Member Q&A: Sean Kennedy, Virginian-Pilot

By |2018-09-06T14:16:13+00:00September 6th, 2018|

This week we talked with digital editor for the Virginian Pilot, Sean Kennedy.

Sean has a unique job for the Pilot. He discusses what it entails, what he has learned about news consumer habits, what keeps him in the news industry and a lot more.

To start, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us about what you do?

I’m Sean Kennedy, and I do a lot of digital things at The Virginian-Pilot. I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and came down to Hampton Roads to attend Christopher Newport University and just never left.

Both of my parents were journalists – my dad worked for the Atlanta Constitution (before it was the Journal-Constitution) and my mom worked for the Voice of America. And one of my uncles worked for The Washington Post and then the Washington Times for many years.

But I went to CNU having no idea what I wanted to do with my life and graduated with a degree in political science. Yet, somehow, I too ended up in journalism.

I spent the first eight years of my career at the Daily Press in Newport News, where I started on the sports desk as a part-time clerk taking calls and recording stats from high school coaches and left as the deputy night news editor. In between, I worked in basically every department, including features and opinion.

I came to Norfolk because I was interested in moving away from my print-focused duties and wanted to concentrate entirely on social media and digital innovation. I’m now heading up the Pilot’s social and homepage/website team, and also began working with web editors at the Daily Press after the Pilot’s sale to Tronc a few months ago.

On an average day, I might be scheduling posts on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, curating our homepage, sending breaking news alerts, and working with our journalists to make articles more compelling digitally.

I’ve led the charge on engaging new audiences through digital platforms like Reddit. I have also produced daily and weekly analytics reports for our newsroom, providing reviews of key metrics to reporters and editors.

It sounds like you will be in the middle of some of the changes coming forward for the Press and Pilot. What have the last few months been like at the Pilot with transitioning from once friendly rivals with the DP to siblings? Did you think you’d ever see the day where this happened?

Having worked for both organizations, I’d never say they were rivals. The Daily Press had its coverage area and the Pilot had its own. Perhaps from time to time, one of the papers would cross over, but not very often. Even online.

When I was at the Daily Press, during Tribune Company’s bankruptcy, we often heard rumors about the possibility of the Pilot’s owner, Landmark, buying the Daily Press. I didn’t put much stock in it. But then we also heard many rumors of Tribune buying the Pilot, because the Norfolk paper was on the selling block. It was a strange time for media companies.

You talked about getting away from the print side of things and moving to digital. The common agreement seems to be, whether or not a physical product is still around in 30 years, people will still be reading news generated by newspaper reporters, just in a digital form. What’s your take on that?

I’d really like to believe the physical newspaper is still around in 30 years. Even though I work on digital products these days, there is still something magical about the physical newspaper and really big headlines and layouts. People still share magazine front pages on important topics, and still share the New York tabloid standout front pages. And when the Pilot has a major front page on an important topic or a really well-designed front page, our readers share, like and comment on that content at a very high rate.

“I guess, like a lot of journalists, I’m driven to find the truth in all things. Yes, we hear criticism and I believe some of that is warranted. But I consider the work we do to be integral to our society. The mission of The Virginian-Pilot is to inform, inspire and improve the communities in which we serve. That may as well be my own mission.”

What has been one of the most surprising things on the digital side that you’ve found that readers like?

Part of my job is try to figure out what our audiences like, how they like it and how we can meet that demand, so this is something I constantly have to think about. I think one thing that I’ve been doing more of is getting into the comments on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, and engaging one-on-one with people. I think it’s more important now than ever for media companies to be seen less as an impersonal monolith and more as a group of humans. We need to have a personality and a voice. And it’s another way to get criticism directly and respond to it.

That sounds like a scary job–getting into the guts of comments on a news site. What has that been like? Have you had some good dialogues from engaging with comments?  

I know people are typically afraid to get into comments, but I really enjoy it. I think it helps raise the level of dialogue and lets people know they’re being heard. Obviously, we can’t comment on everything, but where appropriate I think it really helps.

What’s one of the most interesting debates/conversations you’ve had via the comments’ section?

What I’m talking about are small things: Like, providing information about why we post some of our front pages to social media and not others. Or, on a story about a woman who has been at Old Dominion University for 50 years, asking on Facebook if people have any memories of her. Or jumping into a Reddit thread about a local restaurant we’ve reviewed.

Do you think by adding more of a “human touch” to what you do at the Pilot it helps connect people to the paper in a way that maybe they haven’t been able to before?

I certainly hope so. That’s the goal. That’s really what our whole digital team has been doing at the Pilot over the past several years – reaching out in new ways to help build new bonds.

We’re launching groups on Facebook to connect people. We’re about to launch a new group for parents to gather and talk about schools in Hampton Roads. We’ve partnered with Nextdoor to connect hyperlocal specific news to people who actually live in those areas. In the past, newspapers were able to sit back and wait for people to come to them. Now, we’re doing a lot more outreach.

What is that keeps you wanting to work in journalism? In the current climate of politics and the industry it seems like it can be really trying to want to stay in a newsroom.

I guess, like a lot of journalists, I’m driven to find the truth in all things. Yes, we hear criticism and I believe some of that is warranted. But I consider the work we do to be integral to our society. The mission of The Virginian-Pilot is to inform, inspire and improve the communities in which we serve. That may as well be my own mission.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Subscribe to your local newspaper! But I probably don’t need to tell that to anyone reading this.