On June 12, 2019 I had the honour and privilege of addressing the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s School of Communications, Media, Arts and Design as their convocation speaker.
In preparing for my 8-minute address I spent weeks considering what makes this moment such a unique time for the industry; how the conversation about media studies and other arts programs have evolved since the time I graduated from one such program in 2010; how my own experiences as a journalist have shown me the true power and influence that the media can have; and the high level of responsibility that comes with that power and influence.
I wanted to share these remarks more widely because I feel they are applicable to anyone graduating from a media studies program right now, especially those who doubt their own career prospects.
Please find the full script below. You can also now find the video here.
Members of the board of governors, incoming President Dr. Craig Stephenson, members of the dais party, students and guests; I am here today because I suck at math and science, although I did alright in English.
I didn’t want to be an English major, so I did what you all did, and enrolled in media studies. It sounded like fun, not too much work and it involved a lot of writing. Plus we got to watch movies and read comic books and call it homework.
About a year in I noticed my friends were volunteering for the campus radio station or starting web design companies making websites for local businesses, and I started looking around for something I could do. I ended up volunteering for the school paper, and while I enjoyed the writing part the time commitment was a bit much.
I was a little unsure about it, until one-day representatives from the disabled students union came into the office to complain about a lack of accessibility on campus. I went to the student council president and asked him about it, and he shrugged off the issue, explaining there was no room in the budget. Then I wrote a story about it, that story made it to the front page of the school paper and suddenly people on campus were talking about it.
A few days later, some room was miraculously found in the budget. I can still remember walking around campus, watching the construction crews build new ramps and crosswalks, and I knew right then and there what I wanted to do with my life.
I ended up becoming an editor of the school paper, going to journalism school and after struggling for a few years as someone else’s employee I decided it might be more fun to struggle on my own. Today I write for some of the biggest news organizations in the world as a freelance journalist, reporting on what it’s like to work in an office, while working from home in my sweatpants.
When I started writing about the future of work so much of the conversation was about STEM education, that is, science, technology, math and engineering; Basically, all the stuff I sucked at. The headlines at the time were, “how are we going to get more children into STEM?” “How are we going to get more women into STEM?” “How are we going to close the STEM talent gap?” “Are there enough STEM students in the pipeline to meet the demands of the future workforce?”
There I was with my undergraduate degree in media studies and my Master’s in journalism, spending my days writing about how the only skills that mattered were the ones I most sucked at. And if you had asked me seven years ago when I began my journalism career, I would have said the future belongs to the engineers, the scientists, the mathematicians and the technologists of the world.
Today the conversation has changed dramatically, and I can now stand before you and confidently say that the future belongs to the artists, the communicators, the designers and the storytellers. Why? Because of the rapid pace of technological innovation, ironically the very thing that caused people to jump on the STEM bandwagon in the first place.
It was long believed that in a world of technological disruption, the only safe job was to be the disruptor. It turns out that those hard skills have a pretty short shelf life, and it’s only getting shorter. Industry standards are changing so rapidly and technology is becoming so sophisticated that the hard, technical skills one learns in post secondary school are often obsolete by the time they collect their diploma.
A recent report by RBC predicts that more than 25% of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted in the coming decade, and half will go through a significant overhaul of the required skills. Think about that from the employer’s perspective. When half your workforce suddenly becomes obsolete, you have two options: fire half your staff and replace them with those who have the right skills, or retrain the people you’ve got. Most employers will probably choose the latter.
Because those hard skills will have to be taught and retaught so frequently, and because many of them will be automated out of necessity, they have little value. It’s the skills that easily transfer between roles, and the skills that can’t be programmed that are going to have the most value to employers in the future.
Communication skills, creativity, the ability to learn quickly, the ability to solve abstract problems, being comfortable with ambiguity; those will be some of the most valuable skills in the future.
I remember other students making fun of the media studies program when I first arrived on campus in 2006. The movies and the comic books didn’t help. The value of these skills and the power of these platforms was so underestimated when I began my university career thirteen years ago, that I actually started to believe them, and seriously doubted my own career prospects.
But when I saw the reaction to the article I wrote about accessibility on campus and the actions that resulted it became crystal clear to me that there is incredible power in storytelling and in the arts.
And because our course materials included comic books I knew that “with great power comes great responsibility,” at least according to Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.
