Remembering Mandy Jenkins, Kent State grad and national digital news pioneer
Mandy Jenkins, a journalist who pioneered social media and digital strategies for news organizations nationwide, died of breast cancer at age 42 on Feb. 26, 2023.
While her robust career took her across the country, from New York City to Washington, D.C. to California for a prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, her passion for journalism and innovation began in Northeast Ohio.
A Zanesville native, Jenkins earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kent State University, and she began her career with a fellowship at WKSU in 2004.
Jenkins later had a direct impact on Northeast Ohio journalism in 2019 when she founded Mahoning Matters, a Youngstown-focused online news startup.
She is survived by her husband of 14 years, Ben Fischer, a journalist whom she met while they were students at Kent State.
Jenkins’ friends and colleagues describe her as smart, hardworking, intuitive and high-spirited, with a hilarious sense of humor and magnetic personality. They say she never backed down from a challenge; instead, she embraced it.
“[She had] a beautiful ambition,” said Jim Brady, Vice President of Journalism at the Knight Foundation, who hired Jenkins for two of the startups he managed, TBD and Digital First Media’s Thunderdome. “She just wanted to learn new stuff. Loved being challenged, loved being told that ‘this is new, this is going to be a stretch for you.’ She loved it.”
Throughout her career, she blazed the trail for digital and social media storytelling, which was often new territory for news organizations in the mid-2000s, said Sue Zake, a journalism professor at Kent State.
“[She was] always looking forward, always looking for opportunity, always trying to figure out what the next step for journalism looks like,” Zake said. “Always with an eye toward, ‘okay, let's keep this a thriving industry because it's just so valuable for democracy.’”
Jenkins held a variety of positions at digital news startups including TBD and Digital First Media. Eventually, she became the editor-in-chief of Storyful, a 24/7 social media agency. She also served as the president of the Online News Association, the world's largest association of digital journalists.
In 2019, she completed a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford, focusing on bridging the disconnect between media and news consumers. Most recently, she served as the Head of Product at Factal, a breaking news technology company.
She helped bring back local news to the Mahoning Valley
Following her Knight fellowship, Jenkins became general manager of The Compass Experiment, an initiative originally from Google and McClatchy that focused on sustainable business models for local news. She joined the project around the same time The (Youngstown) Vindicator closed after 150 years, leaving the city without a local newspaper.
Jenkins picked Youngstown to be the site of the Compass Experiment’s first local news startup: Mahoning Matters.
“I was really impressed with her vision, and her … belief that local news can really empower communities. That’s really central to how she viewed the world,” said Mark Sweetwood, founding editor of Mahoning Matters.
With her fierce work ethic, leadership and determination, Jenkins launched the newsroom in just 40 days, Sweetwood said.
“If she said she was going to do something, she did it. I don’t know who else could have launched a digital newsroom in 40 days, but she did it,” he added.
Originally, Mahoning Matters focused on long-term, investigative reporting rather than daily news, Sweetwood said.
Then, just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Jenkins suggested they put the long-term projects to the side and instead focus on news-you-can-use stories, such as where people could get COVID-19 tests and which stores were open during Ohio’s stay-at-home order, Sweetwood said.
“[Jenkins] goes, ‘I really think we need to turn this organization on a dime, and do the journalism that people need now, and be more utilitarian.’ And she was right,” Sweetwood added.
As a result, Mahoning Matters saw major growth in readership, so much that they ended up hiring more staff to help with copy editing and reporting, he added.
“It was Mandy’s guidance. It was … her intuition about when we needed to go forward, when we needed to pull back,” Sweetwood said. “She had a way of making sure you knew what needed to be done without being heavy-handed.”
Justin Dennis, who worked as a reporter for Mahoning Matters, echoed Sweetwood’s comments about Jenkins’ strong vision for the newsroom and passion for local news.
But aside from being a great leader, Jenkins was also a fun person, Dennis said. She organized virtual get-togethers in which employees would chat off the clock and share their favorite cocktails, which she appropriately named “Quaran-tini Hour,” he said.
