Jimmy Thomson

The Narwhal
Freelance journalist
St John's, Canada
Victoria, Canada
Faculty of Arts

What are your main responsibilities or activities in your current position?

I write features for a non-profit media organization The Narwhal, focusing on mining, energy, Indigenous issues and climate change in the North. I also work as a freelance journalist, with a similar focus.

How does your current work relate to your graduate degree?

At the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, I had the opportunity to spend two years trying my best to write professionally anywhere I could, while under the guidance of some of the most accomplished journalists in the country. I would bring pitches to my professors and ask for feedback, I made connections through the school and internships that started me off on the right path, and I was inspired by the other students and their work. The courses that best prepared me for my current position - Reporting in Indigenous Communities, International Reporting and Feature Writing - were all intensive, project-based, trial-by-fire learning opportunities. Each of them in their own way has come up again and again in my career since leaving school. Reporting in Indigenous Communities, in particular, has proven essential due to the Indigenous-oriented nature of any good journalism in the North.

What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?

Working remotely as the lone reporter in a far-flung bureau has been more or less the only way I have operated as a professional journalist - first for the CBC in Hay River, Northwest Territories, and now for The Narwhal in Yellowknife. That can be a lonely and isolating experience, not having colleagues to socialize with or to bounce ideas off of, and it means mentorship has to be sought out much more deliberately. I have struggled to find those professional inspirations as easily as, for instance, when I was an intern at The Globe and Mail or at Canadian Geographic. But working remotely also has its challenges, such as conducting interviews in one's pajamas. I spent last April working from New York and Montreal just because I could. And the coffee is much better at home.

Is your current career path as you originally intended?

Far from it. I had never intended to do video - I didn't even take the video course at UBC. But my first real journalism job was at CBC as a videojournalist, a skill I had only barely picked up while working at the Hakai Institute for the previous year. Now half of my job is producing videos for The Narwhal (I am currently working on a long-term project about northern entrepreneurship, visiting communities across the Arctic) and I am building a small side business producing videos for nonprofits. I always imagined I would focus on the North, and my graduate thesis was about an Arctic park, but I did not imagine I would be actually based up here for several years. I try to keep all of this in mind when I think about what my future career might look like.

What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?

When I was looking at graduate programs, I noticed that UBC had a science journalism course. Since my undergrad had been in biology, I thought that this might be a chance to bridge the gap. As it turned out, the course wouldn't be offered in my year but I did develop some of those skills anyway, and I have since done some science reporting.

What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?

The classmates I had at UBC were an exceptional group of people. Many of them remain my friends today; I'm even currently working on a film with one of them, Garrett Hinchey, who works at CBC North. Our cohort was supportive, collaborative, and we continue to celebrate one another's successes.

What key things did you do, or what attitudes or approaches did you have, that contributed to your success?

In a volatile and saturated media environment, the most valuable asset I have is my breadth of experience. It keeps me nimble when I've had to make a change, but I've only developed that by virtue of saying 'yes' to a lot of things. I didn't consider myself a 'video person'; now I work in video. I am a journalist, but I'm also working on my third film for a northern film festival. I've maintained connections to the world of polar expedition guiding because it has provided endless opportunities to learn about the places I cover and the people who live there, even when it has meant giving up other opportunities. I have often sacrificed money and/or time to keep these options available - which is in part a mark of the many privileges of being middle-class and male, among others. Now the challenge is to dig deeper into some aspects of that experience to deepen it. This is the tradeoff I made, but it has thus far paid off.

What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?

Don't think of yourself only as a student. Yes, you have schoolwork. But bridging that gap between school and your career will be all that much easier if you take the time to develop a portfolio of work that you can plunk down on a future boss's desk your first week out of school. Take advantage of any professional co-op or internship opportunities that come your way.

Did you have any breaks in your education?

I had two years between my undergrad in biology and starting my masters. I had worked at the student paper in my undergrad, but I had no idea that a masters in journalism was the right move for me until I had spent that time learning about the world outside of school. During the years of the Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, I developed a passion for environmental issues, and a desire to relate them to the public, and this was when I finally decided to pursue journalism. Frankly, I think my time outside of school was what got me admitted to UBC; my grades were middling in my undergrad. I know for a fact (based on reviewer feedback) that my experience in those years was what got me funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, a grant without which I couldn't have afforded my degree. I had spent those two years working, volunteering, and traveling to the Arctic as a guide, and one reviewer said something to the effect that I had "done a lot of living for a 24-year-old."

What challenges did you face in your graduate degree, or in launching your career?

During my degree, as an intern at a particular Canadian magazine, I came up against a corporate leadership that actively sought out partners in the oil and gas industry. These partners would be given a high level of influence and even direct control over the content at the magazine - this ran against everything I had been taught at journalism school. Advertisers are not supposed to control content, and these relationships should never be hidden from readers and the public. I fought back. It cost me my connection to that magazine, for which I had worked for free for 18 weeks, and which is one of the few financially viable magazines in Canada. I went from being, in the words of an editor there, "the best intern [he] ever hired" to persona non grata at what would almost certainly have been a consistent, high-paying and high-prestige source of work. I honestly question whether I would do anything differently. While it stunted my career in one way, it gave me a sense of purpose to fight what I perceived as morally wrong, which is something I have carried with me into The Narwhal.


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