Managing editor advises students to stay positive, admit faults
By Paige Comreid
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Jim Headley always wanted to be a helicopter mechanic. During his years in school, he was the self-proclaimed “world’s worst English student.” He certainly had no interest in working in a newsroom.
But in 1988, Headley fell in love with photography and learned how to write news stories. In 2009, he founded the Gering Citizen, and since the summer of 2012, he has been the managing editor of the Fairbury Journal-News.
In an interview, he talked about his experiences, and what it takes to be a journalist in today’s society.
Q: Jim, you’ve held several editing positions over the years. Do you have a favorite piece you’ve worked on?
A: My favorite story is of Richard Thompson, who was a 50-year-old man who sexually assaulted a child in Sidney. The judge in the case gave him only 10 years of probation because he was only 5-foot-1-inch tall, and she thought he wouldn’t survive prison because of his height. I wrote the story for the Sidney Sun-Telegraph when I was the editor, and I appeared on Nancy Grace’s show and Geraldo Rivera because of it. Since I’ve been in Fairbury, I have written two stories about Isaac Corter, a 13-year-old boy who recently died of cancer, and both of those pieces are special to me.
Q: What are you responsible for as the managing editor?
A: (Laughs) A lot of things. At a small publication like this, everyone has to do a little of everything. I am in charge of planning content, what goes where, that sort of thing. I oversee the production of news and stories, where we’re getting our content and why it matters. I also do basic editing stuff: correcting typos, editing copy, and handling the entire editorial page. I also fix computer issues and handle the daily management of the office, as well as the staff.
When I was the state editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, my job entailed mainly content production. We had a bunch of editors, and we would meet four times a day, and discuss local, state and national news as it was changing. Because we did this daily, the days seemed long, but it was a really fun way to come up with story ideas.
Q: You mentioned that the Journal-News is a small publication. What are some of the challenges of working in a small town?
A: The biggest challenge is that everyone knows who you are. I’m new in town, and I don’t know most people, so it’s hard when people come up to you and you have no idea who they are or why you should know them. Just before you walked in, actually, I was on the phone with a mom who was pretty upset about something I wrote. The key to handling those situations is just to not get upset.
Doing an investigation is really hard in a small community, as well. Keeping a secret is nearly impossible, especially about something scandalous. That’s something I would really like to do with my time in Fairbury.
A challenge everywhere in journalism is that there aren’t set hours for a writer. You work whenever, wherever, cover what is happening right at that moment. Unless you’ve been drinking. Never, ever report something when you’re under the influence.
Q: As a whole, what is your favorite part of journalism?
A: I worked as a photographer for awhile, and I really loved it. I love taking pictures. I was a yearbook photographer in high school, and for one year I was an NBA.com photographer. I really didn’t like covering sports. I’m a camera collector in my spare time.
My very favorite thing about journalism is the code of ethics. I feel that in most places in life, ethics are disappearing, but journalism has a code, a set of rules to be followed. It upsets me to know that some journalists are breaking this code.
Q: What is the best advice you have received in your career? The best advice you could give?
A: Those questions have basically the same answer. Don’t let people get you down. No matter what people may say, you have to keep going with your job. You’ve got to live with these people, after all.
Q: Because journalism and the world are always changing, would you encourage students to become journalists today?
A: Absolutely. However, I would also have to tell them not to do it for the money, because most of the time there isn’t much in it. If you’re motivated only by money, you won’t ever love journalism, and that’s a problem. You always want to love what you do.
Q: Do you have any advice for working with reporters?
A: The best stories come from interest. As an editor, you have to figure out where people fit in the newsroom, what stories they would write the best. I think the newsroom is like a puzzle in that sense. You also have to stay enthused about your job, and stay positive no matter what direction your publication takes as journalism changes. Always admit your faults.