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COLUMN SIX: Telling people’s stories

Visser and her son Sean, at the 1995 Niagara Regional Exposition. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Early newspaper writing Heralded academic career

BY BETH VISSER
Special to the VOICE

My employment at the late Pelham Herald was serendipitous. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it changed my life forever. Taking pictures of summer campers and writing about garbage on the Steve Bauer trails helped me see that I love my job when I have the freedom to follow my curiosity. I might not have figured out that I wanted to be a university professor if I hadn’t first worked at the Herald and then at the Voice.

It was a sunny day in June, 1994, when I got the phone call. I had recently finished a maternity leave from my job as a compensation analyst, which really didn’t suit me (I sat at a desk a lot), and I had decided not to return. The editor of the Herald had suddenly become ill and there was no one to cover any stories for that week’s paper.

“But I’m not a journalist,” I responded, when offered the opportunity to fill in.

“Then just take some pictures,” the publisher (the absolutely marvelous Martha Cepuch) told me.

“But I’m not a photographer!”

It quickly became clear that there was no content at all for that week’s paper. I submitted some pictures, mostly of my own three children at the park, because I had no child care and I was too shy and unsure of my credentials to ask anyone’s permission to take photos.

The editor never returned, and I never went back to a desk job. At the Herald, I covered Town Council meetings, Lions Carnivals, local school events, library activities, young chess whizzes, pumpkin farms, new businesses, and maple syrup festivals. Reporting on these stories for the Herald was the first job I really loved. I’d enjoyed aspects of previous jobs, but being a reporter meant that it was actually my responsibility to ask people all kinds of impertinent questions, and then put it together into a story that fairly, accurately, and compassionately reflected what I’d learned. What’s not to love?

I made mistakes in those early days, but I learned. I pored over the Canadian Press Style Guide, standardizing my writing. I learned to make sure there was film in my camera (my work life improved immensely when we converted to digital cameras). I fielded outraged phone calls and apologized when I went wrong, learning that a commitment to do better went a long way to restoring good relations. I once used the term “ambulance driver” and learned just how many paramedics we had in Pelham. An Indigenous community member very nicely called out my insensitive reporting back when E.L. Crossley’s teams were known as the Chiefs. It was these kinds of inadvertently hurtful words that I heard about and that I deeply regretted. On the other hand, the Herald ran an ad for “pubic” skating that entire winter, and although readers might have been giggling, no one ever told me about it.

In those days, our little office consisted of only Martha, me, and Reeta Potts, who handled all kinds of administrative tasks, from taking classified ads, answering the phone, bringing in story tips, to serving as a one-woman history of the community. We sent all of our material to a larger newspaper office in Hamilton every week and hoped that staff there would compose the paper in a way that was ideal for our Pelham readers. Unfortunately, the Hamilton staff did not know Pelham, so they had no idea I was going to be hearing about it for months if that blurry submitted picture of a 100th birthday celebration wasn’t printed.

I tried to keep my work at the Herald part-time and limited to the hours I had access to child care, but this just meant that I ended up taking many lopsided photographs while I balanced a baby on my hip. Eventually, I insisted that they hire a full-time, qualified editor. At this point, Carolyn Mullin came on board as editor, and the quality of the Herald increased dramatically. An important development was when we were able to compose the entire paper online, then send it off for printing. At this point, we finally had control over which stories we told and how they were presented.

The Herald was a fixture in the community, so the community was incensed when the paper was shut down after a buyout in 1996. After much hard work from Carolyn and board members, including Dave Hall and Brian Sullivan, some 50 $1,000 shares were sold, and the Voice of Pelham was launched. For a time, Carolyn and I job-shared so we could both combine parenting with careers. The community became more involved than ever with what was now truly their own paper. I have fond memories of Carolyn’s mother, Jeanette, voluntarily proofreading every issue of the Voice before we sent it off for printing.

Eventually, both Carolyn and I moved on to other careers, in my case in 2000, (with both of us ending up in post-secondary institutions), and our little ones grew up. That baby on my hip is about to turn 26. I completed a Master’s degree and then a PhD in Personality Psychology, eventually accepting professor positions at Trent University and now Lakehead. Although I never did train as a journalist, my work as a reporter was good preparation for the academic world. Teaching university students means conveying complex information in a way that gets students’ attention, draws them in and makes them care. As with writing for a newspaper, teaching requires respect for the material and for the audience.

My curiosity about everything and everyone continues to serve me well in my role as an academic researcher. As a reporter in Pelham, I sometimes used to think that I knew a little bit about almost everything. From listening to people’s stories, I learned about greyhound dog rescue groups, the Wainfleet bog, velodrome-building, making maple syrup, immigration law (an entrepreneurial family returned to Australia after being rejected due to their child’s special needs), international student exchange programs, and more. On the other hand, it is often said of academics that we know everything about nothing. While there may be a grain of truth in that, I try to keep my research firmly grounded in the real world.

I’m a personality psychologist, but I’m not all that interested in people with good personalities. Instead, much of my work these days is on people with Machiavellian, narcissistic, and psychopathic personality traits. I do research investigations exploring those individuals who manipulate, deceive, lack empathy, exploit, and generally think they are better than the rest of us. In other words, these are not the sort of people who rally together to save their community newspaper!

Recently, my research took a bit of a detour, thanks to the 2016 American presidential election. In my experience covering local politics for the Herald and the Voice, our politicians were generally a hard-working bunch who genuinely wanted to serve their community. Watching the American election campaign, I noticed that both candidates were accused of being manipulative and insincere —and when it comes to my research, I love manipulation and insincerity!

Ironically, the candidates themselves bickered over which one had the better temperament. My colleagues and I recruited a panel of personality psychologists to rate both politicians’ public personas on various personality traits. In general, we found that that Hillary Clinton’s public personality was not terribly different from that of a stereotypical politician (our raters thought she was hard-working, but doubted her sincerity), whereas Donald Trump was seen as extremely disagreeable and duplicitous. At the time, we concluded that voters might be tempted to vote for Donald Trump as a vote for change— his personality seemed to be a marked departure from that of other politicians. I didn’t really think Trump would be elected, and made several public statements to that effect before being proven very wrong.

It seems like a lifetime ago—in other ways, just yesterday—that I arrived in Pelham, 27 years old, married with two children, and unclear what I wanted to do with my life. My husband, Rob, and I left Pelham 25 years later, by then parents of three wonderful young adults, and heading for a new job opportunity. I am doing what I love professionally: teaching and researching at an institution where students are top priority. Rob and I have been fortunate enough to build networks and relationships in our new community, but I miss a whole lot about Pelham— my book club, friends and neighbours, going into town and always seeing someone I know, watching local children grow up, sharing troubles and triumphs, and reading the Voice.

Beth Visser is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus.

 

 

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