This article was originally published in CPA's quarterly magazine PressNext. Click here to subscribe and have your print copy delivered.
“She is the backbone of our newsroom, the hub to which all of our spokes are connected. She is the embodiment of the next generation of journalists that will lead the way for our industry.”
That high praise comes from former Coloradoan Executive Editor Lauren Gustus to describe Jennifer Hefty. And it’s no mere hyperbole.
“(Jennifer) is obsessed with growing audience in the digital and social spaces, because she understands consumption habits and that our future is not necessarily in growing audience for the daily printed product,” said Gustus, who in June moved to Texas to work for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The Coloradoan, like many newspapers, is re-inventing itself beyond a print product delivered to doorsteps and placed in racks, and Hefty is at the forefront of that innovation. As the multiplatform coach, she’s responsible for presenting Coloradoan content across videos, websites, interactives, social media, in-person events and beyond.
The Colorado Press Association honored Hefty with its Rising Star Award in April.
During a May site visit, it was quickly evident that The Coloradoan is focused on the future, and much of that is because of Hefty’s influence. Editorial meetings focused on stories and reporters’ progress — just as you would expect from any newsroom meeting — but the different story angles and platforms went well beyond the printed page.
On this particular May day, The Coloradoan was gearing up for the Fort Collins Food Truck Festival, a typical feature story one might expect the local paper to cover. For The Coloradoan, however, the festival wasn’t just a community event needing coverage; the newspaper was hosting it.
From concept, to marketing, to getting vendors and attendees to participate, the popular event — like several others in the Fort Collins area — was The Coloradoan’s from start to finish.
Discussions of how to cover the festival included best location to shoot 360 video (on top of a food truck roof), who to interview for a Facebook Live segment (a food truck vendor inside their truck – which Hefty later shot the video for), and how to increase social chatter before, during and after the event.
Hefty led these discussions. She’s a technically-savvy, forward-thinking mind who's helping lead The Coloradoan into the future.
“We always want to be changing before we have to,” Hefty said. “We want to anticipate what big changes are coming, so that we plan for them and not be playing catch up. Think about where you and the industry will be 3-5 years from now, and start thinking about the steps you can take now, because then when a major change happens, you won’t be disrupted by it. You’ll be prepared, and you’ll be the one leading the charge.”
Hefty is data-driven, but her goal is to make sure people don’t get lost in the new tech tools and big data collection. The tools and data are meant to create better experiences for the community, and community is key.
“You have to be a part of the community you are covering,” said Hefty, who graduated from the University of Colorado in 2011 and has worked at The Coloradoan ever since. “Love it, live it and serve your neighbors well.”
Community engagement is a constant-theme in most everything Hefty does.
Chris Abshire, producer for The Coloradoan, noted that when replying to comments on The Coloradoan’s social media during the night shift, he’ll see Hefty has already done it from home during her time off.
“She’s laser-focused on making sure we are responsive to people, showing our audience that we are here and we are human,” Abshire said.
Reporter Nick Coltrain echoed Gustus’ sentiments, referring to Hefty as the wheel that keeps The Coloradoan moving.
“People keep the wheels going on the bus, which applies to Jennifer; she does keep the wheels on the bus,” Coltrain said. “But she’s constantly improving the bus while it goes down the highway, so she’s not just keeping the wheels on the bus, she’s putting a sweet racing stripe on it.”
Hefty’s coworkers clearly see her value whether the metaphor used is a hub or tricked-out bus, and Hefty has the attributes one would expect to see in a Rising Star Award winner: forward-thinking, data-driven, community-based, but she also has THE intangible: love of profession, which she has had from an early age.
“Ever since I knew what journalism was, this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “Freedom of the press, freedom of speech and what journalists do are the backbone of this country, and we can’t let it die. I hear all the time, ‘Newspapers are dying, aren’t they?’ Well, no, they are not. People still need information from trusted and reliable sources. How can I get that to you in a way that is relevant to you?”
If anyone can answer that question for the Fort Collins community, it’s Hefty herself.