Now semi-retired, Heather is a writing coach, and a freelance writer and editor. Her memoir No Letter in Your Pocket will be published in 2023 by Guernica Editions in Toronto.
Alma Mater Society: When did you work at The Ubyssey?
Heather Conn: I worked there from 1977 to 1981, and was co-editor in my third year, 1979-80. Can’t believe that was more than 40 years ago!
AMS:What drew you to working for the newspaper? Did you know much about the paper beforehand?
HC: My grade 13 history teacher (I was from Toronto) went to UBC and raved about it. He said The Ubyssey was the best student newspaper in Canada and it was where people like Pierre Berton had worked. This really piqued my interest. I looked at the journalism program at Carleton University, but it didn’t offer anything hands-on until third year. It seemed pretty Mickey Mouse to me. I thought it would be a lot better to throw myself into a paper like The Ubyssey, which came out three times a week, and get practical training. So, I moved to Vancouver from Toronto to attend UBC and gain journalism experience at The Ubyssey.
AMS: What was “the big story” at The Ubyssey at that time?
HC: On Sept. 18, 1979, we published a top story that radiation leaks were happening in the UBC Math Annex and that its basement was used as a storage dump for radioactive material for the previous 12 years. We spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and supported boycotts of Shell Oil, which operated there. We ran stories that revealed the oppression happening in many countries, from Chile and Nicaragua to Iran.
AMS: List some of your favourite memories of your time at The Ubyssey.
HC: I loved brainstorming with others to come up with the idea of the fake story and doing the spoof issue at the end of the year. Every week, it was fun to dine out at cheap rates at local restaurants, who were our advertisers and gave us discounts. Overall, it was great to be part of a group that cared about social justice issues and what was going on in the larger world. We had lots of stimulating discussions, especially when staff disagreed over a political issue. We were the only democratically run, non-paid student paper in the country, and all staffers in the office voted on which stories should appear as the top ones for that day’s issues. It was heady to feel that what we were writing was making a difference, and to discover the true power of the press in creating change on campus.
AMS: How did The Ubyssey advocate for the student body in your role?
HC: I feel that all of our stories and editorials advocated for the student body, from criticizing higher tuition fees for foreign students to making sure that the board of governors and the AMS remained accountable to the best interests of the student body as a whole. We stood up for the rights of students on every issue, challenging any political or social injustices.
AMS: What did you take away from The Ubyssey?
HC: I learned - and saw first-hand - the power of the press, and how you could not only change people’s minds on an issue, but change policies and laws, and challenge injustices in many areas. We had an on-campus readership of 16,000 people then, and it was satisfying to know that people read our paper and gave us feedback, good or bad, on stories.
AMS: Did you carry on in the media afterwards? How did working for The Ubyssey shape your immediate future?
HC: The Ubyssey was considered the “farm team” or training ground for the Vancouver Sun. All of the senior staffers at The Ubyssey who worked part-time at The Sun copy edited our stories by hand directly onto each page. (Yes, we were using typewriters and everything was in hard copy.) I learned so much about news and feature writing and copy editing from them, just reviewing the changes they made to my stories, and learning the copy-editing symbols. They also served as good references for us at the Sun.
While still a student, my Ubyssey experience helped me get a job as a summer reporter at the Vancouver Sun and Edmonton Journal. I also worked part-time as assistant photo editor at the Vancouver Sun for its early edition on Saturdays. I later switched to magazine work, which I preferred, and ended up as assistant editor and western editor for a BC trade publication, which went national. I was also staff editor-in-chief of a BC-wide magazine for a corporate nonprofit.
I feel that with almost every job I’ve had since then, I’ve drawn on skills learned at The Ubyssey: copy and substantive editing, rewriting, writing well under deadline, quickly pulling out the key points of many diverse research sources into one cohesive whole, writing engaging leads, finding buried leads, effective interview techniques, etc. All of this has helped me in my various jobs over the years: as a communications manager for the BC government and a Vancouver non-profit, as a publishing house editor, full-time college writing instructor, magazine editor-in-chief, screenwriting instructor and short film co-writer. My Ubyssey journalism skills have underwritten all of this.
AMS: Consider those in the same role who came before and after you. How do you feel to be a part of this lineage?
HC: It’s wonderful to be part of a publication where Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, and other notable journalist authors worked. I think that The Ubyssey can be proud of its muckraking tradition through the years, trying to keep the board of governors, AMS, and administrators accountable on everything from UBC expenditures to investments. Today, it’s impressive to see how The Ubyssey has evolved and expanded to include video and social media. They’re continuing our tradition of exposés and standing up for social justice issues.
AMS: How has your association with UBC advanced your life, personally and/or professionally?
HC: I created lifelong friendships and associations. Professionally, my history degree from UBC has fuelled my work as an oral historian, and as a writer of two history books, history profiles for the Canadian Encyclopedia, and various history-related features. I am grateful for all the skills I learned at UBC, and the diverse viewpoints my classes and assigned readings exposed me to.
AMS: What advice do you have for students today?
HC: Be good at networking, be kind to people, and stay true to your values. Find and express gratitude and appreciation for others. Consider how you can be of service and help people and the world, especially our planet, which sorely needs it. This approach will make you happier in the long run than just vying for the big bucks and materialism. Overall, I think it’s much harder to find good jobs now, especially if you’re in the arts, than when I was at UBC. My advice is to never give up, keep persevering and be willing to be flexible. Hold onto your dreams and don’t let other people talk you out of them. Don’t worry about what other people think or say. Stay true to your own path, be your authentic self, and you’ll find allies. Sometimes the jobs you think will be the best turn out to be the worst and vice versa. It’s really the people and working conditions that make the difference when you’re on the job, no matter what you’re doing.