Jenna Johnson – Higher Education Reporter/Blogger, The Washington Post
By Amanda Belo
When The Washington Post decided to reach out to a younger audience, it only seemed natural that they would look to a habitat abundant of youth: college. With digital technology being prevalent, particularly in the lives of Millennials, the Post’s Jenna Johnson’s involvement in the social media realm became more routine once she began covering the higher education beat as a reporter and blogger for Campus Overload.
“I didn’t start doing a lot of the social media until I started this job,” Johnson said. “Part of it was that two or three years ago, we knew we needed to incorporate what everyone had been talking about, as far as what we should be doing on the Web. Seeing as how I cover college students, it just seemed kind of logical that I be online.”
She added that social media fits the higher education beat better than most, which was key in deciding to launch Campus Overload.
Johnson had previously been a reporter on a variety of topics for the Post, from general assignment duties to Washington, D.C., courts and crime. In her current position, she enjoys being able to immerse herself in “student life culture” and continue to learn about things that interest her.
“I really like being on college campuses, sitting in on classes and talking to students,” she said. “I get to wear jeans to work and go to a cappella concerts and things like that. But just in general, the best part is that if anything ever captures my interest I can do a story about it. If I ever want to learn something, I just do a story on it.”
Dorm trends, mental health issues, freshman orientation and social media are just some of the collegiate-focused topics Johnson writes about. Recalling a story she wrote on teen moms’ struggles with going back to school, she tries to focus on issues outside of the classroom.
“The higher ed beat was a newer beat that was added to the paper with the goal of getting more young voices in; just to write about things that twenty-somethings and college students care about.”
Though Johnson spends a great deal of time online in her career, she proves herself to be an informed, multimedia journalist. She utilizes the most effective ways to communicate through social media, traditional and digital media coexisting and working together to engage audiences.
“[Social media] is a lot more fun and light-hearted and interactive. I can be much more flip in a blog post than I would ever be on the pages of The Washington Post,” she explained. “When I talk to journalism classes, I tell them that the tone that you have for online writing is the tone you would use when having beers with your friends on a Saturday night. Whereas the tone you would have for the Sunday paper would be the same tone you would have if you were having brunch with your boyfriend’s parents. You could be talking about the same thing, but it’s just a lot more laid back,” Johnson explained.
Sometimes journalists make the mistake of not fully engaging with their audience once digital platforms are taken on. Johnson feels that maintaining social platforms is a huge task and responsibility, even just in terms of the amount of time spent on it.
Johnson tries to be as simple and personable as possible and will link to other news outlets through Twitter or Facebook, so that she is seen as more of an informant than someone who solely promotes her own work.
In news gathering, a blend of social media and conventional networking has been central for Johnson. “I use a mix of everything. I would say my best [story ideas] come from real people that I have gotten to know over time,” she said.
She also gets ideas from reading college newspapers and following its social platforms. Additionally, university communications staff has been instrumental in providing ideas. “They’ll post random things on Twitter and my Facebook page and send me stuff about things happening on their college’s campus. I feel like I have a larger network that I am getting story ideas from.”
Like many journalists, Johnson thinks that just because online journalism is here to stay, does not mean that traditional methods are going away.
“One doesn’t replace the other. I still have to go into classrooms. I still have to meet up with people for lunch. I still have to do interviews and write articles that are thought provoking. So we kind of think of it as things that complement each other,” she said. “The idea is to integrate them together so you don’t even think of them as two different things.”
Johnson said that e-mail is the best way to contact her, and that sending one message is fine. She “glances” at everything she receives.
“I don’t get a chance to answer every e-mail that I get, but I typically look at them. I know this is said a lot, but there is no need to call and check to see that I’ve gotten the e-mail, because I have.”
With the disclaimer of not sounding too harsh, there is the ever familiar pet peeve that affects so many journalists. She stressed the importance of PR professionals of knowing and targeting relevant media contacts that cover specific issues.
“The big thing is that I get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails a day and there are so many things that just don’t apply to anything that I have written,” Johnson said. “I get many pitches like ‘Will you write about our company?’ and I just want to say ‘Do you want to Google my name and see if I’ve ever written anything about a company before?’ I write about issues, not companies.”
Johnson is extremely receptive and appreciative to receive applicable pitches from PR professionals in higher education settings. “College PR staffs are really good, and part of it is they’re at college campuses with college kids. They know what’s actually going on.”
With Spring semester winding down, Johnson said she writes a lot about internships during the summer months, and in particular stories on problems facing interns.
Follow Johnson on Twitter at @wpjenna.
Photo courtesy of The Washington Post