Melanie Coulson is a former journalist, so naturally it was a bit odd for her to be on the other side of the interviewing process. Originally, we planned to meet at Carleton where Coulson is a contract professor; however, as often happens with busy lives, time somehow escaped us so I ended up calling Coulson at work.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Melanie Coulson is currently employed both by United Way, where she is the Director of Communications and Content, and the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. Her interest in communicating through the written word is made plain by her history of employment and her educational background.
As an undergraduate student, Coulson attended Wilfrid Laurier University for a degree in Communications and English Literature, that was back when, “It was a really small school…you got to know everybody in all these different departments, and you got to meet so many different interesting people,” said Coulson of her undergrad experience.
“Very early on I got involved with the student newspaper, The Cord, at Laurier and I loved it,” Coulson spoke fondly of her extracurricular involvement at university, “I started writing an advice column and eventually, I was the editor-in-chief.”
As she found herself climbing the ranks of The Cord’s editorial hierarchy, Coulson fell a little more in love with journalism, “It really kind of blossomed this love of writing that I had and I always thought going into university that I wanted to be an English professor,” she reminisced. However her future career plans changed as she refined her interests, “I also had a love of documentaries, and non-fictional storytelling and [being a professor] didn’t really feed that like the news side of things did.”
When media mogul Diane Francis visited Laurier in the late nineties, Coulson sought her out for advice about how to enter the journalism industry. The wisdom she received was quite a cold shock to her young, opportunistic system, “She was like get yourself to a good journalism school and even then you don’t really have much chance of making it. It’s a cutthroat industry,” remembered Coulson, “And I thought Wow! Those weren’t the encouraging words I was hoping for but I did end up going to Carleton for my Masters in Journalism.”
Now in the position of a mentor herself Coulson said, “I teach students and I do believe that I see the cream of the crop, the top students, finding work,” but she also noted that the landscape of journalism has changed, “Really [journalists] have to be entrepreneurial now and think differently.”
As for the students themselves, they inspire her, “Because they are just so unafraid.”
Coulson’s time as a graduate did not emulate her undergraduate years. “My undergrad was all about being very social and finding out where I fit,” stated Coulson, while her days at Carleton were spent, “Getting the work done.”
“At the same time I was rowing on the Carleton crew and for another crew in the summers and I really had this other dream of maybe someday making team Canada,” said Coulson with a laugh and a slight air of wistfulness.
However, Coulson’s first love was always the news. As a young child she nurtured this passion by reading Maclean’s and watching documentaries. She even remembers watching television with her parents on Sunday evening, “Walt Disney World and then 60 Minutes – that’s kind of how it went for me growing up,” chuckled Coulson.
From watching television to tweeting on Twitter, Coulson feels as if she, “Kind of bridges the gap…because you know growing up…people would be talking about what they read in the paper,” which always appeared the day after something had happened, “And now [the news is] instant, it’s immediate.”
In June 2012, Coulson won the Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education. She used it to explore the concepts of community and audience in modern journalism, “And how citizen journalism is on the rise because people love to get involved in reporting. And now thanks to social media people can get involved.”
“Stories are no longer a finished product…they’re a constant organic base that keeps growing…it’s great in that way,” said Coulson, but she continues that she, “read an interesting piece the other day that you have to be careful on social that you’re not just following each other, it can’t be insular.”
Another issue Coulson finds with social media is that, “There’s a lot of noise. I think that’s the role that news organizations have to play, there’s so much noise out there that people are looking for a trusted source.”
After Carleton, Coulson’s first job was a one year contract with the CBC, “It was part of a special program they ran for one year, there were ten of us in that group, and we got ‘on air’ reporting experience,” she said. She went from Venture, to Newsworld, and then Coulson found herself attached to CBC. It was then that she realized, “That digital was where I really wanted to be.”
When asked why she is so drawn to digital work, Coulson replied, “It’s this quasi wonderful mix of broadcast and print where words matter. You get to write and impress people. At the same time you get to add all of these multimedia elements…I went to The Globe and Mail after that job.”
That was when Coulson’s career really began to take off, “And I was actually the first hired at The Globe and Mail which was amazing to kind of encourage all of these newspaper reporters to think about the evolution of news and how they could file their stories before 6pm and sources would get back to them with other sides of the story. It was really neat.”
She has always worked with traditional Canadian media outlets seemingly unintentionally, “I love the way that Canadian outlets report news…Canadian media goes out of its way not to be biased and I always thought that was really quite commendable,” said Coulson, “We should be proud…I do believe that there is a real patriotism that comes out in how we cover news.”
Despite her feelings of patriotism and her love for her work, when asked if she ever felt that being a woman in the media was ever a disadvantage Coulson responded in the affirmative, “It’s just generally a male dominated industry. You know there’s a reason why it’s called the old boys club. And that very much exists.”
“I remember one case, when that study first came out that hormone replacement therapy was actually linked to breast cancer and it had a huge impact on millions of women around the world,” while Coulson pushed for the story to run in a prominent place it ended up, “On page three or something.” That’s when she thought, “That’s where we need more women in these story meetings – to give voice to the stories that are important to us.” Coulson believes that sadly, there’s sexism everywhere, “There is something about the boys network which makes it somehow more acceptable which is very sad.”
Coulson recalls other instances when she was hit on at the office or asked offhandedly by new coworkers when she would be having her second child only ten months after giving birth to her first.
“And that was a hard time too sitting in a senior editor role…very pregnant and you know, being the only woman at the table…I was very aware of it,” stated Coulson.
Despite often being the only female editor in the story room Coulson drew on her Scottish heritage and the definite sense of right and wrong her mother instilled in her to keep her going. Apparently, Coulson’s mother, a force of nature even now, comes from a long line of confident matriarchs. “I actually respect women, who are confident saying ‘I don’t think you’re right’,” said Coulson.
“I thought about what is it about this industry that drove me to it and Diane Francis probably has a lot to do with it,” noted Coulson, “Because it’s a challenge. It’s a tough industry to get into so I told myself you know what I’m gonna do this and then I got there and I realized that it’s all run by men.”
At the beginning of her career Coulson said, “Sometimes I did find that I was trying too much to be like one of the guys early on; you can’t [blend in]. You have to be yourself and hope that people can see you for your skills and your talents.”
A staunch unabashed feminist, Coulson says she would put the word feminist, “On a t-shirt.”
Several years ago Coulson came across a Harvard Business Review study that said, “That women aren’t on boards…because they don’t tend to put up their hands,” she explained.
So, when Coulson decided that she wanted to teach at Carleton, she chose to do something about her ambitions, “I emailed the then director of the school of journalism, Christopher Waddell and I said can we meet for coffee so you can tell me what I need to someday teach at Carleton.”
They met for coffee and near the end of the conversation Coulson said, “I thought, he is starting to talk like I’ve already got this [job]. At the end of the hour he says to me, “So, you’ll be good to start in September?” And I thought, this is all it takes? All it took was putting my hand up.”
Coulson fell in love with teaching right away and enjoys watching the way her students constantly break new ground in the field of journalism, “When I see students starting up new journalism ventures, new apps, I say go for it because that’s the future – those light, nimble, small organizations that can really capture the imagination.”
For more information on Coulson, visit her blog here.