Chris Lane BA’02 thrives on challenges. The journalism school graduate was enjoying a long career at the CBC when opportunity came knocking in the form of the position of CEO of Agribition, the annual agricultural show held in Regina. Today, Lane finds himself at the helm of the show, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Turns out in Lane’s mind the two job aren’t that dissimilar.
On the day Chris Lane was to receive his degree from the University of Regina – which, coincidentally, was also his 22nd birthday – he boarded a plane bound for London, England. Lane had received a prestigious scholarship that offered him international experience in journalism, and he was determined to make the most of the opportunity. From the beginning of his career, Lane valued real-world experience gained through the scholarship and internships. Later in his career he would seize opportunities to pay it forward.
Chris Lane’s route from journalist and television news producer to CEO of one of the major livestock shows in North America was a roundabout one. He grew up in Grande Prairie, Alberta, but, while members of his family farmed nearby, he doesn’t think of himself as a farm kid. However, he observes that farming is part of who you are growing up in that environment. “I think people living on the Prairies feel ownership for agriculture because of their ties to the land.”
Lane headed to the University of Alberta to become a lawyer, but university opened his eyes to all of the options available. “The liberal arts program I entered showed all of the different paths you can take,” he says. Almost every course he took, from archaeology to theology, sparked an interest he thought might be worth pursuing. He even considered entering a seminary. At the end of his second year, while discussing the right fit with his parents around the kitchen table, they suggested something to do with writing – perhaps journalism – might be a better choice. Although he’d always enjoyed writing, he’d never considered it as a career until he did some research on journalism.
“I was impressed with the University of Regina and the feedback I received about the journalism program. I was sold on it,” says Lane.
The program had many more applicants than spaces available, and a rigorous application process. His interview was in Edmonton because there were so many applicants from Alberta. “It was my first real interview, and it was more of a conversation,” Lane observes. “I realized that it wasn’t so much about having the right answers, but about having the right approach – did I have the curiosity to explore things and figure them out.”
Later, Lane recalls, his hands were shaking as he opened the envelope from the University. He was accepted! It then registered with him how far away he’d have to go to pursue his goal, 1,600 kilometres from friends and family to a city he knew almost nothing about and where he knew nobody.
“I remember the day my family moved me to Regina,” Lane recalls. “I realized I was going to have to figure things out on my own.” What made the move easier, he adds, was that he fell in love with Regina immediately.
After spending a few days exploring the city and surrounding area, he was raring to go. There were some surprises at first. Some of the liberal arts classes he attended at the University of Alberta were massive in size, while the U of R’s School of Journalism brought together students from all over the country into small groups. Friendships blossomed, he notes, as did conversations among students and instructors about the concepts and principles of journalism.
“We had robust discussions about issues that might not have a right or wrong answer. Because the program combined the academic and the practical, while we were debating, we were also learning the mechanics of good journalism,” Lane explains.
In particular, he credits instructors Patricia Bell and Jill Spelliscy for leading discussions and teaching him how to be a good journalist. Bell, who taught print journalism, research and interviewing courses at the time, and headed the school for three years, describes Lane as a very engaged student. He once did a feature story on the Masonic Temple, Bell recalls, taking the reader into what seemed like an extraordinarily secret and sacred place. “He did it not just because he’s curious,” she adds, “but because he believes it’s the journalist’s job to find out things that other people aren’t able to find out.”
For Lane, seeing the TV studio for the first time was another significant moment. The combination of taking the television course in his final year and the enthusiasm and passion that the instructor, Donna Pasiechnik, brought to the course confirmed that broadcasting was the right route for him. “I was interested in producing TV and directing a team,” he says.
In 2002, his last year, Lane landed a four-month internship at CBC Calgary, which was extended into a four-month paid position. During that time, he received a scholarship from the Gemini News Service, giving him the opportunity to fly off to London to work for the agency for more than six months. While he was there, he accepted an offer for a full-time job as a producer back at CBC Calgary. “That offer was a direct result of the internship,” Lane states. “I believe internships give journalism students experiences in the areas that are likely to become a career path. That was certainly my experience.”
After working in different roles in Calgary for five years, Lane moved to Charlottetown in 2006 to become the senior producer of CBC’s evening TV newscast for Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.). The experience was an eye-opener.
“P.E.I. loves all things local,” Lane observes. “There was a story in the local newspaper about my arrival as the senior producer. There would be fans waiting in the parking lot to talk with us after the newscast. P.E.I. is different.”
Lane led what he describes as a fantastic team that was really invested in local news. The group received a Gemini News Award (now known as a Canadian Screen Award) for one of their live news productions. While he has warm, satisfying memories of his years in the Maritimes, the experience also reinforced the fact that he’s a Westerner at heart. He knew that one of his favourite instructors at the School of Journalism, Jill Spelliscy, had become a manager at CBC Saskatchewan in Regina, so when a job opening came up there, he made the move back to the Prairies.
