Nothing compares to the pure adrenaline rush TRAVIS LYLES ’15 gets when he’s about to tweet breaking news to 13.3 million followers. Especially when it’s exclusive.
Such was the case on an otherwise slow news Sunday in September 2018 when Lyles, a social media editor at the Washington Post, wrote a breaking news tweet that he knew would instantly to go viral—getting tens of thousands of retweets.
The Washington Post had an exclusive interview with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault three decades earlier. The California professor was speaking publicly for the first time, and Lyles would be the first to tweet the story to millions of people around the globe.
He crafted a series of tweets that would go out from the Post’s primary Twitter account. Then he waited to hit the Tweet button.
“My heart was beating very fast,” he said. “I remember that day as being very surreal because I got to handle that story, which compelled news coverage for the next two months.”
Lyles is among a handful of Longwood alumni who work at the Post. He and ANTHONY J. RIVERA ’03 are part of a burgeoning digitally focused newsroom that has been transformed in recent years and reoriented to focus on multimedia storytelling.
A NEW AGE OF JOURNALISM
Founded in 1877, the Washington Post is enjoying a resurgence under the ownership of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper from its longtime owners, the Graham family, in 2013.
In 2017, the newspaper more than doubled its digital subscriptions and grew digital advertising revenue, turning a profit for the second consecutive year despite the challenging overall landscape for the media industry.
'It’s been a roller coaster. We went through a dip, BUT NOW WE ARE IN A GROWTH TRAJECTORY. IT’S A REALLY EXCITING TIME.'ANNA KNAPP ’97
The news business has struggled to adapt to the loss of print advertising and the digital media revolution over the past decade—with many newspapers closing and others facing layoffs and marching orders to do more with less.
But, in that landscape, there are Longwood alumni like Lyles who are thriving in the new multimedia age, from the Post’s newsroom in downtown Washington, D.C., to television stations and community newspapers from Suffolk to Danville to Norfolk [see stories on Pages 15-17]. These journalists are delivering pertinent news and holding government officials accountable at a time when many say it has never been more important.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” said ANNA KNAPP ’97, who has worked in advertising and marketing at the Post for more than two decades. “We went through a dip, but now we are in a growth trajectory. It’s a really exciting time.”
Between 2004 and 2018, 62 DAILY NEWSPAPERS AND 1,749 WEEKLIES—20% of the total in operation in 2004—closed or merged.THE EXPANDING NEWS DESERT/UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA
Knapp is a global media account manager responsible for advertising sales across all of the Post’s platforms in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast region. During her tenure, she has managed and grown a $12 million account portfolio.
But in an industry where paying your dues has historically been a requirement of getting a foot in the door, she began where many in the news business do—at the bottom. Her first job at the Post was as an intern in the circulation department call center.
“You had to be in your seat by 5:30 a.m. and ready to take calls from subscribers, most of whom were complaining about not getting their newspaper,” she said.
Twenty years later the Post still has print subscribers, but news is more often delivered to their electronic devices via push alerts, email and social media channels than it is to their physical doorstep. The Post’s rebirth has been driven by keeping a focus on traditional journalism while being innovative in how the news is presented and disseminated—that’s where Lyles and Rivera are on the front lines.
CHANNELING THE NEWS
When Bezos took ownership of the Post, one of his first initiatives was launching a new, more visual mobile app. Rivera was hired as a digital producer in 2015 to work on curating content primarily for the app. Now a multiplatform editor, he is part of the team that curates and copy edits news that is pushed out to the app and also to platforms like Apple News.
'IN THOSE WHITE-KNUCKLE TIMES, WHEN I KNOW WE’VE GOT BIG BREAKING NEWS, that’s the part of the job that’s rewarding.’ANTHONY J. RIVERA ’03
“News is treated differently for the mobile app vs. the homepage,” Rivera said. “It’s a different experience for the user. It’s much more visual.”
He creates some original digital content as well and occasionally writes longer feature stories for the newspaper. In 2016, Rivera wrote a weekahead briefing focused on the presidential campaign that was exclusively for Apple News.
Unlike Lyles and Knapp, Rivera took a less traditional path into journalism and working at the Post. An English major, he took creative writing classes at Longwood and worked for the writing lab, but he didn’t envision becoming a journalist. It was five years after he graduated from Longwood that he began thinking about a news career.
