Former Student Newspaper Editor at American U. Talks Journalism, Washington D.C. & Nutella
American University senior Heather Mongilio ran The Eagle student newspaper for 382 days. She moved on from the editor-in-chief position 14 days ago. She graduates in 10 days. She turned 22 two days ago. And she will be remembered by the Eagle crew for her journalism instincts and one very special dessert — the homemade Nutella and strawberry crescent rolls she baked and brought to weekly editorial meetings.
“In the past, we would just take an hour or two during production night to meet, pick a topic to editorialize on, talk about it and then return to production,” she said. “Since going digital [in 2013], we now have to come in during a day each week just to have the meeting. Not everyone is always happy to be there. So my idea was, ‘If I bring food, at least they’ll get something sweet out of this and they won’t complain as much.'”
The sweet treat was such a hit among the staff, Mongilio recently posted the recipe on the Eagle’s website. As the related piece — headlined “Getting Baked with Heather” — begins, “Former editor-in-chief Heather Mongilio has a lot of free time now that she is no longer leading The Eagle staff.”
The sentence is both tongue-in-cheek and an ode to the obvious. During her days in charge of one of the country’s more well-known student news outlets, free time was scarce.
Over the past year, Mongilio oversaw a core editorial team of roughly 25 students and countless reporter and photographer contributors. She pushed for three to five new stories to appear every day on the Eagle website. She supervised the production of five 16-page print issues. And she helped spearhead the launch of two new blogs and a mobile app — the latter being her proudest achievement.
Oh, and she continued taking a full slate of classes at AU in pursuit of her double major in journalism and psychology.
“I really tried not to let the Eagle affect my schoolwork … but sometimes some things will get dropped. Unfortunately, you have to make tough decisions about whether it’s going to be the newspaper or schoolwork. Often you will choose the paper over schoolwork because that’s the role you are in. You can always come back from one bad test or one bad essay. But choosing to let the paper go for a week or two will often have more drastic consequences — so you have to keep that in mind.”
According to Mongilio, the most surprising positive about the difficult student/journalist balancing act was discovering just how much AU faculty empathized and were willing to offer assistance. She recalled one professor who supported her efforts to overhaul the Eagle’s corrections policy — in part by allowing her to submit the updated document as a graded assignment.
“That really helped because I was doing something for the Eagle and doing something for class and getting the points for it,” she said. “Especially in the journalism department at AU, professors really understand what you’re doing with the newspaper and how important it is to the university and how important it is to you. And they will often do whatever they can to help you balance that with schoolwork.”
Mongilio said balance is also needed when determining how best to deal with reader and source criticism. Recently, she even had to operate under the threat of a lawsuit from an individual angry about being named in an Eagle article.
“One of the things people tell you is don’t read the comments,” she said. “If you read the comments, it’s a downward spiral of listening to all the students’ ugliest voices. I think that’s fair. I also think it’s essential though to know what people are saying about the paper. … You want to know if you’re doing something wrong or if people are unhappy. But it’s important in the end to stick to your journalistic integrity. Because not everyone’s going to always be happy. And you probably made the best decision you could at the time, and that’s why you’re editor and the rest of the student body isn’t.”
Now no longer editor and looking forward to graduation, Mongilio, a native of Ellicott City, Md., is applying for jobs. A dream position would be in health journalism. As she put it, “After four years of studying psychology, I really like how the brain works.”
Regardless of whether she ends up working and living in Washington D.C. long-term, she said the capital has served as a worthy home base for her collegiate and early journalism pursuits.
From her experiences, even a basic car crash or fire alert can yield especially fascinating responses.
“At a D.C. school, if there’s ever an accident or incident, it’s really interesting to watch how many different police forces will show up,” she said. “For our first gun scare, we had FBI, Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department, in addition to our Public Safety. It provides a lot of stories when you have this jumble of forces and crews coming together on campus. … Everyone assumes the best part of being in D.C. is the fact that the school is right by the government. But it really isn’t. If you’re running, it’s great to be running and all of a sudden you’re at the Capitol. But in terms of journalism, there are so many opportunities. There are so many little pockets of interest that you don’t even have to step on the [National] Mall to find.”