Editor & writer Lena Felton On the art of surviving journalism

4x3 lena v2

In a world of images, how can journalism – a craft of words – survive? Appointed Deputy Editor of a team covering issues of gender and identity at the Washington Post at just 25, Lena Felton’s journey up the ranks of legacy media has been swift. Thrown in at the deep-end at The Harvard Crimson and The Atlantic, in the midst of a profession wrestling with the transition between print and digital media, Lena has navigated choppy waters with grace and imagination, dreaming up new formats that unfold across platforms to reach diverse audiences. In all her roles, Lena is rethinking the future of her profession: how and where news lives and who it speaks to.


James Wright: On a day-to-day basis, what are your news consumption habits? How do you start your day?

Lena Felton: I am rare in that I start my day by sitting at a desktop computer reading a bunch of different news sites: I pull up the New York Times, I pull up the Washington Post and CNN. I’ll then pull up things like Bustle. That, however, is not how anyone consumes news! I will also say that I subscribe to a lot of newsletters: Morning Brew, the Broadsheet (Fortune's women-focused newsletter) the 19th News, which is women-focused news and plenty of others.


JW: In this day and age, of all things, why did you pursue a career in journalism? 

LF: I was twelve in Marin, California, when the publisher of a local newspaper for kids-by-kids came and talked to us. I started writing for them during school and – though it’s very narcissistic – seeing my name on the page made it feel ‘real’. That was it.

It is an inexplicable high when you get a tip from a source. I chase that feeling. When you're young, you have all the energy in the world

JW: Did you convey to your parents that that was what you wanted to do?

LF: My Mom once took about ten years off to write. She wrote a pseudo-biography of her dad and though it got picked up by a publisher, they then folded. She never saw her book be published. My career has always been doing the thing that I think my Mom would have always wanted to do. 


JW: You cut your teeth at the Harvard Crimson, a daily college newspaper founded in 1873. Can you describe your first experience of how the new digital arm of such a legacy print publication functioned?

LF: I got really lucky in terms of timing. I was the last generation that grew up with print, and therefore had a kind of print ‘mindset’. In high-school, I learned Photoshop and InDesign, and by the time I got to the Crimson, I ran the weekly magazine, so we were still putting out that print product as the daily print newspaper. I needed those hard skills still at that point. We also had a website – Fifteen Minutes –  that we had to know how to use and run. I was coming up at a time when things were changing, but I still had a respect for the old way of how journalism worked. I still understood that. Today, students want to be influencers and their own content creators. They don't especially care about the institution of a Harvard Crimson that can still put out a print product.  


JW: Yes, you’re in a fairly small and precise age bracket, where there's still an understanding and reverence – perhaps even nostalgia –  for the printed page. What did the next step involve, becoming a Politics Fellow at The Atlantic?

Lena interviewing VP Harris in 2022
Lena Felton interviewing US Vice President Kamala Harris in 2022

LF: I feel incredibly fortunate, because the Fellowship no longer exists. I had never been interested in politics, but I was put on the politics desk. Trump had just gotten elected, so it was a crazy time. I think people who weren't interested in politics suddenly felt mobilised, because everything was going up in flames. The tragedy at Charlottesville happened within the first couple of months of me being there. I was getting to experience all of those huge national moments in real time from Washington, DC, working at a top magazine. I had to be very nimble and learn quickly. I broke news when Trump was in office, which felt crazy. I wrote a lot, and got to publish a personal essay that meant a lot to me. When journalism students ask me: “What should I be doing?” Or: “How do I break into the industry?” This was my breakthrough. During my Fellowship, the pace of the news changed so dramatically because what was being tweeted out by the White House became instant news. By and large there was always an emergency, there was always a breaking news story, every moment of every day.


By 2017, the pace of the news had changed so dramatically, because what was being tweeted out of the White House became instant news. By and large there was always an emergency; there was always a breaking news story, every moment of every day

JW: Did you find that atmosphere to be exhilarating, deep down?  

