Born To Be a Journalist

Former USA Today state editor Karen Magnuson enjoyed a successful news career despite working in an industry facing continuous disruption. The 1978 Alma College alumnus reflects on her newspaper calling.

Karen Magnuson Karen Magnuson

I was born to be a journalist.

I was about eight years old when I started writing stories with a little yellow pencil on lined paper from school in Detroit. My stories were about dogs — collies, mostly, because of their beauty.

My parents were patient while I read stories aloud at the dinner table, with the scent of mom’s fine cooking still hanging in the air. I stood tall as if at a podium, carefully reading each word, often grinning from ear to ear. Mom and dad always said they liked it, even if they didn’t, and that brought about a sudden burst of happiness — as if I received a gold medal. The entire experience, from pencil on paper to delivery of the story, brought me great joy.

I didn’t know it at the time but my dog stories at the dinner table were a turning point. I thought I wrote about animals because I wanted to be a veterinarian. Turns out that I was really in love with storytelling, and dogs were my first subjects. I tackled other subjects for my high school newspaper in Brighton. I pursued a Program of Emphasis in journalism at Alma College, where I built a rock-solid foundation for the future, and never looked back.

Since then, I’ve lived in a dozen places pursuing a career in news. I started as a reporter thinking, somewhat incredulously, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to ask questions and write!” I moved into management as a bureau chief for United Press International, a news wire service, and enjoyed a variety of editor roles for newspapers in California, Kansas and New York.

Disruptive Innovation

My favorite place is Rochester, N.Y., where I’ve spent the last 20 years leading the Democrat and Chronicle as managing editor, executive editor and ultimately state editor for USA Today Network properties in New York and Vermont.

I surprised colleagues and friends in January 2019 by taking advantage of an early retirement program from our parent company, Gannett Co. Inc. It was a gut-wrenching decision. I never tired of being an editor — those “gold medal” moments still surfaced almost every day — but continuous disruption of my industry took a toll. Like most newspaper editors, I faced countless budget cuts and downsizing while transforming from print to digital. I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue my life’s purpose in a different way.

I’m exploring options while serving as executive in residence with the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I earned a Master of Science degree in innovation management from the Saunders College of Business. I’m also busy serving on two national news industry boards and Alma College’s Board of Trustees.

It seems fitting for me to be back on campus at Alma and RIT during a time of disruption for many workplaces, including colleges and universities. While I’m not an expert in disruptive innovation, a term coined by Harvard professor and author Clay Christensen, I’ve learned a great deal about it by studying it, leading through it and now giving lectures to college students.

Five things I learned about leading through disruptive change that apply to any industry:

1. Never underestimate the power of effective communication. Leadership includes the ability to communicate a vision. To be successful, you’ll need to spend time on what that looks like. No matter where you’re at in your career, you can start by writing a story about yourself. Do you have a story to tell about the spark that lit a fire in you? For me, it was reading stories aloud at the dinner table. What is it for you? Storytelling is critical to engage hearts and minds. It’s the most effective way to paint a picture of who you are so you may build relationships and inspire all.

2. You’ll have a leg up if you become a news junkie. Whether you’re a college student or experienced professional, it’s critical to stay on top of the news, especially news affecting your business. It takes a daily commitment, but it’s well worth it. It will distinguish you from others who aren’t aware of emerging trends. Be curious. Ask questions. Dig deeper with your own research if you aren’t getting good answers. Leaders are expected to be on top of things. Take control.

3. Understand your company’s culture and what you need to do to change it. Leaders spend a lot of time on strategy but often skim the surface when it comes to aligning culture. It was the toughest nut to crack in transforming my newsroom from a print operation to one with a digital mindset. I worked closely with staff to change everything — the environment, the way we operated, the language we used to talk to each other and how we communicated with customers. Be aware that important aspects can be subtle and elusive. You must dig deep and build trust to get to the truth.

4. Emotional intelligence is critical to success. Work on weaknesses in the way you interact with others. The Cambridge Dictionary defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand and control your own feelings, and to understand the feelings of others and react to them in a suitable way.” When you’re under a lot of stress, emotions may flare, and that can affect your ability to lead. One of the biggest lessons I learned is this: You can’t control what’s happening to you, but you can control how you respond to it. It takes self-awareness and practice.

5. Plan for your own disruption. Just about every industry is experiencing some form of disruption. You’ll be disrupted at least once in your career — especially if you’re in a leadership role — and it’s best to periodically take stock and plan to improve your skills or pivot. When I first started, newspapers were thriving. Technology ushered in new delivery channels and players. Consumers changed their media habits. Editors needed to become innovators. I went back to school to understand the bigger picture, become a more creative critical thinker and apply what I learned in real time at work.

Now I’m dealing with a different form of disruption — what I like to call “rewiring,” not retiring — as I reflect on my experiences and think about what’s next.

I’ll always be grateful to Alma for being such a terrific launching pad. It’s where I landed my first management job (managing editor of The Almanian) and gained valuable experience through newspaper internships. My Alma education and overall experience gave me the knowledge and confidence to pursue my dreams. I’m honored to return to campus as a trustee and give back.

I remain hopeful about the future of journalism as the business model evolves, non-profit news organizations emerge, and entrepreneurs launch innovative startups. The industry is taking on a different shape, but there will always be a need for credible news coverage, revelatory investigative reporting and engaging storytelling.

— Karen Magnuson ’78

— Reprinted by permission from The Tartan, fall 2019

Story published on August 14, 2019