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Meet Julia-Simone Rutgers, The Narwhal’s new Manitoba reporter in collaboration with the Winnipeg Free Press

From a young age, Julia-Simone Rutgers knew she wanted to be a journalist. Now she brings her skills to a unique new role with The Narwhal and Winnipeg Free Press

During a recent trip back home to her parents’ house in Calgary, Julia-Simone Rutgers may have discovered the origins of her journalism career.

It was captured on video from when she was in elementary school.

“We had one of those old VCR cameras that everybody had for home videos back in the early 2000s and there are some tapes on there of me recording an interview with my little brother as he built a lego city in our basement,” she says.

That instinct for reporting led Julia-Simone to decide in high school that she wanted to pursue journalism, heading off to University of King’s College in Halifax for her bachelor’s degree in journalism and contemporary studies. 

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Julia-Simone is now the newest Prairies member of The Narwhal pod as our Manitoba reporter — an innovative new position created in partnership with the 150-year-old Winnipeg Free Press with support from the Winnipeg Foundation.  

“The Narwhal is thrilled to draw on the local expertise of the Winnipeg Free Press to bring in-depth coverage of Manitoba’s natural world to our audience across Canada,” said Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief of The Narwhal.

“This innovative partnership is one of the first of its kind in Canada and marks a new era of collaboration between digital and legacy news outlets.”

J.S. Rutgers
Julia-Simone Rutgers hopes this new innovative collaboration between The Narwhal and the Winnipeg Free Press will help fill a void for in-depth and investigative environmental journalism in Manitoba. Photo: Jessica Lee / The Winnipeg Free Press

Julia-Simone says her unique new role as an environment beat reporter in Manitoba provides opportunities to connect different types of stories to the audiences of both The Narwhal and the Free Press.

The position will leverage the reach and local credibility of the daily Winnipeg newspaper along with the subject matter expertise about the natural world The Narwhal is known for, filling a void for in-depth and investigative environmental journalism in Manitoba.

Based in Winnipeg, Julia-Simone first started reporting for the Free Press in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since November 2021, she took on a special six-month assignment as the first Justice Fund Black Writer in Residence at The Walrus. She has also previously reported for StarMetro Halifax, along with a few bylines in the Globe and Mail, the Coast and The Discourse.

We chatted with Julia-Simone about her reflections on journalism, her hobbies and her not-so-secret ambition to moonlight as a DJ.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing journalism today?

Ultimately, we’re staring down a world where ideas are becoming further and further entrenched and opinions are becoming further and further entrenched and I think division and misinformation are becoming more and more prominent. And journalism is in a unique position where we’re being called to sort of straddle this divide — to bridge the divide and to push back against a tide of misinformation and disinformation that further builds those walls and those divisions between people. So I think there’s a unique responsibility right now to be aware of that power and resist the temptation to fall into entrenched views and further division.

J.S. Rutgers
“The Free Press and The Narwhal, are slightly different. The Free Press has an established role in the community and I think harnessing that trust in the community to tell these stories is really going to expand the reach that these stories get,” Rutgers says.

You are taking on a position that will likely be the first collaborative role of its kind in Canada, shared between two news outlets — The Narwhal and the Winnipeg Free Press. What do you think is the significance of taking on this type of role at this time?

I think there are two things that come to mind here. First of all, we know that journalism is an industry that has had to restructure and re-establish its methods of funding — reestablish its sense of sustainability. There’s been a mounting pressure on journalistic institutions and we’ve seen a lot of places had to massively downsize. So I think a collaborative role like this can set a precedent for further collaborations, for sharing resources and talent and stories that are relevant in our publications. I think this can pioneer a new way to find some sustainability in this field. On a more local level, I think that collaboration is important because the audience of these publications, the Free Press and The Narwhal, are slightly different. The Free Press has an established role in the community and I think harnessing that trust in the community to tell these stories is really going to expand the reach that these stories get. I’m very hopeful that they will be able to change and soften minds in this province in a way that I don’t think has really been done before. 

How has COVID-19 changed your professional routines and assignments?

I moved to Manitoba in February of 2020 and two weeks later, there was a pandemic. I moved for a job originally with the Winnipeg Free Press. So I was in a new province, with a brand new role, and very quickly had to adjust to living and working in a way that was completely different from what I was used to. I remember early in the pandemic, standing outside with my laptop waiting for the movers to bring the rest of my stuff from Nova Scotia into my house, while I was on deadline. I think it pushed me to work very independently — and from my living room, which is a blessing and a curse at times. But it’s also pushed me to use my feet, to get outside and to hold onto the value of being present for stories. I think it sort of became easy, during the pandemic, to take a phone or Zoom approach to journalism, but it’s really shown me the value of getting out and doing things ‘shoe leather style.’ I’ve noticed that it affects the quality of my stories and our work, broadly speaking, in this field.

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Working through the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing and a curse, Rutgers says. Photo: Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press

What are your hobbies and what do you do to unwind? 

I told everyone yesterday that I’m an aspiring DJ. That’s something that I’m trying to get into. I love playing music. I dabble in a few instruments but I like to say I’m a master of none of them. I can be found making music in GarageBand in my spare time. Obviously, like anyone who writes, I love to read. I’ve always considered myself an amateur poet. And so I try and spend time outdoors, writing and reading and finding new creative ways to express myself — hence the music and hence the hopeful DJing in the future.

We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?
We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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We’re tripling our Prairies coverage
The Narwhal’s newly minted Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.