LF: I think in the beginning it was very exhilarating. It is like an inexplicable high when you get a tip from a source. I chase that feeling. I think when you're young, you have all the energy in the world and it's the best time to always be on, and scrappy and responding to Slacks at 10 p.m. I will say that now I feel very differently about that, and I think a lot of journalists are feeling burned-out. A lot of them have had to step back. I certainly have. I don't think it's a sustainable pace.


JW: The Lily was the nation's first ever newspaper for women. Can you tell us a bit about the rebirth of the publication in 2017? And specifically what kind of new landscape it was born to respond to.

LF: The Lily was the brainchild of my former colleagues – two wonderful, smart women. In 2017, there was a very specific political climate around women's rights. Amy (King) and Neema (Roshania Patel) were wondering why the Post wasn’t trying to reach this audience that wanted to use their voices in this really significant way. It was two young women in their early thirties going to the old white men at the Post saying: we think that this news should be spotlighted in a way that it's not being right now – you're not prioritising these types of readers. 

It started off with several different iterations of what it might be. At first, it was going to be more of a platform on Facebook or these off-platform places like Medium where they might actually meet women, young women, ‘where they were’. So it started off as a funnel for Washington Post stories to get to a new audience. Most reporters at the Post weren't like, wow, we should really make sure that we're including a woman of colour in every story we tell. Whereas our small staff of five was like, yeah, that should absolutely be every story that we tell. 


Optimism plays a huge part for me. I think that's why I'm still in journalism. I think you need to really believe that telling stories, uncovering stories, uncovering the truth with a capital ‘T’ is vital

JW: Why is one newspaper, let's say the New York Times, and one, let's say the Washington Post, more or less able to engage with a broader spectrum of readers than the other?

LF: People who get Apple News push notifications, for example, just click into the story they're interested in. They don't necessarily click into the publication. To have an audience that really trusts you to keep coming back, is really about the brand itself. And I think the New York Times has just done the best job of being the brand that is seen as the highest quality journalism across the board. It's sort of like an uphill battle for anyone else. I think readers don't have any loyalty to brands otherwise; they're getting news ad hoc. 


JW: There's always been an outside impact of the headline – what is click baiting if not to drive traffic. But do you think that's even more so the case now?

LF: Of course. I think we've seen that since the rise of the internet’s first outlets. That is the Huffington Post world. I did this conference at my old high school and I asked the kids: “Why would you click?” First of all, none of them read! But they said: “I would read something that's relevant to me.” I think that, especially as we go into the AI world and these sorts of SEO, content farms, what's going to differentiate stories that we're putting out is probably that they are personal essays that are highly specific and touch on something that a reader feels like: “Wow, I really feel seen by this.” They want to see the conversations they're having with their friends reflected in what they read.

The Disposables in Washington Post print in 2020
'The Disposables' for the Washington Post.


JW: Does that feel like fuelling an already inward-looking society?

LF: I think a lot of people don't read the news, but if you're on any social media platform, you are engaging with some type of news in your silo. As someone who cares deeply about stories, what I'm more scared about is that people won't take 10 minutes to read an article. They click in for 30 seconds and then bounce if it doesn’t speak to them. Maybe it is the nostalgia factor, but I love reading stories. That's why I came to love journalism and that was always the thing that I aspired to within journalism, is writing amazing stories that people would want to read for ten minutes.


JW: What ensures journalism’s survival given the dominance of image-heavy storytelling?

LF: I think that's a question that everyone who's in traditional written journalism is asking. And I don't think that people necessarily have an answer. What keeps me going is the  knowledge that I get something out of sitting with a piece and reading it in a way that I don't get from watching a video or scrolling through a bunch of images. And I'm not the only person in the world that feels like that. And I'm also relatively young, right? So I guess the reason I'm still fighting for it and not just throwing in the towel and going into short form video is because I have to believe that people experience media in very personal ways. There's always going to be people that want to sit and read something, as there are also always going to be people that prefer to watch something. I think what's been lost a bit is that every publisher and outlet is chasing what the latest trend is, in media consumption. No one believes in anything because no one knows what is going to happen. We are all struggling because we are all just reacting. What else can you do?  

News is content, but I guess I see content as being everything. And I see news as being a very small sliver of the content that has been fact-checked and reported

JW: What's the difference between content and news?

