Focusing on Jack Layton: How working in smaller markets prepared one reporter to cover one of the biggest stories of the year
CBC Videographer Charlsie Agro was called up from Windsor to work in Toronto this summer. Little did she know she'd be covering one of the biggest stories of the year, the death of NDP leader Jack Layton. What did Agro learn? Market size doesn't matter when it comes to the essential skills of journalism.
CBC Videographer Charlsie Agro was called up from Windsor to work in Toronto this summer. Little did she know she'd end up covering one of the biggest stories of the year, the death of NDP leader Jack Layton. What did Agro learn? Market size doesn't matter when it comes to the essential skills of journalism.
“What’s the story? What’s the story?”
That was my online journalism instructor’s mantra. For an entire year, he would ask me that question repeatedly until I could respond with one clear, focused sentence. Three provinces and four jobs later, I can honestly say striving to answer that question is why I ended up covering one of the biggest stories of the year for CBC Toronto, the death of NDP leader Jack Layton.
When I was a kid, I can remember watching Peter Mansbridge anchor The National. This past year, for the first time, my family got to watch him introduce one of my reports. But to get to that moment, I traveled a long crazy road.
After a placement in a Victoria, B.C. newsroom I got my first job as a videographer. In Edmonton, I cut my teeth. I shot my first stories, reported live. Each and every time I wrote a script, I’d ask myself that same question; what’s the story? After a year covering everything from unwanted pipelines to rodeos I took a chance on a CBC gig in Ontario and got it.
As a videographer in Windsor, I work with a talented team that challenges me every day to get better. I’ve grilled the Premier, broken stories, and covered tomato festivals—still asking myself the same question; what’s the story? Then in June I got the call to come work in Toronto for the summer.
These past few weeks I’ve truly come to understand good journalism isn’t possible without telling a good story. Strong stories have great characters, great clips, and great pictures. Anyone can tell you what happened, but explaining the why, and doing it in such a way that makes people want to watch is something you only learn through practice. All those small stories help get you ready for the big ones.
When Jack Layton passed away last Monday morning, the first thing I did when I got into work was ask where they wanted me to go and then I grabbed my camera.
My first stop was Olivia Chow's headquarters. Within minutes of arriving the phones were ringing off the hook. The doors didn't get a chance to close. The condolences were pouring in. Even I had tears in my eyes. To call this scene moving or emotional would be an understatement.
Before I had the chance to think about what to do next I glanced down at my camera and realized I had already recorded over seven minutes of tape. My instincts took over—years of shooting in cornfields, burned out homes, and countless scrums gave me that edge. It’s easy to lose your focus when so much is happening around you, but by concentrating on the focus of my story I was able to stay focused myself.
To volunteers and those who came to pay their respects at Chow's headquarters I asked one question: What did Jack Layton mean to you? I left there with some of the strongest clips I've ever recorded. The footage I shot was used on The National and CBC News Network throughout the day and week.
Later that afternoon, in front of Layton's home, I watched and recorded as letter after letter, bouquet after bouquet was dropped at the doorstep. After questioning the countless passersby who came to pay their respects, persistence paid off. I found one who was there from the start—a man who served on Toronto City Council with Layton during his first term. Another reporter would end up using him as a main character in her story.
By the time I went to put my final stories together (one for radio and one for television) the amount of stock footage, new video, and interviews I had to choose from was so big I could have drowned in tape. I sat there and thought of one thing; what's the story?
For our eleven o'clock newscast my entire item could only run a minute thirty! A minute thirty to sum up what this national figure meant to millions? I did it—by looking at each line and each clip and asking myself, does it answer MY question? It’s amazing how much you can cut out if you really limit your focus.
By the time I went live outside of Roy Thomson Hall, where Jack Layton's funeral would eventually be held, I was satisfied that I had told just one of the many sides of the Jack Layton story that day.
Could I have done something different to make it better? I’m sure of it. Next time, I will be better. I will be better for all of it. But one thing will remain the same, before I sit down to write my script tonight, or any other night, I’ll be asking myself that same question; what’s the story?
Now, you know the first part of mine.
Charlsie Agro is a videographer with CBC Windosr, currrently working at CBC in Toronto. She's a graduate of the Journalism New Media Program at Sheridan Institute of Technology, and has a B.A. in English and History from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.