As the future tellers of society’s stories and communicators of its messages you have an incredible burden on your shoulders, and I urge you not to take it lightly. You are graduating into a world that casts doubt on the information it receives, especially when that information doesn’t conform to the recipient’s existing worldview. You’re graduating into a world where your work will be under a finer microscope than any generation previous, the chorus raging against you louder and more powerful than ever before, and the temptation to bend to its whims never greater.
I am here to remind you that whatever you do with the piece of paper you are about to receive, know your work will, in some small way, shape how others view the world in which they live. That is incredible power, and like any power there’s going to be a temptation to abuse it.
Sometimes skewing that worldview can make for a catchier headline, more pageviews, more subscribers, more sales or more interactions. You will be tempted at some point in your careers to ignore the long-term implications of your work in the pursuit of short-term gains, but before you begin your career journey I want to remind you that the most valuable currency in this line of work is credibility.
Credibility is not something gained in one day or in one piece of work, though it can be lost in one. Building credibility instead requires a longstanding commitment to the truth; to internalizing the responsibility you have to the public and to not breaking that trust. You can’t program AI to have credibility, you can’t go to school to learn credibility, you can’t wait until its convenient to start building credibility.
You gain credibility by walking out those doors today, and committing yourself and your career to honesty rather than exaggeration, to the public good over personal gain, to sharing the stories that are too often forgotten instead of the ones that are more likely to go viral, to creating art and design that challenges your audience’s perception of the world, rather than reinforcing it.
The world needs more honesty, more integrity, and more credibility now more than ever. As the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s school of Communications, Media, Arts and Design you are in a unique position to provide it, and I can’t wait to see what you do with that responsibility.
It was 2 a.m. when I placed the call over the spotty hotel Wi-Fi.
The odds that it would go through were slim; the odds someone would pick were
slimmer. It was already 9 p.m. in New York City, and even if someone did
pick-up, they were in no position to help me out, especially not at that hour.
None of that mattered to me though; it had been the longest day of my life, and by god I needed someone to yell at, someone to take responsibility for all the disorganization and poor planning that landed me in the small Moroccan city of Ouarzazate (pronounced were-za-zat) more than 36 hours after leaving my home in Toronto.
Worse yet, I was looking at the only bed I had seen for two
days, and the only one I’d see for three more, and it wasn’t much to look at;
Two thin single mattresses crammed together with a paper-thin sheet holding
them together, and another identical sheet on top. The rest of the room was
empty aside from a small square tube T.V., a rotary phone and the power outlet
in the corner where I plugged in every device I brought along for the ride. In
my delirium I remember being jealous of my devices, knowing they’d be fully
charged when the alarm went off four hours later, and I wouldn’t.
I can’t entirely recall the exact words I left on the voicemail, I just know they were angry, visceral, filled with pain and exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I know I refused to set my alarm for 6 a.m., having just completed the longest journey of my life, and I know I said something about being treated like a piece of cargo rather than a human being.
Whatever I said I know it wasn’t in my typical, overly
polite Canadian tone, but it evidentially worked, maybe even too well. I had
assumed the voicemail wouldn’t even reach the other line, completely unaware
that I had just set off a chain reaction that would echo from New York to the
I awoke the next morning at 7:30am, half an hour after I was expected to be waiting outside the hotel with my bags already packed, wondering if my message was received. There was a pretty decent chance that the driver would have already given up by this point and gone home, leaving me completely stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course I didn’t consider that when I turned off my alarm the night before, in some small act of rebellion, but as I waited for the elevator doors to open I realized there was a chance nobody was waiting for me on the other side.
It’s no coincidence that the town of Ouarzazate looks like a scene out of The Mummy,Gladiator or Game of Thrones; all three were filmed in what has been dubbed “Morocco’s Little Hollywood,” along with countless classic westerns and desert-themed productions. The town of about 70,000 is perched on a mountain that sits on the border between coastal cities like Marrakesh and Casablanca and the Sahara dessert, often acting as the final glimpse of civilization for tourists before venturing out into the vast openness. I guess I fell into that category as well.
Fortunately I found the panicked local scampering around the lobby when I arrived with my bags just before 8pm. He recognized me right away from the blurry photo they had sent him via fax. He barely spoke English but kept tapping on his watch and pointing to the car. I handed him my bag, pointed to the hotel cafeteria and held up my index finger to let him know there was no way I was leaving that hotel without a coffee and a piece of bread. Lord knows how long it would be before I saw my next meal, and he surely didn’t want to spend the next five hours with me in the back seat suffering from caffeine withdrawal.
