With robust experience and a refined skillset, Carola Vyhnak offers valuable insight into the evolution (since the 70s) of the journalistic field. Starting with the Toronto Star in 1976, she has built a multifaceted resume and has embraced a wide range of positions and topics.
Currently, Carola enjoys the calm of rural Ontario whilst still working as a freelance writer. She even covers stories for the Toronto Star’s “In Your Dreams” section, where some of Engel and Völkers Canada’s – one of our clients – unique and luxury properties have been featured.
We had a chat with the enthusiast and eloquent storyteller to hear her dynamic story in journalism.
Over your unbelievable 40+ year journalistic career, what are some of the changes to traditional media you’ve witnessed along the way? How have they affected the way you work?
When I set off on my journalistic adventure in 1976, we hammered out copy on Underwoods in a noisy, smoke-filled (tobacco) newsroom. Filing a breaking news report from the field for one of the Toronto Star’s five editions meant racing to the nearest pay phone to dictate the story to the rewrite desk. I still remember being five months pregnant – that was a rarity for a reporter in those days! – and making a mad dash along Toronto’s crowded waterfront in search of a phone after a plane crashed during the C.N.E.’s air show.
Background research was done in the newspaper’s library where published stories were carefully clipped out and filed, along with black and white prints and sleeves of negatives. The internet, email, smartphones and social media didn’t exist.
You only need to look at today’s digital, multi-media world to see how things have changed. I’ve been working remotely from my home office for more than a dozen years, and the vast majority of my research and information-gathering is done online or via mobile device.
When I broke my foot a couple of years ago, I didn’t miss a beat because I could still hobble the few steps to my work station. Only downside is when the dog barks during an important phone interview with a busy developer or high-profile homeowner.
Doing fewer face-to-face interviews calls for creativity with questions. To take readers inside a luxury home worth mega-millions, I have to go beyond the superficial to ferret out all the unique touches, outstanding features and personal details that I can.
What’s your stance on the current Canadian media landscape? What are some positive and negative implications of the changes over the years?
On the one hand, the decline of print media is disappointing and disturbing to an “old-school” journalist. And today’s high-tech world has a destructive downside in the hands of so-called citizen correspondents, trolls and social media maniacs, which is perhaps the most troubling part of all.
But on the flip side, the evolution of all forms of media, along with advancements in technology, has opened up an exciting new world for young journalists. From the consumer’s perspective, having up-to-the-instant news, information and entertainment available literally at your fingertips – look, ma, no ink stains! – is incredible.
This dichotomy is evident in my own daily reading habits. I love spreading the newspaper out on the kitchen table but if bad weather prevents delivery, I just read the e-version – an exact replica – on my iPad.
Having written for a variety of departments and sections, which have been some of the most enjoyable and why? How have your experiences shaped your real estate writing?
I’ve always gravitated toward human interest and people-oriented stories, striving to inject as much “real life” and emotion as is appropriate. That’s what brings a story to life and makes a connection with the reader. It’s also the type of writing that gives me the greatest satisfaction.
Covering real estate and homes is no different. I began writing about housing and design in the mid-1980s when condo developments were going crazy. The Star made me editor of a new section called Condo Living with the idea that it would be a two-year gig fuelled by a short-term trend. More than three decades later, condominiums continue to sprout like mushrooms, changing the cityscape virtually overnight.
During that time, I’ve bought, improved and lived in about 10 rural and urban homes. So, a personal interest in real estate, design, gardening and renovating has factored into my career. One of the most fun – and personally relevant – interviews I’ve done was with Drew and Jonathan Scott about their new book Dream Home: The Property Brothers’ Ultimate Guide to Finding & Fixing Your Perfect House. At the time, I was searching for, and then fixing, my current house. One look at the refaced slate-hued cabinetry, teal feature wall and reclaimed barn board dining table and you know the brothers were here – in spirit, at least. Still waiting for their knock at the door.
What are some of the biggest benefits and drawbacks to being a freelancer?
Freelancing is freedom: I choose what I write about as well as when and where I work. As long as I meet my deadline, it doesn’t matter what days or time of day I do my research, interviews and writing. It also allows my preferred lifestyle in a rural home, surrounded by nature and able to spend hours outside walking, gardening and looking after the property.
Of course, working from home also means never leaving the office. But I suppose the main drawback is work security because you never know when things might change. But if that happens, I’ll find another way to keep the old noodle going.
How do you like to be pitched a story idea? What’s one piece of advice you’d give to those pitching media in general?
During my years as a section editor, I chucked every story idea and news release that came my way if I wasn’t hooked after the first two or three paragraphs. That may sound brutal, but I didn’t have time to wade through pages or screenfuls of half-baked, poorly written pitches that made me do all the work to find key information.
Not much has changed, although I’m no longer ambushed by gimmicks like the product sample that arrived nestled in glitter – my desk sparkled, and I cursed for days – or the single shoe (not even my size!) whose mate was waiting for me at a PR event.
The principles of an effective pitch are timeless: Lead with the most important point or angle that makes your idea a must-do. Keep your pitch concise and compelling. Know your target writer/editor/media outlet so you can match your pitches with the type, tone and subject matter of the stories they cover.
What’s your favourite way to stay informed? Feel free to name drop your fave writers or publications.
No surprise here, but the Toronto Star’s print and digital editions are my go-to source of news and information. Faves include pop culture columnist Vinay Menon, who always amuses and enlightens, and Washington bureau chief Daniel Dale and his dog-with-a-bone coverage of Donald Trump. If I’m allowed a guilty pleasure, it would be advice-dispenser Ellie, whose columns address every issue on the relationship spectrum.
I’m also a CBC radio junkie. I have a radio in every room of the house, and at least two of them are on all day. I even have headphones with a built-in stereo, so I don’t miss anything when I’m outside. Maybe it’s a ruralite’s way of staying connected to the rest of the world.
I confess I haven’t embraced social media on a broad scale, mostly because it’s such a time-killer and the need-to-know stuff is going to reach you anyway.