Jennifer Burnham, B.A.J. ’14, is the Managing Editor at the Rio Grande SUN, in Española, New Mexico. Burnham edits copy and creates layouts, manages reporters, and reports and writes stories. We asked Burnham about her cross-country move, and how she landed her job at a small-town newspaper with lots of action:
1. Why did you move to New Mexico?
“Last May, I decided it was time to leave Indiana. Two months earlier, I had been laid off from my job at The Saturday Evening Post, where I had been editing their children’s publications (Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill) for the past six years. Losing that job was tough. I loved it.
I started applying for jobs online. There aren’t many magazines in Indy, so I applied for other editorial jobs with marketing firms and corporations. I continued for a couple months and then I hit a brick wall. I was overwhelmed and frustrated.
Then, someone suggested that I move to New Mexico with my parents, who were retiring and heading west. ‘That’s crazy,’ I kept telling myself. They were leaving in 48 hours. But the morning before they left, I woke up and thought ‘Why not? I should go with them.’ So I called my mom and sorted out the details and left town the following day, with my toddler and cat in the back seat.
We drove for a week. The closer we got to New Mexico, the more beautiful the landscape became. After arriving in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where my parents settled, I found a motel to live in and began applying for editorial jobs. I went after copywriting, marketing, print editorial gigs, you name it. I hate to say it, but I was desperate, and I found myself applying for jobs that I had zero interest in.
Within a few weeks of not hearing back from anyone, I started to panic. I needed money. So I applied to a few serving jobs. And guess what? I didn’t hear from any of them either! Even after following up several times. Hilarious.
For the first time in my career, I was unsure of what was to come.”
2. How did you land your job?
“After about six weeks of job searching in New Mexico, I received a message from Bob Trapp, the publisher of the Rio Grande SUN (located in the city of Española), on Indeed. He was impressed with my resume and wanted to schedule a phone interview for the paper’s news editor position. I was on cloud nine. Up until this point, I had only heard back from a handful of potential employers, and they never led to anything. Through research, I quickly learned that the SUN was well known for scrappy, antagonistic reporting. The more I read, the more I wanted the job. I knew nothing about Española, except for the fact that it is notorious for having lots of crime, which makes it a great place to cover. (The county’s last two sheriffs are currently sitting in jail.)
The phone interview was great. I did some online research beforehand and made sure to have notes for the interview. I was prepared and enthusiastic. So enthusiastic, in fact, that he emailed me after to say how much he appreciated it. Much to my delight, I was offered the job several days later. Things were finally looking up. I packed up and moved from Las Cruces to Española, which was a five-hour drive.”
3. How are you settling into your new city?
“I love our new city so far. Lots of great parks for my son and I to visit and the people here are so friendly and open-minded.”
4. What is the most challenging part of your job, and what’s your favorite?
“When I started at the Post, six years earlier, I had no idea what to expect. I had never edited or managed a publication by myself. I eventually learned how to do it all, from editing stories to overseeing our budgets. I knew it would be hard at first, and it was, but I learned.
I did not expect a steep learning curve with the SUN. I had already worked in editorial for years so I was confident in my skills and expertise. How much different could a newspaper be? I was eager for my first day and wasn’t nervous at all. Maybe I should have been.
I soon learned that I would be responsible for laying out the pages, which I had never done before. And oh my god, I was terrible at it. Pagination (making the pages for a publication) is harder than it seems. First, you have to plan out the pages so that all the copy and art fits and then you have to make sure it looks good. I struggled with knowing where to place stories on pages. It seems like such a simple concept, but it’s not, especially when you have copy coming in from reporters while paginating. Needless to say, my first performance review was terrible, and I knew it was coming. The second I sat down, he closed his door and said, ‘This review is going to be brutal.’ And it was. He had a list of about 20 things that I needed to work on, most of it being related to making pages.
I cried the whole way home. But I used my feelings as fuel to get better. I knew I was capable of doing better. That weekend, I watched InDesign videos on YouTube, which helped a lot. I continued doing that at home whenever I had free time. I gradually became better and better. It’s like something clicked and one day it all made sense. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I struggled with something so simple, but we all have to start somewhere. Luckily, I finally got the hang of it.
With each layout, I became faster and better at making them. I’m still learning but I’ve improved greatly since then. In fact, I recently received a promotion to managing editor.
My favorite thing about the SUN is that I really enjoy working with my team of reporters. We all bring something to the table so we’re constantly collaborating and helping one another. We have a fun working environment and I’d like to think our reporters feel the same way.”
5. What advice do you have for current students?
“1. Stand out at internships. How? Take assignments seriously. Stay late. Go in early. Ask questions. Do your best. Make yourself irreplaceable.
2. Network! Do informational interviews with local professionals. Find mentors at internships and stay in touch. As the saying goes, it’s all about who you know. (My good friend, who was also laid off from the Post, now works at the SUN. We needed a reporter so I recommended him.)
3. Hone reporting, writing, and editing skills. You can do this at an internship, in class, or even on your blog.
4. Don’t wait to job search. As a senior, look at job listings and ask mentors about job opportunities.
5. Freelance to build your portfolio. Pitch story ideas to local publications — include a brief summary of your story idea and possible photo opps and sidebars. Use clips from class assignments if you don’t have published clips yet. Or use entries from a blog.”
Want to connect with Burnham? You reach reach her on Twitter.