Mary Nersessian Sagharian is a Senior Digital News Producer at CTV, a major news organization in Canada. While working on her Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University, Mary secured the coveted internship at The Globe and Mail. When her work at the Globe finished, she applied to CTV “on a fluke”. She got the job, became a writer, then a producer, and has been there ever since.
She found that she loves supervising and managing: “It quickly became apparent to me that I didn’t want to be a reporter out in the field. I wanted to be controlling things.”
Mary believes that it’s important to have an informed public, and she sees her role as finding ways to make more people read the news. She feels that as an Armenian, she has a responsibility to share the history of the Armenian people with the rest of the world.
You specialized in newspaper journalism but ended up working for the web. How did that happen?
I always wanted to do newspaper, always. [But] when the Globe put me on the web desk, I found that I really loved the urgency and immediacy. I liked working for the web.
I’m lucky working in digital because I have these skills that will take me into the next generation. I think maybe it was a fluke, maybe it wasn’t; maybe I was thinking ahead. But I think working in digital is a really exciting place to be, right now.
I still would love to work at The New York Times — it was the be-all and end-all. At the time, and still a little bit today, web doesn’t have the same cachet as newspaper, as TV, but the truth is we have a lot more eyes on the web sometimes than other media. People haven’t fully caught on but they are.
Do you publish more content online?
I think people just go to web first. They’re not going to wait to read the newspaper the next morning, if they want to know something quickly. Our aim is to reach the Canadian readership, of course. And as much as I still love the newspaper and holding it in my hand, I don’t subscribe anymore.
That said, I learned some great skills at newspapers. I’d be very sad if they folded.
When you’ve been in the field, you know what it takes to collect the information and that translates. I’m not leaving the office, but I can still pick up a phone and do interviews and get information.
What does your day-to-day work as a digital news producer involve?
I’ll do a scan of all the big news items, but I also have an eye on which interviews CTV News Channel is chasing, and what stories are people talking about and what questions are they asking. I have different tools I use. I look at BBC, but I [also] have analytics tools to see this story still has a life, can we answer these questions?
We’ll assign stories based on affiliate scripts: CTV Montreal may have a great story and we want to put a national spin on it, so we’ll assign those stories; we’ll assign stories based on TV interviews coming up. Because a lot of people don’t just want to watch a five-minute interview. They want to read it, they want more context. So that’s where we kind of serve as the wire agency.
So we’ll assign those stories and we’ll keep the homepage updated. I’m looking at the homepage from a distance and making sure it has all the relevant content, looks the best it can, but also how to push it out on social media and give our stories some extra attention.
So it’s assigning, editing, planning ahead, going to the meetings with the TV folks, so that we can direct people to them, but they’re also directing back to us. We have to meet the CTV national news mandate; we’re not just doing our own thing.
If I worked anywhere else, for a publication, I’d be an editor. But because this is the TV world, it’s producer.
When I get home, I often log in and organize myself for the next day. You have to organize yourself to get everything you need to get done. There’s some weekend work, and I told you, I don’t take lunch, I really don’t, I just eat at my desk, it’s fine, it’s no big deal. A lot of meetings, a lot of editing, just back and forth, and making sure we have the most up-to-date relevant information, a lot of micromanaging, delegating and making sure it gets done. I love the immediacy; I love managing people, assigning to their strengths and weaknesses, and scheduling in a way that hopefully works like a well-oiled machine, so if someone calls in sick or there’s a breaking news situation, we can immediately react. And I think we’re good at that.
So you assign stories just for digital?
It’s changing a little bit now that we know national reporters are going out into the field. It’s changing in that we’re asking, hey, if you’re there, if you can collect this for us, or you know that extended footage that you shot or interview? Let us know where we can find it, we’ll watch it, we’ll turn something [out of it]. You know, cause they only have a few minutes sometimes to get something on TV, so there’s a lot of extra clippings on the floor that we can turn into something great.
A little video, some great photos, some extended footage from an interview that didn’t make it on air…
Is it mandatory now for journalists on the field to create multimedia content?
It’s not. We’re saying we’re digital first now, and people are coming around. Some are better than others. I think it’s a little bit of an instinct for some. CTV News had our Snapchat password, I gave it to them, and it was awesome. When CTV News was in London covering the Queen’s birthday, you know, I can’t fake that. It’s live and they’re there! Maybe some people will wonder what value that adds to the website, but I think it’s reaching this group that’s constantly on Snapchat.
It’s not mandatory for reporters to all have their own Twitter accounts?
No, it’s not mandatory, but they all do now. Some tweet more than others, but I think a lot of them are seeing the value of tweeting because we can embed, collect [the tweets] — and it’s a way of taking notes too. Or if they’re at trial, we can fold that all into a live blog, and people will follow along cause they want to know exactly what’s happening, minute by minute. So everybody has a Twitter account, [but] some are more prolific than others.
Also I think it’s a personality thing. Most journalists want to be tweeting, I feel. It’s part of their brand.
You mentioned some tools. What tools do you use?