I got comfortable in the white van as I watched all signs of civilization slowly fade into the rear view mirror. As we drove the roads got thinner and bumpier, and the division between the highway and the sand became less clear. The power lines got thinner and thinner until they eventually stopped dangling above our heads entirely. Pretty soon I found myself further away from home, native English-speakers and Internet connectivity than I had been in my entire adult life, wondering how in the hell I got to that point, and what in the world would come next.
Though I can’t say for sure it’s pretty safe to assume that this all started with one of the many public relations databases I am involuntarily listed on. Someone in France had hired someone in New York with access to a list of journalists, and was likely sending out invitations indiscriminately to all of them. Why else would they contact a business and careers journalist in Toronto for a sports and travel story?
I first got the invite in 2017, but having just returned
from the Dubai desert I was all adventured-out. The second time they contacted
me—barely three weeks prior to landing in Ouarzazate—I couldn’t resist the call
to adventure. I spent the next week pitching just about every editor I’ve ever
worked with on the story, and ended up receiving not one, but two positive
responses. I confirmed my attendance with the PR firm in New York, and they
began putting together the itinerary.
In hindsight I can sympathize with the small team of about four staff coordinating travel and logistics for about a dozen journalists from every corner of the planet and another dozen from Morocco and France, but when I got my itinerary I was less than pleased. To get to the Sahara I’d have to take a flight from Toronto to Montreal, then an overnight flight to Casablanca, where I arrived the following morning at 10am local time, 5am back home. Then I’d have to kill 14 hours in Casablanca with no hotel or accommodations before a midnight flight out to the edge of civilization.
Any relief that could have come from finally gaining access to a bed went out the window the moment the front desk of my little hotel in Ouarzazate relayed a message that was waiting for me, courtesy of the team in New York. The note informed me that my stay would only be about five hours long; a car was going to be picking me up from the hotel first thing the next morning to drive me five hours into the desert, at which point I’d be spending four nights sleeping in a tent before returning home.
It didn’t help that the tour guide I had hired to show me around Casablanca for $200 USD didn’t speak a single word of English. Two weeks later, after leaving a less-than-positive review on the agency’s Trip Advisor page, the owner called me from Morocco to explain that the English speaking tour guide he arranged got sick and, unbeknownst to him, sent his friend in his stead, assuming that as a Canadian I’d speak some French (I do not). He refunded me the full fee and apologized profusely, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. There I was in Casablanca, deliriously tired from an overnight flight; eating fried fish across from a stranger I couldn’t communicate with. After taking me to the Casablanca cathedral and a few spots around town whose significance I couldn’t grasp thanks to the language barrier, he drove me to the local mall, where he spent the remainder of the afternoon shopping for shoes. Then he dropped me back off at the airport, and I was on my way to Ouarzazate, already sleep deprived and fuming when I landed, made my way to the hotel and received a note containing more bad news at the front desk.
I woke up in the back seat of the stranger’s car as he pulled over to the side of a dirt road near a gas station in the middle of the Sahara. We waited there for a few minutes until out of the blue a truck approached—not from the road, but from the middle of the desert. The truck itself was covered in stickers and markings from brands I’d never heard of, propped up on enormous shocks that required it’s two passengers to jump down some ways to exit.
The male passenger, an older-looking Frenchman with greying hair, a green vest and aviator sunglasses, approached the driver who had brought me this far, while the female passenger—a young, blonde American woman—came over and introduced herself as Brooke.
“How has your journey been so far?” she asked, and I almost
laughed at the question.
“Less than smooth, but it’s fine. I made it,” I responded.
“You’re the Canadian guy, right? You’re here to write about Stéphanie?”
“I’m doing two stories,” I responded. “One’s a profile on Stéphanie
for a magazine called Ozy, the other
is a broader story about the race itself for the Guardian.”
“Well, crazy what happened to her,” said Brooke. “I mean, I
guess it’s good for you, right? I know you never want to be happy about a thing
like this, but you’re going to get a great story out of it.”
I gave her a puzzled look and she realized I had no idea
what she was talking to.
“Oh right, you’ve been travelling the last couple of days,
of course you haven’t heard! Oh my god, you don’t even know!”
“Know what?” I asked.
“Her partner died. Florence, the woman she was originally
going to be driving with. She got injured a few weeks ago while they were
training and we just found out a couple days ago that she died in surgery.”
“That’s terrible,” I said. “How’s Stéphanie doing?”
“It’s been an emotional few days,” said Brooke. “But she’s doing surprisingly well. She’s actually in third place, I think. I know she was yesterday. They haven’t posted today’s scores yet.”
