When Alex McDaniel started her career in journalism as an editorial intern in New York City, she never imagined one day moving back to Oxford, Mississippi, but today she is the director of content and audience development for The Oxford Eagle’s publications.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas who also lived in Arkansas, McDaniel originally attended Ole Miss in 2004 to pursue a career in music. After one semester, she transferred to Arkansas State University for two years before returning to Ole Miss to pursue journalism.
“When I changed my major to journalism, my professor at Arkansas State told me if I was going to go through with journalism, I needed to go back to Mississippi, so that is when I decided to come back,” she said.
After completing UM’s magazine program with Samir Husni, Ph.D., McDaniel realized she loved news and became the editor of The Daily Mississippian her senior year.
“I wanted more digital experience, and during my senior year, Ole Miss got some very knowledgeable professors, so I ended up staying in Oxford for graduate school,” she said.
After finishing college in 2011, McDaniel worked as an intern at Parade magazine in New York City, but she later realized it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.
“I love New York, and I thought it was going to be the end of my story to say that I was a magazine editor living in the city, but once I got up there, I hated it,” she said. “I hated being broke, and I hated the idea of doing what I believed was insignificant stuff related to journalism before I had the opportunity to do real journalism.”
McDaniel loved the South and believed she would have a better opportunity if she came back, but she didn’t know the capacity or when she should do it.
“A year later, I got a job offer at The Clarion Ledger, and I lived in Jackson, Mississippi for two years,” she said. “After working for them, I eventually moved over to AL.com in Birmingham, and my first title there was a social media buzz writer because they knew I was good at finding obscure things and writing about them.”
She was there for two weeks before pitching the idea of doing an SEC culture blog. “I became the SEC culture reporter for about six months where I would go to college towns in the South and interview crazy fans and make fun videos,” she said.
“For me, it was the best possible gig because, outside of just loving sports, it was a deep connection with my father. I understood the fan mentality, and I just loved writing about it,” she said.
After leaving AL.com, McDaniel worked for Gridiron, based in Jacksonville, Florida, for just four months before her current boss at The Oxford Eagle called.
“He called me and told me he was moving to Oxford, so I initially thought ‘Oh, that is so great for you,’ but then I realized he was calling to get me to come to Oxford also,” she said. “I just hadn’t made room in my mind where I would ever actually live back in Oxford because, even though I loved it, it was an escape for me after a bad week.”
After a few weeks of talking back and forth with her current boss, McDaniel packed her bags to begin a new job back in her favorite place in the world.
“It seemed so crazy, but I came in to help reshape the paper and improve it digitally,” she said. “They were getting ready to launch Oxford Magazine, and I had magazine experience, so I came in and made the magazine from scratch basically and helped launch it.”
After almost two years at The Eagle, McDaniel is now the director of content and audience development, and she brought in a new idea for a statewide website.
“At one point, I was the managing editor for the paper and the magazine, and I just wasn’t sleeping,” she said. “In October 2017, I came up with an idea for a website that would be the BuzzFeed of Mississippi.
“It was entirely experimental, so we didn’t set any goals because we didn’t have a content plan,” she said, “but now we are about to unleash what the site actually is which is primarily based in Mississippi culture and what it means to be a Mississippian.”
The goal of the site is for people to read good news about Mississippi, interact with quizzes and hear different Mississippi stories.
“I’m sure a lot of people would argue that it’s not journalism, but for me, this is a media company, and I’m here to produce a media brand,” she said. “The bulk of my job is building the site, curating it, and building the content plan, but I still consult with the editors over at The Eagle and the magazine, and I jump in on anything they need from me.”
Although McDaniel seems to have it all together, she still faces challenges balancing her work life and home life.
“I became a single mom in 2014, and journalism is not always the best thing when you have a nighttime family,” she said. “Learning how to let things go and focus on more important things is something I’m still adjusting to, because I’m always torn between if I’m there enough for my son, and if I’m there enough for the company.”
To be in journalism, it is important to be adaptable and flexible because media changes everyday. “Content strategies are different every few months. It’s not just something you set it and forget it,” McDaniel said.
She said you have to accept that you will probably have to work in a lot of different roles if you want to stay in the business.
“The tough thing for a lot of journalists, especially print journalists, is they can get caught in a box of wanting to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning news reporter,” she said, “and it may work out or it may not. The main thing you have to ask yourself is what part of journalism do you love, and do you love it enough to stay in the business, even if you’re not doing the thing you always thought you were gonna do.”
Donica Phifer, editor of The Oxford Eagle, said journalists should be well-rounded. “Learning the basics of page design, knowing your way around using a camera and editing photos, and being comfortable copy editing your work and that of your peers are all valuable assets to a future employer,” she said.
Phifer said she loves delivering community news because she is able to document the daily events that happen in Oxford, at Ole Miss, and in Lafayette County.
“The most rewarding part of my job is being able to inform people of things happening in their community,” she said. “Even in the 24/7 news cycle that we live, community journalism is a valuable resource because most Americans don’t live in a large metro area.”
McDaniel has also fallen in love with reporting about Oxford and Lafayette County. Today, she sees the community through the eyes of an adult who’s engaged with the community in a different way than when she was a student.
“I see the town for what it is now, and I see how Oxford and Lafayette County is growing,” McDaniel said. “It’s just a very different relationship, and I have a different motivation to tell people about it.”