“I wanted to work as a professional in an environment where she was involved,” Lane notes. “I was already such a fan of Regina that I wanted to make it my home, and there was also the challenge of leading something different.”
Merelda Fiddler-Potter, now a Vanier Scholar, executive-in-residence and PhD candidate at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, was a reporter and current affairs producer at CBC Saskatchewan during the time Lane was there. She recalls working with him on several projects, including some partnerships with other organizations that brought fresh perspectives to TV newscasts.
For example, The Boom Box challenged Indigenous entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to investor and philanthropist Brett Wilson, while Taking the Pulse partnered with a large team of professor and student researchers at the University of Saskatchewan to survey residents of the province on a variety of topics.
“Chris is good at seeing the value of doing these projects,” Fiddler-Potter says. “CBC Saskatchewan’s 40 Under 40 project, which identified 40 people under 40 years of age making a difference in the province, was a big one. It was about change-makers, but not just about telling the stories of these people doing different things in different areas of life. It was about bringing them all together, meeting them, networking and having fun.”
Good stories about people came out of those projects, Fiddler-Potter observes, and by bringing them to air, Lane changed the face of the supper-hour newscast.
Someone at the Canadian Western Agribition noticed his work, and when the CEO position became vacant, Lane received a phone call suggesting that he think about applying. He dismissed the idea at first, but the more he thought about it, the more he recognized that journalism and Agribition had some characteristics in common.
Lane explains that, to the agricultural community, Agribition means the same thing local news meant to the people of P.E.I. Agribition’s impact on Regina is massive, he adds, and much more complex and layered than it might first appear. At the same time, he realized that being the CEO of Agribition would be an entirely different challenge and a significant turning point in his career.
“In university, you learn how to learn, to be adaptable and curious,” Lane says. “And in journalism school in particular, I developed a lifelong passion for curiosity and the problem-solving abilities that lead to success. I thought I could apply those attributes to the role of CEO for Agribition.
Lane diligently prepared a presentation for the hiring panel, pinpointing the areas where he believed he could help. He knew what he had to offer was likely unique for the position, and that it might not fit what the organization was looking for.
Lane didn’t hear anything for a while, so he filed the experience in the back of his mind. A follow-up call to one of the members of the hiring panel changed that abruptly. “He told me ‘I’ve been meaning to call you; we intend to offer you the job.’”
Lane says that, at first, he was floored by the reality of stepping into a world he hadn’t been trained for, until he remembered what he had told himself earlier – that there are far more similarities than differences between the two jobs. “It was a matter of transferring the education, training and experience I’d learned along the way.”
One of Lane’s aims was to extend Agribition’s reach beyond the show week in November and make the community more aware of its impact year-round. As he describes it, this includes being a cheerleader for what agriculture already does well, and extending that through initiatives such as the Next Gen Agriculture Mentorship program, which enables eight young people from around Saskatchewan to be mentored for 18 months by leaders in Canada’s agriculture industry.
During his time with CBC Saskatchewan, several interns from the U of R’s School of Journalism had work placements there, a practice Lane has continued at Agribition, providing students with opportunities to practice media relations, public relations and content generation. “The internship sets them up to tell some stories about the people who attend Agribition, and especially to work with the media during Agribition Week.”
Agribition, like all events-based businesses, was affected in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the show has adapted, Lane says, “Agribition is built for the cattle and breeding industry, and the business in the barns doesn’t stop, so we were able to provide showcase options virtually in 2020.” The organization chose not to lay anyone off, with the goal of presenting the best possible show in 2021. With two months to go before Agribition 2021, Lane noted that 125,000 people attend the show over six days, and plans for presenting the show in a responsible and safe manner might change from day to day. “The COVID pandemic isn’t much different from TV shows on election night; the circumstances are always changing.”
With all of the challenges, Lane insists that he has the best job in Saskatchewan, in part because he believes the province is coming into another golden age of agriculture. He describes it as a coalescing of understanding and effort to make agriculture a driver of growth over the next ten years, pointing to the investments in canola processing plants in southern Saskatchewan, the plan for a first-of-its-kind plant to convert waste wheat straw into pulp, and support for Saskatchewan-based agriculture startups though the Cultivator business incubator and the Emmertech venture capital fund, which support the development of agricultural technologies in the province.
“With our international business development program, there’s no better time for Agribition to be involved in what’s happening in agriculture, here and around the globe.” Lane says. “That’s one reason why I say I have the best job. I’m glad that people took a chance that a journalist who trained at the U of R had the right stuff to take on the job. I’m forever grateful for everything that’s led me here.”