CBC’s David Common lends expertise to broadcast students


One of the best ways for a person to learn is by doing. That is the philosophy followed by Sheridan College guest lecturer and CBC international news correspondent David Common in every one of his field reports.

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Toronto, Common has nearly 15 years experience in international broadcast media, and can best be described as a seasoned ‘veteran,’ a term not normally associated with someone who is just 37 years old. He has moved up the ranks quickly in the industry to become one of CBC’s youngest, most dependable and well-respected journalists. And now he is the host of World Report, Canada’s largest and most reputable syndicated news radio show that boasts more than 1.3 million listeners across the country every morning.

Common has travelled extensively in his career, reporting from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq to natural disasters in Haiti and Japan, and has been posted everywhere from Regina, Winnipeg, Fredericton and Toronto to New York City and Paris, as a foreign news correspondent.

And once every week, Sheridan students in the Broadcast Journalism program are treated to a lecture from Common to learn about the industry firsthand from a highly experienced news anchor and reporter.

“I got handed him on a silver platter and it’s been great,” said Sherry Lawr, a professor in Sheridan’s broadcast program who has been lecturing alongside Common. “It’s been a great asset having him here, but he really needs to be teaching,” she added. “He’s good at it.”

Over the course of his career, Common has received several awards, including two Gemini nominations, the highest honour in Canadian television, winning once in the Best Reportage category.

But like many students in his shoes, Common had to start from the bottom.

In 1995, he enrolled at York University and Seneca College in what was at the time Ontario’s only joint program. He pursued a double major degree in political science and mass communications while earning an advanced diploma in radio and television broadcast. Keen on expanding his horizons even further, Common went on an exchange in 1998, while in his third year at university, and completed a specialization in international security studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. He then went on a mission for an internship, and it didn’t take long before he landed one.

“I called the CBC London bureau and asked them if I could intern,” Common said. It was as simple as that. And what was meant to be just a two-week-long internship in the U.K. became the foundation of his career.

“A couple weeks turned into part of the spring, and then the entire summer,” Common said. “And at the end of it I chose to go back [to Canada] and finish my fourth year in university.”

Upon returning to Canada in September 1998, Common had maintained such strong ties with CBC that he was able to parlay his internship in London to get him in the door at CBC Toronto, where he worked first as a closed captioner, typing what people with hearing impairments would read on the screen during a television broadcast, and then moved up to become an editorial assistant (EA), all while completing his last year of university. By the time he graduated in 1999, Common had a degree, a diploma and a specialization, all in a span of just four years.

“He’s a smart guy,” said Sandy McKean, associate dean of film, television and journalism at Sheridan College, who previously worked at CBC for 35 years. “The secret of a great reporter is somebody who’s very curious, understands, and asks the right questions. [David’s] educational background has prepared him for this… And we’re benefitting from that, because he’s in our classrooms helping to shape that next generation of reporters.”

When Common was preparing for graduation, he was recommended for the national internship program at CBC, a career development program established that year, in part by McKean.

Common was one of 10 journalists selected, and received extensive training at the Toronto bureau in broadcast media and shooting in a local newsroom setting. He was relocated to Fredericton, N.B. for four months, where they made him a full-fledged local reporter.

“I was on air within a month of leaving university,” Common said, “which never happens. I worked hard as an EA and I stood out, but I had the luck of this program coming along just at that moment and getting accepted onto it.”

Common’s objective has always been to learn as he goes, and he continues to develop his skill sets in shooting and in the use of new media technologies. After four months in Fredericton, he moved back to Toronto for a two-week training course in current affairs and began doing documentary work for The National. In late 1999, he was reposted to Winnipeg, and then again to Regina, where he took a job as a legislative reporter, then as a network reporter, delivering national, rather than local, news. He remained stationed there for the better part of his career, from late 2000 until 2005.

It was during this time that proved extremely life-changing for Common, when he began to travel internationally to cover many of the world’s biggest events.

“I have gone from a very unpredictable lifestyle, and it’s not just that I’m travelling a lot, it’s travelling with no notice,” Common said. “If something happens, the phone rings, you leave.”

Common travelled very little growing up, which makes him crave the adventure of such a lifestyle all the more. Travelling has taught him how to work on his own and shoot and edit his own work onsite, which he says was an invaluable experience.

“I do a lot of technical stuff which not a lot of reporters can do,” he said. “I know how to shoot and edit with some pretty high-tech equipment.”

His efforts are also focused on delivering content faster by using simpler technology, like his smart phone, which also demands finding creative ways to transmit a signal.

“When you go into a war zone, there’s no power, no water, no food, no phones. So we have equipment to be able to work around that.”

He was just 26 when he was first posted in Afghanistan for two-and-a-half months in 2002, for his first of eight trips. And in this first visit he learned quickly the importance of being on full alert in such a corrupted part of the world.


