By Katie Nelson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Day In the Life
During the past five years, The Washington Post has ridden a roller coaster of fickle international politics and navigated a series of internal ups and downs.
Despite the wild ride, The Post’s Sunday Business Editor Kelly Johnson said she feels calm.
“There’s not much downside in my job, to be honest,” Johnson said during a phone interview. “I feel very fortunate to have the job.”
Every week, Johnson is put in charge of deciding how to fill the business section of the Sunday paper. She curates content and assigns photo packages and illustrations to communicate the week’s theme. Then, she works with reporters, editors and columnists from other sections of the paper to write the content.
“I sort of just work with everyone on staff,” she said. “I certainly feel I have the best job at The Washington Post because I have so much flexibility, and I end up getting to work with people on the stories they’re most excited about doing.”
Despite the large pool of people, resources and space she has to draw from for her section each week, Johnson said she doesn’t have to negotiate with other editors for it.
“I also feel like I sort of work in a fantasy world of journalism,” she said.
If anything, Johnson said the hardest part of her job is going out into the newsroom and trying to convince reporters to take on an extra project and write for her section, but even that’s not too hard.
“I find that, if you’re helping them do something that they’re really excited about doing, that’s not really very difficult,” she said.
Born In the Business
Johnson describes her job as though it is easy, or at the very least, something she’d planned on doing her whole life. Her family has a history in the journalism business. Her great-grandfather owned the Ivanhoe Times in Ivanhoe, Minn., at a time when each staff member had multiple roles.
“They sold ads, then they wrote stories, then they took pictures, then they delivered the paper,” Johnson said. “I think, when times were tough, they actually bartered with people for subscriptions.”
Like his father, her grandfather also ended up in the newspaper industry, working for The Star Tribune in Minnesota before moving to South Dakota.
“We would sit at family dinners, and I would hear the wonderful stories of all these sort of rich characters,” Johnson said.
Realizing Her Calling
Despite a profession that seemed hereditary, Johnson said she never considered being a journalist until she woke up about a month into her senior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and realized she had no idea where she was going to work after graduation.
“I wasn’t sure why anyone would hire me,” she said. “I was very good at reading books, but I realized there wasn’t a lot of skill associated with that. It’s like a light bulb went on and it occurred to me: ‘I wonder if I could be a journalist.’”
So she walked over to the College of Journalism and met Dick Thien.
“He had a Mickey Mouse T-shirt on and a badly sunburned head. He took me into his office, and we had a long chat,” she said. “He asked me all sorts of questions about my family and interests, and I think he was gauging a sense of my temperament. And then he looked at me and he said, ‘You’re going to be an editor. I can tell this is your track.’”
Johnson enrolled in the journalism college that same day.
Editing as a Career
She breezed through journalism classes, then stayed on to complete a master’s degree. During her time in school, she had a Dow Jones News Fund internship at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., and an internship at The Washington Post. After graduating, Johnson found a job at The Oregonian in Portland, where she worked for seven years. She ultimately ended up back at The Washington Post, starting as a copy editor on the foreign desk.
Throughout her years in journalism, Johnson said she has always been an editor.
“One of my best friends from J School … she loved the idea of going to the Unicameral and nosing around and asking people questions. I didn’t really love that idea – that didn’t seem exciting to me,” Johnson said. “I was much more interested in the story that came back and helping a writer figure out what the story was and helping shape the story and working on the story.”
And it’s exactly that temperament that Johnson says is the key to being a successful editor. She said the best editors are able to concentrate, are curious and have an interest in the world – how things work and why things are the way they are. She also recommends reading – lots of reading.
But it’s not just knowing a lot of details that makes a person a good editor. It’s also a specific attitude.
“I have a pretty strong feeling that my job is primarily for the readers, to provide them with the information that they need to get on with their lives to be informed citizens,” she said. “I also work very much for the reporters and the writers. I see my job very simply as doing everything I can to help them do the work that they want to do and to help them write the best stories they can write … you can see yourself in almost a support role.”
