Women in Journalism: Q&A with Mandy Jenkins

Head of Product, Factal

By Kyra Miller

April 7, 2022

[Mandy Jenkins died of breast cancer in February 2023. She was 42. Ideastream Public Media published this remembrance of her life and legacy.]

Mandy Jenkins thought she was going to be a reporter, but ended up doing very little of that in her well-established career in journalism. Jenkins became much more interested in journalism innovation.

“I was so lucky to be able to start my career somewhere like the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee because it was one of the few places that was making money online and had a very robust online experience, which was not the case everywhere.”

I spoke with Jenkins as part of Women in Journalism, a project published in Solution Set to celebrate women in journalism, lift up their achievements, and share their advice and hopes for future generations. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Before we start, just tell me who you are and a little bit about yourself.

I’m Mandy Jenkins. I have been, sort of, a renaissance woman across journalism and I think so much of that is because of the timing of which I entered the field. It was kind of a strange, transitory time. I always thought that I was going to be a writer or reporter; I always liked writing growing up. I wrote little news stories around my house. We didn’t have a news student newspaper or anything like that at my school, so I didn’t really get any experience doing that until I went to college. It was kind of a controversial choice as the first one in my family to go to college, to go for journalism, but it really ended up being a great choice for me. My university of Kent State has a lot of hands-on journalism experiences available, and great independent student media. I think it set the stage for what my future career was going to be like, in that sense, where I was kind of always willing to throw my hat into the ring for something that was different and experimental, whether that was inside the organization I was already working for, or elsewhere in the industry. Things I thought I would do when I was growing up, like going out and reporting stories, I’ve actually done extremely little of as a professional. I also found that I  liked being in management. I like training people, I like mentoring people, I like supporting others. That served me well at a time when the digital side and now product side of journalism is growing and needing more people who have experience in journalism, but also understand the needs of the people in those positions and the things that are growing.

The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field? What appealed to you about the business of journalism?

When I got into journalism I just wanted to be a writer. I just knew I really enjoyed writing at the time, and when I got to do student media in college I realized there are lots of dependencies within a newsroom. Who’s going to edit, who’s going to take photos, and who’s working together. This was a great experience for me to find out what journalism really is and to understand the different roles that are needed, especially as the industry was rapidly changing in the late 90s, early 2000s. I thought about what ways we can be better at serving particular audiences as to the kinds of content they need and want, but also what’s going to be most useful to them and their day-to-day lives? I think back in the day, now looking back at even what it was like just when I was in college, nobody was really thinking about what was going to come next. I’m so glad that Kent State had a curriculum on the internet and web development. It really introduced me to the web and I learned how to code. I couldn’t go and design a big fancy site now, but I learned just enough. I was so lucky to be able to start my career somewhere like the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee because it was one of the few places that was making money online and had a very robust online experience, which was not the case everywhere. I wrote my master’s thesis about what lots of leading newspapers were doing on the internet, how it was very different from place to place, and how successful it really was for them. Then I got to actually work for one of the publications that I interviewed for my thesis. It was just a great learning ground for journalism innovation at that time.

It was a tough time in journalism. This is 2004 –– I actually just stayed at college two extra years to get a master’s just because it was so bad out there. At that time I was thinking at the very least I’ll have these online skills even though I was still thinking I was going to go be a reporter right away. I’ve always been like a big organizer and list maker. I like orderliness and journalism is anything but orderly, especially reporting and writing and editing. But at the same time, I crave structure. If it doesn’t exist, then I will create it. That’s just how I’ve always been.

I worked overnights in my first full time job with the Journal Sentinel. One day I said, I don’t get enough exposure to other jobs in the newsroom by working at night, and if I really want to learn more about this newsroom, but also learn more about this business, I really need to have more exposure to the reporters, editors, photographers, designers — the people who were doing this work during the daytime. I would love to have at least one day a week where I can be here when everybody else is. So I had a very fast turnaround between Thursday nights and Friday morning. I would get off work at like 1am and then be back in it by like 9 am at the latest. So that was not great, but I really cherished being able to do that. 

Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?

I would say pretty much everywhere I’ve ever worked I’ve kind of been able to find somebody that is a mentor, whether they knew it or not, especially because they weren’t always necessarily older than I was. At my first job, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there was this guy Jim Hain, who was a jack of all trades for years and often the overnight manager. He was just a great, laid back guy but did not take shit from anyone. I thought to myself, I’m going to be someone like this. I want to be a person who feels like I can just talk directly to the people who work alongside me and to my bosses. I’m not going to be disrespectful to them, but at the same time, I’m not going to hold back just because they’re the boss or they’re the editor. If I have an idea, I’m going to say so. If I think they’re wrong, I’m going to say so. I think for the most part, that approach to my career has served me well. I think that being straightforward is the best policy and I think people appreciate that. They don’t feel like they’re being misled. I think Jim definitely taught me that.

