Donna Farris, cultivating journalistic wisdom since childhood
By Brittany Ward
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Learning from her mistakes has made Donna Farris a better and more conscientious writer.
Farris is the lead writer/editor at Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Farris learned about grammar and writing from a very early age: Her mother was a journalist at the Lincoln Journal Star and eventually became an English and journalism teacher. Farris said her mom was always correcting her speech, and somewhere along the line she learned to love writing and grammar.
At 11, Farris placed and won an award in a writing competition. In both middle school and high school, she joined the newspaper staff. Later, she became the editor of her high school’s newspaper, the North Platte Bulldogger.
She studied at the University of Nebraska-Kearney with a major in public relations and journalism. Her junior year she became the news editor for the Antelope, the university’s student newspaper, and she became the editor of the paper her senior year.
While working at the Antelope, Farris was assigned to write about a student killed in a car accident. Farris hadn’t thought about how this article would affect the family. After the paper came out, she received a phone call from the deceased’s relative who was upset about how Farris had presented the story.
That’s when she learned stories can affect people in different ways. Farris has covered a lot of accidents and learned to write the news but to be mindful of the impact.
Making mistakes, she said, has helped her do better the next time. “We learn from our mistakes and hopefully can prevent them from happening again,” Farris said.
After college, Farris found a job at The Grand Island Independent where she worked as a copy editor. She wrote headlines and designed pages for two years.
Then, she moved to Kearney and worked at the Kearney Hub for six years as a reporter for the lifestyle and health sections. She also handled some editing duties. After her two sons were born, Farris was a stay-at-home mom for eight years.
Farris said she found it hard to balance work, family and moving around for her husband’s job, but it all worked out for the best in the end.
When she moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she took a job at the Tri-State Neighbor, a paper focused on agriculture. There, she learned more about using PageMaker in the new age of pagination.
When she saw an ad for a position at Avera McKennan, she applied and was hired within a few weeks. She’s been working in public relations at Avera for eight years.
For her day-to-day tasks, Farris keeps a notebook containing a list of projects that she adds to every day. She does everything from writing news releases to creating brochures. Farris writes speeches for events, award nominations, newspaper articles, and once a year helps put together a special edition of She, a magazine that’s published by Avera.
Part of her job is making sure that publications and press releases are error-free. She keeps a dictionary, thesaurus and the latest edition of the AP Stylebook on her desk.
What Farris likes most about her work is the work itself. She feels accomplished when she pulls everything together in a publication and sees the finished product.
Farris finds great satisfaction seeing her work published and knowing that she is doing something that can teach or inspire people. She takes comfort in the fact that she could be making someone’s day a little brighter with her writing.
Farris loves working for an organization that appreciates people’s talents and can trust its employees. Avera is an all in-house agency, which makes everything more intimate in the design and publication process. Everyone is familiar with each other, and they are all on the same page with what needs to be done.
When asked about any crises at Avera McKennan, Farris said Avera has crisis communication plans to prepare for the worst possible situations. As an example, the hospital had a plan during the Ebola scare just in case it happened in South Dakota.
One night that plan was almost tested when a man who was in trouble with the law came into the hospital claiming he had Ebola. Her team had already written mock news releases should a scenario like this happen, but luckily, it wasn’t needed after law enforcement determined his story was false.