I first spoke to Stéphanie Pérusse three weeks prior, as I
was preparing the pitch I was going to send along to my editors. Ozy wanted a
specific competitor to hone in on, someone who had a good shot of placing well,
and so I asked the PR team in New York for some recommendations. They gave me a
list of likely contenders, and upon some further research the choice became
obvious. Not only was Stéphanie a fellow Canadian but she’s also the daughter
of Jean-Paul Pérusse, a celebrated rally car champion from back when the sport
was popular on my side of the world. When I called Stéphanie for a
pre-interview she told me that she had never even considered following in her father’s
footsteps, until she heard about the annual event in the Sahara dessert.
The 46-year-old marathon and biathlon runner was plenty competitive, but didn’t inherit a love for the raw speed and adrenaline of motorsports from her father. She lived a relatively quiet life as a mother of two flipping houses in Montreal; that is until she discovered the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — an eight-day all-female off-road event through the Moroccan Sahara. But this wasn’t your average race; competitors had to make their way to checkpoints hidden throughout the desert, and were judged not by how fast they drove, but on the directness of their route.
In other words, if your next checkpoint is on the other side
of a mountain, or a river, or a series of sand dunes, you have the choice to
drive around them, but the winner is ultimately the one that reaches their
destination by driving the fewest total miles. The catch? There were no GPSs or
cellphones allowed; competitors had to navigate by map and compass alone. To
make it even more challenging, they only received the coordinates of their unique
checkpoints at 5 a.m. each day, and had one-hour to plot their course on a
paper map before approaching the starting line at 6.
In 2017 Stéphanie competed in her first rally, and came in
third. If there was anyone among the field of nearly 200 teams who was most
determined and most likely to reach the podium, it was she. The fact that she
was Canadian and spoke pretty decent English sealed the deal, and my editor
When I spoke to Stéphanie over the phone from Toronto she informed me that she was struggling to find a new partner for the rally. Her father had agreed to help her win the competition but only if she played by some of his rules. One of those conditions was that she would have to fly out to the desert and practice navigating the terrain with her partner at least twice before the actual race.
So in February Stéphanie and her driving partner Florence Deramond put Florence’s decked out FJ Cruiser in a shipping container and headed for Africa. During that practice run, however, 62-year old Florence—an 11-time Gazelle veteran and former champion—ruptured ligaments in her shoulder, and needed corrective surgery the week of the race.
Stéphanie told me she nearly backed out but ended up
partnering up with a French woman she had met at the rally a year before, Anne-Marie
Borg, a ski instructor from the French Alps. Florence was also kind enough to
let the pair use her FJ Cruiser, since it was too late to get Stephanie’s truck
to the starting line on time.
“The team in New York got your message last night,” Brooke
told me, as we waited for the next driver to arrive. “You caused quite a
“Really? I didn’t even think the message would get through.”
“It definitely did. The whole team has been scrambling to
figure out your accommodations for tonight. I can’t blame you for wanting
another night in a hotel before you head out to the desert. We’re working on
figuring something out for you.”
Maybe it was manners or maybe it was guilt, but I suddenly
went from feeling righteously infuriated to feeling like a prima donna.
Somewhere nearby 400 middle aged women were setting up tents for their 5th
of 8 nights in the desert, and here I was demanding a hotel room and a full
night’s rest before joining them for the final two. It was too late though; the
wheels were in motion. Calls were being made across the ocean and over walkie-talkies
across the desert. There was no stopping the scramble now.
“We’re not exactly sure where we’re going to put you, but we
know wherever it is will have to be close to tomorrow’s starting line,”
explained Brooke. “The next driver will take you out in that direction and
we’ll let him know where to drop you off as soon as we figure out where you’re
spending the night.”
When the next driver arrived, about 20 minutes later, Brooke and her driver got back in their truck and peeled off into the desert, and I continued down the main road through a series of small villages and towns. After a couple of hours we turned onto a dirt road and another half hour or so last we stopped at a lone building in the middle of nothingness. The driver went inside and returned with a young man, the only hotel employee who spoke English. He explained to me that the hotel was completely booked with other reporters and sponsors following the race, as well as the families of some competitors. As we spoke the driver got back into the car, and continued on his way, and I felt stranded once again.
The young man escorted me past the front desk and into an
open atrium with a rock garden in the middle, two stories of hotel rooms
wrapped around all sides with only the open sky above. “Wait here,” he told me,
“the Americans are going to call soon.”
