, she was a newspaper reporter for the Telegraph-Journal in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Over the past eight years, I have watched her rapid rise in her field of journalism, starting from covering local news to her current role as digital news producer for the Calgary Herald, a member of the Postmedia organization. As a journalist, Mary Ellen has been part of one of the most rapidly changing professions in the world. When she left university ten years ago, television, radio and print were very much distinct channels. Journalists would select their preferred media, and continue their career often remaining in their chosen medium for the entire duration of that career. Now role the camera forward a decade and all of these channels are integrated into multi-platform news broadcasting. Mary Ellen reports international, national and city news using multiple platforms involving all forms of social media tools including Facebook, Instagram, Livestreaming, and of course the web. As a news editor, she has gone from one way newsprint communication that went out twice a day into mass interactive media that moves out of pace that would spin your head. There is one factor however that remains the hallmark of whatever Mary Allen does, and that is the fact that she is a professional journalist bound by the principles and values of public service, objectivity, autonomy, immediacy and ethics that defined her as much as they do the profession. Now, there’s no coincidence in the similarity of our last names, Mary Ellen is indeed my daughter-in-law. Her leadership in the field of journalism would’ve made her prime candidate as a guest on this show. However, what keeps the scales for me was when I witnessed her transition from a yearlong maternity leave back to work. Well the majority of this interview is about leadership and journalism. I did want to capture what it’s like in today’s world juggling a serious career and a new baby. Ever journalist, Mary Ellen was resolute that we ensure, you the audience, you understand her views on motherhood o a personal and not intended to be interpreted as a preferred path. Having a child is a choice, and one that many women choose not to take. There is no good or bad, write or wrong in this decision, it is what each woman determines is best for her. We’re all busy people. Now, for working moms, there’s no such thing as quiet time. So I found Mary Ellen at home in Calgary taking care of my granddaughter, Norah Penn, on a precious day off from work. For this reason, you may hear a little voice and play sounds in the background. Well I wish that I have been there with them, I actually recorded this interview while in Toronto.

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Lesley:  Hello Mary Ellen Southwick!


Mary Ellen: Hi!


Lesley: I’m interviewing you as you’re doing your other job today aside from being a top news producer. You are home with this wonderful being called Norah Penn and she pipes up during this interview, we’ll know it’s our 11th month old who is joining into the conversation.


Mary Ellen: She has a lot to say for sure.


Lesley:  Well she’s a next generation, man. So as soon we understand exactly what she’s saying then it’s going to be even more interesting.


Mary Ellen: Maybe someone could go to…


Lesley:  Exactly. Well I’m really delighted that I have a chance to talk to a mom who has given birth 11 months ago to this beautiful daughter of yours, and I am catching you on one of your two days off during a very hectic week. And you were so kind to give me some space while this is happening, but this is the life of a working mom, isn’t it?


Mary Ellen: It is. It’s balancing a lot of different things at once.


Lesley:  Yes it was. And so that’s why that we’re actually doing it in real life as supposed to  you trying to find a quiet moment and that doesn’t happen in your life, so we’re just going to go with both of you.


Mary Ellen: Great. No quiet moments for new moms.


Lesley: Well we’re going to get into that whole decision about having children and how you’ve been adjusting to that, because you are a definite up-and-comer in the world of journalism. And you move very quickly from print media to become a digital news producer, and so this is why I wanted to capture your insights about the profession of journalism. Ten years ago you graduated in journalism and it was print media that you started off going into. What happened as you were going to the university in terms of the changes you were starting to see in the field of journalism?


