Interview by: Jaclyn Mika (School of Journalism '08).
Lisa Coxon, School of Journalism '14, is a Personal Finance Writer at LowestRates.ca.
This Q&A was conducted when Lisa was a personal finance writer at LowestRates.ca and is now a senior editor at Rates.ca.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
I always wanted to write for/work at a magazine. I imagined being part of a big masthead, getting to move issues along through production, working with art directors, fact-checkers, editors, and the like.
How did that vision change as the years went by?
Well, unfortunately right around the time I was graduating, the shift from print to digital was happening — and really quickly. Our class kept getting warned about digital disrupting the makeup of magazines but I don’t think many of us really understood the impact it would have on our future employment. But then I got out into the world and realized that, okay this is a big deal. Magazines don’t look like they used to. Oh, and did another 75 people just get laid off from one? Okay, cool...
I think my graduating class entered the field at a very turbulent time and since then, much of what I and I’m sure my classmates have witnessed is magazines shrinking drastically in size, ceasing print production altogether, or no longer existing by the time we were ready to work at them. So, I’ve definitely had to tweak that vision (or had it tweaked for me) and find places to work for that, while maybe less conventional, still allow me a space to pitch original ideas and write longer-form articles.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
Oh goodness. I think first-year Lisa would have laughed if she’d been told that she’d one day be writing about personal finance. Falling into this beat was unexpected and came with a big learning curve, but it’s also proved to be really fun, which I probably would have been skeptical of back then.
My first-year self would have also thought that she’d never get published anywhere. But having the confidence and the experience to pitch stories and bounce back when your ideas are rejected is not something that magically happens overnight. First-year Lisa was pretty impatient.
What do you think the School of Journalism experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
Certainly the hands-on component that the [School of Journalism] offers is, I think, key. You are really being a journalist and doing journalism while you’re in school. It’s much more practice than theory.
That was, however, tough at times. I was exceptionally shy when I entered my first year of j-school and so having to talk to strangers on the street or pick up the phone and ask them questions really helped me come out of my shell.
The professors, too, are exceptionally supportive. And many of them are still working in the field while being your teachers. They never make you feel like you’re any less capable than they are of getting published in the places they’re getting published. In fact, they encourage you to pitch your stories to big-name places. There’s a very collegial environment encouraged at [the university] between teachers and students.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
I’ve bounced around quite a bit, actually. My first job after graduating was at an employment law firm doing administrative work and getting my feet wet with freelancing on the side. After about a year there, I took a proposal writing job at a parking services company for all of six weeks before getting a job as an assistant editor at an independent legal magazine. I got laid off from there a year later, and then freelanced full time for the better part of a year, went back to the parking services company (bless my former boss for taking me back in) for about a year, and then wound up where I am now, at LowestRates.ca doing personal finance writing.
I freelanced for LowestRates.ca for about a year and then when a full-time position opened up, my editor reached out to me to see if I’d be interested.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned in journalism school was how to effectively pitch a story. I don’t think I would have had as successful a time freelancing after being laid off if that formula hadn’t been drilled into my head the way it was in school.
And certainly having friends from j-school who went on to work at places like Toronto Life, TVO and Reader’s Digest and then offer me work surely helped me get my foot in the door and build up my portfolio, for which I’m really grateful.
Can you talk about one of the biggest:
1) accomplishments you've made?
I was really honoured when I received the Mark Bastien Memorial Award for my feature in the [Review of Journalism] in 2014 on how reporters Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher broke the robocalls scandal.
I was also really proud to have gotten a story published in Hazlitt last year. Not only was it a publication that had been on my bucket list for a long time, it allowed me a space to tell a very personal story that I’d worked on for about a year and had always wanted to write.
2) challenges you've faced as a journalist?
I think two of the most significant hurdles in my career so far have been getting laid off from a full-time magazine gig, and trying to make freelancing work full-time for nine months but being so broke by the end of it that I wound up taking a job outside of my field. At the time, I saw this as a major setback, but it wasn’t. Sometimes you have to do what’s best for your bank account and not what’s best for your byline.
What's one of your favourite memories from j-school?
I’m going to disobey the question and offer three memories.
Number one: Working on the [Review of Journalism] Spring 2014 issue, which was led by Tim Falconer. We had a really special group of hard-working writers on that masthead and I have very fond memories of that time.
Number two: I will never forget the day that Jane Doe (her name is protected under a publication ban) came to speak at [the university] about how the media could improve the way it reports on sexual assault. She’d written a book — The Story of Jane Doe — that detailed her experience with the Toronto Police Service after she was raped by a man who would break into women’s apartments through their balconies.
That was an unforgettable, chilling, and disturbing lecture that forever changed my view of not just the Toronto Police Service and their (mis)handling of sexual assault cases, but of police in general and the lack of education around and support for victims of these sorts of crimes. After Jane Doe’s lecture, I remember walking straight to BMV afterwards to buy her book. It’s one I continuously recommend to people whenever the topic of sexual assault and police support comes up in conversation today.
And number three: the school exchange I went on to Aarhus, Denmark, for a semester in third year. Nothing but great memories and great friends made on that trip.
Any memorable School of Journalism professors during your time at the university?
Lots! In no particular order: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Bill Reynolds, Lisa Taylor, Tim Falconer, Lynn Cunningham.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
I’ll borrow a piece of advice I received from a journalism professor when I was at [the university]:
“Don’t work for free for too long.”
Of course, he meant this in the context of while we were still students. But I’ll add that you shouldn’t work for free at all, especially once you graduate. In my third year of school, I had a piece published and didn’t receive compensation for it. I was fine with that because it meant I had something to add to my portfolio, which, at that time, was nearly non-existent. So I gave myself — and that publication — one freebie, and then I made sure I was paid for my work from that point on.
I think it was that same professor who told me during a particularly dark time of looking for and failing to find work: “You know how to research. You know how to interview. And you know how to write. Those are the important things.”
What else? Don’t be afraid to take a job outside of journalism if it means being able to pay your bills for a while without concern. Being broke isn’t fun, and it doesn’t inspire creativity. It just makes you anxious and sad.
One more thing: try not to let “journalist” become your only identity. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, though it’s taken nearly five years, is that we are not defined only by what we do for work. So if you graduate and get out into the world and realize that journalism is not for you, or you have to work a job outside of journalism for a while in order to stay afloat, that’s okay. Really. You have not failed.