I sat there for about 20 minutes until the phone at the
front desk rang. The young man picked it up and after a moment motioned for me
to grab the receiver from him.
When I picked up a panicked staffer on the other end told me
they had received my message and were doing whatever they could to find me a
bed somewhere close to the rally for the night. Not wanting to cause any more
trouble than I already had I volunteered to forgo the accommodations and begin
my journey in the desert that evening. The exacerbated voice on the other end
explained it was too late for that; there weren’t any drivers left to take me
to the race. They asked to speak with the young hotel staff member for a moment
and when he returned the phone to me the voice on the other end explained that the
hotel would provide me with lunch while they figured out where to put me.
The young man escorted me again through the atrium, this
time telling me to make myself comfortable on the patio out back while they
prepared my lunch. Shortly after sitting down, however, he pulled up a chair
across from me, and formally introduced himself.
I forget the young man’s name, but I remember much of our
conversation. It was one of those interactions where you begin assuming you’re
from completely different worlds, and leave with the thought that humanity is
pretty much consistent every place you find it. He told me that the hotel was
family-run, and that he was destined to take over the business one day, but
wasn’t thrilled about being tethered to his hometown the rest of his life. He
told me that he had dreams of seeing Europe and America, but had never ventured
beyond the Moroccan border. I asked him what he likes to do for fun, and he
said very simply “drink wine and dance with girls.” He was 24, and if you had
asked me the same question at that age, I probably would have given you the
We sat there and chatted for over an hour, the young man
occasionally running into the kitchen to bring out more food; first the bread
basket, then some fresh olives and olive oil, and then a beef tagine—a Moroccan
egg dish served bubbling hot in the ceramic saucer it’s cooked in, under a
cone-shaped lid that wafts with an incredible aroma when lifted.
After lunch another driver arrived, this time in an off-road SUV, and the young man explained that I was going to be taken to another hotel nearby. I loaded my things into the truck and we continued along the dirt road until it turned into two tire tracks, before disappearing entirely. Half an hour later I started to think about how I had voluntarily let a stranger drive me deep into the middle of the desert, with nobody around for miles, no phone reception, no way of reaching the outside world, and nobody (other than maybe one or two people in New York) aware of where I was, myself included.
The driver kept his foot on the gas as we sped through the
sand, and I kept wondering how in the world there could possibly be a hotel in
the direction we were driving. Even more puzzling: if there were one hiding
amongst all this nothingness, how in the world would the driver know how to
find it? Of course he didn’t speak any English, so I couldn’t ask.
My nerves calmed as he slowed down the vehicle in order to
pass through a pack of wild camel. He grinned as I pulled out my phone to take
pictures and videos of the animals grazing in the desert shrubbery, looking at
me the same way I might look at a tourist in Canada taking pictures of the
A while later I noticed that one of the mountains in the
distance had a word spelled out in white rocks on the side facing us. As we got
closer I was able to make out the word “riad,” which I later learned is the
name for a type of traditional Moroccan hotel. As we neared the mountain I
noticed a small, one-story building at the base. “No way,” I though to myself as
the driver pulled up.
As we pulled the car around a man came out of the little
building and greeted the driver. The two exchanged a few words in a language I
didn’t recognize (likely either Arabic or Berber), pulled my bag out of the
truck and then the driver took off back the way he came.
The man at the hotel walked me over to a big open room
inside the structure with about five beds in it, a single working light bulb, a
bathroom in the corner and not much else. There were a few solar panels on the
roof for electricity, and a wood burning stove out back that heated the water.
I put my bags down on the bed and walked around the
building, not really sure what to do with myself. The building, like the
previous, was a big square with an open roof in the middle and rooms on all
sides. A single open door at the far end revealed the wide-open desert outside,
and so I pulled up a chair and stared out into the wilderness.
Two competing thoughts that had been simmering all day
started to boil over the moment there was nothing else to distract me. The
first; that this might be the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The second; “is anyone coming for me?”
I was awestruck and nervous watching the sun slowly fade
behind the mountains when I heard the sound of an engine roaring in the distance.
Shortly thereafter a rally car went driving by, then another, then another.
They all had similar markings, though they were going in different directions.
I sat there for a while until eventually one stopped right outside the
building, and a slender, wrinkled man with grey hair and a big grin walked out
wearing a vest with the official logo of the Gazelle rally.
“Are you Jared?” he said in a French accent, stressing the “ja.” “I am Joko, your driver for tomorrow.” He shook my hand.