My next boss was really great. Chris Graves was running the online team at the Cincinnati Enquirer. She was always running in a million directions. She’d been a former reporter who was kind of thrown into a new position and managing a home life. I was just like, you have so much going on. It’s amazingI Her work ethic is incredible. I assumed no one was going to listen to my ideas or care what I thought because I was the lowest man on the totem pole, but I was very lucky to have managers and supervisors at all of my earliest places of employment that listened, liked my ideas, used them, and more importantly, gave credit for them, which I think is something that managers are occasionally not great at. 

What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?

I say sticking with my instincts, speaking up for myself, my ideas, and playing like one of the big boys even if I was not yet. I wasn’t prepared for that to be acceptable. I certainly had bosses at that time who were definitely not okay with it because they were just used to the way things used to be — respect elders, and that kind of thing.  

I always say this now whenever I’m talking to incoming journalists: If your direct supervisor is not helpful to you when you’re asking for help or you want to learn something, you’re going to have to take things in your own hands. It may be that you just say, “Hey, I want to go get to know other people in the newsroom or other jobs.” It’s about developing yourself and your career, and you can’t trust that someone else is going to do that for you, or even know what’s best for you, because they only really know their path. They’re not necessarily going to think creatively about what you need. 

I got to see so much because I didn’t just show up when my job started, do the things on the to-do list that my job description said, and then go home. I was always thinking, how does this thing work? And where does this go from here? Or how did things work on their way to get here to me?

I think it’s important to note, too, that the fact that you are new makes you incredibly valuable to the organization because you’re not already sucked into their world and all of their processes. It’s the best time to be in there, studying it, and saying, “Yeah, this would work better if you did this.”

How do you feel women are represented in the business/development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?

I think it’s really been a growing  field for women, especially when we’re looking at things like product, technology, and web development. There weren’t that many of us a long time ago and now there’s a lot. Actually, just about everyone I know who is in leadership on the business side or on the tech side are women. I certainly worked for great guys over the years, but you know, I just feel like I’m seeing more and more women that are starting their own businesses, setting up their own jobs, building their careers the way that they want, and taking on leadership positions and startup positions. Because, why not? There’s a ton of us. There’s a lot of women in journalism and technology. However, things like work from home flexibility, being able to work remotely, and being able to have more flexible hours to accommodate family life, and caregiving really helps with giving women more paths and more ways to participate that are not necessarily sitting at a desk in front of the boss all day long. Getting past that mentality in news organizations is huge. Because once we can do it from anywhere, you can do it from anywhere, and you just have to have trust that you’ve hired good people who aren’t going to let you down and who aren’t going to drop the ball.

I think that that’s something I really took to heart when I became a manager. At McClatchy I was the general manager and we’re starting these two brand new websites, neither of which are in the city I live in. So, it was critical when hiring to see that this is a reliable person who takes their role as part of a very small team very seriously and to be pushing themselves all the time to think creatively, and really just getting everyone to think like they’re the boss. It works really well. That’s exactly how you want it to be when you’re a manager – letting people spread their wings and learn and develop. Out of everything I’ve ever accomplished in my career so far, I’m most proud of the people that I worked with and who worked for me and who have gone on to do great things. I’m proud of them.

What point in your career was the most difficult for you? And how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going? 

I probably would have had a lot of different answers to that over the years. When I was coming out of my fellowship at Stanford, which was a fantastic opportunity, I didn’t expect to get diagnosed with breast cancer and start treatment for that. I’m in that position of getting this treatment and wondering what’s going to happen to the rest of my life, but also, like –– the program is almost over, you need to go get a job now. You have to go get a job and not tell them that you have this disease that takes a lot of your time and your energy, but at the same time you don’t want to be like the jerk that surprises them with that. That was really difficult to navigate. Because I was like, I’m not going to not do this, even though the wisest choice at the time probably would have been to just take time and go through treatment. But, I’m not rich. I don’t have a ton of money to pay bills. I didn’t want to move back in with my parents or something. I’m an adult. I need to be out in the world. So being straightforward in the workplace was important to me and I hope that it actually set a standard a little bit later when I was the boss. My employees all knew what days I had treatment or a doctor’s appointment. I was very open with them. We all have other lives besides what we’re doing for our employers, and I’ve been lucky enough to always have workplaces that are very responsive to that. How we treat each other is really important. We all just have to be patient with each other because we have way more important things than whatever we’re doing at work that day.

