Maria Iqbal, School of Journalism '18, is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Hamilton Spectator focused on aging issues.
This Q&A was conducted when Maria was with The Hamilton Spectator and is now with The Toronto Star as a journalist.
When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?
I always loved reading and became fond of reading newspapers while growing up. I also saw how journalists didn't always get their stories right, especially when it came to Islam and Muslims. I used to write letters to the editors when I felt a story didn't do justice to the subjects involved. But it was after I joined my campus newspaper in undergrad—The Medium at the University of Toronto-Mississauga—that I was hooked.
During your time at the university, you were EIC of the Review. What did you learn from that experience?
Be kind to yourself and others. Honestly, that was a hard year. It's challenging to manage such a big masthead with everyone dealing with pressures both in and out of the classroom. But it helps to reach out to others. Venting together helps. :)
How did you arrive at your current position?
I fell in love with feature writing during j-school, and my internship and subsequent freelance work opened the door to that world. I slowly branched out and occasionally pitched to places, although I wasn't very good at it. I'll never forget how some of my friends kindly reached out with freelance opportunities at their own newsrooms.
Finally, I landed a summer job at The Globe and Mail in 2019. That was my first ever job in a daily newsroom. After wrapping up, I went back to freelancing. I started applying to jobs in 2020 when—BAM—the pandemic hit. Fortunately, in July, there was an opening at The Hamilton Spectator for a position through the Local Journalism Initiative, a government grant that supports local journalism. I applied, was thankfully hired, and I'm loving it.
You are currently (Oct. 2020) reporting on aging for the Hamilton Spectator. Can you talk a little bit about what your beat covers.
I'm looking at anything and everything to do with aging in Hamilton—what older people are talking about, their interests, worries, and ideas. So far, I've written about accessibility in places of worship, housing options to help older people live more independently, a 105th birthday celebration, programs helping seniors learn technology, fitness tips, long-term care home policies during the pandemic, and more. Aging touches so many aspects of our lives and the deeper I delve, the more I realize there are so many stories yet to explore.
What's the most challenging aspect of your current beat?
Aging is a huge topic and it's definitely been a learning curve to get on the pulse of it. The pandemic has made it harder to access sources, particularly the everyday humans with lived experiences. Social media helps, but not all older people are using technology, so I've had to find other ways to connect with them.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
It's really fun. Older people have amazing stories and they are only too happy to share them. Sometimes interviews will last more than an hour, but I walk away with my eyes opened, and sometimes a little teary. The pandemic has been really hard on a lot of seniors so their stories can be heartbreaking, but it reminds me of the work that lies ahead.
You started your current job in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that changed your job? What has stayed the same?
I was hired during the pandemic, so I still haven't met my bosses or co-workers in person! We have a virtual newsroom meeting every morning though, so we can catch up on what everyone's doing and exchange ideas. Besides not going in the field as often, much of the job is the same—interviewing sources and writing stories.
Obviously, in an office it's way easier to check in and communicate, and I've found working from home sometimes leaves me worrying if I'm not sure about something. I deal with it by reaching out to my colleagues and editors to clear any doubts. It's helped a lot.
What's your favourite story to have worked on?
One of them has to be about a 90-year-old Hamilton woman whose exercise and self-care routine puts me to shame. I still think about her whenever I'm doing my daily 30-minute treadmill routine... she spent a minimum of two hours every day working in her garden, on top of her regular exercise!
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
I was trying to shoot a video interview on campus and didn’t know heads or tails of the fancy cameras. I ran up the stairs of the Rogers Communication Centre to find Dr. Gary Gould—his office door was open, and he was talking on the phone.
As soon as he saw me, he pointed and asked, "Do you need help?" with the phone still glued to his ear.
I had barely said, "yes," when he yelled, "Call you right back" into the phone, slammed down the receiver and came to the rescue.
I still remember that interview turned out FABULOUS.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
In normal circumstances? Join your student newspaper. It's one of the best experiences I've had as a journalist. But in a pandemic, I'll say it's important to take care of yourself. We're used to being plugged in all the time, but I find it helpful to unplug. Take breaks, eat well, and exercise. It helps both the body and the mind.
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