“I will stay here for ze night with you, and vee vill vake
up erly to-mo-row to join ze rally,” he said. “Where are ze others?” he asked.
“What others?” I responded.
“Ze other Am-er-icans. Are zey not with you?”
“No,” I responded, “Just me.”
“Ah, okay,” he said. “Zey will maybe come tonight. I don
know. I hope.”
He smiled at me and went over to speak with the man who
worked at the hotel.
I shared a few words with Joko through the evening but he
seemed keener to speak with the only individual there that could converse with
him in French. Every once in a while he would turn to me and translate what
they were saying to the best of his ability, but I felt more like a part of the
scenery than a part of the conversation. It didn’t matter though; I was just
happy to know things were going to work out. The New York team had pulled
through; I had a bed for the night, and a driver to take me to the race the
next morning. It seemed like the most difficult part of the journey was finally
behind me. Little did I know it hadn’t even begun.
For much of my 20s I was obsessed with music festivals.
Like any collectors item I wanted to experience them all, and even enjoyed duplicates of some of my favorites. Since my first music festival in 2011 I’ve attended Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Coachella in California, the New Orleans Jazz Festival (obviously in New Orleans) on two separate occasions, Montreal’s Osheaga three times and New York’s Governor’s Ball twice, but the one I want to tell you about today is a little-known festival called Life is Beautiful, held in downtown Las Vegas.
The first time I attended the event with two friends I was blown away by how the event pushed the boundaries of what a musical festival could be. The second time I attended the event it was one of the best weekends of my life, despite significantly crippling my music-writing career. It would have been much worse, however, if not for a poker tournament and a Dave Grohl guitar solo I will remember the rest of my life.
I first heard about LIB (which is what the cool kids call it) the winter before the inaugural event in 2013. Though it didn’t have the same prestige to the festival-going community as Coachella or Bonnaroo there were a few elements that made it irresistible:
1) It was being held in the empty lots of old downtown Las Vegas as part of a revitalization project
2) It had a pretty incredible line-up for an event of its size
3) The food was supplied by some of the top chefs on the Vegas Strip, who weren’t allowed to charge more than $10 for any dish (no matter their cost a few blocks over)
4) It was being produced in partnership with Cirque du Soleil, whose acrobats and performers joined musicians on stage for surprise collaborations
5) It was in Las Vegas, and what 20-something doesn’t like an excuse to head to Vegas with a couple friends for a weekend?
Despite my passion for music and my career as a freelance journalist I had never covered a music festival before in any official capacity. At the time contributing to Rolling Stone was still a pipe dream, as was interviewing a genuine rock star, but I had started doing some freelance music coverage for a little-known publication out of Chicago calledConsequence of Sound. In spite of a rather painful falling out with the publication’s founders I’m still an avid reader, and strongly recommend the website to any music (and now film and TV) lover, especially those based in and around Chicago.
I first reached out to the publication to do a “music festival survival column,” and later pitched them on an interview with the founder of Life is Beautiful, a man named Rehan Choudhry. I spoke to Rehan just a few months before the event’s second iteration, and as he spoke about the headliners (including Lionel Richie, Kanye West and the Foo Fighters) about this year’s food lineup and the Cirque du Soleil Beatles tribute, I knew I had to find a way to attend. The fact that I couldn’t afford to go, and that none of my friends could either, wasn’t going to deter me.
I pitched Consequence of Sound on the idea of covering the festival, and they agreed, though they only offered me a total of $200 to write 500-word blurbs on about a dozen artists. To put that into perspective, I’d normally expect closer to $1 or at least $.50 per word, putting the assignment’s true value somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000.
There were also other red flags that I was too excited to acknowledge at the time, including the fact that they wanted me to cover multiple shows that were scheduled to take place at the same time, and the fact that they wanted me to write a total of about 6,000 words in one weekend while also attending the festival. Half a decade later I’d still consider that an impossible task, even with an otherwise empty schedule for the weekend.
Still, they were the only music publication willing to give this inexperienced freelancer a shot at covering an entire festival on his own, and their letter of assignment was all I needed to get a free media pass to the event, which itself saved me $350 on admission. Despite having to pay for my own flight and hotel I didn’t consider the assignment a loss; someone was paying me (even just a little bit) to cover a music festival. That in and of itself was a dream come true.
In hindsight, I was at best naïve and at worst a little stupid for not even entertaining the idea that it might be a complete disaster.
