Detroit News editor urges students to get internships, network
By Brianna Foster
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Felecia Henderson, assistant managing editor of features and design at The Detroit News, talked about her experiences in journalism in a telephone interview. She emphasized the importance of internships and also shared other helpful tips for students including having an open mind and a firm grasp on grammar.
Q: Where did you attend college and what were your majors?
A: Murray State in Kentucky. My major was radio, TV, and journalism.
Q: Why did you decide to become an editor?
A: I was intrigued by my first copy editing class and I thought it was the ultimate challenge to be able to summarize a story in five words or less. I really enjoyed the process of working with reporters on their stories, making sure all points were covered, stories were clear and I just liked the challenge. Most reporters say it would drive them crazy.
Q: How many internships did you have as an undergraduate student?
A: Zero. I would not advise that to anyone. Because we had the newspaper and our own television station, I was a radio reporter for them and this was considered professional experience. Around 1981 or 1982, I did apply for an internship and they only offered it for reporting and I didn’t want to be a reporter. Back then, copy editing internships were not popular … it wasn’t like a job that people sought out as their career. At that time many newspapers didn’t offer internships. I went back to Murray State and really emphasized to the adviser and department head that internships had to be mandatory because no one should graduate without an internship. They made that a requirement the following year.
Q: Where did you land your first job and what was it like?
A: The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., as a clerk/writer. That was an entry-level position for younger journalists to decide which path they wanted to go. Oftentimes people would move into reporting, but I still preferred the editing. That’s the direction I went once I was hired there.
Q: Is it more about what you know or who you know to get jobs/opportunities?
A: I think it’s both. That’s why it’s important to go to industry conventions, SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists), NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists), so you can meet recruiters and they can become familiar with your work. You can also meet with professionals, then once you make those contacts, be able to produce the work. Sometimes people don’t know if it’s truly your work. I would say it’s not 50/50, it’s 60/40. Making the right contacts and being able to produce.
Q: How long have you been the features and design editor at The Detroit News?
A: For four years, but I’ve been in features since 1991. Design background goes to 1989…. I found a passion with design and I set my sights on my career skyrocketing in design.
Q: What are your duties? Do you work frequent nights and weekends?
A: I have about 15 people in features and 15 in design. The presentation editor reports to me and from him, there are three designers who report to him and we talk about the goals that we have for our department. My position with design is more problem-solving because the design director creates the schedule, works out the work schedules and he and I collaborate on big picture issues, like the design of the paper and the font. Those are the kinds of things we collaborate on. For features, I have four editors who report to me and they cover different areas of features: food, entertainment and home and each one of those editors has three or four reporters reporting to them. I’m working with them and right now, we’ve planned out to the end of the year. I make sure every day our page is closing on time, stories move on time, and if we have the right people in the stories; maintaining the day-to-day operations of the features department.
I am always working 24/7. My phone is on, I’m on the computer- if I see something breaking, I’m calling in. On (some) weekends, I’m the on-call editor, so anytime something breaks, I’m the point person to get in touch with reporters. My physical hours in office are 10 – 8 or 10 – 7, Monday through Friday.
Q: How often are you required to travel?
A: Not at all. Typically twice a year to a convention and for features journalism conventions.
Q: What is the most enjoyable aspect?
A: The most enjoyable part of my job is being able to tell stories that readers will find interesting. Trying to find those unique stories that no one else has, that we can beat our competition on, I still love breaking news. Heavy D is the most recent and I always keep Facebook or Twitter open during the day. Russell Simmons tweeted that Heavy D had died. The woman who writes our celebrity column talked to a music critic, so I went to entertainment editors. I go back in and search Heavy D on Twitter and there was entry after entry – what was interesting was to see news develop right in front of you … we made sure we had it on our celebrity page…. By the time I got home, he had already emailed the story to me. I was looking for the information to make sure we were as thorough as possible.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: Learning to manage different personalities. I don’t believe everybody has to get along, but they have to respect each other. I try to create an environment where it’s pleasant to work, where you don’t have a lot of animosity. I’ve had to manage personal issues between editors and reporters or just the reporters themselves. The second challenge is it’s hard to get a replacement, so you learn to maintain coverage with less personnel.
Q: What kinds of editing skills do you think journalism students should have?
A: Understand grammar and structure. If you don’t know that, if sentences are incorrect, you’ve got to have that down. The other thing is you can’t edit a story the way you would write it. Some people/editors will edit a story to make it sound like the way they would write it. I am a firm believer that reporters should have a voice _ letting a reporter have their personality come through in the story. Number three is to always read through a story three times. First time, just for understanding, the second time to make edits and corrections. The third is to make sure everything makes sense. Do not touch it, sit on your hands, just read it because it’s probably buried at the bottom. The first step is just to make sure this reporter understands what they’re writing about _ do they have all the pieces for the story? Reading to make sure all the pieces are there and step two is to start fixing it.
Q: What advice do you have for journalism students?
A: In today’s market, be very open to new experiences because one of the things I’ve learned is that a lot of what you’re reporting are first-time experiences and sometimes you have to be flexible and adapt to different situations. And you never know, somewhere down the line you might have to report on the experience you have. It’s like being a sponge, being ready to absorb everything that’s out there and a lot of times, subject matter you’ve never dealt with … some days, be a generalist. It’s good to know a little about everything. If you want to be a business writer, be attentive to a business writer. If you like their work, follow their work, ask if you can shadow them. Be flexible _ news is going to be reported on so many different platforms now, not necessarily in a newsroom, it may be in your home. It could be a TV newsroom but you’re reporting a news story for their website.
Follow Felecia Henderson on Twitter: @Newsgirl84 or visit The Detroit News website.