Ask The Expert Series – Gail Johnson (Stir)

October 21, 2020

Gail Johnson is the co-founder and editorial director of Stir, Vancouver’s freshest hub of local arts and culture and source of independent journalism.

What inspired you to start your career in journalism?

After doing my BA in French at UBC, I continued to work as a waiter (a job I held for close to 15 years and loved), did some travelling, and generally felt somewhat lost to be honest. I happened to come across a flyer for the journalism program at Langara that talked all about interviewing people, story-telling, photography, and broadcast—and it clicked. I felt instantly excited. I kept reading and saw that I had missed the application deadline by one day. I got in my car and drove to Langara that moment and begged them to take my application. I was accepted a few days later and was beyond excited.

What was your first industry job?

Upon graduating from Langara, I worked two part-time jobs simultaneously: one as a reporter with the Province newspaper covering breaking news, and one as a staff writer for the Georgia Straight. The Province was the best training ground I could have ever had: I’d show up at work at 9:30, get an assignment by 10, head out with a photographer, do all my interviews and research and get back to the office by about 2 or 3, then had to have stories in by 5 pm. It was intense and taught me how to write and work efficiently. I covered some big stories, like serial child killer Clifford Robert Olson’s faint-hope clause hearing, the murder of three teens in Kitimat (the suspect has never been found), and countless other smaller ones, like new attractions at the PNE.

At the Straight, I covered news as well as health and dance to start, then moved into writing about food and wine. Back in the late 90s, there was a real sense of team spirit at the Straight—we all cared about putting out the best product possible and went out for drinks every Wednesday afterward to celebrate.

What has been the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?

Living with severe anxiety and not letting lack of confidence hold me back. Still working on this.

If you were not in media – what industry would you work in?

I would have loved to have been a doctor.

What has been a highlight of your career?

Hmm. A few high points include being the food columnist for CBC Radio’s On the Coast program, earning awards and nominations from the National Magazine Awards of Canada, and, most recently, starting my own digital publication with two friends and colleagues.

It’s called Stir, and we dedicate our entire platform to covering local arts and culture (local meaning in Vancouver and B.C.). Film, dance, visual arts, music, opera, comedy, culinary arts, cultural tourism, design, multimedia, the art of winemaking, books, podcasts, streaming… You name it. We felt there was a real gap for in-depth, thoughtful, hyperlocal coverage by independent journalists. We’re all working moms and are proud to be Vancouver-based. (Earlier this year, the Straight was purchased by a public company based in Toronto.)

We just got off the ground and would love readers and support! We’re at www.createastir.ca. On Instagram and Facebook: @stirvancovuer and on Twitter @stir_vancouver.

It is incredibly exciting, rewarding, and completely daunting to be launching a new publication amid a pandemic and to be running our own business, but we are passionate, industrious, and committed.

What is one piece of advice you’d give someone that wants to pursue a career like yours?

Don’t let a lack of self-confidence stop you from doing ANYTHING. You might not get it right the first or the second time, but that’s okay. You’re probably judging yourself far more harshly than anyone else. Be kind to yourself.

What are your predictions for the future of the media industry?

That’s a big question but top of mind is a very deep worry about the messages Donald Trump is putting into people’s minds about “fake news” and the potential for people not to be able to distinguish between marketing (the influence of influencers) and objective coverage.