College Media Geeks: Steffi S. Lee, Editor-in-Chief, The Simpsonian, Simpson College
By Leigh Anne Tiffany, CMM correspondent
Steffi S. Lee is a multimedia journalism major and political science minor at Iowa’s Simpson College. The 20-year-old junior from Anaheim, Calif., serves as editor-in-chief of The Simpsonian student newspaper.
Lee also currently works as a reporter, editor and photographer for KCCI 8 News, the top broadcast news station in the Des Moines market. It is one of three news stations at which she has interned or served on staff.
She has also earned multiple state and national journalism awards, shadowed a professional journalist in Poland during a study abroad experience and appeared in a CBS News segment on college-age voters during the 2012 presidential election cycle.
In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Lee discusses her journey from Anaheim to Indianola, Iowa, while also offering advice to future j-students on picking the right program and finding your footing in the field.
What sparked your interest in journalism?
I’ve always loved following the news. I’ve always loved getting to know people out in the field. … And journalism honestly has helped me just sort of understand what goes on in our world, how people really interact with one another. Everyone has a story to tell, and just being able to find that story and having them tell it to you is such a rewarding aspect of the field. And you get to learn so much. Of everything I know now, a lot of it has come from being a journalism student, interning and reporting the news. It’s just a whole educational bubble where every day you’re learning something.
As a Southern California native, what motivated you to attend school in a small town like Indianola, Iowa?
Coming from a big media market, everyone automatically thinks, “Oh, you have to stick with that and be in sort of a ‘big name’ city.” But that’s not true at all. If anything, getting away and going to a smaller school that has strong connections really helps. When I first looked into Simpson College, [professor and Simpsonian adviser] Brian Steffen told me they had people working at Dow Jones, people who have won Pulitzer prizes and plenty of connections in the local media market and across the nation. I also spoke with an alum in the Los Angeles area when I was still back home. He told me, as someone working in the number-one or number-two media market, “Go to Iowa, get your skills there, get your training there, learn how to grow and then aim for something bigger.”
What has been an especially memorable reporting assignment or journalism class experience during your time in school so far?
For one of my articles sophomore year, I spoke with a student on campus who identifies as transgender male. I had come back from [a journalism convention] and was like, “I want to get to know different students on campus.” … At the time, I was a sophomore, he was a senior, and he was a religion major, and I was like, “This is really interesting. … I’m sure there is something inspiring in this. I just need to talk to him.” … It took a while, because with transgender topics you have to really be sensitive when writing an article that has so many details. You want to make sure you get the story accurate. And ultimately that got me the Region 7 Mark of Excellence SPJ Award for Small School Feature Writing.
Along with your stateside schoolwork and professional work, you also studied in Poland for a semester. What was that like?
I kind of just chose Poland. It all happened on a whim. … It was a student exchange program. It wasn’t a faculty-led school trip. You just had to do it on your own, and that’s what kind of drew me into it. Journalism teaches you how to be independent, and what better way to be independent than to go abroad with just one other person to a country where you don’t speak the language — in a really random town that is three hours from the capital. Overall, it was a really good experience. I was able to shadow a reporter there and kind of see the ins-and-outs of how media is handled in Poland, so that was also really interesting.
Separately, what was it like being interviewed by Scott Pelley and featured on “CBS Evening News”?
Freshman year, I was a huge political fanatic. It was the 2012 election. Being in college now for three years I’ve definitely changed my political views, but I came in as a Republican. I don’t even know how this process was handled, it all kind of happened in one weekend. But basically they got students from all different [political] angles and asked them what issues matter to you. I was one of the five students on the panel and got to talk with Scott Pelley. They chose three students from [Simpson] and two students from Hofstra University.
As a broadcast journalism fanatic … it [gave me] a taste of how journalists handled topics like this and how news production works. We talked with him for a half hour, but they used two minutes of the interview [on air]. Seeing how people write the story when interviewing people, that definitely helped. … We submitted our biographies to him, so he knew where we were coming from.
