Inaugural Journalist-in-Residence to Lead the Charge on ‘They Were Loved’ Partnership
By Laura McCaffrey
Katherine Laidlaw is not one to shy away from a challenge.
That trait—along with an unmatched knack for empathetic storytelling, an investigative mind and an impressive journalistic track record—made her the perfect candidate for the Future of Journalism Initiative (FJI)’s inaugural journalist-in-residence.
Housed in Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, the journalist-in-residence is set to lead the recently launched They Were Loved project, a partnership between Maclean’s magazine, Carleton’s FJI and several Canadian journalism schools. The project will commemorate the lives of coronavirus victims through thoughtful obituaries written by journalism students from across the country.
The journalist-in-residence position has been put in place on the eve of the Carleton journalism program’s 75th anniversary, officially kicking off in fall 2020, thanks to a generous donation from The Giustra Foundation.
“I’m so pleased to support the efforts of the Carleton FJI’s inaugural journalist-in-residence on this important and timely obituary project,” says Frank Giustra, founder of The Giustra Foundation. “I’m thrilled that The Giustra Foundation can play a part in this critical partnership that will pay tribute to the incredible lives that have been lost during the pandemic and that will help prepare the next generation of journalists in Canada for meaningful careers in the field.
“I’m honoured that The Giustra Foundation is serving as the founding funder of this initiative, and I encourage other individuals and organizations to join this collaborative effort.”
As the journalist-in-residence, Katherine will be responsible for outreach to partner organizations, data collection and compilation, guidance and oversight of students and high-level editing, among other things.
While the broad, multi-year endeavour will surely present its fair share of challenges, Katherine’s up for the task—thanks in part to her varied background and skillset.
Katherine’s career as an award-winning journalist began unconventionally: with her sights set on becoming a lawyer.
At the time, Katherine was completing her undergrad at Queen’s University, studying English and Philosophy. Wanting to add some extracurriculars to her repertoire and beef up her law school applications, she signed on with the Queen’s campus paper—a decision that would swiftly change the course of her professional life.
“I fell in love,” Katherine recalls of her time at the Queen’s Journal. “I sometimes joke to my friends that I got a degree from the Queen’s Journal rather than from the university, because I got so involved [with the paper]. I ended up being one of the co-editors in my graduating year.
“That was my first experience of the rush that can come from collaborating in a newsroom.”
Upon graduating from her alma mater, she honed her craft at several newspaper internships, ultimately trading in her law school applications for an application to Ryerson’s Master of Journalism program.
“When I graduated from Queen’s, I was obsessed with journalism,” Katherine shares with a laugh, “but I wasn’t sure how to go about launching a career in it yet. So, I enrolled in the Ryerson Master of Journalism program. I thought that it would solidify some things that I had learned through others at Queen’s and allow me to meet people and hear about jobs.”
From there, it was a whirlwind.
She got her start at Up Here magazine in Yellowknife—a move she made when she realized the entry-level opportunities in her home city of Toronto were scarce. After a stint in the North, she spent the next several years moving from magazine to magazine (and from city to city), allowing her to “deepen [her] understanding of the intricacies of this country.”
Katherine eventually landed back in Toronto at The Walrus magazine, where she was a senior editor for two years before striking out on her own as a freelance writer.
In just four years as a freelancer, she’s made a name for herself writing features and essays for the likes of Toronto Life, The Walrus, The Atlantic and Outside magazines.
Now, Katherine is eager to take on this new challenge and add the journalist-in-residence position to her long list of accomplishments.
The FJI is happy to have her, to say the least.
“Katherine is the perfect person for the job,” shares Brett Popplewell, author, journalist, assistant professor at Carleton and head of the FJI.
“Given the scope and importance of the They Were Loved project, we needed someone with a very specific set of skills. We needed someone with an investigative background who could track down and organize mass amounts of data; someone with experience as a handling editor who understands the standard of care in the industry; someone with experience overseeing an army of writers. Finding someone with all of these skills isn’t easy.”
While at first daunted by the scale of the project, Katherine quickly became enthralled.
“When Brett first approached me with the idea, I picked [the first] newspaper that came to mind and started scrolling through the obituary section online,” she explains.
“I realized from those short snippets that there’s so much you can do in your one life. These people lived such full, sparkling lives. There was so much love, even in these tiny little paragraphs. It really was striking—inspiring. I thought to myself, ‘What do each of us want to be remembered for? What kind of legacy do we want to leave?’ I ultimately wanted to be part of a project that showed people what I felt in that moment.”
Though thousands of lives have been lost as the result of the pandemic in Canada alone, many Canadians have not fully grasped the scale and threat of the crisis. It has taken on a dream-like sheen—it’s something that’s happening somewhere else, to someone else. Katherine hopes that the They Were Loved project will change that.
She explains: “[The pandemic] doesn’t seem to feel real to a lot of people; unless it’s touched you personally, there’s a distance to it. I think this [project] gives us a way to show people the true breadth of what’s happening and what we’re living through; it’s a way to humanize the crisis.”
She hopes that the bereaved families who participate will “feel that their loved ones are properly remembered and properly commemorated,” and that the obituaries will help bring solace.
The profound responsibility of telling the victims’ stories is a weight that Katherine and each participating student will have to carry. While that duty may seem intimidating to young journalists just embarking on their careers, Katherine sees it as an invaluable teaching moment about the level of respect and empathy that’s needed in the evolving field of journalism.
“Interviewing a person who has just lost a loved one is such an emotionally fraught experience. I think it teaches you right away the care that needs to be involved when you approach anyone, let alone someone whose family member has just passed away.
“Students need to feel prepared and supported to go out into the world and do these types of interviews; I think that’s where I come in. I’ve done a lot of interviews with people who have been through emotionally challenging experiences and I think I can offer some guidance in that regard.”
The road ahead is long—with hundreds of students to be guided, thousands of obituaries to be written and years of work to be done. But Katherine is excited to roll up her sleeves and get started. She cites partnership as a key factor that will help her face the challenges to come.
“Partnership is what makes this possible,” she says simply. “Were it not for all the individuals and organizations coming together and offering their resources and brainpower, the project wouldn’t exist at all. Were it not for The Giustra Foundation’s leadership as the project’s initial funder, we would not have this opportunity. I’m so thankful to the Foundation for its unwavering belief in what we’re trying to accomplish and its generous support as we embark on this journey.
“Journalism itself is an act of collaboration and partnership on so many levels. So it’s fitting to see that a project like this has come about from the buy-in from so many people.”
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