Elon News Network’s new leader recognizes the digital future of journalism

Sophomore Mackenzie Wilkes plans to leverage the web during her tenure leading the university’s student-run news organization.

Elon News Network’s new executive director Mackenzie Wilkes ’22 is a firm believer in the power of digital journalism to tell stories and keep communities informed.

During her tenure, which begins this fall, Wilkes plans to refocus the student news organization’s efforts as the journalism industry pivots more and more to online content.

Because the role of executive director also functions as managing editor of ENN’s website, Wilkes will oversee the organization’s online platforms. And she can’t wait to get started.

“I wanted to apply to be executive director because I believe in web-first journalism,” said Wilkes, a journalism and political science double major. “One of the things I want to do is push our digital presence as an organization forward because we, right now, currently have a paper and two broadcasts. But I really think the future of journalism is in digital and online.”

In addition to the website, Wilkes will be responsible for working with ENN’s social media team to increase digital foot traffic and awareness of the organization’s online presence.

“That’s how we get all of our stories out there – through social media,” Wilkes said.

The extent of Wilkes’ digital emphasis is one the organization has yet to see in an executive director. And it’s not surprising to ENN faculty adviser and journalism lecturer Kelly Furnas that Wilkes is leading this charge.

“She doesn’t accept the status quo or fall into the trap of doing things just because they’ve always been done that way,” Furnas said.

Jack Haley ’21, ENN’s current executive director, expects Wilkes’ improvisation will be a benefit to the organization.

“For the past four years, it seems like people in the executive director role, very much myself included, have tried to follow a script on how things should be done instead of trying to figure out different ways to do things,” Haley said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if Mackenzie scraps things and finds a lot of success doing things her own way.”

Wilkes not only recognizes the importance of web-first journalism, but also the power of news in the Elon community and beyond. She believes it is ENN’s responsibility to effectively inform and educate.

“Our audience is the faculty, staff and students at the university, yes,” Wilkes said. “But we also report on the Town of Elon and Alamance County. So it’s really important that we are informing our audience in the most effective way.”

For Wilkes, that “way” means reaching audiences through a more ubiquitous and increasingly popular medium: the internet.

“We have a website, and I really want us to start utilizing it more effectively,” she said.

The role of executive director wasn’t always on Wilkes’ radar, especially not when she walked into the newsroom during Fellows Weekend two years ago.

“I got really concerned with the value of digital and online news,” Wilkes said. “And then I saw the executive director position and I was like, ‘Wait, that’s something that would really be interesting to me.’”

Applying for the top spot in the student media organization seemed like a natural next step from her position as politics editor, a position Wilkes began this past spring semester and, according to Haley, she has “excelled in.”

And considering Wilkes’ experience in journalism and politics only began once she stepped foot on campus, it’s safe to say the Greensboro native has come a long way – and fast.

In addition to serving as politics editor, Wilkes has been involved in nearly all aspects of the newsroom. Between reporting, working on the broadcast side, writing for the newspaper and now transitioning to an online focus, Wilkes has kept herself busy with “a little bit of everything,” she said.

“She always seems to be working on a project, if not multiple projects,” Haley said. “Mackenzie has been the type of person to constantly step up and answer the call whether she has been asked to or not.”

Since the fall semester, Wilkes has taken the reins of ENN Radio, a weekly podcast that was started by alumnus Alex Hager ’19.

Haley said he worried that when Hager left the podcast could flounder. But Wilkes took over and did what she does best: make things her own.

“She had an idea for what she wanted it to be: the stories behind the stories. And she saw that through,” Haley said. “One of my biggest worries with the podcast was that it would fall apart after Hager left and it wouldn’t continue. However, Mackenize came in and not only continued it, but helped it flourish.”

Furnas said Wilkes’ guidance of the podcast is one of her two greatest achievements so far with the organization. The second was her leadership of ENN’s primary election Super Tuesday coverage, the majority of which she coordinated as politics editor.

Wilkes and the rest of ENN’s Super Tuesday coverage team.

“I’m really proud of all of our Super Tuesday coverage that we just did,” Wilkes said. “It was a big moment for me.”

Wilkes’ transition will look different this year – thanks largely to the university’s move to remote instruction due to COVID-19 – but Haley has no doubt she can handle it with ease.

“Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of training together,” Haley said. “However, that does not at all diminish what I think Mackenzie is capable of.”