Mary Ellen: You know, it really happened throughout my early career, when I started out it was all about the print product. You know, there was an online website but it just really published the newspaper online. When I went to university, I still looked up all my reading materials online. I still read books. I divide my textbooks and I didn’t bring a laptop to class. All of these things kind of evolved as I was in university and was starting out, they all happened really quickly. I remember when I was probably in my first year of journalism I joined Facebook which is a really new thing, and there had been a really bad crime that happened in St. John. And I tracked down the family members on Facebook, and people were asking me, “How did you find the family?” And I was like, “Oh I used Facebook.” They’re like, “What is Facebook?” And it became a really important tool for journalists to get in contact with people. And now it’s becoming a really important tool for us to get our stories out there to a lot of people, so that’s just one example of how things have changed so quickly.


Lesley:  Well, when you entered the field, what was it that through you to becoming a journalist?


Mary Ellen: You know, I was always really talkative just like my daughter and always like to tell stories. And I was really interested in the world around me, and why things happen a certain way and how they influenced people. And I just really wanted to be a storyteller. And I wanted to make a difference and the way that I could make a difference is using what I’m good at, telling stories, and informing the public because I love asking questions. And I love knowing as much information about things as possible, so I just really wanted to share that with the world.


Lesley: You are one of the most curious people I know and you ask the most interesting questions when you interviewed me to become a mother-in-law. I’ve been interviewed thousands of times, but you ask some of the most tricky questions I think I’ve ever experienced because you’re truly curious. It’s not that you put on a curiosity, you are curious from the inside out.


Mary Ellen: Um hm. I did do a lot of internet stalking of you before I met you.


Lesley: So you definitely have the tools, right?


Mary Ellen: Yeah. I’ve read some of your old speeches. I was really preparing myself for a meeting, so the internet has helped me even in that facet.


Lesley: Well, you know, I think about how in ten years you’ve gone from covering news in a small community in New Brunswick, through to becoming the digital news producer for a major news organization in Canada. What would you say were the key components to that rapid rise?


Mary Ellen: Even though I am a millennial, I think, I’ve classified as a millennial. I’m caught somewhere in between. So, you know, my journey has been more straightforward than I think a lot of younger people these days have to juggle with. You know, I got a job right out of the university. I worked hard to move up, and I took opportunities when they came. And I just kept trying to do the best I could and move up. And I had worked in a really small town in New Brunswick which is really interesting. Worked in courts in New Brunswick covering big cases, and then I became city editor. You know, I was sitting at my desk, drawing out the newspaper what the newspaper was going to look like. It looked actually using an old ruler and you draw where the picture is going to go, and I’m like trying to make the headline fit in the hole. And I’m like thinking, “I don’t think these skills are going to carry me on.” I’m wondering, “Am I in a job that’s not going to exist?” You know, I applied to the Calgary Herald as a web editor and I just went for it because I thought I need skills that are going to last. If I have a family and that sort of thing, I need a job that’s going to last. I need to learn how to do things the way that they’re going to be done, not the way that they were done.


Lesley:  So let’s just talk about that because when you applied for this job it was a very hotly pursued opportunity. It was in a major Canadian city at the time really economically booming, a major news organization. And here you are, you’re doing great as a city editor in St. John’s but all of a sudden you applied for this big job and you get it. So, I hear it’s because it was how you approached getting that job, what were your keys to success?


Mary Ellen: I think that my keys to success were having a unique cover letter and resume, where instead of just saying what I’ve done like “I’m a journalist. I worked years and I feel I gave examples of how I had quickly…” Really working hard and coming up with new ideas and trying those ideas out, and I really wanted a job. I think that that makes a big difference. I really wanted to be a web editor, and I really work at the Calgary Herald. And even if I didn’t have the online skills that they were really looking for, I think I established that I could learn them because I pick things up quickly and I try hard. That’s really what I wanted to do. With journalism, it’s like if you have a news instinct to really want to make a difference, it doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in. Those are the qualities that really make a difference. And so, I think I have these qualities and I think I let them know that.


