Over its 50-year history, the St. Albert Gazette has had a plethora of names grace the bylines of its pages.
Some of these writers have gone on to notoriety in the pages of larger papers, both in the Capital region and across Canada, while others have applied their experience to fields other than journalism.
Perhaps the most recognizable name to media junkies in the Edmonton area is Scott McKeen. Before rattling cages at Edmonton city hall as a civic affairs columnist for the Edmonton Journal, McKeen cut his teeth at the Gazette from 1984 to 1986.
McKeen fondly recalls his time in St. Albert.
“You could grow and stretch as a writer and try things, and I really loved that,” he said. “And the quality of the people I was working with was great.”
Still, coming from the Innisfail Province, McKeen recalled feeling “intimidated” when he arrived at a paper with such a good reputation and a lot more staff.
“It was really a step up in the calibre and quality and commitment to journalism,” he said. “I really grew a lot there.”
While at the Gazette, McKeen wrote a series of articles about tagging along with a member of the RCMP crime lab. He said those articles were memorable because they gave him glimpses of blood splatter analysis and other forensic processes, opening his eyes to the realities of police work.
“I didn’t throw up and I didn’t faint, but it was like, ‘Ugh, my God,’” he said. “Journalism will show you at times there is a part of life — a part of our city and our culture — that a lot of people don’t even want to know exists. And there are certain people whose jobs insert them in that all the time. I had a growing sense over my time in journalism — and it certainly started there — of what a difficult job it is to be a cop.”
Halifax-based freelance writer Richard Foot continues the journalistic career he started at the Gazette. Foot served as editor of the Morinville Gazette and assistant editor of the St. Albert edition between 1992 and 1994.
He still has fond memories of the Gazette, of the people he worked with and of St. Albert itself.
“The Gazette was my first full-time newspaper gig, and it got me my start in the business. I still consider it today one of the best community newspapers in the country, and I feel very blessed and grateful to have been able to work there,” he said.
Other former Gazette reporters, however, have found their niche in careers outside of journalism, although sometimes not too far outside. Take, for example, former provincial affairs reporter Mark Wells, who now serves as senior communications advisor for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
Wells wrote for the Gazette from November 2003 to November 2005, with beats ranging from business and agriculture to health and education. He stumbled upon writing after earning an English degree at the University of Alberta. He approached Gazette editor Sue Gawlak with a portfolio of both writing and photography samples.
She asked him to choose his preference and he went with writing, not because that’s what he wanted but because he was more confident in his writing skills. Still, his start at the paper was scary.
“The first month was frightening,” he said. “I knew how to write academic essays, but a news story is a slightly different beast.”
David Dodge came on board around 1980 as a photographer, but had his arm twisted into writing as well during his five-year stint with the Gazette.
“I loved photojournalism, was totally smitten with it, and determined to get good at it because I loved it so much,” he said. “But the [editor and publisher]thought it was great to have words with the [photos], so I learned that could be a lot of fun as well.”
Today Dodge is the senior communications advisor for the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank. He often looks back on his time with the Gazette with a smile.
“Being a journalist is fun. Anyone who tells you any different is probably in the wrong business,” he said. “If you love every minute, it’s going to treat you well. And in the beginning, I felt like I got paid to go where everybody else went to have fun.”
Whether they stayed in journalism or went off to other endeavours, all the former staffers say the experience they gained at the Gazette has served them extremely well.
Since leaving the Gazette, Foot has worked for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, Southam News and The National Post before taking a buyout from Canwest News Service earlier this year and embarking on a freelance career. He credits the Gazette for giving him his start.
“One of the problems with journalism is that you need to gain some experience before someone will give you a step up the ladder to something higher, so it gave me that first important job and first bit of experience,” he said.
McKeen said he was definitely a smarter and more seasoned reporter thanks to his time at the Gazette.
“It was probably just getting my legs under me as a reporter. … As a reporter, your job isn’t to become an insider and learn all the stuff. Your job is to represent the reader,” he said.
“There are different techniques and tricks people will use to keep you onside without telling you anything. It was just a general level of professional commitment to what you’re there to do, and that’s to serve the reader.”
After leaving the Gazette, Wells wrote for See Magazine in Edmonton before taking communications positions with the provincial NDP and then the AUPE. He’s also working on a law degree part-time and ran for the NDP in the last federal election. His experience as a reporter has helped him handle media requests while on the other side of the equation.
“The real lesson you take away is that everyone’s doing a job … the best they can with limited time and resources,” he said. “I always try to keep that in mind if a story is reported in a way that I think is not the best, and keep in mind what it was like trying to beat that deadline when no one’s returning your calls.”
Dodge too has taken a path away from newspapers. Besides his work with the Pembina Institute, he’s been a magazine editor, a radio producer and is now producing a multi-media series called Green Energy Futures. He said he still draws on the experience he gained at the Gazette.
“I became a journalist at the Gazette and I still use those skills every day of my life.”