“Something clicked in my head and I said, ‘I want to write,’” said Rivera, who had always had an interest in politics and current events. “I really wanted to tell a story and get down to the truth of something. I just felt this sudden draw to go into journalism.”
While bartending and writing a blog about the D.C. bar scene, he decided to get a master’s degree in journalism and public policy at American University. That led to an internship and freelance job on Capitol Hill working in radio production, where he spent close to a year interviewing members of Congress and helping to write the first draft of history. Now instead of chasing lawmakers to gather news, he’s pushing breaking news alerts out to millions of mobile devices. It’s a similar adrenaline rush, and he’s hooked.
“In those white-knuckle times, when I know we’ve got big breaking news, that’s the part of the job that’s rewarding,” Rivera said. “I’m constantly telling myself I can’t believe I’m here and getting to be part of what’s happening in the newsroom.”
Lyles feels the same way.
The Post creates roughly 500 pieces of content a day, including long- and short-form stories, videos, podcasts and breaking-news alerts. As a social media editor, Lyles’ job is to decide how to best disseminate that content on social platforms. He is part of the six-person core social team that runs the publication’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
“We have 13.3 million Twitter followers, 6.2 million followers on Facebook and 1.6 million followers on Instagram,” Lyles said. “A lot of people are relying on us to get their news. Our job is to react to news as it happens and get it out as quickly as possible.”
Just a decade ago it would have been hard to imagine that a 25-yearold would be making editorial decisions about how the Post’s content is disseminated, which is what Lyles is doing as he reads headlines and stories and then decides where to put them on social media.
About a third of Lyles’ time is spent managing the Post’s Instagram account, which has doubled its followers since he took over. When he was hired in 2017, he was given a mission to devise a new strategy for the account. Lyles decided to focus more on news photos instead of photography associated with feature stories.
“If you look at our Instagram account, you’ll know just about everything you need to know about the news that day,” Lyles said. “My goal is for it to be our best photography and videos, and it’s really working for us.”
'Journalism is more important now than ever, whether it’s national news or local. THERE AREN’T MANY THINGS YOU CAN DO THAT ARE MORE CRUCIAL TO DEMOCRACY THAN BEING A JOURNALIST.'TRAVIS LYLES ’15
CRUCIAL TO DEMOCRACY
Lyles, who was a communication studies major with a concentration in digital media, always knew he wanted to be in the news business. He traces his affinity for breaking news to his years at Longwood when he worked on The Rotunda staff. After graduating, he got an internship with Business Insider in New York. That led to a full-time job blogging about business news in the entertainment industry. Then there was a job opening for a social media editor. “
I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be a social media editor or if I wanted to be a reporter,” Lyles said. “I felt like there was more opportunity in social media.” He was later hired as social media editor at the Virginian Pilot before landing at the Post.
A decade ago, the positions that Lyles and Rivera have today weren’t found in the news business. The rapid evolution of the industry has been both exciting and challenging for Longwood’s communication studies program.
“As seniors, our students are often applying for jobs that didn’t exist when they started their college careers,” said Jeff Halliday, an associate professor in the department. To keep up, the department’s faculty changed the way the communication studies major is structured, significantly tweaking the curriculum.
“It is really a unique time for teaching media,” Halliday said. “It is fascinating to watch and to help our students identify their niche in a market that’s continuing a rapid transformation.”
It’s still a tumultuous time in the news business. In January, about 1,000 jobs in media were lost as the result of layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain.
Knapp remembers rounds of buyouts and various restructurings at the Post over the past two decades and has seen the ebb and flow of the digital revolution through the advertising and marketing prism. The format and business model of traditional journalism is likely to change more in the future—with the nonprofit model increasingly being explored and tested.
Meanwhile, news executives, from billionaire media company owners like Bezos to the smaller local news publishers, are still adjusting and trying to find a formula that works.
Though Lyles, Knapp and Rivera followed different paths, they have similar advice to anyone interested in a journalism career today: be persistent, be nimble and be willing to embrace change.
“There are still a lot of journalism jobs out there and a lot of companies are hiring,” said Lyles. “Journalism is more important now than ever, whether it’s national news or local. There aren’t many things you can do that are more crucial to democracy than being a journalist.”
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LAUREN WHITTINGTONPHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON WONG