Lesley: Well, obviously you did because here you are as now the digital news producer, and you were working with multiple platforms which you’re learning about every day. I mean let’s just take livestreaming from Facebook that’s coming in. Recently it was a major piece in a story, what do you do with this new media start to come forward? And here you are a trustworthy new source…


Mary Ellen: Um hm. I think you can use Facebook livestreaming in lots of different ways, it’s really interesting. I personally really like how it shows up in my Facebook, it’s like “This is happening right now” like that’s really exciting to me as a journalist. I think there’s two ways that it’s going to be used. One is, people are capturing stories as they happen and those are being shared widespread. And so, journalist can use that to follow up on the story and tell the story in a new way. And also, we’re using it to give people information right away, like when there’s a news conference for broadcasting it live. You know, if you’re going out to a scene or an even, you can broadcast it live and people are… You know, the way Facebook live works, people comment in real-time. And so, it provides the ability for people to not just watch it in front of their TVs but to talk about it while they’re watching it and to have conversations about that. You know, I really think that that matters because it’s not just sitting at home, watching TV or reading a story in a paper that is going to make a difference. It’s important dialogue and conversations within a community that really make a difference.


Lesley:  They used to be TV, film, print, audio. I mean all of those things were separate organizations level of departments, now you are producing all as a single distributor, a single editor. How do you decide what goes on, what platform?


Mary Ellen: There’s no recipe, I guess, you just have to go with what you think people want and where they want it. You can use metrics which really help, but at the end of the day you just have to go with your gut. And I use what I’m interested in, and I think about what my parents are interested in and what you’re interested in, and I put it out to the platforms that I think will catch people’s interest. Just using my kind of basic journalistic…


Lesley: And I think that’s what you’re really commenting on as a journalist has an innate instinct. I mean that’s what gets you into the profession and the media that you use is strictly a vehicle that lets you get it out there. How do you produce news to be interactive?


Mary Ellen: Well, there are so many different ways nowadays. You can do within a story you have photos, videos. You know, while the story is unfolding, you put tweets in the story, you can put Facebook comments. Or if like you’re doing a story and the Mayor commented to drop that Facebook post. You can do live chats where you talk to people about the news event that’s going on. There’s just so many ways and I’m sure that like in a month or in a year, two years, those ways are going to be different and everything is just exciting.


Lesley: It was just like the news is going live so as your profession going live. So since this is a program about leadership, how do you define leadership in your field as a digital news producer, as a journalist? What’s leadership to you?


Mary Ellen: I think, leadership to me look like really inspires me and leaders are journalists who don’t just do the daily stories but really go after stories that are going to make a huge difference and make a difference to the people in the community. It’s easy just to go to every press conference and report on things that are happening, but it really takes initiative and patience to go after those bigger stories that need to uncover, and dig the stories that create change. So when I see journalists do that, I really feel like that is leadership. And also, there’s leadership in the editors that we have that really take the time to teach us and guide us to the process and make us better, because you kind of all start off at the bottom and it’s a learning experience and you get better and grow every day. You know, I look back at stories I wrote ten years ago, and I think, “Oh my goodness.” There are key people throughout my career that have really affected me by their honesty. Journalists are honest and they’re known for kind of brutal criticisms. We have to take criticisms from the public all the time, and so you kind of have to have a thick skin. You know, just a couple of months into my first internship and one of my editors called me into his office, and he said, “Do you think you’re doing a good job?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, you’re not. You’ve made all these mistakes and your grammar is not that great. You need to get better.” And I was like a little shocked, and so I said, “Thanks.” And then I left and I went outside for a minute, and I thought, and I came back in and said, “Can I meet with you again?” And he said, “Sure.” And I said, “You know, I don’t want to be bad. I’m not okay with that, so can you help me? Let’s do something to make me good. If I’m bad I want to be good, so how do I get there?” And so he really took the time to go over every story I wrote and show me I could improve it. And just like journalist that take the time to do those sorts of things for you, they make a huge impact on your life and your career. And I’ll always remember that moment and be really grateful, and there have been so many editors after that that has really provided leadership to me to help me grow.