“She just fostered this, sort of, sense of community and family that was really what Mahoning Matters needed, as kind of the glue. It was kind of what kept us together and why we were so invested in it, personally,” Dennis said. “She kind of helped create these connections, and these friendships, and we all still keep in contact with one another.”
Jenkins was proud of her Kent State roots
Before she served in leadership of newsrooms across the country, Jenkins was an innovator and leader as a student at Kent State.
She was a reporter and columnist for The Daily Kent Stater, the student-led newspaper, editor-in-chief of The Burr Magazine and founded Fusion, a student-led magazine focusing on LGBTQ+ issues that is still in production today, professor Sue Zake said.
“It was pretty groundbreaking at the time to have an LGBTQ-facing news product magazine, and I think it's been an incredibly valuable asset for our students to have those voices be out and represented,” Zake said.
Despite her busy schedule in recent years, Jenkins was always eager to make time for Kent State students, Zake said. She would talk to Zake’s classes and meet students at conferences.
As a student, Jenkins also worked as an assistant in WKSU’s marketing department for Ann VerWiebe, a former WKSU employee.
VerWiebe said Jenkins was tenacious, always looking for ways to help, instead of waiting to be told.
“[Jenkins was] one of those students that made it difficult for all of my subsequent students to live up to,” she said. “I always felt sorry for my other student assistants.”
While writing for the student newspaper, Jenkins was an inspiration to her peers, said James Renner, a journalist and author who attended Kent State at the same time as Jenkins.
“Her columns were always very fun to read. She was such a good writer,” Renner said. “We had sort of a fun rivalry. I think we sometimes talked about each other in our respective columns. It started out as a fun rivalry and then, you know, we became friends.”
Renner wrote a screenplay that is scheduled for production this spring, in which the main character, a young journalist, is based on Jenkins, he said. Renner eventually decided to name the character after her.
He reached out to Jenkins’ husband Fischer about this, who was able to share the news with her.
“I just like to live.”
While Jenkins was one of the hardest workers Jim Brady of the Knight Foundation has known in his long career in the industry, she also liked to play hard, he said. She prioritized having fun and enjoying life outside of her busy work schedule, he said.
Brady recalls once seeing her hanging out with colleagues in the hotel pool late at night while attending the ONA annual conference. He then saw her again just a few hours later, grabbing breakfast after a 6-mile run.
When Brady asked Jenkins how she was able to do all this without seeming exhausted, she replied: “I just like to live.”
“That describes her really well. She just had a real joy in life,” Brady said.
Jenkins made and maintained a wealth of friendships throughout her life, as evidenced by a GoFundMe that raised $60,000 to help bring her home to Zanesville from New York in a long-distance ambulance.
In the fundraiser, thousands of donors recalled Jenkins as a smart, kind coworker and wonderful friend.
Those interviewed for this story shared memories of Jenkins inviting them out for dinner or drinks whenever they visited New York City. They say she knew the best spots to take people, and could tackle any conversation topic – from journalism, to sports, to music.
“People were important to Mandy,” Justin Dennis, Jenkins’ coworker at Mahoning Matters, said. “She was more than friendly, and just hospitable, and a great person to have in my life.”
Brady recalls traveling through Zanesville when Jenkins was coincidentally also there visiting her family. She met him for ice cream at Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, a spot he still makes sure to visit whenever passing through Ohio.
“She was never going to let you forget that she was from Zanesville. I really liked that about her. She was a Zanesville kid,” Brady said.
Friends also spoke about how great of a couple Jenkins and Fischer were. They were known together as "Bendy" - a combination of their first names.
Jenkins passed away surrounded by her husband and family in Zanesville. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at Meadow Farm Church, 6015 Coopermill Rd. in Zanesville. Memorial donations made to her GoFundMe will be given to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Jenkins donated her body to the Ohio State College of Medicine for research.