By Abby Hoover
The Northeast News is honored to host a Potter Digital Ambassador from the University of Missouri’s (MU) Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) this week.
Sofi Zeman is a graduating senior with skills in a wide range of editorial and digital technologies, including social media platforms and interpreting analytics.
Jeanne Abbott, who coordinates the Potter Digital Ambassadors and is a professor at the MU School of Journalism, called Zeman a “versatile, digitally driven journalist who knows a lot about social media planning and creating content to draw readers in via digital platforms.”
Zeman had never been to Kansas City, so when Abbott approached her about the role, it was the obvious choice.
“I’m glad to be here,” Zeman said. “It’s definitely different from my typical jobs. I just kind of edit copy, usually with a reporter, so it’s the nerdy back end side, which I really love, I don’t get to exercise on the day-to-day, so, happy to be here.”
Zeman currently works at the Columbia Missourian as an Assistant City Editor. Her major is focused on print journalism with a specialty in cross-platform editing and production.
“I started off as a reporter and I think that’s definitely where my knack is. It’s probably what I’m most passionate about, and what I’ll probably be applying to jobs for,” Zeman said.
However, Zeman really enjoys editing and the collaborative process. She appreciates the techy details and wouldn’t be opposed to pursuing a career with that focus.
“But I’m definitely a reporter at heart, for sure,” she was quick to add.
Her hometown paper, the Boone County Journal in Belvidere, Ill., ended up landing the young college student a job at the Boone County Journal and Ashland, Mo., just on name alone.
“I got really lucky, they just totally took a chance on me, so that was really cool,” Zeman said.
Her passion for journalism started with local news.
“I just built a really strong foundation and heart for the funny, niche aspects that every community presents,” Zeman said. “Like, I went to a county board meeting one time and these guys that read the story I wrote about corn were like, ‘You’re that corn girl!’ and just the funny little things like that, I think it’s just really endearing because I think every community has its own set of characters. It’s just really cool to get to know them.”
Zeman knows how important it is for a journalist to get familiar with a community they’re covering.
“There’s so much institutional knowledge that comes with really getting into grassroots journalism, which is tricky when you’re somebody who’s applying for local jobs,” Zeman said. “Covering the community that I grew up in was really nice and really easy, and because there’s just that weird institutional knowledge that comes with the weird little kinks that every community has.”
While in Kansas City, she’s looking forward to learning about the Northeast News, and helping the staff get the website running more efficiently.
“I really like just messing around with design things, so maybe use design skills and just get to know the town because it’s a really cool area,” Zeman said.
At 21, Zeman has six years of reporting experience under her belt – and she’s learned a lot along the way.
As she looks forward to graduation in May, she’s been thinking about her first full-time journalism job.
“It’s definitely a little intimidating,” she admitted. “I think, especially coming from MU J-School, it’s super, super competitive. Yes, I have been working for about six years, but I probably would only submit my clips from the past two years, let’s be honest. Do you, like, read your old stories and they make you want to vomit?”
She’s never really been drawn to metro papers, and she definitely wants to start local.
“That presents its own challenges because you want to know the community you’re covering, that’s kind of like how you make that impact,” Zeman said.
Zeman grew up in the Midwest, but hasn’t decided against applying somewhere warmer.
“These winters have humbled me very much,” she said. “Especially northern Illinois, we have snow through like early May, typically, which is just like the most cursed thing ever. So hoping to go somewhere southwest, maybe, so I’ve applied to Texas papers, Report for America – I did (apply for) that, so there was Wisconsin, there was one in Maine, there’s one in Arizona – but mostly Texas and New Mexico I think could be really cool, I have family in Texas, too.”
Zeman recalls reading the newspaper at home as a kid, which is very nostalgic for her, and she still reads the paper and completes the puzzles in the morning.
“I just do like the bootstrap news reporting that comes with it,” Zeman said.
While she’s also gained experience in audio for the university’s news station, her comfort zone is in writing. Her favorite class has been on cross-platform editing.
“The lab section of it places you with one of the really, really early classes – like before you kind of even get into any of the newsrooms – and so it’s kind of teaching all the really young reporters there who have never done anything like the very basics, which is both very rewarding and has taught me many lessons and patience,” Zeman said.
Although she was raised in Illinois, Zeman’s father is from Missouri. The journalism school’s reputation is undoubtedly what drew her to the university.
“I think the proximity to Jeff City made it a really cool thing, too,” Zeman said. “I’m not a huge government person – I was, though – and it was like, well, if I’m going to do State House coverage, I might as well do the place that’s like half an hour from Jeff.”
If she had to choose one beat for the rest of her career, she said it’s not really a contest. She would choose education.
“It’s so relevant, especially right now post-COVID,” Zeman said. “Some of my favorite stories I did were kind of in this last cycle with mask mandates being contested and what’s going on with that, and vaccine availability is coming, what are clinics looking like for children? I also think that coverage of education is a wide net because it also falls into Social Security and child welfare and local WICs and stuff like that, youth centered, youth focus – education is just very transcendent – multilingualism and how that’s being incorporated in the classroom, stuff like that.”
Although she speaks Spanish, Zeman hasn’t had many opportunities to report in the language.
For her, access to information is important, especially for groups that might always have it provided conveniently. As part of her work at the Northeast News this week, she’s adding a Google Translate plug-in so that the website can be translated to multiple languages.
As an editor, Zeman doesn’t get much time in the field these days, but she’s always prepared – with an extra pair of shoes. Once, during a massive fire in a small town, she paced back and forth so much, anxiously waiting for her reporters to file their stories, she nearly wore through the soles of her shoes.
“You never know where you’re going to get sent,” Zeman explained.
Also in her toolkit – which she prefers to be hands-free – a hardback notebook, half a dozen pens, a voice recorder, and something to hold back all her curly hair.
A piece of advice she’d offer other young journalists, “Making a mistake doesn’t mean you’re going to die. The first correction is going to stab you like a knife, and you learn from it. You move on.”
Sometimes the feelings of self doubt and imposter syndrome creep in, like for many young journalists.
“It’s really easy to compare yourself to your competitors or even your buds,” Zeman said. “So, being in a hyper competitive space, it’s really important to know that it’s okay to mess up and it’s not the end of the world. Nobody cares about it as much as you do.”
Zeman couldn’t choose between her two favorite stories she’s written. The first, published last year in April around the time of her local school board elections, asks why, in such a vitriolic time, someone would run for school board – whether for political gain, community service, or another reason.
“I got to go on a really cool little goose chase of past school board members, and state school board association officials, that have since retired – we didn’t want to have one who’s actively in the seat because it was election, so we didn’t want to sway – so it was really a walk back through history of elected officials, past superintendents, and we pulled really cool archive photos we had of them on the job,” Zeman said.
The second, written for a state syndicate news service, focused on the state’s abandoned mine land reclamation program. She dug into the historical context of Missouri’s mines, but also included the scientific processes by which these departments help reclaim lands.
“It was super super nerdy and not a lot of people read it, and my boss was just like, ‘Girl, go wild,’” Zeman said.
The best piece of advice she’s received: “The hotter the story, the colder the type.”
As a student, she doesn’t benefit from the “clicks” that come from sensationalizing stories.
“I just want to work my beat and keep people in the loop on what’s going on,” Zeman said.
Before returning to MU for her final semester, Zeman will spend this week at the Northeast News to train the staff on digital skills like Search Engine Optimization (SEO), work on website upgrades, and share strategies to create a stronger web presence for the local weekly paper.