Lesley: well, I think that’s so important and it’s how we take those moments when we get back on this feedback. What we do next is what makes the difference between us as leaders and us simply staying where we are. So, as tough as that is, what has gone through your mind as you stood outside, you obviously was able to take the charge. So, let’s just go to one of the major changes because in the course of this interview, Norah has gone from singing and playing to wrap around you and falling asleep. Here is another change in your life that you have taken on with the same gusto as you have your career. How did you decide as a working professional, going very quickly up the ladder to decide to take the time at that moment to have a child?


Mary Ellen: You know I’ve always put a lot of effort into my career, but deep down in my heart I always thought of my family as first and thought of the people that I surround myself as the most important. I grew up with my great grandmother who lived with me, and I used to visit her after she moved into a retirement home. I used to visit her every day. And when you talk to people that are kind of in their 90s and kind about the end of their lives, they really only talk about the people they love and the people who love them back, their kids, their grandkids. They don’t talk about their careers, or where they lived, or anything, “It’s just my grandson did this and my kid did this.” You know, early on, I realized that’s what’s important in life. That’s my goal. My goal is to have a family that I love and that loves me back. And that’s why I married your son, and that’s why I had Norah, because I just really wanted a family to love and to care of, and I wanted those relationships that kind of make your life worth living.


Lesley:  And so, was there a particular time when you felt that it was right in your career? What was it about, what was going on in your career that seems to invite that moment in to think about a family?


Mary Ellen: You know, there wasn’t really anything that just made me want to do it, it just seemed like the right moment. We do not talk about it, and we really wanted to have a baby. It just happened for us at the same time when we were like, “You know, now is the right time for us. We’ve done a lot of traveling. We’ve moved up in our careers.  We feel like something is missing. “ and that something was definitely Norah.


Lesley: So, you had Norah a year ago, June 18. And I want to know, as you left your job to go into a year’s maternity, is there any sense of “Oh my gosh I’m going to miss this.” or it was just anticipation for what was coming next?


Mary Ellen: I didn’t think I was going to miss it so much because I knew I like I would stay immersed in journalism… We’ve talked about, you know, one day is twitter, the next day it’s Facebook, the next is Instagram. And so I thought I can come back and everything could be completely different. But, again, being with my daughter was the most important thing to me, and that year with her was something that is a journey that was amazing. Seeing someone just go from being this little baby that can’t do anything into this little girl who shows emotions, and plays, and grows, it’s amazing. It not only helps you be a mother, but I think it helps you be a leader and it helps you be better at your job because you just… I don’t know. I just feel more complete.


Lesley:  Okay. I think that’s the key here is that something felt missing even though you couldn’t put your finger on it and discovered that it was this little one. And so, you know, a lot of observation by those who may not have the decision to do so. You know, like, “Are you not going to be not as good at your job because you’re going to be distracted. You’re going to be wondering about what’s going on in daycare. You’re going to be having to leave early for doctor’s appointments.” I mean there’s this type of challenge that working moms and dads have. What’s your retort to that?


Mary Ellen: Well I think it’s individual thing, it’s like anything. It’s like however you go about it. I don’t it makes me less at my job, I still care as much as I always did and I still work really hard. It just becomes, you know, you have more to look for to when you get home. Like throughout the day I’m really immersed in my job, and then the second I’m done I’m like, “Oh my God I got to see Norah.” And so I’m so excited, it’s sort of just there’s different facet. I don’t think that it impedes my ability to do my job. I don’t know if people are even thinking that these days. I hope we’ve moved beyond that and that most workplaces understand that allowing people to have a family, and allowing mothers to stay home with their children for a year.


Lesley: This show is broadcast into the States where 12 weeks is the norm. And I think sometimes we don’t realize how lucky we are here in Canada to not have to negotiate a 12 weeks that it’s time to go back and deal with raising such a new baby. I do want to pinpoint though, you just said really fascinating and that was “Yes you’re more complete,” how does helps you become a better leader? What is it about being complete that makes you a better leader?


