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An unexpected love story: One reporter's goodbye to journalism

Reporter Julie MacLellan reflects on three decades in community newspapers as she gets ready to step away.
Reporter and assistant editor Julie MacLellan is bidding farewell to community newspapers after a 31-year journalism career.

I want to polish up the tale with the sheen of hindsight and say it was love at first sight, that I knew it would be forever.

Truth be told, that wasn’t how it went at all. It didn’t begin as a love story. But it ends as one.

My time in the newsroom comes to an end next Friday after nearly 21 years.

That’s 20 years, 10 months and four days in the New Westminster Record/Burnaby NOW newsroom, and a decade longer in the media industry. When I turn off this computer for the final time, I’ll be stepping away from more than 31 years in community journalism.

It was never meant to be my grand romance.

I started my career in suburban Ottawa in the spring of 1992. I was a journalism student entering my final year of university with aspirations to move on to something bigger. Community journalism would be a springboard to daily newspapering, perhaps, or to feature writing for a news magazine. It was a starter job; a summer fling of sorts.

Somewhere in my first year of work at the Orleans Star, that changed.

The job taught me what I loved most about journalism. It wasn’t the rush of breaking news or the thrill of getting the scoop. It was the people — and the stories they had to tell.

I’ll always remember one young dancer I interviewed that first summer, after he was accepted to the National Ballet School. I don’t remember his name. I do remember his excitement, his mom’s pride, his teacher’s confidence in her protégé. It was one of those stories too small to attract the attention of larger media. But it was a big story for that young dancer and his family — and for the people who read about it in their community paper.

I think about that kid sometimes. He’d be 40-ish now. I don’t know if he went on to a ballet career. I don’t know if he saved that clipping in a scrapbook somewhere; I wonder if he did, if he ever pulls it out and smiles at the memory.

I wonder if that one little story made a difference to his life. I'd love to tell him it made a difference to mine.

That story set me on the path to the kind of journalism I wanted to do — and continued to do for three decades.

It’s overwhelming to look back and realize how many people entrusted their stories to me over those years. A mother mourning the loss of her stillborn child. An artist coping with grief over the loss of her partner. A date rape survivor. A singer whose faith changed her life. A refugee mother and daughter building a new life in Canada. A prisoner working to turn his life around. A mother still waiting, years later, for the return of her missing son.

And the artists. Oh, the artists. Countless actors, singers, dancers, painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians, composers — visionaries and creatives using their art to change the world in ways big and small, working to bring hope to a world in darkness. 

All of their stories have become a part of me.

I hope I never let them down.

It took me a long time to fully appreciate just how precious a thing it is to hold someone else’s story in your hands and to share it with the world on their behalf. To sit down with a stranger, notebook and recorder in hand, and listen as they open up about their achievements, their losses, their griefs, their joys, their successes and failures and plans and dreams … it’s an incredible gift for a storyteller.

All of you who have let me into your lives and been honest and vulnerable and emotional and angry and sorrowful and fragile and quirky and real and human — you’ve made me a better reporter, a better storyteller, a better person.

I will always be grateful to have witnessed your lives and experiences and to have shared your stories with the community.

I’m grateful, too, to have had a chance to share my own stories with you. You have been a generous audience for all manner of tales: my silly cat anecdotes, my rants on current affairs, my sentimental musings from motherhood, my grief at the loss of my father. Thank you for your years of reading, of listening and seeking to understand — and even for calling me out when you disagreed with me, because a reader who takes the time to disagree is a reader who cares.

Without those readers, writers would have no one to tell their stories to. Thank you for being there to hear mine.

I’ll always be grateful for the rest of it, too; for all the ordinary happenings that are the bread and butter of every community newsroom — the city council and school board meetings, the public hearings, the petitions and protests, the fundraisers and craft fairs, the art shows and concerts, the track meets and lacrosse games, the first days of school, the high school homecomings and the thousand-and-one other moments that measure the life of a community.

It has rarely been glamorous work. But it has always been work that mattered.

I’ve been lucky enough to work as a staff reporter at four publications: the Orleans Star, the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle, the now-defunct Abbotsford-Mission Times and finally here, in the combined newsroom of the Burnaby NOW and New Westminster Record.

All those newsrooms were small in size but huge in talent and heart, bursting with equal parts wit and weirdness. Imagine, if you will, a place where the Sorkinesque repartee of The Newsroom meets the existential angst of the Island of Misfit Toys. How can you not fall head over heels for a workplace like that?

I’ve spent the past three decades surrounded by smart, sarcastic, hard-working, hilarious, compassionate colleagues. We have come to journalism from many different places, different generations, different backgrounds, united by a shared love of our communities and a dogged devotion to an often-chaotic industry that’s increasingly battered by turbulent times.

Whatever the next chapter of my professional life brings, I walk away knowing these past three decades have been a gift.

My years at the New West Record have been the greatest gift of all. New Westminster is where I’ve spent the majority of my adult life. It’s where my husband and I were married, where we bought our home, where we’re now parenting our middle schooler. To be able to tell the stories of my hometown, in my hometown newspaper, has been in every way a dream job.

I’m not leaving New West, mind you. You’ll still see me around town. You’ll still find me writing, in some way, shape or form, because telling stories is a fundamental part of who I am.

My love for community journalism will continue, but from a distance now. The stories of the community — your stories, our stories — will be someone else's to tell.

As I clear off my desk and prepare to turn off my computer for the final time, I thank you for three decades of stories. For telling them. For reading them. For caring about them. For helping me to shape this career that began as a summer fling and ended as a lifelong love affair.

It began once upon a time in suburban Ottawa.

It ends on Friday, Sept. 29 in New Westminster.

Not with tears and high drama, but with the quiet satisfaction of knowing that the lives of ordinary people hold the most extraordinary stories of all.

Happily ever onward.


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