Erica Sweeney, editor of Arkansas Money and Politics (AMP), graduated with a bachelor’s in 2002 and a master’s in 2004 from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) School of Mass Communication (SMC). She previously served as news editor for Sync Weekly and Savvy Kids Magazine.
How did your experiences in UALR’s SMC affect your career path following graduation?
“The School of Mass Communication definitely provided me with an excellent foundation in the fundamentals of journalism, including understanding what’s newsworthy, the ethical side of news writing, how to research effectively and generally how to write. I credit Sonny Rhodes with teaching me to be a feature writer. At least once a week, I think back to something I learned from him, and I still sometimes ask him questions. And, Bruce Plopper helped me learn to think critically, question everything and delve into a research project.”
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing journalism?
“Journalism is sometimes not an easy field to break into. The field today is different from years past. Nowadays, most staffs are small, and everyone is involved with a little bit of everything.
“I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing journalism to be as informed as possible about what’s going on in their communities — news, activism, events and business. Making as many contacts as you can will help you stay in the know.
“When starting out, it’s important to remember that no writing assignment is too small. It’s important to keep an open mind about everything. Always accept feedback and criticism graciously, and learn how to be a strong multitasker. It will serve you well in the future.
“Persistence is also essential, and getting published is everything. Everyone has to start somewhere. You may not start out where you want to be, but you will get there.”
You’ve been on both sides of writing and editing. Can you talk about the challenges and rewards of both careers?
“Being solely a writer gives you the chance to really dive into your subject matter. You also often have the time to focus your attention on one or two projects at a time. That’s really rewarding. The challenge lies in that sometimes you have little say in the overall publication.
“My experience as an editor has always been at small publications, where I am the only full-time staff member. So, that means doing a little bit of everything — writing, editing, managing online and social media, making assignments, helping with photoshoots and working with production. Organization is absolutely essential, and things can get chaotic. I’m a self-professed control freak, so I kind of like being in the middle of it all. It’s rewarding to see it all come to fruition when a print issue comes out, or to see one of our online stories get lots of traffic.”
Why is thorough research important when writing?
“Research is important for so many reasons. I believe writing is easier the more the writer knows about the subject matter. You can actually never know too much. I often talk to sources on background to find out about different facets of a topic, even when I know I won’t use the information for a story. It helps put everything in perspective.
“Accuracy also stems from good research. It can also help determine the best angle to take with a story. For example, the topic may have a particularly unique aspect that only becomes apparent through good research. Most topics are not brand new, so it’s always good to know what’s already been written about it — especially, what a competitor has already written.”
What trends do you see in the need for strong writers/editors in central Arkansas?
“Central Arkansas is home to many, many publications. Local writers and editors, especially those starting out, need to make themselves stand out. Having skills — photography, copyediting or production — on top of good writing and reporting is really important. Writers and editors should always know their audiences and understand each publication’s philosophy. Taking on projects and building a good reputation will make publications take notice.”