Meet Kady O’Malley, the digital phenom who’s changing the way politics is covered, one tweet at a time
Kady O’Malley can be difficult to pin down. At first she suggests meeting at Brixton’s, a pub just steps from the CBC Radio-Canada centre on Sparks Street. “It’s cute,” O’Malley explains in an email. “I’ll be the stressed-out blond!”
But circumstances change quickly when you’re a CBC parliamentary reporter, and two days later the Hill looks like a better option. “Since it’s starting to look like tomorrow could be shaping up to be a bit zanier than expected, what would you say to changing the venue to the legendary fifth floor cafeteria in Centre Block?” This “legendary” cafeteria turns out to be a lunch counter with some decent seating.
“It’s where people actually eat during the winter because it’s way too much work to walk down to Sparks Street,” O’Malley notes. “There’s also the parliamentary restaurant, but that’s too rich for my blood.” She orders a turkey sandwich while pointing out the key to the cafeteria’s success: it’s open whenever the House of Commons is sitting — by order of Parliament.
Over the past decade, this diminutive journalist with the bleach-blond pixie cut has developed a reputation for typing fast and thinking even faster. She talks fast too. It’s chatter brimming with minutiae — and it’s not all parliamentary procedure. British science fiction series, trashy mystery novels, and horror film theory all fall within her purview. “The best compliment I’ve ever received was from a friend who said, ‘You’re the girl in the horror movie who survived,’” O’Malley says, a reference to the so-called “final girl” of slasher films. In film theory, the girl who survives is considered an “investigating consciousness,” a character who gradually wins over the audience.
O’Malley has certainly been winning over an audience in recent years. But unlike many of her friends and colleagues on the Hill, O’Malley has built the bulk of her reputation through on-the-scene reporting directly to the Internet as a live blogger, with plenty of snarky commentary tossed in for good measure. Her list of followers on Twitter (at last count, 6,803) includes a virtual Rolodex of Ottawa insiders. The Hill Times, the newspaper of record in the parliamentary precinct, has named her one of the 100 most influential people in government and politics for the past two years running. Put simply, O’Malley is trending.
“I think it’s unusual now. I don’t think it will be unusual in the future,” she says of her notoriety as an online source for all things political. These days, she says, news organizations are looking to make the web a destination in itself rather than a spinoff from hard copy or a home for less-than-fresh copy. “The Internet is not the place [journalists] get shuffled off to anymore.”
Born in Guelph and raised in Ottawa, O’Malley was hooked on politics early. Her father, Peter O’Malley, was director of communications to NDP leader Ed Broadbent, while her mother worked as a government economist. It was a kind of government-town immersion that she compares to growing up in the middle of a long-running soap opera.
One of her first jobs out of high school was compiling a summary of what was going on in Parliament, called the Ottawa Daily Fax. “I got hooked on procedural stuff and kept paying attention to it, and then when we hit the minority [government], it suddenly became kind of relevant,” O’Malley says. She went on to freelance for The Hill Times, where she developed a reputation as a hard worker with great instincts — who wrote pretty ordinary copy. She was recruited to macleans.ca following the 2006 election.
“It wasn’t until she started live-blogging that her personality came out,” says senior columnist Paul Wells, who blogs at macleans.ca. “It’s fashionable these days to assume nothing happens in Parliament. Kady grew up here, and she knows different. She keeps showing up, day after day, to find events that are freighted with significance, humour, and craziness.”
Meanwhile, back at the cafeteria, it’s confession time. “I don’t actually eat here,” O’Malley says. “I usually get my food here and go down to the hot room. I’ll show you the hot room. It’s quite nice. I love the hot room, actually. It’s my home.” The “hot room” is the parliamentary press gallery office in Centre Block, a kind of hub for journalism on the Hill. O’Malley has had a desk here for 15 years and certainly seems at home sauntering down the rows of shabby cubicles. In fact, she looks like the town gunslinger, wearing heels and low-slung jeans with two Blackberries clipped to her belt. And if it were an Old West scene, her desk would be the requisite tumbleweed, a chest-high jumble of papers with a netbook perched on top. “I tried it for a little while, but I didn’t like the keyboard,” O’Malley says of the teetering junior-size laptop. “I can only type on a Blackberry or a regular keyboard for some reason.”
O’Malley says the first Blackberry is her personal phone, the second her corporate one, but then she admits that isn’t how she actually uses them. “You never know when you’re going to need a backup. Batteries die,” she explains. Indeed, it seems difficult to imagine her having that kind of neat separation between her personal and work lives. Her list of friends sounds like a roll call of political reporters.
“I do spend many off-hours — too many, in the opinion of some — thinking and talking about this stuff, but really, it’s as relaxing for me as knitting or watching hockey or assembling tiny ships in bottles might be for someone else,” she says. Other sidelines? Reading trashy mystery novels and walking her dog, a three-year-old Boston terrier named — you guessed it — Blackberry.