It is no secret that the field of journalism is in the midst of a widespread and uncertain shift. Political attacks, dwindling circulation, digital advertising profits that fall short and more make choosing a leadership role at any newspaper a challenging and stressful decision.
Lily Burris, a 21-year-old journalism major from Bowling Green, was chosen to lead the College Heights Herald during her final semester at Western Kentucky University. During her tenure, she has been involved in major changes to the paper, including moving to a monthly print model and increasing the paper’s digital presence.
Beyond that, she plays an active and constant role in the daily operations of the paper. She spends long and irregular hours editing pieces, coaching reporters and writing pieces herself. She will graduate from WKU this December.
We sat down with Burris to ask what keeps her going.
Q: What does the average day look like for an Editor-in-Chief?
A: It’s kind of varied. There’s a few consistent things; to answer emails generally, try not to get us in trouble for the law. It’s kind of like a “be ready for whatever” deal. Answer messages, emails, Slack, whatever anyone wants to throw my way. You know no piece.
I normally come in the office except on weekends, and even then I still come in on the weekends. I’m only here to answer questions, so sometimes it can be anything from “how do you do AP style on this?” to “I don’t know how to report this story” to “everything is disaster” to “what do you think?”
So I deal with that on a day to day basis, just trying to keep everything afloat. Most of the time, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. I also hire people to hopefully do a job. That doesn’t always happen. And occasionally I give life advice, that just comes with the territory of working with a bunch of college students.
Q: What parts of your job typically bring you the most stress?
Being confronted with situations I haven’t had to deal with before is a pretty big one. I’m the oldest and I’m in charge so there’s a lot of expectation that I’ll just have the answer. That’s just not always accurate, because I haven’t done everything in journalism.
I also find emails particularly stressful, I just always have, they kind of get overwhelming because they’ll pile up really fast. That is not something that I enjoy very much. So those are probably one of the biggest stressors in my job.
Q: What stresses do people not realize you face as both a student and editor-in-chief?
A: I would argue that plenty of people don’t think about the things you’ll miss. I love reporting with my whole heart, it’s why I got into this field, and having to functionally give that up to do this job has been really hard.
I want to teach other people to report and I get to, it’s really special, but I don’t always get to do things in the most efficient manner just by the nature of the job. That really sucks.
Also, there’s no consistency, and that really sucks, because consistency is really nice. As a reporter, that was something I was almost guaranteed. Every day I would wake up and I would report, and something would either go right or go wrong and I would live with it move on.
Additionally, I don’t think people think about just how much time is spent acting like you know things when you don’t. I have very confidently been like “someone will do this” knowing full well that I have no idea if I’m right. But if I don’t act like I have confidence, the rest of my staff won’t be able to do the things they’re supposed to do. That’s not fair to them. So even if I don’t know the answer, I have to act like I do, and other people think about that.
People always talk about leadership in this way, like “she’s gonna know the answer, she’s had the experience” and that’s not true. Especially not in college at 21, I don’t know everything. And yes, I’ve gone and I’ve reported abroad, and I went to a Louisville [Public Media] and I worked the Daily News for a couple weeks, and I’ve done different things. That doesn’t mean that I have already figured it all out. I think a lot of people here, especially advisors, tend to forget that, because they need us to lead and connect with younger students. And that is not always possible.
Q: When you’re at your lowest and most stressed, what motivates you to keep pushing?
I really love what I do. I do love journalism. When I started, I was so worried I would hate it. Falling in love with it was really just what keeps me going. Getting to do things that I enjoy is just one of my favorite things.
I love my family to death, but some of them are so obsessed with making money in their job, that I’m not convinced they actually enjoy it. Knowing that I love what I do is just super motivating anyway.
Additionally, I’ve made really good friends here. I’ve had people put really good investments into me and I’ve benefited a lot from that. I enjoy investing in other people. That keeps me going if I come in and I’m like “yeah, I feel like shit.” I’m going to help Debra figure out how to do this, and I’m going to help Crimmins figure out how to do that. I know that I’m at least doing something positive impact.
There’s just something so nice about knowing that I’m doing good in the field I care about. People have stories that deserve to be told. That’s why I got into journalism, because I wanted to tell people’s stories.
Q: What do you feel like you need to be successful right now?
A: Like three of me. (Laughs)
I think more experience is always good. It’s hard to know what you’re going to face. If I had had any sort of positive interaction with sports and a sports journalism, I could probably go to better help our sports staff, but I didn’t have that experience.
I think if someone had taught me when I was younger to take care of myself better and not be like, “oh, I’m constantly falling apart” but instead step back and evaluate. Some of the things that have hit really hard emotionally wouldn’t have. But there’s some things that were always going to be hard, like preparing to graduate as inevitably finding a job.
I think I just need people to remember, specifically, as a student, and as the editor, I need the advisor to remember that there are things that are going to be hard for me no matter what. Answering emails is always hard for me. I have always had a hard time, I had to figure out what worked.
And even then, it’s still hard with emails. I won’t answer not because I don’t want to but because it’s so overwhelming up front. I just need everyone to try harder. I think a lot of us lost motivation with the pandemic, there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s just we have to live with that. That sucks, but we keep moving.