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Panelists talk being Jewish and female in the media

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Sarah Fulford, centre, and Naomi Zener, right, at the UJA's Centre for Jewish Innovation panel
Sarah Fulford, centre, and Naomi Zener, right, at the UJA's Centre for Jewish Innovation panel

TORONTO – On April 4, Genesis, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Innovation, hosted a panel discussion featuring Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford, and Naomi Zener, a lawyer and vice-president of business and legal affairs for Vice Media, Inc. in Canada.

Zener is also a published novelist and the writer of a satire fiction blog, SatiricalMama.com.
The panel was held at the Design Exchange.

The CJN spoke to Zener before the event on April 4 and to Fulford after the event.

Why do you think Genesis, UJA Federation’s Centre for Jewish Innovation asked you to appear on this panel?

Fulford: I think you’d have to ask UJA Genesis! But I’m certainly glad they did. I’d never met Naomi before, and now we’re friends. That’s a surprise gift. Plus, I met a dozen or so other great women that night.

Zener: I work at an international youth media company that has a variety of channels. We’re the pre-eminent brand for millennials who are looking for news, lifestyle, information and entertainment. Because we started in traditional media, then exploded as a digital company and are now exploring and exploding traditional avenues of distribution, people look at us as an innovative company to watch.

What will be/what was the focus of the talk?

Fulford: It was wonderfully unfocused. We covered a ton of territory: the digital revolution in media, balancing family life with work life, and what it means to be Jewish in 2016. It was really fun.

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Zener: I think it’ll be about how Sarah and I have gotten where we are in our careers to date – not just as individuals but as women – and about how we balance our lives as executives, spouses, parents etc., and also find ways to pursue our passions in our spare time. I think we’ll give advice, based on the experiences we’ve had, to people early in their careers, mid-career or people who are looking to switch careers.

What sort of things does your job entail?

Fulford: As editor of Toronto Life, it’s my job to ensure that the magazine and its website resonate with readers. I work with writers and editor colleagues to identify stories we think are relevant and compelling. Then we do our best to bring them to life in the most engaging way possible, with great storytelling and powerful images. It’s pretty terrific, actually. There’s something magical about working with smart, creative people all day long.

Zener: I manage all business and legal affairs matters for Vice in Canada. I deal with all legal or business affairs issues that arise and help with strategic planning and growth initiatives for our television, film and digital content production, advertising, our creative services division, sales and branded content. I work with our joint-venture partners and advise on a bevy of matters, from labour and employment to broadcast and regulatory matters. My days are quite varied.

How has your publication managed to stay relevant in a challenging and quickly evolving media landscape?

Fulford: Funny you should ask! This fall, Toronto Life will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Over the last few months, I’ve been spending time in the magazine’s archives, and I’ve seen that certain core elements of Toronto Life haven’t changed: the magazine has been covering restaurants, real estate, politics, culture and society for five decades. It has deliberately played a role in creating the city’s self-image and self-understanding. But the city itself has changed so much. It’s become so much more sophisticated and complicated – our stories reflect that.

As for the changing media landscape, we believe that people want excellent editorial content now just as much as in the past. People just want it on a variety of platforms – in print, on their phones, tablets and desktop computers. Our award-winning long-form journalism is just as popular online as it is in print, and sometimes more so, because people share our stories on social media, so we regularly reach people outside our core print subscription demographic. That’s a real joy. The digital space has also allowed Toronto Life to be a lot more than a monthly print magazine. We publish many stories on our website each day on a variety of subjects and a variety of formats.

Zener: I’m not working on the creative or editorial side, but I can say we have a very raw, immersive approach to telling stories, and we tell stories that are under-represented. We do so honestly, and I think our audience appreciates that.

Are there particular challenges that you’ve experienced as a woman in charge of a large operation (or in charge of part of an operation)?

Fulford: I was appointed editor of Toronto Life in 2007, and at first, I was worried I wasn’t going to be taken seriously because I was just 33 years old and a woman. I was following in the footsteps of a widely admired, firmly established, veteran male editor. Then I took over in 2008, right around the time the Great Recession hit, and my Number 1 challenge was dealing with a massive decline in advertising revenue. I spent my first few years on the job looking at spreadsheets, trying to figure out how to maintain quality while reducing expenses. It was a trial by fire, and it totally eclipsed any issues around my age or gender.

Zener: I think being a woman in any workplace means having unique challenges that have been widely discussed, and remain true, by public figures such as Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. From my perspective personally, I think being a woman and a mother lets me bring to the table a whole set of skills that a man wouldn’t necessarily be able to bring. Simply having to juggle a busy career and motherhood is a unique challenge that many women in the workforce face and have to find a way to navigate.

Would you say your writing or editing is in any way driven by a feminist perspective?

Fulford: That’s really hard for me to judge. It’s possible I’m more curious about stories by and about women than some male editors, but of course, Toronto Life is a general interest magazine, so we curate our stories to reach both men and women.

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Zener: I see myself as a feminist, and I believe in intersectional feminism. I think we have to look at feminism from a global, wholesale perspective. The satire and short fiction on my blog can be inspired by anything. It’s not strictly from a feminist perspective. It could be anything from, for example, a legal decision to something going on in the world to my husband saying something completely ridiculous – any of these things can inspire me to write abut something or satirize it.

How does your Jewishness factor into your work as a journalist or a writer, if at all?

Fulford: I wouldn’t say it plays a direct role in my work. However, there is something powerful about belonging to a group of people with a long history, and being aware of that history. Especially in a city like Toronto, where there are people from all over the world, it’s important to know we all have roots that go deep, and that worldviews are informed by generations.

Zener: I think my humour comes from a very Jewish place – from the family I was raised in, from my grandmothers, who had the immigrant Jewish experience and this very unique way of speaking. My maternal grandmother, especially, never lost her sense of humour, despite surviving the Holocaust.

Those unique immigration stories and the approach to telling them have helped mould how I view things, and I think that comes out in my writing. It’s a certain bluntness. There’s no sugar coating.


These interviews have been edited and condensed for style and clarity.