AFTER 240 FITZHUGHS, VEERMAN IS SIGNING OFF
Nicole Veerman has always been a newspaperwoman.
When she was just seven years old, she helped her older sister deliver the paper in her home town on western Vancouver Island. At 15, she graduated from delivery girl of the Gold River Record to student reporter. After taking her undergrad in Kamloops, Veerman moved to London, Ontario for her Masters in Journalism and after reporter stints in New Brunswick, N.W.T. and Nunavut she convinced her partner, Yellowknife-based Ian Vaydik, to give Jasper a go. When she was hired by the Fitzhugh, she figured she’d give it a year and move on.
“I was on a mission. I wanted to report from every province in Canada,” she said.
Unfortunately for her mission, she got attached. Despite finding it hard to build relationships at first, all of a sudden, Jasper felt like home. Getting the editor’s chair at the Fitz helped, too.
“It was really liberating,” she said. “I could take control and do what I wanted to do with the paper.”
First off, that meant making the Fitzhugh a community paper again. New owners in 2012 were experimenting, combining Robson Valley content with Jasper stories. That experiment was failing. Veerman said rather than look at her new job as being fraught with problems she didn’t create, she saw it as a prime opportunity to build something from the ground up.
“I knew that we had a community that, if we worked hard enough, would come back to us,” she said.
Growing up in a town of less than 2,000 residents, Veerman understood intuitively the level of respect a small town newspaper reporter needs to have for the people it serves. Never mind being approached by readers, in Jasper, a trip to the local coffee shop is almost guaranteed to involve run-ins with the very people you’re writing about.
“You have to live up to what you’ve written that week and what’s sitting on the newsstand,” she said.
What was often on the newsstand—with Veerman’s byline above it—was a story about the ongoing Jasper library and cultural centre saga. By her count Veerman’s done more than 30 pieces on the interminable construction project; since she came to Jasper, she’s had the library’s imminent opening on her story list every week. That was 240 Fitzhughs ago!
“It’s mind boggling, and I know that council feels the same way, and I actually feel really badly for them,” she said. “I have such mixed feelings about that building. I think it’s going to be so great for this community but it’s also going to be a joke for years to come, whether it’s fabulous or not.”
She’s poked a bit of fun at the project in her editorials, to be sure. She’s also been sharply critical of it. Heading back into council chambers after penning such a take isn’t something she loves to do, but telling people what they need to know, even if they don’t always want to hear it, is part of the job description. Veerman’s commitment to journalism has been tested more than once during her tenure at the Fitzhugh, perhaps never more so than when she green-lighted a story about a Jasper hotel’s battle with the local health authority. She’s shown that even when the heat is on, she’s willing to put the public’s interest first.
Not that making those tough decisions doesn’t eat her up inside. She’s the first to admit her teeth grind the night before a sensitive story hits the streets. Getting the words and the tone right is terribly important to her.
“I’m so in tune with how people are going to feel,” she said. “Whether you’re writing about them, you’re writing for them.”
Community journalists are also writing for their subjects’ families and friends, and never more so than when the article is an obituary. Obits are in fact one of Veerman’s favourite newspaper disciplines, for the simple fact that writing them is a wonderful way to get to know someone.
“When somebody important to this community passes away there are so many tales to tell and people are so eager to share them. There’s a lot of love in this community so you really get to feel that.”
The love will be on display April 23 at the Jasper Legion when Veerman and Vaydik host a party there. The couple has adopted the social club as their second home. They’ve played many a game of shuffleboard, Veerman recently organized a “Shop My Closet” event at the Legion and now the couple is planning a farewell party there. Yes, it’s true, after four and a half years since she was assigned the Jasper beat, and 22 years since she was ringing subscribers’ doorbells in Gold River, Veerman is wondering what life might be like without deadlines. The 29-year-old has given her notice at the Fitzhugh and she and Vaydik are taking three months off to hit the road: they’re anticipating California beaches, Oregon hikes and Texas barbecues.
It’s going to be hard to leave, Veerman admits. She’s going to miss riding her bike to work, the view from her office and being stopped in the middle of the street to talk. She’s going to miss the collaboration with her co-workers, having coffee at Snowdome and celebrating Wine Wednesdays with girlfriends.
Luckily for Jasper, her standards have been set pretty high. She isn’t totally convinced they’ll find someplace else with all this community has to offer.
“We haven’t totally written Jasper off,” she said. “This is home.”