We have some of our own analytics tools, which I won’t mention because I don’t want our competitors to know what we’re using. But I’ll see what’s trending on our website, I’ll also see what’s trending worldwide, and on Facebook or Twitter or of course I’ll look at Twitter Trending, but also there are times when there are false campaigns being circulated. And I start to see more and more emails sending me an infographic about how refugees get more money than Canadian seniors. But it’s not true. So we did a fact check. And that was one of our most read [story], for days and days, and it still comes back.
What is the role of the media, in your opinion: to pander to an audience (give the public what it wants) or decide what’s important and report on it, even if the audience may not consider it important?
I’m sure there are some organizations that pander, [but] we don’t really do that. We’ll be on the election day after day after day, even when people are tuning out by the end of it. It’s still important.
We’ll try to take things a step further. I don’t want it to be just a viral story. It has to offer some context as to why people are interested and talking about it.
My goal is to make every news story interesting and tell people why they should be interested because sometimes they don’t know why they should be.
Tell me about your personal project, #KidFriendlyNews.
I try to put a different spin on the news every day, get my kids interested, cause I think it’s very important to have an informed public, and it drives me batty when people don’t know what’s happening in the news. Makes me sad.
I remember my parents dragging me in front of the TV to watch Nelson Mandela being freed. We talked about news all the time. Growing up, we always had the newspaper, we always talked about it. So the idea behind #KidFriendlyNews is that I hope people will talk to their kids about what’s happening in the world.
It’s what I kind of hope we do with social media: find a different way to attract people to read something that might otherwise be boring, that is important.
Did you write for diasporan Armenian media in Canada when you were just starting out?
No, I started at the Scarborough Mirror. I called and said I would like to volunteer my services, and they took me on as an intern, in high school. And in university, it was the Toronto Star and the Globe, and I wrote some stuff for Horizon kind of freelance, but I never pursued anything. And my thinking, honestly, was I will better serve my people if I’m telling our story to the rest of the world. I will still sometimes write some stuff for Toronto Hye. But we know about the [Armenian Genocide], I want to tell everybody else, and we’ve done a lot about the [Genocide], on CTV, more than anybody else.
There was one time I was kind of irritated: when I wrote that article on manti [a type of dumpling] for the Toronto Star. I worked a long time on that one feature: it was my way of telling Toronto about my community, and the weekly [Armenian] television show picked up the paper and said, ” The Toronto Star wrote about manti this week”. And I was like, wow, no credit to me? Because the Toronto Star wasn’t going to write about manti if it wasn’t for me. So I was a little irritated by that. We have to work harder to lift each other up.
Have you been asked to cover a certain story because you were Armenian?
No, never. But when I discovered that my grandfather had written his memoirs about the Genocide, I told CTV I really wanted to make something out of this—
A news story?
Yes, and I had to explain why it was important. I had to make a case for it, what and how media outlets around the world covered the Genocide and what their policy was. And at the time, it was nothing like what it is now — people will easily use the word Genocide. It’s changed in the last 10 years. So I made a case. I interviewed the Turkish ambassador. I had to. I had to talk to the other side. Especially since I was Armenian, there was going to be greater scrutiny on me covering it properly. He called me after and said you did a very objective job in covering this.
You have to talk to the other side. It’s not a blog. If you’re treating it as news and you want to be taken seriously, you have to talk to them too.
Do you find that you have a preference or pay special attention to Armenian topics?
Personally, yes. It doesn’t really influence the stories that I assign, in terms of their being about Armenia and so on, but it does influence human interest stories because I think I’m more attuned to stories of immigration and building a new life in a foreign country, and to Middle Eastern and Eastern European kind of topics than some of my colleagues.
But your personal preference isn’t necessarily reflected in the coverage.
Are we writing about Armenian stories? No. We’ll maybe write about some refugee stories that I’ve heard about that others haven’t, or during the Genocide commemoration, sure. But on a day-to-day basis, no.
What is of interest to major mainstream Canadian media from Armenia or Armenian topics? Are there hot topics on Armenians here or stories coming from Armenia?
When the [Electric Yerevan] protests were happening, we published some stories. We published a couple — nobody was interested. They weren’t. There was a [bus] blast in Yerevan — no one was interested. Germany recognizing the Genocide. In the newsroom it was recognized as newsworthy, it was in our top stories, [but] it didn’t really get much interest. Even when some of the ջարդ stories, the genocide, you know when the Pope recognized it? I think there was some interest there. It was when Kim Kardashian was going to Armenia, so I guess people were tuning in, right? But during that period, there was definitely interest. I think once people have tuned in, they don’t need to hear more.
During our conversation, you mentioned in passing that you wouldn’t encourage your children to be journalists. Why?
I would not encourage them to be a journalist because I would not wish the same stress on them. It’s low pay, and lately a lot of jobs have been lost in Canada. Or maybe if they want to pursue it— I don’t know. I will encourage them to pick a lucrative path. But you have to be passionate about your job too. You have to love it. I do love it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be doing it.
Interview by Adrineh Der-Boghossian