Agricultural editor bridges the gap between print, digital
By Mollie Wilken
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
On the Monday after graduation, most college graduates wake up after a weekend of celebration thinking, “now what?”
But not Jamie May. The day after graduating from North Dakota State University, she headed to her new job as senior associate editor for BEEF Magazine. During a phone interview, May described her journey from college, where she studied agriculture communications, to the position she holds today at BEEF.
Q: How did you get to the position you are in today?
A: Agriculture has always been a part of my life. I grew up showing cattle and that was one of many experiences that helped me decided to study agriculture communications and advertising at NDSU. Getting to study both of these worlds gave me the realization that I wanted to mix these two paths into one career. Internships were a huge step to help me land my position at BEEF. I did an internship at the American Angus Association, which was one of the best opportunities I had and was able to network and make important connections. I also did an internship at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky. It was a weeklong internship where I learned to write press releases in a short amount of time. More than anything what helped me was my passion for the agriculture and beef industries.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: As the senior associate editor at BEEF Magazine, I have the ownership for all of BEEF’s digital media including website, video and social media. I start my day updating the website by making adjustments to stories we put out. The first hour is dedicated to the website and any digital adjustments that need to be made. Along with the website, I focus on social media. I make a schedule to follow for time I will dedicate to social media because I do not want it to become a distraction. I check it throughout the day as my schedule allows. Editing is my main responsibility. Everything that goes out of BEEF Magazine, whether that be on the website or in print I read over twice, proofreading and copy editing everything. I am not a huge writing contributor for the magazine. I usually write one story every other issue. Also, I help manage the production of the magazine. I have a variety of responsibilities to my job, and that is what I like.
Q: So since you work with both digital and print media, what specific elements do you pay special attention to for digital media that is not as vital for print media?
A: Right now there is a huge push for digital media. More and more people are online and have smartphones and BEEF is trying to take advantage of this. I pay special attention to SEO, search engine optimization. I look at the Web and think, “how are we going to draw people in? How are we going to get the readers to click on our links?” Whereas, the editors who have been working for the magazine for 30 years think, “how can we make this catchy?” Print and digital are very different in how you write. The body copy can be similar, but it is especially important to rethink headlines, as well as summaries for newsletters. The better familiar you can become with SEO, you become a much more valuable asset. Visual is a huge part of SEO, and I am learning how much more important it is becoming. On Facebook, the more visuals and photos we can add, the better. It becomes challenging to change words into pictures, but we find more traffic when it is visual than when it is textual. On Facebook, if you only add a status with no visual, only 5 percent of your followers will see it. If you include a photo, however, that traffic can increase to 50 percent.
Q: What do you find to be the main advantages and disadvantages of social media?
A: One of the main advantages I think of is the opportunity to incorporate public relations. What I mean by that is, print used to only involve writing, printing and sending the information to your readers. Now because of social media, it allows me to say “we wrote this, it is awesome,” and push it out on our Twitter and Facebook and tell you why it is awesome. And hopefully more than just our subscribers will be able to read it. It helps us share information with different demographics that we were not getting to before. The second advantage is the opportunity to receive instant feedback. It is easy to see which articles the Facebook population preferred by looking at how many likes it received. More than anything we are able to share our brand and share BEEF Magazine with a larger audience. One challenge we face with social media is negative feedback and comments we sometimes receive on our blog, which is headed by Amanda Radke. It is that negative feedback from people who are never going to like what we discuss, or “window breakers,” I call them, that can create a ripple effect and more people begin to write negative comments. A lot of times our readers jump in on the conversation and respond for us, and we do not have to address the issue directly. A challenge for me specifically is being a brand voice. I sometimes have a hard time knowing what BEEF Magazine would say at a particular time or in response to a particular issue.
Q: So when you are unsure of what to say, what is your next step?
A: At BEEF, I do not have to get what I post approved, which is a blessing as well as a challenge. If I do have a question, sometimes I send it to a colleague and ask for assistance. Another useful tool we have is an online policy, which describes certain rules to follow when online. For instance, if someone uses vulgar language on our social media websites we delete the comment and notify the sender why it is being deleted and tell them they are able to repost it after it is fixed.
Q: In your position, when a crisis such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy occurs in the beef industry, how do you respond?
A: The BSE outbreak was the first huge issue I faced at BEEF. It was different than other issues we had previously faced because it happened so fast. It was interesting because I had a very digital mindset and wanted to share information about the outbreak and share it fast. I ended up retweeting an article that referred to BSE as mad cow disease, and instantly I knew that was not the right thing to do. It was a high-pressure situation and I learned from the mistake. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association took the lead on spreading awareness and we kept retweeting their message. The most important thing we realized was the significance of sharing that message because we knew we had to discuss this issue for our followers.
Q: Being in that position would almost be scary because it required such a fast reaction, it would be easy to make an error. What is the worst decision you have made as an editor?
A: One thing that I think has been the hardest for me as an editor has been ethics. I always wonder if I have done the right thing. Should we be posting this story? Or is this the most ethical way to be writing this? … some of the questions I tend to think about. I never realized how vital my communications ethics class in college would be in my career. Every day, new issues come up and you wonder if you are reporting it in the right way. For instance, if a reader sends me a message asking for information and I find it to be interesting, I take a step back and wonder if sharing this message with a wide audience, not just the one reader, is good for the beef industry. I do not want to share the wrong information, which is one of the worst things you can do as a journalist, and I do not want to bring attention to something that does not necessarily need to be discussed on a huge level. Also, mistakes are going to happen on the Web. The important thing is to remember to apologize and let your readers know when you have shared false information and made a mistake.
Q: On the flip side, what is your favorite part of your job?
A: My absolute favorite thing to do is go to different events like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meetings and do live tweeting and connect with producers. I do not get to do this often, but when I do it is fun to be tweeting about something and see the person next to you tweeting and having a conversation about the same topic. I also really enjoy the digital side of my job. I like to go back through our website and dig up older stories that are still valid, but might have gotten lost. I try and find ways to tweak them to be more appealing and share them again. I consider the website to be my baby. Anything I can do to improve it, I really enjoy.
Q: As an editor, what would you say are the most important skills a journalism student should have coming out of college?
A:First and foremost, have a good understanding of ethics and what you think is important in your role as an editor. Also, enjoy writing and write as much as you can while in school. In college, I started a personal blog, which allowed me to write every day and understand and become comfortable with my style. Being able to interview people is also very beneficial. To be a successful journalist, you also need to be comfortable interviewing people. As a journalist, you will edit on a daily basis. It is good to truly understand editing and be familiar with it. Everyone writes differently. Some write in AP style, and others do not. Even if you learn rules in your classes, you have to adjust to the writers you are working with and edit what is important. Finally, the more you can know about Web development the better. It is extremely helpful to understand code and HTML. Adobe software and design is really helpful as well, since everything is becoming more visually based. Being able to create a graphic quickly, can be very useful.