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An Interview with Lena Felton

My mom and I were both so excited when we found out The Lily was launching as part of Washington Post. She tagged me in an article about it on Facebook, and I came bounding down the stairs when she arrived home from work, eager to discuss it. I had grown tired of most of the other women's interest magazines I followed-- they were either too trivial or too apathetic --and I couldn't have been happier about the refreshing approach The Lily took.

I didn't agree with everything published on The Lily, but all of their articles fostered conversation, whereas the pieces published by other feminist sites, even if I agreed with them, felt like a dead end. The Lily was open, and it wasn't preachy. Like their "Meet Team Lily" page warns, I was startled and uncomfortable by some of the stories I read, but in a way that helped me to grow as a person. And I felt welcome as a reader there. It lead to a lot of interesting conversations between me and my mom about feminist issues, giving me a lot of unforgettable memories and strengthening our relationship. But, as I dove deeper, I recognized that The Lily of course has a history before 2017; it started in 1849 and was the first US newspaper by and for women, and I'm just so happy to be a small part of The Lily's storied readership.

Obviously, there has to be some pretty incredible people behind the scenes to make a site like The Lily come together. I didn't know Lena Felton or her work before she became a multiplatform editor for The Lily, but after first devouring her articles for The Lily, I read her stories for The Atlantic, and was even more in awe of her talent and versatility. I think she truly embodies The Lily's core values, and I'm so thankful that I have role models like her, and that the world has storytellers like her.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? 

Honestly, I have been blessed as an early-career journalist: I’ve landed on some of the most thoughtful teams in some of the best organizations in the business. I think an ongoing challenge for me is learning how to better network; I tend to just like to put my head down and do the work, but I know that it’s important for me to step outside that comfort zone to further my career.

What’s been the most rewarding moment in your career? 

Publishing an essay in the Atlantic about my grandfather’s fight for civil rights as a black doctor was really a highlight. The piece meant so much to me personally to report and write; it ended up meaning a lot to the rest of my family, too. And then the response was just so unexpected — so many kind words flooded in about my grandfather and his story. 

That was a great moment, but there are so many great moments day to day in my job at The Lily. I literally walk to work so excited to start my day — excited about the opportunity to write or edit or simply think about important stories about women. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do that work on such a tight-knit, dynamic, kind team. 

Who are your inspirations?

There are so many women journalists who I’m inspired by and who tell incredible stories; too many to say. Working for Amy King, who created The Lily, was really inspiring on a daily basis. She’s since left to take a job as assistant managing editor for features at the Los Angeles Times (a great opportunity for her), but I’ve just never met someone as creative as her. She’s a designer by training but she’s bursting with ideas about everything from art direction to words to story ideas to longer-term projects to subject lines for our newsletters. She made me see the importance of the force of your ideas. 

What made you want to pursue a career in journalism?

In the seventh grade, a publisher came to my school’s career fair and talked about her magazine, which was written by kids, for kids. I wrote her an email afterwards, and soon started doing interviews and writing short pieces for her. So, I’ve basically wanted to be a journalist since I was 12. At every stage after that — high school, college and post-grad — magazine journalism was my focus. And I have yet to fall out of love. 

What do you think is the most important skill for a young journalist to develop? 

In as fast a news cycle as this one, it’s important to learn how to report and write accurately and quickly. You’re not going to learn that anywhere except on the job, so try doing it as much as you can to start flexing that muscle. I also think one of the most practical skills right now, honestly, is knowing how to use and leverage various platforms for your work — newsletters, social media, etc. 

More generally, try to expose yourself to lots of different aspects of the industry. It’ll for sure make you more of an attractive candidate for jobs (maybe you pick up some photography basics and can take your own photos for your stories, or you’re good at analyzing analytics and can help your team in that way, for example). You’re also young; you should be taking this time to figure out where you really excel and what excites you. 

Using a metaphor, how would you describe your creative process?

Is there a good metaphor for a creative process in which you’re just constantly asking yourself how to turn everything you hear into a story? I love Joan Didion’s famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think we do, but I also think our lives are just made up of stories, waiting to be told. So when I think about my job, it’s about trying to identify the ones worth telling. 

The same thing goes for photography. I just take the time to look at the world. Beautiful photographs are waiting to be taken everywhere we look — even in the way the afternoon light falls on trash in the street. 

For me, creativity just lies in observation, in finding the beauty in our lives. 

What’s the best piece of storytelling you’ve ever encountered? 

One of my favorite recent examples is the New York Times’ “This Is 18 Around the World” project. The concept is so simple, yet you really do get a sense of these young women. It’s beautifully laid out, and I love all the extra touches, including a playlist of the last song each one played on Spotify.


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