September 19, 2014  

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USA Today Editor Shares Experiences with Journalism Class

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Kim Willis, an assignment editor at USA Today, speaks to a Southern Miss Multimedia Storytelling class on April 19. (Office of University Communications photo by Van Arnold)

Fifteen-hour days have become the norm for USA Today Assignment Editor Kim Willis, but the 1986 University of Southern Mississippi graduate cannot imagine a different line of work.

“I just love it and over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m pretty good at what I do,” said Willis while addressing a Southern Miss Multimedia Storytelling class on April 19. “It’s a juggling act when you have a spouse and children, but I’ve never doubted for one minute whether or not I chose the right career.”

Willis, who has been with USA Today since 1995, visited with students at the invitation of Dr. Chris Campbell, chair of the School of Mass Communications and Journalism at Southern Miss. In her talk she stressed to students the importance of real-world experience and diversification.

“If you’re thinking about journalism as a career then the best thing you can do is begin immediately at a small newspaper or TV station,” said Willis. “There’s no substitute for getting in the field and gaining some experience. Plus, become as knowledgeable as possible about current technology and trends. If you don’t know how to download a photo or use a certain application, then learn it. These skill sets will come in handy as you seek more job opportunities.”

Willis began her newspaper career in a part-time capacity with the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American before moving on to a full-time position at the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. As assignment editor at USA Today, Willis works with members of the Life section, primarily in the area of music news/features.

She talked about the split-personality that has developed for daily newspapers across the country thanks to the emerging popularity of the Internet. With today’s fast-paced news cycle, information must be edited and distributed for the newspaper’s website as well as the printed product.

“When Elizabeth Taylor died recently we had her obituary ready to go, just like we do for a lot of celebrities, politicians and other public figures,” said Willis. “Almost immediately after we posted that on our Web site, traffic spiked and continued to spike as we added more details. Internet users have come to expect instantaneous news and we have to be prepared to meet those demands.”

Student Printz Editor Samantha Schott attended Willis’ lecture and found her revelations about the newspaper business eye-opening.

“I thought she was wonderful. It was so great to get an inside look at what happens behind the scenes in putting such a big newspaper together every day,” said Schott, a senior Journalism major scheduled to graduate in May. “And I thought she had some great advice for all of us who are about to start looking for jobs after graduation.”