Many things have changed in the newspaper world since Mark Falkenberg was a rookie reporter at the Chilliwack Progress in the 1990s.
But there’s one thing that most definitely hasn’t — and, for Falkenberg, it’s the most important one.
“We're in the business of telling stories,” he says. “We're in the business of reaching out to people and trying to tell them stories about people and reflect their concerns and their interests, how they feel about where they live and their relationship to the broader community.
“Fundamentally, we’re in the business of storytelling.”
Falkenberg took the helm as editor of the New Westminster Record, Burnaby NOW and Tri-City News in May. His arrival brought his 30-year career back to where it started: community news.
That very first Chilliwack Progress job started in 1991, after Falkenberg graduated from the University of Montana with a master’s degree in journalism.
He’d previously done his bachelor’s in English at the University of British Columbia, and the Fraser Valley job was his way of getting back to the West Coast. There, at B.C.’s oldest community newspaper, he found an excellent training ground for putting his reporting and writing skills into practice — covering everything from city hall and police to education, arts and health.
It wasn’t long before Falkenberg made the determination that would shape the rest of his journalism career: though he loved reporting, he was happier being an editor.
He served as the paper’s associate editor and filled in when the editor went on vacation. When a friend alerted him to a need for fill-in editors at the Vancouver Sun, Falkenberg saw his next move. He got his foot in the door by taking on a couple of relief editor stints and soon found himself with a new full-time job.
What followed was 13 years at the Sun, working on the arts desk and the city desk, serving as deputy arts editor and as news editor overseeing what he calls the “daily miracle” of getting every day’s pages off to press.
Falkenberg took a buyout from that job in 2013 and found his way into his most recent position, as deputy managing editor of Business in Vancouver. He describes BIV as a “hybrid” publication, with a lively daily web presence and a weekly print edition.
It was his first experience working for a specialized publication — and, he says, he was honest enough to admit going in that he didn’t know a lot about business.
“They said I would learn, and I did,” he says.
At BIV, he had a chance to hone his skills at working with writers, where he discovered a knack for coaching reporters and helping them to determine how to approach and tell a good story.
At its heart, Falkenberg says, business writing is like any other kind of news writing.
“It’s about what people want, the creative ways they come up with to make it happen, and hopefully the interesting personalities behind businesses,” he says. “The more you can make it about people and how they feel about things, the better.”
But he admits he still felt the pang of missing out on telling other kinds of stories.
So when the opportunity to apply for the Burnaby/New West/Tri-Cities post came up, he didn’t hesitate. The fact that the job allows him to work in his home community — he’s lived in Port Moody, just a short walk from Rocky Point Park, since 2001 — just added to the appeal of getting back into community journalism.
“It seems to me there’s more opportunity for direct engagement with people and telling interesting stories,” he says.
He has his eyes on finding more of those quirky, human-interest stories that bring their communities to life — like Tri-City News reporter Mario Bartel’s recent story about a library book from London, England that made its way back to the U.K. from Port Moody after 48 years, or Burnaby NOW reporter Cornelia Naylor’s exposé of a skimpily clad schoolgirl scandal from 1928.
With three separate print editions each week, three distinct websites and a host of other digital channels, including newsletters and social media feeds, Falkenberg’s new job will use every aspect of the skills he’s gathered over the past three decades.
But, in the end, it will all come back to stories.
“We’ve got all these tools, technological tools, at our disposal to dress up our storytelling,” he says.
“But to me, none of that means anything unless you're telling a story at the centre of it. The other things to me are helpful. But without that story, the facility of telling it to begin with? None of the other stuff will mean much.”
Q&A with Mark Falkenberg
We had a chance to chat with Mark to find out more about him and how he sees life unfolding in his new newsrooms:
What does good community journalism look like to you?
I get a good sense of what good community journalism is just flipping through of recent copies and browsing the websites of the Burnaby NOW, New West Record and Tri-City News. These papers tick the boxes — Do they cover local issues honestly and fairly? Check. Do they handle sensitive stories sensitively? Check. Are they responsive? Check. Are they aware? Check. Are they attuned, approachable, available? Check, check, check.
What sort of coverage do you think warrants more attention in these communities?
The three papers I now work for have done a terrific job of covering a broad mix of stories important to readers. I think there is an opportunity in some cases to devote time and space to a closer look at some things in the cities they cover, whether it’s people who have helped make others’ lives better, or things that have caused harm and need to be changed. I think, for instance, that a deeper look at the human cost, the real damage, of the opioid crisis is warranted. My cousin lost her 16-year-old son to opioids. There are parents on the street where I live whose son died of an overdose. He was 13. That age bears repeating — 13 years old. Why did that happen? What can we do to stop that happening to other children?
How will you go about ensuring your coverage is representative of Burnaby/New West/Tri-Cities as it exists today?
There are a number of ways to ensure that but the simplest, and the best is to seek out and listen closely to the people who live here — readers, friends, colleagues, family. What interests them? What ticks them off? What restaurants are they going to? What festivals are they looking forward to? Where are they living and how tough is it for them to pay the rent or mortgage? What challenges do they face in taking care of their kids or aging parents?
If someone wanted to pitch you a story outside of the newsroom, which local coffee spot or restaurant are they more likely to find you at?
I can sometimes be found loafing at the Omega Café in Port Moody.
Can you tell us three random things about yourself?
- I helped greet Pierre Trudeau at the Medicine Hat airport in 1968, during one of his campaign stops. I was two years old and my dad, carrying me on his shoulders, coached me to call out "Hi, Pierre!"
- Once, when I was a young guy in Montana, I lived downstairs from Nelson Rockefeller’s grandson.
- I am slowly learning about basic electronics, and still feel smug about being able to fix a 1940s Packard Bell radio that had been gathering dust at my house for years. I have not yet inflicted serious electric shock on myself.
Want to reach Mark to say hello, pitch a story or ask a question? Send him an email.