Modern journalists have to know how to do a little bit of everything, and they must know their audience if they’re going to reach them digitally, said Katie Eubanks, features editor of The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, a newspaper that is part of the USA TODAY Network.
Even smaller community-based publications with loyal print readers must become digitally-focused if they aren’t already, Eubanks said. Print readers will eventually fade away, and their children are not subscribing to print media.
The Russellville, Arkansas native received her bachelor’s degree in journalism with a magazine emphasis from the University of Mississippi in 2010. She has lived in Jackson since graduating, freelancing a bit at first before she was hired at a community newspaper called The Northside Sun as a staff writer. She held the position four years covering south Madison County news and features.
“The Sun also had a monthly magazine, and I got to write a few features that appeared in it, complete with splashy layouts and color photos, which made me happy,” she said. “Sometimes I would write personal columns about my travels and my faith.
“These columns were incredibly valuable to me. I even got to write a few editorials, though I can think of one or two I wish I had not written, which is why I usually don’t write them now. Expressing bold opinions is not something I do very well.”
In April 2015, Eubanks began working at The Clarion-Ledger as the editor of Magnolia magazine. “Probably my favorite part of running the magazine was picking out photos,” she said. “I loved figuring out which shots would make the best cover image or introduction to a story. I also loved working with our graphic designer at the time, Jeremy DeLuca, to make sure the magazine looked its best.”
Her current position is different. “After the May 2016 issue of Magnolia magazine, our focus shifted more toward our digital audience,” she said. “We folded the magazine content into our regular features on The Clarion Ledger’s website, and in the printed newspaper. I became features editor of The Clarion Ledger, and began planning, scheduling, and assigning and proofing feature stories.”
Last year, the newspaper launched Mississippi Storytellers, a quarterly night of live storytelling that is part of the USA TODAY Network’s Storytellers Project. Eubanks is in charge of the project with the help of others at the newspaper.
“At each event, five or six community members each tell a true, first-person story that somehow relates to the night’s theme,” she said. “We coach them a few times leading up to the event. We’ve had three events so far, with our next one scheduled for June 26.”
Dustin Barnes, director of digital innovation at The Clarion Ledger, has worked closely with Eubanks on many projects, including the Mississippi Storytellers Project.
“Katie is great at speaking up when she sees things a certain way and also listening when others see it differently, the mark of a great leader,” he said. “She is always willing to do more than her share of the work and will take on more than she has to just to give others a break. She’s also great about taking time to listen to what’s going on with others, and I value that.”
Barnes said he’s watched Eubanks grow as a journalist. Not only has she “adapted to higher pressure roles and taken on more duties,” she has also become “more comfortable in front of the camera, which is crucial in today’s media.”
Eubanks spends her days proofreading, crafting headlines and page titles for search engine optimization and social media, figuring out when to publish stories to catch the most readers, and posting stories on Facebook. She usually writes a weekly column, tinkers with the features page on the website, and changes which stories are in the top few spots, based on what’s doing well.
When Storytellers is happening, she works with others to book storytellers, schedule coaching calls, schedule photo shoots for promotional ads, find and work with venues, and promote the event on Facebook.
“The Storytellers Project has been incredibly rewarding and has become my favorite part of my job, because it gives people an opportunity to share stories about their lives,” Eubanks said, “and it helps make the greater Jackson area seem more like a community. It’s also rewarding to have a story surpass expectations in terms of readership, or to get a lot of positive feedback on a story.”
Time management is her biggest challenge. The second is figuring out how to reach the most readers, since fewer people are reading newspapers. Eubanks said the journalism industry has changed in the few years she’s worked professionally.
“More and more, we are scrutinizing every piece of content we produce in order to determine whether it’s worth our time, meaning whether people actually want to read or watch it,” she said. “This would make sense, especially in features, because why produce content that people don’t care about?
“But in the past, we haven’t had to keep as close of an eye on it, because newspapers were a more regular source of information and entertainment. Now people go to Facebook, or they just type something into Google. So, if they can’t find us there, or if they’re not looking for our kind of content there, then we’re probably producing the wrong kind of content.”
Eubanks said there are topics the newspaper will always cover, such as the state legislature, education, crime. “But even in those areas, our reporters and editors are learning how to make the news more impactful to readers,” she said. “Headlines can really make or break stories.”
Eubanks offered five tips for industry professionals:
1. Delegate. This one is especially for editors.
2. Ask for help.
3. Know your audience so you can reach them digitally. “If you don’t know them, ask around at your media outlet. If they don’t seem to know much about their audience, ask around elsewhere and see if you can bring in that knowledge and training. If your company resists this, consider looking at other jobs. Even smaller community-based publications with loyal print readers will have to be digitally-focused if they aren’t already, because those print readers will die off, and their kids are not subscribing to print media.”
4. Be willing to roll with the punches. Things change all the time in the media.
5. Be willing to listen to each other. “There have been times I was right, and my boss was wrong, and vice versa. There have been times my reporter was right, and I was wrong, and vice versa. Nobody has a crystal ball that tells exactly which content will resonate. You work with what you know, of course, but you also leave room for experimentation and trial and error. These could net fabulous results, and we can’t afford not to explore new ideas.”
Eubanks also shared five things she has learned throughout her career.
1. “If you’re in the same small- to mid-size market for long enough, you might just get that opportunity you missed the first time. At one point, I sent my portfolio and resume to VIP Jackson magazine, the predecessor to Magnolia, and I was too late. I think I actually missed the application deadline, and they named an editor very soon after that deadline. Two or three years later, I was running Magnolia magazine, so if you like where you’re at and don’t mind hanging around a few years, you never know what doors will open.
2. Your backup job might wind up being something you love. “I thought The Northside Sun would be great until I got a magazine job, but The Sun was just great, period.”
3. For recent college grads: “People do not care about your GPA or extra-curriculars as much as they care about what you’ve done, how good it is, and what you want to get out of the job.”
4. Keep your resume updated. “You never know when opportunity will knock.”
5. Quit being a perfectionist. “Yes, we should always use correct grammar and AP style as journalists, but not every feature is a GQ cover story, and not every video is a mini-documentary. Sometimes you have to churn it out and accept the fact that it won’t win a Pulitzer. This will leave you more time for perfecting other content that should be on a higher level.”
Eubanks said everybody does a little bit of everything in journalism today. “This shouldn’t make journalism students anxious, like, I have to learn all the skills,” she said. “Learn what you can in college and at internships, and then when you interview for a job, make sure you express that you’re willing to learn other skills.”
Though she has already had a successful career, she credits none of it to just herself.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the grace of God,” she said. “In summer 2010, I was spending hours crafting cover letters to magazines that were never going to hire me, and I wouldn’t have heard about the job at The Northside Sun if my mom wasn’t working out with a man who knew Wyatt Emmerich.
“I believe God made sure my mom and that man were acquainted so he’d tell her about it. And of course, The Clarion Ledger would never have noticed me if I hadn’t landed at The Sun. I am not a great job hunter. God is just the ultimate provider.”