From My Perspective – Writing for student newspapers

Much has been written over the past week about Peter Gzowski, “CBC Institution and Canadian Icon” who passed away at age 67 on January 25, 2002 of emphysema. Although I never listened to his CBC radio show, Morningside, I have read many of his articles, and respected his talent as both a writer and broadcaster. In reading the many accolades written subsequent to his passing, one in particular caught my notice. It was an article in the Edmonton Journal, entitled “He was our Oprah”, which commented how when Gzowski spoke well about a book on Morningside, it would result in “booksellers across the country finding their phones ringing off the hook and people coming into their stores.”1 The part of the article that caught my eye, however, was the list of Gzowski’s writing history, which began with the statement, “he wrote for the student paper at the University of Toronto”.

As a writer for our student paper, The Voice, I am well aware of the value of this experience. To realize that one of Canada’s most beloved and well-respected writers got his start writing for his student newspaper gave me a new-found appreciation for the experience and provided some much-needed incentive.

Writing an article every week for the Voice is no easy task. I spend many hours on each article, refining and perfecting the words, checking my sources. I often find myself wondering whether its really worth the effort – the financial return is minimal, and my schedule is so hectic and overloaded with studies, student government, work and family – do I really need the challenge of finding time to fulfill my commitment to writing a weekly article as well?

Recently I had a conversation with another Voice writer, and discovered that we shared this sentiment. In addition we shared the difficulty of not always knowing what to write about next. I’ve tried virtually every topic I can think of – news commentary; controversy; interviews; personal reflection; family history. However, the Voice writers have no way of knowing what readers are interested in, what they want to see in their newspaper, because we rarely get any feedback.

Another source of discouragement is how few students are willing to contribute to the Voice by writing articles. It is here that I think everyone loses out, and it is here that Peter Gzowski’s example should be an inspiration to us all. I’m willing to bet he is not alone in having an illustrious career begin with writing for a student newspaper. Student newspapers offer us an important outlet where we can share our ideas and thoughts with our peers, explore topics of interest, discover personal strengths and weaknesses, and where we can refine our skills as wordsmiths. I’ve watched the quality of the Voice and its writers improve over time, and while Voice writers may still be in the developmental stages, often articles in our humble little newspaper rival those of top journalists. For myself, I’ve found writing for the Voice an important part of my education, one that I know will serve me well when I go to write my thesis.

A writer can wield great power and influence. Gzowski (http://www.canoe.ca/JamBooks/jan24_gzowski-cp.html) turned his student newspaper experience into an impressive career, one that influenced a nation. He was considered a champion of literacy; held honorary doctorates from 12 Canadian universities; was named Companion of the Order of Canada in 1992; was a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame; awarded the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievements in Broadcasting; won seven ACTRA Awards; and in 1997 won a Peabody Award for his Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, the only Canadian ever to be given this honour for work as an individual.(3) After retirement from broadcasting, he served as chancellor for Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario until his death. One of his most influential acts as a writer & journalist may well be yet to come.

Although Gzowski quit smoking two years ago, he could not undo the damage of years of heavy smoking (up to 75 cigarettes a day for 50 years). He chronicled his battle with the addiction in the essay “How to Quit Smoking in Fifty Years or Less,”2 and recently recorded video footage for the Canadian Lung Association for an anti-smoking campaign. This footage is set to air in March, and its posthumous message will undoubtedly have a significant impact on all Canadians, smokers and non-smokers alike.

Never underestimate the value of writing for your student newspaper. Not only does it improve personal skills and build experience; it gives you a chance to share your thoughts and ideas and perhaps influence others in a positive manner. It can be an important part of your university experience, and who knows what it might lead to in the future?

(1) Edmonton Journal, January 25, 2002. “He was our Oprah”. Canadian Press, Toronto.
(2) Gzowski, Peter, “How to Quit Smoking in Fifty Years or Less”. In: Addicted: Notes From The Belly Of The Beast, edited by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane. Greystone Books, Vancouver, 2001.

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