Persson, 43, became the editor of Saskatoon’s The StarPhoenix on Wednesday.

By Carys Mills

Heather Persson was appointed to The StarPhoenix’s top job on Wednesday, making history as the first woman to lead the Saskatoon newspaper.

Persson arrived at The StarPhoenix in 2007. Since then, she’s been a page designer, copy editor, city editor and managing editor, before becoming editor.

Persson, 43, talked to J-Source about getting her start in journalism, changes in the industry and being The StarPhoenix’s first woman editor.

[[{“fid”:”3378″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”3868″,”width”:”2835″,”style”:”width: 300px; height: 409px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]J-Source: How did you get your start in journalism?

Heather Persson: It was 20 years ago. I started with my hometown paper, in Weyburn, Sask. I went to school at a private university in Michigan—Spring Arbor University and I have a communications degree—and they hired me out of school. After just a year I moved to British Columbia and started working at the Salmon Arm Observer.

J-Source: You worked at the Salmon Arm Observer weekly paper and then the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Why did you make the switch from weekly to daily?

Persson: I wanted to move back to my home province and there was an opportunity. I think that’s part of the natural progression and growth in a newspaper career—to move from weeklies to dailies. Maybe there’s a bit of an increase in the pace of putting stories out, but nobody works harder than reporters at small weeklies. You really learn all parts of the business, and that’s been very good experience as I go into this role.

J-Source: Did you spend much time as a reporter earlier in your career? Do you miss it now?

Persson: I reported all the way through being an editor, until I left Salmon Arm. Then I was a columnist and would report at times in Prince Albert, too, so I kept my hand in writing as long as I possibly could. I do miss it sometimes but I have to say that seeing other people grow and hit new heights with their work is also very rewarding.

J-Source: What’s one of your favourite projects?

Persson: We just did a special project called The Stonechild Effect for The StarPhoenix.  As a team, we looked at how the death of Neil Stonechild—who was one of the people who died from being dropped off by police outside of the city—and the related inquiry affected Saskatoon. Our special project had video and reporting that reminded people what happened and some thoughtful pieces on how the city’s changed. That’s been a really rewarding experience because it was such a team effort and such an important topic for the city that’s not always easy for people to deal with again.

J-Source: Since you started at the paper in 2007, how has it changed?

Persson: Everyone talks a lot about the change and that’s true. In our industry right now there’s a lot of change. But I think this is a really warm, supportive newsroom that has high expectations of itself. That’s the newsroom I walked into and I’m very glad it’s still that way now. We do have fewer people here, but I think the biggest change has been in engaging with new technology. We shifted from being a newspaper to being a multi-platformed media organization.

(My predecessor) Rob McLaughlin, when he became the leader here, certainly helped accelerate that because of his background and skills and knowledge. He was at CBC and the National Film Board…he really helped us understand that we need to write to an audience and that audience is different, depending on that platform you’re on.

J-Source: What are your goals for your time as editor?

Persson: We’re already on great track in terms of Postmedia’s plans for the different platforms. We’ll get to follow through with that, which is very exciting. In coming to this role, I have a great sense of the tradition behind it but also a sense of the point in history that we’re at, and it’s very exciting actually. The job before us is to transform The StarPhoenix into something that’s sure to be there for our audiences for generations to come. That means meeting the needs of our audiences and carrying out the tradition we have at The StarPhoenix of excellent reporting and that includes investigative work.

J-Source: Your appointment as editor got some attention on Twitter this week because you’re The StarPhoenix’s first woman editor. What are your thoughts on being the first woman to take on that role?

Persson: I think it’s something to celebrate, however I do want to say that I’ve been encouraged and given incredible opportunities through my 20 years. I’ve been very fortunate that way, however I don’t want to take for granted that there were women who broke the trail for me and I’m very thankful for them. It’s important to celebrate these milestones because we haven’t always had the same opportunities in this business.

J-Source: Have you always encountered equal opportunities?

Persson: I personally have been lucky. I mean, they made me an editor in Salmon Arm when I think I was 27. I was a young woman then and I was stepping into the shoes of an older man who had a long grey beard, so that was a big shift in people’s thinking. But there was never really any hesitation from anyone to give me that chance. I look back at that and now I kind of marvel at how fortunate I was that the leadership was willing to give me that opportunity to lead.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m not acknowledging some of the realities that have been clear in the business in the past. But I really want to focus on the real possibilities and potential for women and I really hope women are encouraged by the news of me being the editor now.

J-Source: Do you think, as an industry, there’s something we should be doing to make newsrooms more gender-neutral places?

Persson: Being willing to create safe places for discussion is one of the most important things we can do. One thing that fosters any kind of inequality is when there’s a reluctance to discuss it or raise issues. So, as a leader, I try to create a safe place for people to talk about issues and how they feel and how they think we can make the newsroom better. That includes issues like gender equality.

J-Source: Do you have any advice for young journalists?

Persson: Don’t let people discourage you if you’re called to be a journalist. I hear so many people being negative and talking to young journalists like the profession’s just too tough. But this is a really exciting time to get to be a journalist. I went from being a straight print journalist, now I get to explore all kinds of different mediums in one job and my reach to audiences is bigger than ever through The StarPhoenix. It’s really an exciting time where we’re learning to adjust and we need young journalists more than ever, with their insight and their digital skills, to be part of transforming our profession.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[[{“fid”:”3347″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Carys Mills”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Carys Mills”},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 150px; height: 150px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Carys Mills has worked as a reporter for The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Windsor Star and Ottawa Citizen. She graduated from Ryerson University’s undergraduate journalism program in 2011 with a minor in politics.