“There were times certainly in Afghanistan where I felt in danger,” he said. “Some of it because we were in bad places, and some of it because I did stupid stuff. Once I walked into a minefield, because I didn’t know any better.”

That death-defying experience didn’t deter him from striving to cover those big stories. He reported in Iraq in 2003 for the invasion and covered the violent hostility conflicts in Haiti in 2004, which was another eye-opening experience.

“There was a lot of gunfire, and it was close,” he recalled. “You leave there a very different person. [My wife and I] had kids shortly after that, because you start to have a different outlook on life when you have survived.”

That’s his biggest challenge of all. On top of being so devoted to his career, Common has a wife and two young daughters, five and eight years old.

“You barely balance it,” he admitted, commending his wife. “You need a spouse who’s very understanding and very capable of existing on their own.”

In his career, Common understands the importance of being mobile and being flexible, and he will advise students to always go after every opportunity, because there is no telling where it will lead to.

“When you see an opportunity, you’ve got to seize it and make it work,” he said. “And that could lead to the next opportunity.”

After his first daughter was born, Common took a posting in Paris and served as a CBC Europe Correspondent from 2006 to 2009. This job too demanded a great deal of travelling, often to two countries a week.

“You learn a lot of independence on the road,” he said.

And after his second daughter was born, Common and his wife moved once more, to New York City, where he was positioned as the New York Bureau Chief and Correspondent from 2009 to August 2013, when he came back to Toronto to stay.

Every move he makes is merely a stepping-stone to his next big undertaking, and McKean commends him for the career that he’s built.

“David is one of the best,” McKean said. “[He’s] one of those reporters that has witnessed and reported on some incredible world events in the last 3 to 4 years. And to have him in the classroom talking to students, and giving them tips on how to cover those kinds of stories is incredibly valuable… We’re benefitting from his great expertise.”

During his time as the bureau chief in New York, Common became the primary face and designated traveller of all major news events, and carried on his devotion to covering war and terrorism conflicts. He was in Mali earlier this year, was CBC’s primary reporter at the site of the Boston bombings last April, and he’s done a lot surrounding the aftermath of 9/11.

“Particularly as the foreign correspondent you’re the only guy that a company has in a certain place,” Common said, “so you do whatever they need you to do.”

He’s reported from more than 50 countries, most recently the Philippines in November, covering the disaster relief following the typhoon that has killed thousands of people. It’s stories like the Japanese tsunami in 2011 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that have had the biggest impact on him.

“When you look at something like Haiti, I found it very difficult not to be affected by what was going on,” he said. “There were hundreds of thousands of dead people around me. I was there a day after the quake. You stop thinking about the dead pretty quickly and start thinking about the living. You start thinking how are these people going to survive?”

After 13 years of devoting his time on the road, Common is looking for a change of pace, and something more stable.

“After all of that, it becomes too much,” he said. “So that’s why I have now come back to Toronto.”

Last August, he returned to his home base for the 12th time to be stationed out of CBC’s downtown bureau, this time more long-term. And he is excited about the next phase of his career.

Common became the host and chief correspondent for World Report, the most prestigious job in CBC news radio. Common broadcasts the latest international news as well as the top domestic stories every morning from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., and says that while the radio show does keep him busy, it’s only for a defined eight hours, which appealed to him most.

“I just took this job to be slightly more normal,” he said.

And his reasoning was simple.

“It means that four days out of five I pick my kids up from school, which I’ve never done before,” he said. “It’s just a different existence. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever taken my kids trick-or-treating.” Last October, Common got that chance.

While he does expect his foreign correspondent instincts to kick in every once in a while, for the foreseeable future, Common says he is staying put. And to have the opportunity to teach on the side is a bonus.

“For me to do this for three hours is energizing,” he said, “to come in and hang out with people who are a generation below me and see where things are at in terms of the future of journalism.”

And things are going very well, both for Common and for the college.

“He’s doing a terrific job,” said McKean, “and there’s nothing better than to learn from somebody who’s been on the ground firsthand and has been a witness to the history that we’re teaching.”

McKean adds that Common’s position may even turn into a permanent posting.

“Hopefully he’s going to teach a course in the winter semester, in our journalism new media program,” he said. “A world conflict studies course, which, for somebody who has been in every hostile conflict zone in the world, he’s ideal to teach the course.”

In the meantime, Common is going with the flow and taking every opportunity that comes his way. And he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’ve had a lot of luck,” he admitted of his career with CBC. “A lot of ‘right place, right time.’ But right place right time is only good if you’re willing to work really hard,” he added.

“I frankly never thought it would go on as long as it has. I’m not sure how long it will last, but I say to everybody, enjoy the ride while it lasts.”