LF: That's a good question. To be honest, I think that high school students and college-age students should be taking classes about how to tell real news from fake news; how to discern facts. High school kids have no idea what is real and what is not. At a newspaper, of course you would make sure that you had sources confirming a story. So, news is content, but I guess I see content as being everything. And I see news as being a very small sliver of the content that has been fact-checked and reported. Where do you see the differences? 


JW: I suppose there are necessary partnerships that have to occur in order to survive media and journalism. Sometimes something feels like content more than it does news, perhaps because there's a subtle presence of another hand on the till. News is meant to be an unabashed reporting of the facts, such as they present themselves. Content feels like crafted and cultivated with a kind of algorithmic thought process behind it.

As someone who's a classically trained journalist, how do you feel about the dominance of citizen journalism? People with no formal training are – in essence – reporters. 

LF: Learning the trade and the craft from the inside out, only to now see a world of 7.9 billion people where everyone is a journalist is why I do think that media literacy should be taught. When it comes to seeing a post on Facebook and not being able to discern who's behind it, what's true, what's factual is really dangerous. We've seen how dangerous it is.


JW: What do you view as the most significant risks leading up to a very important presidential election?

LF: We saw it in 2020. I'm feeling really anxious about it. The fact of the matter is we are so siloed in where we're getting information. I don't know what's happening on Truth Social. I'm sure I would be ten times more scared if I knew what was happening there. I feel like the insurrection was a very real display of what happens when there are two different narratives going on. We retreat into our narrative; our own narratives. 


JW: Can you tell us briefly about some of the challenges and processes of adapting or creating news content for social media?

LF: I think this is kind of an interesting part of your question about visuals versus the written word. Part of why I loved magazines is that you get to think about how words and writing and visuals all are packaged together. So my positive outlook on social media is that I get to think about it as a mini magazine. How are we going to make this look cool? How are we going to choose the best possible headline to communicate the story in sixty characters? How are we going to distill what we want to say in a three slide Instagram post? I don't feel like this like day-to-day, but if I am trying to be positive...


JW: What did you find the greatest obstacles to be when adapting stories for different social media platforms?

LF: I would say that with more serious topics, it can be really hard. There have been times when someone else writes the Instagram caption, and you leave out one sentence that changes the whole meaning of the story we're trying to convey. It’s very precise, and when you're telling a story that's sensitive and complicated like Trans rights, you have to be really careful when condensing it from 2000 words to 200. I think it's about letting go of the idea that it's going to be the perfect encapsulation of the other thing that lives on this other platform that you actually want people to go read. I see them as ads for the story that you're trying to tell. I certainly think there are certain people that are better at creating that ad than others. 

I think to be a really savvy journalist now, a journalist of the future, you should be savvy on various platforms

JW: What skill sets do you think journalists entering the industry need in this current climate? And how different is that toolkit to when you first started?

LF: I think you need a much better sense of different platforms. I was trained in print and then learned the tools of the digital world. I think to be a really savvy journalist now,  a journalist of the future, you should be savvy on various platforms.


JW: What about those who are themselves personalities on the platform already?

LF: That’s kind of how you differentiate yourself. But I think that you need to really love that high that we were talking about; love the rush of chasing down a story, of hopping on the phone at any given moment. You still have to have that drive, to get the story – that's something that every reporter needs, and I think that will continue to be the case. 


JW: What about optimism as a quality?

LF: It plays a huge part for me. I think that's why I'm still in journalism. I think you need to really believe that telling stories, uncovering stories, uncovering the truth with a capital T. That needs to be a core value as a person, I think, because that's what's going to keep you going when the job market is awful and you're getting paid nothing.


JW: What do you think the industry looks like in five years?

LF: I think the legacy publications will have the market share and you're going to see smaller online outlets continue to consolidate and or close. And I think there's going to be a move toward individual content creators who will be journalists and who will have Substacks and TikToks and their own way to get their stories out to people. I still think that legacy publications will continue to be the last word. 


Lena Felton is currently Senior Director of Features and Special Projects at Vox Media's Popsugar. Follow her @lenakfelton



Lena Loves

click here to check out more features...