Magical Experience

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Lee Pitts reflects on a life-changing Fellowship

Today, a special guest post from Lee Pitts, videojournalist and jack of all trades with CBC NL. 

Really, it seems there’s not much Lee can’t do. He’s a seasoned journalist, but he’s also good behind the anchor desk. And he’s even a decent weathercaster, filling in easily when Ryan Snoddon is away. 

Last year, Pitts was awarded the prestigious St. Clair Balfour Fellowship, from the Canadian Journalism Foundation. He took eight months off work to live in residence at Massey College, in the University of Toronto. For the full story on that, follow the link:

Recently, Pitts returned to Newfoundland, the scholarship over and a treasure of new experiences under his belt. I contacted Pitts for an interview, and he offered to write some notes in an email.

That email was so entertaining and well-written that it would have been a shame to chop it up into quotes. Instead, I present the entire letter here, pretty much verbatim, as a special guest blog.

Over to you, Lee:

I had a magical experience during the 8 months I was a Journalism Fellow at Massey College.

It was never tangible. For that reason it’s hard to describe. I can't point to one particular thing and say, “I learned this.”

I never did one particular thing and thought “here's a definite story idea for work” or “here's a new skill I have.” But looking back over my time there, I realize each experience led to meeting new people, having new conversations, and exposing me to new ideas - and all of that combined became an education.

Besides the academic portion of the program at the University of Toronto, I regularly attended dinners, galas, fundraisers, where I was able to meet many people who in some way shape our country, from people who create public policy, to those who run large companies, to high-profile journalists, authors, politicians, and foreign diplomats.

That sort of exposure continued as the other journalism fellows and I traveled. We traveled to Quebec City, New Orleans, and cities in Germany, Finland and Denmark. Three of us also went to Iceland during our last European trip, where we hiked a glacier, explored the site of the world's first-ever Parliament (an outdoor site going back to 900AD), spent some time in a hot spring, then met with the Deputy Mayor and his family - through connections we had - and a Member of Parliament who had initially been involved in the Wikileaks group and is now pushing for a media freedom law in Iceland that would eclipse any other country if it passes.

In each of the European countries we looked at climate change, alternative forms of energy, like wind energy, district heating plants that use water to heat homes at a cost of a couple of hundred dollars a year to residents, rapeseed (canola seed as its called in Canada) as a form of fuel, solar energy, and the list goes on.

As a group, we met with Germany's top energy official in December the day after Canada announced it was pulling out of the Kyoto agreement and faced questions, disbelief, and disappointment from the German experts.

“We didn't expect this,” the official told us. “Canada has become the bad guy.” 

Interestingly, from that point on in all of our travels Canada's track record on the environment dogged us. One person jokingly suggested we not be proud to wear Canadian flags on our backpacks anymore. (For the record, we had suitcases and didn't have Canadian flags attached anywhere, but the point was effectively made.)

The Massey experience, along with the intense travel, became a hands-on, crash-course in international diplomacy and international relations.

We met for two hours with Premier Jean Charest in Quebec City in an off-the-record-but-enlightening conversation that covered everything from his time in federal politics to Quebec separatism and even Churchill Falls and Quebec's relationship with Newfoundland and Labrador. But as with all of the meetings we had as a group, they remain off-the-record. The idea is to be exposed to a different point of view, and surprisingly, people opened up to us when they knew we wouldn't be reporting it. In some cases, we wrote about our meetings if we had permission to go on the record. And we did that for the Massey College Journalism Fellows publication, The Owl.

In New Orleans, we explored the hurricane Katrina disaster more than six years after it happened and looked at the failures there. In that case, we got to spend time with Wendell Pierce, an actor from The Wire and HBO's Treme, who's one of many New Orleanians fighting to rebuild the city.

In our weekly Thursday Journalism lunch seminar, we always had an engaging and interesting guest, from Newfoundland writer Michael Winter (a writer in residence at the University of Toronto this year, who had an office across from my apartment, so easy to track down!) to Patrick LeSage, the trial judge in the Paul Bernardo case, to someone who's in the top ranks of Canadian intelligence and security. 

