“Get a master’s” was the advice the late, great Sue Gawlak, then editor of the St. Albert Gazette, gave Kevin Ma when he first applied for a reporter’s job in 1999.
So he applied to get into Grant MacEwan's new journalism program and was told he wasn't aggressive enough to be a reporter. (He notes that the program's first graduating class later sued the college because their program was so bad.)
Seven years later, after a roundabout journey through a political science degree at the University of Alberta, he finally achieved that masters and an internship at the St. Albert Gazette where he put together his first noteworthy piece of journalism – a series on the health of the Sturgeon River – for his master's project. That series garnered distinctive honors – a top prize for environmental writing from the Local Media Association (then called Suburban Newspapers of America) and continuing recognition as an academic source still referenced today.
Not so coincidentally, Kevin Ma has again been recognized by Local Media Association – this time as its Journalist of the Year, as judged by the faculty at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Asked how he finally got the job at The Gazette, Ma shared a rough transcript of his follow up call to Sue Gawlak all those years later.
Ma: So, I got that master's, and the Edmonton Journal just offered me a one-year internship. Can you beat that?
Sue: Gimmie a minute. *time passes* Want a job?
He has been at the Gazette ever since.
A couple of significant stories – one involving local waste management and another involving obsessive compulsive disorder - distinguished Ma as the selection for LMA’s Journalist of the Year honor.
In the latter story, Ma revealed his own OCD and dug into the gripping first-‐person account of his own experience. The story provided a rare look inside the minds of peopled affected by OCD and generated considerable feedback from readers. Judges in the LMA Editorial Contest described the story as ‘dramatic, touching, provocative, interesting, courageous’.
Editor Maser called it ground-breaking and describes Ma’s approach to reporting as thorough, inquisitive and sharp; his writing as vibrant and clean.
Ma also has the distinction of being the first member of the media to receive and Rs of Excellence Award from The Recycling Council of Alberta. Executive Director Christina Seidel credited Ma for continuing to go after the local waste management story with “his unique, focused and objective style.” What put him over the top was his effort to subject his own family to a household waste audit for the sake of research and a story.
Next on Ma’s list of undertakings is a new series entitled Wild St. Albert. Ma has long enchanted readers with his insightful, playful yet scientifically relevant coverage of local wildlife issues, whether it be the annual Christmas bird count or a study of the local coyote population. Published every other week, Wild St. Albert profiles a difference local wildlife species with every installment.
According to Maser, the stories blend personal commentary with scientific insight and the result has been ‘a delightful blend of insight and whimsy’.
Q&A with Ma
Any pearls of wisdom you can share with other reporters?
Always pay attention to your surroundings. To see why, hit up The Mercer Report's 2011 segment on the Concrete Toboggan race in Edmonton and watch for the guys who blow through the hay bales at the end while riding a 300-pound slab of rock. See that guy in the green diving out of the way at the last second? That's me.
Thoughts on the win?
I should probably be happy about this but am pathologically unable to accept praise or accolades. Huge props to my editors, Cory Hare and Peter Maser, for their support, and for the late great Sue Gawlak for giving me this shot. Am wondering if it comes with a free hat.
How to distinguish yourself journalistically?
Have a sense of humor and wonder. The world is a fascinating place where new, exciting and often hilarious incidents happen every day, yet far too many of our stories are dull, drab or depressing.
I approach every story with the mindset of a curious five-year-old, looking for the silly or shiny bits and holding them up high. If we want to engage readers as reporters, we need to bring back that sense of wonder and discovery to our stories and give them a reason to look beyond their everyday lives.
Experimenting with any new projections or innovations?
Not really experimenting with new projects, but I do have the habit of setting up summer research projects. Am hoping to do a more comprehensive look at water or air quality in the region.