Mary Ellen: Again, I think it’s personal because I think that there are lots of leaders without children that do amazing jobs and that have been inspiring to me. But for me, Norah has opened up a world for me that I didn’t know existed, and also brought out the patience that I didn’t have. I used to be very impatient especially journalists are go, go, go, right? You know, I had no patience and now I just feel that has completely changed, I’m so patient with her, I’m calmer. And for me I feel like I was just meant to be a mother, and so once I became one I felt like the person that I was meant to be. That’s a personal thing.


Lesley: And how do you think that shows up in your world, in your career?


Mary Ellen: I think that I’m more caring and understanding than I was, more patient than I used to be, and maybe more interested in other people’s lives of my colleagues. I still talk to people but I think now I’m extremely interested in their children, in their families, and that helps form a bond with people you’re working with and helps with teamwork. And again, I think that that’s personal to me because that’s just how I have changed. I don’t know, maybe I would’ve changed that way if I didn’t have children. I don’t know but that’s how I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older, and I think that that’s made me better at my job.


Lesley: So, what’s the future for Mary Ellen Southwick as a journalist?


Mary Ellen: I don’t know. That’s exciting thing about journalism and kind of the way that I’ve lift my life, I never had a 5-year, 10-year plan. I just kind of have always gone with the flow what’s working, “If it’s not working, let’s make a change.” And so I don’t know, we’ll see.


Lesley:  So you’d keep that avid curiosity at hand. I can’t leave this interview without one comment about you loved covering crime stories.


Mary Ellen: Yeah I did.


Lesley: Now, what is it about crime stories as a journalist fascinated you?


Mary Ellen: I really loved covering court. You know, there’s something really interesting about justice and with how that plays out. I like sitting in court and listening to stories, it can be kind of a mere society at times. Yeah, I really enjoyed telling the stories of what was happening in court and how justice has evolved and changed. I think it matters for the public to know the penalties that people gets, they understand not would happen…


Lesley:  So covering justice and how it’s exercised is something that has always intrigued you.


Mary Ellen: Yeah.


There is no question that we are inundated with information on a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis. We want for nothing when it comes to finding out what is going on in the world around us. The question for me is, how do we discern the wheat from the chaff, the facts from the opinions and the hearsay? Even new sources have their editorial, dare I say CNN and Fox News, Journalism like all major professions is undergoing revolutionary change. The revolution however is in the way we get the story and not in the quality of the reporting and storytelling while Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the Web are providing us with moment interactive news. Professional reporting remains true to the journalistic values of public service, objectivity, autonomy, immediacy and ethics. I would also like to underline one other honorable mention from my interview with Mary Ellen, and that is her insight associated with feeling complete. Each of us has our own alchemy for feeling whole, such a state of mind and heart is critical for us to be effective leaders. This is when we can see any situation from what it truly is, rather than through the lens of partiality that sense a feeling that something is missing inside of us. For Mary Ellen the state arrive with motherhood, for others it comes with landing a job to which we have aspired to discovering a community in which we feel we belong or finding that partner that fills our heart. What matters is not the means but the feeling of completeness and the magic that it brings. You can find out more about Mary Ellen Southwick at her LinkedIn account, Mary Ellen M-A-R-Y-E-L-L-E-N Southwick S-O-U-T-H-W-I-C-K-bracket-Saunders, her maiden name S-A-U-N-D-E-R-S. You can also find Mary Ellen on Facebook as well as on Twitter; her handle is Mary E Southwick, also on Pinterest as Messy Melon. Being the queen of social media, you can find her just about anywhere. You do know where you can find me, lesleysouthwicktrask.com, womenwholead.co, Women Who Lead Radio Show on Facebook. Remember, this is your show and I am your host, Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.

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