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Gazette reporter spies on us to parents

by Archives March 3, 2009

How do you get news about your school? You head to a handy paper stand and pick up a free copy of the Concordian or the Link, or even the Concordia Journal. You flip through the pages while sitting on the shuttle bus or nursing a coffee.
Within our news section, you’ll read about school happenings, like the trials and tribulations of the CSU, student health insurance policies, ASFA elections, and the appointment of new university administrators. The Stingers’ triumphs and failures are noted in the sports section, and student’s artistic chef-d’oeuvres are profiled under arts. Letters to the editors proudly proclaim student opinion and keep debate alive on campus.
You have a vested interest in knowing how things are going within your school, because, well, you go here. Students at every other university do the same thing when they consult their student press.
But someone else is often very keen to know what’s going on within universities. Their money funds universities, both indirectly through taxes and directly through tuition payments and charitable donations. Universities are educating their successors in the work place. They are your parents. Stories like the mismanagement of funds or the overinflated salaries of university administrators need to be publicized to the general public.
Peggy Curran is one journalist who keeps the general public, aka the parents and the taxpayers, informed. She writes about university life for the Montreal Gazette.

Early days
She had her start working in the student press, as the first female editor-in-chief at the Loyola News, the Link’s predecessor. “I had it in my mind I was going to be a journalist, always.”
But it would seem her career began back in the Gazette’s building years, before she even got to Concordia. Her father, Pat Curran, worked for the paper. The work didn’t pay very well (it probably still doesn’t today), but there was a perk: free season’s tickets to Habs games. Curran and her sister, playwright Colleen Curran, would accompany their father to games. “We could sit in these great seats and eat hot dogs, and then we’d go back to the Gazette, and he’d write his story, and we’d play in the newsroom on a Saturday night.”
Curran tells the story nowadays as a way to illustrate how she got hooked on the job. “It was sort of like a child’s fantasy of what work is. I mean it was a totally false view of what being a journalist is all about. But I think it probably shaped it for me in that it seemed like a cool job, it seemed very interesting, and you met really neat people. And I was good in composition, and not much good in anything else in school. It seemed like a perfect fit.”
She completed her bachelor’s degree at Concordia in history and English. Her life then was something any student today might recognize: she juggled a full-course load and three jobs, postering for the dean of student’s office, moonlighting on Saturdays as circulation manager at the Sunday Express, and invigilating exams for international students while simultaneously working at the Loyola News. Of those years, she says, “It was a long, horrible week, but at the time, it was my life. When you love something, you don’t care that you’re working, like, 900 hours.” Curran then went on the complete a master’s of journalism at University of Western Ontario.
As a journalist, Curran has covered a wide and varied ground over the years. “I had no idea what I wanted to cover, and so, as a result, I’ve covered everything, or nearly everything.” She’s reported on biker gang murder trials, the Meech Lake Accord and her beloved Habs. “I like the fact that I’ve done pretty much everything.”
Before reporting on Montreal’s universities, Curran had a job you might envy: she was the resident radio and television writer. Sounds great to me – being paid to watch all the television you please, and then writing down the running commentary you usually force on your friends. But it wasn’t all roses, sunshine and DVD seasons of Lost and Gossip Girl.
“I’m not really a television person. It was a poor match. I found I wasn’t getting to interview anyone. I was spending time sitting in my house watching television. And no matter what you’ve done, you haven’t watched everything.”
Curran also filled the “invigorating and exhausting” position of city columnist for a handful of years (a job you “can’t do forever”). Upon returning to the Gazette after a year off work, she picked up a beat that was available and appealed the most to her: university life. Curran is what you call a beat reporter, someone who covers a certain area, like only music, court affairs, business stories. You become ingrained in the beat and get stories by developing contacts who are willing to offer you information either off or on the record.

On writing about universities
Curran enjoys covering universities. Stories aren’t hard to find. “There are all kinds of stories on university campuses because there are so many smart, interesting, engaged people. It’s easy to find good stories.”
“Right now, there’s a bunch of stories that are really hard news, like the CSU scandals, and the overpayment of salaries to university professors.” But there’s a challenge to covering just the opposite. “Perennial stories” are things like tuition fee hikes and university funding. Because they are so often repeated, you have to keep finding new ways to tell them to a general audience like the Gazette’s.
An example of a recent story is the blessed cancellation of Concordia’s university writing quiz (never more will the graduations of future Concordia students be halted by a silly test). Curran received an e-mail tip from a source, and proceeded to the school’s website to check up on some facts, and arranged for an interview with a Concordia media representative. Curran is the first to admit that that one isn’t quite the sexiest story yet, but it’s an example of how one reporter is keeping tabs on the rest of us for those on the outside.

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