I think it’s been great that I’ve always had bosses that are very supportive. It has helped to be totally open about my own issues. Just having that kind of support at work was really great for me.I don’t necessarily expect everyone to accommodate me, but I just have to have my shit together, essentially. What am I getting done today? What are my priorities for this week? What do I need help on, and who do I go to for that so that I’m not leaving something on the table in the event that I have to be out for a full afternoon – because it just sometimes happens. Creating flexibility for myself has been critical. There’s some jobs that I would have loved to have had over the years, but I see them and know that time won’t be my own at all. I won’t be able to manage my medical situation, my personal life, I’m not going to get to do the things I want to do… and In service of what? There’s no job in the world that is more important than that.

Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career? Are there any sacrifices you’ve made that your male counterparts may not have experienced?  

It was, especially in the beginning, a little bit of a challenge. The person who hired me at my first job was super sexist. I really didn’t get it because he had daughters, his wife was accomplished. I’m just like, how do you exist in this world this way, where you clearly are harder on me than you are on anyone else on this team? It just kind of blew my mind. We can all just be respectful of one another. If someone isn’t doing a good job, tell them and help them get better. But at the same time, making assumptions about someone based on their age was also a thing. There weren’t any young people and they weren’t hiring anybody. So they’re just like, what do you know? You can come into any job and say, I don’t know everything but I have a lot to give and I’m happy to give it. I can learn so much from others, no matter who they are, whether they’re younger than me or not, whether they’re in a similar job to me or not. It benefits me as someone who wants to be a good employee and a good journalist, and now a good product person, to be listening to them and to try to learn from everyone and every experience around me, because it’s gonna make me a more well rounded professional.

Every time I’ve ever hired a new employee, or had an intern, I have detailed, weekly check-ins just to make sure they are fitting in okay, they’re communicating, they’re not feeling left out with things, and to know what they are learning. They’re always surprised to be asked. Which I respond to as , of course, I wouldn’t hire you if I didn’t care what you think!

What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily specific to being a woman, but I think that being a representative of your group without being a representative of your group in every conversation is important, because you don’t want everybody else just to see you as a representative of values that you’re a woman, or a black woman, or a trans person, but at the same time you are bringing an experience that somebody else hasn’t had. If there’s someone that’s not being sensitive to their language and the environment you can call people out on that. Be open to that and let other people know that you’re open and say, “Hey, do you want to talk?” to someone who is clearly having a rough day. You can be that person. It’s not obtrusive to offer. Especially as we’re all working remotely, it’s really easy to feel isolated in your life.

Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship? 

I feel like the mentor or mentee relationship for me on both sides has always been happy accidents. Usually I meet somebody, whether it’s on a call or a conference, and this person’s really smart and I really liked being around them. I have followed to say, “Hey, can I just get on a zoom call with you sometime? I would just love to learn more about you and just kind of learn from your experiences”. It’s very weird and kind of embarrassing to send those emails but at the same time, you have to start somewhere. I encourage that in any younger person or new person in the industry. Chatting is not a waste of your time, especially if you’re working remotely. That the same thing would happen if you bumped into each other in the kitchen or at the water cooler. We don’t get to do that when we’re working remotely. We have to be more intentional.

Publishers are looking for new, sustainable business practices given the ever-changing nature of the journalism industry. In what ways do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism? 

I think moving to a mindset where you’re serving your audience sometimes is going to be a multitude of people that you have to nurture relationships with. This is a relationship business –– it’s all just tons of relationship management, establishing it and then maintaining it. That is really the approach everywhere, and that’s why it’s great to have meetings with folks when you’re part of a new team. Remembering that this co-worker has a kid that’s a soccer star, it’s the little things that make people feel seen at all levels and it’s really important. I honestly learned a lot of that from my parents, who were both managers, and are both very different, but very good managers in their own ways. My mom was an accountant for the federal government and was such a pro, worked long hours, had a long commute and was still our mom. My dad was in the military for 20 years, retired, and then got a second career in warehouse management. They always gravitated towards leadership and the way they talked about their employees and their colleagues, it was clear these are people they clearly respected. They really understood their needs and how to get the best out of people. I think that that’s what all managers should be, is someone who’s thinking about the larger team, and about the individuals on that team as to what they need to succeed. We’re all trying to make life better for each other. We’re all in this together.

What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What are your hopes for them? What would you like that space to be like? 

I really want more people to be involved in journalism, whether that’s working for newsrooms or just being a part of the news process, including people who don’t want to be journalists, or even in technology, thinking about the audience participation side of things. As citizens, people should want to be involved in the news because they are the ones who are out there living that life, wherever they are. And then it’s kind of a constant feedback loop. I think those are the best businesses that operate that way. Those are the best relationships on the personal side too – the ones where you might go months between talking to each other but you’re still there, you still have that connection point.

Journalism is going to keep on changing. We’re gonna keep having new startups, new approaches to the business. I think that’s nothing but exciting. I mean it’s scary, especially with the funding and ownership of media being so tenuous. We have to keep adapting, and don’t get too settled in any job because it’s going to keep changing. If you want to be a part of that, you’re going to have to keep changing too.

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