In 1989, Jason Szep, then a literature student at Innis College and a staff writer at The Varsity, landed a job at the Reuters Canada Toronto bureau. This past year, Szep and his colleague, Andrew R.C. Marshall, were awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize — the most prestigious award in journalism — for International Reporting.
In the past two and a half decades, Szep has had stints in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Sydney, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Boston, and Bangkok.
Although Szep ended up one and a half credits short of what he needed to graduate from U of T, he attributes much of his career success to the experiences he had during his time at The Varsity.
The Varsity reached out to Szep to discuss his time at U of T, changes in the global political landscape, and life as a journalist.
The Varsity: Tell me about your time at The Varsity and at U of T. How did it prepare you for your eventual career?
Jason Szep: I was at Innis College studying literature when I joined The Varsity.
I wrote a range of stories from a personal essay on Canada’s crosswalks to news stories about changes in the campus and theatre reviews. I used the byline J. Garton Szep, and wrote mainly over 1989 and 1990. It was a wonderful learning experience. Though I loved literature (and had some wonderful professors at U of T), I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
In 1989, when it came time to apply for internships at various newspapers, I ended up empty handed. I didn’t land an internship at the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, [or others]. Crestfallen, I decided to apply for internships at all the major foreign news organizations in Toronto: the [Associated Press], Reuters, and The New York Times. The Reuters Canada bureau chief gave me a shot. He told me my work at Reuters could last a day, a week, or months. There were no guarantees. I had no idea it would last more than 20 years.
I would attend classes during the day… After three years in the Toronto bureau, I threw my hat in the ring for an internal job advertisement. Reuters was seeking an economics correspondent in Australia. I was 23 and went for it… In 1996, I was posted to Hong Kong where I helped to cover the handover to China. From there I went on a succession of postings: Singapore, Tokyo and Singapore (again). In 2003, I did some short-term stints in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2005, I was posted to my native Boston as bureau chief…
In 2009, I was posted to Bangkok as bureau chief for Thailand & Indochina, a region that covered Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. And in 2011, I became Southeast Asia bureau chief, overseeing Reuters news in 10 countries. During those four and a half years in Bangkok, we covered the opening of Myanmar after nearly half a century of military rule. It was this reporting that led to my coverage of religious violence and persecution of Myanmar’s Muslims — the work for which I won the Pulitzer Prize with my colleague Andrew R.C. Marshall.
The Varsity newsroom was the first real place where I had an opportunity to float reporting ideas and have them be challenged. Without them, I’m not sure I would have taken the next step to Reuters. I think everyone should be aware of the great opportunity that student journalism provides.
TV: Have you always been interested in international affairs?
JS: Working for an international organization opened my eyes not just to the world, but to how companies and countries operate across borders, the world of diplomacy, which I found fascinating.
TV: What advice do you have for students looking to work and live outside of Canada?
JS: If you have the desire to see the world, find a way to do it through your work. There is a big difference between living in a country, being a part of it for a few years, and visiting as a tourist.
TV: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen around the world during your time as a journalist?
JS: Without a doubt the rise of China, and how its influence is steadily expanding, especially across Southeast Asia where I most recently lived.
My first experience with that was in 1997 in Hong Kong, with the handover to China. There were lots of fears at the time that the world was ending. When you go to Hong Kong today, you see a city that’s thriving — although there’s still a long way to go in terms of political rights. I think there are very few people who would have predicted how Chinese culture in urban cities would develop. That’s one aspect that I’ve marveled at.
The other side is seeing China become increasingly aggressive. It’s pretty clear that China’s becoming more assertive across Asia — particularly in Southeast Asia. It will be interesting to see how that pans out in the next five to 10 years, and how the [United States] responds.
TV: What is the most rewarding part of your career?
JS: Meeting so many interesting people, including [Burmese politician] Aung San Suu Kyi and producing work that can make a difference in the world.
TV: What advice would you give to students who are looking to pursue journalism as a career?
JS: Don’t ever think of any story as too small. There is always a bigger story underneath it. When you are given a story, try to report it out to its fullest. You’ll be surprised at stories that seem, on one level, mundane. If you dig, you’ll find a deeper story lurking.
TV: Tell me about your reaction when you heard you won the Pulitzer Prize.
JS: I was stunned. I really didn’t expect it. My father had won two Pulitzer Prizes as a political cartoonist (he also started in Toronto after attending the Ontario College of Art [and Design] before moving to Boston to work at The Boston Globe for 35 years). I was absolutely stunned.
TV: What is the most interesting story you have ever covered?
JS: The stories that were nominated for the Pulitzer were by far the most interesting and most involved. Back in late 2011, early 2012, Myanmar opened up. As a journalist, I’d been covering it since 2009 when I was posted to Bangkok. We always talked about how Myanmar was never going to open up. In late 2011, we recognized that it was actually happening. We started to go in, and getting journalist visas. In 2011 and 2012, we did a series of stories on the dramatic opening up of a country that had been shut to the world for nearly half a century. We went in and we did stories on the politicians, who were former generals. We looked at all sorts of different aspects of life in Myanmar, from the crony capitalists to political prisoners. As part of that series, we started looking into religious tensions. That brought us to the Rohingya, which were pretty much concentrated in an area of Myanmar called Rakhine state — an area of Myanmar that had really been isolated. We started to actually get permission to go into that part of the country and start to really look at the tensions. That set us on our way to really dig deep in the country.
I have enjoyed many other stories over the years, including those written as a “cub” reporter in Toronto.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.