Julie McCann speaks to five of her former students four years after they graduated.

By Julie McCann

I may have just found a new back-to-school habit: asking a few grads of the Algonquin College journalism program where I teach, “Why do you do the work you do?” It’s a different question from my usual, “What’s going on these days?” or “What’s your current gig?”

The five grads I spoke with, all from our 2012 and 2013 grad classes, work as journalists across the country.  Their j-school colleagues who now work in content production, marketing and communications surely have wise and wonderful answers to this question, too— I’ll ask them next—but the tenacity of these reporters and writers is energizing.

Having logged three- or four career-years, it’s still early days for them. But despite the closures, layoffs and general instability in the industry during their time in the field, they’ve continued to choose journalism.

Broadly, here’s why they do what they do:

1.     They get to write, talk with fascinating humans, feed their curiosity and serve their communities.

2.     Their jobs allow them to constantly develop skills they know will be valuable in other journalism gigs – and in non-journalism jobs, too.

These are not reasons the reasons they do their jobs:

1.     The money

2.     Complete fulfillment. While the job comes with plenty of opportunities for fun, it can also be frustrating or draining at times. Thus, they’ve all now learned to seek fun – and build a life – outside of their jobs, too.

Name: Brandon Barrett, 30

Graduated: 2012

Current job: Staff reporter, Pique newsmagazine, Whistler, B.C.

Career so far: Colombia Reports in Medellin, Colombia. “It was the first time I felt like I had a job that meant something,” he said of his extended field-placement position there. He moved to B.C. four years ago to report for the Whistler Question.

Why he does what he does: He’s creative, he wants to serve the public, he’s restless and he enjoys knowing a little bit about a wide variety of topics. The readers and editors of Pique have given Barrett a long creative leash to explore quirkier stories such as a hunt for a sasquatch and how ghost hunters do their jobs. While he doesn’t define himself as a traditional scoop-hunting journalist, “I enjoy being a reporter and I love the job,” he said.

Advice: Join the community you work in. In hindsight, Barrett sees that for his first year or so in Whistler, he was a bit of a “struggle puppy” and always had his eye on the door. He didn’t ski, he opted to live as it he was just there for the job. His epiphany: “This is what you make it,” he said. “You have to find these things that will connect you to the community.” In his case, it meant trying stand-up comedy for the first time. He now produces a comedy show every fall, and he wrote and directed his first play this summer. His job was a launching pad into a whole new creative life.

Future: Fit will continue to be important to him. While he fears getting too comfortable in his current gig, serving a community like Whistler with “free-spirited, counter-culture” leanings is a great fit for him. If another job – journalism or not – feels right to him and pays more, he’d consider it. “I’m getting older. It would be nice not to live pay cheque to pay cheque,” he said.

Name: Nouran Abdellatif, 25

Graduated: 2013

Current job: Multimedia reporter, Leduc Rep, Lac La Biche, Alberta

Career so far: reporter at Whistler Question (field placement) and Lac La Biche Post

Why she does what she does: What continues to drive Abdellatif is the pleasure she takes from serving a community. She covers court, council, local news and topics like family reunions or archery club stories. She loves being the person who people will call with tips. A job highlight for her? “When I get thank you notes,” she said.

Future: She’d like to be an editor – but she’s aware of the world outside of journalism, too. “I’ve been looking at both,” she said. What can get her down is how much work reporters need to put in for little pay and recognition.

Advice: “When you’re in a community, make sure you’re the person they want to talk to,” she said. And, on a practical note, love your words and love precision. “Don’t get sloppy with your CP ever,” she said.

Name: Patricia Leboeuf, 29

Graduated: 2012

Current job: reporter for Petawawa Post

Career so far: reporter at the Cobden Sun and Metroland in Arnprior; editor at Pontiac Equity

Why she does what she does: Leboeuf had an “aha” moment as an eight-year-old while looking at a newspaper. Her realization: “People get paid to write,” she said. “You can just tell the truth.” That feeling hasn’t gone away. The pleasure of talking with interesting people – she’s yet to get bored of the rush she gets when someone agrees to talk an interview – doesn’t get old. Neither do opportunities to have unusual experiences such as riding in a tank or participating in a giant pumpkin race.

Future: She’d like to keep reporting and writing as long as she can, even if it means moving to freelance. And yet, she’d consider communications positions too. The only time the job gives her pause? “Every time I look at my pay cheque.”

Advice:  Be brave. People might go down a job description list and if they can’t tick off all of the elements, she explains, they won’t apply. “Ignore the job description,” she said. “Apply!”  She also recommends people be willing to travel.

Name: Cassandra Dresch, 26

Graduated: 2013

Current job: Copy and photo editor, special projects coordinator for TV Media in Ottawa. Dresch’s company produces television listings for clients around the world, but it also writes and distributes editorial. Dresch coordinates special packages and reports and writes entertainment and sports copy.

Career so far: A field placement at Team 1200/NewsTalk 580

Why she does what she does: What doesn’t get old is the pleasure she takes from interviewing an actor or athlete half a world away, hearing their stories and writing about it. When she created a special Olympic package a couple of years ago, for instance, it was enormously fun. “I love sports,” she said. “It was like being a kid in a candy store.”

Future: “I have been looking around at other jobs in the field as a way to branch out and use these skills that I’ve honed over the last three years,” she said. “I would like to grow into bigger things.” Working at a magazine, for instance, is a goal.

Advice: “Sometimes the best experiences are in the places you least expect,” she said. Where once upon a time she dreamed a career as a sports journalist exclusively – and she’d never say no to an opportunity to do it today – by keeping her mind open, she’s found a job that’s taught her a lot.

Name: Andrew Pinsent, 27

Graduated: 2012

Current job: reporter and afternoon anchor for News 95.7, Halifax, N.S.

Career so far: Field placement at CBC News online, Home & Lands magazine, 1310 News in Ottawa

Why he does what he does: “I’m nosey. I like rushing out to crime scenes. I’m into news,” he said. “I can’t really shake it. I’d have to pull myself from it. It’s part of me now. I don’t think I’ve ever not wanted to go to work.”

Future: While he does web copy for the station’s site now, Pinsent intends to do more freelance writing for others so he can continue to develop his writing and dive deeper into stories. He enjoys writing – but he’s also conscious of wanting to have quality bylines in his pocket.

Advice: Keep your mind open and your skills diverse. Pinsent is a print lover who grew up listening to CBC radio, but he’s applied to jobs in all areas. “You never know when a pagination job can get you by for six months,” he said.