From covering small-town news, to writing about sex and crime, to landing her own food column in the Calgary Herald, Gwendolyn Richards has covered it all.
She graduated from UBC Journalism in 2003. Since then she’s written for various daily publications while spending her off-time blogging about food and writing a cookbook.
After landing her current job as a food writer at the Calgary Herald, Richards wrote “Pucker: A Cookbook for Citrus Lovers,” which was a project she pursued outside of her full-time gig. “Pucker” was released in November 2014.
Can you tell us about your current role?
I’m the staff food writer at the Herald, which a lot of people mistakenly assume means I review restaurants. Instead, I write about food trends, chefs, issues in the industry, recipes and, basically, anything related to food that isn’t a critique of a dining establishment. Twice a month, I write a column called “Cooking the Books” where I review books I’ve been sent, cooking or baking from them and sharing the results. I also develop my own recipes for the paper. For both the review columns and my own recipes, I do my own food styling and photography. Every other month, I do a cooking segment on Global Calgary’s Saturday morning show that keys back to one of my recipes in the paper.
What other positions have you held since graduating from j-school?
While at j-school, I got an internship at the Vancouver Sun and I continued working there as a general assignment reporter while finishing school until graduation. I then worked on contract for the Globe & Mail in their Vancouver bureau, notably covering the massive forest fires that swept through the Okanagan in the summer of 2003 before I was offered a six-month contract at the Calgary Herald in March 2004, which led to a permanent job offer.
Before becoming the food writer at the Herald, I was actually a crime reporter, covering murders, deadly avalanches, fatal collisions, fatality inquiries, crime trends and issues around domestic violence. I was moved into general assignment news a few times as well, but most of my work revolved around what I called “crime and calamity.”
I eventually began having a tough time covering crime, often unable to hide my emotions when interviewing the families of people who had died under tragic circumstances, crying alongside them in many cases. I started a food blog outside of work to help offset the sometimes upsetting nature of my day job – a creative outlet where I could write about things that made me happy and also share my passion for photography – not to mention to help fill the long days when facing a month of night shifts. Through that I began writing a monthly recipe column for the paper. When the food writer job opened up, I was offered the position and moved out of news and over to features.
(Though, when big news breaks – such as the deadly floods that hit Calgary and southern Alberta in 2013 or the quintuple homicide in the spring of 2014 – I’m seconded back to the city desk.)
How did your j-school experience help you transition into a career in journalism?
I’d been a working journalist for several years, covering news in tiny towns all over B.C. and had an undergraduate degree in writing, including journalism, before going back to school to get my master’s. I wanted to return to school to help me make the jump from small-town papers to a major daily. Through j-school, I met an editor who would offer me my first daily newspaper job and would become a mentor as my career progressed.
Of the lessons you learned at UBC, which one has been the most valuable?
Some of my favourite experiences at UBC ended up being in areas that I didn’t think I had any interest. This was the early days of the program, so it was much more print oriented, but I took Giselle Portenier’s documentary class and fell in love with video editing, spending an entire night in the edit suite working on our group’s documentary about women in the downtown eastside and the Pickton case.
I, perhaps infamously to my classmates, chose a specialty of ‘sex and sexuality,’ which allowed me to explore stories off the beaten path. While my career didn’t lead me to become a sex columnist, being able to write about areas outside of straight news showed me that I’m not the type of reporter who wanted to only cover city hall, health, education or the other more mainstream pillars of news.
What’s been the piece of journalism you’ve produced of which you’re most proud?
I’m going to cheat and give you two pieces, which are both important to me for entirely different reasons.
The first is a major investigative piece I did about three women who died at the hands of their romantic partners, despite reaching out to the RCMP repeatedly saying they feared for their lives. In those cases, poor training and officers failing to follow policy or even file charges and dismissing complaints due to cynical attitudes about domestic relationships played a role in the women’s deaths. An organization designed to protect people failed them. The project was time-consuming and required a lot of interviews, reading fatality inquiry reports, research and meticulous fact checking to ensure I had every detail correct. But, more importantly – and something that had a far greater impact – was that it meant talking extensively to the loved ones these women left behind about the pain of their loss and how helpless they felt that no help came when it was needed.
The second is a piece I did about trying to find the best burger in and around Calgary. It involved eating five burgers in four days with my little sister and chronicling our edible adventure, eating far too much beef. I pitched the story to the lifestyles editor, expecting her to turn it down, but she heartily embraced the idea and it became the first food article I ever wrote. It’s what led to me writing a food column monthly for the paper and, eventually, to my permanent food writing job.
Would you recommend the j-school?
I know the program has changed quite a bit since I graduated and I’m a bit jealous of the courses and opportunities offered now, so, yes, I would recommend it. The program now showcases all the ways to be a journalist and share stories, which I think is key in this ever-changing world of media.