Michael Friscolanti: From Argus News Editor to Maclean’s

Young Alumni Award winner returns to his origins

Jon Pukila

Staff Writer

The beginning of any career is never an easy first step. One is bound to make numerous stupid mistakes. Michael Friscolanti, a former Argus alumnus and current Senior Writer at Maclean’s, is well aware of those.

“I made mistakes my first couple years in the business, even working at The Star and The Post. You’d make the stupidest mistakes in the story, then they’d have to run that little correction the next day. You’d want to kill yourself,” Friscolanti said in an interview on May 30 with members of The Argus staff, including News Editor Erin Collins, Editor-in-Chief Mike St. Jean, Business Manager Uko Abara, and Staff Writer Jon Pukila.

Friscolanti was in Thunder Bay to receive the Young Alumni Award as part of the Alumni Awards Dinner, which honours the successes of past Lakehead University graduates. This year’s Young Alumni Award winners included Friscolanti, and Smithsonian anthropologist Matthew Tocheri. Alumni Honour Award winners were Jamie Sokalski, CFO of Barrick Gold, and Phillip Walford, President of Marathon Gold.

Visiting The Argus office after the dinner, Friscolanti looked back on where he came from, and when the passion for his career started. He was immediately impressed with how far the paper has come along. “You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at a campus paper. This is ten times better than when I was here,” he said.

Friscolanti graduated from LU in 1998 with a degree in English. Afterwards, he completed a postgraduate degree in journalism at Ryerson. He has since worked for The Toronto Star, The National Post and, currently, Maclean’s magazine as Senior Writer.

Friscolanti explained that he initially got involved with The Argus after a stint on the LUSU Board of Directors. An opening for News Writer arose and he decided to apply. “Most of [the staff] were going to be around for the next year, so they interviewed me. . . . I was the only person that was interviewed, so there was really no choice but to hire me,” he recalled.

After accepting the position, Friscolanti felt excitement from being the News Writer. “I was pumped because I was ready. It was something I thought about for about a year that I wanted to try. I always loved to write, and I felt like journalism would be something to pursue. And it just went from there,” he said.

One of the biggest stories Friscolanti covered during his time at The Argus was about the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. At the time, the process of finding suitable land for the hospital was underway, and some professors at LU were concerned about how the environmental assessment process was conducted.

The reaction to his article was swift, with Friscolanti receiving several “nasty phone calls from hospital PR people.” Despite this, he feels that the criticism generated by his article brought him satisfaction at doing his job well. “It was that fact that you were doing journalism, and that was the best thing,” he said.

In addition, Friscolanti credits his time as News Editor as an opportunity to learn important skills that would prove beneficial for his future career. “There will always be a memory for me of . . . my first interviews: phone interviews, in-person interviews, just asking tough questions,” he said.

“And I still do that today, to a much greater extent now. But I learned to do it at that table right there,” he added, pointing to a corner table in the office where an Apple iMac now sits.

At Maclean’s, Friscolanti has covered several important stories as their Senior Writer. The majority of his stories involve criminals and people doing bad things. In Friscolanti’s words, these are people who “don’t want to be found [and] don’t want to be contacted.”

Friscolanti spoke at length about two of the biggest stories of his career at Maclean’s: the Shafia honour killing trial, and the Russell Williams case. Friscolanti and his team of writers provided extensive coverage on both for Maclean’s. Their aim was to “take the reader through the whole thing and [tell] what happened,” he said.

For the Shafia trial, Friscolanti was in the courtroom every day, witnessing it from beginning to end. His coverage was even combined into a thirty-page mini-book, telling the complete story of the Shafia family and the honour killings.

He acknowledges the importance of telling the story of such a horrific event. “To know that we were in there every day, filing these reports, and telling Canadians what was happening, and knowing at the end that we were going to do this big write-through, sort of like the authoritative definitive piece on what happened to these girls” was  “hugely gratifying,” Friscolanti said.

The same approach was followed during the Russell Williams case. Friscolanti’s team went to great lengths not only to tell the story, but to provide readers with further insight into the killer. He recalled one of his reporters searching extensively to interview people who met or worked with the disgraced colonel.

“We interviewed dozens of military people, put them all in the story, and, to me, it was one of the definitive stories of the whole case at the time,” Friscolanti said. He added that the amount of detail that went into the story, and the extent to which his team went to find people who worked with Williams, set Friscolanti and Maclean’s apart from other news organizations covering the case.

“None of those people [we interviewed] ever spoke again to any other reporter because, I think, they saw the product of it. We pieced the puzzle together, and they were told, ‘Look, you got to keep your mouth shut on this right now.’ And, none of those guys have ever been interviewed by anybody else,” Friscolanti said.

“We basically told readers the story of his life in the weeks and months leading up to his arrest, and how he was leading this alleged double life – alleged at the time because he wasn’t convicted yet,” Friscolanti added.

One question asked during the interview was whether students should pursue a career in journalism. Many students have been repeatedly told that they should avoid a career in this field due to the unreliable nature of the work; Friscolanti disagrees with that assumption. While he acknowledges that the industry is at a “crossroads” due to flaws in its distribution model, he believes student journalists have a lot to look forward to if they put an effort into it. “If you’re passionate about it, care about it, and are willing to put in the work for it, there’s going to be work for you,” he said.

For all of Friscolanti’s successes in life, he feels like he owes a lot to his education at Lakehead University, “one of those places where you can just be yourself,” he said. “I look back and I can’t imagine . . . this kid that grew up in Hamilton . . . came here. And in those four years, so much happened that gobbled me up, [and] spit me back out in a new direction. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”