During her time at The Post, Johnson has seen the journalism landscape change dramatically. The Washington Post has had two new editors in chief since she started, has gone through a series of buyouts and now has a different owner. Johnson said her section is the only officially printed business section offered by The Post. Additionally, The Post has changed its view of online media, with the addition of Ezra Klein and Wonkblog. Klein has since left the paper, but Johnson said the paper plans to continue Wonkblog. She also said she is working to develop a data-based blog that will launch in the near future.
Even amid the changes, she said, the basics of journalism remain the same. And there’s one bit of advice Johnson picked up from NPR’s Ira Glass that she said still rings true:
“We must amuse ourselves at the most basic level to produce work that other people are going to be interested in,” she said. “It’s just more satisfying to do work that you’re proud of.”
By Natasha Rausch
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Heather Burns found a career in talking people off of ledges.
As a deputy editor at ESPN and one of the few women in sports editing, Burns uses her level-headedness to calm her reporters at the sight of trouble.
“I think I can be a bit more of a peacekeeper because I don’t lose my head over things,” Burns said. “Whereas a lot of guy sports editors just get pissed and start stomping around, and that doesn’t help anything.”
Although Burns has used her calm attitude to her advantage, being a woman in the industry has come with its challenges.
As a college reporter, she ignored the 50-year-old coaches who thought a girl couldn’t learn the ins and outs of sports.
As a young journalist trying to break into the business in 1992, she ignored the Reno Gazette-Journal editor who asked why a female would want to be a sports reporter.
Now, as an editor at ESPN, she ignored the McDonald’s worker who questioned her choice in jersey because she was a woman.
“They believed that because I was a woman I knew nothing about sports, and that still happens sometimes today,” Burns said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man; it just matters if you know your stuff.”
Burns has been learning her stuff since she was 3 years old, when Saturdays and Sundays were nothing but days to watch football with her dad.
It was then that she fell in love with sports and most of all, the National Football League (NFL).
“I just think that sports were the first reality TV,” Burns said. “Sports do something for people that nothing else does. They take you away from your life, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Burns, a graduate of the University of Iowa, started her career as a stringer, taking phone calls at the Iowa City Press Citizen for the sports desk.
That turned into covering actual games, like track and swimming. Those were four-hour events she didn’t particularly enjoy.
But football? She loved football.
Burns became the women’s beat reporter for the Press Citizen for a year, making $5.25 an hour.
“I decided I was starting to be too good of friends with all the people I was covering,” she said. “It started to be a conflict of interest, so I left.”
She moved to Minneapolis where she worked at Dominos for eight months and applied for journalism jobs here and there.
Nothing panned out, and her parents were starting to wonder if she’d ever put her college degree to good use.
She finally broke into the business for the first time out of college as a sports reporter for the Reno-Gazette Journal in Reno, Nev. During that time, she did some reporting for USA Today as well. Then, she went to the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota and after that to the Port Huron Times-Herald in Michigan for a total of almost four years.
“You go bigger and bigger, until you get where you want to be,” she said.
From Port Huron, Mich., she went to The Detroit News, where she would dabble in editing for the first time.
After working her way around The Detroit News as a copy editor, she applied for an assistant sports editor position.
“They were like, ‘Well you’ve really shown the ability to lead. You have a good demeanor, so I think you’d be a good editor,’” Burns said.
Burns had been a reporter for 15 years. She figured she could always go back to reporting if editing wasn’t her thing.
Burns said it turned out that she is better at being a manager than being a writer.
“To be a really, really good writer you have to be plugged in and have great sources or just be predisposed to be a good writer. Not everyone has that talent,” she said. “I think my talent is with managing people and keeping everyone from jumping off ledges.”
In January 2008, Burns was offered a position at ESPN. She almost didn’t take it because of the tight niche she found at The Detroit News, but her girlfriend convinced her to take the job.
“Props to her for saying, ‘Take the stupid job, ya idiot,’” Burns said.
Now, instead of sitting at home and watching football with her dad, Burns is paid to watch 10 to 12 hours of NFL every Sunday during the season.
“Yeah, it’s a long day,” she said, “but it’s football.”
Watching football for an entire day is hardly a challenge to Burns. The hard part is keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle and the constant digital content.
“You have to react to anything at any time of the day,” she said. “If you have to wake up in the middle of the night to cover something, you do it. It’s just the nature of the beast, and it sucks.”
