Mechelle Hankerson is a reporter at the Virginia Mercury, a new news organization based in Richmond. She previously worked at newspapers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Hankerson discusses her role at the Mercury and offers advice to journalism students.
Q. What is the Virginia Mercury? What are the goals of the site?
The Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit news startup covering Virginia state government.
A lot of the news organizations that used to cover the state have pulled back from that or stopped altogether. The Mercury is meant to fill that hole for readers, especially when the General Assembly isn’t in session and for topics that tend to pop up in state agencies but not the legislative floor.
Q. Describe your role there. What is your typical day like?
A. I’m a reporter covering government and politics.
Right now, most of my time is dedicated to the congressional races. I usually start by 8:30 to write a blog post about any major, breaking political developments and then spend the rest of the day reporting on whatever longer story might be brewing.
Sometimes the day involves going to meetings of state boards and agencies — which is a lot like going to a City Council meeting.
Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at the Mercury?
A. We’re a small team — only four people — and we all have to be our own (and each other’s) copy editors and headline writers. It taps back into skills that haven’t been my primary focus in a while.
Q. You previously worked at The News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot. How is reporting for the Mercury different?
A. The reporting process here isn’t significantly different from working at The N&O and The Pilot. But the overall effort here is a lot different.
We’re a nonprofit startup, so there isn’t a century’s worth of tradition to dictate what we cover and how we cover it. We really get to define what The Virginia Mercury is and will be, so I feel some added pressure to always report the heck out of a story and publish something really good.
Q. What advice do you have for student journalists interested in working for a news organization like the Mercury?
A. I think the funding setup and startup nature of The Mercury is where a lot of current journalism students will end up at some point in their careers.
Traditional newspapers are changing, and those jobs are getting scarce. Journalism will never go away, but the way people consume it already has changed. So the way news organizations are run has to change.
That being said, the best advice is to stay focused on the reason you pursued journalism in the first place. It’s incredibly too easy to get caught up in who’s buying what, what’s being cut and how things used to be. It’s easy to get discouraged. You shouldn’t ignore the big changes, but try to remember your primary concern should be finding and telling good stories.
The news industry is going to change no matter what, and all you can do is the best work possible.