A couple of weeks ago, Omar Mouallem and I sat down at Credo Coffee on 104 Street to chat. As the Associate Editor of Avenue Edmonton magazine, Omar and I have crossed paths many times over the last couple of years. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to ask, but I wanted to learn more about him and I was certain we’d have an interesting conversation. We did.
Omar grew up in High Prairie and spent a lot of time in Slave Lake, so Edmonton was really more of a third home. When he was 17, Omar moved to Vancouver. He wanted to make it as a filmmaker in the big city. One day, he met a homeless person with a screenplay and it completely changed his perspective on things. It turned out that in Vancouver, Omar was just one of many, many people trying to make it as a filmmaker. “It was a healthy dose of reality, realizing I’m not that unique.”
Eventually after “drifting” for a while, Omar decided he wanted to travel, in particular to see more of the Middle East. He arranged a trip to Lebanon, and planned to make a stop in Edmonton first for his brother’s wedding. While he was here, six days before his flight across the Atlantic, war broke out in Lebanon. The Israeli defense bombed the airport tarmacs, and Omar quickly realized he wasn’t going to Lebanon. He had already packed up everything in Vancouver, so he couldn’t go back there either. He was stuck in Edmonton. “I was a little bitter honestly,” he told me. “I did not want to live in Edmonton.”
When he was growing up, Edmonton was always “the city” to Omar. He knew enough to decide he did not want to live here. But about a year after being grounded in Edmonton, Omar started to see the city differently. “It just totally flipped on me,” he said. By the time he eventually made the trip to Lebanon later that year, he found himself excited to come back home. Back to Edmonton.
I asked Omar what changed his mind about the city. “Editors and publishers took a chance on me here that they wouldn’t have elsewhere.” The positions he took at Vue Weekly, Canadian Arab News, and 24 Hours were entry-level, but were more than he could have achieved at his age in a bigger city like Vancouver. The pool of talent in the media industry is just smaller here than it is in Vancouver. “The negative side,” Omar explained, “is that you can hit your glass ceiling early.” He thinks that may be why we have issues with “brain drain” here in Edmonton. In May of 2008, Omar landed an internship at Avenue Edmonton, and that’s when the change really took hold. Omar realized he could have a career, and started identifying more as a young professional than as an artist. His move away from the north end of the city had an impact too. “Once I moved downtown, I realized how great the city was.”
It was his second time applying for an internship at Avenue. They take interns every three to six months, a program supported by the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association (they cover half the wage). Omar’s internship lasted three months, and then was renewed for another three months. After that, he was promoted to assistant editor, a full-time position at the magazine. Six months later he was promoted again, this time to associate editor, his current position.
Omar had spent time freelancing in his career, so I asked him what he found most different about being on the other side. “How far ahead magazines work” was what surprised him most. When we met at the end of October, the team had just finished work on the November issue and was already working on the December, January, February, and March issues. “Being timely is very difficult,” he told me. That’s the reason Avenue has not written much about the arena debate, though not for lack of wanting. “I would love to do investigative, thorough reporting on the arena.” His time as a freelancer has been beneficial to Omar as an editor. “I try to have more personalized relationships with my writers,” he told me, recounting his experience. “I don’t want to be just a name in their emails.”
A few months ago, Omar added another title to his resume when he became a blogger for AOL’s Canadian travel blog. “It’s a pretty sweet gig.” Responsible for one post per week, Omar is free to write about pretty much anything he likes. He wrote about What the Truck?! back in September, for instance. Omar started making websites when he was just 14, and learned HTML and other web skills along the way, so doing the posts for AOL is nothing new. You could say that he went from new media to old media, to a certain extent. I asked him if he enjoyed the contrast between editing at Avenue and writing blog articles. He confessed he prefers his role at Avenue. “I like the meticulousness that goes into articles for the magazine,” Omar told me. He talked me through the editing process. “Getting the copy, reading it for the first time, reading it a second time with a pen, editing, proofing it a couple times, fact-checking, it’s great.” He paused and thought for a moment. “I like the attention to detail that comes with magazines.”
We turned to the constantly evolving media landscape, and the impact of technology on magazines in particular. Omar thinks the changes recently are positive. “The quality of a magazine shows when you read it.” He recognizes that fewer people will pickup magazines over time, but thinks that general magazines will face a bigger challenge than topic-focused ones. Those magazines have an opportunity. “Good tablet apps have made the magazine experience better than I ever thought it could be.” The issue of length plays a factor in that experience. “No one has found a way to make the 4000 word article readable online,” Omar said. He thinks that’s why there has been a resurgence in long-form writing. “Magazines are made for writers,” he stated. “I’m a writer at heart.” Then, reminding himself that he has only been in the business for a few years: “I love magazines.”
I wondered which publications Omar enjoys reading. He mentioned Wired, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, GQ, and Toronto Life. I jumped in and asked if he reads any local publications. “The Journal, Vue Weekly, and some blogs,” he said. “I probably pick through Sharon’s blog the most.” We talked about why a local, generalist online publication hasn’t yet emerged in our city. “Maybe there’s too much media in Edmonton already,” he suggested.
Omar’s perspective on Edmonton remains positive, and as can you tell from one of his recent blog posts he still loves downtown. “It’s amazing how much the city has changed in just the last five years.” Through his work at Avenue and now AOL, Omar is helping to change the way people view our city for the better. You might say he’s exactly the kind of person we should be worried about losing, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. “A lot of Edmontonians simply don’t want to be in a coffee shop on 104th street talking about media and downtown,” he said as were discussing the car culture that persists in our city. But Omar is one of the relatively few Edmontonians who does want to talk about those things. He’s not here because he has to be, he’s here because he wants to be.
I’m sure the last thing Omar expected when he found himself “stuck” here years ago was that he would become an ambassador for the city, but he has. Omar found his passion for magazines and the media industry here, and now he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to help others see Edmonton for the great city it is.