Media Arts and Design

Alumna goes from The Breeze to Columbia U. and launches a news site in between


 
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By Charlotte Matherly, staff writer

By the time Shanna Kelly received her SMAD degree in May, she had already landed a spot in the prestigious program at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and was preparing to return to New Jersey to run the local news site she created. 

For those who know Kelly, it’s not a surprise that she’s tackling grad school while moonlighting as a local publisher.  

“She is very driven,” Brad Jenkins, a media arts and design instructor and general manager of The Breeze, said. “She started her own news site one summer up in New Jersey … I think that alone shows how much she perseveres and how if she gets an idea, she’s going to follow through, and she’s going to be able to accomplish it.”

Kelly said she got the idea to launch her local news organization, Seven Mile Satellite (SMS), for Seven Mile Island, New Jersey, where she spends her summers. She realized the nearest newspaper was more than 40 minutes away in Atlantic City. She launched it in the summer of 2019, Kelly said, by pinning flyers on local bulletin boards to advertise her website and attract employees. By the end of the summer, she had nine people on staff and additional contributors.

“Starting it from scratch is extremely difficult,” Kelly said. “No one knows who you are. You have nothing to back you up … It definitely involved a lot of social media campaigning and kind of pushing it out there.”

The website attracted about 2,500 page views in under two months. That would cover the population of the island, which includes the borough of Avalon in the north (population 1,409) and Stone Harbor in the south (population 955). Because the seaside communities attract tourists and local businesses boom in the summer months, the Seven Mile Satellite churned out multiple stories in days during the summer, then slowed down its coverage when the peak tourist season ended — in time for Kelly to return to JMU for her senior year. 

The site’s traffic increased last summer, and Kelly said she redesigned the website to feel cleaner and more “news-like.”

That wasn’t her original plan for the summer of 2020. Before the pandemic hit, Kelly said, she’d had multiple interviews for an editorial position at Disney. Her plans ultimately got cancelled, but that’s when Kelly found out she’d been admitted to Columbia.

Kelly quarantined in Florida after visiting the state for spring break, and her time at The Breeze came to an end on April 1, when the new staff takes over every year.

“I was like, what do I do now?” Kelly said. “It was so weird. I felt the need to cover the pandemic, but [with] no real position. It was hard to find a place to do that.”

When she returned to Seven Mile Island, Kelly began working on her start-up news site once again. She handed out business cards, put flyers on car windshields and started advertising on the website.

Although Seven Mile Satellite is a local news organization, Kelly said she felt the site needed to cover the pandemic. She hired Jake Conley, a junior SMAD major, to be the global news editor during the summer months as coronavirus continued to surge in the U.S. and internationally.

Now enrolled in a one-year graduate program at Columbia, Kelly is set to graduate in spring 2021.

Kelly said she owes her accomplishments to everything she learned in SMAD and at The Breeze.

“I don’t think I would be here at Columbia if I didn’t have the experiences that JMU and SMAD offered me,” Kelly said. “[The professors] always offered new perspectives and ways to challenge me … It was about, how can each individual student progress no matter what level they’re at, so I was never bored, always engaged.”

Originally, Kelly said, she’d wanted to be a doctor. But she couldn’t attend her first choice school, University of Miami, and turned to the interest in journalism that she’d fostered while working as a sports editor at her high school paper.

“I absolutely fell in love with journalism,” Kelly said. “I fell in love with editing and being part of a constant news cycle. It just made me so passionate, and I would come home every day from long hours at the paper and just be non-stop talking … By the time I got to JMU, I was definitely ready to jump in.”

And that attraction to journalism was cemented the moment she showed up at a meeting for The Breeze’s staff and got hired on the spot as a writer.

Gaining experience in several areas, Kelly worked multiple positions at The Breeze. After starting as a writer, she became an opinion editor, a copy editor and, in her senior year, managing editor. Kelly said her time at The Breeze has been invaluable.

“I’m grateful for The Breeze, just, above all else,” Kelly said. “There’s only so much classroom learning can teach you, and journalism is about hands-on experience. Everything that I’m using now and that I’m finding that I’m excelling at at Columbia is all skills that I learned at The Breeze.”

 

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Published: Thursday, December 3, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, December 3, 2020

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