Then, there were regular chats with the people I saw everyday - students and academics connected to Massey College, plus the other 5 journalism fellows with me, the ones I bonded with during the 8 months, traveled with, and got-into and stayed-out-of trouble with.

There is Elizabeth Bowie, a superstar producer with CBC Network Radio, who is now a senior producer with Ideas and Tapestry.

Rob Cribb, one of Canada's leading investigative print journalists, whose every story leads to some sort of government change.

Shawn Micallef, a freelance writer who co-owns Spacing magazine, has published a book on Toronto, and now has a column each week in the Toronto Star about the city. He's a true, go-to expert on the city.

Ato Dadzie, a political journalist for radio in Ghana, who's decided to stay in Canada another year and complete a Master's in Journalism now that this experience has finished, which sets him up to teach journalism one day.

And Luis Najera, a former Mexican journalist living in exile in Canada with his family. He covered the drug trade, cartels, and the politics that comes with it in Mexico, but fled after receiving death threats. I often think about what he's been through when I'm in a scrum, and think about how determined we are to get at a story, but at what cost? He's now going to study Global Affairs and Security at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, while continuing to research, write, and give public talks about the dangers of Mexico. He's still covering the story, then, but in a different way.

The academics became part of it too. I was able to audit Master's level classes, do the work that I could - so I went back to writing essays and research papers. Because we audit courses, we're able to dip into classes we'd never have the prerequisites to get into otherwise. I studied international politics, with a look at providing and paying for healthcare in Africa, and looking at the politics surrounding HIV/AIDS in developing countries. I also studied cyber security, a really exciting and cutting edge course, with a look at cyber warfare and espionage around the world, from Canada to Syria.

I also decided to scare myself! I figured this year was all about putting myself into new, different, and uncomfortable situations.

I took a Master's level science class, which has never been my strongest subject. I signed up for Urban Environmental Technology and Sustainability, learning about green roofs and green walls, for example. That was completely out of my comfort zone, but I'm glad to have been exposed to it - particularly since many meetings we had during our travels focused around alternative energy.

It feels like so much was crammed into such a short period of time, and it went by so quickly.

I was able to meet, study with, have lunch with, and be around some of Canada's leading academics - both professors and students, humanitarians, and leaders. I took a class with Dr. James Orbinski, who was in Rwanda during the Genocide and who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Medicins Sans Frontieres. I had known of his work for years, so it was a real treat to regularly have lunch with him while discussing climate change.

Many times I felt as if I was in over my head, so I just tried to make them laugh.

I know this was one of those life changing experiences that I'll one day look back on and realize how it shaped my life in some way, but at this point, its still too early to see how all of the pieces fit together. I think that's supposed to be part of the challenge too.

Since I've been back to CBC, I jumped right back in, picking up where I left off.

I rolled out the stories on the marine medical calls from fishing vessels going to Rome, during my first week back.

Then began work on the cod moratorium project, looking at how the province has changed in the 20 years since the ban on fishing northern cod.

I've also filled in to host Here and Now, Late Night, On Point, and the weather when Ryan Snoddon has been away.

And at times, it’s a comedy of errors for me.

During my first week back on the air, I walked across a live camera in the studio while Ryan did a weather hit. I blame it on the new set we have!

Then, the incident while filling in for Snoddon. Seconds before I was going to do a weather hit on CBC's Radio Noon, I went to the window to see if there were any sunny breaks as expected. Turns out, I didn't see the glass and wham! - I walked into the window, on live radio. You could hear the thud on the air, and then the giggles - and tears - that followed from host Ramona Dearing as she tried to delicately explain to the audience, while trying not to further embarrass me, that I had walked into a window. There really wasn't any delicate way of saying it. I walked into a window and left a face-print on the plexi-glass.  Gave myself quite the smack, but luckily no large bump formed. Mike Rossiter, who was there with a news update, was the steady hand that got us through that one. There's a sign on the window now warning me of the, um, window.

Even after 8 months as a Massey Journalism Fellow, some things never change. 

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