The first sign of trouble was when I arrived in Las Vegas straight from a major tech conference in San Francisco and checked into the hotel, only to discover that I only had enough funds to pay for the first of my four night stay. I had plenty of cash in my account ready for the trip, but failed to anticipate the high cost of living in San Francisco.
I paid for the first night at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas and was told that they could hold my reservation until the next morning, at which point I’d have to either come up with the remaining $600 or vacate the hotel. With the festival kicking off the next morning I couldn’t afford to spend any time switching hotels the next day, assuming I could even find somewhere to stay on my remaining budget of about $50 a night (less if I wanted to eat that weekend).
It was like a ‘90s sitcom plotline come to life: I had one night in Las Vegas to come up with the money, or I’d never realize my dream of covering a music festival as a professional journalist
I only had about $65 cash on me, so I did what I felt was the most logical solution at the time; I entered a poker tournament with an entry fee of exactly $65.
There were about 35 competitors in the tournament, each trying to place in 4th or better to get a share of the prize money. For me, however, fourth wouldn’t have been enough for another night at the hotel, and second or third would only buy me one more night. I had to go for broke.
After the first hour of the tournament I was down to the last of my chips, but a few lucky cards and a few unwise moves by my competitors turned things around for me. After the second hour we were down to only a dozen or so players, and I had the most chips by far.
One by one the remaining players were taken out until it was down to just myself and two others, duking it out for the top prizes. By the start of the fourth hour we were down to two, and I had a commanding lead. It didn’t take long for my chip pile to swallow theirs, and four hours later I was crowned the champion.
I remember literally shaking in disbelief as I approached the counter where I received my prize: $758 in cash, minus a generous tip for the dealers. I took my winnings and ran as fast as I could to the hotel lobby, where I paid for the next two nights in crisp hundred dollar bills.
I had a Muhammad Ali-sized ego as I arrived at the festival the next morning, high off a series of unlikely victories, sporting my purple and green “media” wristband (see obnoxious selfie below). Despite the enormity of the professional challenge ahead of me I felt like I could accomplish anything, even afford to have a few drinks as I ran from stage to stage with my little red notepad jotting down a few lines about each performance as I went.
After each day of the festival I’d return to my hotel room and punch out as many words as I could about each of the artists I had seen, but could barely get through my daily quota of 2000 before nodding off and doing it all over again.
When I recall the festival now, five years later, only two things really stand out; running between stages to catch enough of each show to jot down a few notes, and Dave Grohl. After bolting to the headlining stage on the third and final night of the festival midway through the Foo Fighters performance I found myself so far back into the crowd I could barely see the legendary frontman, but fortunately he was kind enough to come to me. I didn’t even notice the pathway that split the crowd into two until he ran through it and stopped about 5-feet away from where I was standing, and busted out an extended solo (see pic below) .
I thought there was no way COS could expect me to submit this giant report the day after the festival ended, but I was wrong. At the airport the next day, still a few thousand words short, I asked the editor in chief when he needed to see a draft to which he responded “this afternoon.” I asked if he could wait until I landed 5-hours later, and he reluctantly accepted, not that he had much of a choice.
I was exhausted from a marathon week on the west coast as I wrote the remainder of my reviews on the airplane. I know the draft I submitted was sub-par, but I felt it was still usable. Evidently the editor in chief felt differently.
“Okay. Well, I’m only paying $100 for the coverage,” he wrote in an email the next day. “I rewrote entire sections and there were typos galore. I spent two hours on it this morning.”
I responded with an apology and an explanation, and thanked him again for the assignment. I offered to help in any way that I could, and swore it would never happen again, but it was too late. Consequence of Sound sent me $100, and has never responded to my emails since.
That was the end of my music-writing career, at least for the time being. After that I refocused on my careers and future-of-work reporting, that story next. In all my years freelancing I’ve never submitted work so bad that a client refused to pay me my full fee, and I probably would have been more upset about the whole situation if I hadn’t just won a few hundred in a poker tournament, and gotten 5-feet from a Dave Grohl guitar solo in Las Vegas, all without having to buy my own wristband.
Five years later, I still look back on it as both one of the best and worst weekends of my career.
I’ve done a lot of scary, crazy and bold things in my now
7-year career as a freelance journalist, but none more so than kicking off the
I tested the waters as a freelance journalist on a part-time
basis in the late autumn of 2012, and took the full plunge early in the New
Year. Studies show that most choose self-employment out of a disdain for their
boss/job, for more control over their careers or to make more money, and I
guess my reasons were a combination of all three. At the same time I’ve always
been very independent, so much so that when the concept of freelancing was
first introduced to me it felt like an inevitability.