I just happened to mention that my parents were from Burma. I knew at the time CBS had done a couple reports on Burma, and I know [Pelley] has definitely done some reports on the political situation in Burma. So he was like, “You mentioned your parents were from Burma. What’s that like?” You know, a lot of people bring up the fact that when you’re a big name in journalism, you ultimately don’t care about people — all you care about are awards or trying to find sources. I think that moment was just a reminder, you know, even with someone as high up as [Pelley], they’re still human. And it ultimately ties in with journalism. It’s a humanities subject, and reporters are human beings first, or at least I ‘d like to think so.
“I had plenty of people tell me, ‘Don’t worry about going to school in a big city. Don’t worry about having to go to a huge ‘name’ school, because ultimately it’s not the name that matters. It’s the people you work with, the people you meet and the people who can mentor you.’ I wouldn’t have the mentors I have today if it wasn’t for coming out here and going to this school. Choosing this school was most definitely worth it.”
What’s your advice to high schoolers searching for the best j-school or program?
You don’t necessarily have to go to a big-name school that has a top-notch program. I went to a school that’s known nationally, but it’s not an Ivy League school. It’s just a school in the Midwest. I would have never known what Simpson had to offer, what Iowa had to offer. I just wasn’t interested.
But I had plenty of people tell me, “Don’t worry about going to school in a big city. Don’t worry about having to go to a huge ‘name’ school, because ultimately it’s not the name that matters. It’s the people you work with, the people you meet and the people who can mentor you.” I wouldn’t have the mentors I have today if it wasn’t for coming out here and going to this school. Choosing this school was most definitely worth it.
What are a few secrets to succeeding as a j-student?
Don’t be afraid to mess up and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because that’s when you get all the good advice and that’s when people know you want to work hard and want to better yourself in the field. I learned a lot just by asking questions. Even if you think it is a stupid question, chances are it’s not. One thing I will always remember is that the reporters you look up to, the reporters who give you advice, they’ve all been through it before. So seek mentors and seek advice constantly. We’re still students and we can always better ourselves.
The Simpsonian has been both praised and criticized for publishing the names of students who have been arrested. What led to the paper’s decision to print those names in the police blotter?
In the past, some of our editors have handled the paper differently. Our editorial board this year wants to focus on bringing accurate news content to the table and making sure that gets published in our publication. That’s what we stand for. Recently, especially with social media and Yik Yak — with all these different rumors flying around — we made a unanimous decision to start pulling crime logs and running a police blotter. You know, college is college. People get arrested. And we published some names of those arrested.
Some students were really angry. They said student newspapers don’t have a right to do that, it’s not appropriate for us to do that. Somebody even said we weren’t a regular media outlet, so it wasn’t anything we should be looking into. In the past, I know people have gotten riled up if anyone’s mug shot was published or if any arrest report was published.
Now the police blotter is part of our editorial policy, so we have one in every issue. You know, a lot of students are really bitter. I’ve gotten a couple emails. Over social media, a couple of my editors were getting called out. They called us unprofessional. They called us disgusting. And they ultimately said our quality of reporting isn’t good, so this shouldn’t even be part of our paper. There were just insults left and right — and we get that.
They thought we were humiliating students, but that wasn’t the point. The point is: Public records are public records. As journalism students, it’s our way of practicing how to handle crime and courts reporting, how to handle the police and how to handle public records with police blogs. You know, these are small incidents. It’s nothing too big. … But we handled it professionally. We explained we were not out to humiliate students. It’s not a moral-serving addition to our paper. We’re printing a police blotter because that is what real media do.
You know, people start talking on social media, saying “This is what happened. These people have been arrested.” And as a news outlet, we make sure the rumors stop. Our editorial board thought this was a way to get the facts straight, to set the record straight. And that is what we do as journalists: We provide accurate facts and we do solid reporting.
The #firstworldproblems and College Problems phenomena have been crazy popular in recent semesters. Building on those, what are a few short entries you would offer to a list of Journalism Student Problems?
1) Having your layout program crash at midnight. #journalismstudentproblems
2) Not having enough food or caffeine to fill yourself up on layout night. #journalismstudentproblems
3) People not calling back, or people saying they’re too busy for interviews. #journalismstudentproblems
4) Always feeling like you don’t have enough time. #journalismstudentproblems