Burns said it’s important to maintain a presence on social media in the digital age. Besides using her Twitter account to promote her favorite teams—the Tigers and the Cowboys—she uses it to promote her own writers.
“I usually just use Twitter as a way to send out news or analysis for ESPN,” Burns said.
In the 25 years she has been a reporter and editor, Burns said media have changed a lot. They have moved to digital, and women have become more prominent in the sports newsroom.
But the only thing that hasn’t changed is her love for football.
“If you can do a job everyday where you’re having fun, then that’s the way to go.”
By Michaela Odens
University of Nebraska Lincoln
Sandra Wendel had barely started along her career path when she got fired.
She was a communications expert at a non-profit organization, and she and the company didn’t see eye-to-eye. It was this experience combined with her personality that made Wendel realize she would prefer to work alone.
She had been an editor at her high school newspaper and a journalism major at The University of Iowa so she decided to start her own editing company, Write On, Inc., in 1999.
Write On, Inc. is an editing and writing company in Omaha, Neb. Wendel helps authors write, edit, and publish their manuscripts. She works on memoir, health, psychology, self-help, sales and true crime books.
As her own boss, Wendel has to have good time management skills. She says she only takes on a few projects at a time and works seven days a week.
Because Wendel works from home and creates her own schedule, she has to watch her time carefully. Wendel also says she doesn’t take on different styles of books at the same time such as, health and true crime, because she doesn’t want to be switching her mind back and forth between two completely different topics.
Some tasks she performs include reading and evaluating books, and interviewing and meeting with clients. She sometimes has to fill out forms up to 20 pages long for publishers.
Apart from Write On, Inc., Wendel also uses her talents elsewhere. She is a regular contributor to the Omaha World-Herald’s LiveWell section. Recently, Wendel interviewed three local bartenders who make craft drink mixes from locally grown produce for an article published in the World-Herald.
In addition she has developed Web content for eMedicine Health, MayoClinic.com, and other health websites. Wendel, with colleague Lisa Pelto, also teaches classes at Metropolitan Community College called “How to Write Your Book,” “How to Publish Your Book” and “How to Market Your Book.”
Wendel summarizes her job as ‘a boring life with interesting people.’ She says her favorite part of her job is meeting and interviewing interesting people. You never know when a person is going to have a great story, she says. Recently, she helped a Holocaust survivor write their story.
Wendel says her least favorite thing is getting edited by other people who don’t know what they are doing.
She has plenty of advice for college students, starting with telling them to immerse themselves in opportunities. She cites her time in college as an example in the late ’60s and early ’70s when many college students were activists involved in political upheaval such as the Vietnam War.
Without practical experience, she says, students will drown when they leave college. Don’t drown.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Growing up, George Ayoub wanted to be Walter Cronkite.
In those days, everyone did, Ayoub said. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be in journalism, but he admired Cronkite’s command of language.
Ayoub is a senior writer at the Grand Island Independent. His desire to be a wordsmith is infused into his philosophy on editing.
“I’m really into storytelling,” Ayoub said. “Some editors probably edit so things are incredibly tight. I want it to be tight, but it has to tell a good story and as a whole it has to work. Sometimes, you can shorten a story and then at the end it doesn’t work as a whole thing.”
Ayoub’s love for stories stems back to the path that led him to the Independent. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with degrees in broadcasting and English. He taught English for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting.
When that didn’t pan out, Ayoub came back to Nebraska. He started writing columns and began his career at the Grand Island Independent in 1998. Since then, he’s been a copy editor, editorial-page editor and columnist. He has worked on podcasts and special projects and estimates having written 3,500 columns.
“When you get to be a dinosaur, you’ve done everything,” he said.
Ayoub said one problem in modern journalism is social media allowing anyone to be a “reporter.”
“A lot of people think they’re journalists because they tweet something out,” Ayoub said. “They’re not in my mind. The process I’m comfortable with is the slower process where you do reporting and it’s edited. Our first responsibility is to get it right.”
Even so, Ayoub said, embracing the ever-changing field is important for young reporters.
“I would embrace (social media) as much as I can,” he said. “Find a way to use it to tell stories. Understand how what appears in the paper in morning can be complemented on social media throughout the day and understand the balance between those two things.”
