It Really Is Who You Know, Young Toronto Star Editor Says

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Digital is disrupting industries all across the board and journalism is no exception.

To thrive in the journalism industry at this time of flux and unpredictability, it’s essential to bring out your entrepreneurial spirit, master multimedia, and put yourself and your skills out there.

Tom Henheffer is one such pioneer at the frontier of this changing industry. Just three years after graduating from St. Thomas University, he is now the editor of the Toronto Star’s small business section and Star Business Club.

I sat down with him to talk about his quick trajectory to success, the importance of who you know, and what j-schoolers need to do to survive and thrive today.

How did you break into the journalism industry?

Tom: The easiest answer to that is: by working hard and knowing the right people. I graduated from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., and within two weeks, I started at Maclean’s. I met the editor and publisher of Maclean’s at the time, Ken Whyte, after the Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism. We talked, had a few drinks and I guess I made a bit of an impression. A few weeks later, I applied for an internship and asked my dean to email Ken to let him know. I got an internship as a result of that and later they hired me on.

It’s funny actually…this is a perfect example that it’s about who you know. I had a generic cover letter that I used for everything and would just edit it accordingly. So on my cover letter, I referred to Maclean’s as a newspaper instead of a magazine. And the person I was told to address it to was a “Chris Johnson.” I didn’t realize that was short for Christine Johnson, so I wrote “Dear Mr. Johnson.” Two glaring errors on my cover letter and I got the internship anyway!

How did you get this gig at the Toronto Star?

Tom: I had an editor at Maclean’s who I had done some writing for. She moved to the Star soon after I left Maclean’s and she was heading up what’s called Star Content Studios. This is the first editorial initiative that the Star Content Studios has launched. It deals primarily with custom content and special sections. They were starting this new small business section and she asked me if I would be interested in coming on. That’s why I say it’s a lot about who you know.

What was it like launching an entirely new section essentially on your own?

Tom: When they brought me on, it was crazy. No sleep! I’m talking 80-90 hour weeks. Not only was I doing all the work and preparing reports from a business side, but I was also responsible for getting the content together.

But I’ve gotten better at my job as an editor. Now that we’ve got the groundwork of content laid out and know what we’re doing, it’s no longer a constant scramble. And it’s doing very well. We’ve been hitting our membership goals. The sponsors are happy. We’re still building the base, but we’re on track to do extremely well. This is my baby so I’m very concerned about seeing it grow. We’re constantly trying to innovate and improve.

Why small businesses? Where does the interest stem from?

Tom: It’s such a great field of journalism to be in because everyone is so positive. Everyone I talk to is so enthusiastic about their product. The community here is so friendly, innovative and smart. It’s such a passionate community, and to be a part of that and to tangibly help these businesses…it’s such a wholesome, warm feeling. It’s really great to be a part of that.

You talked about the importance of who you know. I assume networking is a huge part of this. How do students go about doing this?

Tom: When I was working for Maclean’s, this was a problem. When you work your first job, you move to a new city, you’re working crazy hours…it’s really easy to be isolated. But it’s important to get out and meet other people. If you’re a young journalist moving to Toronto, connect with the latest Ryerson journalism graduating class. That’s the best advice. They all hang out and have networking events and you should do some connecting there.

You can also find groups on Meetup.com or just search online. You’ll find so many results and a lot of these events are free too. Just remember to get out as much as you can. Don’t just sit behind the desk!

What skills and experiences should journalism students be developing while in school?

Tom: Brush up on multimedia. That’s so important now. You need to be competent in video filming and editing as well as recording audio. It’s good to know as much as you can. You need to know how to write a good SEO-friendly headline, optimize content, use WordPress.

And develop your writing skills! I know a lot of journalism schools that teach the theory of journalism, but don’t spend nearly enough time writing. Students in those schools learn theory or they have their hands held by professors.

When the hard professors at my university cracked down on our work like an editor would in a newsroom, my classmates hated it and couldn’t handle it. But that’s what it’s like in the real world. You have to get used to that; it makes you better. Get yourself in a situation where you have an editor destroying your work.

The only way you can get better is to practice and have someone rip it to shreds. Don’t just stick to your journalism program, get out there and freelance for your local paper or your university paper.

Whatever you do, write as much as you can. And that’s whether you’re in TV or radio…doesn’t matter. Writing is by far the most essential skill in any discipline of journalism.

Any last advice for aspiring young journalists and editors?

Tom: Work really, really hard and be nice. People like nice people! Be social and get to know your editors. They’re people too.

You should also be in touch with your audience to know exactly what they want. You need to know how to deliver content in the form that they want and can digest. You need to avidly work on an online presence and develop an engaged community to push this content to. That’s really important. I know a lot of people who have gotten jobs because they have a big social media presence. That’s a valuable skill to have now, a new tool for your kit!

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About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.