In fact, when my journalism professor first introduced us to the concept of freelancing (shout out to Professor Mark Kearney) he didn’t sugarcoat it one bit: he told us that finding work was a full time job unto itself, that freelance rates haven’t budged for the better part of the last half century and all the challenges associated with fluctuating income.
It sounded terrible, but inevitable. I knew myself well enough to know that it was only a matter of time before I went down the path of self-employment, though I wouldn’t have guessed that time was just two and a half years after graduation.
It didn’t help that I spent the first 8 months of those post-graduation days helplessly unemployed with absolutely no prospects, or that the first gig I did land was for a “digital content” studio that only dabbled in what I would call traditional journalism. That constant strive towards independence had also compelled me to move out of my parents house and into a tiny downtown condo, long before I could afford to do so.
Through my first year of formal employment my boss “started me off” with a pretty low salary but promised a significant raise for year two, approximately 30% more than what I had made in year one. I spent a year on the fence about that job, often thinking about jumping ship, but the promise of a higher salary gave me just enough motivation to soldier on. Of course when the longest year of my life finally did come to an end, the raise that was offered to me was closer to 5% accompanies by the promise of another generous raise in just one more year. I reluctantly accepted it.
I was overall pretty unhappy with the lack of agency I had over my own life, when a former classmate mentioned that an editor of his was looking for some outside help with a project at the Toronto Star’s small business section. I jumped at the opportunity to work for the country’s largest newspaper, well before I figured out how I’d do so while stuck in a tiny, open-concept office from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a boss who wouldn’t be too fond of me side-hustling for another outlet. I could do the writing portion during evenings and weekends, but I needed to speak with sources for these stories, and it seemed unlikely that I could reach them outside of standard business hours.
My first solution was conducting interviews in the stairwell
of the office during lunch breaks, but that quickly proved unsustainable. Not
only was there a high likelihood of getting caught but the background noise of
workers marching up and down the steps during their lunch breaks made it
difficult to hear my interview recordings clearly. Eventually I found a new
My small business stories required interviews with experts
in Canada, but they didn’t necessarily have to be in Toronto. If you looked
back on those stories (i don’t know why anyone would) you’d notice that most of
my interviews were with sources based in Vancouver, whom I’d speak to after
3:30pm Pacific, well after I made it back from work on the east coast.
I kept that up for a couple of months until my uncle connected me with an editor from Canada’s second largest newspaper, The Globe & Mail. He was a business reporter but didn’t recommend that I continue pursuing business journalism, seeing as the field was already crowded and more welcoming to MBA graduates than journalism majors.
In that conversation, however, I told him that I was hoping to eventually become a remote working, full-time freelancer. “Those are all the buzz words our careers section editors are struggling to write cover,” he told me. “You should speak to them.”
So he connected me with the careers editor of the Globe and
Mail, who gave me my first assignment in early 2013 with a one-week deadline.
For that assignment I took a sick day from work and did the whole thing in one
day, which impressed the editor enough to give me another try. After a couple
more it started to look like I might actually be able to cover my rent as a
freelance journalist, as long as I was fine with a food budget of $25 a week.
Pro-tip for new freelancers; you can get a half dozen bagels
for about $4, a package of cheese for $5, and some vegetables for another $5
and if you really want to live large, some canned tuna and mayo for about $7.
Throw in a dozen eggs and some bread and that should cover you for a week.
What can I say? Some dreams taste like champagne and caviar; mine tasted like melted cheese on a whole-wheat bagel with avocado, tomato, onion, and a on really good week some tuna.
In January of 2013 I earned enough as a freelancer to cover my rent. In February I made $200 more, and by March I cracked the $2000 mark, but only by $10. That’s when I decided to quit my full time job, and take the leap into freelancing.
The first month I put all my focus and energy into freelance, in April, I earned nearly $6,000, though it would be a long time before I saw a month like that again. Through the remainder of the year my salary fluctuated widely, but in the end I earned almost exactly what my former boss had promised I would make that year, before changing his offer.
When he rescinded his offer I couldn’t have imagined making
that amount on my own, while working for myself and doing work I actually
wanted to do.
After that my mind was made up: I was going to do this for the rest of my life.
Once I started freelancing other opportunities started to arise too; suddenly I could travel, I could pitch any publication I wanted and I could even start pursuing my dream of being a music reporter. You can read more about that in my next post.