While Ayoub thinks students need to embrace technology, learning the basics is also important, he said. Ayoub is a voracious reader and a self-taught columnist. He writes and reads often and said students should do the same.
“If you love to write, journalism is still a pretty good gig if you like to tell stories,” Ayoub said.
Introducing readers to a young autistic girl is one story that Ayoub said was rewarding to report. He wrote a feature on her and did a follow-up story a year later. Ayoub said it’s experiences like that that will stick with him forever.
Through his time as an editor and reporter, Ayoub has met everyone from Tom Osborne to President George W. Bush. But, Ayoub said, it’s not these stories he values most.
“There are people that aren’t famous with great stories,” he said. “Everybody’s got some sort of cool story you can tell.”
By Anna Rosenlof
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Bridget McQuillan, content market coordinator at FlyWheel, is a great example of why being versatile is important when working in journalism.
Although she was a journalism major and knew the basics, it was her ability to work with video that helped her land a job at FlyWheel, a WordPress hosting company built specifically for designers, freelancers and creative agencies.
McQuillan graduated from Creighton University in 2012. Initially, she thought she was going to work as a newspaper journalist, but as journalism began to change rapidly, she realized there was more than just traditional newspaper work.
She had always enjoyed photography as a hobby and decided to take some classes outside of traditional journalism courses, where she gained even more interest for photography and videography.
“I also picked up a major in graphic design because I realized that would be more marketable than just journalism,” she said in a phone interview.
McQuillan’s position as content market coordinator involves: running social media and the company’s blog, producing videos, taking pictures and dealing with customers. She is primarily in charge of the creative and marketing work for the company. Working for a really small team allows her to use a lot of her skills.
McQuillan does a lot of self-editing because of the small size of her team. As the main writer, she checks most of the work she or any of her team members produce to make sure everything is correct before it is posted on the Internet. She said, “it’s really important when it comes to things like tweets. Always reread before the tweet is sent out.”
McQuillan started interning at FlyWheel shortly after she graduated and was eventually was hired full time.
Each day at work is different than the last, McQuillan said. Every week she sets what the social media plan will be, writes two or three blog posts, produces a video and answers questions with customers on Twitter.
She enjoys the environment and people she works with at FlyWheel. With a small team, McQuillan says,”I have a lot of freedom to do what I want because they trust me and I can be very creative at my job.”
Her broad skills come in handy because “when you have a small team, you have to work with what you have.”
McQuillan’s advice for students is to “be open to all kinds of types of journalism; not just necessarily writing and writing for a newspaper.”
Be confident about what you are doing and go off the deeper path and find ways to use your skills.
Some of McQuillan’s work can be found on her website.
By Josh Skluzacek
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
When you’ve been doing a job for almost 35 years, it’s likely you have seen everything.
But that’s not true in journalism.
Howard Sinker, digital sports editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, embraces that aspect of his job.
Although it can be frustrating, Sinker said it’s also very cool that just when you think you have it all figured out, something changes.
Sinker, who admittedly took an unconventional route to get to where he’s at, believes that the staff’s attitude and understanding have helped the Star Tribune grow into one of the leading newspapers in the region.
After graduating from Macalester College, a private liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, and originally being unsure of what he wanted to make a career in, Sinker had a reporting fellowship in Indianapolis that intensified his desire to write. Soon after that, the Star Tribune hired him to cover high school sports. After some switching between news and sports and almost 30 years of service, he was offered the digital sports editing job where he’s remained for the past five years.
In an interview, Sinker described his journey as a “succession of lucky breaks,” and said, even to this day, “I’m still totally floored I get to do this.” Although he did like covering politics and higher education, this job was a perfect fit for him.
As a 30-year veteran at the Star Tribune, Sinker has been through good and bad. He has seen the Star Tribune become a regional leader, something he takes great pride in.
“We’ve been through a bad time in the industry … and now we’ve emerged as an industry leader.”
He’s especially proud of an online project on the greatest moments at the Metrodome that he and his staff completed.
Sinker knows how quickly things can change, though, and recognizes “the only way to continue thriving is to keep changing.”
He enjoys the fact that every day is different, which is why he’s never really considered leaving the Star Tribune for anywhere else.
