This week we talked with the new editor at Rocky Mount’s Franklin News-Post, Mary Kate White.
Mary Kate talks about working as a copy editor in China, how community journalism has given her a deep sense of responsibility, being a young person in the newspaper industry and a lot more.
To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about where you work, how long you’ve been there and what you did before that?
I am the new editor of The Franklin News-Post in Rocky Mount, Virginia. I started at the paper in June. Before this, I worked as an editor in Beijing for the Communist Party’s English-language newspaper China Daily and a magazine and blog called The Beijinger. After a few years abroad, I was ready to be closer to my family. I was born in Waynesboro and most of my family still lives in the state.
From Beijing to Rocky Mount, how has your transition (personally and professionally) been since taking over at the News-Post? It’s a pretty large difference, I would imagine.
Definitely, it’s been like stepping through a portal to another world. But it’s been great, Franklin County is beautiful and I have not gotten tired of driving through the lush forests and farmland. Beijing has a population of about 25 million, so most of my apartment buildings in Beijing housed more people than the entire town of Rocky Mount. I feel a greater sense of responsibility with my work now. I have to literally face my readers every time I attend a local event or government meeting. And there are so many sources for news about China, and so few sources for Franklin County. People really depend on our newspaper here.
Before coming to the News-Post, I had always served as a copy editor and content manager, it was all about the words. Being called ‘the editor’ of a newspaper is kind of a misnomer — it isn’t really about editing. I have a very small team (just one news reporter and a sports editor) so my job is to edit, write, photograph, plan, manage my team, work with designers, put stories online, post on social media, talk to readers, establish and maintain relationships with local leaders, sources and advertisers, etc. It’s a lot. But I am loving all the opportunities to learn and the fast pace. My world’s on fire, how ‘bout yours? That’s the way I like it and I never get bored.
You got at something in your response that I wanted to ask you about— that deeper sense of responsibility and purpose that small newspaper serve to their communities. Did you, when you first came on board, expect to feel this greater sense of responsibility in your work, or was it something you picked up on after coming on board?
I think after working in Chinese state-run media, yes, I absolutely expected (and hoped) to feel this greater sense of responsibility. I was very eager to get to a place where I could tell stories that need to be told. I’m a bit of a romantic, so I probably idealized the idea of serving a small community a little too much.
I think larger news organizations are more focused on numbers and clicks and solving the advertising problems of the age, but as the sole newspaper serving Franklin County and its residents exclusively, the original purpose of The Press is very much intact here. No one else is around to watch the watchmen. The people of Franklin County are hard-working and likely don’t have time to attend town councils and county supervisor and school board meetings. It’s actually insanely cool to watch the public discuss these things on our social media channels using insights they gained from our coverage. It’s something I never really had the opportunity to experience in my past positions.
As a younger person in the newspaper business, do you ever come across the occasional observer that says you’re in a bad industry for X reason (newspapers are dying, the media lies, etc…)? If so, what’s your response?
I think it’s a staple of journalism school today, to constantly remind journalism students that they will always be poor and/or unemployed. I guess I appreciate that my professors weren’t trying to sell me a dream. I don’t think anyone can deny that newspapers are dying, but my response to those kind reminders is that news media are merely changing. It’s the “Information Age,” boo. Information and data are still very much in demand, and that’s what reporters do: we collect and report information. I reckon there are likely fewer newspapers printing in the U.S. today than there were in 1980. But the channels through which to disseminate information today are literally countless, new ones are born every day. It’s both great and terrifying to have no idea what the future of the industry will hold. But if everything does indeed fall apart, I guess I can become a waitress or something.
“I feel a greater sense of responsibility with my work now. I have to literally face my readers every time I attend a local event or government meeting.”
What have been some of your highlights (or low-lights if you want to divulge) since taking over as editor?
My highlight reel at the News-Post would be quite short as I’ve not been around for very long.
It’s been great to be able to do some real reporting for once. As a copy editor and content manager, I was tethered to my desk most of the time. I kept the machine oiled while reporters went out and had all the fun. At the News-Post, I don’t have that luxury (or burden, depending on how you look at it). So I’ve really been immersing myself in town life, driving out to readers’ farms to see their cows or pipeline construction, attending festivals, participating in fundraisers … At this point, I’ve shaken so many strangers’ hands people must think I’m running for office.
Also, this is going to sound like I’m sucking up, but I am very happy to be working under R. Lee Wolverton, the editor of our parent paper, The Roanoke Times. He was the editor of my hometown’s newspaper when I was younger and my mother used to read his editorials aloud on our porch. Corny, right? But it’s great to work under someone I trust and admire. He’s been doing this a long time so I know that any advice he offers comes from his years (dare I say decades?) of experience.
We have no low-lights in this newsroom. Ever.
What are your goals for the News-Post in the next year plus?
I’m still acclimating to the way things have always been done here, but we’re fortunate to have a lot of independence and freedom to try new things. Like most newspapers, we’re going to try to do more digital work to supplement our print coverage (more video, more galleries, more online-exclusive stories outside of our regular printing schedule). It’s tough with our limited man-hours, I and my reporter can only do so much and it’s a large county.
I hope to recruit more members of the community to contribute content. Ferrum College is just up the road from Rocky Mount and they have a media and communication program and an English program with an emphasis on professional writing. I hope I can get a few young people with some training in the field to produce content for us. I’d also like to get some community leaders and characters to write columns and features. The local paper should contain local voices discussing local issues. We do our best, but having more community involvement would make a world of difference.
Favorite author(s): Drew
Favorite book(s): VEINS by Drew
Journalism advice you adhere to: “Have fun, ‘cause none of us do this job for the money.”