“I’ve had a chance to do dramatically different things at the Star Tribune, so it’s comparable to changing jobs.”
The great part about becoming an editor, though, was the fact that it allowed him to have a better family life.
Reporting means you’re traveling or at the editor’s mercy, so switching to editing allowed him to be more involved with his children’s activities, Sinker said.
Sinker has a lot to share with young journalists, and he talked about what he would look for if he were hiring a someone new.
“I want to see good reporting skills … and a variety of writing skills,” he said.
Sinker said he probably wouldn’t hire a sports reporter who hasn’t done news because covering news offers more variety and teaches many different skills.
As far as the editing world, Sinker said he believes journalists are becoming much better at self-editing, mainly out of necessity.
“There are less people to edit things, so writers have to take more responsibility,” he said.
Sinker also acknowledged that sometimes stories simply don’t have time to be edited in certain situations, making it the writer’s job to edit his or her work. It’s more important to have that ability today. Doing a good job helps the public maintain a high level of trust in what you’re reporting.
That’s why, Sinker said, although it’s important to be quick, “being accurate and providing context is the most important thing.”
Focus on that if you want to succeed — something Sinker understands well.
By Griffith Swidler
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Kathy Steinauer Smith was an accomplished newspaper editor when she switched careers to work at a non-profit organization.
“I remember telling my mom after working in newspapers for a couple years, ‘I wish my job was more important, I wish my work was more impacting,’” she said.
Now as the community investment manager at Woods Charitable Fund in Lincoln, Neb., it is.
The fund helps nonprofit organizations in the region. She and her three colleagues, “basically just give money away.”
The fund gives away roughly $1.5 million a year to about 20 nonprofit organizations. Smith works as the middleman between the nonprofits and fund board members who approve the donations. Her job is to put into writing, exactly how the money will be used by each organization and how much is appropriate to give to one organization.
She has to be able to make connections and really piece things together from scratch and then follow it through until the end. And that, she said, isn’t too different from what she did as an editor.
She worked as an editor at several papers, mostly in the West. Her first job out of college was at the Iowa City Press-Citizen in Iowa. But next, she and her journalist husband moved to Visalia, Calif., to work at the Visalia Times-Delta.
After moving again to work at the San Bernardino County Sun in San Bernardino, Calif., the couple moved to the Reno Gazette-Journal in Nevada. Finally, they come back to their roots and returned to Nebraska, where they had graduated from college, to work at the Lincoln Journal Star.
“I always knew I wanted to be an editor, I always loved editing,” Smith said. “I just loved going into a story and making it better. Especially when you are in a newsroom where you work with a pool of people and just have those relationships.”
After layoffs in the mid-2000s and the Journal Star’s buyout a couple of years earlier, Smith decided it was time for a career switch.
Her husband had already left the newsroom for a communications job with more normal hours. “And then I worked all these weird hours,” she said, “and after a couple of years of that we decided maybe it was time to switch it up.”
Smith wanted to make a difference and truly help out her community. Newspapers didn’t allow her to do as much as she would have liked.
“One thing that always bothered me was how in journalism there is this whole idea that you shouldn’t get involved in your community for the sake of conflict of interest,” Smith said, “Within the last few years I really hated that. I wanted to support the things I support and wanted to play a role in my community.”
After moving to the fund in 2012, she noticed her journalism and editing experience paying off. “An editor really has to be someone who sees the bigger picture,” Smith said.
In her new job, she takes pages of notes on one organization and then compiles her information into a short summary almost as a journalist would. Without an editor, Smith has to look over every detail and understand the larger picture too.
She traced her career’s success back to hard work and what she learned as a journalism student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “I really do think that my J-school background gave me a broad education and a sort of liberal arts view of things,” she said. “It gave me skills that really help with where I am at now.”
One thing she misses about her old job is knowing everything going on in town and nationally. “I feel a little out of touch now that I am not working at a newspaper,” she said. “And I thought I would miss it more than I do, but I still feel like I am doing something I enjoy.”
As for anybody unsure about what they want to do with their lives, Smith said experimentation is the key.
“Just try lots and lots of different stuff. You might not truly know what you are interested in until you try lots of different things.”